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A Chance Meeting on a Lonely Road
Summary: When a group of bandits waylay a lone traveler, they get more than they bargained for. Second place in the ALEC challenge "Boo!".
Two days before Mid-Summer T.A. 2912:
Rolf looked up at the hoot of the owl that came from no owlís throat but from one of the lookouts further up the road. Ah! A single traveler. How foolish of him and how lucky for Rolf and his men. The bandit grinned ferally as he answered the owl hoot with a crowís call, letting his men know to get into position. He moved around to the other side of the tree that had been his hiding place to get a better look at their prey. The sun had set but the long summer day still lingered in the west, while the sky to the east was beginning to turn dark. He could see one or two stars peeping through the leaves. The clip-clop of a horse combined with the creaking of wheels told him that this particular traveler rode a wagon of some sort. Even better! There was bound to be more than a bag or two of stale bread and unwashed clothes for them to pilfer.
At least, he hoped so. This past year had been a lean one for them all. The Fell Winter followed by the floods had destroyed Rolfís home in Tharbad. He grimaced at the thought of his home in ruins, the city deserted. His wife had sickened during the winter and she and the babe had died of fever brought on by the flooding during the Spring. He and a few other hardy ó and desperate ó souls had banded together to forage what they could, taking from those who probably had little more than they but, you did what you had to to survive, hoping the blasted Rangers didnít catch you.
He pushed that uneasy thought away as the sound of the wagon grew louder and there, coming around the bend, was a pony leading a small cart on which sat a lone figure, dressed in grey with a tall hat and smoking! Lordy! What he wouldnít give for a pipe. The smoke of the leaf filled his nostrils and he nearly moaned with the sudden ecstasy it brought but pulled himself together in time to leap out onto the road just before the pony reached him so he could grab its bridle.
"Whoa!" said the traveler, pulling on the reins. Rolf was pleased to see his men coming out of the dark woods to surround the cart.
"Good evening, good sir!" Rolf called out jovially.
"And a good evening to you, young man," said the traveler and now Rolf could see the long, straggly grey beard and bushy eyebrows and grinned. This was even better. An old man alone on a deserted road at night. Fool! But a fortunate one, for Rolf prided himself on never harming those whom he accosted, not like some bands heíd heard of skulking near the border of Dunland who rarely left any of their victims alive. He may be a bandit, but so far, he was not a murderer.
Rolf felt a niggling doubt, however, because, contrary to expectation, the old man did not seem either surprised or frightened to find himself surrounded by strangers intent on possibly doing him harm. The old man sat there puffing on his pipe, giving him a steady look that nearly unnerved him, but he pulled himself together ó a second time! he realized with chagrin ó and sauntered over to stand before the traveler after Bert took the ponyís bridle for him.
"And where would you be heading, good Master, and what would you be carrying?" Rolf asked politely. "Anything that you would care to share with those less fortunate?"
There were sniggers from some of his men and he grinned.
"Well, now," the stranger said, removing his pipe to speak. "As it happens Iím heading for the Shire."
"The Shire, is it?" Rolf said in surprise. "I would think youíd be making your way to Bree."
"Oh, I intend to stop there as well," said the traveler equably, "but Iíve business with the Old Took before I can indulge myself with a tankard of beer at the Prancing Pony."
Rolf shrugged. Heíd had no dealings with the Little Folk and refused to prey on the few that wandered from the Shire. Something about accosting those furry-footed creatures set his teeth on edge. Men were a safer bet in his opinion and it didnít feel as if he were robbing children.
"Well, Iím afraid youíll be a little delayed," Rolf said with false geniality, giving the traveler a bright smile that didnít reach his eyes. "For you see, my men and I are rather curious to know what you are carrying in your cart and perhaps you would care to share some of your wealth with those less fortunate."
"Wealth, is it?" the old man chuckled. "I assure you, my good man, I am not at all wealthy. I...."
"Hey, Rolf!" young Will called out. "Look at all these packages. What are these? Toys?"
The old man turned, pointing at Will with his pipe. "Careful, lad," he said kindly. "Those are very special toys, not to be played with."
Intrigued, Rolf moved around to look inside the small cart, pushing the tarp that covered its contents further back for a closer look. He noticed a small satchel set behind the driverís seat that he suspected contained the travelerís personal things. It was rather thin and disappointing looking. The bulk of the cart, though, was taken up with several packages of various sizes carefully wrapped in oiled-cloth for protection.
"So, what have we here?" Rolf asked rhetorically as he drew out a knife and slit one of the ropes tying the packages together to keep them from jostling.
"Toys," the old man said and when Rolf gave him a glance he noticed the twinkle in the manís eyes.
"And what is so special about these... toys, good Master?" Rolf drawled.
"Hey! These look like squibs," exclaimed Will and he picked up one for all to see. "And look, crackers and sparklers and are these elf-fountains?"
Now the other bandits gathered around the cart, exclaiming in surprise and, yes, even delight, at the sight of the various items in the cart. Rolf glanced up at the old man. "Fireworks?"
The traveler nodded. "For the Old Took. Heís especially fond of them. After this wretched winter and spring he wanted to have some particularly good fireworks for the Mid-Summer festivities. And so, if you donít mind, Iíd best be getting on my way."
Rolf stared at the stranger in disbelief and anger. The mention of the Fell Winter and all that had happened to him afterwards sent shards of ice through his veins and any kindliness he may have felt (or decided to feel) was swept away by the manís words. "In case you havenít noticed, sir, you are surrounded by bandits who are as likely as not to cut your throat and leave your sorry carcass to the crows."
The other men stopped in their examination of the fireworks in surprise and dread, for they had never heard their leader speak in such tones before. If the old man was upset or frightened by Rolfís words, he gave no sign, merely continuing to puff on his pipe, and oh! how Rolf wanted to snatch it from him and take it for himself.
There followed an uneasy silence and a silent battle of wills between the old man and Rolf ensued, but it was Rolf who looked away first. "Let him go," he snarled, walking away, feeling somehow... dirty or unworthy... he couldnít quite put it into words. Something about the old manís gaze, so calm, so knowing, so compassionate, had unnerved him in ways heíd never experienced before.
"Aw, Rolf," young Tam called out. "Canít we have some fun with these here fireworks? Why do those Shirefolk get to have all the fun?"
Rolf turned and raised an eyebrow at the expectant looks on his menís faces. They were a ragged bunch, to be sure, barely subsisting on what could be gotten with hunting or with robbing. Tam, the youngest, had lost his entire family to the Winter and most of the others had fared no better. They were honest men just trying to survive, forced into banditry, as he had been, just to stay alive and more and more he wondered why he or they even bothered.
As if he could read Rolfís thoughts, the old man smiled gently. "You donít have to live this way, you know. There are other options, if you care to look for them."
All the men stared at the traveler with varying degrees of disbelief. Rolf snorted. "Have fun," was all he said, deciding heíd had enough. He heard the men cheer, calling out in glee as they took up some of the smaller fireworks, someone demanding a striker. He was surprised when he heard someone come running after him and turning saw young Tam holding out what looked like sparklers.
"Címon, Rolf. Letís have some fun," he pleaded.
Rolf was ready to deny the lad, but the look of expectation mingled with honest concern for him undid his resolve and with a nod, he took one of the sparklers. Tam grinned widely and together they returned to the cart where Rolf saw that the old man had been encouraged by his men to come down from his seat and tell them what kinds of fireworks were in the cart. Already one or two sparklers had been set off along with a dwarf-candle and, yes, an elf-fountain that left all the men, even Rolf, gazing at it in wonder.
Rolf watched as the old man calmly explained what each package was, still puffing on his pipe, taking it out once in a while to use it as a pointer. "Now these particular fireworks are my own invention," he heard the traveler say. "Spent the better part of the Spring working on them."
The men seemed to hang on to the strangerís every word, looking for all the world like overgrown children, their eyes bright with delight and anticipation.
"What does this one do?" Will asked, pointing to one small rocket.
Before the traveler could answer, Rolf spoke up. "Is there anything besides these fireworks in the cart that we can take? I donít want us lingering here too long. There are always those dratted Rangers patrolling the roads."
"Ah, Rolf. Canít we just have a bit of fun for a change?" Hal pleaded. He was one of the older men, a farmer once.
"You are all good men," the traveler said, looking upon them with compassion. "Why do you not look for honest work?"
"Our homes were destroyed," Rolf answered with a snarl. "Our families lost. We have nothing to offer anyone. I should know. I tried to find work in Bree, but they all looked upon me as if I were a... an orc or something!"
The other men all nodded in agreement and Rolf had a sudden desire, quickly suppressed, to fling himself at the old man and beat him to a fare-thee-well for no particular reason than out of a sense of a need to release some of the anger and frustration and self-hatred boiling inside of him. Heíd been a craftsman, a respected member of the community, but thanks to the vagaries of fortune he was now a bandit, a skulker in the wilderness preying on the innocent.
The old man nodded. "The people of the Breeland are somewhat narrow-minded in their outlook, but there are other options."
"Oh, like what?" Rolf sneered.
"You could go to the Rangers...."
"Never! Theyíll hang us sooner than look at us."
"Not if you have me as your advocate."
"And just who are you, a lone wanderer, that you have the ear of the blasted Rangers?" Rolf demanded.
"A friend," came the reply, "one to whom the Rangers will listen."
"What can the Rangers do for us?" Hal asked. "They werenít very helpful when Tharbad was flooded out, leastwise, I never saw them there."
"You are not the only survivors of the floods," the old man said, seemingly ignoring Halís question. "What happened to the others? Where did they go?"
Most of the men shrugged, including Rolf. "We donít know. Those of us here had no families left. My wife and child died of fever. There was no one else for me."
"Same for the rest of us," Hal said. "We somehow found each other out here in the wilderness and banded together."
"These lands are wide and empty," the old man said. "Perhaps you should consider finding a suitable place to rebuild your lives. The Rangers can help you there. They are well experienced in such matters."
Rolf shrugged, not sure of his feelings right then. In the near dark he could see the hunger in his menís eyes at the thought of finding a new home, of having their dignity restored to them. The old man was right. They were all good men. They deserved better. He deserved better. Staring into the cart with its packages of fireworks, he grimaced.
"A lovely fantasy," he finally said, "but unlikely to happen. So, you were taking these fine fireworks to the Shire for the Little Folk to enjoy. I think we deserve to see some of these fireworks ourselves." He reached into the cart and started pulling out several, handing them out to his men, all of whom shouted with glee as they spread out along the road, moving well away from the cart so as not to spook the pony, taking turns setting them off.
The old man naturally protested. Rolf gave him a sneer. "Donít worry. Weíll save a few for your friends in the Shire."
"The Old Took is not going to be happy," the traveler said with a sigh. Rolf shrugged, turning to see the fireworks.
The first to go off turned into a flight of birds that sang sweetly and this was followed by a fountain of butterflies and pillars of colored fires that rose and turned into eagles, much to the delight and astonishment of the men. There were rainbows of flowers that opened up, leaving a sweet, refreshing scent in the air as they disappeared. Tam and Will clapped their hands in delight and there was much oohing and aahing among the rest of the men. Rolf forced himself not to react, though he had to admit, if only to himself, that seeing the pillars of fire turn into eagles had set his heart racing. He glanced at the old man, standing beside him, and was surprised to see, not anger or frustration or even sadness at the sight of all his fireworks being set off, but a small smile of satisfaction, as if he were enjoying the show as much as the others. But Rolf noticed the manís eyes were not on the fireworks display but on the men themselves and Rolf did not know what to make of it. Instead, he turned back to the cart to look for more fireworks. Surprisingly, given how small the cart was, there were still plenty of rockets left, along with a handful of squibs and backarappers and other small fireworks that no doubt were meant to be given to the Hobbit children. Shifting some of the rockets he found one particularly large one down on the bottom.
"What does this one do?" he demanded.
"Well, now, thatís a special rocket I was saving for the grand finale," the traveler replied. "Iíd be careful with it, were I you, young man. Itís very dangerous."
"Indeed? Well, why donít we just see for ourselves what is so grand about it," Rolf said, dragging the rocket away from the cart, heading down the road a bit, with everyone else following, including the old man.
Rolf turned to the traveler with a sneer. "Iíll let you do the honors."
"I really was hoping to save it for the end," the traveler said. "Itís a very special rocket. Wouldnít you like to see some of the others first? There are plenty of others your men havenít let off yet."
"No. I think this one will do. So, if you donít want us to set off all your fireworks, leaving nothing for the Shirefolk, I suggest you quit stalling and show us what is so special about this one."
The old man sighed, the first real emotion any of them had actually seen from him. "Very well. I suggest you all stand back a bit while I light it."
With a nod from Rolf the others stepped away, giving Rolf and the old man plenty of room. The old man gave Rolf a penetrating look. "Youíre sure about this?"
"Just light it!" Rolf demanded angrily.
The traveler nodded and, taking a taper, lit it from his pipe and then lit the rocket, immediately motioning Rolf to step back even as he himself was doing so. The fuse fizzed and sparkled and then with a mighty whoosh, the rocket was off. Higher and higher it went into the star-sprinkled sky, higher than all the other rockets before. Rolf had to crane his neck way back to watch its flight. For a long, tense moment, nothing seemed to happen and Rolf was ready to make some disparaging remark about this special rocket being a dud, when suddenly there was a great smoke that shaped itself like a mountain seen in the distance, its summit spouting green and scarlet flames. Out of the mountain flew a red-golden dragon, roaring and breathing fire.
Tam gave an unholy yell. "Dragon!" he screamed and before Rolf could call him back, the youngster was running down the road for all he was worth.
Rolf felt his heart race as the dragon neared them, expecting it to fade into sparkling lights as all the other fireworks had done, but to his and everyone elseís surprise, the dragon actually flew above them, sending out gouts of flame, causing them to duck. A couple of the other men gave yells of surprise and began running off.
"Wait!" Rolf yelled. "Itís not real, you dolts. Itís just a trick." But the men did not listen and when the dragon, so terribly life-like, swooped down at them again, the others broke away, running after their comrades, leaving just Rolf and the old man. "Stupid gits. Itís not real!" Rolf cried out in disgust. Then the dragon made another pass, again breathing fire, and to Rolfís amazement and alarm, the tree before him caught fire. His own resolve broke then and with a strangled yell he found himself running after his men, the old man forgotten.
The traveler stood in the middle of the road chuckling even as the dragon broke apart, becoming a shower of yellow rain that miraculously put the fire out, leaving behind the sour scent of smoking leaves.
Even as he turned back to the cart, there was the sound of horses and he stopped and waited. A few minutes later, a half-dozen Rangers came down the road. "Ah, Gandalf," one of them cried out. "There you are."
"Lord Arathorn." The Wizard gave the Heir of Isildur an abbreviated bow. "A pleasant evening, wouldnít you say?"
Arathorn son of Arador chuckled and his men did likewise. "That was quite a display," the Ranger said, dismounting. "We could see the fireworks from Sarn Ford. That dragon looked particularly lifelike."
Gandalf nodded. "I was quite pleased with its performance, though I still think it needs a bit of work. Iím sure I can improve on it."
"No doubt," Arathorn said with a grin. "The bandits?"
"Probably halfway to Dunland by now," Gandalf said with a laugh. "Iím sure your men can round them up easily enough, especially with some of Elrondís own people helping. After a dragon, Rangers wonít appear as threatening."
Arathorn nodded. "Weíve been after this group for months now."
"I trust you will show them some leniency," the Wizard said. "They really are good men forced by desperation into banditry. Their leader, Rolf, is a decent sort."
"Weíll give them a fair trial and then send them to Fornost where Father has relocated many of the other people of Tharbad. Theyíll be helping to rebuild the fortifications there."
"Good enough," Gandalf said. "And now, I must be on my way. I promised the Old Took I would be at the Smials by tomorrow."
"Iíll have Beren and Beregond escort you while I go see how the round-up is faring," Arathorn said. "Thank you again, old friend, for your help."
"My pleasure, Arathorn," Gandalf said, stepping up onto the seat of the cart, giving the reins a quick snap to set the pony moving. "My regards to your family. Iíll see you at Yule." With that, he, along with his escort, headed down the road towards Sarn Ford and the Shire while Arathorn and the rest of his men rode in the opposite direction to help capture a group of very frightened soon-to-be former bandits.
1. The Fell Winter of 2911 was followed by flooding the following Spring in which Tharbad was ruined and deserted. In The Hobbit, Bilbo recalls how the Old Took always had fireworks at Mid-Summer, courtesy of Gandalf. Bilbo was 21-years-old in the summer of 2912.
2. The description of the various kinds of fireworks is drawn from the first chapter of Fellowship.
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