Chapter 3. Battle of Wits

The creature Jack had gone off scouting, leaving the other to guard the prisoners. 'I expect to find them undamaged when I return,' he warned.

Estella stayed bent over her husband, dread seizing her. The other threw a few more branches on the fire, then stood and stretched, watching the creature Jack until he was out of sight. He ignored the hobbits, for which Estella was grateful.

The creature Jack had been gone for some time when she felt herself seized by one arm. She looked up into the other's pitiless eyes and knowing smile. 'Well, now, lass,' he said, 'it seems as if we have some time to pass until good Jack comes back.'

'Leave me alone,' she said as clearly as she could.

'O come now,' he said, 'don't be such a wet blanket. How about a little honey from those sweet lips? That pony flesh was a little dry, I could use some lovely mead to wash it down.' Inexorably he dragged her from Merry's side, though she kicked and struggled and cried out. 'No one to hear you, love,' he said softly. 'Cry all you want.'

In sheer contrariness she fell silent, but as he bent his head to hers, she bit him hard and as he jerked his head back, she raked him with her nails. With a roar he slapped her hard, rocking her head on her neck. She saw stars, and then looked amazed as a flaming brand came down upon his head from behind. Her Merry had dragged himself to his feet, snatched a branch from the fire, and was doing his best to beat the creature's head in. Throwing Estella down, the creature whirled and seized the arrow that protruded from Merry's shoulder, twisting it cruelly. He picked up Merry and pushed him back against a tree.

'I'll kill you by inches,' he gasped. 'I'm going to cut you apart a piece at a time.' He looked grimly down at the hobbit. 'But before I put your eyes out, I'm going to let you watch what I do to your lovely wife...' He grinned horribly and started to turn back to Estella, when a feathered shaft sprouted from his chest. Stupidly gaping, he pawed at the shaft; another appeared beside it, directly in the heart some detached part of Estella saw, and he fell without a further sound.

She stumbled to Merry, fumbling at the blade in her bodice, only half aware of another creature's rapid approach. She must slay him and then herself before it could reach her. She had the blade out, touching her beloved's throat, when fatal hesitation caused her to be too slow. There was a shout behind her and a great hand seized her wrist, wresting the blade from her grasp. She crumpled in a heap, weeping her despair, not wanting to watch the creature's awful revenge on her husband.

She stiffened as two huge hands took her by the arms, turned her, pulled her to a massive chest, but then all that happened was a soft voice crooning in a language she didn't know, a gentle hand patting her back, almost in a... fatherly manner, she thought, startled. She had a flash of memory, cuddled in her father's embrace after Fatty had pushed her into the mud and forbade her from following him and Frodo and Merry about anymore. She opened her eyes and looked up, to see two concerned grey eyes looking back from a face that was overlarge, but not unpleasant.

With a gasp she looked back to Merry. Another enormous cloaked form bent over him, talking softly, easing the arrow from the shoulder and staunching the wound.

'Rangers?' she asked.

Her comforter nodded. 'They call me Shadow in Bree,' he said wryly. 'When we saw your ponies running loose, we came looking for trouble.'

She gasped. 'There's another...'

He nodded, smiling reassuringly. 'He's already been taken care of.' From the flicker in his eyes she guessed the creature... Man? be dead. It seemed odd to class that... creature... with these graceful, if overlarge, Dunedain.

The other Ranger was lifting Merry now, and her own rescuer rose, still holding her. 'We'll have you to Bree, and to a healer soon,' he promised.

She nodded. Somehow it no longer seemed so important to see a town built by Men.