***Ruffians***

Chapter 1. Ambush

'I simply cannot picture it,' laughed Estella as they rode along in the sunshine. 'Tell me again.'

'There's a wide main street, with buildings--'

'Tall buildings!' she interrupted.

'...tall buildings, O two or three stories high, some of them, hanging over as if to make you think they're about to fall on you,' Merry said. Estella gave a delicious shiver. 'And the Prancing Pony, there, with a big huge door that a hobbit standing on another's shoulders could not brush the top of with his fingertips.'

'And that is the place we are staying?' Estella said, wide-eyed. 'I shall not sleep a wink!'

Merry smiled down at her. 'Ah, but there are hobbits in Bree as well as Men, and Barliman is a wise innkeeper. He has rooms on the ground floor with round windows, just like home, and hobbit-sized furnishings.'

'A wise Man, indeed,' smiled Estella. 'I am looking forward to meeting him after all your stories.'

The little group rode into a wood, and Estella noticed her husband sat up straighter, as well as Farmer Partridge and his grown son Tom, all loosening their swords as if expecting trouble. Merry looked down at her. 'I wish I hadn't listened to you, and left you home,' he said.

'You're always telling me how safe the trip is to Bree, nowadays,' she smiled. 'King's Highway, patrolled by Rangers, you've never had any trouble...'

'Still,' he said, 'This stretch always seems so dark. If I hadn't forgotten it, you'd be safe back at the Hall as we speak.'

'Then how would we be speaking?' Estella demanded, and he laughed at her logic, answered by a louder laugh behind them. She'd turned back to comment on farm lads who didn't show proper respect to the Mistress when there was a whistling sound; feathers sprouted from Tom's chest and he toppled sideways from his saddle. The whistling sound came again, and Estella turned in panic back to her husband, to see an arrow driven with such force it penetrated his chain-mailed shoulder. Shock and pain wiped his face of all expression and she reached for him, thinking of nothing else. His weight pulled them both from their saddles, as their ponies, maddened by her scream and the smell of blood, raced away down the road.

***

Estella was bending over Merry, numb with shock, when she was roughly seized by the arm and lifted. A huge, coarse face leered at her and a hoarse voice gloated, 'Well, look at what we have here! A pretty prize!'

'Those two ponies got away...' another voice complained.

'Don't worry about them, we've got two others, enough for a very good meal indeed.' The face, surely as ugly as any troll, smiled evilly into hers, and Estella lost all control of herself and fainted.

***

She came to herself smelling roasting meat. When she tried to open her eyes, she found herself blindfolded; she was unable to scream for the gag in her mouth, and her feet and wrists were tightly bound. She lay very still, fearful of what might notice her if she moved. At the same time her heart cried out for her Merry.

She heard two rough voices talking to each other, jovial about their success in waylaying the travellers. They ate without manners, she could tell, from the sounds stuffing dripping pieces of flesh into their mouths and talking around the food. She listened as closely as she could, hoping to hear any reference to her husband.

Suddenly one of the voices was approaching, she could hear a mouth being wiped as he spoke, probably on a dirty sleeve, and then a rough hand seized her again. The blindfold was taken away and the same ugly face was sneering into hers. 'Well, well, well,' the creature rumbled softly. 'A pretty prize indeed. Nice bit of dessert, I'd say.' He caressed her intimately in a way she'd only known from her husband, and revulsion shook her. She began to vomit, and rough hands tore away the gag.

'What are you trying to do, kill the pretty thing?' the other voice demanded.

'Naw, just looking for a bit of fun,' the first creature protested.

'Look at how rich she's dressed. I smell profit here, if only you don't spoil her,' the second creature asserted.

'O now, Jack, you always were a spoil sport. I'm not going to hurt her,' the eyes turned back to stare into Estella's terrified ones, 'No, precious,' he crooned horribly, 'I'm not going to hurt you at all, am I?'

The creature called Jack stepped forward and grabbed the other by the hair. 'Let her go until I figure out what we're going to do with them,' he said. 'If we can't turn a profit somehow, she can be your spoil.'

'Hmmmm,' the other subsided, then grinned at Estella again. 'Makes me almost wish we couldn't turn a profit, then.'

*Them*, Jack had said. Who else? Estella cautiously looked about her. To one side she saw Farmer Partridge and Tom, white and still, gaping wounds in their chests where arrows had been wrenched out. Merry did not lie with them.

Even more cautiously, she turned to scan her other side, managing to control her gasp when she saw her husband, lying by the fire, arrow still protruding from his shoulder. Jack got up now, leaving Estella, to wander over to Merry. He nudged him with his toe. 'Lookit that,' he mused. 'All dressed up like a little knight or something.'

'His sword's sharp enough,' the other said. 'They could have given us quite a fight if we hadn't shot from ambush.'

'Ah, well,' Jack said, 'Can't be too careful these days. These parts aren't safe anymore, with Rangers about.'

'Well, I haven't seen them come out this far from Bree,' the other said.

'You bet you haven't,' Jack answered. 'We wouldn't have a fire and nice roast pony if I'd seen a Ranger this far out.'

'Wonder what's down that road, anyhow,' the other said thoughtfully. 'Maybe more of these little folk. Easy pickings.' He grinned at Estella, who lifted her chin and forced herself to meet his gaze calmly. 'Mighty sweet, too.'