But a Day from Home – Part 6
The night was bright and clear, the stars like points of white fire and the moon a full, bright disk. The day had passed slowly, and Brassica had spent it napping in the dirt, hungry and lonely, feeling as though she’d been forgotten, both by her friends and by her captors. She had strained her eyes staring across the lake, hoping for some sign of rescue, but there had been nothing. The woman who had paced the bank earlier in the day was gone. But for the first time, Brassica heard voices approaching, and huddled closer to the chunk of rubble to which she was chained.
“How’s the little hobbit keeping?” growled a rough voice, and a dirty-faced, raggedly dressed man peered out from behind the remnants of the wall, with an evil grin. “Been a good little hobbit, not hollerin’ cross the water, or rattlin’ her chains.”
He was accompanied by the sharp faced woman from before, hefting her crossbow and staring at Brassica with flat-eyed malice. The brigands were somehow scarier in the dark, and although in the daylight Brassica had been defiant, she couldn’t find her voice now. So she didn’t answer, pulling her knees to her chest and staring implacably at the ground.
“Wee, sullen lass,” the man laughed coarsely, and then pulled a key from some pocket in his jerkin. “The boss is back, and he wants a word with ye. No tricks, little wench, there’s naught but water to run to, and ye’d not get far before we’d put an arrow betwixt yer shoulders, neither.”
Brassica was stiff and cold from sitting on the ground all day and her clothes were filthy, caked with dirt. She had no mirror or reflection to look at, but the blow she’d caught to the side of her head had bruised and left a slight lump, tender to her fingertips, and she knew her lip was split. She shrunk as far from the man as she was able while he unlocked the manacle about her ankle, and didn’t resist when he hauled her roughly to her feet. The man began to pull her by the back of her tunic, then thought better of it, and simply hoisted her off the ground. Brassica felt a flash of fury at being toted around like a sack of potatoes again, but she was too cowed to struggle.
Even though it was a clear, bright night, as they neared the main part of the camp and the flare of campfires shone up against the white walls of the ruins, Brassica had to blink to adjust to the light. She’d been kept far away from the heart of the robbers’ fort, and she saw that there was more to it than there first seemed. Boxes and barrels were everywhere, and boats were being loaded or unloaded in the shallows of the river that passed right through the ruin, flanked by staircases. There were far more brigands than she’d thought, and the cold feeling of fear at the base of her spine began to rise slowly up her back.
The men and women who noticed her handler pass through the camp occasionally nudged one another, pointed at the captive hobbit, and shouted cruel jokes or threats, but Brassica merely looked away and blinked fiercely to keep the tears from her eyes. Her hands had clenched involuntarily, and she shivered, not with cold, but with anger.
Apparently the boss was not to be found in the ruin proper, for they passed out the other side, and into a further tumbled down section of the camp, what might perhaps have been an old bailey. Here, with his back to a campfire, peering across the water to the north between a gap in the wall, a broad-shouldered man stood, a two-handed greatsword across his back. His hair was rusty orange, caught back from his face with a leather thong, and there was something rather finer (though not much finer) about his clothes, compared to those of his men. He did not seem to notice their arrival.
Brassica was just wondering what was to become of her, when the brigand who held her dropped her unceremoniously to the ground and coughed, loud and impolitely, to get the red-headed man’s attention. When she hit the ground, unbound, Brassica was seized briefly by the impulse to run, but she remembered the threat of an arrow between her shoulders, and the thought tightened in a knot in the very place she imagined being struck. Instead, she drew her knees to her chest again, and tried to make herself as small as possible.
“Gently with our guest,” said the red-haired man softly, turning. The brief hope that had flickered in Brassica at the softness of his voice and the seeming kindness of the sentiment was immediately quenched by the sight of his face. It was a cruel face, and hard, the eyes shadowed in dark hollows. “We must be kind to the little bird, if we hope to hear her sing.”
“Sorry, Percy,” the brigand muttered. “Ye want I should stay and watch her? See she doesn’t run?”
Percy stared at Brassica, and though she had fixed her gaze on the fire before her, she could feel his eyes and her face grew hot. “I think I can manage a little hobbit lass. She seems tame enough. Go shift some crates and make yourself useful. And tell the watchers to stay sharp.”
The other man grumbled his assent, and Brassica heard his footsteps recede, to join the distant sounds of industry in the midst of the ruins. Unbidden, the little Tookish voice began reasoning out the cause of the increase in activity. They must lie quiet in day time.They know no one will attack when they can watch the water, and see boats coming over the lake. But at night…the Rangers must come at night. And the robbers are waiting. Oh, and I’m what warned them…
The brigand captain had continued to stare down at her across the crackling fire, but Brassica was growing used to the weight of his gaze. Eventually, she even managed to look up and steal another glance at him. She forced her voice up past the lump of fear in her throat. “What do you want with me?”
Percy just continued to stare, for a long, solid minute. Deep down, bizarrely, what twinged inside Brassica was irritation at the sheer lack of manners, and before she could think better of it, a rebuke had slipped past her lips. “It’s in dreadful bad form not to answer when a question’s put to you.”
“Seems to me you didn’t answer those what my men put to you,” Percy said at last, still in his soft, dangerous voice.
“Because I don’t know,”Brassica answered, truthfully, gathering courage as the brigand captain made no move towards her. She slowly rose to her knees, her hands clenched on her thighs. “I don’t know about the Rangers. I’m just a traveler. I stayed in their camp, but that was all.”
Now Percy crouched down, but his eyes did not leave her. “I hope that’s a lie, little lass,” he all but whispered, and his hand strayed over his shoulder, to tease at the hilt of the greatsword. “Because if you’re naught but merely a traveler, then there’s no use in you, and I have no need of a mere traveler.”
Brassica felt the stab of fear, much like the sword, as sharp and painful, in the pit of her stomach. He meant to kill her, if she had no answers for him. And she had no answers for him. She had told him the truth, and it would be the death of her. Time seemed to slow as she saw his hand tighten on the sword hilt, and then clarity sharpened the moment back into reality. Why are you telling him the truth?
“They’re coming,” she blurted, never taking her eyes from his hand. “But not tonight.”
Percy didn’t believe her, she could tell. “Their spy taken captive, their secrets being laid before me, and you say they do not come? Little lass, if you do lie to me, I shall not stop just to spit you, but I shall roast you as well.”
The moon. “They can’t come,” she insisted. “It’s…it’s too bright. The moon’s too full, there’s too much light. They won’t be able to get near. A-and they don’t know about me. That I was taken.”
“The cursed dogs of Numeanor see all that passes in these lands. How do you say that they don’t know?” Percy growled, his voice growing slightly louder for the first time.
“I was going home,” Brassica lied, wishing it could have been true. “To…” Llythne’s home. “Ost…Ost Forod. They didn’t expect to hear from me until I got back with news.”
Percy’s eyes narrowed sharply at that. “What news from Ost Forod?”
Brassica had no immediate answer for this, because she could see that there was something Percy wanted to hear. And though a giddy hysteria was bubbling inside of her at the thought that she was getting away with the stories she told, she was keenly aware that it was luck and boldness that had carried her so far, and they could only carry her so much further. Choking on a half-real sob, she buried her face in her hands. “You already know,” she whimpered. “Oh no, oh no…”
“Traitors,” Percy snarled, and stood again, looming over her, and beginning to pace back and forth with all the nervous rage of a caged animal. “Spies! Damn Gummidge! Angmar take him! Angmar shall!” He spun on his heel and approached her, swooping down to her eye level like a great red bird. “How many?” he snarled.
“I d-don’t know!” Brassica squeaked, terrified. “Not more than three!”
“I don’t know n-names! I n-never knew their names!” Brassica stammered, feeling the lie begin to run away from her.
Percy seized her arm roughly, and stood her on her feet. “Then you shall know faces,” he declared, and called into the dark. “Simpkins!”
Another coarse-looking man appeared from the dark. “Aye, boss?” he asked warily, staring openly at Brassica.
“Assemble the men,” Percy ordered. “There are traitors among us, and the pretty little lass is going to ferret them out.”