The Star Catcher - Part Two of a Three part story
Ian and Juliana sped quickly southward as the blaring sun climbed higher and higher into the blue vastness above. They had covered a great distance, though they hardly knew it themselves. Being hobbits of course, they were as a rule not well traveled, even among their own lands. But that day, and quite opposite to the rule mind you, they had traveled far indeed. From Ian's farm where they had began only a few hours prior, they had already crossed many long leagues. Further south in fact than either could ever recall being.
Following the west bank of the Brandywine they had made a point of staying adrift of the main road. The lane, which fell to there right, stretched from the ferry crossing southwards, pass Deephallow and on to the Sarn Fords near the marshes in Overbourn. Though it was usually found deserted this time of year, a chance meeting with any passing farmers, or worse yet (though unlikely) with a sheriff going north to business in Brandyhall, or perhaps Bree, would only raise suspicion.
So instead the two hobbits had choose a separate path. One that Ian had discovered quite by accident on one of his occasional ventures near home.
It was there, through a maze of neck high river grass and flowing cattails that ringed the shore, that they soon struck the small and seemingly unused trail. Being nimble as they were they passed with hardly a sound save forlowered whispers and an occasional laugh. They talked a great deal infact.
As can be imagined there was much to discuss with of all the new surroundings and such. Many a thing caught their eye and sparked there interest as they drew further from home and all that was familiar. Even Juliana, who was the more sensible of the two (as she often pointed out) caught her self pointing wildly at flowers or insects she had never seen before. And so it was that time streamed quickly butunfournatley for Ian without any true excitement as the hours soon dwindled then passed.
Oh but yes, there had been one small occurrence however. Still early in the morning as they were trying desperately to recall the name of a rhyme what suddenly seemed like a single cry, soft and fleeting, had rang out from somewhere far away. They had both stopped, the two hobbits alone, peering cautiously over the water to their left.
The hedge, which marked the eastern boundary of the Shire lay across the river, a hundred or so yards away. Though the wall was quite tall, from where they stood one could still easily see the dark tops of the Old Forest beyond. It stared back, grim and forbidding, and wrapped in utter darkness. The Old Forest was a place neither had ever been inclined in exploring or even discussing for that matter from all the various queer stories they had heard of it. But alas as they strained listening the moment passed, and only silence answered back. Only a bird they thought, what else could it be. They quickly made there way forward again, soon altogether forgetting the sound.
After a couple of hours, and much to the delight of both, they at last stopped for the noon meal. Cowering in the shade of a towering oak they climbed upon a large upturned root that grew at the waters edge. Ian stooped low as he slid off his pack. Stretching for a moment he looked around curiously. He then reached to the ground where he grabbed a handful of stones. Looking down at them he noticed most were dull and rather plain in looks but one of the larger ones, which bore a remarkble smooth and bueatifull blue finish caught his attention. Ian tucked this one snugly h next to his pipe in his pocket.
Juliana meanwhile had wasted little time in busing herself with the task at hand. Glancing over Ian's eyes darted with wonder from left to right as he watched her produce an endless supply of odds and ends. Forks and spoons, herb flasks and salt packs, crushed mints wrapped with twine in teary leaves, all came from within her pack in astonishing quickness. Last but certainly not least she laid out a tidy tin pot set that gleamed in the lazy sun.
Ian spoke softly as he smiled to himself then gazed across the water, "I hope we do find the place, you know. I've always wanted to really see something, I don't know, something important like, guess you might say." One by one he began skipping the stones in long striking jaunts across the water. Juliana looked over, "Important like you say...listen you wouldn't have any flint with you?" Ian folded his arms slowly as he cleared his throat. "Am I to believe that with all this," he pointed around, "there is not a single piece of flint to be had." Ian then looked suspiciously at the slightly larger pack Juliana had given him. "And only sleeping rolls in my pack you say, I could have sworn I've been carrying a load of coal!" Ian raised his head triumphantly. A small gleam, like a shard of torch light, burned in Juliana's eyes as she stared silently back. Ian surprised paused for a moment, then dug slowly in his pockets. "All right well yes, yes I believe I might have some." Within moments a small fire was crackling in the summer breeze as they both worked hastily to prepare a proper stew. They were quite tired from there long days march that already seemed better (though neither admitted it) in idea then in action to there unaccustomed feet. They ate there fill quietly until at last Juliana spoke. "So have you reckoned how much further we have to go till we reach this place as you call it?"
Ian stood up as he peered southward. He was trying his best, though ratherunsuccesuccsefull, to look confident. "I imagine it cant be much further from where we lie now, maybe an hour or so, I think." Juliana strapped on her pack as she stood up. "Ian, you've held this mystery aloof for long enough. If we are to travel all day and I'm to tramp along unaware of even the name of what we seek then I should have mind to...very well turn back now and leave you to this adventure alone."
Ian walked up to Juliana. "And why haven't you might I so ask?" he replied quickly. Juliana blushed as she tossed a branch at Ian who easily dodged it. "Cheer up" he shouted, "as soon as we strike the Harrow stream we have only a furlong due west, then..." Juliana walked a little ahead then turned backwards facing Ian. "And then what?" she said. "Well according to my fathers map which I happened to check just this very morning Juliana Brandybuck, we shall reach the woody thicket we are seeking" replied Ian smugly as he began to whistle.
Juliana stopped and looked up at the sky confused. "Woody thicket, that we seek, why if I wanted to hear riddles I could have simply went to the Rusty Anvil for a cup of beer with the Tonnylooks twins?" Ian yelled back as he stopped. "The Tonnylook twins, Loro and Doro! You cant be serious? Its harder to shut those two up even when they havent had there fill." Juliana turned as she headed back down the trail. Ian smiled. "Very well, when we reach the woods, I'll tell you all you wish to know. After all what would I do without my protector!"
Both hobbits laughed loudly together then, so loud in fact they didn't hear the distant crashing of water. Nor did they see the dark shape that had bounded in great leaps across the river. Not even the single snarl, cold and harsh, reached there ears. The massive oak of there campsite drifted behind them, lost beneath a sea of endless grass as Ian and Juliana pushed ahead.
It was much later, not until golden streaks of light cut across the Brandywine that the hobbits at last glanced warily westward. They had finally had come upon the Harrow, or so Ian hoped. It had taken much longer then even Juliana could have feared for them to reach it. From the where they had stopped at midday, nearly five hours had passed until at last they had heard the faint trickling of water across the trail. Now under the quickly fading sun they could see the small stream that cut westward. It ran to there right for a good fifty yards till it fell beneath an arched bridge over which the road ran. From there it cut jaggedly northwest and was lost from sight.
Juliana stood with her hand cupped above her eyes as she spied ahead. "I see a grove of trees beyond the far ridge, near the river bend." Ian rubbed his chin impatiently as he spoke, "well do go on,please." She turned to Ian, "its the edge of a wood I would guess." Ian who didn't have the sharpest of eyes let out a sigh then clapped his hands. "I always figured you Brandybucks had some elven blood, well lets not be idle now, come on lets make haste." With that they started down the muddy bank of the stream.
Thought they seemed in rather good spirit they had both been quite uneasy since midday. It was as if some sort of presence, not ever seen or heard, was none the less always near at hand. Once in fact when the wind had suddenly shifted Ian had believed for a moment that a strange scent, foul and rancid it seemed had come across the breeze. He had turned but seen nothing save for the swaying of the golden grass behind him. Unwisely he kept silent of his thoughts, not even metioning it to Juliana.
Single file they drew quickly upon the underpass. Ian paused for a moment as he looked down and dipped his toes in the icy chill of the stream. In the shattered reflection he could see the northern sky, bruised and purpled, already glowing with a star or two. "Make haste I agree," said Juliana as she looked around. "You know I'm not certain if these woods are any better but I sure enough don't like the feel of this place." And so they went ahead until they finally drew up to the wooden foundation posts of the structure. It was there, as they began crossing beneath the shadow filled belly of the bridge that they suddenly stopped, for that was when they heard it. The same cry it was, the one they had indeed heard that very morning, only hours before. Of that no doubt remained, for now it boomed terribly loud and clear, piercing the drawing dusk like a sharpened blade.
It fell with such force that Ian would have very nearly fell into the stream if not for the fact he had been holding on precariously to one of the support beams. They looked at each other then, silent and distant were there faces. They knew, yes the knew all to well what it was they now heard.
It was tales of the dreaded long winter, the ones that the old greybeards in Brandyhall woull tell, that came back to them then. Images flashed before thier eyes of darkened days of a Shire long past. Endless nights filled with terror, and death, and of horrible wolves. There hearts shuddered in terror again as another howl rose up from the countryside.
Both hobbits swirled around as they fell together, shoulder to shoulder. Behind them lay the small muddy banks of the stream they had followed, and beyond that like a distant whisp of yellow, the line of grassy weeds from where the trail upon the river fell. The could see or hear nothing save for there own quiet breaths and the trickling of water at the rocks in the stream.
They both stood frozen, like sun beat trolls they might have looked, until atlast Juliana grabbed Ian's arm as she dragged him forward. "For the woods, quickly!" If not for her quick sense Ian in his sudden madness might have simply lay down right there, until the end that is. But suddenly, and almost miraculously, his senses returned in the voice of a girl as he turned and fled with Juliana. They emerged from the far side of the bridge quickly. With a glance upwards they hoped for a passing wagon, even a sheriff would do, on the dusty road above. But the twirling of dust blowing in the breeze was all that greeted them from the deserted lane. They were far, much further indeed then they could have guessed from the nearest hobbit enclaves. Not even hermits, or any of those detestable types lived out on that stretch of the road anymore.
And so they pushed on, running for dear life to the edge of the what they could now clearly see was indeed a small wood on the river bend ahead. Around them the silence had grown deafening as if even the trees knew of the evil that quickly approached. Every single twig and branch, rock and pebble, that cracked or snapped below thier feet seemed to echo at once endlessly.
All the while Ian cast his head back and forth madly as he excepted at any moment to see the unspeakable sight. But still only silence followed them or so it seemed to them as they finally reached the river bend. Quickly dashing across the stream they started up the steep enbankment that fell below the edge of the wood.
Juliana shouted as they clamored hand and foot up towards the wall of trees that spiraled above from the low ridge. "As we've reached the edge of the wood now I think enlightenment on what were seeking might prove fruitfull" she exclaimed out of breath. Ian who had regained at least a small bit of his composure answered back. "Allright if you must, its the rock...the alter of Vothorian." Juliana's face went bitter cold. "You can't be serious?" she screamed back. "But thats only a myth, a child's fable. It dosen't even exist and in all places not the Shire! With good reason I see why you held your silence all day." Ian shook his head. "No, no your wrong my own father, he came upon it once, I saw it in his notes, it has to lie I'm sure in these very..."
But Ian's words were silenced in an instant for out of the corner of his eye as Juliana reached down and pulled him to the ridge top he saw it. Behind them a white blur, massive in size, even in distance, was racing towards them. Juliana's mouth dropped wide as her own eyes beheld the vision. It was tearing across the stream, beyond the bridge it still lay, as water splashed furiouslly around its sides in large swipes that gleamed with the last rays of sunlight. A terrible snarl, filled with rage that tore at there very hearts suddenly leaped up at them, kncoking them down as they both fell to the ground, covering there eyes as they shivered. Everything went black.
Yet it was then that something quite unexpected, and truly extrondinary happened. In a sudden flash of courage even he couldn't have imagined Ian jumped up. In one fluid motion he reached down and grabbed Juliana who was frozen, as if striken from a blow. He then turned and bounded forward with her. Hand and hand they went as the shadows of the wood swallowed them whole. Trees fled by, left and right as they stumbled and fell over roots and bushes. Juliana was silent and Ian noticed many times looking back that her eyes would close for a moment then quickly open. Countless thorns and braches tore angrily at upon them but they paid little mind as Ian searched everywhere for what he knew was there only chance.
After only a matter of seconds, but what seemed to them an eterity, they broke forth into a clearing. As they emerged from the thicket a wondourous sight befell them. Ian for a moment forget everthing as he gazed ahead. There before him, towering above the trees that fell in a circle around it, lay a massive and silent shape. It was the elven rock, the star alter.
So it was true, Ian thought to himself then, it does exist afterall. For once in his life he had seen something really great. Yet as his eyes gleamed in that instant, oblivios in drunken wonder as it were, his attention suddenly broke, for behind him, pounding through the underbrush behind he could now hear the sound of falling feet.
Ian looked then at Juliana who cranend her head slowly from the boulder towards him. It was then that she suddenly returned, as if the viel of terror upon her had at once been lifted. Though Ian never knew it his caring eyes alone had brought her back. "There!" she screamed as she pointed ahead. Ian looked up. Her outstretched hand framed a large pine at the far end of the clearing, across from the rock. In that spot a thick arm of the tree lay near to the ground. Close above it a series of braches grew like ladder rungs that if reached in time might be easliy assailed to a great height. Alas this is what they seeked.
So the two hoobits fled with all the intent and quickeness that they there little feet could bring them. And it seemed that they would make it, another meter or two and then they would be there. But just as they neared the branch, they were driven back. Juliana let out a tiny gasp as she flinched. It was there, from right under the very tree they had hoped to climb, nestled between the lowered branch, two scarlet pinpricks greeted them from the darkend shadows.
It had circled them it then occured to Ian, yes it was mearly playing with them, as it had done all day. The wolf, twice in size to either hobbit with its dirty white coat and glowing fangs, horrible beyond words then emerged. Of what wretched filth it reeked they could only guess. It growled slowly then, almost laughing it seemed, as it lowered its head, placing one mud stained paw before another as it came forth.
The two hobbits stumbled backwards, dragging there feet on the ground until there backs hit the cold face of the rock behind them. Juliana closed her eyes as Ian clenched his fists. Around them the night drew its darkend cloak while the sun, burning red like an ember, at last fell beneath the distant west.
(to be continued)