On the Edge of Mirkwood by Zdenka

Story Notes:

Written for Innumerable Stars Exchange 2017.

Chapter 1 by Zdenka

An old man wrapped in a ragged brown cloak and carrying a gnarled wooden staff was riding a ragged brown horse through northern Mirkwood. The horse, at least, didn’t seem to be in a hurry; she ambled along at a leisurely pace and stopped from time to time to pull up a mouthful of grass. As the old man was riding without saddle or bridle, and would sooner have set his own beard on fire than kick or strike her, the only tool he had to urge her on was persuasion.

“Come now,” the old man said. “If you go faster, we can be home before dark.” The horse flicked an ear back but did not otherwise acknowledge him.

In her own language (which the old man could speak and understand quite well), her name was something like horse who shakes her mane vigorously when there are flies. When he was speaking the Common Tongue, he simply called her Horse. As for the old man, the Men hereabouts called him Radagast--which didn’t mean anything in particular, but he answered to it and so it served well enough.

“The spiders will be awake again soon,” he continued, “though they like to nap at this time of day; and I would rather not deal with them in the dark.” Radagast frowned at a thick strand of spider web slung between two trees and guided Horse to avoid it. There were more webs, and more spiders, than the last time he had passed this way. They were far from the Necromancer’s fortress of Dol Guldur, but the rot was spreading northward, more deeply every year. Radagast liked small spiders well enough. They had their place in the world, and they too were his Lady’s creatures. But the giant ones had a glint of intelligent malice in their faceted eyes that made him uneasy, and he could hear a murmur of old, dark magic in their movements. He conscientiously made note of the numbers and locations each time he saw a giant spider or web; Saruman wanted to know these things. Radagast couldn’t tell what good it would do, but Saruman’s mind was quick and full of unexpected motions, like one of his mechanical devices.  Radagast would send it all to him by the next bird.

Horse at least was convinced, in spite of his inattention. She shook her head and increased her pace to a jolting trot. Radagast trusted her to know the way home. He heeded the voices of the forest as they passed, the quiet murmurs of tree and grass, the quick motions of a squirrel or the drifting of a purple butterfly. Sometimes he leaned over to touch a tree or a vine, strengthening it to grow strong and endure in Mirkwood’s darkness.

Horse stopped abruptly, her ears swivelling. “What is it?” he asked. After a moment, he heard it too: the shrill sounds of a frightened horse. “Well,” Radagast said, “we’d better have a look.”

Horse trotted toward the noise with a purposeful air.

They found a young white pony struggling desperately to escape the strands of webbing that wound it round and round.

Shh, don’t struggle, Radagast called in the language of horses. We’re herdmates. We can kick through these bonds and get you out. Horse seconded him with reassuring nickers. Radagast grasped his staff and made his scent like that of a horse, calming and familiar.

The pony stopped struggling, though the set of his ears was unhappy. Radagast continued to make reassuring noises as he knelt down and drew a small brown seed from a pocket of his robe. He planted it carefully in the earth, smoothing it down, then leaned down and sang softly. Within moments, a small shoot appeared, and soon it had grown into a healthy vine with shiny green leaves. Radagast continued singing, urging the vine to grow and asking for its help. The vine was willing; its tendrils twined all through and under the sticky strands of spider web, and its leaves began to produce the kind of sap they were known for. Wherever the sap touched the web, the strands dried, lost their stickiness, and became brittle. Soon they were weak enough that Radagast could pull the remaining strands away with his fingers.

The pony climbed to his feet and shook his head joyously. Home? he suggested.

Yes, Radagast agreed. But where is home?

The pony conveyed an impression of wooden walls, buzzing bees, fields of grass and sweet clover.

Oh! Beorn, Radagast said, or rather the collection of smells the pony associated with Beorn. To Horse he said, “I have been meaning to go and introduce myself to him.” Such Mannish courtesies are difficult to convey in horse-language--for horse-customs are quite different--so Radagast said instead, I will go too, and meet the leader of your herd.

He mounted Horse again and let her lead the way, with the pony following behind.

As Radagast feared, they were not allowed to leave the forest in peace. Horse’s ears flicked and she made a quiet sound of warning, at the same time that Radagast heard the jarring note in the forest’s song. Spiders, the trees warned them. Danger danger danger.

Stay close, Horse told the pony sternly.

Radagast gripped his staff more tightly and hummed quietly. We are trees, we are grass, we are only wind in the leaves, the brush of a butterfly’s wings . . . The trees around them reached out to help, lending their strength and their sense of treeishness.

The spiders swarmed all around them, calling to each other angrily and arguing over where their prey had gone. Most were in the trees, but a few let down strands of silk and scurried down to the ground. Yet such was the enchantment in Radagast’s song that they could not see him and the two horses at all, or feel the vibration of their movements through their many webs and watch-strands.

Angry as they were, they finally gave up and scurried off to search elsewhere, while Radgast and his companions continued on their way.

They reached the eaves of Mirkwood safely, and wizard and horses alike were glad to move out of the shadowy wood into the sunlight. The pony frisked and tossed his mane, his fear forgotten, and even Horse trotted along more smartly.

They came to a tall and thick hedge of thorns; the pony ran ahead, eager to reach home, and Horse with Radagast followed more sedately. Their path took them through rich field of clover where great bees swarmed. Radagast was pleased indeed at their humming and buzzing, and he hummed back to them as he rode along.

When they reached the gate, they found the pony surrounded by several other horses, and he was explaining what had happened to him in horse-language, with a good many interjections and interruptions.

Before he had finished, Beorn himself came out of the house, carrying a large axe. He frowned when he saw his pony covered in bits of spider web. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Where do you come from, and what is all this?”

“I am called Radagast,” said Radagast, “and I am a wizard. I live away to the south, at Rhosgobel. And this is--” He gave her name in the language of horses. “But I call her Horse.”

Then they had to start over from the beginning in explaining what had happened, with the young pony now rather proud of himself, and all the other horses jumping in to help explain. Beorn soon stopped frowning and put down his axe, but he listened carefully, and asked his own questions. He spoke horse-language as well as anyone could do who is not a horse or a wizard.

“Well, that is different!” he said when they finished telling the story. “I have not been used to seeing anything good come out of Mirkwood,” he said gruffly, “and I have heard little good of wizards up to now. But it seems I may have been mistaken--at least in part. You may stay to supper if you like.”

“Thank you!” said Radagast.

To Horse, Beorn said, “And my own horses will show you where to find the freshest grass and water, and sweet apples.” Horse was pleased with this and said so.

“But you will have to wait,” said Beorn, “until I have combed the spider webs out of this pony’s coat. It is bad enough now, and if I wait it will be even worse.” Radagast said that was quite all right. He sat down on a rustic wooden bench while Beorn disentangled the webs (and the dried leaves and bits of twig that had been caught in them) from the pony’s mane and tail. It was one of the few things Beorn’s animals could not easily do for themselves, not having hands.

Then Horse went off with Beorn’s horses and ponies, to have her own supper and catch up on all the gossip, while Radagast went inside with Beorn.

Beorn’s table was loaded with a good many excellent things: fresh bread with honey and cream, honey-cakes, and mead, and for a while they did not speak at all while they ate and drank. Then Radagast took out his pipe to smoke, and Beorn said: “You have been in Mirkwood? Tell me how things are there.”

“Dark,” said Radagast, “and becoming darker every year, I fear, and more full of giant spiders. The Necromancer is to blame for that.”

“The Necromancer,” Beorn said, glowering. “I would like to deal with him, if I could! He is not a pleasant neighbor.”

Radagast puffed at his pipe and looked troubled. “He is an enemy beyond your power. Perhaps beyond all of our power. I am not certain.”

“I thought he was a wizard of sorts. Isn’t he of your kind?”

“Not at all!” Radagast said indignantly. He hesitated. “That is . . . He was once of our kind, as you say. But that was very long ago. I don’t know if there is anything left in him but malice and fear and desire for power.”

“And you can’t deal with him yourselves?”

Radagast sighed. “I wish we could. My, ah, cousins have been discussing it for some time now without reaching any conclusion. I would like to see him driven out of Mirkwood, at least! There is evil spreading from Dol Guldur. He does great harm to any travellers he can catch, and to the wild creatures and the trees--even the land itself. I try to undo his work when I can, and the Elves who live there help also. The trees fight against him too, in their own way. But the Necromancer is strong and cunning. I cannot say what the end will be. I can only assure you we will not give up!”

“That is something,” Beorn said. “Though I hope to see him brought down someday--confusion to all his works!” He rose. “I have some things I must see to. Wizard or not, I advise you not to go outside until morning!” And he stumped off without saying goodnight.

Radgast was content to stay where he was and finish smoking his pipe. He spent a comfortable night in Beorn’s house, and in the morning he and Horse went on their way.

“Stop by if you like, when you are passing this way,” Beorn said in farewell. “But not too often!” Radagast did not mind Beorn’s abruptness, since Beorn also sent him on his way with a small bundle of his excellent honey-cakes.

End Notes:

This is set between 2850 Third Age (when Gandalf discovered for certain that the Necromancer of Dol Guldur was Sauron) and 2941 (the year of the Quest for Erebor, when Saruman finally agreed to an attack on Dol Guldur and the White Council drove Sauron out). At this period Radagast's "cousins," i.e. the White Council, were still at odds, with Gandalf urging an attack and Saruman delaying.

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