“Heroism in Tharbad: A Hobbit Tale.”

Tolkien Fan Fiction by M.J. Downing.

“Heroism in Tharbad.”

M.J. Downing.

Part 1.

            “There.  We’ve reached the entrance to Ketil’s halls,” Hilds said, pointing to a dark archway at the end of a valley in the foothills of the Blue Mountains.  The path that ran on before them went through a deep defile. It had the look of an ancient watercourse, through which a mountain stream had cut its way, seeking the Brandywine valley. In the rock of the mountain’s base at the end of the defile, an archway loomed. As they neared it, its detailed carving showed the skill of the dwarves who had cut it. The rock surface above and around the arch had been smoothed, and ancient holly trees were carved in relief around the opening.  Seeing it again caused Hilds to recall his first sight of it, this work of Ketil and his brothers Ketan and Kenet.  They told him that it was to remember the Hollin gate into Khazadum, long unused, since the Dwarf and Goblin wars of old.

“It is nowhere near as grand, my hobbit friend,” Ketil had said, “but we honor our past as best we can with what we have.”  To the hobbit, though, the tribute to Hollin gate was a sign of dwarves’ strength and endurance. “They carve their homes into the rock of a mountain. They do not simply dig burrows, like rabbits, in sandy banks,” Hilds thought, looking up at the mountain.

            “Are we going into that dark hole in the rock?” Stapa asked at reaching Hilds’ side.

“That dark hole, as you put it, is the entry to the dwarf halls of Ketil Iron Weaver,” Hilds replied with more than a hint of scorn.

 “Oh. Good,” Stapa said. “If they have food, I will go there.” Hilds glanced at the giant man-child at his side, as he shook his head. They had come a long way from the Trollshaws, on short commons, to boot, as Stapa’s appetite attested.  Hilds had avoided the direct road through the Shire, for having left it, he thought it best not to go back, especially with Stapa, who was a skin changer.  Hilds wanted few, if any, people to know of Stapa’s ability to transform into a gigantic bear when his life was threatened. Besides, Stapa’s size would be a source of fear or curiosity to Shire folk, both of which were dangerous to all parties. Ketil Iron Weaver’s lore ran deep. Hilds trusted him.

*

            “This lad is the skin changer? Him?  He’s a simpleton, Hilds. How can he work such magic?” Ketil demanded when they sat with him at table.

            “I’m right here,” Stapa said, thumping a thick finger onto his great chest. “I don’t like it when people talk about me like I’m not there.  I might not be smart, but I’m still a person, like my mother said.”

            “We’re sorry, Stapa. My friend Ketil is just shocked.  We don’t meet skin changers in these parts too often.”

            “That’s okay, I guess,” Stapa grumbled, “since I didn’t know I was one until after I killed the troll.”

            “He killed the troll,” Ketil whispered, leaning closer to Hilds.

            “Still right here,” Stapa added, sounding tense.

            “Yes, two, actually. He killed one with his brother’s sword, and the other when he became the bear.  That one, I saw, didn’t I Stapa?” Hilds replied, figuring that it would be best to involve Stapa in the conversation and not test his  anger.  On the way to these halls, he worried enough about pushing the boy’s hunger too far, let alone anger. 

            “The one with the sword, I remember.  That one killed my brothers, so I hit him really hard.  The other one, I don’t remember, except that’s what you tell me, Hilds,” Stapa added.

            “So, my friend,” Ketil said, turning directly toward Stapa, “you never had that experience before, of turning into a bear?”

            “No sir. The was the only time.  Do you think it’ll happen again? It was scary. I guess it was because I was losing the fight with that second troll, and I thought I was gonna die. I don’t remember doing it.  My father says that a man ought to be ready to die any day, but I really didn’t want to. Anyway, I blacked out when he hit me the last time, and the next thing I remember is Hilds waking me up in those bushes.  I didn’t even have clothes on,” Stapa whispered. “We had to hurry back to the fire the orcs left.  There were dead orcs everywhere. It was a hard fight,” Stapa said, nodding his head.

            Ketil gave a great laugh, his deep-set eyes lost in the wrinkles of his weathered face. “So I bet it was, but you did well, boy. For in addition to saving my friends Hilds, here, you freed two of my kinsmen from an awful fate.  They returned with details of your story, too.  They saw what Hilds did and what happened to you. I must admit that when I saw you and Hilds at my door, I expected you to be a different kind of man.”

            “Different how?” Stapa asked. “Do you know lots of skin changers, like you call me?”

            “Well, no.  You’re the first I’ve met, but it is said of the men who live away east, beyond the Misty Mountains, that some of them descend from the Edain, the men who were friends of the Noldor in days long gone by, before the changing of the world. Such men, sometimes, I’m told, possess the ability to change their skins as they wish, becoming bears or wolves, even deer at times.  They pass on that ability from generation to generation, though there are few of them left, these days.”

            “I come from Rohan,” Stapa replied.

            “Your father does but what about your mother?  Was she born among the Rohirrim?”

            “No. She told me that she fell from the moon, but Father said her people lived in the mountains of Mirkwood, which might as well be the Moon,” Stapa said. Ketil grinned at his description.

            “I’m sure it felt like the moon, “Ketil said with a laugh. “Those mountains are in the realm of the wood-elves, Thranduil’s people, and the men who travel the River Running for trade have been there time beyond reckoning, though they are distant cousins to the Rohirrim, as I recall. It may be, Stapa, that this gift comes to you from your mother’s line.”

            “It’s a gift?” Stapa asked, panic rising in his voice. “Can I give it back?”

            “It doesn’t work like that, Stapa,” Hilds said. “It’s just a part of who you are, who you were born to be.”

            Stapa’s heavy brow furrowed as he thought about this. “Am I gonna become someone different?  Sometimes, I don’t like being me.  Men call me names, but I don’t wanna be anyone different.  I wouldn’t know what to do.”

            “The men of your homeland, they often fight from horseback with long lances, yes?” Ketil asked.

            “Yes, that’s right,” he replied, though his brow furrowed again. “I’m not good at that, though, because I’m so big.”

            “True, perhaps, but what if you fought with a somewhat shorter lance in your hands and just stayed on your feet?” Ketil asked.  “You might find that your strength makes you good at that, right?”

            “I guess so,” Stapa replied, “but I’ve never tried it. He looked at Hilds for support.  The hobbit saw where Ketil was leading the boy and added,

            “See, Stapa, learning that you have the power to turn into a bear is like learning how to fight with a shorter lance. With practice, you could become good at it.  If you learn how to turn yourself into a bear, you will still be Stapa, but you’ll be able to fight a different way.  Wouldn’t you like that? Think how much stronger you can be as a bear.”

            “Bears are very strong, and I like them.  Nobody bothers bears, if they can help it, right?” Stapa asked, his eyes growing brighter. His brow furrowed again, and Stapa added, “I wouldn’t have to be one all the time, would I?”

            “Not if we can find a way to help you use your gift,” Hilds said with a smile.

            “And there is a wizard who lives in the mountains from which your mother comes, lad.  His name is Radagast.  He is friend to all birds and beasts and knows about the power of changing shape,” Ketil said. “If you can find him, he can help you learn more about the power that is in you.  You could learn to use it.”

            “And fight with a shorter lance?” Stapa asked, his brows wrinkled.

            “Well, no, Stapa.  However, you might well be able to face any enemy in Middle Earth without needing a weapon.  You, lad, will be the weapon. See?”

            Stapa thought about this for a while and asked, “Can I get any more to eat?”

            Ketil chuckled and called for more food.  He and Hilds sat with the boy, sharing a pot of fine beer brewed in the westfarthing of the Shire.  When Stapa had eaten his fill and stretched out to sleep, Ketil looked hard at Hilds.

            “What are you doing, my friend?  Surely you don’t mean to burden yourself with this boy for the rest of your days?  You have had your vengeance on the orcs who killed your Briar Rose.  Shouldn’t you return this poor lad to his family and open your forge again?  If you do not wish to return to the Shire, I would welcome you here.  My brothers speak highly of your work, and we can teach you much more.”

            “I do not know, Ketil, my friend. I think that I am bound to this boy, somehow.  He saved my life, after all. And I’m not sure than my desire for vengeance is cooled that much.  The orcs of the mountains are a danger to us all, even if my father,  old Gerontious, thinks they are too far removed to be a threat to my people.  I know different and would risk much to keep the Shire safe from any threats.

“ Besides, Iron Weaver, there is a whole world out there of which my people never even dream.  I think I would like to see it—and help my friend.  Perhaps that sounds foolish to one so wise, eh?”

            “Foolish? No.  Mannish, or even Elvish, yes,” Ketil replied. He took a long drink of from his mug and placed it empty on the table. “I have a map I can give you. With it, you two might find a way to Radagast’s home in Mirkwood. I only ask this: that you bring it and yourself back in one piece and tell me the tale.”

            “It lacks hobbit sense, my friend, but that is a deal I’ll accept.  Does it come with provisions?”

*

            Ketil advised them to avoid the usual pass through the Misty Mountains to the east of Rivendell, since those ways were most watched. “My cousins, whom you rescued from the orcs, Hilds, left their mining operation in the Grey Mountains and came through the mountains well south of Mount Gundabad, passing below the Ettemoors on the west side.  They had contact with no one, until they took to the East-West Road and fell prey to the goblin traps in the Trollshaws.  My advice is to skirt south of Rivendell and pick your way through the Misty Mountains, searching for the headwaters of the Gladden River.  If you keep that water on your right and follow it to the Anduin, you should be able to replenish your supplies at the small settlement near the Old Ford, which will put you on The Forrest Road. The Mountains of Mirkwood lie to the north of that road, though I do not know where you will find Radagast’s home.

            “It sounds easy, as I have described it, but there are no safe passes through any mountain range.  There, you might well run into trolls, giants, or wandering bands of goblins looking to get away from their styes. Orcs exiled from their communities are the worst of their kind.  And at all costs, do not stray south of the Gladden fields, near Dol Guldur.  That is a place of most evil reputation.”

            Some days elapsed before they departed, for Ketil wished to make long, leather jerkin and shirt of mail to fit Stapa, both made in such a way that their seams were woven together with cord, so that they would separate when forced apart from within. “If you chance to have another experience with your bear-shape, you need not look for clothing after,” Ketil claimed. “And it is a mail of dwarf work, which I would put up against the finest the Rohirrim could produce.”  It’s links were smaller and of a harder alloy, which made Stapa’s covering lighter than anything his people could have made.

Also, in addition to dried meats and biscuits, he equipped them with fur-lined leather headwear, warm cloaks, leggings, and mittens for the mountains, which would remain cold and snowy, though spring was well on its way.  Their boots took longest to construct.  Hilds’ wooly feet found a fit in the largest dwarf boots made.  Stapa had to be fitted, which took longer, and  the dwarf cobbler, Janr, grumbled loudly at Ketil’s break away design. Still, it took only half the gold of Hilds’ reward to complete the outfitting, and they changed the rest of it into coin that would be more useful east of the Misty Mountains, mostly silver that could be exchanged in or near Thranduil’s realm, for the Woodelves prized silver above gold.

Hilds recognized that he had Ketil’s full support for his quest when the old dwarf presented Stapa with a double-bladed axe and a leather, iron-rimmed shield. Ketil never mentioned again the thought of Hilds taking Stapa back to his people and leaving him there. Dwarves might value gold and jewels above all things, but they prized the bonds of friendship as a kind of kinship, which is worth more than gold. Dwarves often lived lonely lives, prizing most that gift and not questioning it.  Ketil accepted Hilds’ vague reason for helping the huge simpleton and honored it with his commitment to them, assuring them that he was serious about his desire for them to return.

Hilds and Stapa were first to head east, southeast, making for the small hamlet of Tharbad just west of the confluence of the Rivers Bruinen and Glanduin, which became the Greyflood that flowed on west, southwest to Lond Daer and its harbor. 

“In Tharbad, Hilds, “ Ketil told him, “there lives a man who has the cheek to call himself Bold Hurin, after the great Elf Friend of old.  He fairly runs Tharbad and commissioned a sword from us two months ago. If you will take it to him for me, I will consider myself well paid for the few supplies I’ve given you. And, you may be able to obtain some dried fruits and flour to take with you.”

“That is a fair bargain, my friend,” Hilds said, clasping the old dwarves’ hand. “Does This Hurin fellow owe you anything more for the sword?”

“No.  Hurin is no pleasant character, I can tell you.  He controls the market in Tharbad, from which merchants in the port of Lond Dear acquire wool, pelts, and grain from both sides of the Greyflood. Hurin, who grew rich as a smith himself and made more money still in cattle.  In time, he has made the market work in Tharbad, has carved out a petty fiefdom there and fancies himself a lord.  However, he paid in gold for a dwarf-made sword,” Ketil replied.

“Is it imbued with any special abilities, Ketil,” Hilds asked, taking the heavy package in his arms.

“None other than what tempered steel grants,” Ketil replied, “but it is a sword made to impress, I think, a sword for a man strong in the arm and shoulder, which Hurin fancies is himself.  I suggest you make Stapa wait somewhere for you,” Ketil said, leaning close to Hilds, “leave the blade with Hurin and get along to the market. The sight of our giant young skin changer might make Hurin think he needs to challenge him.  You know how men are about their size.”

“No, I don’t, beyond what you tell me, kind sir, but I will gladly do what you say, for I want to keep Stapa out of the public eye, as much as possible, until such time as we meet this wizard in the Forest Mountains.”

“A good plan, I think, Hilds.  Fare you well, then, and remember your promise to come again and tell me your tale,” Ketil called as they passed down the path from the carven hollies aside the door.

*

As they traveled, Hilds found that Stapa was a pleasant walking companion, for he never seemed to tire, though he bore the heavier of their two packs. He didn’t talk, except to ask questions about what he could see in the near distance.  Hilds’s familiarity with the landscape was such that he could tell Stapa many things about the land around him.

“It is largely unsettled and little traveled these days, though here and there one will come upon stones from some ancient ruin, perhaps before the world changed,” Hilds told him.

“When did the world change, Hilds?  I’ve never noticed it doing anything different,” Stapa replied.

“Well, this is all ancient history, Stapa, the war of the Valar against Morgoth that ended up separating the uttermost west, Elvenhome, from Middle Earth.  These lands were much wider, then, and one could sail to the home of the Valar, behold Mont Taniquitel, so I’m told, although I’m sure no hobbit ever made that voyage, nor ever will.  Do the Rohirrim tell no such tales?”

“Well, we sing songs of Eorl the Young and such, tales of the great warriors in his line, things like that, but I usually just fall asleep.  I didn’t like the tales of fighting,” Stapa said with a grimace.

“I have to wonder about that, since you are so good with a sword, my friend.”

“Not much good, if it breaks as soon as I hit someone another blade with it,” Stapa replied.

Hilds, thinking that his friend would not be able to see beyond his heroic failings, decided to drop the matter.  Stapa was interested to know more about his surroundings. Though.

“Do any of the Holbyltla live in these parts?”

“Perhaps a few, wanderers, really, poor bodies with no families to take them in.  They dig a hole anywhere and call it home.”

“Do you live in a hole, Hilds? You’re a wanderer, too, right?”

“I…I live wherever I find myself, sleep in what cover I can find or no cover at all,” Hilds said. “I would never just dig a hole in a sand bank like many of these poor folk,” Hilds answered, sounding somewhat put out at the suggestion—and wondering why, too.” I really don’t care to discuss it.”

“Okay,” Stapa replied.

“Perhaps you and I will see hobbits in these parts and you’ll see why,” Hilds said, feeling sort of foolish about taking umbrage at a slight to the Took family.  In a way, he marveled that he still saw himself as a Took at all.  They walked on in silence. Stapa had all the winter gear for both of them in bundles tied onto a tremendous frame pack.  The weight was nothing to him, thought the pack made him look something like a walking house. 

Hilds wanted to avoid the Old South Road that ran out of the Shire, since it was out of their way and might carry some trade traffic from the Westfarthing down to Tharbad. So, the Brandywine River presented them with their first obstacle. So, they chose a wide, stony place where the Brandywine waters ran in glittering ripples over rocky shoals with only two deep, narrow channels.  These, they forded and swam, Stapa’s mighty strength making it easy to get all their goods across, though much of it was wet through. Hilds had them slog up out of the Brandywine Valley, where they found a dry pine wood and set up camp.  Here was ample tinder in the resinous pine needles and bark, enough to pack some along for use starting fires in the wintry mountains.  Hilds made a fire to dry their things.

Stapa carried Hurin’s sword, and asked if he could take it out of its canvas wrapping.  With Hilds’ grudging reluctance he freed it from its scabbard and  whirled it about in the air as though it weighed nothing. Its glimmering blade made a booming whoosh sound as it clove the air. 

Hilds noted that Stapa had trained with a sword a great deal, for he demonstrated glittering technique in making the great, heavy blade loop and circle in lethal looking cuts. He could strike and stop hard enough to make the thick steel vibrate.

“This is a great sword,” Stapa claimed as he paused in his exercise. “I wish I had one like it, though it would probably still break.  Father said I hit harder than swords are supposed to hit.” With a flick of his wrist, Stapa sliced a branch from a pine on which Hilds was hanging clothes. He stood somewhat shocked when it fell at his feet.  He looked at its end: it was a clean slice, with no breaking of bark or wood. He hadn’t been able to see the cut, it was so fast and sure.

“You must be careful with that blade. Stapa,” Hilds exclaimed, reaching to take the sword from Stapa’s hand.  He inspected the blade and found it pristine. It was far too heavy for him, though Stapa used it with ease. “It is a wonder that the Rohirrim didn’t seek to get you such a blade and set you loose among their enemies.”

“They see fighting as from horses. ‘A man on his feet is a man apart from his comrades,’ father would say. Unless he fights a duel, which no one likes,” Stapa replied. The thoughts and talk of war made Hilds wonder why a man in Tharbad who runs a market would need such a blade.

“Leave this by the fire and then wrap it tightly when it is dry,” Hilds ordered as he sheathed the blade and handed it back to Stapa. “Try not to use it to cut firewood.  Use that axe Ketil gave you.”

“Okay, Hilds, but swords are more fun–until they break,” Stapa said, following Hilds’ order.

With everything dry and packed away again, on they pressed, always slowly climbing up into the Minhiriath highlands, sometimes going high enough to see the country round them and the Misty Mountains far, far off to their left. No paths, other than game trails, ran through that land.  The forested areas weren’t heavy to make them lose their way.  All they needed to do was find a way south, into the high country.  There, after two days hard walking, they saw the valley of the Greyflood before them, which they made for, knowing that Tharbad would be to their left, up the river, waiting for them, the end of the first leg of their journey.

Walking downhill was easy, making their burdens light, though Stapa was no less hungry.  Try as he might, Hilds could not convince the lad that he could get along on much less food than he thought he needed. Stapa complained that he thought he was getting along with less, a lot less.

As they neared the Greyflood, rain set in, as though it flowed up the river valley from the sea beyond Lond Dear.  Keeping sight of the river on their right, they walked through sparse growths of oak and beech trees, and an ever-present wood smoke hung in the air around them Hilds saw that the fields through which they passed had been tilled until the last year or so but now ran wild with briar and bramble.  They passed two farmsteads.  Each farm cottage had been burned out, so that only a couple of walls stood by old hearths.  The second one they came to caused Hilds to stop and take notice.

“Someone is cooking something, Hilds,” Stapa said, sniffing the damp, smoky air.

“Look, Stapa. My people, hobbits lived here,” Hilds said, pointing to a small hearth that remained with a section of roof above it, supported precariously by two poles. A small barn stood nearly intact adjacent to it, though it leaned to one side as though pushed by a constant wind.  Hilds knew its kind, for it was built to hang and cure pipeweed. In the hearth under the partial roof of the cottage, a small fire burned in the grate below a pot from which steam wafted out to mix with the damp, smoky air.

They were some yards away, still, when a small figure, a head shorter and a great deal slighter than Hilds, came around the hearth.

“Oh,” Stapa said, and the figure shot a glance at them and disappeared back the way she’d come.  She moved fast and as noiseless as only a hobbit can.  Hilds’ quick eyes, though, knew her to be a hobbit.  He’d seen a heart heart-shaped face, pale beneath long dark hair, as the wide, startled eyes took in their presence.  Stapa’s immense bulk had been the cause of her gasp. He held Stapa in place and called to her:

“We are friends. We will do you no harm and even have food to share with you.  That stew smells too good to let burn, though.  You’d better come back and tend it.  My large friend is no danger.  Have no fear.”

“Is she magic, Hilds?” Stapa asked. “She just disappeared.”

“No, Stapa, but she is a hobbit, and made quicker and more frightened, I’d say, by what has happened here. You can see where someone has destroyed her home. My people are quite skilled at avoiding the sight of the Big People, of which you are the biggest she has likely seen. She has only fled.  Wait and see. Come, take off your pack and get out some of that dried meat.  We’ll add some to the stew.”

Hilds and Stapa stripped off packs and set their weapons well away.  They settled in around the hearth, just under the protection of the roof that remained. Stapa sat quietly staring around at the small hearth and the few implements that remained with it. Wood smoke hung heavy in the air with the smell of the stew.  Hilds stirred the pot, added a little more water from his flask and added some dried meat and a little salt to the mix.

“One small coney, a carrot, onion, and a very mean potato,” Hilds said studying the pot. “Whoever she is, her rations are pretty short.”

“We have enough to get by,” a small voice said from behind Stapa. It was breathy and light yet full of intent menace. Stapa gasped,  as well he should, for the voice spoke right behind him, and the bitter point of the hobbit’s small knife touched the back of his neck.

Hilds turned to her, grinning and said, “Stapa, stay very still. Please, miss, excuse our intrusion. We are merely travelers who have food to share in exchange for news and the joy of company of kind.  I’d not expected to find a hobbit family so far south of the Shire. Do take your knife away from Stapa’s neck.  You’ll find him a ready friend.”

As he spoke, Hilds took in the condition of the maid, who, though dirty, was as pretty a hobbit lass as could be wished, just rounding into maturity, Hilds noted from the way the too small blue dress hugged her figure.  Her pale face under the dark hair, looked only at Stapa.  Hands and feet were black with soot, letting Hilds know that the heavy smoke in the air was from her labors: she and whoever would share her stew were charcoal burners. However, her heart shaped face and intent, staring eyes reminded him of his own Briar Rose, though his own dearest one would never appear to company so dirty. This hobbit lass kept her knife right where she placed it, turning the point a little against Stapa’s skin.  He closed his eyes and held very still.

“I will have your names, if you please, and if you prove false, my father will curse you and make trolls come for you at night,” she said.

“That will be fine, for the man against which you press your knife point has killed two trolls of late, and I’d hate to have him get out of practice.  Your father may send the trolls as well as share our food. 

“But see here, lass, Stapa, whom you have at knife point, would barely take harm from your small knife—”

“It feels very sharp, though, Hilds,” Stapa said without moving. “And I really didn’t like killing the trolls—”

Another voice joined in from behind Hilds, a gravelly old voice that said, “Sheath your knife, Ivy. I’d much rather take the word of a hobbit, though you are rather large fellow for a Shireling.  Might I have your name, sir?”

Hilds turned and saw another hobbit of Ivy’s height, though heavy in shoulder and limbs. The whisp of a beard on his chin would have been white, had it not been so begrimed.  Everywhere, in fact,  he was besmirched by his industry, face and hands blackened by charcoal.

“I am Hildifons Took of the Great Smials, Tuckburough. My father is Gerontius, son of Fortinbras.  My friend here is Stapa Waeldersson, of Rohan.  We are on our way to Tharbad,” Hilds said, “on an errand from Ketil Iron Weaver to one who calls himself Bold Hurin.”

The old hobbit stepped back at the last name given.  Ivy gasped again and both she and her father fled.  Hilds sprang after them, watching with care lest he round the hearth and come against a weapon, for he had disarmed himself, hoping to calm the hobbits.  Hilds saw them both hurrying to a small wagon hitched to a stout pony such as hobbits favor. 

“Stay where you are, Stapa! Please! Wait!” he called to the fleeing figures “I did not say that we are friends or agents of this Hurin! Do not run. I give you my word that we are friends.”

The old hobbit stopped and tuned back to him, saying, “Then perhaps you should press on. Tharbad is just a few miles up river. If you care at all about your kind, do not tell Hurin that you have seen us.”

“I will keep knowledge of you and Ivy in my heart but not on my lips,” Hilds said, his voice fraught with sudden emotion.  Without knowing why or guessing that he would, Hilds desired to help these people, for they had been hard used. “Amongst our people it is said that ‘a name kept in the heart is more dear than good reputation,’ yes?  Is that not so?”

“It is,” the old hobbit said with a sigh.  His tired shoulders sagged.  He took a deep breath as though to steady himself  and, taking Ivy by the hand, walked back to the fireside, where Stapa still sat, not daring to move. When the two small figures returned to the fire, the rain started to fall more heavily.  The old hobbit stood where a spill of fresh water came from the remaining thatch and let it fall over his hands and face, washing away a good bit of the soot.  He took a seat, pulling Ivy down next to him, as Hilds, using his own camp bowls, ladled stew out for them.

“C, can I have some, too, Hilds?” Stapa whispered.

“Wait your turn, lad.  Let the elder eat first,” Hilds replied, though he tossed Stapa a piece of dried meat to placate him. Stapa tried to be as small as he could, though he took up most of the room under the partial roof. Ivy and her father ate quietly, as though they were guests, intrusive guests, at that.  Hilds, who was about to burst with questions, shared with them some cheese and some of the bread that remained.  When he had finished, the charcoal burner said,

“My name is Tolman Fern.  I’ve given you Ivy’s name.  My name is—or was—familiar to Hurin.  His real name is Bartimas Cole, and he it was who burned out my home. My wife, Lilly died from the smoke of that fire.  Ivy, I have kept secret from him, from everyone, for Cole and his men would take her for sport, and I’ll not have that.”

“You sought to raise pipeweed here near the river bottoms, a good place, I should think,” Hilds said. “But that was not to the liking of this Hurin fellow, I take it.”

“No, I’m afraid not.  You see, he wants all this land in orchards by next spring, which would be better on higher ground, though Cole doesn’t think like that. He sees it as expedient. The .produce closest to the market. He’s a fool who knows nothing about tilling the land, only making profits.

“In any case, what with the burning done for the pipeweed, I’ve always kept a hand in with charcoal burning.  Now, that’s all  Ivy and I have to make a living, and I’ve got to sell that in secret to the smiths, hereabouts. But when I can raise enough money to get us out of here, I’ll take Ivy away from Cole, this Bold Hurin, and his men.”

“Where will you go, then?” Hilds asked, knowing that he would make it his mission to see their escape.  His desire to see them back safely with other hobbits came on him suddenly, like a panic. The journey with Stapa, though still at the back of his thoughts, was lost in his sudden need to see Tolman and Ivy safely away. 

“That money you brought, Hilds,” Stapa said, causing Hilds to start and stare at him. “Is that enough to get them away?” Stapa, whom, over the last two days had become nothing more than a walking appetite, had listened with care to all that was said.  Hilds saw the tension in the big lad’s face.  Stapa was worried about Ivy and Tolman, too. “And if it isn’t, then maybe we should ask this Hurin let them go.  That would be a right thing to do, wouldn’t it?”

Hilds nodded and smiled at his huge friend, remembering that Stapa’s child-like mind was, perhaps, more sensitive to the needs of these small folk. Hilds caught the look of gratitude in Ivy’s dark eyes and turned away from them, lest he succumb to an even more heady desire.
            “We don’t want your gold,” Tolman said with a shake of his head, “but if you would, kindly forget that you have seen us.  Ivy and I will manage.”

“And where would you go, you and Ivy?” Hilds asked, dipping a second bowl of stew for the pair. He noticed that they relaxed a good bit, with being served. Ivy’s eyes never left his face.  She took in every feature of Hilds.  Her hands quivered as she touched his hands when he gave her the bowl of stew. Tolman even smiled a little, thinking about leaving this place. BHilds busied himself with getting stew for Stapa, who watched every morsel of food go from hand to mouth.

“Like enough, back to Breeland. I can only hope that some of our family are there yet to help us.  My father had a small farm in the Chetwood, and when Ivy’s mother and I married, we set out to find a place of our own to grow pipeweed. The land above the flood plain of Greyflood are rich and well drained, perfect for it.  For years before Ivy was born, we made a good living in the Tharbad and Lond Daer markets. 

“If we can get back home, I think some of the land there might be good for pipeweed, though no farmers grew it there as I recall. I would think that Breemen would appreciate something home grown, not out of the Shire. And, I developed a curing process that makes the pipeweed both smoky and mellow.  I have some, a small cask of it still, if you have a pipe about you.”

“I haven’t smoked in a long time,” Hilds replied with a smile, making Tolman smile wider, “and I left my pipes behind me when I left the Shire.”

            “I have preserved one or two treasures,” Tolman said, and rose, beckoning Hilds to follow him.  Together, they went into the barn, where, Hilds saw, Tolman and his daughter now their rugged beds.  Their beds were no more than hastily thrown together frames to hold fresh bracken and a blanket each in the only spots on the floor that didn’t catch the leaks from the roof. One of three firepits that ran down the middle of the floor showed some sign of use.  The others were cold. Tolman pointed to the fire pits and the empty rafters above them, saying,

            “I cured my tobacco over low resinous wood fires. It does wonders for the flavor.”  Rich scents filled Hilds’ nose, though there was no pipeweed hanging above him. The curing of tobaccos every year had left the wood of the barn dark and redolent. Tolman pushed aside the blankets on his rough bed and pulled out a small wooden box and a leather, drawstring pouch.  Hilds followed him as he went back to the fire, where Stapa sat and avoided Ivy’s hard stare. 

            Tolman opened the wooden box, revealing his prize and handed Hilds a short pipe with a full bent stem. Hilds held its richly polished deep red bowl up to the light, admiring its workmanship. Tolman held the box out of Hilds. “I pressed my leaf into sheets and cut them into these blocks for ease of use and transport.

            “The leaf is black!” Hilds cried in surprise. Tolman took a large, uneven flake from the box and rubbed it between his callused palms.

            “Yes, from the smoky fires of curing. It preserves the taste of the leaf variety I use. Here. Pack your pipe, Mr. Took, and taste Tolman’s Special,” he said, letting the rubbed leaf fall into Hilds’ ready hand.

            Stapa watched them, his eyes taking in everything in the exchange.  When Hilds stooped and lit a dry twig in the fire and lit his bowl with it, Stapa said, “You breathe fire!  My mother said her kinsmen breathed fire.  I always thought that they must be magical, like dragons, to breathe fire!”

            “It is just something we hobbits do, sir,” Tolman said, giving Stapa a grin. He filled his own pipe as he stared eye to eye at the sitting son of Rohan.“We have elevated it into an art, one sadly, I introduced to Cole, who confiscated all of my leaf, curse his name.”

            “And then destroyed your ability to make more? That isn’t good business sense,” Hilds said, puffing on his pipe.

            “He took my supply of seed and seeks to grow his own, though he will fail.  He knows nothing about it, though he hoped to make it all part of his enterprise with his market.  He has taken over every farm from Lond Daer to the Swanfleet marshes in the last couple of years. He has a band of ruffians who do his bidding, leading them like an army.  I suppose, since he bought himself a sword, that he intends to set himself up as king or something.”

 Hilds asked, “Why have you not left already? Surely it would be better to seek your family than to stay in this place any longer.”

“My legs and back are such that I could not make the journey on foot. I must go by cart. Cole has the roads in and out of Tharbad watched.  He has his men everywhere.  I thought sure that you were new men of his, but I know different, now.  You are friends, and your arrival here brings me hope. Your striking the river and using it as your path took you out of Cole’s eye, but you could not have gone much farther without being noticed, and likely attacked.  I don’t think that his men would like the look of two armed strangers, especially one as large and strong as Stapa Waeldersson.” Stapa looked on, worried.

“Are there other hobbits in Tharbad?” Hilds asked.

“None that I know about,” Tolman said with a sad shake of his head, “which was a benefit to me and Lilly, my wife. In those days, the people of Tharbad were more like the men and women of Bree, just folks, farmers, merchants, some craftsmen. Cole, himself, was a smith before he began to make money in cattle.  Then, he set himself up as lord and master of the market.”

“If he was just one craftsman, how could he do so?” Hilds asked.  He wondered, too, why a smith would turn to the dwarves for a sword, when he might forge his own.  Of course, if Cole, who called himself ‘Bold Hurin,’ had taken his name from legend, he would likely think anything of dwarf make would be equally legendary, which suggested that Cole had a mind to make a name for himself.  That could mean that he desired to  conquer, control. If that was so, regions to the north would likely be his first target.  Gondor to the south was unassailable.  The Misty Mountains walled him in to the east, as well as fear of the mighty, warlike Rohirrim.  The sea bound him to the west.  If he fancied Tolman’s pipeweed—which was, Hilds thought, puffing, delicious and smooth—he would think nothing about taking over the Shire, as well as the remains of the old North Kingdom.  Bartimas Cole, alias, Bold Hurin, could well be trying to establish himself as a king of Eriador, and a bad one at that.

Tolman explained, “It is said that Cole travelled much ere he settled in Tharbad, and was sometimes away north. He made much of the magic in smithcraft, calling his works ‘charmed’ and ‘forged to good fortune,’ which amounted to his good fortune, mostly.  His goods were ordinary iron, as far as I could ever see, for, as I said, he made money with his beef.  Yet, two years ago, he came back from a trip north a different man, angrier, more demanding, pushing others around.  He is a big man, even for one of the big people, you know. Size and strength alone caused many to take him as their leader.  I think he will not care for your friend here, Stapa, who is rather too big for Cole’s comfort. He puts down all challenges with force.”

Hilds thought for a moment and said, “Perhaps he will not see us as a challenge, if we were to join his army.”

“What?” Tolman said, rising and pushing Ivy behind him. “I took you…for a …friend.”

“Oh, I am,” Hilds replied with a smile. “You have my word as a Took that I am your friend, but we must test him, Tolman. If all goes as planned, you will soon have your freedom.  You can return to Breeland or begin again here, if my plan goes as I think it will.” He said this and turned his smile to Stapa.

“I don’t like that look in your eye, Hilds,” Stapa said.

“Relax, Stapa. All you need do is break another sword, one that needs breaking, too,” Hilds said with a smile. “If that fails, perhaps your other gift will help us.”

“What other gift?” Stapa asked, but Hilds did not say. He only smiled.

*

Overcoming those who watched the cart roads that ran alongside the Greyflood was no difficulty.   Hilds saw them as they came along the River Road with Tolman in his pony cart behind them, Ivy well hidden in the rear. Hilds’ war-like glance took in their old spears, the clumsiness with which they were handles and the rusty helmets and faded leather and scale armor the guards wore.  They lowered their spears at Hilds and Stapa and were on the point of calling out when the hobbit leapt forward, whirling his dwarf axe. Hilds shattered the mens’ spears and felled each with a blow of the axe handle. Ivy cheered as she peeped out from under the sooty sacking in Tolman’s cart.  Tolman chuckled under his breath, admonishing his daughter to stay out of sight.  Stapa frowned, holding his axe in both hands.

“It wasn’t that hard of a blow, though a strike to the inner thigh does hurt, doesn’t it?” Hilds asked one of the guards.  The man gave a feeble nod amidst his groans. “The effects will pass soon enough, and then you and your companion will lead us to Bold Hurin so that we can offer him the service of two true warriors, yes?”

Both men nodded again, unable to see any alternative, especially as Stapa came and loomed over them, his axe ready in his hands.  Hilds had bade Stapa to glower, always,  and grip his axe as though he wanted to use it, though Stapa protested that he really didn’t want to do so.  Hilds had assured him that looking fierce would be enough to get them along well.  Stapa did his best to frown and rumble low growls in his mighty chest. 

They had stowed their packs on Tolman’s wagon. He and Ivy were to accompany them as far as the entrance to the Greenway, the remains of the Great South Road that once united the realms of Gondor and Arnor, travel a day north and await Hilds and Stapa’s arrival for two days.  Hilds had promised to reprovision them for the trip back to Breeland when he and Stapa had completed his plan to rid the west from the threat of Bold Hurin.  Tolman could not face trying to rebuild his farm along the river. And as they turned away from Tharbad and took the Greenway, Hilds saw Ivy looking back at him, her eyes wide and shining.  Whatever hope she had for herself and her father had been placed in Hilds. His hope was in his own cunning and Stapa’s might, yet it was a heady feeling that guided Hilds, and he failed to see it as having to do with the adoring looks that Ivy gave him and the misty thought that, someday, after he came back from over the mountains, he would find her again.

*

Tharbad stood before them as they came over the last hill on the River Road, where two great earth works stood on either bank of the Greyflood, once spanned by a mighty bridge, the stone arches still standing in the midst of the river’s rush to the sea.  Its current ran fast with the waters of the Bruinen and Mitheithel which flowed down from the Misty Mountains and joined together before the Swanfleet marshlands. In the old days, those marshes had been much drained by the men of Numenor.  Tharbad had been fortified with its earthworks and a walled garrison, dark now but not abandoned. A battle had been fought here, long ago, between the men of the west and the Dark Lord, Sauron.

The fortress had been overcome, though any place even touched by Sauron retained a darkness about it, though Hilds saw that it was not abandoned. Above the partly broken, once proud walls, a single dark banner waved. It depicted a bloody sword. Within its keep walls, the Tharbad market, Bold Hurin’s enterprise, held sway. The banner suggested that violence held the place together.

“That is a bad place,” Stapa whispered as the two captive guards marched ahead of them. “It looks like a troll hole.”

“It was once and is again, I think, my friend,” Hilds whispered back “though this troll is merely a cruel man who has other cruel men on his side.”  Small stalls of various peddler’s stood alongside the road.  Hilds—more to the point, Stapa—demanded every eye as they walked between the poor stalls. Conversations ceased when they went by with no remark or call to sample the meager fare the merchants offered. Whispers only accompanied them, as though Hilds and Stapa marched to their deaths. 

With the guards shuffling along, heads down before them, the silent procession approached the bridge.

“Evidently, this Hurin has made the bridge functional again,” Hilds whispered.  The stone arches were spanned by wooden planks just wide enough for a good-sized cart. On the far side, a group of armed men stood, craning heads and necks to get a better sight of Stapa. “But I need you to remember that, if you play your part well, the darkness of this place will not spread farther.”

“But I don’t know what you want me to do, Hilds.”

“All you need to do is use your axe and sword the way you were taught to, alright? Keep a mean look on your face, too.  That will help,” Hilds said, thinking back to having seen Stapa wield his weapons in training. “in a few moments, I will ask you to merely show your skills with that axe.  Remember how Ketil taught you to use that axe? The exercises and such that he showed you?  You really only have to do that when I say so.”

“Oh, okay,” Stapa said as they set foot on the planks of the bridge.

Hilds’ prisoners approached the other guards, held a brief talk with them, and hurried away.

“Like as not, they are heading to tell Cole of our arrival, my friend. Now is the time for you to use the axe to way Ketil taught you.  I think no one will challenge you,” Hilds said.

“But we haven’t said anything to them yet,” Stapa whispered.

“We don’t need to.  The others have carried our message.  Do your stuff lad, and remember to frown. I’ll do the talking, if any is needed.”

Stapa did as he was bid.  The axe he used, twice the size of any war axe any of these men had ever seen, whirled around and around.  Ketil had taught him to make big circles in front of him, just to warm up his shoulders.  Such was Stapa’s strength, though, that the axe whistled as it clove the air. Then, bringing it back to fighting guard, Stapa paced forward with sweeping, overhead swipes. Cuts to the side, he made, as the blade thundered through the air. Low strokes into which Stapa lunged forward clipped the tops of the weeds that grew beside the planks. Men fell back before the demonstration as Hilds watched, keeping his own face still.

When Stapa brought his axe to rest before him, placing its head on the ground, thick hands resting on its handle, he didn’t even breathe hard.  The guards merely stepped away from the road.  Hilds strode in front of Stapa and beckoned him to follow.  The demonstration, he knew, made the men think of sheer mayhem.  He’d watched their wide-eyed faces as Stapa did his exercises, unaware that they were terrifying. Bold Hurin’s men only saw the carnage possible from that bright whirling blade in the hands of the mighty stranger.  Stapa did his best to keep a frown on his face, though whirling the axe had been fun.  He liked the feeling of blood coursing in his shoulder, arms, and back, and he hoped that Hilds was proud of him.

“Why don’t they say anything, Hilds?” Stapa asked as they made their way towards the walls. The people around them in stalls or merely loitering, awaiting an opportunity to enter the gate, took on the watchful look of the guards.

“You terrified them, as I hoped you would,” Hilds said.

“I don’t want them to do that.  I don’t want them to fear me, just leave us alone,” Stapa whispered back.

“Well, that won’t happen, with a man like Cole in charge here. This city lives in fear. Can you not see it on their faces?  They see us—you mostly—and wonder if we will be the ones to bring Bold Hurin’s reign to an end.”

“How do you know, Hilds?”

“Because anyone would. Maybe even his guards.  Those men we bested on the River Road?  They weren’t warriors.  They just work for Hurin because they must do something.  Likely, they have killed in his service and don’t like it.  We are here to give them a chance to see something different, to see a way to take care of themselves.”

“That sounds good, Hilds,” Stapa replied, looking around at the frightened, worried faces. “How will we do that?”

“You will do that by breaking Bold Hurin’s sword, preferably over his head,” Hilds said, pausing in his steps to look back at Stapa. Hilds knew that his plan to rid the land of Bold Hurin was a dangerous one, one that would probably end in fighting. But it was worth it to keep some sense of peace in this land.  The thought of hobbits run over rough shod, of a tyrant setting himself up like a lord over Eriador, filled Hilds with fear, made him desperate. He might have left the Shire behind and taken up a life of war-like wandering, but he still cared for his people, as he cared for the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains. But Stapa?  Was it right, he wondered, for him to have involved Stapa in this venture?

 Yet Stapa, for all his simple ways, was a living weapon.  Hilds had seen the lad’s skill with both axe and sword.  He had seen the boy transform into a bear, apparently an invulnerable one.  However, a thought far at the back of Hilds’ mind told him that he had no right to involve Stapa in this plan.  In the face of his fears of what Bold Hurin might yet do, he pressed ahead and silenced those thoughts, hopeful of ending the threat before this petty lord created a credible army.  Defeating Cole, now, before the name Bold Hurin was heard throughout the west, was what had to happen.  Once an army stood ahead of him, only another army could stop him.  Hobbits had no army. Ivy’s eyes came back to him, making him smile to himself.

“Usually, a sword breaks against another one—or a shield or something hard,” Stapa replied in his usual affable way. “I think if it breaks on his head, he’d—well, be dead.”

“That will work equally well as simply defeating him in a duel and breaking his new blade,” Hilds muttered as they passed through the gate.  He stopped short when Stapa’s hand clutched at his shoulder. Hilds was nearly taken off his feet, though Stapa looked relaxed, except that his hand on Hilds’ shoulder began to shake.

“Wait.  You want me to… . No, Hilds. I’ve never done that before.  It isn’t right to come into a person’s place and hurt him with his own sword,” Stapa said in loud enough tones to worry his companion.

“Shush, boy!” Hilds replied, as he sought to drag Stapa into the shadow of the gate. “If you don’t keep your voice down, Cole’s guards will try to keep us from seeing him.  Keep a mean look on your face and follow me.”  Hilds marched on, thought two guards had caught something of what Stapa said and were moving to intercept the pair. Both were good sized men, with swords and shields, much more capable than the River Road guards.  They bore their weapons with ease, suggesting that they had used them. The larger, black haired fellow bore a blade that looked small for him.  Hilds recognized it as an orc simitar, black-bladed. The thought of a man bearing an orc blade made Hilds’ fury begin to burn. Perhaps it was a battle prize, but the thought that this man had been among the orcs made Hilds furious.

“Stop!” the orc sword man cried in harsh tones.  Hilds didn’t wait to answer the challenge.  He drew his axe and rushed at the black-haired man, ducking below the man’s sword blow and striking the man’s left inner thigh with the axe’s head. That fellow went down and dropped his sword.  Hilds kicked it away as the other man ran up, only to confront Stapa whirling his axe as though it was a toy.  The second guard lowered his weapon, a sword not unlike that preferred by the Rohirrim, though notched and rusty.

“What…what is your business here, strangers?  What is a hobbit doing traveling with a man?”  The guard spoke in the Westron, but his voice was thick with an accent Hilds could not place.

Suddenly, Stapa spoke from behind Hilds, and the lad’s voice showed genuine anger for a change: “What is your business here, hill rat of Dunland?”

Hilds gave a brief look at Stapa, as the guard helped up his companion. “Forgoil! Forgoil!” the guard called out.  Several men ran toward them from the main building of the garrison as Hilds wondered what had happened to Stapa. The term “forgoil’ meant nothing to him, but clearly it did to many of Bold Hurin’s other guards.  It meant something to Stapa, as well, for he strode to meet the rush of men, having tossed aside his axe.  The lad’s hammer-like fists were balled at his side but not for long.  Two guards who had yet to draw a weapon sprang at Stapa.  He caught them by the neck in either hand and slammed their heads together.  Hilds gasped at the violence of Stapa’s response, as he watched his huge friend lash out with his fists and flatten two men with one blow.  A guard charged Hilds, too, and found himself running into the hobbit’s right foot.  Hilds struck him in the groin and turned him into the path of more guards, whose feet were fouled, knocking them down as well.

In the next instant, though, they were ringed by other guards who did not come any closer than it took to level spears at the pair.  Stapa stood back, feeling for Hilds with his right hand and glaring at the guards.

“What was that about?” Hilds hissed at him through clenched teeth. “One minute you don’t want to hurt anyone and the next you are knocking heads in the street. What go into you, Stapa?”

“He called me ‘forgoil.’  Poppa always said that if someone called me a ‘forgoil,’ a ‘straw head,’ I should hit him in the face.  Dunlanders.  I hate Dunlanders. They steal from us, set cruel traps for our horses.”

From the shifting glances of many guards in the ring of spears around them, Hilds figured that many of them were, indeed, from Dunland.  One man could be seen coming though the growing number of guards.  Nearly as tall as Stapa, he wore a steel helmet with wings at either side, yet the front of it bore a dragon’s head. The largest man present, barring Stapa, he wore a mocking smile on his lantern-jawed face.  He needed a shave, and matted black hair hung down over his deep blue cloak that covered his corselet of ringed mail. In his right hand, he bore a heavy mace. His shoulders and arms showed muscle developed by hours at an anvil.  Hilds, though, could say much the same about himself.  Seeing the mocking look on Cole’s face, Hilds knew Cole for a big man looking to pick on smaller men.

“They call me Bold Hurin,” he said, “and I run the market. Tharbad is my town, and I say who stays and who does business here. You two do not look like merchants to me. And you attack my men.”

“Well, they insulted my friend, here.  But as for your name, I heard you were Bartimas Cole, a common bully,” Hilds replied, causing a ripple of murmurs to run through Cole’s men and the people watching them. “I was asked by Ketil Iron Weaver to bring you a sword.  But I think I’ll keep it, maybe give it to my companion here.”

“As for insults, the name Forgoil is the name I give to some of my enemies. You are in that number now.  And as for keeping my sword, that wouldn’t be a smart thing to do,” Cole replied, feeling at ease, surrounded by his band of fighters, though he eyed Stapa warily. “You can give me the sword, or I can have my men take it from you.”

“I might hand it over to someone named Hurin, if he had, like the real Hurin, been a mighty warrior, a troll slayer,” Hilds replied. “My friend here is a troll slayer.  I have seen it. I thought of offering our services to a man like Bold Hurin, who might be looking for more than control of a sleepy town market. We are warriors and look for a Lord who knows how to use our skills.”

“If you hand over my property, we will see about adding you to my ranks,” Cole replied in tones darkening with anger, “though what I need with a hobbit and this fat horse-boy, I do not know.  Do you know, perhaps, about the Shire’s defenses or any alliances they have?”

“Of their defenses and alliances, which are formidable,” Hilds lied, “I could tell you much.  And as to your sword, I bid your try and take it from my friend, here.”  To Stapa, he turned and whispered, “Now, lad, show him how you can use that sword.  Use it as hard as you can, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t,” Stapa whispered, as he fumbled with the bundle in which the sword was wrapped. His face a blank mask of confusion, Stapa looked like anything but an accomplished swordsman.

“Just use it like you did before,” Hilds hissed.  Stapa nodded and pulled the weapon from its scabbard, the steel ringing. “And frown, will you?” Hilds said in a fierce whisper. Stapa’s sudden nervousness, though, turned his grimace into something more like an insane smile.  He was trying, at any rate, Hilds saw, though at that moment, a horrible truth broke through to the hobbit. Stapa whirled the sword through the attacks, parries and blocks as he had done before, exactly.  It was the way some will swordmaster had taught the boy when he lived with his people.  The crowd murmured its approval at the way the blade flashed and cut the air.  Hilds, though, realized that Stapa had not fought another swordsman in a duel.  True, he had been  trained, in set patterns, which was probably enough to help him kill a troll with his brother’s sword—and broken it in that effort.  With an overwhelming feeling of panic, Hilds realized that Stapa was the weakness in his plan, not their greatest strength. Hilds realized that Stapa had never faced an experienced fighter in a set combat to the death. As things stood with the boy, it did not matter how impressive he looked when the blade thrummed with the power of his strikes.  They were just empty strikes, Hilds realized.  He gulped.

Bold Hurin saw it too and charged.

He was nearly as tall as Stapa. Hilds saw right away that Bold Hurin was accustomed to using his superior reach to win fights, though his footwork was poor, too wide and unbalanced. He had both the strength and skill to wield his mace fast, though Stapa broke off his set routine of strikes to parry the overhead blow of the mace and send it thudding into the gravel of the road.  What he didn’t do was use that miss to strike back while Cole’s head was exposed.  Cole saw the surprised look on Stapa’s face, grinned, and pressed his attack with wild strokes.

Stapa used the sword well to parry the blows, as he was driven back, giving ground before his opponent.  A sudden movement behind him made Hilds dodge and lift his shield as one of Cole’s men moved in to strike him down. That man went down with Hilds’ axe head stuck in the back of his leg.  Hilds swept out his own sword to hack at the shafts of two spears aimed at his chest.  He had to concede that Cole’s fighters, if not the best trained or equipped, were ready to do their Lord’s bidding against any intruder.  He fought hard, seeing enough of Stapa’s situation to tell when several of Cole’s men dropped a heavy cargo net atop the lad, which knocked the sword out of his hand and tangled his feet.  A well-cast rope or two, and Stapa was trussed up like a prize turkey.

Hilds fought on, surrounded by fighters.  His one remaining hope was that he would hear the beast roar of Stapa turning into a bear.  He fought on, casting an occasional glance at Stapa. Who had taken no injury, as yet, from his foe, though he had not struck at him.  He used his knowledge of blocks and parries but never struck to kill, though there were openings aplenty. The cry of Stapa the bear never came. Hurin’s men had cast over him a heavy cargo net. In the next instant, Stapa was down and not even thrashing about.  Cole, Bold Hurin, stood over him, one foot atop Stapa’s wide chest.  He faced the crowd as though daring any man to face him.  None did.

A similar net fell over Hilds, bearing him to the ground.  Strong hands disarmed him, while others trussed him up as they had Stapa and dragged them toward the dark walls of Tharbad.  Without ceremony or care for the bumps along the cobbled yard, Hilds and Stapa were dragged to a short door in the walls and placed in the dark of a dungeon that stood to the right of the main gate. Hilds was tossed, Stapa rolled, into a damp cell below the level of the courtyard.  A grate over the one small window let in the sounds of Bold Hurin showing off his dwarf sword in the courtyard as his men cheered. Every word became a venom in the hobbit’s ears, telling him that he had been right about one thing: Bold Hurin wanted everything under his power.

“With this in hand, nothing will stop Bold Hurin. Like my namesake of old, I will lead my men into battle. First, all the valley of the Greyflood, from Lond Daer to the mountains.  Soon, our numbers will grow from a hundred to a thousand, to more, as men flock to my banner, and then we shall take all the rich lands of Eriador to be ours.  Every farm will grow its crops for me.  We will own all the trade in the west. You men of Dunland will rejoice over your enemies, the Rohirrim, and then we will make Gondor sit up and take note. Send out the word! Hurin has a sword of fabled lineage. He is looking for fighters who want to take their own.  He defeats every mighty warrior, even the biggest.  He beats the troll killer! Bold Hurin will rule!”

His men raised a mighty cheer, calling his name over and over, as Hilds sagged under his bonds, the netting weighing him down. He heaved a great sigh.  Stapa would fight trolls and orcs that attacked him, even the men of Dunland who insulted him, but he had never been in a battle with men and had no idea that his lethal skills with a blade were meant to kill enemies.

“Stapa, why did you not return Cole’s blows?” Hilds asked in the quiet of their cell.

“The man with the club? Oh, he wasn’t trying to kill me, but he was bad at the game.  He never really came close, but he cheated  and didn’t let me take a turn at striking at him. Besides, his blows were weak and off balance.  And then those men with the net, well, they cheated, too. I didn’t think it would be good to hurt them.”

“Were none of them men from Dunland?” Hilds asked, wondering how to get Stapa to see another man as an enemy.

“I don’t know.  None of them said anything to me or called me that name.” Stapa said, “so….  Was it bad, what I did, Hilds?”

Silence held them for a long moment as the hobbit thought about what to say. “No,” Hilds said with an even heavier sigh. “It was bad what I did, thinking I could use you like a weapon. I… I thought, you know, that maybe you might turn into a bear.”

“Oh.  I didn’t though, huh?”

“Right,” Hilds replied, thinking that he had said enough.

“Only, after we go visit the wizard who teaches me how to become the bear, maybe we could come back and I could turn into the bear, if you want me to,” Stapa said.

“Well, I guess we’ll have to see about that, huh?” Hilds offered.  He didn’t look but thought that maybe his huge friend was nodding his head. Hilds lost himself in wonder about what Cole would do to them.  Would he allow them to join his troop?  Would he merely kill them as example of his power?

“I’m really hungry, Hilds, and this place stinks,” Stapa said.  Hilds rolled to a place where he could stare in disbelief at Stapa, who had shaken free of the netting and sat with his tied hands in his lap, like an enormous child.  “I think bad things have happened in here, too. Isn’t that a skeleton hanging from those metal things on the wall?”

“Yes,” Hilds sighed and looked at the figure in the gloom.  “That’s a skeleton: someone they left in here to die.” It was a small skeleton, too, hobbit sized.  There had been at least one other hobbit in Tharbad, Hilds realizex, though it had been long ago.

“Yeah,” Stapa said. “I’m glad they didn’t chain us to the wall, aren’t you?”

“For now, yes,” Hilds said.

Stay tuned for Part Two of “Heroism in Tharbad.”

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