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The Queen's Orc  by jodancingtree

37. A Gate Across the Road

When they returned to the hobbits' camp at dawn, they found Radagast enthroned on a log beside the cooking fire, placidly smoking his pipe and watching Fordibras make breakfast. The tent was collapsed on the grass, and the other hobbits were busily packing up, making ready to leave.

Malawen went over to Farador, helping him yank tent stakes out of the ground and tie them in bundles. But Canohando joined Radagast on his log, taking his seat beside the wizard without looking at him. Fordibras glanced up and began to make some comment, trivial in nature, but then he caught the expression on the Orc's face and bent to his cooking again.

Canohando pulled a small whetstone out of the pouch at his belt. Drawing his knife, he began sharpening it, the soft hiss of stone on metal regular as a heartbeat. It was several minutes before he spoke.

"Leave my mate alone." He looked up, holding the wizard's eyes. "You are my friend, old man, and one of the Powers. But do not step between us."

Radagast coughed, waving smoke away from his face and knocking his pipe out on the log. "You are right, Canohando; forgive me." He smiled on the Orc, his eyes affectionate.

"I would have you with us, when we sail. Both of you. But I will not try again to persuade her; you must settle the matter for yourselves."

The Orc nodded. He held up his knife, inspecting it from both sides before he slid it back in its sheath and put the whetstone away.

"You are a healer, Brown One. What of this fever in the Halflings' land?"

Fordibras looked up sharply. "You are a healer, aren't you? I had forgotten that. Can you help us, sir?"

"I will try," said the wizard. "I do not remember that I've ever encountered a fever such as you describe, that leaves withered limbs in its wake. I think you had best continue on to Rivendell and search Elrond's library; I hope you will find some knowledge there to guide us. But I was already on my way to the Shire; have you had a case of the illness yet this year?"

"Two." The hobbit's voice was bleak. "Both died."

Radagast sighed. "I will do what I can. Make all the haste you may, my friend, and ask if Celeborn will give you any books on healing you find. They will not be needed in the West, but I doubt he will leave them to molder away in a deserted house. Now, at the last departure, all the treasures of Rivendell will be carried off. I will await you in the Shire, but do not tarry."

They sat down to eat, Malawen still keeping her distance from the wizard, and Canohando went to sit by her.

"He will not trouble you again, melethril. Good day to you, youngling. What is it you want?" he added, looking up at Farador, who had come beside them, carrying his breakfast with him.

"Are you really going to the Shire? What will you do there?" The hobbit sat down, uninvited.

Canohando chewed and swallowed, thinking, before he answered. "I am not certain what I will do. I would like to see the places Ninefingers talked about, his home dug into the hill, and the house with the hundred windows, that reflected the sunset..."

"That's my home, that's Brandy Hall!" Farador exclaimed, upsetting his tea on the grass in his excitement. "Did he tell about that, way off in Mordor? Oh, you must see Brandy Hall, no question, and I want to be the one to show it to you!"

He jumped up and hurried to where his uncle was talking quietly with Radagast and the other hobbits. Canohando watched in amusement; he could not quite hear what was said, but he could see Farador's quivering impatience until Fordibras turned to ask what he wanted, and the older hobbit's change of expression as Farador explained. He looked over sharply at the Orc, and Canohando shrugged, smiling.

"He is welcome to journey with us, if you can spare him," he called. "I would not be sorry to have one of your own people to speak for me, when I reach the Shire."

And Radagast added his own invitation. "It would be better, indeed, if one of you came back with us, not only to speak for Canohando, but for me, as well! Gandalf was known in the Shire, but I am a stranger. Yet I must win their trust, and quickly, if I am to do any good there."

So it came about that when the hobbits mounted their ponies to leave, Farador stood by Malawen with his hand raised in farewell, and tucked into his pack was letter for the Thain, hastily scrawled by his uncle.

"You will protect him," Fordibras said in a low voice to Radagast, turning back at the last moment as if, after all, he feared to leave the lad with strangers.

"I will watch over him as carefully as I did over Frodo," the wizard assured him. "He will come to no harm with us, Fordibras Took! But do you hurry and reach Rivendell before Celeborn departs, and bring back what knowledge you may to help us, for my time in Middle Earth grows short."

The hobbit gave a decided nod. "I will do that. Farador, see you bring him to the Thain straight off; the worst of the fever was out there last summer, and that's were it was beginning again when we left. That comes first, mind, before you start showing Canohando round the Shire!"

They left, and Radagast picked up his sack and slung it over his shoulder.

"Orc, Elf, Wizard, and Hobbit," he mused, and then he chuckled. "I doubt there's been such a motley group of travelers upon the road since the Fellowship set out from Rivendell. Come along, then, and Farador, you might humor my curiosity by telling me how you come to have such an interest in Orcs and Elves at your age! I would have expected that you had left such tales behind in the nursery."

The hobbit grinned. "Not when I have three of the Travellers as my forebears!" he said. "Even old Frodo -- he didn't have any descendants, properly speaking, but Merriadoc and Peregrin were his cousins, so I'm related to him, as well. We've got the Horn of the Mark and Merriadoc's old armor at Brandy Hall, and there's a copy of the Red Book and Frodo's Memoirs in the library at Bag End. For that matter, they've still got the bear's tooth you gave him, with your pictures on it," he added, speaking to Canohando. "The Gardners keep it in a glass case in the parlor, and the swords Frodo and Samwise carried are hanging over the mantel."

"They kept the tooth? For what reason, youngling? It belonged to Ninefingers; why did they not send it with him to the funeral pyre?"

There was distress in the Orc's voice, and Farador touched his arm as if he would give comfort. "It is an heirloom," he said. "Like Queen Arwen's Jewel. And besides, you know, it is proof that he spoke the truth about the Orc he met in Mordor. They would not bury it with him, and we do not burn our dead."

Canohando grunted, and he was very quiet the rest of the day.

They reached Bree early in the forenoon, but did not stop. The third morning they came to the Shire, but were halted before they reached the border, by an iron gate. The road was flanked at this point by two stone towers, not more than three or four stories high, but strongly built and military in appearance. The gate stretched between them, higher than a tall man could have reached with outstretched arm, and topped with spikes like spear points, keen and shining. As the travelers approached, a dozen soldiers came out and took positions behind it.

Plainly there was no going on until they had explained themselves. The soldiers did not seem threatening, in spite of their swords and chain mail, but they looked straight ahead with impassive faces. Only the movements of their eyes betrayed their curiosity; they stared from Elf to Orc to Wizard, but always their gaze returned to the Orc. Canohando let go of Malawen's hand and stood straighter, staring back at the Men with solemn dignity.

A moment later another Man appeared and strode forward to greet them. He wore a winged helmet, unlike the others, who were bare-headed, and he addressed himself to Farador as to an old friend.

"Well, young Mister Brandybuck, back so soon? You have picked up new traveling companions, I see."

Farador grinned. "I'll wager you can't guess who this is, Darak! He was great friends with a member of my family, a few generations back."

"Don't wager too high, master hobbit. I know who the Orc is well enough, for we had word from Gondor to expect him. King Eldarion bids me greet you in his name, Canohando of Mordor, and he gives his leave for you to enter the Shire, if you will show forth the token Queen Arwen gave you."

Canohando stepped up to the gate, holding out the Jewel on its chain, and the man took it between his fingers, turning it so it cast sparks of light against the Orc's dark tunic.

"It is a wondrous thing, in very truth," he said reverently. "In the King's name I welcome you, Queen Arwen's Shadow. But who are these who travel with you: an Elf-child and -- a Wizard?" He looked dubiously at Radagast. "We have no orders concerning them."

Farador seemed to swell with indignation, stretching up to his full height so his eyes were on a level with the trooper's belt buckle. "You would not bar an Elf from the Shire! This is Malawen of Lothlorien -- not a child -- she is Canohando's wife, and my guest. And most assuredly Radagast is a Wizard, a friend of Gandalf the Grey in times gone by. He has come to help us against that fever my uncle told you of, for which we were seeking some cure in Rivendell. You will not deny them entry, or must I ride posthaste to get clearance for them from the Master of the Hall?"

Radagast intervened. "How if we send a messenger in your place?" He pursed his lips and whistled a few clear, liquid notes. A breathless moment later, a crow dropped out of the sky onto his outstretched arm. It examined him boldly, tipping its head from side to side as if to give each eye its proper turn, and finished by opening its beak and giving a harsh caw!

The wizard smiled and ran a finger down the bird's belly. "Yes, yes, my Rogue. I have an errand for you; be patient a little. Write a note to your father, Farador. Not too long, mind; we don't wish to overburden our envoy." He rummaged in his sack and brought out a piece of paper hardly bigger than his open palm, and so thin that it was nearly translucent. "Have you pen and ink, captain?"

Writing materials were provided, and Radagast rolled up the finished note into a narrow cylinder and tied it to the bird's leg. After a moment's thought, he took out another bit of paper and treated it the same way. "For balance, and for the answer," he explained. He leaned over the crow until his forehead nearly touched its shining head, murmuring some words they could not quite catch. Then he raised his hand and the bird soared aloft, vanishing quickly above the trees that bordered the road.

"Well, now we wait," said Farador cheerfully. "Is there anything to eat, Darak? It's a good two hours since early breakfast, and I suppose it'll be another two before we get to the Hall. As you're making us wait, it's only fair that you feed us."

"Two whole hours without food? It's a wonder you're not fainting by the side of the road, my lad!" Darak regarded the hobbit with amused exasperation. "Yes, there's bread and meat, though I'm not certain what else is available." His invitation encompassed the other three. "Not being hobbits, I don't imagine you are as famished as my young friend. But come in anyway, and have a mug of ale while you wait. My men and I are charged to guard this road, and we must be cautious, but I would not have it said that we failed in courtesy."

He disappeared into the right-hand tower, and a moment later a door opened in it on their side of the gate. Darak motioned them inside.

"You keep a good watch on the road, but might not enemies slip in some other way?" Canohando asked.

"We watch more than the road. We send out patrols, scouting along the perimeter. Though I grant you it's not foolproof, if the stray trespasser wanted to get in. But the hobbits themselves keep watch: they have their Bounders, as they always did, and Master and Thain can each field a pretty little army in short order, if it's needed. It hasn't been necessary, though, for fifty years or more. The Shire is known to be under the King's hand; that is deterrent enough for most malefactors."

Canohando made no answer.

"They had a band of brigands up by Needlehole, when I was in my tweens," Farador put in. "But hobbits tracked them to their hideout, and sent word to the Rangers; they were driven off before they did more than steal a few sheep. The Shire is a sleepy little place, really. Someday I'm going to travel and have adventures, like Uncle Ordi and old Bilbo."

"You missed your chance this time," said Darak. "I'm surprised you let them send you back; you were excited enough that they were taking you along."

Farador chortled. "Oh, there's more adventure here right now, with Canohando walking right out of old Frodo's book into the light of day! I'm going to show him the Shire, from Brandywine Bridge to Sarn Ford, and everything in between."

"Are you, indeed!" Darak smiled at the youngster, but then he bent a penetrating look on the Orc. "You take an uncommon interest in the Shire's defenses," he said, and his words were both question and challenge.

Canohando reached into the pouch at his belt and drew out the scroll Arwen had given him. He handed it to Darak. "The Shire is my brother's country, and I would see it well-protected. It was Ninefingers who gave me the Jewel, and not the Queen. But I was her Shadow, and she gave me this to show you, when I should come to the border."

Darak walked over to the window, unrolling the bit of parchment and examining the little map, then turning it over to read the letter. A soldier came in quietly and spread a crisp white cloth on a table in the center of the room, setting out platters of cold beef and sliced wheat bread. He went out and came back a moment later with a pitcher of ale on a tray, surrounded by clay flagons.

Farador led Malawen and the wizard over to the table, playing the host and making certain they had what they wanted, before he served himself. But Canohando went to stand by Darak, waiting for Arwen's letter to be returned to him.

The captain finished reading and looked up, his brows drawn together. "You have read this," he said. "You know what it contains."

Canohando shrugged. "I cannot read, but she told me what she wrote: her permit for me to visit the Shire."

The Man eyed him thoughtfully, tapping the scroll against his chin. "I would like to send a copy of this letter to the King," he said at last. "Have you any objection to that?"

"No, not if I may keep the one my Lady wrote. I cannot read the words, but still it is precious to me."

Darak nodded. "That will do very well. I'll have a copy made at once, and return the original to you. Have a mug of ale while you wait, Sir Orc. It's a warm morning."

He went out, and Canohando took a mug and walked over to perch on the stone windowsill, looking out past the gate to the woods beyond the road. Malawen leaned against his knee, and he rested his cheek against her bright hair.

"I don't think I ever truly believed I would see it with my own eyes," he said softly. "It was only a beautiful story that my runt told - and now there it is."

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