Whoever came up with the flaming arrow trick was one smart cookie. They never actually scored a hit with one, probably due to some sort of magic, but the ringers clearly didn't like them, and they kept their distance. That was the good news.
The bad news was that we were now the prisoners of our rescuers. As they herded us along towards the Gap of Rohan, I got a good look at them by the light of the flaming baskets they carried. They looked very much like the Big Folk of Bree, with dark hair and eyes and evenly tanned skins. All the Big Guys around us were dressed alike, in black surcoats and iron helmets. Each of the surcoats had an emblem on the left breast of a white hand with spread fingers. The word "soldier" floated up into my mind, and I realized that was who these men were, soldiers in someone's army. There was a constant murmur of conversation coming from them, but I couldn't understand any of it. That clenched it as far as I was concerned: these Big Folk were Dunlendings, distant relatives of the Bree-men. I knew from hearing Uncle Lucky's stories that unlike their northern cousins, the Dunlendings had never picked up Westron, and still spoke their old language.
I got a good look at the baskets themselves, and they were cleverly made. They were made of thick iron wire, but each one had a wooden handle on either side that allowed the soldiers to carry them without burning their hands on the hot metal. As each glob of burning stuff burned away, it was replaced with a fresh one.
Another thing I remembered from Uncle Lucky's stories, and from the dwarvish teamsters we had traveled with, was that the Dunlendings were nomadic pastoralists, following their herds north and south along the western side of the mountains. Someone had persuaded them to give up their wandering ways and recruited them into an army.
It was a weary night, for the ponies as well as the riders, and we were all dog tired when dawn lit up the sky ahead of us. The Misty Mountains were on our left now, and in the growing light I could see a building surrounded by a wooden palisade on top of a high round hill. As the sun was rising we turned aside from the road and went up a path that led there.
"Dol Baran," Legs said to me. "The last time I saw it, there was nothing on top of it but heather. The Professor has been busy."
There were more soldiers in the stockaded fort, and they opened a narrow wooden gate to let us and our escorts in. The Big Guy who had talked to Legs earlier said to him, "Wait here," and went into the building. The fort was well-organized, with various uniformed Dunlendings walking here and there, and guards marching back and forth on a raised walkway near the top of the palisade. I took the opportunity to dismount from my pony and stretch my legs, and the others did the same.
Petals looked at the activity around us and said, "Looks like someone's getting ready for a fight."
I had to agree. Presumably it was the someone that the Dunlending had called the Old Man and Legs had called the Professor. "Who's this Professor guy?" I asked Legs.
"Professor Curunír, the head of the White Council," said Legs.
"Oh, that guy," I said. It was a name I had heard plenty of times from Doc Gandalf, usually when he was working his way through his second bottle of dwarvish rotgut and sunk in melancholy. Back when Doc was on the White Council he and Professor Curunír had had some major policy disputes, helped along by equally major personality conflicts. There had been some sort of power struggle which Doc lost. Doc had been purged from the Council, and Professor Curunír had moved ahead with his own plans.
After half an hour the Dunlending came back, and started giving orders to the men guarding us. He said, "Come with me," to Legs, and we followed him into the building while some of the soldiers led our ponies away.
Like the palisade, the building was made of wood, and since I hadn't seen many trees in the neighborhood I wondered where it came from. The Dunlending led us into a room with two Big Folk-sized beds and said, "Rest now. Later you see the Old Man."
That sounded like a good deal to me, seeing as I was practically dead on my feet after being awake and on the move for most of the last twenty-four hours. The Dunlending left us, and I heard a bar dropping into place behind the closed door. I hopped up onto the nearest bed, and within a minute I was out like a light.