“Heroism in Tharbad.”Part 2.

M.J. Downing.

            “I see more of these cells, like ours, Hilds,” Stapa said, staring through the grated window that looked onto Bold Hurin’s courtyard. “All that I can see have the bar down on the door like ours does.  He might have lots of prisoners, maybe even more hobbits.”

            Hilds stared at the hobbit skeleton that hung from shackles on the dungeon wall.  When he’d gotten up to examine his prison, he found more moldy bones in the room’s dark margins but no other inmates. The noise in the courtyard told him of a celebration going on, like as not to commemorate Bold Hurin’s victory over a rival—Stapa, who could have easily overcome the local tyrant. Hilds, like many an incarcerated fellow wished to hear no more about ‘ifs.’

            “Little good that does us,” Hilds muttered.

            “Well, if we could free ourselves, we might open a few of those cells and see if any in them are fit to fight and help us escape, maybe,” Stapa said, peering around his thick hands on the bars of the window.

            “’If,’ you say,” Hilds muttered, turning to look more pointedly at his huge friend who could see out of the grated window when he stood on tiptoe. “If a frog had wings he would not land on his posterior when he jumps.”

            Stapa cried out and dropped his hands from the bars as a spear butt came through them and a guard’s voice shouted something that Hilds did not understand. Stapa grasped the spear shaft and with a wrench of his arms, broke off a foot length piece of it. He hurled it back through the bars with an angry shout, as the business end of the spear jabbed back at him.  Hilds pulled Stapa away, urging him to be quiet and move away from the window.  Several arrows came through the bars, skipping off the stone floor and shattering.  Hilds pulled his big friend to the darkest corner of the cell as guards yelled at the opening.

            “Let me guess. He called you ‘Forgoil’ again,” Hilds whispered.

            “Yes, that Dunland rat turd,” Stapa said.

            “Stapa, what I wish is that you saw every man in that courtyard as another Dunland rat. In fact, I urge you to believe it, especially of Bold Hurin,” Hilds said with a sigh, for it was Stapa’s normally gentle nature and simplicity of mind that had let him be overcome in the duel with Hurin. “In any dealings with people I tell you are our enemies, I need you to think of using your sword or axe as you would against someone who calls you ‘Forgoil,’ okay?”

            “You mean kill men, just for an insult?” Stapa replied, confused.

            “Not all men. Just those I can tell you are our enemies,” Hilds replied.

            “You mean that I should tear out those bars and go out and kill Bold Hurin and his men?” Stapa asked, a note of awe in his voice. “Wouldn’t that be wrong?  My mother always told me that my father’s talk of killing and battle, and being heroic, and, and, winning fame was something I shouldn’t bother about, because I’m different,” Stapa said. “She said everyone, even bad men, have mothers, and if more men thought about their mother’s wishes that they’d not be so quick to go to war. War is bad, Hilds.  Even I know that.”

            Hilds sagged to the floor, realizing how thoroughly he had misunderstood his large friend.  Perhaps, he thought, that’s what Ketil Iron Weaver perceived in Stapa when he urged Hilds to simply return him to Rohan, rather than risk a journey over the mountains to find Radagast the Brown and help the lad learn how to use his power.

            Hilds, who had witnessed Stapa changing into a gigantic bear, might well be forgiven for thinking of Stapa Waeldersson as a living weapon.  He’d seen Stapa in bear form simply destroy a troll and any number of orcs in the Trollshaws.  He’d borne witness to Stapa’s having used his dead brother’s sword to kill a different troll. The power in the lad, even when he wasn’t in bear form, boggled his mind.  He’d never seen an axe or sword wielded with such power as Stapa had, though the lad saw his actions only as a kind of game he was taught to play.

            Lost for a sense of what to do, he looked at the grated window, trying to determine if he could get through it if Stapa ripped the bars away.  It was less than a foot square, though, so Hilds doubted he could fit through it, slip around and unbolt the barred door, and free his mighty friend. He had bade Stapa earlier to try pushing against the thick wooden door of their cell.  The opening into the cell, though, was only as wide as the door itself, though its ceiling was as high as the interior of the cell, and the stairs were short and steep.  Stapa could not get himself into any position at the door to push hard enough to budge it. They were trapped, well and truly. Hilds hung his head, noting that at least no other spears or arrows were coming through the grated window.  He realized that the guards attitude toward him and his companion was murderous.  Likely, Bold Hurin had slated them for a fast execution.

            “She said that orcs and trolls didn’t have mothers, though.  It was okay to fight them.” Stapa said, as an afterthought.

            “Any chance that I can convince you that those fellows in the courtyard are just as bad as orcs or trolls?” Hilds asked.

            Stapa giggled. “They aren,’t though,” he said, as Hilds stared hopelessly back at him.  But the lad’s great brow furrowed as if a new idea occurred to him. “Hilds, can I ask you something about what you said earlier?”

            “Yes,” Hilds replied, a flicker of hope dawning in his forlornness.

            “I’ve never seen a frog with wings. Are they like that where you—”

            “No!” Hilds cried as his hope was torn from him.  Stapa backed away from the hobbit, aware as any child would be that he had somehow upset someone tasked with giving him care. He shuffled across the damp floor and sat on one of the low steps, hanging his head.  Hilds realized that it would be right to try and offer some comfort to his simple companion—or at least an apology for landing him in a position that would likely end in his death.  Even if they fought the guards who came for them, one or both of them might be killed right away.  Even if Stapa underwent the transformation into a bear, it was likely that Hilds himself would be killed.  How many men would die as a result of Stapa’s change, he didn’t know. 

            His imagination played out scenes of such a thing, which told him that Stapa would wreak such havoc in Tharbad that he might well do away with Bold Hurin, for he didn’t think that any number of men could kill the bear.  They had nets, though, and used them well, he knew.  They might, with huge numbers and many nets, capture the bear and lock him in an even deeper hole.  The thought of leaving Stapa in captivity—until he starved—grated on Hilds. He saw the huge man-child asleep where he sat.

            He sought to console himself that in another day or two, at least, Ivy and Tolman might make their escape.  They might make it away to Breeland.  The consoling thought winked out as quickly as it rose: it would only be a matter of time until Bold Hurin’s forces grew enough and led him to the rich land of the Shire.

            “You have acted as the biggest fool in middle earth, Hildifons Took,” he said to himself as he thought of Ivy. “For the hope in her pretty eyes, you let yourself think that you could save her, perhaps even have her for your own.  You, who thought you were done with love, family, caring. You told yourself that you could save all the foolish hobbits of the Shire, though you told yourself that you were done with them all.  And for what? The promise in a pretty maid’s smile? Her adoring glance? The promise of her at your side?”

            Still, he remembered every little detail about Ivy, as he had once done for his Briar Rose, whom he had found dead, an orc arrow in her heart. The thought of Ivy suffering the same fate galled him as much as the thought of Stapa held in captivity.  Powerless, he let himself think of Ivy’s face, old Tolman’s kindness, though he realized that their fate was sealed, sooner or later.  Bold Hurin, with his army of wastrels, outlaws, and mercenaries would burn through the west and turn the Shire into a wasteland. Tears flooded his eyes. He let them fall into his lap, as he remembered Ivy’s eyes. He wandered in sad, lonely dreams then.

            “Hilds? Stapa?” a tiny voice whispered.  Hilds shook his head to dispel the idea that he had heard Ivy’s voice calling him.

            “Yes?” Stapa said, rising from the step. He moved to the grated window.  Hilds realized that he was awake, when he saw Stapa reach through the grate and take a tiny hand in his great fist. “Ivy?” Stapa asked. “Is that you?”

            “Yes,” came the small voice, louder this time. “Is Hilds in there too?”

            “Yes,” Stapa replied, echoed by Hilds much louder,

            “Yes!”

            “Shhh,” Ivy hissed through the bars, “you’ll wake them! Let me remove the door bar.” The hobbit, his heart thundering with excitement, raced to the door.  Ivy struggled to lift the thick beam of oak that lay in heavy, iron hangers across the door.  Hilds could hear her grunts of effort, his pulses pounding harder at every second of the delay.

            “Lift with your legs, girl,” Hilds whispered at the edge of the door.

            “I…am…but this… thing weighs…a ton,” Ivy replied, gasping with her efforts. Hilds held his breath, wishing that he could lift with her, for her. His lot was only to stand against the door, his legs bending as though he would show her how it should be done, and it made him shake like a leaf in the wind. His long fingers pressed against the door; they felt the tremoriof the wood as the door bar moved in its hangers. Hilds listened to Ivy’s slight, throaty groans and gurgles of effort, as he heard the bar move horizontally in its hangers. 

“She has it moving,” he turned and whispered to Stapa, looming behind him.

With a last grunt, Ivy heaved one end up out of its hanger, got it moving, and pushed it through the hanger on the other end.  But it fell with the resonant clunk of wood on stone, bouncing on one end and then the other.  Hilds gasped when he heard her sharp cry and knew that the heavy bar had fallen on Ivy. Hilds pushed aside the thick door and saw Ivy on the ground, holding her right foot, on which the cross bar had landed in its bouncing fall. He scooped her up in his arms and stood exposed in the moonlight.
            “We must get her out of here,” Hilds said, hurrying into the shadows at the base of the garrison wall.  Stapa was right behind them, his head turning in, scanning for guards.

“The gate is open,” Ivy whispered. “We can get out and away.  Once we cross the bridge, they’ll never find us.”

Hilds smiled into her eyes as he cradled her.  She held him tight around his neck, her face even more soiled by charcoal dust. “I assume you snuck away from your father and powdered yourself down with your father’s wares to avoid being seen,” for her arms were covered in the dusky powder as well.

“I…I had to make sure you were alright,” she said.

“Did you?  Why is that, Ivy?” Hilds whispered back.

“Be…because I…I had to.  I’ve never met another hobbit that I…that we…needed,,so much,” she stammered, looking away.  In the shadows, Hilds could not tell if she was blushing, but she turned her face away as though she did.

“I’m glad you came, Ivy, but how did you know to look for us in that awful cell?”

“You two were the talk of the people outside the walls.  They said you would be dead by morning.  There were no guards on the gate, so I came in and saw the cells and whispered your name at several of the grates and found you.”

“Yes, you did,” Hilds whispered back, “and I’m glad of it, but you should not have put yourself in danger. Stapa,” he said, turning to the big fellow like a mass of dark cloud behind him, “can you take her and get her back to her father?  I’ve got something to do before I go.”

“Sure, I can,” Stapa said, lifting Ivy into the crook of one arm, “But what do you have to do?  Why can’t we just leave?”,

“Never you mind, lad,” Hilds said, pointing a long finger into Stapa’s face. “You just get her back to her father—and go with them, if you have to. Whatever you do, protect her. Protect them, with all that you have, okay?” Stapa nodded. “ If I can, I will find you by morning.  Now go!”

Stapa did as Hilds bade him and hurried through the gate as Hilds looked after him. Ivy’s face was turned around Stapa’s arm to look at him, her eyes pleading.  Hilds, though, turned his eyes away from all that he cared about and looked around the courtyard.  The fires of Bold Hurin’s celebration burned low in the center of the court, the towers and keep of the garrison black against the night sky behind them. To himself, he murmured, “I have to find Bartimas Cole and have a final word with him regarding his plans for the Shire.”
           

*

For such a big man, Stapa made his way on quiet steps down the dusty road from the gates, drawing no attention. The stalls were gone, and the few hovels off the side of the road were dark. Near the bridge, a tavern stood, the only source of light in the night, though it was not noisy. Ivy bade him seek the shadows on the other side of the road, and he did so, holding her safe in the crook of one massive arm.  As they approached the planks of the bridge, listening to the waters rush past its stone piers, Ivy asked in a trou0bled voice,

“What will he do, Stapa?”

“Hm? Hilds? I don’t know. What do you mean?”

“I mean, why would Hilds stay in the Tharbad garrison, when he might come away with us?”

Stapa stopped and thought about it, shaking his head. “Maybe he’s just trying to find our axes and shields.  I bet that’s it.  Ketil gave them to us. Those men, they took them from us, you know. Oh,  maybe…no… he wouldn’t…maybe it’s that Bold Hurin man.  Hilds thinks that he is as bad as a troll.  He said so.  Maybe he—no. He wouldn’t try to find him, would he?”

Ivy reached out and turned Stapa’s face to look at her. “Stapa, what would he do?”

“He said…Hilds said that Bold Hurin wants to be king, somewhere.  I heard him mumbling about it before you came, like he was dreaming.  Hilds might want…he might think that Hurin in his enemy.  Oh, I didn’t do good, did I?” Stapa began to shake all over, like a child fearing punishment.
            “What do you mean, ‘didn’t do good?’ ”

“Hilds wanted me to fight that man, maybe hurt him, like I did the trolls.”

“And you didn’t, Stapa?” Ivy asked, holding Stapa’s face so that she could look into his troubled eyes.

“No! I…I did think it was right.  I thought it was the sword game, like they taught me.  I didn’t hit back,” he rumbled and looked away.

“And now, Hilds is going to try and confront Bold Hurin and try to finish the fight that he wanted you to make?”

Stapa shook his head ‘yes.’ 

*

Hilds had no trouble making his way into the dark opening of the keep.  There were two guards, both asleep, resting within the double doors. He had to marvel at the complete lack of military discipline in the ranks of Bold Hurin’s men. They were unorganized, at best: at worst, completely careless.   Bartimas Cole, Hilds reckoned, must have some other means of making himself king, for his “army” was mere rabble.

 One of the sleeping guards  was the black-haired Dunlander with the orc sword.  He lay sprawled against the wall with one hand holding that ghastly hilt and the other around  a flagon of ale.  The stink of th drunken, filthy man filled Hilds’ nose. Without stopping to think, Hilds fetched that man a vicious kick to his drooping faced that bounced his head off the wall.  Hilds watched him slump all the way to the floor and drew the hateful sword from the unconscious man’s hand, fetching the other guard a swift blow to his unprotected skull.  Both were down. The orc sword, took with him, it8s ghastly hilt chafing his hands.

Hilds reasoned that, as the head man and would-be king, Cole would take the finest room in the keep.  Such a chamber would likely be on the upper floors.  He had to find Cole who was not anywhere amid the drunken, sleeping men that filled room after room. The finish and furnishings of the various chambers improved as he made his way up the steps. He moved as quiet as only a hobbit could. His practice of hunting orcs in the wild had made him stealthier than even the most careful hobbit could be.  Hilds crept past—sometimes over–sleeping men and women, some guards full of drink some tangled bodies on pallets and makeshift bed, drunk with other things. They were everywhere. 

 He climbed stairs, peeked in chambers, always going up. Hilds moved around and over the sleepers like a ghost. In the half light of guttering torches Hilds drift around and over the bodies, thinking that Cole needed better guards or at least a better attitude about keeping a guard.  Something must have lulled Bold Hirin into confidence that he needed no alert guards, merely fighting men he could call on to enforce his will.

Pausing to look out a stairwell window, he saw that he was almost at the top of the keep.  He could see the gleam of the Greyflood running fast in the moonlight. With any luck at all, Stapa and Ivy were already past the bridge.  He knew that if he turned on his heels and left the way he had come, he’d overtake them before they arrived at Ivy and Tolman’s camp.

Hilds, however was motivated by his fear of what Cole, as Bold Hurin, represented.  The way Cole had ridden rough-shod over Tolman’s life, as well as the broken skeleton of the hobbit in the cell, told him that Cole thought nothing of hobbit lives. Cole might not be a good fighter and was a worse businessman. The rag-tag army that grew around him was enough to subjugate the main town in the Greyflood valley as it was.  With more followers, Cole would do much damage.  And when his knowledge that he should never have involved Stapa in his plan, coupled with his guilt at having exposed Stapa to life threatening danger, Hilds decided to do his best to end the threat of Bold Hurin on his own.  His fear, however, mounted in waves: his hand gripped the orc sword and held it before him. The easiest solution would be to find Cole sleeping and kill him.  And though Hilds had killed before, he had only ever killed orcs.  Try as he might, he could not convince himself that Cole was an orc, though he was as much a threat to the Shire as any orc.  Killing Bartimas Cole in his sleep would be murder in anyone’s eyes.  Hilds thought, “So be it,” but he shivered at the orc weapon in his hand.  Murder in secret, at night, is orc work. That idea struck him hard but he saw no way to avoid doing what he needed to do to end the threat of Bold Hurin, yet it was not the work of a hero, yet it made a degree of hobbit sense.

As he crept into the top chamber, though, there was a smell that took him, curiously, back to his youth, a foul smell that took his mind back to the days when thinking of murder had been impossible.  For Hildifons Took, as a youth, was as great a wanderer of the Shire as any hobbit of his time.  From east to west, young Hilds had explored the boundaries of his small land, looking for adventure.

He entered a candle-lit room, the farther end of which was dark, darker than it should have been with its windows open to the light of moon and stars, and that smell struck him and made him step back into the shadows. It was an underground smell which he remembered from his youth, curiously horrifying because it was so out of place in this high, airy room.  It was persistent, though and well known to him.  It made his hands shake remembering that smell. He had experienced it once before in one of the ancient graves of the Barrow Downs, out beyond Buckland.  He knew it as the smell of lingering evil, a rotten scent, over which lay the stink of old metal and magic.  Though metallic, few of the things incongruously buried in this high place would  be of precious ore, though some were. Bold Hurin’s campaigns had yet to become widespread looting for plunder. It was the smell of hoarded weaponry, not cleansed, polished, and preserved but crusted with old blood and rusting.  The intent of the place was not to celebrate victory but death—and evil that came from meaningless death. The weapons and treasures in this place would never again be used or employed by the living.  Long ago, when he was a boy, the promise of buried treasure had lured him, in broad daylight, to the Barrow Downs.  However, the horror of the barrow had sent him running: an angry presence had rushed at him from the cold altar, chilling the blood and bone in his strong young body. Then, he had run all the way back to Tuckborough.  Now, that same smell drove him seek a life of a man who had given himself over to the evil of the Barrow. That smell he had never forgotten, never could.  And it filled his nose now, as he saw a shadow move through the darkness  away from the candle light.

There, too, against the wall to his right were his and Stapa’s weapons, both axes and shields, set aside like trophies to be added to the moldering mix in the dark. A deep voice chanted in a harsh tongue, the sound of which irritated his ears. He could not tell what the words meant, though he knew that they talked of worse than murder to protect his people.  The very feel of the words in his ears made his stomach churn, but it was the voice of Bartimas Cole chanting them. 

Soon, it stopped and Cole went on in his own voice: “Oh, great master, you who were once King, I call you back from the dark places and plead for your help. Two sacrifices of my enemies, a hobbit and a man of Rohan, I will make to you before the sun rises this day.  I have brought you this sword, made by your enemies of old, the dwarves.  I ask you to put upon it your cold horror that I may spread it to my enemies and claim these lands.”

Hilds heard a low susurration, a low voice in a hissing whisper, and Cole cried out as though in pain.  Hilds crept into the shadows at the side of the room where his and Stapa’s weapons lay. Cole had fallen to his knees in the dark.  Hilds could make out the low altar in the deeper darkness.  It had the look of a barrow, and as his eyes adjusted to the dark, he caught the movement of a deeper shadow taking shape to make the voice.  Chills ran down his spine, even as he put aside the orc sword and took up his axe.  He stood frozen, though, unable to approach his enemy, unable to master his feet as the evil whispers flowed out of that shadow and caused Cole to whimper.  Hilds grew ill and clutched his stomach as sounds of cries and shouts from far below echoed up into the high chamber, as though the evil of the barrow had robbed even drunken men of peaceful rest. Hilds sought to ignore the sounds from below and make his feet move.  With one stroke of his axe, he could rid the west of Bartimas Cole. No one would remember the name of Bold Hurin any more than they would remember Hildifons Took, for he knew that taking out one enemy would expose him to the full force of the horror of the wight that had come to dwell in Tharbad at Cole’s bidding.

It was only the memory of Ivy’s eyes that let his feet move.  He thought of her running through the grassy meads of the Chetwood.  She was, for him in that moment, his own Briar Rose and the hope of a new love to come.  The shouts from the courtyard had become angry cries, but he heeded them not and raised his axe over his head, as he took bold steps towards Cole’s kneeling form.  Hilds started his axe blow, but then two red points of light within the shadow form caught and held his own glance. Pain seared his mind, and he gave a cry.  The blow fell, but Cole had spun—or been spun—and deflected the axe head.  Metal rang against metal and clean sparks flew from the contact of the two dwarf-made blades.

The horror in those eyes and the shock of his contact caused Hilds to lose his footing and fall to the floor.  Cole thrashed at him with the sword but missed.

“You! You filthy halfling! I’ll gut you here and now and offer you to the power that gives me strength!” Cole raised his blade high.  With his height and reach advantage, Cole’e next blow, no matter how poorly delivered, would find him.

At that moment, from far below, Hilds heard a ponderous thud of wood on stone, as though the great gates of the garrison had been thrown to.  Then came the roar, like a wave of pure raw force that mounted up through the keep and crashed into this chamber.  It froze Bold Hurin and held him in its grasp as long as it lasted.  In the next secfond, Ivy screamed his name. Her voice was thick with surprise as well as fear.  Her cry was one of wonder and loss at the same time,  as though she knew that Hilds could not stop what was happening, yet she cried for help to the only person she knew. Hilds’ heart thumped. Cole’s face turned to the noise outside.  He stepped over Hilds to see what the noise was about.

Then, the roaring began again and there were cries of men from all over. Cole ran to the nearest window and peered into the dark courtyard, Hilds on the floor, clutching his axe with a hand gone numb.  The roaring shook the rest of him.  It rose through the air on echoes, so loud that its echoes made other echoes out into the surrounding hills, until,  like thunder in the mountains that rolls down and crashes upon the plains in all its fury, they mixed with  the cries of terror of men seeking to flee rather than fight, though for many, whose screams stopped, for they had been too slow.

The cry of a great bear rose from the courtyard, and Cole, looking out the window, leaned heavily on the stone casement and moaned. 

“Go!”

The word came from everywhere and nowhere in the chamber. The sound struck Hilds’ hearing like a sword blade pressed hard on his skin, its wicked edge present, potent, but not yet slicing.  It made Hilds drop to his knees, his weapons clattering to the floor.  Cole leapt to follow the command and rushed from the chamber, giving no further thought to the hobbit.

“Stay,” the voice whispered, though its edge was still as keen. It compelled Cole to leave and kept the hobbit where he was, kneeling, shivering on the floor.  Hilds saw the shadow move  behind the altar, more a suggestion of deeper dark than a body. The red of its eyes held him where he was, though Hilds forced against the compulsion and made his knees straighten.  With bowed back he rose from the floor, dragging his axe with him, and the shadow’s will beat upon him, pressing him down, though it grew weaker as Hilds straightened his back and darerd to stare back into the red of those eyes.

“Begone, wight!” Hilds grunted.  The shadow retreated from him even as it sought to silence him.  Hilds knew that the thing had no great power if resisted.  It had no hold here, so far from its barrow, only that which Cole gave it with his will.  Hilds raised his axe to threaten it, though he could not cut shadow.

“He is mine!” the cutting voice lanced out, forcing Hilds to drop his weapon and cover his ears. “The bear is mine!” it said in what Hilds recognized as a voice desperate.

“You…you lie, wight. He is young, innocent, and full of power you cannot touch!” Hilds yelled back.  The claim the wight made had sent a wave of horror through the hobbit.  The voice was weaker, though, than the first times it spoke.  It would not last much longer.  Hilds picked up his axe again and ran at the altar, ready to strike at anything, shadow or stone. 

“A seed!” the wight screamed, its voice lancing through Hilds’ ears, weakening as it ran. “Long ago. Planted. He will spread…ruin, harvest..destruction” the voice insisted, fading until it became a sigh and then, nothing.  The eyes  disappeared, as did the deeper shadow behind the altar.  Hilds ran forward and kicked the stone slab, knocking Cole’s makeshift altar to the floor.  He stood breathing hard, listening to Stapa the bear roar in the courtyard.

Hilds had seen Stapa as the bear tear a troll to pieces, a troll, made from the stuff of the mountains. Orcs, he’d seen torn asunder so that they could not be known as once living things. The wight’s claim ate at him as he clattered down the stairs.  Men were crying, screaming, many of them, in the face of what gentle Stapa had become.  The wight’s words were likely lies, the lies of a desperate thing which desired only evil. Hilds knew enough of wights to know that.  Their words, their very presence, was poison to all living things, designed to hurt, confuse, and capture the living in the prolonged suffering of their own defeat. Yet the roars, the screams of the men, sounded like ruin. Could a wight speak the truth? Could it claim something as its own? If only he knew who the wight had once been.  He could know that, though, and knew to distrust anything such a being would say.  Still, the voice fueled his doubt as the men’s screams eroded his sense that he knew all he needed to know about Stapa.  He ran on, hoping to face Cole, to rend the truth from him.

*

Stapa and Ivy did not make it across the bridge.  After listening to what Ivy said, and putting all his mind to it, Stapa realized that he had failed to do something that Hilds really needed him to do. He wasn’t at all sure that he knew how to do it, but he knew he had to try.  So, with Ivy in the crook of one arm, he strode directly toward the lights of the tavern.

“Stapa, what are we doing?” Ivy asked.

“We are going to help Hilds get rid of Bold Hurin and his bad men who are like orcs,” he said, his long strides bearing them fast toward the lights. “I apologize for having to take you with me, Ivy, but I promised Hilds to take care of you, and you can’t walk.  You’ll just have to stay with me and hang on.”

Stapa blew through the door  and stepped into the mass of quiet men who sat or stood around drinking.  He peered around at them all and then said in a loud voice, “I need help.  I need men to hold the city gates closed so I can do what I should have done to help Hilds.” Silence greeted him with the wide-eyed stares.

One man, perhaps a frllow who hoped, yet, to enter Cole’s service, shuffled to his feet and raised his voice in the sudden heavy silence. “Oh, look it’s the Forgoil idiot whose posterior Hurin kicked today.  Have you come ba—”

Stapa reached into the crowd, grabbed that man by his shirt and threw him back out the tavern door, which, unfortunately, had swung closed again after Stapa’s entry. He never let go of Ivy, either.  She stayed safe in the crook of the arm he didn’t use.

Men fell back, pressing themselves against the walls and the bar.  Some number of men left through the shattered doorway and ran.  One voice, the tavern keeper, was raised:

“Y, you w,want us to close you inside the gates?”

“And hold them closed.  That will need many men, at first,” Stapa said, as Ivy stared up at the lad’s determined expression.

“And you and your friend are going to, to…”

“Make Bold Hurin and the bad men go away,” Stapa said, his calm, confident gaze sweeping the room.  He dropped his gaze when he saw the door. “I’m, uh, sorry about your door.  That man called me the bad name.  That makes me mad.”

“Yes, we see that,” The tavern keeper said. “Take no thought of it.  That was not a friend of anyone here, right lads?”  A mumbled agreement rose from the stunned men. To the rest of the crowd, some dozen men, old and young, the tavern keeper said, “Well, I would not mind seeing the last of Bartimas Cole and his bullies.  Is there anyone else interested in simply holding a gate closed?”

*

Their cheers had settled down by the time they approached the gates again.  Stapa had asked to borrow a small hammer or a club.  One man offered a knife with a heavy pommel. Stapa smiled and handed Ivy the weapon.

“Unless you see me changing already, you need to hit me on the head with the handle of this thing as soon as the gates shut behind us, okay?”

He had put her on the ground.  She stood glancing back and forth between Stapa and the knife. Stapa began undoing the chords that held his clothing and shoes together.

“Why are you undressing, and why must I hit you on the head?” Ivy demanded, looking at the small crowd of men around them.  Some sniggering had commenced among them and comments that Ivy could not quite hear, along with a great many pointing fingers and hand gestures she didn’t understand.

“Because, I’d be embarrassed if anyone so me,” here, he leaned close to her and whispered, “naked. And that heavy knife is for you to conk me with, unless I change first.”

“Change?” Ivy replied, her eyes widening. “Change how?”

“Into a bear, of course,” he answered.  He picked her up and swung her to his shoulders, explaining, “Hilds and Ketil both say that I am a skin changer. I can change into a bear—which I did, once when Hilds and I were in big trouble.  Hilds is in big trouble now. He needs me to do it again to get rid of the bad men.  I’m going to try, but I’m not sure. I think I can, ;cause I know that Hilds could get hurt—or killed. The only time I changed before was a when I was knocked out.  Then, I killed the troll and a whole lot of orcs, so, if I’m not changing, you can hut me on the head, see?.  Do you think orcs and trolls really have no mothers?”

“You change…into…a… bear?”  Ivy tensed and wrapped her free hand under Stapa’s chin, dizzy from the sudden rush to seven feet high. The men behind them hushed as Stapa and Ivy started through the gates of Tharbad.

“Yes.  Did I forget to tell you that earlier?”

“Yes!” Ivy cried to emphasize the importance of this knowledge.

“Oh. I‘m sorry. It’s kinda important, though, and I really gotta try.  You will need to scream for Hilds when, er, when things get started in there.”  Stapa lifted his head and cried “Guards! Guards”

Sounds of grunts and movements came from darkened corners of the courtyard. Stapa whispered to Ivy, “Hilds will come faster if he thinks you are in danger.  Sorry.  Just try and hang on to me.”

Stapa lurched forward, going onto all fours, and began a laborious crawl to the first three guards that came to confront him, weapons loose in their hands.  Ivy held on to Stapa’s hair  as he lumbered forward, making very human sorts of growls. At that moment, she thought of leaping off his back, running to the gate, begging the men to let her out, and leaving Tharbad forever.  All she had to do was explain to Tolman what happened—

But then, the change started to occur.  With a shake of his head that dislodged her hands, Stapa’s human growls took on a deeper tone, guttural, angry, and the clothes on his back began to part along the seams as he grew.  Men were shouting. Tharbad’s gates closed behind them like thunder. Shifting her free hand to Stapa’s hauberk, Ivy tried to keep from being pushed off as his shoulders widened and broadened.  The useless knife, she dropped so that she could cling to Stapa’s clothing with both hands.  It, however, sloughed off like an old skin as the change progressed.  She let go of it and landed with a hard thump of her backside and hands on the abrasive cobblestones.  Those chafed hands, though, she soon pressed to her ears, for she looked up at a changed Stapa, who drerw a deep breath and roared.

 He towered above her, twice Stapa’s height, jaws wide, roaring out a challenge as though to the heavens. Stapa not only changed into a bear; he changed into a bear that was ready to kill. The guards in front of him fell into their backsides in shock, staring up at the monster where the man had been.  Ivy stared up at Stapa and began to back away on her hands as the roaring went on.  Her injured foot took away her option to run.

  As the great roar ended, she screamed Hilds’ name as loud and hard as she could.  Seeing the change occur in front of her took away her ability to think, but she remembered enough of what Stapa had told her to do that one thing, though for the most part, she gasped at the reality that she was locked in a castle yard with a gigantic, enraged bear.

The guards who had risen from sleep to confront a man large man crawling through the gate had much the same reaction, though they had the misfortune to bear weapons in their hands.  The boldest of the three got up and made a haphazard thrust of his spear at the bear, which was his immediate undoing.  The spear struck Stapa and he bent down and clamped his huge jaws around the man’s thigh and shook him.  Bones breaking, that man’s piercing scream induced the other two to cry out in horror. One threw his spear at Stapa.  It bounced off his hide. Stapa pitched away the man in his jaws, striking the inside of the garrison wall. A swipe of Stapa’s paw sent the second man pinwheeling across the yard, where he struck the first of the group of guards who came from the other side of the courtyard. All eyes in the courtyard were on him as he lunged at the third guard and flattened him with both paws and looked for fresh prey.

Men ran in all directions, screaming as though insane, finding themselves suddenly face to face with a gigantic, roaring bear.  They knocked each other down trying to turn back, tripped one another in their confusion.  Some took grievous hurt from weapons cast aside in terror. And in the next instant, Stapa was upon them, snapping, roaring, knocking men aside, trampling the fallen where his mere weight and heavy claws did the damage. He pursued the fleeing men.

A group of them sought to reach the gate and escape.  Ivy saw them and screamed, a shrill sound that reached the bear’s ears and turned him around.  The men outside the gate must have been peering through the gaps where the gates came together, for at Stapa’s rush toward them, they, too, cried out and fled.  The gates opened as the terrified guards pushed, but they did not escape. Stapa reached them.  As she sat in the middle of the courtyard, Ivy turned away from the gates so that she would not see more of the carnage, for she was sure that all those men were dead.  She saw, though, that Hurin himself had emerged from the keep, waving his bright sword in the air, seeking to rally his men.  Some dozen or so of them, the more seasoned fighters and desperate men, clustered around him.  The rest fled where they could. Up stairs, down into cells, some clambering to the top of the wall to throw themselves over. The bulk of Bold Hurin’s rag-tag army fled into the night.

Stapa the bear turned towards Bold Hurin and his small band.  With another deafening roar, he charged straight at Ivy.  She stared at him, eyes wide in the moonlight, stunned by his sheer speed. Over a short course, a bear of good size can outrun the fastest horse.  Stapa’s size appeared to Ivy to be immeasurable. She thought she saw her death coming in his thundering paws, though as the bear reached her, he stepped over her as she sat with eyes clenched shut, waiting for the impact.

When it didn’t come, she looked across the court, saw Hurin and his men come to a stop.  The point of almost every man’s weapon were turned toward the bear.  The one weapon that was not there was Hurin’s bright sword.  As the bear rushed upon them, Bold Hurin fell back amongst the press of his men, pushing others forward as Stapa hit the weapons and the men with his roaring, slashing bulk. Those in the front  were scattered like nine pins, while less than Bold Hurin turned on his heels and made for the keep.

Before the double doors of the keep, he saw Hilds, shield on his right arm, dwarf axe circling at his side. As Stapa had understood earlier, Bartimas Cole, Bold Hurin, was no great fighter.  He was big and like many a big man thought his reach and strength were enough.  With a grunt, he hewed down at Hilds, who deflected the blow off his shield, wheeled to his right, his swinging axe scything through the tendons in the rear of Cole’s left knee.  Cole went down on that knee, grabbing at his leg and shrieking. The bear slid to a halt on the cobbles, watching the contest.

“Tell me the name of that, that thing at your altar,” Hilds roared at Cole. Cole only screamed and slashed at Hilds with an off-balance stroke.  Hilds let the sword skip of the top of his shield as he slid under the strike. That close, with Cole kneeling on his wounded leg, Hilds darted in and landed an axe stroke on Cole’s ribs. Two of them broke, and Cole bleated as he lunged for his sword. Hilds trod on his arm as Cole’s hand grasped the dwarf sword.  Hilds struck that hand from Cole, who screamed and lay beaten on the cobbled yard of Tharbad’s fortress. “What name do you call it? How is it invoked?” Hilds screamed in Cole’s ear.

Stapa the bear stood panting, watching the scene.  Ivy had crawled, as best she could towards the fight.  All that remained of Bold Hurin’s men were the bodies of the fallen.  The others had fled. Ivy watched as Cole raised his head and said something to Hilds.  His reaction terrified her as much as Stapa the bear’s roar.  Hilds startled at the name, drew his axe high, and buried it in the skull of Bartimas Cole.  She turned away then, horrified, bewildered, wishing that she could vanish.

She shuddered when Hilds hand fell on her shoulder, turning to him. She looked at him with terror in her eyes. She lifted her arm to shield her from the stroke she imagined would fall on her.

“Ivy, it’s me. It’s Hilds,  You are safe,” he said, pulling his hand away.  Stapa had changed back into a man’s shape and was pulling on his discarded clothes, his huge, pale torso glittered with sweat in the moonlight.

“Lea—leave me.  I won’t tell.  Just go,” she pleaded.

“Nonsense, Ivy, dear.  I’m taking you back to your father.  You are free now,” Hilds whispered, but he did not reach out to her. Killing Bold Hurin had not made him her hero. To his friend, he called out, “Stapa, pick her up and bring her along.”

Stapa did as Hilds directed, picking up the tiny hobbit maid.  He placed her in the crook of his arm as he had before, but she only hid her face and clung to his loose garments. Together, they marched out of the broad gates of Tharbad, finding before them, a collection of men, led by the tavern keeper, who had picked up a discarded sword, as had many others.  They held in their midst, a collection of Bold Hurin’s men.

“Inside the fortress, you will find many men who are hurt—badly.  Some of them are dead.”

“Three of them,” Stapa said.  “Many more are hurt.”

“What you do with them is your business,” Hilds said.” You will also find the body of Bartimas Cole, who will trouble you no more.”

“Who.  Who are you?” the tavern keeper asked.

“Friends.  Just friends.  That is all you need know,” Hilds replied, glancing at Ivy.

“What should we do with these men?” the tavern keeper asked.      

            “I do not know,” Hilds replied. “Stapa, what should they do with these men?” Hilds asked, turning a searching glance to his travelling companion.

            “Uh, I don’t know either.  Maybe they should ask their mothers what to do,” Stapa replied.

            “There.  Ask your mothers, if any of you has one who will talk to you. Once we have some provisions, we are leaving.  If you will, remember the sounds you heard inside the fortress before you think of following us,” Hilds said and started walking past them.

            Before they had made it past the bridge over the Greyflood, they were laden with many parcels of foodstuffs and gifts that came from grateful merchant.  Hilds carried what he could, as did Stapa in his free hand. Some men had gone back into the fortress and found Stapa’s axe and shield.  They brought these along, too.  Hilds had brought Ketil’s sword.  Before he crossed the bridge, he handed it to a man and said, “Give this to the tavern keeper and tell him to keep it safe and use it if anyone like Bartimas Cole tries to set himself up as Lord of this city.” He never doubted that his instructions would be followed to the letter.

            They met Tolman driving toward them, hurrying his old pony along.  He drew to a halt, as Stapa set Ivy down on her feet and watched her limp to the wagon crawl up into its bed, where she hid herself with the charcoal blackened tarps that  covered what remained of her’s and Tolman’s earthly goods.  Hilds gave them most of the valuable items that had been gifted to them by the frightened but grateful citizens of Tharbad.  He strode to the edge of the cart, lifted the tarp and looked into Ivy’s wide eyes.  He saw that a streak of pure white had developed in Ivy’s once black mane. He made a motion to touch it, but she pulled back. 

            “I thought of coming to find you, Ivy, after my quest with Stapa is over.  It may be a long time.  But I would like to find you again, if that is alright?”

            Ivy said nothing.  She turned her face away as though to hide deeper in the contents of the cart.

            “She is young, Hilds, and frightened.  I see that you mean right by her, though,” Tolman said as Hilds started to walk away/ 

            Hilds, for his part, smiled and shook his head.  He gave Tolman a purse full of coin, half of that which he carried for their journey. “Take this and bear it to good fortune, Tolman Fern. I will likely not see you again.”

            “Come, Hilds, my friend.  I will talk to her and explain that you have saved us.  She will think better of you in time,” Tolman said.  It drew a wry smile from Hilds, but he only shook his head and turned to Stapa, ready to leave the Greenway and follow the path of the river toward the mountains.  Both he and Stapa had taken up their packs again and had more than enough supplies for their journey, at least over the mountains.  The straps of his pack dug hard into his shoulders, but Hilds was used to that, having taken up a life of wandering. 

            Stapa stayed a longer time on the road, watching the cart with Tolman and Ivy trundle up the road to the north, back to the Shire.  He had to jog to catch up to Hilds, who trod through the long grasses of a hillside that sloped down to the Greyflood, sparkling in the distance.  The fortress of Tharbad had no banners on its walls that morning.  It looked, perhaps, a little less brooding and dark.

            “Hilds! Wait for me, please,” Stapa called to his friend, who did not slow down.  The big lad, with his pack full like a house on his back, had to lumber into a run to reach the hobbit’s side. “You look like you are running away from me.  Did I do bad, Hilds?”

            The hobbit stopped and turned, letting Stapa catch up to him.  He stared into the big lad’s eyes and said nothing. He stared, though, for so long that Stapa began to get nervous.

            “What is it, Hilds?  I turned into a bear like you wanted me to.  I didn’t mean to kill men, but they were bad, weren’t they? And you said—”

            “Angmar!” Hilds said to him, his eyes boring into Stapa’s shocked glance. Hilds stared at Stapa for a long minute before the lad answered,

            “I don’t, I don’t know what that is.  Did I forget something?”

            At length, Hilds turned his stare away, and said, “No, Stapa.  You didn’t forget anything—I hope.  You just never knew. Can’t know.  Maybe the wizard will, if we can ever find him.  Just tell me, how did you become the bear?”

            “You needed me to, Hilds.  You said. You look out for me, help me.  I trust you, so I just trusted that if you needed me to, I could, you know, become the bear. That’s what happened before, and, and I did.  It sure was scary, though, and I was so angry!”

            “Yes. Yes, you were,” Hilds answered, but I wonder, angry at what?”  Stapa only shrugged.  Hilds turned away with a sigh and started walking again. His huge friend fell in step beside him. With faces toward the distant Misty Mountains, dark on the horizon, they walked on.

            “Hilds?” Stapa said.

            “Let me guess,” Hilds answered. “You’re hungry?”
 

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