While the ringers sat on their horses and tried to decide what to do about the wooden box floating away down the Brandywine, we made a hasty retreat. The Old Forest continued south past Haysend, so we stuck close to the east bank of the Brandywine. We didn't see any sign of the ringers, and the creepy feeling they caused didn't come back, so we must have confused them enough to keep them off our trail. For all I knew, they'd spend the next year searching along the riverbank in case the box washed up. On the other hand, they might have already found it, and when they did it wouldn't take them long to figure out that the ring inside wasn't the real deal.
Legs didn't even bat an eye when I threw the box in the river. I figured he must have seen me go into the jewelry shop and guessed what I did, or for all I know he peeked in one of the windows and saw me buy the box. He never said anything about it while we were on the road. Well, if he could play his cards close to the vest, so could I.
We were two days getting clear of the Old Forest, and then the country opened up to the east. Uncle Lucky once told me that the Old Forest used to run clear down to the Gap of Rohan. Then the Westies showed up, and naturally they had to cut down all the trees and make ships out of them. Now it was all grassland.
We spent another four days riding south along the river, and still no sign of the ringers. Once we reached Sarn Ford, we turned inland, following the Old South Road southeast. There's usually a fair amount of traffic along the Old South Road at this time of year as waggonloads of newly-harvested produce from the Shire travel down to market among the Dunlendings and Rohirrim. Every now and then we passed a convoy of waggons, and an occasional solitary one. The dwarves tend to dominate the carrying trade, which is fine with us hobbits, since most of us don't like to travel. We're happy to sell them our food and pipe-weed and let them do the hard work of carting it off.
The third day from Sarn Ford we reached the intersection of the Old South Road with the Greenway, the road leading south from the Bree-land. At that point, we had a decision to make. Legs told us that we could knock a hundred miles off of our journey to Minas Tirith if we cut across the land to the east and went over the Misty Mountains through the Redhorn Pass. The downside was that the pass was sometimes treacherous, and if the snows came early we could find the pass blocked and our shortcut would come to nothing. Taking the Old South Road would add a week to our travel time, but it would be safer. I decided that with the ringers still out there somewhere I preferred safety to speed. Here on the Old South Road we'd have the dwarvish teamsters for company if we wanted it, and those guys swing a mean ax.
From the intersection of the Greenway and the Old South Road to the Gap of Rohan is four hundred miles. There's not much to say about a long trip on horseback except that it's boring and it leaves you walking funny every night. I found myself wishing I could just whistle up one of Manwë's eagles and let it carry me to Minas Tirith.
Eventually I became bored enough to let my curiosity get the better of me. I asked Legs why he had involved himself with this case.
He thought about it for awhile, and finally said, "Let's just say I have a personal interest in seeing that Miss Rushlight's parcel reaches Minas Tirith."
"You know who she really is," I stated.
He managed to make his well-seasoned features assume a look of innocence. "You mean she's not from the Bree-land?"
"Fine," I said. "Be that way."
We were coming up on the foothills of the Misty Mountains, maybe a day's ride from the Gap of Rohan, when our luck ran out. A caravan of dwarvish waggons we had joined had stopped for the night and formed a circle. I was in the middle of a frugal meal of jerked beef and the waybread that the Big Folk of Dale aptly named cram when I got that creepy ringer feeling running up my spine. Legs evidently felt it too, because we looked at each other and then both sprang up at the same time. We both ran over to the dwarvish trail boss, Yari.
"Arm your people," Legs warned him, "we're about to be attacked."
If Yari was inclined to dispute Legs' assertion, the sudden shriek from beyond the circle of waggons convinced him. He jumped up and started shouting in dwarvish, and the calm dwarves' camp instantly became a scene of chaos as dwarves ran here and there, grabbing up weapons and armor.
Legs himself grabbed a burning branch from the nearest cookfire and headed out toward the circle of waggons. I followed suit and ran after him, but he stopped and said, "Deuce, you go back to where the horses are and get them ready to ride. We may need to make a quick getaway."
"Gotcha, Legs." Frankly, running away seemed like a better plan than staying and fighting. When I got to the ponies, I found out that Petals was already there, and already had two of them saddled. Sharp guy, that Petals. Between the two of us we had the last pony and Legs' horse ready to go in record time. There was a sudden commotion to the west, and another one of those horrifying shrieks the ringers made, and one of the waggons was suddenly tumbling across the ground, as though some giant had given it a good, hard kick. Legs came running up, vaulted into the saddle of his horse, and led us off to the east. We passed between two of the waggons and fled into the dark.
The ponies had already had a long day's ride with less than an hour to rest up, so it wasn't long before they had slowed to a walk. I found myself hoping the ringers would stay busy with the dwarves, but another shriek and the return of the creeps to my spine quickly dashed that hope. Legs and I had both left our burning branches behind when we left the camp, so all we had to face them with was our swords. We turned the horses around to face them, drew our swords, and waited.
The moon was a few days from full, and the area around us was well-lit enough to make out the dark shapes of the ringers. I didn't have time for a leisurely count, but I was pretty sure it was all nine of them out there, and they were closing on us fast.
A streak of fire thrummed past close overhead and passed between two of the ringers. It was followed by a couple dozen more. None of them hit, as far as I could see, but it stopped the ringers dead in their tracks. I looked back, and found that at least a hundred of the Big Folk were running up behind us, some of them carrying baskets with burning stuff in them. There were shouted orders, and maybe forty of the Bigs thrust arrows into the burning baskets, lighting their tips on fire. More shouted orders, and the Bigs aimed and fired at the ringers. The ringers evidently decided that the flaming arrows were too much trouble, and they turned and rode out of range.
The Bigs quickly surrounded us, and one of them walked up to Legs and said, "Come with us. The Old Man wants to see you." I noticed then that the ones who weren't pointing their arrows at the ringers were pointing them at us.
"Crap," said Petals.