2013/35. Beating the Bounds
The bandits came from the north; five men on three weary horses. The beasts moved with the awkward gait of steeds unused to their riders and Merrick Northwood had little doubt that they were stolen. As the men approached, he signaled to his sergeant, Celandine Fairfield, to drop the bar across the road.
For a moment it looked as though the leader of the group would try to jump the gate, but even though he alone rode unaccompanied, his horse would never have made the jump. Instead he rose up in his saddle, towering over the hobbits, and tried to force his way with threats.
"Out of the way, pipsqueak!" he snapped. "I've not been barred by the men of the north and I'll not be stopped by a pair of halflings."
Merrick stood firm in the road beside the bar, a hand on the grip of his cudgel. "We don't care for your sort around here," he said in his slow, mellow voice. "I don't know what you've done or who's chasing you, but you'll turn back now and face them, else we'll be inclined to take a more direct interest in your business."
The man laughed darkly and drew a sword from his hip; a short, ugly blade, fashioned like an over-sized knife.
"I have a marksman standing by," Merrick cautioned. "You'd be wise not to make trouble for yourself."
"Ha! Get 'em, lads!"
The horses were dead tired, and even the brutal kicks of their riders spurred little more than a trot, but they still had the advantage of height over Merrick and Celandine. This was not so for Fintan Took, however, who stood upon the parapet above the gate and loosed an arrow into the leader's shoulder, causing him to drop his blade. Celandine ran in and sliced the man's saddle-girth, pitching him to the ground before his comrades had drawn level.
It was still four to three, however, and the bandits came on. It went against the grain of his hobbit nature to do it, but Merrick ran in low, under the arc of the bandits' blades, and drove his cudgel with shattering force against the shin of the second horse. It dropped with a scream which panicked the third into a wild plunge and the four bandits were scattered to the floor like falling leaves.
Quickly, Merrick and Celandine subdued the five men with efficient strokes of their cudgels. Leaving the sergeant to bind them, Merrick went to the horse he had injured. The bone was broken and would never heal strong, but he splinted it anyway. He could afford to keep it fed and watered, although he had no use for such a vast beast, and to kill an animal was more than he could bear.
"Fintan!" he called up. "Get on your pony and see if you can't catch the other horses. Then have a look and see if anyone were following these."
"Yes, Captain," Fintan called back. He swung lightly from the parapet and ran to the stable behind the Boundshouse.
"Knock up the others to help secure the prisoners, see to their injuries, then you take over the watch," Merrick told Celandine. "I've a report to write."
He walked back to the Boundshouse, where the log book waited for his entry:
Five men - he wrote - on stolen horses (3), seeking entry. Subdued.
He hoped that whoever they had been fleeing would come and collect them; it made his life easier if he didn't have to drag any of the big folk into town for a hearing. After adding a full account of the captives' gear and appearance, he checked back over the log and saw that, between him and the day captain, there had been thirteen incidents logged in the last month; as many as in the year preceding.
It was perhaps half an hour later that one of the young constables summoned him urgently. The bandits were subdued, but three more riders had arrived; they did not look like they had been pursuing felons. Celandine and the other constables were staring in horror at the three, their forms and faces swathed in black cloth and their black horses cloaked in black armour.
"Can we help you?" he asked, cordially.
The lead rider gave a low hiss. "Baggins," it declared in a sibilant whisper. "We have come for Baggins." His horse tensed under him. Merrick dropped a hand to his cudgel, but he knew that there was little use fighting. These were no mere bandits, they were garbed and armed for war.
"I don't know any Baggins," he told the rider, "but trouble is not welcome here."
The rider hissed again, but said nothing.
Slowly, carefully, Merrick walked over and raised the bar. Without another word, the three riders rode through. When they were gone, Merrick became aware of a chill deep in his bones. "Sergeant," he said. "Ride to Great Smials. Tell them what happened and ask the Thain to raise a muster. Then ride to Hobbiton and let Mr Baggins of Bag End know that strangers are looking for him."