Monday, January 22, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 49

A New Way Forward

Sunday, 26th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Refuge of Gath Forthnir, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The Lossoth-witch
Today passed much the same as yesterday. Gaelira and Nephyn insisted I was not yet recovered enough to be daring the outer edges of Carn Dum, and so they went with Drodie and Lagodir to once again attempt and locate a passable entry into the evil city. I tried to stay useful by offering my assistance to Lunathron and his healers, but I think I succeeded in doing little other than getting in their way. I also poked my head outside on more than one occasion, thinking some fresh air and sunlight would do me good after the close stuffiness of Gath Forthnir, but the heavy winds and perpetually dark skies of Angmar offered little reprieve.

As you can imagine, I was excited when I heard from the sentries that my companions were on their way back. Yet, when they re-entered the caverns I could see from their faces they had no more luck today than they had the day before in identifying a reliable method of entry into the fortress of Mordirith.

Dinner was a gloomy affair with tensions running high among ourselves in the face of our repeated failure to make any headway in our quest. Finally, Lagodir (who had been uncharacteristically quiet, even for him) put down his tankard and looked at us all with an expression as though he had reached some sort of important decision. We all stopped what we were doing in anticipation, for it seemed plain the Gondorian wished to speak what was on his mind.

"I may have a plan: a way which might acquire the information needed that could lead us into Carn Dum," he said. "But you will have to hear me out."

"I am always willing to hear you out," I said, "But there were an awful lot of mays, mights, and coulds in that statement of yours. What did you have in mind?"

"I think we could get the Lossoth-witch to tell us how to enter the fortress," he replied. Nephyn spit out her ale while Drodie laughed so hard he choked on his boar-steak and had to be pounded on the back until it was dislodged from his throat.

"The Man's gone mad!" Drodie cried as he washed the debris down with a pull from his mug. "I don't know whether it's the close quarters or the lousy food, but clearly he has lost his wits!"

"I'm afraid I must agree with the Dwarf," said Nephyn as she eyed Lagodir cautiously. "What in Middle-earth makes you think that one would divulge such sensitive information to us, assuming she even has it? And just how do you propose to find her?"

"As to the first --" Gaelira and I said at exactly the same time before we both stopped in deference to the other. The Elf smiled at me and nodded, giving me permission to speak.

"Erm, as to the first point," I said meekly, "I think I can hazard a guess. Remember what Lagodir told us yesterday? About there being factions within the Enemy's ranks which tend to conspire against one another? And about how the Lossoth, these Ice-folk from up north-a-ways, aren't so fond of this False King, as they call him? Well, it seems to me we might be able to use that to our advantage, you know -- the enemy of my enemy is my friend, or something like that?"

"May-be," grumbled Drodie with a gleam in his eye, "But one thing we know for certain is that these Lossoth wenches are no friends of ours. And, among my people, we consider the enemy of ourselves to always be our enemy."

"How is it the Dwarves have never come to be known for their piercing intellectual treatesies?" asked Gaelira with a roll of her eyes. "'Tis a mystery which may never be solved." Drodie's response was to send an especially loud belch in her general direction, the odour of which I think caused the Elf's eyes to go watery for a moment. I later noticed Gaelira tended to not criticize him as much from that time forward. At least, not during meals.

"It is a risky proposition, I grant you," said Lagodir grimly, "But I would not offer it as a potential course of action unless I truly believed it might yield fruit. Consider: at the base of everything, both we and the Lossoth-women want the same thing, and that is Mordirith overthrown. As to whether she would know a way in -- if I am remotely correct in thinking Guloth and his minions were planning to usurp the False King, then surely they must have scried a path for the very same purpose as ours which they intended to use themselves. What say you all?"

"I hate the delays we have suffered in this land," said Gaelira. "And I suspect it is the will of the Enemy that we are stymied so. I will support your plan, Lagodir, for I believe you are right in your assessment of our adversaries and that we can use their own hatred against them to great effect."

"I do not support this idea," said Nephyn with flushed cheeks. "Not unless I am out-voted by the Company. We have already seen what those two are capable of, nor have we any idea how many other minions they may have at their command. We have already seen what our adventures have brought upon poor Areneth, may he rest in peace, and was not the secret of Gath Forthnir itself very nearly betrayed by our coming here? To willingly seek out our foes is to walk into a trap, I say."

"For myself," said Drodie as he absent-mindedly picked at his teeth, "I would normally not care if we did charge headlong into a trap -- so much the more glory to he who overcomes it through wit and through strength! But, as I have just recently been reminded how short on wit I am, I shall have to vote against this ridiculous ploy, which is just too complicated for my poor, addled little mind to comprehend." He shot an acid sneer at Gaelira, but she ignored him and turned to me.

"That makes two votes in favour and two against," she said. "I'm afraid you will have to decide the matter, Master Padryc."

"Oh, bother!" I exclaimed. "Why do I always have to be last? Very well: I say we should do it. Quite apart from the fact we've tried three times without success to find a path into Carn Dum, I think the manner in which Lagodir and Gaelira have explained the behaviour of the Enemy's servants actually does make sense -- in it's own weird, convoluted sort of way. Besides, I can't deny I'd actually feel better knowing just where those two are and what they are up to: better that than worrying every moment about them sticking a knife in your back when you've more than enough to worry about what's in front of you!"

"Then it is settled," said Gaelira as she rose from the table. "We will depart at first light."

"Ah, but where do we look?" asked Nephyn, clearly dismayed about the how the vote had turned. "Does anyone have an idea?"

"I think we do," answered Lagodir. "According to Skullyg the goblin, the Lossoth-witch meant to form an alliance with the one called Oakheart, and they went (presumably to discuss the particulars of their arrangement) within Barad Gularan. I do not propose we enter that vile place, but I do not think the Lossoth will remain there any longer than need forces them to. We should begin our search there."

It's an odd thing how, even though half the Company did not get the outcome they voted for, everyone instantly felt better about having decided upon a way forward. Tempers cooled, and each of us went about the business of preparing ourselves for the hunt, which would begin first thing in the morning. I spent my last waking moments thinking about Wenhair -- how we had met her in the dungeons of Sarnur and how she had betrayed us, kidnapping Lagodir and leading us on a chase throughout the snowy hills of Ered Luin. It was her mother, the witch, we were seeking this time, but I thought it very likely the daughter would be close by. I wondered too, whether Nephyn might fulfill any of her several vows of vengeance should we encounter her.

Monday, 27th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Angmar

I was up and alert early today, as if I somehow knew this day was going to be important. We five assembled ourselves, checked over our supplies, and went to say farewell to Maerchiniath and thank him for his hospitality. We did not intend to leave Gath Forthnir forever, of course, but we had no idea how long it might take to find our intended target, and so we were prepared for at least a week's journey. I had stashed a good supply of milkthistle into my pack (with the permission and blessing of Lunathron, of course), just in case it might be needed.

We departed just after sunrise, making our way down the steep slope which ran away from the entrance to the Rangers' hidden refuge and skirting the pool which lay at the bottom. We passed quickly and quietly, for we remembered the way to Barad Gularan from our last journey to that place. All the land around us seemed hushed and quiet, as if waiting in expectation.

It was barely past the third hour from dawn when we came to the outskirts of the evil tower. Although there had been no sign of them when we set out, rain clouds had begun to race up from the east and blanket the sky. Thunder rumbled loudly and lightning flickered in the distance, but the rain did not come just yet. Despite the deepening gloom, the five of us made sure to keep well out of sight, for anything was an easy mark in that land, with naught to conceal you except bare rock and the general darkness. Rather than go straight toward the tower itself, we decided to circle it and look down upon it from the hillsides in the hopes of spotting anything which might indicate where our target had gone.

It was dangerous work. Nephyn led us up crumbling pathways and steep inclines which took us well up the side of the mountains. Barad Gularan, which sat at the bottom of a valley about a hundred feet below us, was illuminated by numerous bonfires and torches from every side, but we saw nothing which would give us a clue as to where Oakheart or the Lossoth-witch might be now.

But then Nephyn gave a muffled cry. She pulled us all down behind a boulder and pointed silently ahead of us and downward. We all peeped out from behind the rock and scanned the hillside. Suddenly, I saw it: facing away from us and hunched on a shallow precipice about a dozen feet below overlooking the valley was the figure of a Woman. I instantly recognized the foreign garb, even from behind: it was Wenhair. We spoke among ourselves in the quietest of whispers. Despite the constantly whipping winds of Angmar and the impending thunderstorm, we knew the Woman had exceptional hearing and all the skills of a lifelong student of the hunt.

"It is Wenhair," said Lagodir. "Of that there can be no doubt."

"Shall I shoot her?" asked Nephyn, her hands already straying to her bow and quiver. "Will we ever get another such opportunity, do you think?"

"No, we are after the mother, not this one," whispered Gaelira. "Surely Wenhair can lead us to her." Nephyn signed audibly, but relented.

"But what do we do?" I asked. "I doubt she'll take us wherever we want to go just because we ask nicely."

"Let me have a go at that," answered Lagodir. "She may still believe that I am her lord, Guloth, reincarnate."

"You really think she believes that nonsense?" I asked.

"If not, we will soon know," came his reply. "And then, I suppose, we shall have to resort to force."

It turned out there was a narrow path which led (somewhat indirectly) from where we were down to where Wenhair was keeping her vigil. We crept as quietly as we could down that way until we were within earshot. Lagodir drew himself up and once more assumed the character of "Guloth," the wraith-lord.

"Slave!" he called to the Woman in his strangled, play-acting voice. "Thy master is here!"

Wenhair jumped and whirled around. She seemed genuinely surprised (and pleased) to see Lagodir, but she eyed the rest of us darkly.

"Lord Guloth!" she gushed in her pathetic and sickening manner. "I am humbled by your presence! But... how came you here? And what are these others...?"

"Fools!" roared Lagodir. As if in answer to his mock-rage, a terrific thunder-bolt wracked the heavens just at that moment and rain began to fall. "Fools and insubordinates surround me! Must I always be questioned by my own servants at every turn? Thy snivelling accomplice, the goblin called Skullyg, dared to question me also. His head now lieth at the bottom of a lake and his corpse rotteth in the Sun -- a feast for maggots and crawling things, and no better than he deserved. Must I treat likewise with thee?" Wenhair cowered to her knees and dared not even to look up at Lagodir for some time. The rest of us simply held our tongues and let Lagodir do his work.

"Of course not, Master!" she cried. "Forgive my impudence! It is only my great devotion to you which makes me seek the destruction of all your foes."

"Yes, yes," answered Lagodir blithely. "Well do I know thy loyalty, slave. Know that I have turned these four to my service through use of the dark arts I learned under tutelage of the Witch-king himself within the halls of Minas Morgul. This is knowledge far above thy station, thrall, but thy neck I spare for now, as I require thy services. Thou shalt take me to thy mother at once."

"As you command, milord," she said as she scraped past Lagodir and began to lead the way eastward. The rest of us followed in silence, but I could plainly see Nephyn's eyes burning with a hatred and rage that could not be missed by anyone. I subtly gave her hand a squeeze as if to tell her to calm down. Her own hand was noticeably trembling.

"The way to my mother is difficult and fraught with danger," I heard Wenhair calling back to Lagodir as she led the way out in front. "But I shall lead you and your new followers aright. Follow me!"

"I don't believe for an instant that Woman actually still thinks Lagodir is her wraith-master," Nephyn whispered to me through clenched teeth. "This feels too much like a trap."

"At least this time we have the advantage of knowing we cannot trust her," I whispered back. "Just remember our larger goal and we'll both keep our eyes peeled."

"Fine," she replied, and then the faintest smile began to grow on her lips. "But I'm not rubbing Lagodir's feet or anything -- even if I am supposed to be his 'slave!'"

The paths by which Wenhair led us were dangerous and long indeed. We remained high up on the mountainsides where the road was often little more than a three-foot wide rock-shelf with a deathly plunge to our right. We climbed and dipped, wound and turned for hours and hours; all the while the cold rain pelted us mercilessly and the wind threatened to blow us off the rocks to our doom. Every now and then I'd sneak a look back at Barad Gularan as the awful tower slowly receded into the mists, but I hadn't the slightest idea where the Lossoth-woman was leading us.

After what seemed like ages (it was by this time roughly three in the afternoon), we began to descend. The rain was still falling, though the thunder and lightning appeared to have moved on. We were all positively sopping, but no one dared speak a word, for it seemed Wenhair really did still believe Lagodir was her old master and none of us wished to endanger that advantage. I wondered how long the ruse would last and whether the witch, too, might be taken in by it. I figured whatever was going to happen would happen and we would have to deal with it as it occurred, so I turned my attention to my surroundings. There wasn't much to see that I hadn't been seeing for hours, and I couldn't see far ahead of us anyhow for being so much shorter than everyone else.

But then, quite suddenly, we emerged from between two tall rocks as a grand and terrible vista spread before us. It was a wide salt-plain, ashen-grey and all blasted as if by a purifying fire. We were in a valley amidst mountainous walls on all sides, and at last the rain had slackened considerably but then I became terribly cold and shivered in my wet garments. Yet, I scarcely noticed any of these things, for I was consumed with what lay at the bottom of that valley in its very centre.

It was an enormous stone disk, like a giant dinner-plate, all written with huge and cryptic runes. It was surrounded by eerie obelisks and other stone structures as well, but those all felt like afterthoughts -- like monuments built in honour of the great monument in the centre. It came to me suddenly that the disk was not a plate or an altar, but a lid, though I don't know how I came to suspect this. And then I saw that the disk was rent: there was a massive crack in the stone on the near side and a depression in the sand which led down into that rift -- down into the earth itself. As I surveyed that awesome sight, a wave of terror swept over me, though I knew no reason for it. As far as I could see, there was no living thing in that valley except the six of us.

Wenhair brought us about two dozen paces from the disk, then placed her hands to her mouth and emitted a strange, guttural call. There was no immediate answer, but the feeling was steadily growing in me that I wished very much to leave that place. Just when I thought I could stand the silence no longer, I noticed a figure appear a short distance off from within a small copse of withered trees. As it drew nearer, I saw that it was a Woman, though she was tall and dark-skinned. In fact, if it weren't for her outlandish attire, I might have thought it was Nephyn from that distance. But the garb was all strange: this Woman wore many furs, and trinkets of bone, iron, and gold jangled from virtually everywhere. On her head was the skull of a bear, and her body was covered in frightening marks or signs. She bore also a wooden staff reinforced with iron, and at her belt was a wicked-looking shortsword like to the pair her daughter wielded -- stubby, but with a viciously sharp edge and carved with many runes.

When she had closed within a few paces, she looked us over in silence, most especially at Lagodir. Then she quickly turned to Wenhair.

"Daughter," she said in a voice which was deeper than any Woman's I had ever heard, "Leave us. Return to the mountain-passes and ensure we are not disturbed."

"But mother..." Wenhair began.

"Do as I say!" snapped the witch. Wenhair quickly bowed her head and ran off to her appointed duty.

"Now then, my lord Guloth," she said with an obvious sneer. "How may I serve you?" She gave Lagodir a deliberately off-balance courtesy and laughed aloud. It was clear our ruse had run its course.

"Well! At least that silly pretense is over," I said with a sigh, not caring who heard me. "Now can we get what we came for and be gone from here, please?"

"I hope we all get what we came for," said Drodie darkly as he eyed the witch and gripped his axe-haft.

"I could have had you all slain long ago," the Woman replied, "If I had thought it worth my time and effort. You are nothing more than impudent children, caught up in matters far beyond the reach of your thought! Still, I find your persistence entertaining -- especially this absurd trick of pretending to be Guloth returned."

"We both know Guloth is gone from this world," said Lagodir quietly. "Despite your best efforts, he is destroyed while I yet live. Twice now have you sought to harm our Company, and twice have we thwarted your designs. Still, I come to you openly now, for we are in need of aid. We wish to strike at Mordirith, the Steward of Angmar." That title seemed to infuriate the witch.

"The False King!" she screamed. "He is steward of nothing -- he whose is the rule of Angmar by right would never grant such authority to a weakling like that one! A Southron and usurper!"

"We would challenge the False King," Lagodir continued, unswerving. "But we require entrance into his city. I know you can help us in this task, for you wish to see him destroyed as much as we do."

"That much may be true," she said, "But what makes you think mere mortals have any chance of success?"

"Not all of us are mortals," said Gaelira.

"Oh, yes, you have your dear failure of a lore-master with you! How are Glorwen and Aeglas, my lady?" the witch laughed cruelly.

"They are better than they would have been, had I truly failed," answered Gaelira.

"Show me, then, the power of the Elves!"

The witch flung herself at Gaelira, weapons drawn! The rest of us instinctively backed away and, though we drew our weapons, there was no opportunity to help our friend, for the battle raged at a pace that none of us could follow. Gaelira was the very picture of grace and skill, but the witch fought with a ferocity and a power as though she had suddenly transformed into an animal. Staves clashed and blades rang as the two fought in the light rain. Suddenly, the witch's staff caught Gaelira behind the knees, and she lost her footing. The next thing any of us knew, our friend was on the earth with the witch standing over her in triumph, the end of her staff pointed at Gaelira's breast.

"So much for the skill of the Eldar!" she laughed. "If this is all you can offer, then your quest is hopeless, and no aid shall you receive from me."

"Idiot!" cried Nephyn as she swept out her sword. "We do not plan to break into Carn Dum and challenge Mordirith to the mock-battles of children! He shall face the five of us together, and together we are more than a match for him -- or you, for that matter! Now let Gaelira go."

"Let her go?" mocked the witch. "Let her go?! I would expect no less from a starry-eyed Dunlending mongrel-whelp! Ah, but this should not be the mock-battle of children, as you say, yes? I have defeated this one in single combat, and so her life is MINE!" With her left hand she swept out her shortsword and raised it as she prepared to slash Gaelira's throat.

"Never!" Nephyn threw herself forward and parried the witch's blade with the Sword of Ringdor. Gaelira was able to roll away to safety, and a second battle commenced. Drodie and I tried to come to Nephyn's aid, but Lagodir held us back.

"No!" he said sternly. "We must not interfere! The witch is testing our strength in the way of her people. If we can best her, she will freely tell us all we wish to know, but if we try to make her through force, she will die before she tells us anything." I gritted my teeth in frustration, but I held my ground.

Nephyn and the witch were a whirlwind of fury, their blades singing as they each swung at the other. I looked quickly over my shoulder, afraid the noise might bring Wenhair down from her post, but there was no sign of the daughter. My heart was racing as I watched the contest: Nephyn appeared to be at an immediate disadvantage with her single sword while the witch attacked with staff and blade, but it quickly became clear the blade was too short to be of much use against the longer Sword of Ringdor. It seemed to me the witch soon became frustrated as she bared her teeth and began swinging harder than ever.

Then, the witch snarled aloud and made a hard thrust with her shortsword at Nephyn's mid-section, but the huntress slipped to one side and struck the shamaness full in the face with the pommel of her sword! The witch staggered back, dropping her blade, and clutching at her nose. Nephyn quickly followed by grabbing the witch's hair and pulling her head downward while driving a knee into her face. As the sorceress fell to the ground, she reached for her short sword, but Nephyn planted her foot on the witch's wrist, then parried the staff one last time. The Sword of Ringdor swept back and came to rest at the tattooed throat. The battle was over.

Nephyn and her adversary were both breathing heavily and their sweat was mixed with the still-falling rain. I stood there in amazement, too stunned to cheer (which I certainly felt like doing). I wondered if the witch would acknowledge her defeat, or whether she would try some trick on us out of envy and revenge. Instead, she only eyed Nephyn searchingly.

"Perhaps Guloth was right and the Age of Man is truly upon us," said the witch. "I yield my life to you -- pray, make my end swift."

It seemed like the only sensible course of action would be to slay this evil, scheming Woman. I held my breath, wondering what Nephyn would do. No one spoke.

"You speak to Nephyn the Merciful," the huntress said at last. "I once very nearly ended the life of another of Angmar's thralls, but she was a slave against her will. I do not know whether that is the case with you, witch, but I spare you your life in the hopes that you will have the opportunity to freely decide that for yourself. Nonetheless, you will drop your weapons, and you will serve me your life-debt by telling us how we can enter Carn Dum."

The witch relaxed her grip and the staff fell from her hand. Lagodir quickly swept it up along with her blade, and Nephyn allowed her to stand. She stood a few paces off from us, her eyes blazing with hatred and shame. Blood was streaming from her nose and dripped frequently onto the gravel at her feet, but she didn't seem to notice her hurts at all, so intently was she staring at each of us in turn.

"There are no safe paths into Carn Dum," she said through clenched teeth. "Even if you managed to breach the outer defences, you have no concept of the torment that awaits within those walls."

"All the same," said Lagodir, "We mean to attempt it. If you truly wish to see Mordirith thrown down, what other chance do you think you shall have while your life lasts to see it done?"

The witch shifted her weight and seemed to calm herself a little.

"Perhaps," she said, in an almost toying manner. "Urugarth may serve."

"Who or what is Urugarth?" Nephyn asked her.

"It is a place -- a breeding ground for Angmar's Orcs," came the reply.

"What?!" I cried. "Don't listen to her! This is just another trap."

"There are paths from Urugarth which lead beneath Carn Dum," she said. "You would be least expected there -- but of course this road will not be without its own dangers."

"Then we must attempt it," said Gaelira. "Show us where to find this entrance."

The witch made a series of marks on Nephyn's map, then turned to leave.

"I have one other question for you," Nephyn called after her. The witch stopped, but did not turn back. "How do you know I am the half-breed of a Dunlending?"

"My debt was to tell you of the passages into Carn Dum," the witch answered. "Nothing more do I owe you, Southron. Now leave me to my shame." She blew a high, piercing note upon a small horn of bone as she shuffled away, and soon she was gone from our sight. Lagodir took her staff and blade and tossed them down into the rift which clove into that huge stone disk nearby. I heard them clatter and clank as they fell before coming to rest at an unknown depth.

"Let her search for her tools down there, if she dares," said Lagodir. "I cannot express how glad I am that our little gambit has paid off, though it sounds as if even greater dangers await us in Urugarth."

"You speak for me as well," I said. "And Urugarth or no Urugarth, at least those two won't be harassing us on the way there, or so it appears for now. Thanks to Nephyn."

"It was a near thing," the huntress said with a sigh. "I'm fortunate that Gaelira had sapped some of her energy during her own battle with the witch, or things might have turned out very differently."

"What did you have to go and spare her for?" asked Drodie. "Had you taken her head it would have been one less trouble-maker to worry about, if you ask me."

"Chide her not," scolded Lagodir, "For 'twas well done. Who can say to what good cause a spared life might be put?"

"Nephyn the Merciful?" I laughed. "When-abouts did you come up with that?"

"Somewhere in the Trollshaws, I think," said Nephyn as she blushed a deep crimson. "It sort of... in the heat of the moment..."

"No, no!" I said, "It suits you fine! A bit dramatic, perhaps, but then I suppose you earned it, right enough. And Gaelira! There was no time to ask, but are you all right? Were you hurt?"

"No, only my pride," the Elf replied. "Or it would have been, if I had any pride left. Personally, I find a good dose of humility and having little pride available to defend has helped me make much wiser decisions in life."

"Well, if we're all whole and hale," I said, "Are there any objections to us getting away from here?"

"You'll get no objection from me," said Drodie with a sidelong glance at the great disk.

"Nor me," said Lagodir quietly. "I know not where we are, but I do not like the feel of this place."

"Yes, we have lingered here longer than was wise," said Gaelira. "Let us go."

We departed by the way we came in. We were prepared to pretend Lagodir was "Guloth" again, but there was no sign of Wenhair at the peak of the ridge.

"The Woman makes an unreliable sentry," observed Drodie as we passed.

"More likely that horn-call was meant to summon her to her mother's side," answered Gaelira. "There is no telling where they may go or what they may plot, but for ourselves we have restored our hope and found a new way forward."

The journey back to Gath Forthnir was long and dull (unless you count the dozen or so times I thought I was going to get blown off the side of the mountain), and it was well after sundown by the time we returned there. We were welcomed back by the Rangers, but we kept the day's tale to ourselves and only said we had been out hunting for more milkthistle to replenish the refuge's stock (I sheepishly offered Lunathorn's own store I had taken earlier as evidence). I have my doubts that this simplistic excuse was widely accepted by the Rangers, but no one pressed us for details, either.

I am totally exhausted as I lie here trying to scratch out today's adventure. It seems all our trails and trials have led us to this moment -- this time, where we will finally enter the stronghold of the Enemy! I don't mind admitting that I'm scared out of my wits, but whatever tomorrow brings, I will face it as a free hobbit with my family at my side.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 48

A Conspiracy Explained

Sterday, 25th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Refuge of Gath Forthnir, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The Mountains of Angmar
I hope you will be pleased to know, Dear Reader, that I, your lovable furry-footed friend, have returned to provide you with full-quilled, all-hobbitic reportage once again. I must thank Nephyn for her capable fill-in entries during my brief (albeit still too long) period of incapacitation, but I am feeling quite myself again, despite everyone insisting I ought to be dead, or at least mostly dead. Allow me to resume my scribal duties by telling you about my recovery.

It seems that gash I received on my arm happened to come from a Hillman's blade which was drenched in some foul poison. As luck would have it, the leeches and healers here in Gath Forthnir have encountered this venom before now -- and more than a few times, it would appear -- which makes me believe it is a tactic frequently utilized by the tribes of Men loyal to the Iron Crown. As such, they were well-equipped to counteract it, although the time which had elapsed since my wounding and returning here for treatment was greater than they would have liked. After applying their arts, however, I stabilized and was on my way to recovery except for a nasty fever which would not abate.

Nephyn says she and Lagodir kept close watch over me until, in the early morning hours, Gaelira and Drodie returned from their errand. You may recall that they had agreed the day before to help escort and protect a foraging party of the Rangers who were sent out to scrounge for supplies in the countryside. Well, their return was delayed by the appearance of a large patrol of Orcs and Hillmen which outnumbered them greatly, so they were forced to hide up in the hills for a while before attempting to return here. When they finally did get back, they immediately heard rumour of an injured Halfling and came running to find me.

I'm told I was still asleep at the time, but apparently Gaelira inspected me and declared that the healers of Gath Forthnir had done a capital job in administering their treatment, yet still the fever continued to rage. Nephyn says the Elf then gave me a tiny sip from a leathern flask drawn from her belt, which Gaelira told her to be miruvor -- some draught or liquor she brought with her from Rivendell (I'm afraid I can't tell you what it tastes or smells like since I was not conscious at the time). I'm told it was about then that I began to recover, and much more quickly than anyone had expected. In fact, it was only about six hours later (roughly eight o'clock this morning) that I was already up and about, eagerly hunting for my breakfast. Everyone seems amazed that I should have regained my health so rapidly, but I've always been a quick healer. Runs in the family, you might say.

I won't go into all the gushing, hugging, and hand-wringing that came when everyone learned I was going to be all right -- it's not important nor really proper, if you take my meaning -- and besides there were many critical things to discuss as we gathered around a table in the Rangers' mess-hall. We had been given standard rations from their larder, but I brought a few dainties from my pack as well -- war-camps aren't really known to stock the best provender, you know, meaning no disrespect to those as made the stuff -- and I was feeling more than a little peckish after my ordeal.

"First and foremost," I said after we had all settled down to eat and plan our day, "Just what the blazes is going on with all these shady characters that keep cropping up in our path? Skullyg, Wenhair, the priestess, Oakheart... it's all getting a mite confusing for my little hobbit-head. I should like the whole affair laid out in plain language so's to better understand what we're dealing with."

"You speak for me also," said Nephyn with a laugh. "We seem to be gathering quite the audience. Every lass fancies the idea of having a secret admirer or two, but things have gotten more than a bit bizarre ever since Sarnur."

"It is no laughing matter," said Gaelira. "I think I have begun to piece the mystery together, but I will leave it to Lagodir to explain the situation, for he has been closest to our adversaries and may have gleaned more than I from their actions and whisperings."

"I believe I have," said Lagodir after taking a pull from his flagon. "Here is what we have gotten ourselves into, if I can lay it all out as plain as possible to the best of my understanding. We know, of course, that the Dark Lord's chief agent in the North is this Mordirith character. No one really seems to know who or what he is, but he is clearly not the Witch-king, though he rules from the Witch-king's former seat of power and in his name. Whatever his kind is not terribly important to us at this time (though it may become so later). For now, what we need to know about Mordirith is that he represents Mordor, and it is his forces and slaves with which we have been chiefly contending. But there is a second faction of our enemies abroad: that of Guloth and his adherents, which includes Wenhair, her mother the Lossoth-witch, some shadowy priestess from Forochel, the goblin Skullyg, and probably others. His followers do not seem to be numerous in Eriador, but I suspect he was sent here to provide Mordirith with support in the areas of spying and espionage: a small force, but still quite dangerous."

"It sounds like they are all on the same side to me," I said. "Shouldn't we just lump them all together for the sake of clarity?"

"Assuredly not, Padryc," the Gondorian replied. "You do not understand the way these chattels of the Enemy think -- they promote themselves through ruthlessness and sheer power. Guloth has always desired greater standing with the Dark Lord, and I suspect he wanted nothing less than to depose Mordirith and take his place as the master of Carn Dum and Steward of Angmar."

"And these Lossoth servants of his were willing to help him do that?" asked Nephyn with raised eyebrows. "That doesn't make sense: even if they succeeded wouldn't they only incur the wrath of Sauron for disrupting his operations in the North?"

"No," said Lagodir as he emphatically shook his head. "You still do not see: even when pitted against each other, Sauron's thralls always maintain absolute loyalty to him, for he is their god-king. The Dark Lord cares not which of his slaves rise to supplant the other so long as his will is carried out."

"Seems like an awfully chaotic way to run a war," I laughed.

"So we used to scoff in Gondor," he answered grimly. "But, for all the confusion such power-struggles create, they also ensure that the most merciless and fanatical servants of the Enemy emerge as leaders of his hordes, and that then becomes the greater danger. For many years we trusted to your way of thinking, Padryc, until we learned (too late) that there is a sort of barbarous efficiency to it all. Furthermore, the rank-and-file soldiery respect power and strength above all else, so a usurper who succeeds in putting down a reigning commander solidifies his own leadership all the more. We have found in the South that the most effective counter-measure is to strike down these captains as soon as they appear, and the sooner the better: the longer you wait the more brutal the oppressor that will take the place of the previous one."

"But Guloth is destroyed," said Nephyn, who still sounded just as confused as I was. "And even the goblin said the witch, Wenhair's mother, if I'm keeping this all straight, now believes him gone beyond recall. Should we still be worried about these Lossoth at all?"

"Aside from them wanting to put a knife into our backs, you mean?" I asked. "After all, we're the ones who destroyed Guloth."

"Padryc is right but, even still, only partly right," said Lagodir. "You forget your history: certain tribes among the Lossoth fought on the side of Angmar when the Witch-king ruled it many centuries ago. But it was to the Witch-king that those people gave their loyalty -- not to this 'False King,' as they term Mordirith. They view the current Steward of Angmar as a fraud and a usurper, making them ripe for appropriation to Guloth's purposes. With the wraith banished, Wenhair and her mother would still wish to continue their struggle to depose the False King."

"And this is where Oakheart comes in?" asked Drodie through a mouthful of roasted pheasant. Lagodir nodded.

"Oakheart's 'faction,' if it can be called that, is the one that worries me most in all this, because we know almost nothing about her. Yet, we have heard that name come up more than once in our travels. Can any of us shed some light on the darkness which surrounds her?"

"I have never heard the name," said Nephyn with a shrug. "She has no connexion to the Bree-land or any of its strange folk-lore, but I cannot tell you more beyond that."

"All I know is Luean mentioned her in the letter he wrote to me all those weeks and weeks ago," I said as I frowned in concentration. "He said he was going off to investigate her re-emergence or something, whatever that means. He didn't provide any details, but it must have been pretty important for him to go and leave us the way he did. Now I wish more than ever he was here to tell us what he knows. I will have to read through his letter again and see if there is anything else to be learned there."

"To me the name is like the shadow of ghost in a dream," said Gaelira softly. "The name is significant, but I cannot recall why or from where, nor from what time. This has troubled me greatly ever since the name first crossed our path, and I have been meditating on it for many nights while we travelled. I even searched for hours in Elrond's library while we were in Rivendell. I found nothing, yet I know I have heard the name before meeting you all." She shook her head and her cheeks flushed red with frustration.

"I have no doubt it will come to you in time," said Lagodir. "But for now it serves our purpose to know that Oakheart is an adversary to be avoided, at least until we know more about her."

"Do we know she is an adversary?" Nephyn asked. "It seems to me we don't even know that much at present."

"No, we do," Lagodir countered. "Remember the words of Skullyg on the path to Gath Forthnir? He said the witch (that being Wenhair's mother) went with Oakheart to the tower with many doors. That can only be Barad Gularan, and anyone who would be admitted into that place is no friend to us. Even the goblin risked abandonment and starvation because he so feared to go there."

"I suppose this all makes sense, in a strange, twisted sort of way," I conceded. "So we now know that, in the wake of Guloth's passing, the Lossoth have allied themselves with Oakheart because they still wish to see Mordirith dethroned and apparently they think this Oakheart is capable of doing it. Now that sounds pretty scary to me -- enough to make me hope we never run into Oakheart! She must be one rough character."

"No doubt of that," said Lagodir. "What I wonder at is Oakheart's designs: does she intend to make herself the Lord of Carn Dum or is she contemplating some other plot? I would think the Lossoth would support her no sooner than they would support Mordirith, for their blood-oaths were sworn to the Witch-king himself, but perhaps Oakheart has promised to facilitate his return or... who knows? It is always difficult with these evil folk to know when they are truly working together and when they are lying in order to take advantage of each other."

"Well, for the moment we know enough to continue," said Drodie as he unleashed another of his gigantic burps. "We know every one of these rabble deserves to get the same treatment you gave that goblin. That was just the sort of fine work we need more of, if you ask me -- straightforward and simple; none of this mucking about with power-politics and the rest of it."

"I wouldn't mind a little straightforwardness myself," said Lagodir with a grin, "But it is still useful to understand one's enemies, for then one is better prepared to counter them when the time comes."

"Speaking of time," I said as I munched a deliciously tart apple, "What's the plan for today? Nephyn, Lagodir, and I think we may have found a way into the city, but we didn't get a chance to explore it properly. Ought we to make another go of it?"

"I think that would be best," said Gaelira thoughtfully. "I knew the approach to Carn Dum would be perilous, but already we have spent more time here than I would have liked. The encounters we have had outside Barad Gularan and with Skullyg on the very doorstep of Gath Forthnir concern me greatly; I fear the longer we remain in one place the more our danger increases, and that of these Rangers as well."

A short time later the other four had collected themselves while depositing me back at the infirmary. Despite my protestations, they refused to allow me to accompany them while they continued to scout the outskirts of the Enemy's fortress, insisting I was not fully recovered from my ordeal and could do with at least one more day of rest. I pouted a good deal, but I also found myself in need of sleep only a short time after they had gone, so I suppose they were right after all. I napped a few times during the day and amused myself by writing in this journal (it was at this time I also discovered my copy of Nephyn's personal story had disappeared -- I shall have to address that another time) and bothering the Rangers I encountered as they tried to go about their business. I also did fish out Luean's old, crumpled letter to me and scoured it for any useful information about Oakheart, but I found nothing. It was a long and rather dull day, so as soon as I heard rumour that my friends had returned I raced to the entranceway to greet them.

Their reports were not encouraging. It seems the Enemy was alerted to our presence, for the guard had been increased all along the frontier. Passage anywhere near the city proved impossible and my friends were forced to conceal themselves and flee from armed confrontation multiple times before safely returning to camp. Lagodir and Nephyn were insistent that time would have to pass for the soldiers to relax their guard while Gaelira became frustrated at the delay and Drodie just wanted to pound something. Everyone became factioned by their own preferred courses of action, and dinner was not the jovial reunion I had been waiting to enjoy all day long.

I am sitting here in my bed writing by the light of a dim oil-lamp as we prepare for sleep. It sounds to me as if tomorrow is going to be much the same that today was, although I hope we meet with better results. Personally, I agree with Nephyn and Lagodir that we should try to learn anything we can about the outlay of Carn Dum and how to best approach it: it wouldn't do to stumble blindly into a war-camp or, worse, an ambush (again!). At the same time, I feel Gaelira's concern too: somehow I sense that our time here is limited, and every day an evil is drawing nearer to this place.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 47.2

Murder and Milkthistle

Highday, 24th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Refuge of Gath Forthnir, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
Skullyg the goblin
Padryc shrank to my side while Lagodir stood still as stone. My hands strung an arrow without even thinking about it, but as yet there was no target. As a huntress I knew the look of a fresh kill, and for now I would have to put aside my grief to track down the murderer.

I tore my eyes away from the corpse and started to rapidly scan the area. My first instinct was to search for footprints, but here the ground was little more than cold stone. Still, from the slowly spreading pool of blood before us I knew whoever had slain Areneth was likely very close by -- they might even be lying in wait for us.

Dusk was not yet come, and in the dimming light I spotted a strange-looking hump further up the path. I think Lagodir must have noticed it too, because just as I was about to say something to him, he strode toward it. The hump moved -- it was coming closer with an odd shuffling gait. As it separated itself from the cliffside I could see it was of goblin-kind. I gritted my teeth and prepared to fire, but Lagodir signed for me to wait. The goblin raised its head and regarded us with a single bright red eye. It appeared to me the other had been darkened as if from a burn injury, along with that entire side of its face.

"Master!" it squeaked. "Guloth! You have returned to us! I knew the witch was wrong! I knew, but she would not listen. O, Master!"

My mind was racing with confusion, but then I remembered how Lagodir had fooled the Lossoth-assassin Wenhair back in Ered Luin by pretending to be Guloth resurrected at the hands of Wenhair following a dark necromantic ritual. Apparently this goblin was in league with her and still believed Lagodir to be his master, the wraith Guloth, returned to the world. I saw Lagodir straighten himself and throw his head back in an arrogant sneer.

"Yes, it is I, Guloth, your master," he said. Lagodir was trying to alter his voice to sound something like the fallen wraith, but it was not much more than a gravelly and strangled version of his own speech. I doubted the ruse would work a second time, but then goblins are not known for their intelligence -- and this particular goblin seemed a bit... disturbed... in any case.

"Yes! Yes, great Guloth," the goblin went on as it cowered and scraped at the ground. "See! I, Skullyg, your humble servant am here to do your bidding. But who are these others? Are they not enemies?"

"Silence, cur!" Lagodir shouted. "Thinkest thou to question my judgment? These two I have... turned to my service with... using... the dark arts. Touch them not, or surely thou shalt feel my wrath." Skullyg grovelled and whined pitiably.

"Of course not, master!" it croaked. "Skullyg would never, never question, O no! Not even when the witch claimed the ritual was a failure; not even when she told Skullyg that great Master had not truly returned! Skullyg never doubted great Master."

"Thou art wise to do so," said Lagodir in his most imposing voice. "So! The witch doubts my return, does she?"

"Yes! Yes, she does," replied the goblin, "But not loyal Skullyg! Skullyg always stays loyal, yes. Methinks the witch is plotting behind Master's back -- plotting with the Oakheart woman, yes, but Skullyg would not go with them to the tower, scary tower with many doors, for Skullyg knows generous Master rewards his servants." The goblin dared to raise his head slightly and his one good eye burned with an avaricious lust. I wondered how long Lagodir's falsehood would last and whether the goblin was truly so dense as to not recognize that Guloth was indeed gone from the earth forever.

"Well do you serve and remember," Lagodir said in answer to Skullyg. "And so it shall be with you, slave, for I am pleased by your loyalty. But first, tell me this: how came you here?"

"Skullyg is lost, lost!" the goblin wailed as it clutched its head in sorrow. "We would not follow the witch and the Oakheart into the tower of many doors. We wanted to go home, so home we tried to go, but Skullyg got lost and ended up here. Then a terrible Man came creeping, creeping and looking for Skullyg, but Skullyg hid and stabbed his neck from behind."

"Well done," said Lagodir imperiously. "Approach and receive your reward."

The goblin's head jerked upright and that same lustful gleam flashed in its eye again. It loped itself up to Lagodir, constantly grovelling and snivelling "Great Master," over and over. When it was within roughly four feet of Lagodir, it gazed up expectantly and its eyes suddenly became wide with fright.

"You! You're not --" But the words remain unfinished: in a single motion, Lagodir had unsheathed his sword and swung! The goblin's head thunked to the ground, then rolled a few feet before coming to a rest, the eyes and fanged mouth still gaping in disbelief. I sighed.

"So ends another of our conspirators," I said. "Although I'm still not sure how this one fits into the picture."

"Skullyg was the name mentioned in that letter we found in Sarnur -- Wenhair had dropped it," said Padryc thoughtfully. "Remember? The one we had translated by that kooky old Dwarf at Gondamon just before the Dourhands attacked the place? He was the one who had informed Wenhair's mother that Guloth was defeated, and that's when this whole crazy business began. It's a pity you didn't think to find out from it where the witch and Wenhair are now, Lagodir, before you helped him lose a little weight."

"Yes, that is regrettable," Lagodir agreed as he prodded the body of Skullyg with distaste. "Still, what is done is done, and not without profit. We begin at last to learn a little something about our mysterious Lossoth adversaries and where they fit into the larger political landscape of Angmar. We would do well to think through this new information."

"Er, righto, but first: hadn't we better move on?" the hobbit asked as he looked around nervously. "It sounds to me as if the secret of Gath Forthnir is still safe -- at least for now -- and we're all grateful for it, but reckon we ought to get out of plain sight, you know, just in case anyone else might be prowling about."

"You bring us back to practical matters as ever, friend Padryc," I said, "And yet we cannot simply leave this wreckage here: such a gruesome picture would incite anyone to search the area for the source of all this violence."

"Aye, and we must do honour by Areneth's memory as well," said Lagodir. "Come, let us dispose of the bodies."

There was a short discussion of how best to do this. In the end, we strapped a large rock onto Skullyg's remains using strips of cloth torn from his own smelly garments, then plunked the corpse into the nearby pool. The body of Areneth we cleaned as best we could and bore it to the farther side of the water, where we buried him and raised a small stone over the site in his memory. It was well-hidden under a dry and scraggly bush and behind a sizeable boulder, so as to not attract attention. Then we filled Lagodir's helm with water from the pool and did our best to wash the blood away from the stones in the area. We had done a decent job, I think, but about that time Padryc had begun to sweat and reported feeling a bit faint.

"It has been an exhausting day," I told him. "Come, let us ascend to Gath Forthnir: we must tell Maerchiniath what has become of his doorward, and you look like you could use some rest."

We reached the Ranger-camp without incident, although Padryc seemed to be getting progressively worse. By the time we arrived at the entrance he appeared to be having trouble staying on his feet. I sent Lagodir to go and deal with informing Maerchiniath of Areneth's fate while I escorted the hobbit to the infirmary and examined his wound.

It was worse than some I had seen, but not nearly so bad as many others, including a few I had borne myself. My field-dressing was holding up well, but there was no question that stitches would be required to stop the bleeding and allow it to heal properly. Padryc didn't seemed overly concerned about his arm-wound at all; instead he kept complaining about his stomach and how his head was spinning. I became very worried that perhaps he had lost more blood than was good for him during our prolonged return from Carn Dum, and I set myself to work faster.

"Padryc," I said in my best comforting tone, " Go ahead and lie down, please. Have you ever had stitches before?"

"Of course not!" he said as he lay down on one of the beds, which was rather too large for him. "Do I look like the sort? Even back on the farm I never had enough of an accident to warrant stitches. Do you think they are needed now?"

"I should think so, yes," I said, trying to sound casual. "But it's not bad -- you will probably need no more than two or three."

"I would have thought nine or ten," said Lagodir unhelpfully as he returned from his council with the Ranger-captain. I cleared my throat loudly at the interruption and the Gondorian took the hint. Typical man...

"How did Maerchiniath take the news about Areneth?" I asked him. I was both genuinely interested to know and also eager to turn the subject to something else, for Padryc's eyes had grown to the size of dinner plates at the mention of receiving ten stitches. I started cleaning the wound anew.

"About as well as one would expect," came Lagodir's reply. "He was a good Man, though we ourselves knew him all too briefly. Maerchiniath was pleased that we had done honourably by his remains and assured me his grave-site will be well-protected."

"I am glad to hear it," I said as I carefully threaded my needle. "It is but one more soul for which the Enemy shall be made to answer, but for the moment we must be grateful that Gath Forthnir's location has not been betrayed. Now, Padryc, I need you to hold still."

"Surely," the hobbit said. "Is it warm in here?"

I noticed for the first time beads of sweat forming on the hobbit's forehead. I felt a wave of fear strike me, but it was necessary to focus on the task at hand.

"I think it is, a bit," I lied. "Here, open wide." Padryc complied as I stuffed a clean, rolled-up cloth into his mouth.

"Now, if this hurts, just bite down on the cloth," I told him. The hobbit nodded.

"If woo weewy fink ith nethetharee," he said through the towel. I started to sew.

"OW!!!" Padryc must have jumped three feet into the air. "That hurt!" he cried. Lagodir and I had to force him back onto the bed.

"Hold still!" I scolded him. "It will be over much faster if you don't squirm." By now some of the other healers and leeches of Gath Forthnir had figured out we had an injured companion and had come over to offer their assistance. They helped to secure Padryc's limbs while I continued with my work and one of them got him to drink a little ale and eat a calming herb to help things along. I was able to finish the job, then I tied off the thread, wiped up the blood, and applied a new bandage along with a cloth sling.

"There you are," I said, "Nine stitches."

"Nine?!" he echoed. "Dear me! I hope it doesn't scar."

"I wouldn't worry about that," said Lagodir. "It probably will, but scars can be quite stylish." I stomped hard on the Gondorian's toes. I know it hurt him, but he did a good job to not show it.

"You'll want to be very careful with that arm for several days, Padryc," I said. "How do you feel?"

The hobbit raised himself up slowly, taking great care to not move his injured arm, and sat on the edge of the bed.

"Well, the arm feels much better," he said as his legs dangled over the side. "But I wonder if I should get some water in me? My head feels all queer and my stomach --"

Suddenly he vomited with a force that startled us all. The healers cried out and began rushing around. I looked at Padryc and noticed for the first time that, though we had just wiped him down and cleaned him up after administering his stitches, he was already drenched again with sweat. His face at once  became pale and sunken.

"Oh no," I breathed. "No, no..."

"Poison!" shouted one of the leeches. "Poison of Carn Dum! Make haste, healers of Gath Forthnir!"

"The cowards!" roared Lagodir in his distress. "Honourless wretches! I swear my blade shall drink the blood of Angmar's slaves in rivers ere I leave this place."

"Later!" I snapped at him, though I too was nearly sick with worry for our friend. Padryc had slumped back onto the bed, the pillow quickly becoming stained from his perspiration. I turned to one of the healers. "You! You speak as if you have encountered this malady before. What can be done for him?"

"We are going to the store-room to collect some milkthistle; when used as a compress the herb is highly effective at absorbing the venom. It is an excellent remedy, but it must be applied quickly enough to counteract the poison before it can travel far from the entry site. When did the Halfling suffer his wound?"

"It happened on the outskirts of Carn Dum," I replied. "We made all haste back here once he was injured, but we did encounter some delay in the process. So it may have been four hours ago -- possibly five."

"That is ill news," the healer said to me. "We will do what we can, of course, but I, Lunathron, chief of the healers in Gath Forthnir, have seen many strong Men fall to these poisons. What hope we have is in speed. Remove the bandages."

I did so at once. Shortly thereafter another healer came running with a bundle of dank-smelling leaves. These were treated and folded into a compress, then applied to the wound under a whole new dressing and sling. Lagodir and I sat to one side and allowed the Rangers to do their work, but it was all I could manage to not interfere. Padryc had slipped into a terrible fever and would sometimes murmur while he slept, but he made no other signs. The healers did everything their leech-craft had taught them, but eventually they moved on to other patients while Lagodir and I were left alone to keep vigil over our little friend.

Time crawled by. I watched Padryc's breathing with the intensity of a she-bear guarding her cub, always looking for anything that might speak of improvement -- or worsening. Lagodir wrung his hands now and then, but aside from that he was both motionless and silent. I began to feel as if I was passively waiting for my friend to die, and I couldn't stand it. I thought about how the hobbit had always stuck by us, even far out into these inhospitable lands, and how he deserved so much better. I thought about all the times he had lifted our spirits, kept us from despair, or given us cause to continue our fight. I thought, too, about the time not so long ago when Padryc had kept vigil over a mortally wounded Lagodir in the ruins of Ost Forod while Gaelira, Drodie, and I had ventured out to collect the price of the brigand-merchant Enro Smuin in exchange for the trace of athelas which would end up saving him. I wondered if this was how Padryc had felt as he watched over the Gondorian while his life slowly drained away, and I wondered too what Padruc must have done during that time, for he himself had never said, nor had Lagodir told any tale about those hours. Suddenly I turned to the man.

"Lagodir," I asked in a quiet voice, "Can you sing?"

He turned his head to me in surprise, but his expression quickly changed.

"Are you asking me whether 'tis possible, or whether I am any good at it?" he asked with a sheepish smile.

"Both, I suppose," I said. There was a short pause, then he began to chant softly:

Gondor! Gondor!
Between the Mountains and the Sea!
West Wind blew there, the light upon the Silver Tree!
Fell like bright rain in gardens of the Kings of Old.
O proud walls! White towers! O wing-ed crown and throne of gold!
O Gondor, Gondor! Shall Men behold the Silver Tree, 
Or West Wind blow again, between the Mountains and the Sea?

"That was lovely, thank you," I said after a time. For the briefest instant, it seemed to me a faint smile flickered on Padryc's lips, but now I think it was only a trick of my own mind. There was a long silence.

"What is this Silver Tree of which the song speaks?" I finally asked him.

"It is the Tree of the Kings," he answered. "It once bloomed in the Citadel of Minas Tirith with beautiful silver flowers. But that was in the days of Gondor's Kings, which are now long past."

"Silver flowers? That sounds like a sight to behold," I said.

"It must be, but no living Man has ever seen it in bloom. It is the hope of Gondor that it will do so again -- when the King returns to Minas Tirith. Many doubt that day will ever come."

"And what do you believe?" I asked him. There was a pause.

"I hold out hope," he said. "But whatever hope Gondor still has will come to it from out of the West, the same direction from whence came the White Tree itself. The Tree of Kings is said to be a scion of the Eldest of Trees, and that was brought from the Uttermost West, where lies Elvenhome."

"Elvenhome?" I echoed. "I wish Gaelira were here -- perhaps she could do something."

A short while later Lagodir rose to get some food from the mess-hall, but I refused to move from my place at Padryc's bedside. I thanked him but declined when he offered to bring something back to me and instead continued my vigil. I suddenly realized it must be well into the early morning hours and the hobbit would have normally written down the day's adventures by now. Eager to do something productive, I fished this book out of his pack. I did not feel bad about reading it since this journal belongs to all of us -- it is a record of The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders, after all. I was very impressed with what I found herein and marvelled at the hobbit's gift for relating a tale.

So imagine my surprise when a loose leaflet fell from the book and I opened it to discover -- well, I suppose anyone reading this knows exactly what I discovered. I thought my heart was going to stop.

Padryc, you have invaded my privacy, nearly to the very core of my being! You've laid my life bare for virtually anyone to see. This is my history, dearly sought and earnestly desired almost from my infancy! You cannot just take it like this.

And yet... now I find myself wishing I had not written those words in ink, for I cannot take them back. I do not doubt your intentions: I know you meant well, but I wish you would have told me -- there should be no secrets between us now. When I was ready I would have told you anything you wished to know, and I would have done so in gladness, knowing I had a friend in whom I could freely confide. But you have robbed me of that moment and robbed me too of the chance to decide when and how I would finally tell my story. I will be keeping this leaflet for the time being; time will tell if I shall give it back.

Please know that I am not angry with you; I don't think I could be angry with you right now anyway, even if I wanted to be, given your present condition. At the moment you are quite feverish, but you don't appear to be getting any worse, as far as I can tell. I didn't have the chance to say so at the time, but you did rather well for those being your first set of stitches. Perhaps when you are better you'll be able to write all about it using what I can see is your typical hobbitish flair for the dramatic. I've read several of your other entries and I wonder at the adventure we've had already. By the way, I'm glad you find my motherly qualities so endearing... better endearing than overbearing, which is what I always fear they are. Anyway, I doubt you will see an end to my mothering ways until we are out of this wretched land for good and all.

But I'll tell you this: if we lose you, then Mordirith is going to wish I was out of his land. And he's going to keep on wishing it right up until I dump his head into the lake to rest alongside that goblin's.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 47.1

Reflection and Reconnaissance 

Mersday, 23rd of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Refuge of Gath Forthnir, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
Carn Dum, as seen from a distance
I must begin by immediately telling you that this is Nephyn writing today's journal entry. Padryc is not well, and so I have taken this task unto myself for the time being.  If nothing else, it does help me pass the time while I keep watch over him, but I will try to relate everything as it happened. It will be a fitting tribute to our dear friend, should the worst befall him. Lagodir and I are not certain whether he will recover, but we hold out hope. If only Gaelira were here.

I suppose it's already obvious I don't possess Padryc's ability to write things down in some kind of logical order, so I will just begin at the beginning and go from there.

This morning I awoke suddenly and I was very alert, as if I was being called for some purpose. I am normally an early riser anyway, but today was different. Perhaps I somehow knew that today was going to be a dangerous one, but... there I go jumping around again. Let me start over.

Gath Forthnir was very quiet when I opened my eyes. I was rather tired last night, for we were up later than usual, and I welcomed the opportunity to grab some sleep. Drodie had passed out from drinking too much ale, Lagodir and Padryc were already asleep, and Gaelira was off doing whatever it is Gaelira always does in the early hours -- speaking with Maerchiniath, no doubt. Anyway, when I woke I saw she was in conversation with Lagodir and Drodie, while Padryc was still asleep. We decided to let him rest a bit longer while we held counsel among ourselves.

Gaelira told us the Rangers were fast becoming desperate, for the environs had grown more and more dangerous of late. Maerchiniath was preparing a party of foragers to venture out and scavenge the land about for any edible foodstuffs or other items which might be of use to them. Unfortunately, the number of warriors available to defend the foragers has been decreasing from repeated clashes with the Enemy, and so Maerchiniath asked if Drodie and Gaelira might lend their skills to their defence, and of course they had agreed to do so. Not wanting to slow the progress of our own mission, however, we decided it would be best if Lagodir, Padryc, and I were to try and scout the outlying regions of Carn Dum while the Dwarf and the Elf were away on their duty. With a little luck, we might be able to descry some unguarded entrance into the evil city, and of course this would make things much better for us once the time came to infiltrate that awful place.

Having discussed all of this, we bade Gaelira and Drodie farewell as they departed with the Rangers. Lagodir and I went over our stores and replenished a few items on which we were running low before Padryc finally roused himself some time later. By then it may have been roughly half past eight in the morning. We explained the whole situation to him, including how the three of us would be prodding the edges of Carn Dum to see if we could find a safe passage within to use later. The hobbit wasn't thrilled with the idea, of course, but he seemed to be in very good spirits and took it all in casually. I remarked that he was rather calm about it, but he only laughed.

"I'm downright terrified," he said, "But I'm sure I'll be perfectly safe so long as I'm with you two. I'll do whatever I can to help."

"We shall see how stealthy a Halfling and a Man of Gondor can be," I said. "And we should take great care as we leave Gath Forthnir to ensure we are not marked by any spies."

"It's a remarkable place, isn't it?" Padryc asked as he looked around. We three admired the waterfall once again as it continued its unending cascade into the pool which graced the centre of those caverns. "Judging from the crumbled walls and stone archways you find in here, you must suppose this was once some sort of building, or maybe a fortress; but that would have to have been quite some time ago by the look of it."

"For myself, I wonder what is the source of the water," I said as we watched. "To say nothing of where it goes: there must be some outlet, somewhere, which ensures this place does not flood. And how odd that there would be such a large amount of drinkable water in a place like this."

"No doubt that had a lot to do with why the Rangers decided to fortify it," said Lagodir pragmatically. "Though of course they had other reasons as well."

"An underground waterfall," Padryc said, a look of childish wonder in his eyes. "How lucky I am to have seen such a thing! I'll not deny that, when I saw it for the first time, I thought just how excellent it would be to have a waterfall built into a hobbit-hole! But then, just think what it would do to the flooring!" We all laughed.

Soon after we assembled our gear and departed the caves. We descended the rocky pathway and were very deliberate to ensure we were well-hidden as we emerged from the hillside. We set our bearings to head west, then struggled over some difficult terrain as we continued on our way.

"I'd hate to think what might happen if Angmar were to learn of Gath Forthnir's location," said Padryc as we crept along. "I expect they must guard its secret closely to keep it hidden the way it is."

"Aye, and they only leave it when the need is very great," said Lagodir. "They owe their lives and their continued resistance of the Enemy to holding that secret."

"I just hope that strange Woman we supposedly 'rescued' yesterday did not track us here," I said. "Though I was very careful to keep my eyes open for anyone trailing us. Still, the visibility around here is not the best, particularly at night."

"I was thinking about her last night as well," said Padryc. "Thank goodness we were able to escape those ruffians who set on us! I wish she hadn't run off -- there's no telling where she is now or whether she's all right."

"I wouldn't worry about her," I said with a wry smile. "I'm sure she's just fine -- aside from whatever punishment her superiors dealt her for failing to kill us off with that little ambush of hers."

"You don't mean to say that attack was a trap and she was the bait?!" Padryc exclaimed. "How rude!"

"I'm afraid so," I replied. "Otherwise she would have done as you suggest and stayed near to us for protection. I think more is known about us and our movements than we would like."

"Yes," agreed Lagodir. "Our danger increases with every step we take toward Carn Dum. But we must not forget Wenhair and her allies. We fooled her back in Ered Luin and bought ourselves some time, but I suspect by now she has realized her error. I would not be at all surprised to learn she had some part to play in yesterday's little escapade."

"Personally, I think that Woman was Wenhair," I said. "And if I ever see her again I will be sure to find out -- after I run her through, that is."

"No, I do not think that was Wenhair herself," the Gondorian replied. "She would have had no need for such a ruse, for she is a highly skilled warrior. And remember what she thought of Drodie's feint in the battle with Brullug? She openly spurned the idea of using deceit as a fighting tactic."

"But she's also a cheat and a liar herself," Padryc chimed in.

"I suppose you may have a point there," Lagodir conceded (and I was inclined to agree!). "Still, the customs and teachings of these Wild Men are beyond the reach of my understanding at times. In Gondor we call them Men of the Darkness to distinguish them from the High Men -- those who are of Numenorean descent. There are also the Middle Men, or Men of the Twilight, such as our comrades-in-arms, the Rohirrim. I only mean to say that the patterns of other cultures often do have a certain logic to them, though strange and even uncouth they may seem to outsiders."

"What do you make of these folk at Gath Forthnir, then?" Padryc asked, who sounded eager (I thought) to turn the subject away from the Lossoth-woman. "They seem rather... different from the inhabitants of Esteldin. To me, at least."

"They are a hardy people; even the Rangers among them are more grim-faced and dour-handed than their Southern brothers," he answered. "I admire their determination -- in Gondor, where all serve the Lord Denethor as Steward of the Realm, hearts can still waver and hope sometimes grows dim. But here in the North, where there has been no king for centuries beyond count? Theirs is a remarkable story."

"There is some chieftain who leads them, from what I understand," I said. "He goes by Strider, but I can't recall his true name. Gaelira spoke with him briefly in a chance meeting at the Prancing Pony some months ago, but the rest of us never met him. He must be an inspiring leader to command the loyalties of so many, especially in the face of such terrible odds."

"The valour of Numenor will not be so easily extinguished," said Lagodir proudly. "Even here, in this forsaken land, the Enemy is harried by the gallantry of my people. Isildur it was who brought the Dark Lord's last empire to ruin, and he has not forgotten it."

"I don't know that being the focus of the Dark Lord's hatred is an honour I'd care to have," said Padryc grimly. "Besides, I always thought it was the Elves he particularly despised."

"Sauron despises everyone and everything that is not himself or of his own making," the Gondorian replied. "But many of the Elves he has either slain or driven across the Sea with his persecution, and so they are unable to resist him as mightily as they used."

"And it seems they can be split in their loyalty at times," I said ruefully. "I wish Raviron and Luean were still with us."

"Who is Raviron?" asked Lagodir.

"Oh, he was an Elf that went about with us for a brief time when we had all first met back in Afteryule," Padryc replied. "Good chap, though a bit flighty. Handy with a bow, anyway."

"But then he felt the call of the Sea and he left us," I said, "Just like that."

"I wonder what old Luean is up to?" Padryc asked. "I miss him a great deal -- especially here. He always could make me laugh."

"I suppose all of the Elder Kindred will take to the Sea one day," said Lagodir.

"But Gaelira and Luean have not," I countered. "Though she feels that pull keenly as well. Didn't you notice how she refused to look toward the harbour of the Grey Havens when we passed within sight of it?"

"I remember!" said Padryc. "She seems determined to see through whatever it is she remains here for, and I for one am glad of it. Maybe one day she'll be free to take that road; much has changed just in the short time we've known each other, and much more is yet to change, I suppose. Why, think about how changed we all are! Remember how close Gaelira and Drodie used to be? And even Lagodir discovered he has a sense of humour buried somewhere under all that muscle."

"Time is the destroyer of all walls," Lagodir said with a shrug.

"Truly spoken! It makes me wonder what comes next," I mused. "I mean, what happens if we succeed in this quest, reclaim the palantir, escape to Rivendell, and everything turns out just as we hope? What then?"

"I will probably look into a quiet retirement in Rivendell, like old Mr. Bilbo," said Padryc. "I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be, and I doubt there'd be much left for me in the Shire anyhow."

"Do you not think yourself a bit young to be contemplating retirement?" Lagodir chuckled. "Are you not less than half the old hobbit's age?"

"Well, Mr. Bilbo is what now? One hundred and twenty-something? Twenty-eight?" Padryc thought aloud. "I remember his great birthday feast was his eleventy-first birthday. But he is remarkably well-preserved -- even for one of his family."

"As for me," I said as I continued to scan the landscape before us, "I plan to track down my mother and then my father, if I can. Though I expect that will take some doing."

"I certainly hope you get the chance," said Padryc kindly, "And that you find what you seek. But look! We have come to the outskirts of this great city and should begin to take care."

We had crossed a rather hilly region then skirted around the edge of a broad lake. After weaving our way through many crags and rock formations, we suddenly found ourselves on a wide plain which rose steadily toward a low mountain. Perched atop it we could see a terrifying and powerfully fortified structure -- Carn Dum. It was mostly built of stone, but in many places I could see various iron reinforcements and additions of masonry while the dark skies combined with eerie lights from within to give the fortress a ghoulish look. It was an altogether intimidating sight, even for me, and it looked impossible to enter it without being seen by the countless sentries which no doubt patrolled its walls. Still, we had to make the effort and find some way in.

I led the others stealthily from cover to cover as we approached the city. There were many huts, tents, shantys, and camps everywhere, but we stayed well out of sight by flitting from stone to brush and back to stone again. Nearly every movement we made was carefully planned and executed, so we avoided detection for a long while, but it was nerve-wracking and exhausting work. We followed one track which seemed to lead in the direction we desired, but ultimately we found ourselves checked by a huge gate of iron and could proceed no further.

Forced to double back, we eventually found another path. It had seen heavy use, and that did not bode well for us, but it was only lightly guarded and had no apparent physical obstructions. The road into it plunged down into a gorge, and coming from down there we could hear the shouting of captains, the tromping of feet, the clash of weapons, and the bellow of trolls. It sounded as though an entire army lived down that way, and yet it clearly led toward Carn Dum and might serve our purpose. We decided to return to Gath Forthnir with news of our discovery.

That is when things went terribly wrong. I don't know how it happened and I hope my friends can forgive me, but we turned round a corner of rock and suddenly found ourselves face-to-face with a patrol of Hillmen! There were five of them and only three of us, but I shot one through the eye as he gave the alarm and Lagodir was quickly at work on two more. The fourth engaged me sword-to-sword, but the fifth and last somehow found his way to Padryc.

I don't have the hobbit's flair for describing battles, so I won't attempt it. When it was over, the five Hillmen lay dead while Lagodir and I were unscathed. The same could not be said of our Halfling, however: although he had taken no notice of it, I saw a bloody gash on his arm. That fifth Hillman had been armed with a short bow of bone and a crude dagger made after the fashion of his tribe; at some point he must have landed a blow.

"Let's halt for a moment," I urged the others, "And see if we can't field-dress this wound. Lagodir, keep watch for a moment, will you?"

"I will do as you ask," answered the soldier, "But make haste: others are sure to come ere much time passes." I nodded and started to bandage the hobbit's arm. The cut was clean and it was not deep, but it was bloody -- even at first glance I knew my needle and thread would be called for, but first we needed to get out of that place.

"Hold still," I instructed Padryc, "And don't look at it -- that will only make things worse." Of course, he completely ignored me.

"Good Heavens!" the hobbit exclaimed with wide eyes. "I didn't even notice that I was hurt in all the commotion. I guess that big brute got a swipe on me despite all I could do with my shield. It's a good thing Lagodir was there take care of him or it might have been worse than this."

"Can you walk?" I asked. It was a silly question, looking back on it now, but I was genuinely concerned for my little friend.

"Of course I can walk!" he huffed back at me. "What a question! I got a scratch on my arm; I didn't have my legs lopped off."

"That is well," came Lagodir's hushed voice, "For more of the Enemy are on their way here. We must go -- now."

And so we went. The bandage I had contrived was decent enough, as things go, but I knew the wound was going to need proper treatment to staunch the bleeding. We moved quickly but warily, and all the while I could sense that we were taking too long. Over the past few months I have learned first-hand that hobbits have a remarkable constitution, but every body has its limits...

We re-traced our steps back to the entrance of Gath Forthnir. My one thought at that time was to ascend the path up the hillside and get our friend the rest and medical attention he obviously needed, but Fate seemed to have other plans for us. We had just found the pool of still water which marked the beginnings of the path up to the Rangers' encampment, and Padryc's face visibly brightened.

"I don't think I've ever been so happy to see a smelly pool of rancid water," he said. "Come on! Let's see if Gaelira and Drodie have returned yet."

"Padryc, STOP!" I seized him by the shoulder and held him from going any further.

Just at the base of the mountain where the road to Gath Forthnir began I saw an object, partly concealed under a scraggly bush, which had not been there earlier in the day. At first I thought it was a lump of rock, possibly fallen from the cliffs above, but after staring at it for a few seconds it took a horrifying shape. It was the body of a Man, and it was face-down in the dirt. Very slowly, as if in defiance of the sight which lay clear before me, my mind recognized the garb of that Man.

"No!" I said, but it was only a whisper. "Not Areneth..."

It was. The once cheery, loyal, and kind-hearted doorward of Gath Forthnir lay dead in a great pool of his own blood. His face, mercifully, was turned away from us, but even at that short distance I knew I was right. The others must have recognized him as well, for Padryc removed his hat and Lagodir bowed his head in mourning. Tears sprang unlooked-for into my eyes, but I brushed them away; if the Rangers' secret refuge had been found at last... The moment demanded discipline and focus. Summoning all my training I looked again, and I could see the ground beneath the corpse growing darker by the second. I caught my breath: this murder was recent. In fact, the killer was probably watching us at that very moment.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 46

Scouting the Enemy

Hevensday, 22nd of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Refuge of Gath Forthnir, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The Fortress of Barad Gularan
I was awakened this morning by a sharp clack. My eyes fluttered open instinctively, but they saw only darkness, so I shut them again straightaway since there was nothing to see. Besides, I had heard that clacking sound many times before: it was Drodie working with his flint and tinder on getting a fire going. For the thousandth day in a row, it seemed to me, I had been awakened well before the rising of the Sun. I groaned as I rolled myself over, eyes still closed.

"Drodie," I croaked in a sleepy voice, "Must you start with that racket so early in the morning? Some of us would prefer to not begin the day until the Day has begun itself, if you take my meaning." There was some muffled snickering from nearby and a whoosh of flame as Drodie's campfire caught fuel and came to life. I popped open one eyeball to see the rest of the Company along with Maerchiniath, leader of the Rangers of Gath Forthnir, gathered around me and smiling in the warm glow of the flames.

"I do take your meaning," came Drodie's answer, "Although I should think it rather difficult for anyone to know whether the day has begun or not, considering where we are."

I sat myself up and blinked. We had travelled through so many strange places of late I confess I had forgotten that we were -- for the moment, anyway -- deep inside a dark, winding network of tunnels and caverns called Gath Forthnir. It was the headquarters of the largest remnant of an army of Dunedain Rangers and other resistance fighters who opposed the tyranny of Carn Dum, and in here it was always night. I tried rubbing the crust from my eyes, but I was feeling particularly lethargic today.

"Oof -- judging from the pain in my back I do believe I slept the entire night perched on a most inconsiderate rock," I said as I massaged my stiff muscles. "If you lot are always so keen to be up before the Sun, why is it I never wake to a proper breakfast?" I was chiding in jest (mostly), and immediately began hunting through my pack in search of something eat. I shoved the first thing I came up with into my mouth, then grimaced when I discovered the thing I was chewing was cram. Looking up, I suddenly noticed everyone was staring at me with great interest. I paused.

"Wha?" I asked through a mouthful of biscuit. Maerchiniath grinned for a fleeting moment, then turned to Gaelira.

"I take my leave of you for now," he said as he started off down the tunnel. "Thank you again for your assistance; you know where to find me upon your return." I cocked my head at this cryptic farewell, then eyed my companions suspiciously.

"What assistance did he mean?" I asked, my mouth still full of cram. "And return from where? Or what? What is going on here?" My queries were met with grave faces.

"Master Padryc," said Nephyn, breaking a short but very awkward silence. "We are concerned for you -- Angmar is a place of no small amount of danger. I wonder whether you ought to come with us into this land of unknown horrors." I was so stunned my mouth fell open (and a sizable hunk of cram fell out of my mouth).

"This is no casual matter," Lagodir joined in. "You have heard of my own experiences in the Tower of the Black Wraiths, far to the south. Carn Dum may well be as like to a sister-city that place could possibly have, and I would never want to lead another living soul into similar circumstances."

"Well, you're certainly not leaving me here, if that's what you're getting at!" I objected. "The very idea! I didn't travel all this way just to watch my friends trapse off into danger without me."

"I don't know," mulled Gaelira, her hand on her chin. "Maerchiniath spoke harshly yet truly when he said he was pleased to host four hearty warriors here in Gath Forthnir."

"Why -- of all the nerve!" I huffed, deeply offended. "I'll have words with that sour-faced simpleton later, but I really did expect better coming from my friends, with whom I've shared in so many trials. If you think I'm staying in this dank hole while you four charge out there to brave the greatest dangers we've faced yet without me, then you'd best plan on chaining me up here first, for otherwise I shall follow this Company wherever it goes." Everyone's demeanor seemed to relax a bit at that point, though no one moved. Gaelira and Nephyn's expressions changed to something akin to admiration while I think I saw pity in Lagodir's eyes. The bearded lips of Drodie, however, curled into a mischievous smirk.

"We could always stuff him into Nephyn's backpack," he said.

"And we could always toss you pig-a-back onto Gaelira's shoulders so you could actually hit something above the waist with that axe of yours, Master Dwarf," I shot back acidly. Drodie's grin quickly vanished. "What's all this about anyway? We've made it this far, haven't we?"

"Carn Dum is nothing less than the seat of the Dark Lord's power in the North of Middle-earth," Gaelira replied. "Our greatest challenges lie less than a day's march from where we now stand, and I suspect each of us will be tested in ways we cannot possibly imagine. Even I feel here a deathly chill on the air, though the frigid snows of the Misty Mountains fazed me not at all." I saw the Elf shiver slightly and look around her.

"Be that as it may," I said, "You'll have me along, willing or no." I planted my feet well apart and obstinately crossed my arms. Nephyn smiled.

"Even if you had the opportunity to remain here, in these most hospitable caverns?" she asked playfully.

"They smell funny," I countered. "No doubt from all the Dwarves frequenting the place." I couldn't resist the opportunity to launch another insult at Drodie, but the Dwarf only grunted his disapproval.

"If that is your will, then we shall honour it," Gaelira said. I nodded curtly, clearly signaling the issue was closed to further discussion. I shouldered my pack and returned to eating my cram, though my appetite was quite subdued after that discussion.

"And now we should be about our task," the Elf continued. Everyone began to move out, and I noticed for the first time that the others had been geared to march this entire time. I trotted along behind them as we made our way toward the entrance of the Gath Forthnir caverns.

"What task is that?" I queried. "Would it be the 'assistance' Maerchiniath mentioned?"

"The same," answered Gaelira as we passed through the cave opening. "And it shall be no small feat."

We emerged once more into the ever-howling winds outside. The door of the Rangers' bivouac was well up the side of a mountain, and from that vantage point the blasted plains and craggy hills of Angmar unfurled themselves before us. Dark clouds raced overhead, and there was a deep gloom on the land.

"Mercy!" I exclaimed as I just managed to save my hat from being whisked off by the gale. "There must be one mighty storm brewing -- I don't recall it ever being so dark at this time of the morning; not even in this forsaken place."

"But it isn't morning, Padryc," said Lagodir from behind me. I looked up in surprise.

"Well, bless me!" I cried. "That's the Moon just there, isn't it? Though he's hard enough to spot through all the murk. You mean to tell me I slept straight through the entire day -- all the way through to evening?"

"I'm afraid it's true," said Nephyn in a very motherly tone (which I actually found quite endearing). "The others wanted to wake you, but I forbade them. We have all been through a lot, but perhaps you most of all, in your own way. I reasoned you might need the additional rest." I found myself speechless for a brief instant.

"Hum, this certainly puts our earlier discussion into some... perspective," I humbly admitted as we began our descent from Gath Forthnir. "I suppose I owe you all an apology."

"None is needed," said Gaelira, although I thought I heard Drodie sigh quietly at this. "The only thing we should be concerned with now is our duty to Maerchiniath and his people." I pricked up my ears.

"The Ranger-captain has asked us to scout the forces of Angmar at a place called Barad Gularan," explained Lagodir. "That is a sizable fortress which lies south and east of our current position. It is comprised of a central keep that is defended by multiple fortifications which surround it on all sides, much like the spokes of a waggon-wheel. Our task is to determine the numbers and kinds of soldiery the Enemy has stationed there, their general purpose, and whether they are an immediate threat to Gath Forthnir. We all reasoned it would be best to attempt this under cover of night, but Maerchiniath warned us with all urgency not to attempt to enter the central tower, even if the opportunity should happen to present itself."

"He'll get no argument from me," I said. By now we had reached the large pool of still water which lay at the base of the climb up to the Rangers' encampment, and we began to work our way around the edges. "But Maerchiniath strikes me as the sort of chap who isn't one to be casually frightened by rumours and hearsay. What lies within that tower which has him shaken so?"

"No one knows for certain," Gaelira replied. "But the lore among the Dunedain has long been that Barad Gularan was raised by the Witch-king when he first arose in Angmar, many centuries ago. It was said that the High Nazgul, swollen with pride at his newfound might and the destruction of the Dunedain Kingdom of Arnor, sought to free himself from Sauron's dominion and become a Power in his own right. Barad Gularan is supposed to be the sanctum where he plumbed the depths of dark sorceries to achieve this end, but of course it was all vanity. The Witch-king remained nothing more than a thrall to the Lord of his Ring, and his triumph was short-lived, for he was swept him from Fornost in the very same year in which he had set up his throne there, in mockery of those he had conquered. This would have been the Year 1974, as you all would reckon it, I believe."

"Our tales in Gondor still tell of how then-Prince Earnur won his crushing victory on the bloody Fields of Fornost," said Lagodir. "It is said that his fleet filled all the Harlond, Forlond, and even the Grey Havens so that all the peoples of the North were amazed at the might of Gondor."

"I remember well King Earnil's armada which was under the command of his impetuous son," said Gaelira sadly. "And the lore in your country does not exaggerate its size overmuch, Lagodir: I can still see in my mind's eye the brave banners of those ships which reached from the edge of sight, north to south, in unbroken line as they fluttered gallantly in the Sea-breeze. Yet the victory went not only to Men, for many Elves fought alongside them. Even the Halflings of the Shire were represented by a contingent of loyal archers, friend Padryc, though I doubt many besides myself still remember it. The Lord Glorfindel it was who rode beside Prince Earnur as they broke suddenly upon the Angmarim in their retreat from Fornost, and the Witch-king soon vanished from the North. He was forced to abandon Barad Gularan, but that tower still stands and is rumoured to be a place of great evil. Who can say what manner of perversities the mightiest of the Ringwraiths may have called upon in his attempt to break free of his Master's will?"

"Aye, and so our mission is concerned only with the forces reported to be gathering outside at the tower's base, and not within the tower itself," agreed Lagodir. "And I, for one, am grateful for that fact. It is my counsel we would do well to heed Maerchiniath's warnings."

We had reached the far side of the lake and marched on in silence. The path we followed retraced our steps from the day before, but soon we turned more toward the east. It was not long before we could discern the tall and pointed spire of a distant tower even in the gloom of night, cruel and threatening against the overcast night sky.

I will not overburden you with the details of our work that night, Dear Reader, but there was one peculiar event which bears mentioning. As Lagodir had told us earlier, the central keep was surrounded by smaller camps on all sides. These we examined as closely as we could without being detected, and we were quite disturbed by what we saw. Barad Gularan was ringed about with many campfires -- large enough for a small army -- and all manner of disreputable sorts were to be found there. There were Orcs and goblins, of course, but we also spied many Hillmen, dark-robed Angmarim, trolls, and even some Dourhand Dwarves. We decided to try and get a closer look in hopes that we might catch a glimpse of whatever captains were in command there.

From a distance, we identified a section of the camp which appeared to be very sparsely populated but which looked like it would afford us a sort of avenue toward the centre of the gathering. Upon creeping closer, we found ourselves amidst several crude tent-like structures made of poles and hides which we used to keep ourselves hidden from view. Eventually, we noticed a tall, robed figure some distance off which appeared to be giving orders to many others. Gaelira squinted hard for a full two minutes before turning back to us.

"A cargul," she whispered. "A lesser wraith in the service of Carn Dum. This has all the markings of a great alliance with Angmar it its head. War is coming to the North -- we should return to Maerchiniath at once and tell him what we have learned here." We all nodded and prepared to move out -- and then we heard the most incredible thing.

It was a heart-wrenching sigh, like the trembling murmur of an injured dove. We all turned to see the last thing any of us expected to find there: it was a Woman, her hands bound to one of the tent-poles. Her clothes were rent and tattered while her hair straggled over her face. From the look of her posture, she appeared to be near the end of her strength. She raised her head weakly toward us.

"Please," came a thin, wispy voice, "Help me... the Orcs will be back any moment."

Without a word I unsheathed my dagger and cut her bonds. The others moved to help her up, but the Woman seemed greatly enheartened by our rescue: she immediately began to run westward, away from the camp, while beckoning wildly for us to follow her. We chased after her as fast as we could, but the Woman's fear of the tower seemed to grant her extraordinary speed, or perhaps it was the fact that we were laden with gear while she had nothing on her except some thread-bare rags. Whatever the reason, we simply could not catch her up. The path we were following had a high ridge to the left while a slope fell away to our right. Then the Woman turned left, to the south, vanishing behind the ridgeline. We swung around the bend in pursuit.

"Look out!" shouted Drodie. There was a rushing sound to our left, coming from higher up the ridge. I looked and saw several dark shapes charging down at us from the rocks above! I instinctively shrank behind Drodie as he raised his shield. There was a heavy crash as the enemy plowed into our line, and both of us were bowled over. I hit the ground hard as the sturdy Dwarf fell on top of me.

Drodie had rolled away and was fighting, axe in hand, a split second later. I needed rather more time to catch my breath -- if you've never had a fully armoured Dwarf land on top of you, I can only say that it's a very uncomfortable experience -- but luckily no one seemed to notice me as I wretched in the dirt for a few moments. During those moments, I became aware that our assailants consisted of half a dozen goblins led by a pale-robed Man of Angmar. Gaelira was fending off two of them with her sword and staff while Nepyh and Lagodir had engaged two more with their swords. Drodie had picked up the remaining pair, while the Man turned to me. He was armed with a strange staff and a cruel, serrated blade, but it was his eyes which alarmed me the most. They were raging with absolute hatred such that his entire face seemed twisted into a hideous mask of furour and lunacy. So repulsed was I by that visage I very nearly didn't notice him raising his sword to strike at me, but at the last moment I reflexively dodged to one side.

My little Elven-dagger was still in my hand, but I suddenly remembered my shield. Drodie had helped me practice unlimbering it many times since it was gifted to me by Mallacai back in the Halls of Night, and so I was able to ready it in less than two seconds. I faced my attacker defiantly, though he was easily more than twice my own height. His curled lips slavered (not unlike an Orc, I remember thinking later) as he swung his sword a second time. It clanged off my shield and, though I had to deftly shift my weight in order to absorb the shock of the blow and not lose my balance, I remained unharmed. The Man snarled like a Warg and swung twice more. Twice more his attacks glanced off my shield and I kept my feet. The Angmarim glared viciously at my stubborn refusal to die and prepared to swing again. I shut my eyes and braced myself, praying the force of his next blow would not knock me clean off my feet, for then I would be at his mercy.

"KHAZAD! KHAZAD AI-MENU!"

I opened my eyes to see Drodie charging at the Man from my right. The goblins lay dead or dying at the feet of my companions, who were beginning to come to my rescue. The Man of Angmar quickly turned to face this new threat: his blade flashed, and Drodie deftly parried the blow with his axe, but then the Man's staff swung in a wide arc from the opposite side. There was a sickening crack, and the Dwarf spun around before collapsing in a heap. At that moment I wanted more than anything to rush to Drodie's side and help him, but somewhere deep inside I knew the threat must be eliminated first. I don't even remember thinking about what to do next -- I simply charged at the Man and thrust my dagger deep into his thigh.

The Angmarim screamed in pain and swung his sword-arm at me, but I was so close to his body that only the area above his elbow caught me. I was knocked away like a pesky fly, but my sting had found its mark: the Man stumbled, then drew himself up to strike again, and this time for the kill. But even as he raised his weapon there was a twang, and the barbed head of an Elf-arrow sprang from his heart: Nephyn had shot him from behind. Time halted. The Man managed a guttural snarl, then fell toward me as he tried to land one last blow. I threw myself at his feet, and he tumbled past me off the path and down into the crags below. The battle was over.

But at what cost? I instantly picked myself up and ran to Drodie, where the others had already gathered. I could see a small stream of blood trickling down the Dwarf's temple and into his beard. I fought to hold back my tears.

"He will be alright," Gaelira said as she examined our fallen comrade. "The blow was cruelly placed: it has darkened his eyes and also driven this point of the helm into the flesh of his head, from whence comes the bleeding. He should recover, but I cannot say how low it will be before he finds his senses again."

"And yet time is not our ally," said Lagodir worriedly. "The noise of our battle is sure to draw more adversaries. We must remove ourselves from this place at once! And where is that Woman gone to?"

There was no sign of her. I looked around wildly, but it was as though she had vanished from the face of the earth.

"I see lit torches advancing on the path," called Nephyn. She had crept back to the bend in the road to spy on the approach from Barad Gularan. "We have only moments before they are upon us."

"Come, let us carry him," said Gaelira. With a strength that amazed me, she hefted the thick Dwarf in her arms, though she still needed Lagodir's help to move him.

"But where?" I asked in desperation. There was a high ridge on one side of us and a chasm on the other. The path back to the tower was crawling with foes and we could not hope to outrun them on the road, burdened as we were with Drodie.

"Down into the gorge," said Gaelira, already moving that direction. "It is our best hope. Quickly now!"

For the briefest of moments we tried to climb down, but it was taking too much time. Without speaking a word, we all sat down and cast ourselves off the side of the path. We slid a good distance, and the sharp gravel cut our feet, legs, and knees mercilessly, but it turned out we had made the right decision. In reality the depth of that gully was not nearly as great as imagination made it out to be in the dark gloom of Angmar by night. I finally came to rest against something soft and warm. I stifled a cry when I suddenly realized I had fallen right into the corpse of the Angmarim we had just dispatched moments earlier. He was quite dead, of course, and so we had nothing more to fear from him, but the evil soldiers now patrolling the path above us were another matter. There were still the telltale bodies of six slain goblins littering the road, and it would only be a matter of time before they found a way down to where we were hiding.

In order to be understood without having to speak, Gaelira instructed through signs that we should place Drodie onto Lagodir's back then attempt to flee northward. This we did, though our going was painfully slow. Even as hardy a Man as Lagodir was soon gasping for breath and sweating profusely at the intense weight of a fully armoured Dwarf on his back.

"They say Dwarves make light of burdens," the Gondorian said between great gulps of air, "But themselves, light burdens they make not! Were every recruit in the fiefdoms of Minas Tirith to be strapped with such a load during their training, our armies would be much the better for it!" He spoke in jest, but I could see his strength was swiftly ebbing.

Finally, he sank to one knee and we knew we must rest, no matter the danger. It was very dark, for it was fully night and the campfires of Barad Gularan were the only source of light, but we managed to find a comfortable enough nook under a nearby boulder. We carefully set Drodie down, then I helped Gaelira to remove his helm and begin tending the wound. It was not deep, but head-wounds do tend to bleed a great deal (as I'm sure you know), and so I was forced to use a considerable amount of our drinking-water to clean the blood from his head, face, and body. I wrapped Drodie's crown in soft cloths and we placed the damaged helm into Lagodir's pack in the hopes someone at Gath Forthnir might have the skill and the tools to repair it.

We began to wonder how much farther it was before we reached the wide pool and the stairs which led to the Ranger-camp. The winds of Angmar had returned and were blowing bits of debris and gravel everywhere, so it was difficult to see far and impossible to hear whether we were being pursued. At one point we did hear the mournful howl of Wargs in the distance. Nephyn chuckled grimly.

"If they think to track us using Wargs," she said, "They should prepare themselves to be disappointed. Not even their snuffling noses could find us with naught but stone for the prey to leave trace upon."

"True," agreed Gaelira as she peered intently into the darkness. "But they have the advantage of knowing this land and its hiding-places. It would be best if we were to move on as soon as we can."

It was at just that moment that Drodie awoke. He suddenly leapt up from where he was lying as if he had been discharged from a pop-gun and kept demanding to know whether I was alright. Once we had finally calmed him down we gathered that he could remember nothing from the point where he had been rushing to my defence, and so we had to fill him in on everything that had happened since then. He quickly sat down and declared he had a most incredible headache, but it was only a short time before we managed to collect ourselves and finish the journey back to Gath Forthnir, which we were fortunate enough to complete without further incident.

We are back there now, even as I write this account of today's adventure. We tended to our hurts and Drodie especially was given every attention and care he could want, although he was more interested in getting his helm repaired (which it was). We five then spent the wee-hours of the morning relating our tale to Maerchiniath and his Rangers over an excellent meal in their mess-hall. I somehow became the unofficial spokes-hobbit for the Company, as the demands for me to recount our scouting expedition and battles with the Enemy kept coming from all corners. There was a particular fondness for how Drodie fell on top of me just as the fight was beginning, a detail which I, personally, did not remember with much fondness.

Oh, and Drodie is going to be fine: his wound healed perfectly and he treated his headache using the standard Dwarf-cure for such things -- liberal doses of beer. He loudly proclaimed that, if the Enemy's minions were going to try and make an end of him, that they had better target some other part of his body besides his impervious head. This gave everyone in Gath Forthnir a good laugh, myself not least among them. Even Maerchiniath was in better spirits after hearing of our exploits, though he was very troubled indeed when we told him of the great array of soldiery gathered outside of Barad Gularan.

"I fear you have the right of it, Gaelira," the grim-faced Ranger said quietly while his Men enjoyed themselves. "There can be no doubt that the Steward of Angmar is amassing his strength here in preparation for War in the North, and we see now that there is no shortage of thralls throughout Eriador willing to swell his ranks. What hope can there be for Free Folk in these times?"

"Only this," I said, "That Weeds need naught to thrive but lack of a gardner. At least, that's what we say in my country. Maybe it's a bit rustic for this sort of dark work in distant lands where there ain't no gardners, nor no gardens neither, from what I can see, but I reckon the sentiment is still worth remembering."

"That is well-spoken," said Maerchiniath. "I shall endeavor to remember your advice! I am glad indeed to have you here among us."

"Oh! That reminds me," I said a little uncomfortably, but determined to have my say. "What's this I hear about there being only four warriors in this Company of ours? Anyone hearing such talk might think I wasn't welcome in Gath Forthnir."

"He would be wrong indeed who thought that," answered Maerchiniath with an amused look in his eye. "Though I'll not deny the words were mine, for I meant no harm or disrespect by them. I do beg your pardon as I had no intention of offending. Have you seen many more battles then, Master Halfling?"

"Er, well, I never actually claimed to be no warrior," I stumbled, suddenly feeling as though I had talked myself into a corner I was never meant to be in. "That is, I suppose you could say I've seen a decent number of battles, but mostly from a distance. More often than not I was trying to find my way out of them, you know."

"The same could be said of all warriors," said Maerchiniath with a pointedness I found noteworthy. "In one fashion or another." I became aware that my friends were eagerly awaiting my response to this, and I began to hate myself for broaching the subject at all.

"I see your point," I said. "So I guess that makes me a warrior also?"

"Do you wish to be known as one?"

"I'm not in the habit of claiming to be something I'm not," I answered.

"Shall I call you a gardner, then?" he asked me. I thought for a moment.

"Yes, I'd prefer that," I said.

"Well then, Gardner Padryc," said Maerchniniath with a broad grin, "Welcome to our garden. I look forward to uprooting many weeds together, with your help. I trust you will forgive my earlier words and please be assured you are most welcome, for anyone who resists the advance of the Shadows of Angmar is welcome in Gath Forthnir, be they warrior -- or gardner."

I thought his words fair and true, so we considered the matter settled at that point. Our Company were all quiet tired (except, I suppose for Gaelira), and so rest was once again in order. There was some sporadic discussion as to what we might attempt on the morrow, but on that subject I'm not sure anyone has any clear idea. The only thing which seems certain is that, sooner or later, we would have to turn west, toward Carn Dum.