Of all the heroic line of the Took family, little has been said of Old Gerontius’ son Hildifons. Among Gerontius’ heirs, it is said that Hildifons, known simply as Dark Hilds by his family and few friends, was the closest in stature, manner, and mood to Bandobras, “the Bullroarer.” Hilds grew nearly to the height of his famous uncle, though he never road a horse, and it was known that his strength was that of many and his mood ever grim and dour. Ultimately, what was most known about him was that he set off on a journey and never returned. Those who knew him thought him fey and assumed that he died alone, in the wild, which is true enough, though hardly a just account of his deeds.
Those few in the Shire who considered him a friend say that the darkness of his face and manner grew upon him after the death of the only hobbit maiden he ever loved, Briar Rose Brownlock of Deephallow. She was the only daughter of a farmer, dark of eye and hair, where Hilds was fair headed like many of his Took clan. Rose’s death was something of a mystery to most hobbits, but not to Dark Hilds, who found her body on the banks of the Brandywine River, her clothes torn and a crude arrow in her heart. No one knew for sure but Hilds thought it an arrow made by goblins, judging from its shoddy fletching and its barbed point. Her loss occurred in Hilds’ twenty third year, her eighteenth, the year that she was due to marry him and come to dwell in the Great Smials with Hilds’ clan.
Hilds sought for answers to her death, and the more he pondered over the arrow removed from her heart, the more he was sure that a raiding party of orcs had tried to abduct her. That she had fought them was clear to Hilds from the condition of her body. And when Gerontius’ community, which had seen no evidence of goblin raids since Bandobras’ day, declared her death an unfortunate mystery, Hilds withdrew, further and further from the center of the Took clan.
Thereafter, he alone of his family studied smith craft, for which his people were happy. There were too few smiths in the Shire, and the Tooks had need of one to make them a stronger, more self-sustaining people. Hilds’ secret purpose, though, was to make for himself a mail hauberk, shield, and weapons of steel, for his need for vengeance began to consume him. With his father’s blessing, Hilds, then, took leave of his kin and place amongst the Tooks and journeyed to the Blue Mountains, to study with the dwarf smith Ketel, Iron Weaver, where he learned ways to perfect his craft and to master the use of sword, axe, and shield.
Ketel taught him the ways of the axe and shield, the short sword and mace as well as the arts of the forge. With Ketel’s aid, Hilds forged his own, slightly smaller version of the dwarf axe. His own strength was a near match for most of the dwarves, who were bigger, but his speed and pure focus was something that they could not match. While he learned to shape steel to his will, to make mail links that would guard him from the barbed, jagged arrows of orcs, Hilds’ obsession with hunting them grew. Even after his return to Tookland, he continued to practice with his weapons and returned often to Ketel and his people, who understood, like hobbits could not, his desire for revenge. Dwarves loved gold but revenge they held sacred.
There, amongst that warlike people, his desire for revenge was fueled by stories of the dwarf-goblin wars that started before his birth. Ketel’s talk around the forge and in the dark Blue Mountain halls also told him that matters with the orcs would only worsen:
“They are growing in number, small one,” Ketel said, while Hilds hammered on a shield rim. “They have strongholds, I’m told in the Hithaeglir, in the Mountains of Angmar, and look to make incursions in the mountains of Ered Luin, above the Gulf of Lhun. The horse lords to the south fight both the men of Dunland and the orcs of the Misty Mountains, who have taken Moria from us, as well as Erebor. Eriador, and your little Shire will, in coming days, be besieged from three sides, North, South, and East. So make your shield rim strong, young Hilds, and find another to protect with it at your side. We will fight them, though Durin’s people are scattered. Will the Shire rise to fight at our side?”
“I cannot say about the Shire, but I will fight them,” Hilds vowed, for in the vengeance he nurtured so long, he thought ever more to live as Bandobras had done, as a warrior. On the boss of his shield, Hilds added a relief of a small rose on a thorny stem, and those that saw it knew well what vengeance drove him.
The Took family, though, would hear no more of the matter of war. Their small world had peace and good land to till, game to hunt, after the defeat of the orcs by Bandobras. The loss of one hobbit maid, they said, was a sorrow but not enough to break the peace they enjoyed.
“We are a small people. What can we do in the wars of the big people but perish?” the voices of the Tooks said, and The Old Took listened. Hilds could find no one of his kin or his friends who was of like mind to go with him to find the fight. So, in his fortieth year, tired of his smith craft at home being spent only on farm implements, Hilds forged steel tipped arrows to go with the mighty hunting bow of Bandobras, whom none but Hilds could draw. He quenched his forge and left the Shire, taking his mail, shield, short sword, axe, and the bow of Bandobras.
Hunting and foraging at need in the wild, Hilds wandered the lands to the south and east of the Shire, far down the Brandywine and back to the south downs, looking for signs of orcs and those who fought them. Those he found, he slew alone and left their heads on pickets as a warning to other orcs, though it did not satisfy him.
As he searched for some word or sign of his lover’s killer, Hilds drew ever closer to the Misty Mountains, though he hesitated to go into the mountains alone. Orcs, he knew, dwelt there in great numbers, too many for one hobbit to hunt alone. However, after almost a year and many successful hunts in the wild, Hilds crossed the last bridge over the Hoarwell River, into the rugged passages of the Trollshaws, pursuing several bands of orcs who had scouted the south downs, looking at the rich Shire. There, in that desolate place, Hilds found a fight and a companion he never looked for. This is their story.
Snow and ice blanketed the grassy thickets and uneven summits of the Trollshaws, making icy caves of the ruined fortifications that men of Rhudaur had built long ago. In these and in caves under and between rocks, Trolls lurked, from time to time, and preyed upon travelers along the East Road. Hilds moved with ease through the thickets that pressed close to the rocky outcrops of this desolate place, for he hunted the last party of six orcs he’d tracked here. By this time in his journey he had grown lean and tougher than any hobbit ever, even his uncle Bandobras. He was nearly as tall as the old warrior and far stronger, able to march and run for days at a time, fight all the day through, and live on just what he hunted.
Hilds did not realize it, but in the past year, he had earned a name amongst the orcs who escaped his arrows: “Mik-ghush” they called him in their foul tongue, “small death.” Few had fought him hand-to-hand and survived. Those few who escaped him told tales of his cunning and ferocity. Most, he felled with arrows from the great bow of Bandobras, which had greater range than pitiful orc bows.
Often, as Hilds learned through his year in the wild, he lured the orcs he hunted into traps he set for them in dense woodland or natural draws. One orc, at least, he would wound and kill the rest with bow or axe. Those few he had captured were made to talk of their forays into the east and of their attacks on hobbits. Though wounded and incapable of harming him further, Hilds kept them alive until they would talk to him in more than curses in their foul language. They knew the Westron speech well enough. Then, when he learned whatever truth lay in their rotten heads, he would kill them with a single blow of his dwarf axe, leaving their staked heads as witness of his presence.
He learned enough from their lies and empty promises of good faith that a daring goblin, Gmak, by name, had claimed to have killed a hobbit on the borders of the Shire after she had escaped his clutches. Gmak raided where he would, from Dunland to Eregion, though he feared the elven forces of Imladris, as he should. But Hilds learned that he had set up permanent camp in the Trollshaws. Some few of Hilds victims said that Gmak planned to raid the Shire in the spring, starting with Archet and Coombe and then Bree. Orcs offered to guide him, swearing they would fight on Hilds’ side, but he knew that they were treacherous. None lived after their confessions, and Hilds did not stop to consider whether his brutality was good or not. He had lived so long for vengeance that he had ceased to think of himself as another hobbit of the Shire.
Hilds believed that Gmak was the orc he hunted and that the Trollshaws were his haven. So, with hobbit stealth, he searched out the Trollshaws, its ruins and its rocky terrain. Sleeping in the cold, he did not dare to light a fire to mark his presence as the orcs did. His need for vengeance kept him warm. He hunted by night and found, in time, that most of the lumbering Trolls he had spotted had retreated to their mountain styes, though many orcs lived in their abandon caves. The largest camp of them had to be the refuge of Gmak.
One night, down along the southern edge of the Trollshaws, where the rocky outcrops gave way to the East Road and the grass lands that marched down to the Bruinen, the Loudwater River, Hilds heard the sounds of battle, the foul jeers of orcs came to him on the cold wind; they were raucous, closing in on their kill, so Hilds hurried to find them. Soon, from thke top of a rocky ridge, he saw the battle. Orcs had someone trapped in a deep defile of stone and thrawn trees. He kept to the tickets on rocky ridges to look down upon them.
There, at the bottle end of the rocky draw, Hilds saw first the body of a great troll lying slain at its entrance. The remains of several two orcs surrounded it. The troll’s great head was split in two, and the broken blade and hilt of a long sword lay beside it. Against the wall of rock, a man stood at bay within the defile, and he was being set upon by four orcs, who shot arrows at him as though for target practice, daring to rush in singly or in pairs to slash at him with their crooked swords, while the others sought to wound him with their poorly aimed shafts. Arrows filled the man’s broken shield, which hung loose on his arm. Several arrows had pierced his great legs and two his shield arm, but the man fought on, silent, grim, awaiting each slashing attack with a pine tree branch as thick as Hilds’ thigh, smashing at the orcs as they came.
Stringing his bow, Hilds shot down the two archers. They fell silent, while the other two attacked with drawn blades. But Hilds had given the man his only chance. With a roar from his mighty throat, the man charged the remaining orcs. He knocked aside the thrusts of their blades and grabbed each orc by the neck. With another dull, breathless roar, he smashed their heads together, once, twice, and once again, before he let them drop. Then he stood, looking around as though confused. Then, he fell onto his face in the blood dappled snow.
Chances were good, Hilds knew, that more orcs would come soon. Where the troll had come from, Hilds did not know, but the six orcs, he thought, were the band he had hunted. Then, Hilds dropped down the rocks into the defile as quickly as he could and ran to the man’s side and rolled him over.
That was an ordeal in itself, for the man was at least two feet taller than the hobbit and of such girth and weight that Hilds wondered if he might be part giant. The boar crested helmet, leather hauberk, gauntlets, and tall riding boots on the man were of good make, though. Hilds realized then that he was a warrior, likely of some noble house, on a mission, perhaps, like his own.
“Big man, can you move?” Hilds asked, patting the man’s face. Only a moan came back. So, taking axe in hand, Hilds cut saplings and made triangle shaped sled and lashed it together with rope from his pack. He collected his arrows, for he had few left. He rolled the man onto the sled, lashed him to it with the rest of the rope, and with agonizing slowness, dragged the huge figure away, out of the rocky defile, past the fallen troll and orcs, out into the thick grass lands that lay outside the rocky ground. Few feats of strength he had ever managed were as great as that one, for his own legs, though hard enough to bear him many miles at great speed were burning and aquiver. Yet he had to drag the wounded warrior far from the rocks, over the snow-crusted grass, far from the bodies left behind.
Before he had gone several hundred yards beyond the empty expanse of the Eastern Road though, the man stirred, crying aloud words that Hilds did not comprehend, and rocked so that he turned over the makeshift sled and struggled to rise. Hilds let go his hold and hissed, “Be quiet! Do you want more of them on us?”
“Freogen eow min witherwinna?” the huge man demanded, swaying on his feet.
“What are you saying?” Hilds asked.
“A, are, you my foe?” the man repeated in halting Common Speech.
“No. It was my arrows that slew the two orcs who shot at you,” Hilds hissed back at him, motioning him forward, farther from the road, where they were in clear view. “Come along, now. We have not much time.” Hilds scattered the cut saplings and gathered his rope, hurrying away into the night. The man followed, stumbling along behind him for hours in the bitter wind and cold. At long last they reached the banks of the Bruinen, which flowed cold and clear out of the mountains over a wide shingle of loose stone. Hilds splashed across as did his companion, and they entered a fir wood that rose up a swelling hill side. Topping that hill, they came to a dry, fragrant wood where the winds would not get at them and a fire would not betray them at a distance. In that a deep dell away from the river, Hilds stopped at the feet of a tremendous, spreading pine. The man fell again, exhausted, at his feet. Hilds dragged him under the pine and placed him out of the snow at the great tree’s roots.
“He needs fire, as do I,” Hilds thought, so he gathered dry needles and windfall and soon had a decent fire going under the branches that sheltered them like a roof. The man was close to the warmth of the bright fire. Hilds covered as much of the huge figure as he could with the wool blanket that was his only bedding.
He fetched water from the Bruinen and had a careful look around to see if they had been followed. Orcs were treacherous and cowardly but vengeful. If they had found the bodies of their comrades and the slain troll, they would track with ease Hilds’ and the man’s passage through the snowy grass. The man had left a clear path and his bloody wounds would draw them. They would have moved faster, too. But Hilds saw no sign of them and figured that the orcs had not found the bodies, perhaps not even looked for them. He wondered if the orcs would willingly cross the Bruinen, which marked a border of sorts under the guard of Imladris.
“We have, at least until morning,” he murmured to himself, feeling an odd sensation of safety, not for himself, but for the unknown warrior.
Heating as much water as he could, Hilds removed his companion’s hauberk, removed the arrows in his legs and arms with tender care, glad that they had not gone deep. Orcs were typically terrible bow shots, Hilds believed, though they had managed to hit his arms and legs. The broken shield had taken more. He and bathed and dressed the wounds with as much care as he could. The man never stirred, so, when he had done all he could for the fellow, Hilds lay down on the outside of the fire, getting as close as he dared. The pine’s top branches sighed with the night’s bitter wind but did not reach him much under the wide spreading branches.
Long before morning, Hilds heard the groans of the big fellow stirring beside him. Hilds fed the fire again and rose to opened his pack, bringing out all the dried venison he had saved, enough to keep him on his feet for a week at need. The man sat up, rubbed his eyes like a sleepy child and stared at the hobbit. Hilds gave him the venison and the water skin.
“Who are you?” Hilds asked, sitting back to watch as the man gobbled down the meat as though he had forgotten what food was.
The man drank water, swallowing the last mouthful of meat and looked around for more. “I am called Waeldstapa. Friends call me Stapa,” he said, but as he looked around himself, the big fellow seemed to sag in on himself with renewed exhaustion and likely hunger. He looked at the bandages on his arms and legs and nodded his thanks to Hilds.
“Well, Stapa, I am called Hilds, and I wonder what you are doing here. You killed the troll, which I assume was your quarry, but you broke your sword. That was careless.”
“Yes,” Stapa replied with a sudden smile. “My hands, see?” he said, holding them up to the fire’s light, each nearly as wide as Hilds’ chest: “They are too strong. I break things. I break swords,” he said with a sad chuckle and shook his head as though sadly amused.
“My father says to let the sword do the work. ‘Don’t hit so hard, Stapa,’ he says, but… I do and swords never last, so I cannot have one.”
Hilds studied his new friend for a moment. Stapa was huge, no mistake, bigger than Hilds had ever thought one of the big people could get. He’d traded with Bree men and other of the big folk who came up the Greenway in the past but had never to see a man of this size. Yet, under the lowering brow of the boar helm, Stapa’s massive, square face, as he relaxed in the balm of the fire’s warmth, had the look of a child’s, simple, honest, even vulnerable.
“Do you trust me, Stapa?” Hilds asked.
“Yes. I owe you my life. And you pulled me away, though you are so small, like a child.”
“I am not small amongst my own people. They think me as large as your people think you,” Hilds replied. Stapa’s brow furrowed as he tried to follow the line of Hilds’ thought. He nodded his head, after a long second.
“Stapa, you have a good hauberk and helmet and riding boots. I think you must be a man of Rohan. Am I right?”
“Yes,” Stapa said, “Rohan.”
“If you are a man of Rohan, how is it that you have no horse?” Hilds asked, knowing, as Ketel had told him, that the Rohirrim prided themselves on horsemanship.
“I am too big to ride,” Stapa replied with a sigh as though this was an old issue, one of many held against him. Stapa shrugged his mighty shoulders. “Too clumsy, too. And I break things.”
“Like swords, huh?” Hilds asked. At that, Stapa smiled and said,
“Yes. I break things that aren’t supposed to break.”
“Clearly,” thought Hilds, studying the guileless face of the huge man before him, “Stapa is a simpleton and should be returned to the Rohirrim, where people could look out for him. I should really try to get him home. He has been lucky to last this long without help. Still,” Hilds thought, “he did kill a troll. However, he is now weaponless.” It had been too long for Hilds since he had another under his care. Since he lost Briar Rose, he had not taken anyone into his confidence, much less his care. Even Ketel, who befriended and taught him was not someone he thought of as needing his care. That reality made him stop for a moment, to wonder at what he had become in his wanderings. After a while, he ventured,
“Since you do trust me, you should tell me of your people and let me lead you back to them.”
Stapa’s great brow darkened again. He looked anywhere but at Hilds as though some fright had come to him. The hobbit let him think for a bit, realizing that it might take a while. Finally, Stapa turned to him, looked him square in the eye and asked, “Among your kind, do you have honor debt?”
“Yes, I suppose so, after a kind, though such matters remain largely unspoken, more like family duties. My people do not speak much of honor in that way,” Hilds said with a sigh. “They have grown comfortable in their little land, farming, doing business. Honor is not to my people as it is to warriors. They think honor is more like being neighborly and debts involve money. Why do you ask?”
“I think you are a, a, hobyltla, then, one of the small ones who disappear so quick to men’s eyes. I have heard of your people in stories,” Stapa said, pleased with himself.
“Yes,” Hilds said with a smile. “We call ourselves hobbits, and I see you know something of us. But what of your honor debt, Stapa?”
“Oh, yes. It is because of my honor debt that I must not go home,” Stapa said, becoming urgent. “I must help my family and find the orcs who killed King Walda. And, and, later, when I followed them, orcs killed my brothers, who took on the debt of King Fengel placed on my father, who cannot fight any more. I, I, followed, when they said not to, you see, and, and,…I know it is bad, I am bad, but…” Stapa’s large eyes suddenly filled with tears that rained down his face. Hilds saw that he cried without shame, as would a grieving child. Stapa’s story was confusing, but Hilds saw that he bore a grief like to his own, only more recent. Stapa murmured to himself in his own tongue, which Hilds could not follow.
“There, there, Stapa, my friend,” Hilds said, needing to help the big fellow get his story out in a clear way. So, Hilds him asked questions about when and where Walda had died, when his brothers had set out to settle their father’s debt, and what had led him to the place where the orcs trapped him. With gentle coaxing, which came hard to one as impatient as Hilds, he learned Stapa’s story.
Stapa the Simple, they called him, though he grew larger and stronger than his warrior brothers, was the youngest son of Waeldwere, whose father had been part of the company of Rohirrim who were killed by orcs long ago. They had been a prominent family in the service of King Folca and his son, King Folcwine after him. But the new King of Rohan, Fengel, demanded that Waelwere’s family answer the debt they had assumed for not seeking vengeance on Walda’a killers. Waeldwere had been a good retainer of both Folca and Folcwine, but Fengel had just come into power and was not popular with the leading families of Rohan. He sought to displace his advisers, like Waeldwere, who had been loyal to Folca and Folcwine after him. Fengel, then, accused Waeldwere of abandoning the family debt of not avenging King Walda’s death. Amongst the Rohirrim, failing to give one’s all to one’s chieftain meant exile. Waeldwere had been wounded by orcs in his own attempts to find the orc leader who attacked Walda. Fengel, however, still demanded that Waeldwere’s family pay the honor debt by pursuing and killing the orcs who slew their chieftain.
From what Hilds knew, King Fengel was within his rights to do so, though no Thain of the Tooks would have so wasted the manpower. The task Fengel set for Waeldwere and his sons was a death sentence, Hilds thought. It would be nearly impossible to identify the orcs responsible after so long a time. At the very least, this ‘honor debt’ amounted to exile of Waeldwere and his family.
Waeldgar and Waeldstan, Stapa’s much older brothers, had been on many missions to hunt orcs and returned to Rohan in defeat often. And Stapa, whose mother was and outlander and the second wife to Waeldwere, had to endure the torments of Fengel’s preferred warriors, for both the honor debt and his simple-mindedness. His life had been so bitter and so confusing to the poor boy, that he had set out on his own on the trail of his brother’s latest attempt to find the killer of Walda.
Worse, still, on his hunt, Stapa had found both his brothers dead in the wild. He found their horses first and sent them home, then came upon the bodies of his brothers killed in an ambush. Stapa had followed those orcs, taking Waeldgar’s sword and shield. Tracking them to the Trollshaws, he found them and fought them. When the troll joined their ranks, the fight went against him, though he killed the troll with his brother’s sword, which broke even as it split the its stony skull.
“You see, I must not go home, until I pay my family debt,” Stapa said, leaning forward, his voice pleading with Hilds to see reason. “My father, he needs me, and, and…I must…help or die like Waeldgar and Waeldstan.”
“But Stapa, there are so many orcs. Do you know the ones whom you must kill?” Hilds asked, at which Stapa frowned again.
“No, not, not really, but King Fengel says his name is, was, uh,” Stapa closed his eyes to remember,” Gmak, I think.” Hilds grunted at the name and peered closely at his new companion. Hilds saw that this man might help him find Gmak and exact vengeance. But then what? Hilds sat and mused over the odd feeling he had about this man-child. A calculating thought suggested that with a man this size on his side, he could kill more orcs. This Stapa, though, was no ordinary warrior. Yet, in truth, Hilds saw that his new friend was about the same age he had been when Briar Rose was killed, and he was certainly strong enough to do what was needed in battle. He’d killed a troll, after all. He had no battle experience, though, and had allowed himself to be trapped in that rocky defile.
Hobbits had had very little truck with the big people beyond simple trade, which left Hilds a bit confused about what to do. Hobbits didn’t care to see how men managed their lives, nor did they wish men’s influence in the day to day order of the Shire. However, Hilds doubted that men would not take care of a grown man who was simple. He had known hobbits of that kind and they were all cared for in the general clan, helped to find tasks they could manage, helped to make good decisions. Stapa had Hilds’ sympathy, but he didn’t need that. What Stapa needed was what Hilds needed. A man and a hobbit, Hilds thought, was a strange combination in road companions. A strange thought occurred to Hilds: it was almost as though they were supposed to meet.
“Do your people believe in fate, Stapa?”
“Yes. We call it Wyrd,” Stapa cried, happy again in his knowing something useful. “‘Wyrd goes ever as it must, but sometimes it will save a man who is not already doomed, if his courage is good,’” Stapa replied. “My mother taught me that before she, uh, died.”
His father old and out of favor and mother dead too. These were yet other reasons to take Stapa on as a companion. Hilds said,
“Then you and I have a common purpose, Stapa, my friend, for I, too, hunt the orc, Gmak. He is the orc responsible for killing my beloved Rose,” he said, showing Stapa the relief carving on his shield boss. As Stapa looked at the shield, Hilds thought that Fengel had known of Gmak and knew he was a threat. He’d probably settled on Gmak as responsible for Walda’s death as a simple expedient of removing an enemy and cementing the lack of opportunities for Waeldwere’s family. He didn’t see how Gmak could have been responsible for a death so long ago. It mattered little, though, given his situation with Stapa now.
“You must avenge a flower?” Stapa asked after looking at the shield for a while.
“No, friend, I must avenge my beloved, whose name was Briar Rose,” Hilds explained. “The rose stands for my memory of her, see? It is just a symbol of my love for her.”
“She was your wife?” Stapa asked in a quiet voice.
“She would have been.” Hilds whispered. Hilds added more wood to the fire. Stapa removed his helmet, revealing a tangle of black that hung iin his eyes and down to his shoulders.
“I…I won’t have a wife,” Stapa said, blinking and wiping his eyes, “for I am slow. No woman will have me, father says.”
“Perhaps you will, one day, if you avenge King Walda,” Hilds said, though he doubted King Fengel would welcome that news.
In that instant, though, understanding settled in Hilds’ mind: he had a companion in Stapa, someone who needed him. It had been a long time since Hilds had such a feeling, and he wondered what changes might befall both of them. “Perhaps he is right that fate goes as it must, and we are both fated to being orc hunters,” Hilds said to himself, as he watched Stapa shake his mane of black hair, as though to clear his thoughts.
“Hilds?” Stapa asked, with a sudden far away look in his eyes.
“Must we go now to kill them? I feel funny,” Stapa murmured and fell over on his side. Hilds smiled at the big man, no more than a giant boy, really, he thought. No, he could not make his new friend rise and return to the Trollshaws just yet, though such a move would give them the advantage of surprise.
Looking at the fallen man, who began to snore, Hilds knew that Stapa needed to rest and recover, having lost blood on top of not having much to eat, he imagined, since he left his people.
“I will help you make the best choices I can, my friend,” Hilds said aloud. He pulled the blanket back over Stapa, took up his bow, and went out to hunt.
Another day, and they had moved camp, farther up into the hills, finding a sheltered place in one of the many deep dells that opened in the hillsides at the feet of the Misty Mountains. Under an overhanging rock at the bottom of a dark canyon, they made a more permanent camp, out of the wind and snow, where Stapa could rest and eat, while Hilds planned. There, they avoided the hunting parties that often went out from Imladris, somewhere above them in the foothills. Hilds had nothing against Elves or their kind, but he was certain that they would not approve of one hobbit and one giant simpleton wandering their lands, hunting Gmak. Though the Elvish people were formidable warriors, they tended to keep to themselves, so Hilds thought that he and Stapa should do the same. Plus, they would not be in these foothills much longer. When Stapa recovered enough to go on, they would be bound for the Trollshaws again.
Stapa recovered with ease in two days, having had most of the meat from two deer and enough water to fill a small pool. Hilds took the deer hides and fashioned them into a rough cloak for his new friend. It would smell bad, with no time to cure, but orcs can smell a man or a hobbit from afar. The stench of the cloak might help them get close to their quarry.
Hilds also sought out a wild heath shrub, growing in the rocky soil of the loose scree further up the hillside. Knowing that its roots spread out from a large burl below ground, Hilds dug it up and made a great club for Stapa. The bulbous head of the briar burl at the end of a stout, gnarled heath trunk, dried slowly over their fire, made a formidable weapon that should not shatter in the simpleton’s hands. And with it, Hilds thought, Stapa could do much damage to many orcs. Stapa handled its weight as if it were nothing.
Hilds determined to enter the Trollshaws again from their eastern most edge. He had spied a large orc encampment there in his reconnoitering of the area. It was around a cave not terribly far from the Eastern Road, in the midst of a sprawling thicket of heath and hazel. There was always the smoke of a fire from that spot, though it was surrounded by thick, matted brush. Like most places out of the wind, though, it was vulnerable from above, for a rocky face rose above the cave entrance. Hilds’ plan involved them coming at night to the ground above the cave entrance, picking off whatever guards were outside, and then tossing into the cave bundles of flaming wood.
Stapa could carry many faggots, some dry, some green, and with these alight from the fire outside and tossed well into the cave, they would be able to pick off the orcs that fled in the smoke and confusion. It was a desperate and dastardly plan, one about which Stapa had doubts.
“My father says to meet your enemy on the open ground, give him room to fight. In that way, you show that you do not fear him and want to fight fair.”
“But when, Stapa, do orcs fight fair? Did Gmak challenge your King Walda to come to the open and fight them?” Hilds asked, tying up the last faggot of green wood.
“No, Hilds, I, I don’t think so, but I don’t know. Father says that they attacked in the dark and shot at him and his men. They were hidden and were many.”
“And we are few, lad,” Hilds said. “And we will adopt our enemy’s strategies. We are bound on revenge, to pay our debt, right? Do you want to pay your debt, Stapa?”
“Yes,” Stapa whispered, “but you must not tell my father, please.”
“We will not need to, if we bring Gmak’s head to him,” Hilds concluded. He had hunted and fought orc bands so long, using whatever trickery and guile he could that the idea of facing an orc in a fair fight was foreign to him. Hilds’ thoughts had been so dark for so long, bent on vengeance, that Stapa’s reticence shamed him a little—but not enough to forego his plan. He was almost certain that Gmak made his camp in that cave and, by hook or crook, he would have him dealt with.
They waited until the small hours of the morning before their final approach, coming slowly along the ridge. Stapa was so noisy as they climbed rocks and pushed through dense brush that Hilds thought sure that they would be heard. However, as they drew close to the top of the cave entrance some twenty feet below them, they heard the guttural voices of the orcs, laughing, carousing, drunk on stolen wine or ale, Hilds supposed.
As he surveyed the scene below him, Hilds saw that his plan had to change. The orcs had captives, two dwarves, by the look of them, trussed up like pigs for the slaughter. What had possessed these dwarves to be on the Eastern Road, Hilds had no idea, but he knew he had to save them. Already, two orcs were standing over them with whetted knives, ready to cut their throats.
“The plan has changed, Stapa,” he whispered. “How soon could you circle back and come to the camp from the right side?”
“A few minutes, Hilds. The ground is rough. Plus I have these bundles,” Stapa whispered.
“Leave most of the bundles with me. Circle down and pull those two captives into the bushes, and then we fight. Do you have your club?” Stapa nodded. He dropped three bundles of wood and faded away into the dark, moving as quietly as he could. It didn’t matter much, since the orcs were so noisy and thought themselves so secure. They were shouting and making threatening noises to scare the dwarves before they killed them, for orcs delighted in the fear of a weaker enemy, especially those who could not fight back.
When Hilds saw Stapa nearing the camp from the right, he stood up and was exposed to the light of the fire below. He nocked an arrow and sent it through the head of one of the orcs poised over the dwarves. He killed the second in the same way, drawing every pale, staring orc face to him. Hilds tossed the other bundles of wood down at the up-turned faces. He loosed all his arrows, killing four more orcs, but with his quiver empty, Hilds yelled a dwarvish battle cry that Ketel had taught him:
“Baruch Khazad!” he cried, leaping down onto a group of them gathered near the cave’s mouth. Shield on his back, his dwarf axe in his right hand, and his sword in his left, Hilds killed two with lighting strokes as he hit them. Orcs began to yell, snatch at weapons, and look around fro the source of the attack. When they saw him, they squealed “Mik Ghush!” in their harsh voices, over and over, for they knew him by sight, drunk as they were. Then, they swarmed at him, several more coming out of the cave, one tackling him from behind. He went down and rolled away, kicking the face of the grasping orc, slashing at their legs with his sword. He pushing to his feet on the opposite side of the camp from the trussed-up dwarves.
Orcs screamed and slashed at him, and Hilds parried their attacks, trusting to his mail shirt to turn glancing blows. He circled out of their way and returned their strokes with faster ones. He was refreshed from his time away and knew he could outmaneuver many of them—for a while, especially since they pushed other orcs toward him, who died beneath his strokes, though there were still six of them on their feet, pressing him back against the rocks at the left side of the cave mouth.
When Hilds took a quick glance through their numbers, he saw that the dwarves had been pulled away. Charging out of the brush came Stapa, hurling his faggots of wood onto the fire between them. With one swing of his mighty briar club, he felled three orcs and did not pause to strike at any in his long reach. The orcs broke their ranks to turn and face the danger behind them, calling out names of their foul kind. Many more orcs poured out to the cave blinking and stupefied, rushing out into the fire’s roaring glare. Stapa met them with his briar club, and they fell before him, crushed and broken.
Hilds sprang to the fire and picked up a flaming bundle, which he hurled into the cave. He fetched other bundles and caught them alight. Stapa moved back and did the same, roaring as he threw two more, deep into the opening. They hurled in the green wood faggots, then, and smoke began to billow out of the cave. With it came the coughing cries of other orcs, many more than Hilds had ever seen in the camp before. And with those voices came to sputtering roar of a troll.
“Stapa! Fall back! Fall back!” Hilds cried in alarm. He had not reckoned on another troll. For it must have remained hidden in the cave. But why? In a rush of understanding, he realized that Gmak had planned it this way, likely enough just to draw him in. Hilds had made them too aware of his long hunt, and Gmak was ready.
“Stapa! Run! They know. They know!” Hilds cried, horrified that his rash need for vengeance would likely lead to his trusting friend’s death, as well as his own. But there was no reaching the mighty Stapa, who whirled his club, smashing orcs as they came. Hilds rushed to his side, hearing the thundering of the troll’s feet in the cave.
Stapa’s face was transformed by the heat of battle. He no longer looked like a simpleton, for he uttered wordless cries and bashed about him with such fury that Hilds worried that even he might fall afoul of the whirling club.
Then the troll came, a huge cave troll, it looked, bigger that the one Stapa killed before, and it charge Stapa at a dead run. It was being pushed from behind by a huge orc and two more of his kind. Stapa struck the troll on its shoulder, but it bowled him over, into the fire, which roared up into a shower of flaming sparks into the night. They rolled away from the flame, into the darkness beyond the fire’s light. Even as he fought orcs, Hilds saw Stapa’s great club fly from his hand. This was their end, Hilds realized. It was hours until dawn. They could not hope that the sun would catch the troll unawares. Hilds grew fey with the knowledge of his own bloody end. He always suspected that it would come this way, but for Stapa, he grieved that the simple boy’s hopes, as well as his life, would be lost.
“Gmak!” Hilds roared, killing two of the bigger orcs with whirling strokes of his axe and a jab of his sword, “Your death has come upon you!” Hilds attacked them, seeking to keep them in line, so that he could face them one at a time. That way, he might come to grips yet with Gmak, who stood back, wiping his eyes and pushing other orcs to face Hilds. Gmak had been the one to push the witless troll out ahead of him as he offered others of his own kind to Hilds’ blades
One on one, none of them was a match for Hilds’ speed. He sheathed his sword and took up his axe, two handed, dodging in at each of them with lighting speed, axe whirling to take legs, arms, faces—whatever he could strike. He lost all sight of Stapa, though he could still hear his cries and the roar of the troll somewhere behind him. Then, Stapa’s cries stopped and Hilds ducked as Stapa’s heavy form flew over his head through the air. It fell with a thud inside the smoky darkness of the cave’s entrance.
“Stapa!” Hilds cried, trying to pass around his line of enemies to get to his friend. Hilds’ one thought was to get to the boy, tell him he was sorry for having gotten them into this, before they both died. But he saw the orcs pull back into a loose circle around him. Their drawn arrows were all pointed toward him. Hilds was caught.
“Fool,” Gmak growled at him, standing behind his ring of bowmen. The troll limped back into the circle of the firelight, its head bleeding and one arm hanging loose at its massive shoulder. Stapa had left his mark. “You thought that you could take me, like a rabbit in a snare, huh? You must know that I have waited here for you, ‘Mik-Ghush,’ ‘little death,’ for you are not death enough to take Gmak the great. Shoot him, one arrow at a time. I want his death slow. And build up the fire! I will feast on hobbit flesh tonight, and after this one is gone, we will all have as much of his kind as we want!”
And they began to loose arrows at Hilds, one at a time. He parried the first and second with his axe and pulled his shield from his back to deflect the third. But he heard an odd noise from the depths of the cave, a noise that sent a shiver down his spine and made the hair on his neck and arms stand up. The odd noise was like a man’s moaning cry that rose into a rumbling growl. Two orcs on opposite sides of the circle nocked a fourth and fifth arrow. One was sure to hit him, Hilds knew.
Yet before the arrows flew, a laughing orc in front of the cave opening was smashed flat to the ground, as a bear of colossal size emerged into the night with a great roar. Its mouth open, small eyes burning, it fell upon the orcs with great swipes of its massive paws. Gmak stood still, screaming, staring, as the bear heaved its great bulk out of the cave. Hilds moved like lightning. Dropping his axe, pulling his sword and leaping between the great bear and Gmak.
“Briar Rose!” Hilds cried and stabbed Gmak through the heart, even as he was knocked aside by the foreleg of the bear. It clamped its jaws down over the head of Gmak, as Hilds rolled away, into the cave’s opening. No orc sought to return the attack, as the bear shook the liomp body of Gmak like a terrier shakes a rat. It flung the body into the rock, where it crumpled. Only the troll moved to attack, though the bear reared on its hind feet, towering over the troll, even. With its great forelegs, it lifted the troll in a crushing embrace. The troll let out a high-pitched squeal before it was broken.
Hilds looked around the cave and saw only Stapa’s helmet and his torn clothing, though there was no sign of blood. When he looked out from the smoking interior of the cave, Hilds saw the bear begin to tear the bodies of the troll and Gmak. It lifted its bulk high and brought its great paws down to smash the corpses, its claws, like swords, raking the bleeding forms apart. Then it rose to its hind legs and roared into the night sky. The noise echoed in the cave and went on as though the great lungs of the beast would never run out of air. Hilds fell to the floor of the cave and covered his ears. Then the bear stopped, took one look in Hilds’s direction and lumbered off into the brush.
“Stapa!” Hilds called after it, realizing that the bear had been the boy, wondering what strange magic he had seen. He wondered, too, if he would see his friend again. In all he had learned about fighting orcs, about their enemies, too, he had never heard or dreamed of anything like he had just witnessed. Nothing in Stapa’s story had given him the slightest inkling that such a thing as a man becoming a bear was possible. Hilds’ head swam with confusion.
“What have I done?” Hilds asked aloud, standing at the mouth of the cave.
“Help us, please,” came a voice from the brush to his right. With a start, Hilds rushed to help the two dwarves from the thickets where Stapa had pitched them. He cut their bonds and drew them to the remains of the fire. They were shaken with fright, battered and bruised, but able to stand and even help build the fire again. Hilds said nothing more to them, but retrieved as many of his arrows as he could and went off in search of his friend.
After a half hour or so of searching through crushed undergrowth, Hilds saw Stapa lying naked and pale, shivering in a pile of broken branches. Stapa breathed as though he was simply asleep, and Hilds relaxed a little. And after much coaxing, calling his name, and chafing his wrists, he roused the boy.
Stapa’s eyes opened, he gasped, and began to weep, though Hilds could not comprehend why. Yet, with soothing words, he helped his friend to make his way back to the fire. The dwarves were gone and left behind them a small pile of gold coins. These Hilds took, thinking that he would have need of them. The dwarves may have been glad for the rescue, but Hilds knew that they were more terrified than grateful. Hilds had no idea what to do or think, so he made himself useful by trying to piece together Stapa’s clothes, which were all but ruined apart from the helmet and the stout deer hide cloak. Together, in silence, with Stapa shivering, they made their long way back to the camp beyond and above the Bruinen. There Hilds built up the fire and left to hunt once again, as one did for family in need. Stapa lay down and slept, whimpering like a child lost in a bad dream.
As he stalked deer, Hilds thought again about taking Stapa somewhere where he could be taken care of, for clearly, he had no idea how to do so, especially now. But who would take care of Stapa, help him? Where he could go, Hilds had no idea. Clearly, the boy’s transformation had shocked and terrified him. Who would not have been affected the same, Hilds thought? He could no more take him to Rohan than he could to the Shire. Wherever their journey would lead next, it was not to some idea of home that either of them knew before. The thought of Stapa possessed of such power was a burden that Hilds had never expected to take on in his life, yet he knew that he would take that burden on his stout shoulders, now, and for as long as he had life in his body, which he, in fact, now owed to Stapa, his own honor debt, one which he would gladly pay as long as he had breath in his body. He wondered how long that might be.