B2MeM Challenge: This prompt by lindahoyland: Are the Rangers ever seen in the Shire? If so what do the Hobbits make of them? Do the Rangers ever openly help the Hobbits or have the Hobbits ever helped a sick or injured Ranger?
Genre: genre:adventure, genre:gapfiller
Warnings: Violence and one passing mention of cannibalism among orcs
Characters: Ranger OMC, various hobbits, Bandobras "Bullroarer" Took
Creators' Notes (optional): This draws somewhat on my account of the Battle of Greenfields as recounted by Berilac Brandybuck in Chapter 15 of "In the Court of the High King".
Early summer, T.A. 2747 (S.R. 1147
Hirluin carefully crept down the rocky outcropping where he had hidden in order to spy on the band of orcs he had been following. They had joined with a larger group, and from what he could glean, they were soon to meet up with yet another group, larger than both groups put together.
It was what else he had heard of their plans that had him worried. It appeared that this bunch had a leader from Mount Gundabad, a huge orc named Golfimbul, who was luring followers with promises of juicy pickings in a fat little land to the West and South of their own barren lands. This posed a dilemma for Hirluin. If the group headed straight for the Shire at the pace they had been keeping, they would arrive at the Northern borders in a little over a month. By rights, he should notify his fellow Rangers of this danger. But with the orcs between him and the quickest route back to the nearest waystation, it would take him far too long. Not only that, but if the orcs should turn aside, he would have no way of knowing. Yet the innocent and peaceful folk of the Shire were in dire peril.
The best he could come up with was to try and stay ahead of this horde of marauders, and arrive in time to give the Shire-folk time to flee or to hide. Their homes would be overrun, and their bounty stolen, but at least they would live to return and restore their homes eventually, for the orcs would not be happy in such an open land once they had plundered it. They would return back their bolt-holes in the mountains and the hobbits of the Shire could reclaim their own.
One advantage he had was his mount. Belan was hardy and fast; the two of them could certainly outpace the orcs. These orcs had no wargs or even wolves; such mounts had been hard for them to come by in recent years. And no horses or ponies would bear any of the foul folk. He only needed to be sure of their route; it would do no good to come with warning if he could not tell the hobbits of where the orcs would enter their land.
Belan waited for him in the small copse of shrubs and stunted trees that grew at the foot of the outcropping; he was a stallion, but of medium size, sturdily built. Unlike many stallions Hirluin had ridden in the past, he had a generally placid nature except when in battle (or near a mare in season). And he had a great heart, doing all that Hirluin had asked of him and more. The horse had been cropping at the meagre grass, unhindered by hobble or tether; he knew to stay where he'd been left. He looked up with a small "whuff!" of greeting. Hirluin patted him on the nose and mounted. He had a general idea of the way the enemy would be moving tonight. He would follow that path until moonrise, and then check to see if he was right. He could continue parallel with them for a while, until he knew for certain where their entry to the Shire would be. But he must be very careful not to be spotted.
He rode for several hours, once needing to stop and hide briefly, when he heard orc scouts. He hoped he would not be found--having to kill a scout would alert them that an enemy was near-by. Luckily the first scout went ahead of him, but not to the side where Hirluin was, while the other went in an altogether opposite direction. Once he was sure they were gone, he rode on for nearly an hour more, when he saw the first scout returning. Once more he stopped, hiding in the shadows of a long hill. This time he stayed put for a long time, for this time the orc army caught up and passed him by. He was thankful to be downwind of them, for had they caught his scent, he would have been done for.
They passed by about a furlong and a half to the north of his position. He wished he had Elf-sight, to get a better look at them and a more accurate count. He had estimated about a hundred and a score, but was not certain. Perhaps if he could find a better vantage point for watching he could take out the Dwarf-made spyglass he carried.
As the last of them passed by, he started up again, moving a little farther to the south to avoid detection. Belan knew how to move quietly and Hirluin concentrated on not being seen. It was nerve-wracking. He'd done this before, but never for such an extended length of time.
As dawn approached, he once more found a place where Belan could comfortably wait for him; a stand of junipers grew near a small streamlet. He knew he would need to rest before the day ended, but first he needed to make sure that the enemy were encamped in the area he expected them to be. Orcs hated the Sun, and would avoid daylight if they could. They also were not particularly fond of trees; they'd have found some rocky area as they had done before, if they could. Sure enough, a large stream, or perhaps some small nameless river, had worn a deep crevasse in the land. The orcs were hidden in its shade between a low cliff and the water. There were cracks that could even hold a few of them, though he saw no sight of a cave. He took out his spyglass and began counting. It looked like the leader had his own crude sort of tent, a sort of pavilion of crudely stitched hides, that hung over a framework of branches. It could only fit him, and his subordinates were perforce making do with what shade and shadow the cliff-face could offer them. At noon they would be exposed, to their discomfort, but by afternoon they would be sheltered by the slightly higher bank on the opposite side. Once the Sun went to her rest, they'd move on, though he was sure they'd be delayed in the fording, as this was not an especially low ford. Orcs were not natural swimmers.
Hirluin decided to return to his horse. The two of them could easily swim across, and then he would find a safe place (or as safe as could be, under the circumstances) and get some sleep while he could. It would be another harrowing night of shadowing the foul creatures, and he would not be able to be alert if he did not at least get a few hours of sleep.
For nearly over two weeks this was the pattern of his days; sometimes he was able to get well ahead of them, other times he was forced by the terrain to travel perilously close. Food was cold and consisted of dried meat and dried fruit, and what he could manage to forage as he moved. He could not risk a fire, nor could he risk hunting, for he could not waste his arrows, nor could he set snares that might be found by orc scouts.
It was the lack of fresh meat that had slowed the orcs themselves. While they were predators, they were not clever. They relied on their sheer numbers and strength, which was no help to them when prey could hear them coming for miles. Nonetheless, it appeared that one evening they had managed to flush a boar. Hirluin watched them from the boughs of a tree, as they tried to corner and spear the enraged beast. It turned on them and managed to savage at least three of its hunters before it was finished off. Then there broke out the predictable quarrel over the spoils. In the end, there were nearly twenty fewer orcs in their ranks, and Hirluin knew the outcome of that--he left before the inevitable cannibalism began.
When he rejoined his horse that night, he muttered grimly, "If they may only find a few more boar in these parts, I may not need to worry about an invasion of the Shire!"
Belan snorted, as if in derision.
The Ranger gave a dour snort of his own, that passed for a laugh with him. "I know. I cannot be so lucky!"
Another few days, he thought, just a few more, and he could be sure enough of their entry to make a break and head straight out to the Shire with his warning. The orcs were behaving very predictably. There had been another fight recently, and he had seen Golfimbul himself strike the head from the troublemaker.
But his own luck did not hold. It was entirely by accident that he came upon one of the scouts making water against a tree; their eyes happened to meet, and without hesitation, Hirluin put an arrow through its throat. But he had not realized this orc had a companion. It was Belan's whicker that alerted him, so that he was wounded, rather than killed by the other orc's spear. But the orc knew nothing of horses, and it was Belan's hooves that put an end to that orc.
Hirluin turned his attention to the wound in his side; the spear had gashed him rather than piercing him, yet nonetheless the cut was deep and bleeding copiously. He would have to staunch it, and bind it well, lest a blood trail lead the rest of the orcs directly to him. Thankfully a nearby freshet, just a little trickle of a stream, flowed nearby. He washed the blood as well as he could, and bound it with his only clean shirt, tying it as tightly as he could. Ignoring the pain, he mounted Belan, and rode, rode hard to the West. After all the trouble he had gone to, he refused to die without delivering his warning.
He knew that sooner or later the other orcs would miss those scouts. At best, they would think them deserters. At worst, they would be pursuing him. Best put as much distance as he could between him and them. He rode, barely conscious, until the Sun was well up. Then he dismounted, half falling, and dragged himself to a nearby tree, taking a long draught of water from his waterskin, before falling into oblivion.
He rose, stiff and hurting while the Sun still was high in the sky. He was not up to mounting. Belan knelt and Hirluin dragged himself up to the horse's back. Once more they rode. He could not bring himself to do more than chew on some dried fruit and take an occasional sip of water. He was fairly sure that he was well ahead of the orcs, who must travel afoot while he was on horseback. He patted Belan's neck, and the bay tossed his head. "If I live to tell this tale, old fellow, you will be the hero of it, I am sure!"
It was after the Moon had come up that he saw a welcome sight: the glitter of moonlight on the water, too wide for a stream--it was a river, and only one River flowed here: the Baranduin. Still, he had to ride some distance North before he found a ford, for he knew he was too weak to swim this time.
As they splashed up onto the Western bank, Hirluin knew he could go no further now. But he had to find someone, anyone, to receive his message.