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Between the water and the wood  by Morcondil

PROLOGUE.

A thin moon swings like a scythe through the night-dark sky. The stars shine grim. It is late autumn, and the smell of dying grasses spreads across the river vales. The coming winter will be long and hard. Muskrats have built the mud walls of their lodges thick; most of the deer will flee south to warmer climes before the first snow falls. For those who remain, it will be a time of dearth.

Already, the drear skies betray the threat of snow.

Among the Wise it is whispered that the Necromancer of southern Mirkwood†sends the bitter frosts. They sit in solemn council and shake ancient heads. Middle-earth has seen peace for a time, but the watchful hush nears its end, sure as the Anduin flows finally to the Sea.

A massive black bear sits atop the stony island known by some as the Carrock. The beast rests on its furred haunches and tastes the tidings carried on the wind, just as it has many nights before. Its small dark eyes glitter. Starry skies stretch back through the bearís memories until they fade past all recollection. The bear knows the stars; they are friends of old. But no warmth is shared between them this night.

The bearís thought is bent on the forest to the east. Mirkwood rises beyond the Vales of the Anduin like a specter. Foul mists rise from the treetops and slither across the sickle-mooned sky. The bearís sharp nose smells rot and sorcery. A low growl gathers in its throat. For some time, it has watched deepening Shadows consume the southern half of Mirkwood until not even the sharpest eye can penetrate the gloomy hill where the Necromancer lurks.

And yet the Wise do nothing. While the bear keeps silent vigil atop the Carrock, the elders of this world watch and wait, safe in their Elven halls. The bearís growl deepens.†

This night, an added scent mingles with Mirkwoodís wicked odors. The bear lifts its long snout.†Smoke. Death. The cries of voices raised in fear, quickly silenced.

The Shadows have been at work.

It is not difficult for the bear to determine which corner of the wood has been set ablaze. Even through the dark night, it can see the thick smoke that swirls over the forest, separate from the fell mists.

The bear shows its teeth to the observing stars. Even should the Necromancer himself lie in wait, the bear is not afraid. For countless years the bear has dwelled alone in the fertile plains alongside the River Anduin; before that, it trod along the narrow spine of the Misty Mountains. There are few evils that yet remain in Middle-earth the bear has not witnessed. The mute earth alone† has borne witness to the long, untold years of the bearís existence.

With a whoosh of breath, the bear rises to its feet. It lumbers down the jagged steps of the Carrock. For a beast so large, it moves with astonishing grace.

ďTell the horses where I have gone,Ē says a deep voice, seemingly from the bear itself.

No tongue replies, but a chaffinch rises from the brown grass and flies away.

The bear begins to run, loping toward Mirkwood.





        

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