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Chapter 17. Dogs
Ferdi froze again, but not for fear of falling through the cap on the pit. His concern now was all for Farry. ‘That tree looks climbable,’ he snapped, lifting a hand to point, oblivious now to his own peril. ‘Go, Farry! You’ve no time!’
And indeed, from the sound, the dogs were either chasing some prey, a deer perhaps, in their direction, or they’d caught scent of the hobbits, their keen noses discerning the sweat of worry and toil, carried to them on the changeable breeze. In any event, they were rapidly approaching.
Without thinking, Farry ran to the tree Ferdi had indicated, skirting the pit trap (or so he hoped). He had to jump up to catch the lowest branch, and as his feet gained the lowest rung of this rough tree-ladder and his hands caught a higher branch, the hunting party burst noisily into the clearing. The majority, seeing Farry’s movement, quickly ringed his tree and began to jump, snarling and barking, their teeth clicking together uncomfortably close to his feet as he pulled himself higher and at last out of their reach.
With the feeling of a returning nightmare, he hugged the trunk of the tree and turned anguished eyes to Ferdi, whose upper body was splayed absolutely still upon the pit cap. ‘Ferdi!’ he shouted.
But his uncle raised neither his head nor his voice in answer. Farry caught his breath as he grasped his uncle’s ploy, to remain unnoticed by the eager hunters, until they should lose interest and wander away, or catch the scent of other prey and be drawn into a new chase.
Hearing fierce growling below him, Farry looked down. To his dismay, he saw two of the dogs engaged in a battle of “tug” over his pack and its contents. While he watched, the bag spilled, and the dogs pawed and nosed their way through the contents, gulping down the dried travel rations and tearing and shaking the rest as if they gloried in the ruin they were wreaking.
Another two of the dogs, intent on reaching Faramir, continued to jump at the base of the tree, and three others were busy destroying Ferdi’s pack and its contents.
Anger sparked then in the lad, and he pulled his bow from the bow case on his back and strung it, then grabbed an arrow from his quiver. He blessed the Tookish archers who’d trained him never to lay down his weapons while in the field – why, from the stories told, they’d even slept with their bow cases and quivers strapped to one shoulder, ready to be on the move instantly, should their situation demand such response.
‘You –‘ he said. ‘You curs!’ He fitted his arrow to the bowstring and sighted, but then common sense asserted itself. He couldn’t risk shooting, striking one of the pack, driving the others mad with the smell of fresh blood, not when Ferdi lay helpless and vulnerable before them. He eased the tension on the string and continued to watch. He would shoot if he saw his uncle in imminent danger, but otherwise, he must hold tight to his temper, and to his nerve.
The bright blue of the sky above the leafless treetops was fading to pale steel that reminded Farry of the blade of his father’s sword. For the first time, he noticed wisps of clouds painting bright brushstrokes against their pale background, mares’ tails portending a change in the weather from fair to foul. Soon dusk would be settling on the land. Farry shivered at the increasing chill in the air. The breeze had fallen to stillness, and the clearing and surrounding woods were now eerily silent as if even the birds that passed the winter in the Woody End were afraid to sing their evening farewells to the Sun.
The dogs had completed their devastation below and now began to sniff about the perimeter of the pit. Farry remembered Hilly’s words, that deer and other large animals never seemed to blunder into a ruffian pit trap. Perhaps Ferdi’s ploy, remaining silent and motionless, together with the wrongness to a dog’s senses of the loam-covered willow lattice, would be enough to protect the imperilled hobbit.
With any luck, the dogs would grow bored and wander off. Nothing to see here! ...as the Tookish archers had taunted captive ruffians hanging by an ankle from a young, lithe tree or caught in a deep-dug pit trap. P’rhaps next time you’ll simply go about your own business and keep your noses out of ours!
But then, the largest of the pack of dogs, a wild-looking creature that made Farry think of hearthside tales of the White Wolves who’d crossed over the frozen Brandywine River during the Fell Winter, suddenly stood still, raised its head and growled. Its nose was pointed at the centre of the willow lattice covering the pit. Pointed at Ferdi, still splayed motionless on the surface.
‘Go on, you beast!’ Farry shouted, trying to distract it from whatever had commanded its attention. He found himself wishing he’d scooped up a handful of pebbles and carried them in his pockets as he’d walked, but with a bow case and quiver slung over his shoulder, the thought had never occurred to him before this moment. Drawn by the sound of his voice, a couple of the dogs trotted over to the base of his tree and sniffed about, but the rest of the pack slowly began to gather behind their pale leader. ‘Ferdi!’ he shouted in warning, though his uncle’s choices in this situation were little to none. ‘Don’t move!’ he said. ‘Don’t move! I’ve been watching them... They’re wary of the footing... if you stay absolutely still, I think they’ll soon be moving on.’ His uncle gave no indication of hearing, but of course he wouldn’t now, would he?
The loss of their supplies was a blow, but once Ferdi was able to win free of the trap, they’d be able to spend the night in the tree, out of the wild dogs’ reach even if they should return later in the night. At least their ropes remained intact, tied together and lying atop the lattice, vaguely snakelike but probably of little interest to wild dogs. After dawn, they could make their way northward to the Stock Road, and then turn eastward to the safety, shelter and food that the Crowing Cockerel promised. There they could notify the local Shirriff to form a hunting party, to track these dogs down and make sure they’d never menace any hobbit again.
As for their journey, it had lost much of its savour. While Farry would be happy to retrace his da’s and Mayor Sam’s travels with Frodo from Hobbiton to Crickhollow – preferably in company with a large body of hobbits, including other teens and his father and theirs and an escort or three into the bargain, he felt no pressing need now to slip through the woods, pretending to gather information for the Thain. Perhaps they’d visit Lotho’s Well on that later journey to Crickhollow. He would still like to drink a toast in honour of the defenders of the Tookish borderlands. Just not right now.
At the thought of the well, thirst prickled at the back of his throat and he swallowed on a dry mouth. Not that he could do anything about it at this moment. His water flask, and Ferdi’s, even if they should remain intact, had been fastened to their packs.
The son of the Thain had spent a lot of time and effort persuading Ferdi to do this, but now he could understand why his uncle had argued long and hard against it. He could understand why Ferdi had traced out their path precisely on the large, detailed map on the wall of the Thain’s study as he talked over their course with Thain and Steward and all the hobbits of the Thain’s escort. Why he’d insisted they go armed into the wilderlands. Why the hobbit had suggested they do at least part, if not all, of their walking by daylight, rather than in the dark. Why Ferdi had sent word to Rosemary, his sister, and her woodcarver husband Hally, to let them know exactly when to expect the travellers’ arrival, if all went according to plan.
According to plan. Faramir now faced the bitter realisation that his uncle’s sound arguments against this venture had been just that – sound – and not simply an attempt to put off the teen’s idea for his own convenience and comfort. Failing that, Ferdi had made all the arrangements he could think of, it now appeared to the teen, in the event all did not go according to plan.
And even with the grown-ups’ best efforts to fool-proof this journey – Fool of a Took! echoed in Farry’s thoughts – it would still be four more days before they were missed, before Rosie and Hally sent word to the Thain that they hadn’t arrived as scheduled. And even by quick post, it would take hours for word to reach Tuckborough. And then how many hours after that, for searchers to retrace their path?
At least another two days after that – why, it could be nearly a week before they find us, the lad thought numbly to himself, for they’ll be going afoot and not by pony, and they won’t be travelling by night, as we did, for fear of missing any traces we might have left. Should his uncle die out here – should he, himself, die, it would be his own fault.
‘You’re too headstrong,’ Farry muttered to himself, bruising his fist on the rough bark of the tree as he echoed a snippet of the Talk he’d overheard years ago, before the Tookish Councillors had put a stop to it, ‘just like your father was before you!’
And then his attention was caught by movement below. He saw the leader of the wild dogs take a step towards Ferdi. As he watched, the lips of the pale-furred wolfish dog drew back to expose gleaming teeth. He heard it snarl, and then it advanced another step towards Ferdi. From the crackling that arose in the twilight stillness, Faramir discerned that it was now standing on the deteriorating cap that covered the ruffian trap.
In the next few seconds, it was as if the world hung in balance. Ferdi remained absolutely still. The wild dog moved tentatively forward a step, then two, and then, evidently mistrusting its footing, began slowly to back away. Hope rose in the watching lad – only to be swiftly quenched as the other dogs, following, pressed after their leader. Irritated, the wolfish leader curled backward and slashed at the nearest encroaching dog, then turned once more towards the motionless figure at the centre of the trap and launched itself in an attack.
In a panic, Farry screamed his uncle’s name, and as if moved by the raw terror in the lad’s voice, Ferdi raised his head, then threw up his arm to protect his throat. Without conscious thought, the boy in the tree raised his bow, drew and loosed. Rest, and reload. Even before he shook out his hand and grabbed for another shaft from his quiver, he saw the arrow strike home, burying itself in the wolf dog’s ribs. Mid-spring, the dog twisted to bite at the shaft. Its body continued the momentum of the leap, bowling into Ferdibrand...
...and while Faramir watched in helpless horror, the willow lattice collapsed inward under the combined weight of the wolf dog and its intended prey, slowly, inexorably, until at last, with a terrible snapping of branches, the cap gave way completely, dumping its burdens into the patiently waiting trap.
His ears rang with an agonized scream, No-o-o-o-o! and at first, he thought it was his uncle’s death cry, but for the roughness of his throat when next he tried to swallow. He felt hot tears drip from his eyelids, and a sob shook him.
Farry’s grand adventure had turned from a dream into a nightmare.
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