Fear at the Ford
What began as a drinking game has evolved into this contest of manhood. Two young Dunlending warriors from the Bear clan militia "visiting" Wulf territory are on a hike that would take them closer and closer to the border of Rohan. One who gets closest to Rohan wins.
It is past midnight, but the way is lit by a brilliant moonlight.
Zebbro, the eighteen year old with a large sword strapped to his back easily makes the trek.
"We never decided what I will get from you when I win," Zebbro grins, throwing a friendly jab at his friend with his elbow.
Lugotorix's shabby leather armor shines dully from the waxing moonlight. The nineteen year old warrior sways a bit from the jab his companion threw, or was it the drink that nearly fell him. An annoyed grin displays upon his lips. He faints a reach for his battle axe as the grin widens.
"You will gain not getting flogged upon our return back," he spurts out with amused vexation. His eyes turn to face the path ahead of them as he murmurs, "We should be gettin' close. Soon I think."
As the young men, stinking of the "Strawhead courage" they've been drinking, fumble their way east, another young warrior draws near from the direction of Dunland as well. The young hotheaded would-be warrior Chabal strides in the direction of the fords as well, though with less humor on his bitter countenance. Instead, he walks with purpose. Seeing Zebbro and Lugotorix, Chabal calls out a brief greeting in a gruff voice: "Why are you here, men of the hills?"
"Eh. If you get captured by them strawheads, I'll save ya. It's not like the first time I've saved your sorry arse from trouble!" Zebbro laughs, but not as boisterous as his usual laughs, indicating that he too, is beginning to tense. Thus, when he sees and hears another man approach, he nearly jumps out of his skin.
"Who wants to know?" The good natured grin is replaced by a suspicious growl.
Chabal calls out a loud response, his mouth parting a dark and hairy beard. "I am Chabal." A man of few words, the muscular warrior pauses a bit before going on. "I want our lands back." He nods to the east, across the ford. "I seek help...the wizard." Chabal inspects the pair a bit longer before offering a brief query: "Do you want our lands back?"
Lugotorix grunts at the comment of his companion, a little too tense to acknowledge it with anything else. Upon the summon of the unknown voice, he starts and falls down with a loud "OOMPH!". Gathering himself, and following the call of Zebbro he too adds, "Yah, what is the meaning of that? Who goes there?"
His eyes squint and he searches the figure up and down trying to figure out just where this feelow Dunlander came from. "Aye of course we want our lands back, but you're a fool to seek out the wizard."
Zebbro's jaws go slack, puzzled by Chabal's outburst.
He then looks at Lugotorix, equally perplexed.
Zebbro swings his suspicious stare to Chabal. "Did your ma drop you on your head? What clan are you from? What are you yammerin about, seekin a wizard?"
Chabal fixes his hard gaze on Lugotorix, then Zebbro, for some time before responding again in his laconic manner. "A fool sits in this cage," he motions with sinewy arms at the rocky land all around. "Instead of finding friends to free us."
"Catch up lad," Lugotorix jests as he picks himself up off of the ground. Brushing himself off he retorts, "Friends would be nice, all I have is this poor man. But I wouldn't be too quick to go stomping off to the grounds of a wizard. You'd be lucky if all he did was turn you into a rock. Look we got three men here all able, we could go whip the Horse Riders ourselves, eh?"
Lugotorix sways a bit, the alcohol taking its long and steady toll.
Chabal snarls, his frustration at the drunk arrogance very apparent. "We talk. We drink. But we do not take the land." He casts a hard eye over the ford, then takes a purposeful step into the rough water. "No more."
His lips twitch, and his eyebrows are knitted, as if trying to catch up with the conversation but all he is doing is running in circles. Zebbro snorts, sneers and laughs. "Right. What Lugo said." He returns Chabal's hard gaze with one of his own. But the quizzical look returns to his face, and he turns to his friend again.
"Wait. You want to go into strawhat land with him? How do you know if we can trust him? He may be from the Wulf clan, trying to trap up with his fancy words and whispers of wizards." His words drop to a whisper. "I may be drunk but it is obvious he is not right in the head. Maybe we can jump him and steal his things."
Just as Chabal's boot falls into the ford, sounds of an approaching traveler drift on the breeze from the east. Rapid footsteps can be heard drawing nearer, but they are made by neither man or mount. Instead, the footsteps sound like those of a rushing creature better suited for water, like a massive frog.
Something strange is coming this way from the east, and coming fast.
"Drink?" Lugotorix bursts out to the departing Chabal, "I'd love one, you have some with ya?" He pats his companion on the back and whispers, "He might be more drunk than us, this is our chance. Let's follow him for an opportune time, eh?" He takes a step forward with a jerk of his head towards the stranger, "No hurtin' in tracking him."
After a few steps he calls out, "Why are you all by your lonesome..." His query is cut off as his ears pick out something bizarre and he stops cold.
The ever-angry Chabal ignores Lugotorix, disdain on his face. His ever-present look of rage fades momentarily, though, and is replaced by surprise as he hears the sound of approaching feet. Eyes wide, he steps back. "Their guards. They are quick." Chabal reaches for his blade.
Seeing Chabal reach for his weapon, Zebbro reaches over his head and behind, for his.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you. We're two of us and you're one of you."
His weapon clears the scabbard and he faces Chabal. "Now, why don't you just come back out, real slow, see?" With his gaze fixed on Chabal, he calls out to his friend. "Hey Luggo. See what that noise is about. It don't sound like a horse so don't you worry none."
"What are you talking about man?" Lugotorix says with a shake of his head. He continues to strain his ears as his companion speaks. Meanwhile he mutters, "C'mon Zeb, something isn't right here." He begins to back up, his hand lingering towards the grip of his axe.
"That don't sound much like guards to me either," he adds audibly.
Dashing toward the ford comes nothing less than a little monster. Like a goblin, but smaller and leaner, the creature seems at once pitiful and terrible. Lean limbs, sprouting from a similarly scrawny body, terminate in disproportionarely large hands and feet. A nearly amphibian head bristles with jagged teeth under a withered nose and two eyes like lamps. Even in the light, those other-worldy eyes produce a faint glow. What evil has produced this wretch who now bears down on the ford from the east at a full run?
As the monster approaches, it looks backward, muttering to itself in a croaking voice: "Thery chases us for no reason. We didn't hurt it, precious!" Then, the eerie eyes turn to face west, and the monster spots the travelers. "Bless us and splash us! Surrounded we is!" The creature stops at the eastern edge of the ford, sides heaving, and looks back and forth west and west and east like a cornered mouse.
Chabal snarls at Zebbro. "You fool. You boy," he barks. "Our swords are not for each other." He points his blade at the beast as it becomes visible. "We defend each other or die." He steps back in the direction of the other two men of Dunland, eyeing the strange creature. "The rumors are true," Chabal mutters to himself. "The wizard allies with beasts."
His eyes are fixed on Chabal, looking for that opening to make his move. Zebbro sees it, when Chabal swings his blade towards the creature that Zebbro does not see, so intently focused is he on his prey.
"HAH!" Zebbro swings rapidly, a blow meant to disarm, not to kill.
When the creature bursts out on the opposite side of the ford, Lugotorix grabs hold of his axe and whips it to his front, nearly dropping it in the confusion. Grasping it with two hands, he stammers, "What is that creature? Surely something so spindly and vile would not be guarding the way to the lair of a mystic."
Catching Zebbro's swift jump, Lugotorix's mind tries to catch up with what he sees. "Zeb you fool! That creature would make a better trophy than anything that goon would have!" Bursting out into the ford, axe well in hand he calls to the creature, "Come'ere little thing, this will be quick and painful." Water spurts forth from the pushing of his legs through the ford.
The little beast keeps looking to and fro between the young Dunlendings and whatever pursues it. Fearful, it takes one last look at the Dunlendings, then shakes a fist. "They won't catch us, precious!" the little beast calls out angrily across the river.
And then, in a moment, the monster is gone into the water. It dives into the shallow water like some terrible perversion of an otter and is gone. No sign of arms or legs, no bubbles, nothing.
Chabal stares where the monster had been a moment ago, lowering his blade. "Beasts. Foes. Monsters. But monsters that could slay many Strawheads."
Suddenly, Zebbro's strike lashes out at the leather strapping on his sword arm, rending the protecting sleeves and tearing flesh." He snarls in pain and drops his blade, but refuses to cry out. "Fool," he growls, licking the blood as it flows onto his wrist and hand. "This is why we do not take the lands east." Chabal swallows his own blood, not yet tending to the wound. "We slay each other and not strawheads."
In that classic mis-timed moments, Zebbro turns his head to look at where Gollum used to be just a split second too late. He sees nothing.
"What spindly monster?" He calls out to Lugotorix. "Luggo, you thought your old lady was chasin' us here? Hahahaha!"
He laughs victoriously at his wounded prey. While keeping his blade pointed at Chabal, he nudges the tip. "You talk jibberish. What do I want with land? I ain't no farmer. I'm more interested in what's in your purse than digging in dirt. Now let's see what you have and maybe I'll spare your life."
As the creature dives into the water, so does Lugotorix, although it is not hardly as graceful or skilled as his prey's. In short, he bellyflops into the ford, wailing his axe here and there, sending water spraying in a multitude of directions. "Come'ere you filthy thing!" Lugo chokes out as water flies through his mouth and nose. Coughing and sputtering he cries out in vain still believing he might catch the phantom beast, "Dirty creature! Come back and fight! You coward!"
All the while he has completely lost interest in Zebbro or Chabal.
Despite the best efforts of Lugotorix, it seems the beast is gone. Drowned? Perhaps. Gone on the river? Perhaps. Still under the water, or coming this way? That may be! In any case, other noises can now be heard across the river. Heavy boots, and the voices of men...and perhaps more.
"It's over here!"
"It went the the ford!"
"Onward. I am Ugluk! I command!"
Whatever is coming from the other side of the ford this time remains unseen for now, but from the noise one can tell that the next sight will be much more of a force than some scrawny little monster.
Chabal, still dripping blood, grits his teeth as the clamor approaches. Ignoring the threats from Zebbro, he growls a warning. "They are many. Run!" He grabs his weapon rapidly, gripping it by the flat of the blade in his haste, and darts west toward the road. "Follow or die!" he hisses.
Chabal sprints like a deer, covering ground as quickly as he can to put the crests of a few hills between him and whatever is across the ford.
Zebbro is momentarily stunned by this turn of events, then comes to his senses when Chabal zips past him. He looks beyond the river to the other side of the bank where unseen enemy approach, then looks at Luggo, still flailing around in the river. Quickly, he looks back to the approaching noise, then to Luggo, then at the noise. He closes his eyes.
"Kiern help me!"
He looks skyward, and with determination etched in his face, thunders into the stream towards his friend, swinging his arms widely to give him more speed.
"Get up and out of the water, Luggo! Enemy approaches!"
Lugotorix seems at first unaware of the severity of what else is going on about him. Dashing the water with his fists, his axe, and his legs, he seems to have beaten the living slop out of the ford. Suddenly he disappears beneath the knee deep water, only to reappear flailing like a madman. "Help Zeb! I can't swim! I'm gonna drown!"
Almost as soon as he says so, he bursts up to his feet. Choking, sputtering, and spitting, he looks down at the shallow water and grunts a stunned, "Oh." As his ears catch the sound of the newest threat, he bursts, "OH!"
"Zeb! C'mon it's time to..." SPLASH, down he goes again, the alcohol still lasting a bit on his mind. Launching to his unsure feet with the help of Zeb and spitting again, he completes, "Time to go now yes!"
As the Dunlendings run away, the sounds of the approaching party seem to slow. Their calls and shouts can still be heard, but they do not splash across the ford.
"The tracks end."
"It's somewhere down there!"
"Even it won't go among those hairy simpletons of the hills!"
"Hey, my father's father was one of those simpletons!"
Chabal doesn't wait for the drunken pair, pressing on back toward safer lands. As the sounds of the Isendrim patrol fade, though, he turns back to call out to his drunken countryment in a hushed shout: "Dangerous, that wizard...but perhaps a powerful ally." With that, he picks up his pace, outdistancing the inebriated pair with a stride now driven more by exuberance than fear. Tearing through the landscape at a steady clip, he is soon out of sight.
There is panic in the face of death. But then, there is the bet.
As soon as Luggo is up and running, Zebbro takes one more step towards the other side of the bank, extending his arm right to this fingertip, and slaps the surface of the water with the palm of his hand.
"I beat you, Luggo! I got closer to Rohan! Hahahahaha!"
He then makes a beeline to the other side, following in Chabal's footsteps, who is long gone.
Lugotorix chases after Zebbro though it may be unclear whether he is actually chasing him, or fleeing with him. His pride is hurt and that means a fight. Not caring whether the scary guards hear him or not he cries out at Chabal, "Forget the wizard, you saw me near the other side of the ford, I won that bet Zeb! Come back stranger! You're a witness!" All the while the stammering hill-men speech fades of into the hills.
As the three Dunlendings dash away, they take with them a tale that can be told over many a crude bowl of cruder liquor. Whether any would be believed is another matter. Little do the three know, though, that their encounter was much more momentous than they realize. For they do not see that mighty Uruk-Hai now prod the ground at the east edge of the ford, huge orcs who fear not the afternoon sun. The wizard's forces are indeed more terrible than any rumor suggests.
And the little creature they saw is a key figure in a much bigger tale, though none now know it. The creature's name is Gollum, and his quest for lost treasure will continue until all of Middle-Earth knows his name in the end. But that is a tale for another day...