Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 80.1

Of Fried Fish and Pointy Things

Monday, 22nd of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Enedwaith
For some reason I slept better last night than any other time I can recently recall. We had a little improvised birthday celebration yesterday evening for me, which I found very endearing and quite a lot more fun than anything I was expecting in this empty and desolate country. Much of the time was spent reminiscing over our adventures together -- recalling many of the exciting and (at times) rather strange things we had experienced as a Company.

Before turning in, I had quietly flipped through some of the older chapters in my journal. A lot of the writing I now find appalling, but I'm very glad to have kept this record. Some of the events I had completely forgotten -- like that time we turned a live troll to stone and Drodie had gotten stuck in its paw -- while others I remembered as vividly as you can image, such as the terrifying battle with Guloth outside the Rift of Nurz Ghashu.

It also got me thinking about all the different people with whom we had occasion to interact over the course of our adventures. Some notables, like Strider and Elrond, but also the un-famous: Luean, Raviron, Wenhair, Laddald, Umarth, and Inar, alongside many others. Now I must add Ancthas and Lagodir to that long and growing list. I felt a stabbing ache of regret when I thought of Lagodir's leaving us just a couple of days ago, and I fell to wondering how we was faring with Leofwald, the Rohirric knight who had summoned him to the Prince Theodred (whoever that may be, exactly).

I was laying on my back when I awoke. The sky overhead was a bright and cheerful blue, and I suddenly felt very happy, as if I was lying in a field full of summer blossoms somewhere in the Shire while lazing the day away. The branches of the trees in the midst of which we had made our camp swayed calmly in the light breeze and I marked to myself just how beautiful the weather was shaping up to be. Distantly, I could still hear the constant rush of the falls which had very nearly killed me two days earlier, but now it sounded calming and serene to me. For a few precious moments the fact that we were about to embark upon another long, dangerous journey didn't bother me in the slightest. I sighed, but it was an expression of contentment.

"Good morning, Padryc," came Nephyn's voice from somewhere near to my right hand. "How did you sleep?"

"Quite well," I said, but I did not turn toward my companion. Indeed, I didn't move a muscle -- I was that complacent. "Is your shoulder doing any better?"

"A bit," the huntress replied, but I heard a tinge of frustration in her words. "It was definitely a good idea that I did not try to scale Nar's Peak with you, Gaelira, and Drodie yesterday. I just hope the terrain isn't too rough in the direction we'll be taking today."

"It should not be," came Gaelira's voice, and at that point I did sit up and look around. I saw Nephyn near at hand: she was reclining against a tree-trunk with a few fruit-rinds and a water-skin beside her, as if she had just breakfasted. Minasse and the she-Elf were approaching together -- apparently they had been off somewhere -- and there was no sign of Drodie.

"Gaelira is right," said Minasse. "Our road now lies westward through the valley of Thror's Coomb. The going will be quite manageable, though it can be a bit rocky at times, as is common enough in this land."

"The greater concern is the way we must go," Gaelira continued. "We must return to the West-gate of Moria, then make our way north to the Redhorn Pass. To reach it, however, we must first cross the river to our north by way of the Araniant. That bridge is a long day's march west of our current position. Unfortunately, there is also a Dunlending village in the middle of the straight path thither, and we should not take unnecessary risks. Therefore, we will be obliged to circumvent that settlement by passing well to its south, and that will mean our journey to the bridge will likely take twice as long."

"Well, if the weather stays like this I don't think I'll mind," I said with a grin. "What time is it? And when do we start?"

"It's about half-eight," Nephyn answered me, "And we can get underway as soon as you've breakfasted. We would have woken you sooner, but it seemed unfair to do so after a prolonged night of merry-making."

"I'm grateful for your consideration," I said as I began rummaging through the food-stores. "So! I'm now thirty-seven years old, though I'm sure that counts for nothing next to our two Elvish friends here. It probably is quite young even in comparison to Master Drodie, now I think of it. Where has he gotten himself off to, anyway?"

"Not far!" came the Dwarf's boisterous halloo, and his bearded face suddenly bobbed over the grass to the north of us -- from the direction of the river. I was just about to shout him a greeting, but then my voice faltered as I stared: Drodie was naked down to his waist and sopping wet! He carried a spear in his right hand while his left was slung over his shoulder supporting something I could not see.

"What on earth have you been up to?" I asked in bewilderment, but the Dwarf only flashed me an enormous grin.

"Fishing!" he replied, then he swung his bundle down and I saw it contained half a dozen trout, each of which had at least one sizable gash through its body. A moment later I had put two-and-two together.

"What, spear-fishing?!" I asked, incredulous. "You mean to say you've been down in that freezing cold river stabbing at trout all morning?"

"Of course!" he laughed, "And done a right pretty job of it too, if I may say so. All that's needed now is a good smoking, a good salting, and there's supper for the lot of us!"

"Can't argue that," I said as I eyed the catch hungrily. "We'll need to clean and prepare them, of course, and that will take time. It'll delay the start of our march, but it'll mean we can keep going longer since the meat will just need to be heated again before we eat it. Well done, Drodie!"

"Where did you get the spear?" asked Minasse, who was peering suspiciously at the Dwarf's fishing implement.

"Eh? Oh, I nicked it off a deer-carcass I found early this morning while scavenging for fire-wood," Drodie answered. "Seemed like just the thing, what with the river so near to camp."

"A deer-carcass, you say?" said Gaelira, becoming interested in her turn. "You mean the spear was used to fell a deer but was then simply left there while the hunter made off with his kill?"

"No, not exactly," said Drodie with a frown. "Actually, I did find it a bit odd at the time: the spear was left, but so was the deer; it was untouched. It was as if the hunter got his kill then simply left everything there to rot in the Sun -- spear, venison, and all -- and it was a magnificent white stag too, when it was still alive. The kill was at least two days old, I would think, by the look of it."

"You... you don't suppose... Izarrair?" I stammered. The thought of a malicious spearman stalking through the woods had reminded me of our (we suspected) still un-bested foe.

"I do not think so," said Minasse. "That is certainly a Dunlending spear -- it looks almost identical to any of the ones used by Izarrair's lackeys when we were ambushed before. That does not mean there is any connexion between Izarrair's Men and this hunter, of course, but it is certainly unusual for anyone to go to the trouble of bringing down a deer then casually abandoning the prize to decay. Particularly if it was as large and impressive as Drodie makes out. How curious!"

"What do you suppose it means?" I asked as I looked over each of my companions faces in turn.

"I certainly have no idea," admitted Nephyn, "But I agree such behaviour is abnormal. Perhaps this Dunlending hunter was himself attacked, maybe by another tribesman eager to steal his kill?"

"Then why didn't he?" Drodie countered. Nephyn shrugged.

"Good point," she conceded. Something in her voice caught my attention, but I thought better of mentioning it at the time.

"Where was it you found the weapon, Drodie?" Gaelira asked. "I would like to examine the place, if possible."

"Certainly," the Dwarf nodded. "I will show you the way once I have dried and clothed myself."

Once he had done this, Drodie and Gaelira went off southward toward a belt of trees while I began cleaning and preparing the fish. Minasse was flipping through hand-written copies of the Dwarf-tome we read in Zudrugund, but he didn't seem able to read ancient Dwarvish, so his efforts were, I think, mostly wasted. Nephyn fell silent and kept to herself.

Gaelira and Drodie returned to camp a short while later. The she-Elf's face was lined with concern.

"It is just as Drodie had told us," she reported. "The carcass remains there, rotting in the heat of the day. I find it all very peculiar. Have you begun smoking the fish yet, Padryc?"

"Not yet," I said. "I was just about to do, though."

"Do not," she said. "Fry them instead, please, and see that the fire smokes as little as possible. Minasse, Drodie: let the three of us be on the watch while Padryc cooks and Nephyn rests. And we should speak only at need. I feel there is something strange afoot in this region."

And so what had looked at first to be a pleasant day turned instead into a silent and morose morning of tasks. I saw to the provender while Nephyn rested her shoulder and the other three stood around on guard. I went about my work as quietly as I could manage and, when it was done, I salted the fillets and let them cool in order to be wrapped. Once all was ready, we stowed our future supper, gathered our belongings, scattered the ashes of our campfire, shouldered our burdens, and started to march.

We set off going south-west, with the slopes and spires of Harndirion rising high before us. It was a very clear day, so we could easily see the Dunlending village to our right that we were keen to avoid, but we kept ourselves hidden by screening behind tree-walls as often as possible. We encountered no enemies and heard nothing but the forest-calls of birds and other small creatures. Gaelira always seemed to be hearing strange noises, however, and she would often turn her head this way and that at the slightest sound. Her demeanour was making me nervous, truth be told, and after a while I simply decided to ignore her -- I had seen nor heard anything that sounded even remotely threatening all day, and I grew tired of being constantly on edge.

We all had a nibble out of our packs around noon which passed as "lunch," but we never stopped marching. It wasn't until sometime after three that we finally had a proper rest, at which point we started to bear in a more westerly direction. The Dunlending village wasn't even visible by then, so we were all just ambling through the woods without much worry. Gaelira was still acting unusually skittish, but at that particular time she, Minasse, and Drodie had all wandered a bit ahead of Nephyn and myself. It had been obvious to me since breakfast that she was being very reserved today and I meant to find out what was bothering my friend. I decided it was as good a time as any to try probing her a little.

"How's the shoulder now?" I asked, taking the easy route to starting up a conversation. "Today's exertions haven't been too hard on you, I hope?"

"No," she said (a little abruptly, I thought), "It's uncomfortable, of course, but I'm managing well enough."

"Glad to hear it," I said. There was a brief pause as we walked. "It feels strange being only five again, doesn't it? I was missing Lagodir this morning."

"I miss him too," she said quietly. "We could have used his sword-arm that night when Izarrair attacked."

"Too right, you are!" I agreed, "I have a feeling that won't be the last time we wish he was still with us, though I hope I'm wrong. I trust he is doing well, wherever he is now."

"He is in strong company," she said. "That Leofwald looked to be a capable knight."

"To say nothing of Ancthas," I nodded, "Though, of course, his road only led him back to the south of Dunland. Still, he was an honourable chap, wasn't he? Helped us out of a couple of tight spots, he did!"

"He did, and he certainly was. Honourable, I mean. Even Lagodir eventually came to admit as much."

"Did he?" I said with raised eyebrows, then I frowned as I searched my memory. "When was that, then? I don't seem to recall him saying any such thing when I was around -- quite the opposite, actually. I suppose this must have happened while I was bumping along as the cargo of Smuin or Bedwur's Men?"

"No, it was after we had all met up again at Harndirion, shortly before we parted ways," she replied. "He and I had not... seen eye-to-eye on several subjects during our travels through Dunland so, as it was clear that he would be leaving us, I wished to resolve those differences and ensure we parted as friends. He said he had seen the strength, pride, and honour of the Dunlendings in Ancthas and his people, though he remains highly distrustful of them, I think. Still, he said he had learned to not judge them over-broadly and admitted he had been too harsh in assuming they were all alike."

"Well, that's something, anyway," I said. "And I do remember seeing the two of you talking, now you mention it. You don't suppose he was just saying those things for your own sake? To spare your feelings?"

"I doubt that," she said with a slight smile. "You may have forgotten this, Padryc, but you are still the only one among us who knows of my connexion to this land."

"Why, so I am!" I laughed. "I'm sorry; sometimes I forget I know you better than the others. Which reminds me -- why didn't you want to tell us what you really thought about Drodie's spear this morning?" Nephyn looked at me sharply.

"What makes you think I was withholding anything?" she asked.

"Oh, come on, Neph!" I chuckled. "You're not as opaque as all that; not to me, anyway. I suspect your hunter-skills told you more about Drodie's spear than you let on, but you didn't want to frighten us, am I right?"

"Not exactly," she sighed. "It's a little more complicated than that. I think... I think whoever felled that deer left it there because they were frightened."

"Well, that certainly seems to fit," I agreed. "Why else leave it there, spear and all, when you had just bagged your supper? But what do you suppose it was that frightened him off? An animal?" Nephyn paused.

"I think it was the Huntsman," she said, finally.

"Sorry, who?"

"The Huntsman," she repeated. "Don't you remember? We heard him referred to a few times throughout Dunland and all the various clans seemed to hold him in reverence. I think it was he I saw the night before last."

"You mean in your dream?" I asked, trying to understand her.

"It wasn't a dream," she said. "It couldn't have been because I was never awake when Minasse tended my wound, but when I saw the Huntsman my shoulder had already been dressed. And I saw him, Padryc -- I saw the Huntsman. He was curious about us and he wanted me to know he would be watching. I think he has some strange connexion to this land and he wants to protect it from something."

"And you think the Huntsman scared off whoever it was that killed the stag?"

"I know I can't prove it, but yes," she replied. "I think... I think it might have made the Huntsman angry." I blinked several times as I processed what she said to me.

"Well, I... I suppose it's certainly possible..." I started to say.

"Oh, don't humour me, Pad," Nephyn pleaded, and I was surprised to hear the pain in her voice. "You think I don't know how absurd I sound? I'm saying it because I know it. I saw it -- I saw him. I don't know what he wants; maybe he doesn't want anything from us. I'm just saying it because it's true... and because I know I can trust you."

"Hey, didn't we once fight a wraith who took over our friend's body and tried to conquer half of Middle-earth with the help of a snow-witch and a ten-thousand-year-old demon?" I laughed. "Who am I to say it didn't happen? We've seen stranger things before, you and I, and only a fool wouldn't recognise that there's something more than a little 'off' about this place anyway. Listen, I won't say anything to the others if you'd rather I didn't. We'll just keep our eyes open, right? Just you and me."

"Thank you," she said quietly, "That's all I really wanted to hear."

We didn't speak again, the two of us, but we moved to catch the others up and eventually did. The Sun sailed into the West and began to go down behind the hills as we finally passed Harndirion on our left. It wasn't until well after dusk that we stopped for the day. Drodie lit a fire and I re-heated the trout in my frying-pan with a few spices. Our supper was finer that what we had become accustomed to after months on the road, but it was also quiet and tense. Gaelira was still anxious about something, Nephyn was withdrawn, Minasse was sullen and aloof, while I was thoroughly uncomfortable, although I couldn't quite pinpoint why. Only Drodie seemed immune to the general sense of restlessness among us as he flipped calmly through the notes he had taken from the library at Zudrugund.

As I sit here, the light of the sunset is almost completely gone so I am writing by firelight. I'm positively aching to get out of this country! So much ill has befallen us here -- as if there's been a curse following us around. I'm starting to think I see Izarrair lurking in every thicket and everyone's nerves seem frayed. Nephyn's tale about the Huntsman might seem like codswallop on the surface, but I have no doubt she believes it, and that must mean something. Maybe it doesn't make any sense, but I feel like if we can just get beyond the borders of the Enedwaith and Dunland -- get back into Hollin -- that somehow we'll be safe again. There's a wildness or a prowling menace stalking this land, and right now I want nothing more than to be rid of it for good and all.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 79

A Lonely Height

Sunday, 21st of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Nar's Peak, Somewhere in the Enedwaith
View of Thror's Coomb from the slopes part-way up Nar's Peak
"Where is he?!"

I literally jumped up from my deep sleep to a standing position, I was so frightened! I blinked furiously, blinded in the broad light of day, while my head swam with drowsiness. Who had uttered that cry?

Slowly, my fatigued brains began piecing things together: it was Nephyn, awake at last. She had risen from where she lay inside our poor excuse for a shelter beneath two leaning stones, dashed outside amid the trees, and was now searching frantically for something. Gaelira, Minasse, and Drodie had all gone after her as well, so I was left alone for the moment. The roar of the nearby falls suddenly came to my ears, which brought back all the awful memories of last night -- the sudden attack by Izarrair and his mercenaries, Nephyn's near-fatal wounding, the battle by the gorge, and my own salvation from the brink of drowning in the river. Poor Nephyn suffered a nasty blow to her shoulder from Izarrair's spear and we had all tended her during the night, but apparently she was still very much alive. She was looking here and there, seemingly oblivious to her injured arm which now hung in the makeshift sling Minasse has crafted for her. I was very happy to hear her speak again, but I must confess I was feeling a bit irritated at having been woken so suddenly, especially since I then realized I had only just missed splitting my skull on the stone roof of our campsite when she aroused me in such a fright.

"Neph, Izarrair was defeated," I called to her. "He was wounded in the fighting and fled westward, although we don't believe he was slain."

"Not him," the huntress called back to me, "The tall Man! Where has he gone? We are trespassing in his land and he is watching us."

"Wait... who?" I replied as I emerged from the cave to follow her. The others exchanged frowns and glances among themselves, seemingly as confused by Nephyn's ravings as I was.

"The tall Man!" she said again. "His eyes were like stars and where he walked tiny lights would follow, as if he moved about in a swarm of fireflies. He does not know what to make of us, but he watches."

There was a silence as we all processed her words. She looked at each of us in turn.

"Didn't you see him?" she asked, a bit uncertainly.

"There has been no one but us here all night," said Drodie. "You must have been dreaming, lassie."

"Minasse and I did patrol the surrounding area a bit in the early hours of the morning," said Gaelira, "And we also took a moment to refill our water-skins down below the falls. We left Drodie on guard during that time. Are you positive you saw nothing?" The Dwarf opened his mouth and shut it again.

"Well, I might have nodded off for the briefest of instants," he admitted, "But I certainly didn't see any tall Man walking around surrounded by glowing insects! Why do you even ask? It's obvious the girl dreamt whatever it was she thought she saw."

"Perhaps, and perhaps not," said Minasse. "This is a peculiar land and it possesses many secrets. What was it this Man said to you, Nephyn?"

"I... He didn't actually speak to me," the huntress replied awkwardly. "He just looked at me and I... understood, if that makes any sense. He was curious about us and our business, but I didn't say anything to him because I was so awe-struck. And I didn't feel any need to call out to any of you -- I wasn't frightened; in fact I felt very calm, seeing him there. He just wished me to know that he would be watching us, then he turned away and, somehow, he vanished." Nephyn made a face indicating she realized just how absurd all of this sounded in her own ears. "After that I was so peaceful and exhausted I must have fallen asleep again. I suppose I really did dream it all, but it just seemed so real at the time." We all looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

"Personally, I'd say it sounds less fantastic than some of the other things we've seen already on this adventure," I shrugged. "Whether or no, as long as this Man is willing to let us pass then he's much less of a problem than some others we've met. I do hope your sword-thrust will keep that Izarrair out of commission for a good long while, Minasse."

"Do not forget your own contribution to that cause, Master Pemberton," the Noldo said with a smile. "For the moment, however, I believe we have remained in one place far longer than is wise. I should have urged us to move on from here immediately, had it not been for the injuries we sustained last night."

"Quite," Gaelira agreed, "But we needed to rest in preparation for today's trials. Our path is finally clear, but there remains at least one detour we must take before we set our feet unfailingly upon it."

"Your destination may be clear," countered Minasse, "But the path seems less so, at least to me."

"Are you not resolved, then, to go forward with us?" asked Gaelira.

"I am not yet certain," the High Elf replied. "You speak glibly of assaulting the ancient fastness of Taur-nu-Fuin, that the Sylvan Elves now fittingly call Dol Guldur, but that has long been a very evil place. Moreover, I say again I dislike that the underlying cause of this endeavor appears to be vengeance for your departed friend Luean. Throughout all the Ages of this World has the quest for revenge been the deadliest bane of the Elder Kindred, as you should well know, Gaelira."

"I do, indeed," the she-Elf said sadly, "But do not overlook the other reasons we have for this undertaking: the Seekers of the Seven Stars march to oppose Mordor's puppet Gortheron and we have a chance to aid them in that fight."

"With little hope of victory," Minasse parried. "Who among the Free Peoples have ever passed beyond the outer gates of that accursed tower and lived to tell of it? But I shall remain with the Company for now: if your path lies eastward, then you must pass the eaves of Lothlorien, and I greatly desire to see that land again. In any case, I believe we would do well to speak with the Lord Celeborn and the Lady Galadriel concerning these matters and hear what their wisdom may tell us."

"Then you and I are of the same mind on that account, at the very least," said Gaelira. "And it cannot have escaped your attention that the Hill of Sorcery stands not a great distance from the eaves of Lothlorien which you love; only the breadth of the Anduin and the bows of the Galadhrim keep the darkness of Dol Guldur at bay."

"Not those things only," said Minasse cryptically, "And no -- it had not escaped my attention. I will go with you at least to Caras Galadhon; from there I will make my own decision regarding this errand and my part in it."

"We ask nothing more," said Gaelira, "But the road thither is a long one: we will have to turn west and skirt this mountain range by crossing the Araniant for a third time, then head north through Eregion and make for the Redhorn Pass. That high road (assuming it is still accessible) will lead us down into Nanduhirion, and from there it will be another day's march to the edge of the Golden Wood."

"How long will that take us, do you think?" I asked.

"I should say at least ten days from here to the feet of Caradhras," she said, "Then I think two days to cross the mountain-pass and at least one more to traverse the vale. All told, I believe we have a fortnight's journey ahead of us ere we see the golden boughs of the mellyrn shimmering overhead in the starlight."

"A fortnight?!" I cried, "Do we even have enough supplies to carry us for so long?"

"I believe we do, if we are careful with our provisions," Gaelira replied. "We acquired much from Inar's stores, though it is true we shall have no opportunity to replenish until we reach Lothlorien."

"And summer is nearly at an end," I reminded her. "We may find some wild things growing which are good to eat in Eregion, but of course we won't find anything in the mountains. Nor once we come down on the other side, I should think, as autumn will have set in by then."

"So long as you don't go feeding us any wild mushrooms," said Drodie with a wink, "Or else we might all find ourselves dreaming of strange Men with starry eyes and pet firefly-swarms accosting us in the middle of the night."

"That's not funny," said Nephyn, although I don't think she was truly offended. "But what was the detour you mentioned, Gaelira? Do you still mean to find that ancient Dwarf-library in the mountains?"

"Zudrugund, yes," Gaelira answered her. "We need to know more about the gondath and what the Dwarves of Moria learned concerning their properties. The word-hoard of Zudrugund lies close at hand and is the best source for such knowledge I can think we have hope to find, unless we wish to return to Katub-zahar and blunder about in the dark a second time."

"No, thank you!" I exclaimed. "And do we know where Zudrugund is, then?"

"Yes," the she-Elf said hesitantly. "Well, I know the way there -- I found it last night just as Izarrair was launching his attack on our camp. The stone bridge which once marked the road into the mountains seems to have fallen away, but in its place was raised another bridge... of sorts. You had best follow me and see what I mean."

"Yes," Minasse agreed, "We ought to have left this place long ago, but I do not know whether the Woman will be able to manage a climb into the snowy heights."

"I don't think she should try," I said. "Quite apart from the pain, the exertion could very well re-open the wound. And if we're at all concerned about our supplies lasting us a fortnight's journey, then getting trapped with a wounded party member halfway up a mountain would only create more delay and a supply shortage on top of it."

"You are right," said Gaelira. "Nephyn shall not scale Nar's Peak: Minasse, I think you should remain with her while Drodie and Padryc ascend with me. It will be swifter this way."

"Agreed," said Minasse, "Although we should remove ourselves from this spot -- we will make a new camp near to the foot of the mountain and there await your return."

"So be it," said Gaelira, "Let us collect our belongings and go."

We followed Gaelira east along the edge of the river for a few miles, but it was not a great distance. I managed to have a few bites of food along the way, but I was quite conscious about it now that I knew we had a two-week journey ahead of us -- and that would only begin in earnest once we had finished with this mysterious library Gaelira was so keen to see. I looked up at the mountains to our left on the far side of the river and wondered how anyone could ever live up there: they seemed so bleak and desolate.

The rain from last night had washed everything clean in the valley, and that strong scent you always get just following a storm was heavy in the air that morning. There was still a heavy cloud cover as well, but it was light and puffy, not dark and threatening like it had been. Still, the head of Nar's Peak -- the mountain we meant to climb -- was hidden in a light grey mist, as if there might be snow coming. I recalled that autumn was nearly upon us and, indeed, the weather was already starting to take a slight turn.

"How are you feeling, Nephyn?" I asked the huntress as we marched along. I had suddenly become aware that, due to her bizarre manner of waking, none of us had thought to ask about her welfare.

"I'm in a great deal of pain," she replied, "But I will live. I fear I will be of no use in fight for quite some time. And I can't say I'm upset at not having to climb this mountain -- even this simple exercise is winding me right now. But how are you, Padryc? Last night was little kinder to you than it was me, yet you seem to have recovered from your ordeal very swiftly."

"Oh, I'm doing well enough, thank you for asking," I said. "I have a rather sore back where I hit the water, but other than that I am fine. I'm more worried about you, Neph. How much longer must we make her walk, Gaelira?"

"It is not much farther," said Gaelira. "Then you and Minasse will turn aside and make camp so Nephyn can rest while Drodie, you, and I tackle Nar's Peak."

"Will it take us long to get up the mountain?" I asked her. "I don't like the idea of leaving Minasse and Nephyn down here for a week all on their own."

"No, it will be nothing like that," she answered me. "It is not more than a few hours' march up the southern face, perhaps a bit less. The path (assuming it is still there) does wind somewhat and I remember it was difficult in spots, but overall it was not a dangerous climb."

"And what are we hoping to find there?"

"I have already said: some record of the gondath and, hopefully, what the ancient Dwarves learned about them and their properties. The stones are used to hold the essences of foul spirits and other dark things which are then used to conjure up fell evils like the Gaunt-lords. If we can learn of some way to weaken their power, then we must do so in order to give Inar and his warriors the best chance of defeating Gortheron."

"Oh, right," I demurred. "Well, I certainly hope you have some sort of plan -- the last time we stumbled into a massive Dwarven-library it took us quite a while to find anything."

"I do not, to be honest," she said to my dismay. "Once old Nar, the caretaker, lived there and he knew every inch of the place, but I doubt very much he would still be alive after all these years, so we shall simply have to make do. Ah! Here we are."

I looked and gasped. Just ahead, laying across the rushing waters of the gorge, was the bole of a large tree which acted as a bridge to the other side.

"Gaelira!" I exclaimed, "You expect me to cross the river on that?! You must be out of your mind!"

"I admit it is not ideal," she said, nonplussed, "But at least there is still a bridge -- of sorts."

"That is not a bridge," I countered heatedly. "That is an over-sized matchstick without guard or railing of any kind and a fifty-foot plunge into a raging river beneath it! Look! The blasted thing hasn't even been leveled or smoothed to provide a proper way!"

"Oh, stop whimpering," she scolded me with a grin, "Here, I will lead both you and Drodie across while we all hold onto my staff for balance. Nothing will go wrong."

It turned out nothing did go wrong, to make a long story short. I forced myself to keep my eyes up the whole way across and our feet touched solid earth on the far side without incident. In truth, the whole situation wasn't nearly as bad as it had first appeared: the fallen tree was, in fact, much thicker in the middle than was first apparent (for we had been looking at it from the side), and it was quite solidly in place. I remarked upon this to Gaelira, for it seemed to me that the tree might have been placed there on purpose by a skilled woodsman, and she nodded at this, but said nothing aloud. We waved our farewells to Nephyn and Minasse back on the other side, then we turned our faces toward the mountain.

Nar's Peak was, as it happened, not as challenging to ascend as it looked to be at a distance. The path up it wound back and forth several times, but it was clear and easy enough to follow. There were one or two spots which made my head turn a bit queer as we climbed higher and got a good view of the valley below us, but I soldiered on. After a while, I noticed there was a very light, fluffy snow falling and the air gradually became colder. Finally, following about two and a half hours of hiking (this would have been at roughly two in the afternoon, I think), we reached a wide, level space. I looked back out over Thror's Coomb and marveled at the view.

"Well!" I said as I rubbed my hands together, "We hobbits aren't much for heights, but I think I can say now that we've been missing out on some right wonderful vistas. This was worth the effort, and no mistake!"

"I am glad for you, Padryc," said Gaelira, who was facing the mountain-wall, "But at the moment my interest lies ahead, not behind. We must find the entrance to the library which, if my memory serves, was somewhere in this vicinity."

"Look!" called Drodie, who had gone a little ways on ahead. "There is a Dwarf-door here."

It was screened by a row of boulders, but door it was. With some effort, we managed to pull it open and passed inside. It was incredibly dim, but once our eyes adjusted we could tell there was some form of light coming from within. Gaelira froze.

"That is fire-light," she whispered. "We are not alone here."

We crept forward. The delving was a long, straight corridor which was very wide and lined with shelves and shelves of books. The racks rose high into the vaulted ceiling and ladders were positioned in many places to provide access to the more distant collections, but it was the sheer number of volumes that astounded me. How on earth were we ever going to find anything useful in there?

"Who's that?" a rough voice demanded from somewhere up ahead. The three of us came to a dead stop.

"We are chance travellers who mean you no harm," Gaelira called back. "This is Drodie, Dwarf of the highest repute, as well as Padryc from the land of the Halflings in the West. And I am --"

"An Elf," the voice growled. "I've no patience for your kind, but if you know the way here (as you must, for no one ever just stumbles into Zudrugund) then I suppose you are no enemy." A Dwarf stepped out from the shadows. He bore an axe, but it was not at the ready.

"I am Gaelira of Lindon," the she-Elf said with a slight bow of her head. "You assume rightly that I know of this place for I have been here twice before when Nar still lived and was the Keeper of Books in Zudrugund."

"When Nar still lived, you say?" asked the Dwarf, with a queer gleam in his eye. "I think you should come with me, Elf. You and your friends."

"We will do as you ask," said Gaelira. "You need have no fear of us."

"Yes, I can see that," the Dwarf replied gruffly. "The fear is the Dunlendings might one day come wandering up here, but they've never done so yet. I doubt very much they'd find anything of interest to them anyhow. I am Frithgeir, by the way."

"We are please to make your acquaintance, Frithgeir," said Gaelira politely. "It must be a great honour to serve Durin's Folk as Keeper of the Books in the largest library of Dwarven-lore outside of Khazad-dum."

"I suppose it is," said Frithgeir, "Only I wouldn't know because I'm not him." Here, we turned a corner and found another Dwarf seated at a table with a bowl of gruel sitting untouched in front of him. His hair was wild and white as the snow outside, and he did not acknowledge us in any way.

"Nar!" Gaelira exclaimed. "I cannot believe it! Do you remember me? It is I, Gaelira!" The old Dwarf turned his head toward us, but immediately I could tell there was something not right about his eyes.

"He cannot hear you," said Frithgeir sadly. "Well, I suppose he can hear you, but your words will not reach his mind, if you understand me. It started a few months back and has been slowly getting worse over time." Nar muttered something incoherent and turned back to his porridge.

"What a pity!" I exclaimed. "You mean to say it is just the two of you, alone in this darksome hall?"

"Aye, that's about the shape of it," said Frithgeir. "I manage to get what we require in the way of foodstuffs from the Algraig in trade twice a month. There is no shortage of valuable relics piled up in this place, so we do alright for ourselves. Mostly I spend my time trying to find some remedy in these dusty old tomes that might help Nar regain control of his faculties, but so far I've found nothing that's worked."

"But why don't you -- I mean, couldn't you just leave?" I asked.

"You don't understand, Padryc," Drodie admonished me, "This hoard was commissioned by Thror, who was once king of our people, and Nar's family was appointed as its Keeper. When the Heir of Durin gives a command, every Dwarf obeys or perishes in the attempt."

"He's got the right of it, laddie," said Frithgeir with a nod. "I was sent with a caravan by King Dain some years ago to check up on Nar and begin the process of removing the contents of the library back to the Lonely Mountain. Unfortunately, Dain rather underestimated the enormity of this place, so the caravan took what they could and I was left here to see to Nar and await their return for the next portion of the shipment. Only they never came back. Whether Dain called off the expedition or the caravan was waylaid and destroyed somewhere on the road back to Erebor I never found out. I thought many times about trying to make the homeward journey myself, but even before his mind began to go Nar was a very old Dwarf and not really fit for such a trek without more extensive precautions, and of course now..." Frithgeir trailed off as he looked at the aged Keeper with great pity.

"You have our sympathy," said Gaelira, sounding genuinely concerned. "Is there anything we can do to help?"

"Not unless you can tell me what ails Nar and cure him of it," Frithgeir sighed. "Barring that, I'm afraid he is stuck here and I with him, for it would be dishononurable of me to leave on my own. At least we're in no danger of starving so long as I still have the use of my own hands, legs, and wits. Ah, but surely you didn't come all the way out here to listen to the grumblings of a lonely Dwarf and his doddering charge -- is there something I can help you find?"

"Well, as a matter of fact there is," said Gaelira. "We need to learn whatever there is to know about the gondath -- the Shadow-stones. They were ancient Noldorin relics acquired by the Dwarves of Moria --"

"In the Second Age through traffic and gifts with the Elves of Hollin," said Frithgeir with a broad grin. "You're in luck! I'm not nearly as knowledgeable about the contents of this library as Nar is (or was), but it just so happens I know what you're talking about. I came across a book which mentions those stones a while back -- it does get rather dull here as you can no doubt imagine -- and it was a very obscure bit of Dwarf-lore I'd never heard about, so I read all I could find. Not that there's much to find, mark you, as the subject seems to have been one that was not discussed openly. But just follow me and I'll show you what I was able to discover."

Frithgeir led us into a old and crumbling wing of the library, then picked out a musty tome and handed it to us. He would not allow us to leave the library with it (he explained he would be "failing in his duty" if he did so and we were not about to take advantage of him), so we decided to copy down the relevant portions which would allow us to review them at our leisure. This was a rather laborious task as all the information was recorded in Khuzdul, but between Frithgeir and Drodie we were able to make a passable copy after about three hours' work. This done, we said our farewells to Frithgeir and Nar (who still did not so much as acknowledge our presence), and made to depart.

"You're sure you can't stay a bit longer?" asked Frithgeir, somewhat pitifully.

"We really cannot," said Gaelira. "Quite apart from our own errand, we have a wounded companion waiting for us in the valley, and we must return to her and see that she is safe."

"Ah, well, you be on your way then," said Frithgeir. "But I would ask: if you should ever have the chance to send word to Dain in Erebor or to come there yourself, you will tell him about us, won't you? Dain is a good king and I'm sure he has not simply forgotten about us; I can only suppose some misfortune befell my comrades or perhaps there are worse evils are afoot. If you could somehow inform him of our plight, I would be eternally grateful."

We promised we would do so then departed Zudrugund. The way back down the mountain-side was considerably easier than the climb (as is usually the case), but we had already been gone for five hours or so when we started the return journey, so it was sometime after seven o'clock in the evening when we finally reached the log-bridge and crossed back to the far side. The Sun was setting and the evening was turning fine as we hunted among the rocks and copses for Minasse and Nephyn. Suddenly, I caught a whiff of something delicious on the air.

"Wait," I said, and I sniffed again. "Do you smell that? It's mushrooms frying! And it's coming from just over there!"

I bounded away while Gaelira and Drodie followed. Only a short distance on, nestled snugly in the midst of a thicket of elder trees, I found Minasse and Nephyn labouring over a small cooking fire.

"Padryc!" she called to me happily, "You're just in time!"

"Just in time for mushrooms, eh?" I said, eyeing the frying fungi greedily.

"Just in time for a celebration!" she replied. "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!"

"Wha...? Why, so it is!" I said as I clapped my hand to my forehead. "Or was, I should say: my birthday was yesterday, but I had completely forgotten it!"

"Well, yes, that's true," Nephyn said, "And I was planning this little feast for you then, naturally, but there was that bit of trouble with the ambush -- both you and I nearly being killed and all -- so I decided I'd spring my surprise for you today. Of course, I'm not quite feeling myself, so in truth Minasse did nearly all the work of hunting down, picking, and preparing the mushrooms."

"And a very curious business I found it, too," said the High Elf as he examined his handiwork which lay sizzling in my frying pan. "The culinary tastes of your kind mystify me, Padryc, to say nothing of your odd ritual of celebrating your own birth at such brief and repetitive intervals. But I hope that, between Nephyn and myself, we have managed to provide you with a suitable birthday meal."

"I'm sure you have done splendidly," I said, grinning ear-to-ear. "It is a joy just to be remembered at all, you know."

"Hurrah! Many Happy Returns of the Day!" cheered Drodie as he strode into the campsite. "This calls for an ale! Padryc, pass me my water-skin!"

"Half a moment," I said, "Shouldn't there be water in your water-skin, Drodie?"

"Why, so there should," he replied as he un-stoppered the skin and took a long draught. "So there should!"  Drodie's "water-skin" was passed around while our laughter echoed loudly off the sides of Nar's Peak as night fell.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 78.2

The Storm Passes

Sterday, 20th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Enedwaith

Nar's Peak
It was dark. My chest was seared with pain. I coughed and wretched. Every fiber of my being shook with freezing cold. I could hear nothing and see nothing -- the only sense available to me was pain, and it seemed to well up from my frozen heart and spread to every extremity. I felt myself being lifted, but I knew nothing of what was happening to me. 

Blackness took me once more.

When I opened my eyes again I shut them straightaway. The brightness hurt. I slowly became aware that I was no longer violently shivering and in fact a gentle warmth was stealing over me. I moved slightly and felt the rough scratch of wool against my skin. 

A blanket.

And the brightness I saw, that must have been fire.

With an effort, I forced my eyes to open again. I made sure to look away from the source of the light and, ever so slowly, my eyes began to adjust. Through the blur, I gradually recognized my surroundings: I was lying down in the little cave we had discovered what must have been days ago. It was night, and the light of the campfire was flickering off the stone. Then I heard the soft patter of rain and the gentle roll of thunder. A storm. I suddenly realized that my companions must have somehow rescued me from the raging river and brought me back to our camp. I wondered how long ago that must have been; I must have very nearly died in those foaming waters.

"What day is it?" I breathed, trusting one of my friends was nearby.

"It is Sterday, Padryc," said Gaelira's voice from nearby. "I am overjoyed to hear you speak. Do not try to --"

"Sterday?" I echoed. I rolled myself over to face her, but sharp pains fired down my back and I quickly gave up the effort.

"Ow!" I groaned. "You mean I have been lying here a week?"

"No," said Gaelira, and she re-positioned herself in front of me. "It is Sterday the 20th of Wedmath; that is to say, it is tomorrow. To be more precise, it is five hours since we retrieved you from the river, which happened at roughly the third hour before midnight, now two hours past."

"You can't be serious!" I said, but I was too weak to put much emphasis behind my words. "Just five hours! What on earth happened? And why do I feel as if a boulder has landed on my chest?"

"You really ought to rest," the she-Elf admonished me, "But I will tell you what transpired so that your mind will be at ease and you can focus on recovering."

I felt my head clearing a little as Gaelira scooted closer to me. It was rather cramped in that small space, but I allowed myself to enjoy what felt at the time like relative safety.

"You may recall that I had gone ahead to try and find a spot where we could cross the river last night," Gaelira said. "I found what I sought and was headed back when I heard the sounds of fighting. I made haste, but I came with caution, for I knew not what had happened. When I finally reached this spot, I saw from a distance Minasse and Drodie battling Izarrair with great ferocity. I hurried to come to their aid, though I knew I would be of little help what with my wounded arm. The thunder and lightning was still fierce at that time, but Izarrair must have seen me coming for he cried that The Elf-witch will not save you, or something to that effect. Then he delivered a spinning kick to Drodie's face which knocked him unconscious and engaged Minasse spear-to-spear (for he had taken one from the Dunlendings they had defeated earlier). The battle continued as I sped forward, but then Izarrair disarmed our friend and used his shield to drive Minasse backward off his feet! My heart leaped into my throat -- Minasse was weaponless, Drodie was senseless, and of you I could see no sign. I raced on as fast as I could, but already Izarrair was closing in for the kill. Then suddenly inspiration struck: I drew my family sword, called to Minasse, and flung the weapon at him with all my might! He caught the handle, rolled out of the way of Izarrair's attack, then delivered a driving thrust into his shoulder. Izarrair withdrew, badly wounded, and fled from us without so much as a parting insult."

"Then you must have really dealt him a solid blow," I said with as much enthusiasm as my aching body could muster. "Well done! But what happened next?"

"Minasse was hale and Drodie, despite having a rather sore head, was otherwise unharmed," Gaelira went on. "I took the Dwarf and we went in search of you immediately. We had to outrun the swift current and pick our way west among the rocks near the waterfall, but we soon found you washed up on the bank. You had no outward signs of life, but Drodie surprised me then: he rolled you over and delivered several pounding thumps to your chest and back, at which point you began coughing and spitting up large amounts of water. Eventually it became clear you would live, though you were chilled to the marrow, so we brought you here. The rain finally came as we were carrying you to this spot, but fortunately the storm turned out to be much less powerful than it had appeared last evening."

"And where did Minasse go? And what happened to --" I froze in terror. Where was Nephyn? Before my eyes flashed the horrific sights I had seen of Izarrair's spear driving into her torso while her screams echoed in my ears. I suddenly felt as if the two large stone slabs that formed our little refuge had collapsed and crushed me beneath them. Gaelira must have read these thoughts in my face because she quickly reached out a calming hand and laid it on my forehead. 

"She has not passed, little Halfling," she said. "She is here with us, though she will not recognize you for the time being -- we had to use some of your more potent drugs to calm her. Look."

I turned myself over to see despite the pain. There was Drodie sitting just outside the cave and I wondered for a moment why he was exposing himself to the rain, but I quickly saw the reason. Nephyn lay on the ground just behind me and Minasse was at her head. Between myself and the huntress being prostrate, our little haven had no more room for the Dwarf, but just then I had eyes only for Nephyn; she was asleep or unconscious while Minasse was working on her left shoulder. Her entire upper body was covered in bloody rags and her skin seemed very pale to me. Then I realized that Minasse was sewing: he was stitching closed a nasty-looking and very deep wound which had been driven into her upper shoulder. In spite of the gruesome visage, I knew right away that she was not mortally wounded for the gash was far too high to have pierced her heart or even a lung, although from the mess it was clearly still a grave injury.

"She will be fine once Minasse has finished tending her," Gaelira said, seeming to read my thoughts a second time. "When we were finally able to come to her aid she had lost a great deal of blood and we feared the worst. But Minasse told me the tale of how you saved her life."


"You stabbed Izarrair with the dagger of Mallacai just as he was preparing to deliver a death-blow," said Minasse as he continued his work. "That caused his stroke to go wide, into the shoulder and not into the vitals. She has suffered a fractured bone in the shoulder here and, as Gaelira said, she had lost much blood ere we could reach her, but she will live. What she needs now is rest -- as do you."

"And what of Izarrair?" I asked, ignoring Minasse's advice. "Was that the end of him?"

"I do not know," said Gaelira with a sad shake of her head. "We did not pursue him, of course, and it would have been useless to try once the rain had come in any case. I suspect he recruited a handful of malcontents from the nearby village with a promise of coin then trailed us, waiting for his opportunity to strike. With Lagodir and Ancthas headed south and myself very foolishly having gone to scout ahead, we presented Izarrair with just the opening he desired. We should all the grateful things turned out no worse than they did."

"Let us hope your words do not prove ill-fated, Gaelira," said Minasse suddenly. "What do you make of this?" The High Elf had withdrawn something from Nephyn's shoulder and washed it clean in a small basin of rain-water he kept nearby. He held it up for us to see -- the thing glinted and flickered in the firelight as though it were glass, but its surface was black and highly polished. I gasped as I recognized a portion of the spear-head wielded by Izarrair.

"Good heavens!" I exclaimed, "What a dreadful thing that is! You don't suppose...?" My mind was racing with all manner of wild ideas about poisoned blades, and worse; the sorts of tales one hears did not bear repeating. But Gaelira shook her head as she examined it.

"No, Padryc, I do not think this weapon was tainted in any way," she said slowly. "I feel no aura of evil about this shard, nor has Nephyn shown any signs of poisoning. But the nature of the blade intrigues me: it is not iron, nor is it steel."

"Not since the First Age have I seen its likeness," said Minasse grimly. "It is obsidian. The favoured captains of Angband might be seen carrying obsidian weapons when they raided the borders of Doriath in the winter."

"And what does that mean?" I asked. I had never so much as heard of obsidian before.

"Obsidian, Padryc," said Gaelira, "Is not generally effective in a weapon for it is too brittle in its natural state. However, when refined properly and with great skill, it can create cutting edges of extreme sharpness, if not precision. This is not overly surprising to me since obsidian weapons have been seen among the forces of the Enemy since the Elder Days -- however, they are quite rare. They are not easy to craft and were typically only given to those high in their masters' favours. Moreover, obsidian can only be formed in areas of extreme heat. It was said the Dwarves had developed methods for its creation, but they never practised the art overmuch, for they bore no love toward the dark and sullen colour. Outside of their smithies, then, the only place one might find obsidian -- certainly the only place one would find it occurring naturally -- would be in the wake of an active volcano. And there are certainly none of those in the North of Middle-earth."

"You mean," I started, "You don't mean..."

"I think we can safely assume," Gaelira said quietly, "That this weapon came from Mordor." There was a low and ominous rumble of thunder somewhere off in the distance.

"Then it seems we have had a narrower shave than we first realized," said Drodie from outside where he had sat, unnoticed, all this time.

"My thoughts exactly," said Gaelira as she leaned back against the stone, "And we are all quite fortunate to still be here. Izarrair may have called Amarthiel his mistress, but he did not come here from the North -- from Angmar. And there is something else which troubles me: no matter how long I puzzle on it, Padryc, I cannot make out why he would be so interested in you. I mean no offence, of course," she added, "But quite aside from the obviousness of the higher bounty for your capture, we saw that Izarrair was willing to fight two opponents with one hand in order that you should remain his captive."

"No offence taken," I assured her, "But unfortunately I've not the slightest idea myself."

"You are certain there is nothing?" she persisted, and I was rather taken aback by the earnestness in her voice. There was almost an accusatory insistence, as though as I was deliberately withholding useful information from her. "Nothing at all?"

"Absolutely not!" I replied, and I can't deny that the second time I was feeling slightly offended. "Unless ol' Izzy is truly desperate to get his hands on the world's best recipe for blueberry turnover -- because I promise you that's all I possess worth having -- then he's definitely got the wrong hobbit!"

"I wonder?" mused Gaelira. "Perhaps he does have the wrong hobbit? Perhaps he thinks you are someone else? But why would any Halfling be of interest to Mordor? Ah, it must remain a mystery for now, I suppose. In the meantime, we should all get some rest -- tomorrow may prove to be a trying day."

"How so?" I asked.

"Nar's Peak," she said. "It is a tall mountain just north-east of our current position and it is there I expect to find Zudrugund, the ancient Dwarf-library of old. Assuming the weather clears, we must make our way up that mountain in order to reach the library, and the path is not a short one."

"Won't that be too strenuous for poor Neph?" I said, "She looks in a terrible state."

"We shall see," was the only answer I got. I took that to mean the conversation was ended, so I promptly curled up and tried to go back to sleep. I positioned myself so that I could see Nephyn, though, and I kept watch over her for quite a while as Minasse carefully cleaned and dressed her shoulder. Once or twice she muttered something inaudible as she slept and each time it happened I confess I jumped a little with excitement at hearing her speak, but soon this ceased to occur and I knew she was very soundly asleep indeed. It wasn't long before I joined her myself, lulled into forgetfulness by the soft tinkling of raindrops on Drodie's armour as he kept watch at the entrance to our campsite. The lightning would still occasionally tear across the sky and thunder would rattle the ground on which we slept, but there, huddled together around our little fire, we persisted. The storm had burst upon us, but by some miracle we had survived it.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 78.1

A Storm Descends

Highday, 19th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Enedwaith
The Falls of Thror's Coomb
The thunder continued all night and into the morning, but the rain never came. Instead, a low and oppressive cloud-cover descended on us, such that the light was dimmed considerably. Lightnings flickered constantly off to the south-east, and I was always looking over my shoulder to see if the storm was advancing on us. But the winds had died down, which was something of a relief because the constant howling made me edgy, but it also meant we were left with a dark grey fume overhead that looked like it would be going nowhere anytime soon.

Once morning had dawned (if you could call it that, things being as dingy and overcast as they were), we breakfasted and discussed our plans for the day. It felt very different without Lagodir present and I sensed the others were missing Ancthas as well (I myself had been alongside him only twice, both times all too briefly). The mood among our Company was as gloomy as the weather.

"Gaelira," I said in-between bites of waybread, "Yesterday I overheard you and Inar mention we might be seeking something up in those mountains to the north beyond the river. Is that true?"

"Yes," the she-Elf replied. "I believe the great Dwarf-library of Zudrugund lies that way. It is not so massive a hoard as Katub-zahar which we visited in Moria, but it is probably the second largest collection of Dwarf-lore anywhere in the world. Thror's people brought all they could salvage from the wreck of Smaug and settled here, for a time, before they moved on to found a colony in the Ered Luin. This land in which we now find ourselves still bears his name: Thror's Coomb."

"And what is it you hope to find there?" asked Drodie, who was becoming quite interested in the conversation.

"Inar spoke of the Emissary's use of the gondath to summon a Gaunt-lord named Gortheron. As you all know by now, Undead creatures such as the barrow-wights are not truly the Dead returned but rather the corpses of the departed re-animated by the infusion of fell-spirits through dark rites. The Gaunt-lords have not been seen in the world for many long years, for the Elves hunted and exterminated those abominations wherever they were found, but now the Emissary has re-awakened this ancient threat. The necromantic rituals used for creation of the Gaunt-lords require unique vessels like the gondath to channel the essences of multiple fell-spirits into a single host. If the Emissary has used several of them to create Gortheron then he must be a Gaunt-lord of truly terrible power. Furthermore, it would take someone highly skilled in the arts of the Enemy to create such a monster -- which means defeating Gorothul, the Emissary, will be no easy feat. Yet we must attempt it for Luean's sake."

"I like not this quest for revenge," said Minasse suddenly, "Too often in the past have the Eldar suffered from its pursuit. Still, I would learn more of the threat ere I pass judgment on this errand as a whole. You believe, then, that marching haplessly on Dol Guldur itself to be our wisest course?"

"I am not yet certain," Gaelira answered. "Gorothul is rumoured to be ensconced there, at least that is what Inar believes at this moment. But beyond avenging Luean's murder there is the possibility that our quest may enable the Seekers to defeat Gortheron as well, and that is why we should search for the library of Zudrugund. The Dwarves were in possession of a number of the gondath, as you have already heard, which they obtained from the Noldor of Eregion during the Second Age. While they were held in the treasuries of Durin, it was said the Dwarves discovered through experimentation ways to control or direct the energies of the gondath. If we can uncover these long-lost secrets, then perhaps we could find a way to neutralize or destroy the stones' power, thereby weakening or eliminating Gortheron entirely. And so, to answer your question, Minasse, I know not our course as yet -- much will depend on what we find within Zudrugund, assuming there is anything left to find."

"Once again have the relics of my people returned to trouble the world," Minasse sighed. "Perhaps I am fated to labour in righting the wrongs of my forebears."

"Just how large is this library?" I asked Gaelira. "Are we going to be spending a month in there? You yourself said there may not even be anything to find. Will Orcs have plundered it or what?"

"I do not think that Orcs will have found their way to Zudrugund," said Gaelira. "It was not so the only other time I myself had been there. For one thing, the path which leads to it is high in the mountains and difficult to reach. Also, there is nothing within which would interest Orcs -- just musty tomes and mouldering old scrolls. There was a keeper present when last I visited: Nar, a Dwarf who was, by the reckoning of his own kind, very ancient even then. He must have long since passed from this world." Drodie shifted his weight, but did not speak.

"Well, if we are going to toil up the snowy slopes of the mountains then we had best get moving," said Nephyn as she stood. "There has been no rain as yet, but it looks as though it could start pouring at any moment, and that would only mean snowfall the higher we climb."

Minutes later we were travelling north once again. We took an easterly bent to steer well aside of the small Dunlending village we had seen the night before and used the rocky landscape to screen ourselves from view. The dun lighting under that heavy sky probably helped hide us from prying eyes, for it grew steadily dimmer as the day wore on as if the impending storm was gathering all its strength before it unleashed its full fury on the poor, mortal weaklings which crawled upon the earth below. On the other hand, the gradually lowering sky also seemed to be sucking up every last sound beneath it, or else nature had suddenly fallen dumb. No doubt the wildlife had gone into hiding at the storm's approach, and so a near-total silence lay over us. Every little rustle of grass or clink of stone from our passing seemed ten times louder than it should have been, and each noise made my heart patter just a bit as we continued our trek. I began to feel as though the sky was a living thing hunting for us with a malevolent will, and the sensation became so oppressive that I thought several times of begging my companions to find shelter somewhere in which to wait out whatever massive tempest was brewing overhead.

I was just about to yield to that temptation when I was distracted by a steady rushing sound: a waterfall. Looking up, I saw that we had made very good progress (or perhaps the land looked less vast than it was due to the stony terrain): we had drawn quite near the mountains and their snow-capped peaks, but before we could explore them we would have to find some way to cross the swift-moving river which lay at their knees. They ran east-to-west, a longish range thrust out from the main line of the Misty Mountains which marched north-south to our right, and while they were not at all as lofty as those to the east, they looked tall and threatening enough with their heads hidden in the ever-darkening clouds. I gulped as I lowered my eyes and there I saw the waterfall: it looked rather small at that distance, but I knew closer up it would be very large indeed.

"If those falls ever had a name," Gaelira was saying, "It has been lost to the mists of time. However, I do remember that the path into the mountains once lay somewhere further up that river. Let us continue to search north-eastwards."

She led us on for another couple of hours. The land began rising steadily as we drew nearer the mountains and we passed the falls. Once they were behind us, we started bending our course less northward and more eastward until we were marching along with the river rushing endlessly just to our left. The further east we went the deeper the river ran until it could only be seen at the bottom of a sizable gorge. We were looking for any sign of a ford or other means of crossing the river to begin our journey into the mountains, but there was no sign of one. The process was made all the more difficult by the presence of large rocks and house-sized boulders which lined the river-bed, obscuring our view forward. We frequently had to pass these to the south while being very careful to not turn our feet on any stones or divets in the earth (of which there were many in that place) because the light, despite it being only three o'clock in the afternoon, was nearly gone thanks to the gathering storm. We had just come up to one particularly large clump of boulders when a tremendous flash of lightning tore across the sky, followed by a stone-splitting peal of thunder.

"Look!" Nephyn shouted, barely audible above the din, "There is just enough space under those stones to serve as shelter from the storm. We should take refuge while we still have the chance!"

We all shuffled forward eagerly, happy to put anything at all between ourselves and the gale which was bearing down on us. The "cave" was little more than a shallow scoop in the rocks facing west formed by two sizable, slab-like stones leaning up against each other like an upside-down V. But it was something and, as luck would have it, the wind had turned and was blowing up from the south-west, which put the worst at our backs. I slung off my pack and huddled against the cold stone while the others situated themselves. Nephyn ensured the Sword of Ringdor was secure in its scabbard at her belt (her bow, you may remember, had been irreparably damaged back in Dunland), then she pulled out her maps and tried to make herself as small as possible while studying so as to stay out of everyone else's way. Drodie leaned his shield up against the wall and immediately started hacking small branches off nearby trees for firewood before the rain came. Minasse sat cross-legged near the "entrance" to our little shelter and stared out into the west while Gaelira remained standing outside.

"You should come in, Gaelira," I called good-naturedly to her. "It's a bit cramped, but I daresay there's enough room for you to fit in here if we can all scrunch in a little tighter."

"My thanks, but I will not be joining you just yet," she said. "I am very anxious: I do not recall the crossing of the river to have been this far east, though perhaps I am out of my reckoning in this abysmal clime. I wish to scout ahead while the light lasts (such as it is). A little wind and rain holds no fear for me, and I shall not be gone long. Stay here and stay quiet!"

"Certainly," I replied, knowing that arguing with her was pointless. "May we at least get a fire going in the meantime? Drodie has already started the preparations."

"You may make a fire," she replied, "I do not suppose we need worry about giving away our position to anyone in the midst of the downpour that is coming."

"Well, just you mind yourself," I said, sounding like a scolding parent talking to a hobbit-lass who didn't yet know how to behave around boys at the Spring-dance. "You are wounded, after all," I added with a nod to her arm which still hung in its sling. I felt like a fool the instant the words left my mouth -- no doubt the Elf was well aware of this fact.

"I will be careful," she said, but she smiled and her voice was kindly, and in a moment she passed out of our sight. About two minutes later there was another terrific lightning strike and thunder-roll just as Drodie's little fire sprang to life. For one brief instant I thought that perhaps we should have obscured the light a bit by placing the Dwarf's shield across the entrance of our refuge. I also remembered the Dunlending village we had seen lay in the same direction our "cave" faced, and I got just the tiniest bit nervous. But then, I thought to myself, That village must be four or five miles west of this spot at the very least. Besides, who in their right mind would be out and about in weather like this?

Time passed slowly. It was close to six in the evening and still the rain would not come. The thunder and lightning continued with greater and greater frequency as if the heavens themselves were waging war, to the point I started to wonder whether we might not all get blown away once the tempest was finally unleashed. I tried to go to sleep early by using my pack as a pillow, but it was hopeless amid all the racket. To make matters worse, the wind suddenly picked up considerably and, while we ourselves were not in its path thanks to our makeshift shelter, the nooks and crags of the rocks which formed our little haven made an excellent playground for the gusts of the gale. This caused an unending series of howls and (when the wind was aimed just right) some of the most awful shrieks you can imagine which made sleep impossible. The others seemed equally ill-at-ease and I, unable to do much else, simply joined them by the fire and watched as the fury of nature threatened to engulf us.

Maybe it was all the walking we had done that day or perhaps it was the warmth of the fire, but amazingly I started to doze. I remember vague half-dreams which consisted of me watching a rain-storm from our large front-porch back on the farm in the Southfarthing. Then the scene shifted, and I thought I could hear the patter of raindrops on the glass panes of the Prancing Pony Inn while I sat quite comfortably by the parlour fireplace inside. I even fancied I could smell the delicious scent of baking apple-tart wafting down the corridors from Butterbur's kitchen...


Drodie's battle-cry jolted me back to my senses like the thunder-claps which continued to resound above us. I looked around in alarm: there was still no rain and, even though the Sun had not quite set, it was as dark as night. Despite this, I could see several hunched shapes moving toward us in the gloom! The others had already gathered their weapons and moved outside; I whipped out my dagger and joined them. I squinted to try and see what manner of creatures were advancing on our position. Was it Orcs? Wargs? Something worse?

Then a shout came from our attackers and I had no doubt: they were Dunlendings! Another lightning-flash confirmed this as I saw a line of the brutes come charging right at us. I instinctively shrank behind Nephyn who, absent her bow, was wielding the Sword of Ringdor with two hands. Despite the danger, my thought suddenly turned to Gaelira: where was she? But I could see no sign of her, and our enemy was nearly upon us!

The initial assault was quite a shock: the Dunlendings drove straight at our position. Most were armed with spears, but a few had axes as well. Drodie stood at the forefront and occupied a few, but we were outnumbered almost two-to-one. I saw a Man charge Minasse with his spear pointed right at his heart -- the Elf was unarmed and would be trapped with his back up against our camp! I rushed over to help, but then in a single movement Minasse deftly side-stepped his attacker, seized the spear, and shoved him face-first into the stone! There was a sickening crack as the Dunlending's head split open and he fell, dead. Then Minasse swept up the fallen Man's spear and quickly engaged two more enemies. Nephyn had another two to herself while Drodie was dealing with three more. I was trying to decide who needed my help most when another flash of lightning illuminated the area. There, just beyond the reach of the battle but still all too near was a terrifying masked figure astride a black horse.

"It's Izarrair!" I shouted, but my voice was lost in the thunderous tumult that followed the lightning.

Just then I heard one of the Dunlendings cry out in pain: Drodie's axe had taken one of his arms off. Then there was a harsh clang, as the Dwarf took a nasty shot to the helm from the spear-shaft of another of his attackers. I bolted over to his aid while out of the corner of my eye I saw Minasse and Nephyn each dispatch one of their assailants. I quickly stabbed one of the Dunlendings on Drodie in the back, ending him. There were only three opponents left...

But then I saw Izarrair advancing and his mask looked like the face of some twisted mind's nightmare come to life. His spear and shield were at the ready as he bore straight down on Nephyn. My cries of alarm went unheard in the confusion of battle. Izarrair grabbed the Dunlending attacking Nephyn from behind and shoved him toward Minasse. Now occupied with two enemies, the Elf withdrew as he defended himself and Nephyn was left alone. I could just make out Minasse shouting at me to run and hide myself, but I did not listen -- I ran to help my friend.

The two faced off silently for the briefest of moments. Then Nephyn attacked with her sword, but Izarrair expertly deflected the onslaught before smashing her across the face with his shield. She spun around twice, completely stunned, then fell to the ground. Izarrair raised his spear high to deliver the killing blow.

But I reached him just at that instant. I stabbed upwards into his side, through the studded leather armour and into the lower part of the abdomen. Izarrair cried out and stumbled, but his spear-thrust found its mark anyway. Nephyn screamed in agony and my heart nearly shattered at the sound. But before I even had a chance to see what happened, Izarrair whirled toward me and back-handed me across the head.

I must have been knocked unconscious because the next thing I knew I was floating off the ground. I was being carried! A gauntleted fist was clamped firmly over my mouth and a muscular arm had me crushed against my captor's side while the metal studs of the armour were digging mercilessly into my flesh. With a cold shock I realized I was Izarrair's prisoner! I struggled to get free, but it was quite useless.

"Unhand him, slave of Mordor!" I heard Minasse shouting. There before me were the Elf and the Dwarf confronting Izarrair. The Dunlendings had all been slain or driven off, but no matter where I looked I saw no sign of Nephyn.

"And give back that which my Master so greatly desires?" sneered Izarrair. "I think not. I would slay you both where you stand, but I am at a slight disadvantage so long as I keep this rat in its trap." At that he gave me a cruel squeeze that drove the air painfully from my lungs.

"And just how were you planning to escape?" Drodie mocked him. "Unless you are equal parts dumb and ugly you might have noticed that you're backed up against the gorge." I suddenly became aware that this was true: Somehow Minasse and Drodie had managed to corner Izarrair with his back to the river. There was a long drop of some twenty or thirty feet  down a sheer cliff to the water below at that point, and I became sick as I realized I was only a few feet from plunging to my death. The roar of the waterfall seemed to suddenly grow louder, as if it was the living breath of a great dragon come to devour us all.

"Ha!" Izarrair replied, "I have no need of escape. I will fight you both with one arm, if I must, to keep my prize. You have already lost: the Halfling is mine and the Elf-witch has abandoned you. Do not think that just because I have one hand pre-occupied that I will not end you both, just as I did that stupid girl earlier."

I felt a white-hot wrath erupt inside me. With a terrific squirm I managed to wrench my head free of Izarrair's grip, then I bit down with all my strength onto the hand in the one spot where there was no padding. I tasted his blood in my mouth as he screamed in pain.

"The Pits take you, you little vermin!!" he shrieked. Then in his fury, he flung me over the edge of the cliff. I cleared the rock-face on my way down, weirdly felt as if I was suspended in mid-air as I plummeted, then received a freezing shock as my body slammed into the ice-cold water. The heavy current carried me, tumbling and spinning under the waves, for what felt like an eternity. Somehow, my face popped above the water and I had the briefest of instants to draw breath, but then the current swept me under again. My limbs were numb from the cold and trying to swim was of no use anyway. Even beneath the water I could hear the roar of the falls coming swiftly closer. I knew I was dying, but somehow I felt at peace.

So, this is the end, I remember thinking. I'm sorry I wasn't able to save you, Neph -- maybe the others can avenge your passing. As for myself, I'd just as soon not continue now that you're gone, the truest friend I ever had. What a time we spent together... I can only hope it really did make a difference.

Then I reached the falls. I fell forward in a torrent of roaring foam as my lungs filled with water. My body crashed into the river below, and I remembered nothing more.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 77.2

Parting Ways

Mersday, 18th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Thror's Coomb, Somewhere in the Enedwaith
The mountains of Thror's Coomb
It's been nearly a week since my pen has scratched the papers of this journal, and I admit I've missed it terribly. However, upon review of the past several entries, I see Neph has done an excellent job in illustrating what transpired during the time I was unable to perform my scrivenly duties, so I will simply let it stand as-is. Besides, she basically got everything correct concerning what happened to me and there's no value added in me going into all the details about how frightened I was, the stench of the Dunbog, the horror of the Mines, or any of that. Doing so would only add many more unnecessary pages to this account which is already quite long enough.

The only other thing I think I should point out is: Enro Smuin was actually quite civil to me when I was in his care, although I'm not sure if that was because he's really a good Man at heart or because he considered it part of his job to ensure I was not treated badly during my transport. Either way, I actually feel sort of bad for the poor fellow -- sometimes our lot in life is one of perpetual "outsideness," and Smuin strikes me as the kind of chap who could really be an honest fellow if he put his mind to it. But at some point his life led him beyond the bounds of polite society and now he seems to disdain it (and those in it) which only cycles into more disdain toward himself by decent folk and the process repeats without ending. Maybe I'm not making any sense.

What I do know is the Outriders have had a couple of very momentous days in a row here at Harndirion. Yesterday, obviously, was one: we were reuinted with each other and finally introduced to Captain Inar who, as it turns out, is not our foe (at least not for the moment... he talks about the Seven Stars like some kind of doom-sayer and I've never had no truck with such folk. Personally, I don't trust him any more than do Gaelira or Nephyn, but half-friends are better than no friends as we say in the Shire). For the time being, though, he seems dead-set on moving against this Gortheron Gaunt-lord thing which was summoned by Gorothul (also known as the Emissary, the bad actor who killed our friend Luean all those weeks ago), so I guess that makes Inar an ally, if nothing else. But today was another important day -- also a very sad and bittersweet one -- the events of which I shall now relate to you.

We spent last night encamped with Inar's battalion which, as Nephyn adequately described, was an enjoyable time indeed. After some much-needed rest, the leader of the Seekers of the Seven Stars roused us all for an early-morning breakfast. He gave us direction, counsel, and a good measure of provision, which was well since it sounded to me as though we were going to have a long and lonely road ahead of us. His troop was headed east to deal with some trouble in the mountains (he wouldn't say what, exactly), but then he would swing around to the south-west to investigate the strange reports coming out of the Lich Bluffs. We, by contrast, would be headed north -- at least at first.

"If you are to assail Dol Guldur in Southern Mirkwood, there are only three paths I know of by which you might come there," he said as we sat around a campfire and ate. "The first would be the Redhorn Pass. That is probably the safest way, especially since we are still in the midst of summer, though the heights of the Misty Mountains are always dangerous even in the best of times. It would take you almost two weeks, I think, to reach and attempt that pass, but even then the snows should still be lower in Halimath than they will be come Wintring. Your second route would be safer, I think, but it is a very long road indeed: you would journey back south through Dunland to the Gap of Rohan, across the Westemnet, into the Wold of the Riddermark, skirt north along the Anduin, and so come to the forest by the south and east. The trouble is, you could easily spend eight to ten weeks on such a journey which would bring you into the heart of Blooting, when 'tis evil in the Wild to fare."

"And what is the third way?" asked Gaelira.

"The third way you know already," said Inar, "For you have walked its path once before. It leads through the Mines of Moria; if you can find the east-gate and emerge unscathed into the Dimrill Dale on the far side."

"I would guess we could reach the west-gate in a week's time," said Minasse, "Maybe a little more. Then it would be a four-day journey to the east-gate and down to Nanduhirion, if memory serves."

"But that way is also fraught with peril," said Lagodir. "And if what you tell us is true and Gorothul seeks to forge an alliance with the Orcs of Moria, then it would not aid our cause to go traipsing through that realm on our way to assault their ally's stronghold. We might as well send an engraved missive announcing our arrival."

"Nor do I think we can afford the delay of the longer road," said Gaelira. "No, the pass of the mountains seems to me the most sensible way to take, if we can."

"I agree," said Nephyn. "I myself have little experience with journeys in the high places, but there are those among our Company who possess such skill."

"I cannot tell you much of what you will find on the far side -- in Rhovanion," said Inar. "It has been many years since I was last in that land. You may seek aid from the Elves of Lothlorien, but I am not certain they would help you. The Lady Galadriel who rules there is no more enamored of me than is Elrond of Rivendell; I fear my name will be of little use to you in that country."

"She may be more disposed to speak with me, her distant kin," said Minasse, "But I do not know about these others." I shot him a disapproving look, calling the rest of our Company these others, but in typical fashion he didn't so much as notice me. "It will likely be our best hope to try, in any case, since our stock of supplies will certainly be running low by then, assuming we ever get so far."

"Nor shall we ever, if we do not start soon," said Gaelira as she stood. "Inar, it has been a pleasure to see you again and I am very glad indeed that we do not find ourselves at cross-purposes as I had so long feared. Also, we cannot thank you enough for your generosity in allowing us to take from your supplies."

"We are all enemies of the One Enemy," said Inar, "And in opposing him do we prove our worth to the Queen of the Stars. Such is the only reward I desire."

We proceeded to say our goodbyes to everyone present, but suddenly into the midst of everything strode Volfren. He made a quick series of hand-signs to Inar, who raised his eyebrows and looked off to the south.

"Someone approaches," he said. "He will join us here momentarily."

We did not have to wait long. In about ten minutes' time several of Inar's warriors steeped aside to make way for the stranger. He was tall and clad all in ring-mail, but his helm he held in his hand. His hair was long and waxen, as was his beard, and I saw that horses were heavily represented on his arms and armour: from his sword-pommel to his nose-guard. His cloak was weather-stained with heavy travel, but its colour was a deep and rich green.

"Leofward!" I heard someone exclaim, and to my surprise I realized it was Lagodir speaking. The Gondorian ran to the newcomer and they embraced.

"Lagodir!" said the Man. "I cannot believe I have actually found you! But who are these others whose company you keep? Ever were you fated to be companioned by strange folk!"

"My friends," Lagodir said as he turned to address us, "This is Leofward, right-hand to Theodred, son of Theoden King, Prince of the Riddermark, a gallant knight and true. More than once have our swords shone together in defence of the Westfold." Then Lagodir proceeded to introduce each of us to the golden-haired Man. "But what are you doing here, Leofward? Dire indeed must be the tidings you bear if the Prince has parted ways with thee. Have the west-lands come under assault by the Dunlending barbarians once again?" Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ancthas shift his weight irritably, but he did not speak.

"I do not think it prudent for us to discuss such delicate matters so openly," said Leofward as he looked warily at the throng surrounding him. "But I must certainly tell you this: the Prince has called upon your sword-arm, Lagodir, as he now does of all able-bodied warriors that they may come to our defence. More I will tell you as we return to him."

"Loathe am I to refuse the summons of the Lord Theodred," Lagodir replied, "But you find me on a quest most urgent; I cannot simply turn aside from my path, nor would I forsake my companions in their time of need." Leofward cast his eyes over us, then lowered his voice as he spoke with great urgency.

"His Highness the Prince calls upon you to fulfill your oath to Rohan," he said. "Such is the grave nature of our need." Lagodir froze and looked hard at his friend for a long moment.

"Has it come even to this?" he said at last, and I felt a pit opening in the bottom of my stomach as it became clear what was happening right before my eyes. There was a brief silence, then Lagodir turned to us.

"Dear friends," he said, "I fear I have no choice but to leave you. It rends my heart that we should be thus sundered, but I must go."

"No, Lagodir!" I cried, "Tell this Man we need you to come with us."

"I cannot," he said to me with downcast eyes. "An oath I have taken, even as Leofward has said, to come to the defence of Rohan in her hour of need. Such was the price of my refuge there when I was finally freed by the Lord Denethor following my imprisonment. And that price I paid full-willing, for the Rohirrim welcomed me then when few others would do so. I am honour-bound to answer this call, nor would I wish to fathom my fate were I to refuse this summons. I fear our time together is ended, at least for the present, but know that my heart and my thoughts will be with you, whatever may betide."

I suddenly became aware that tears were running down my cheeks as we each said our farewells to him in turn. The multitude around us saw that it was a difficult moment and withdrew themselves a bit in order to give us some space, but I don't recall even noticing their presence as I gave the Gondorian a tight embrace. So many memories came flooding back to me then: our initial encounter with Lagodir as an ill-kempt, bedraggled vagabond (whom Barliman Butterbur very nearly turned away from the Prancing Pony) where we first met, the long miles we traveled across Eriador in pursuit of Mallacai's several tasks, the terrible threat of Guloth, his eventual defeat at the hands of Elrond, and the difficult journey through Dunland which had caused such a rift within the Company. Saying goodbye that day was probably the most awful time of the whole adventure. Unfortunately, I seemed incapable of expressing everything I was feeling at that time; I suppose I mumbled some banalities which probably bore no real resemblance to what was going on inside me, but it was the best I could manage -- the shock was simply too great. Then, just as suddenly, Ancthas stood forward.

"If you are heading south," he said, "I would go with you. I must rejoin my people at their fight in the Dunbog, but the road is long and dangerous on one's own." Leofward started.

"Travel with a Dunlending?" he exclaimed. "I rode hither in search of Lagodir because of what your people have done -- and intend to do -- on the borders of our land!" He laid his hand on his sword-hilt, but Lagodir seized him by the wrist.

"You will be free to journey with us and rejoin your folk, Ancthas," he said. "Our road lies together for many miles to the south. And we shall travel in friendship, Leofward, or you will return to Theodred and report that you caused me to withhold from him my sword; I will not fulfill my oaths in a manner which dishonours me or the cause for which we all fight." Leofward looked stunned at his words, but he bowed his head and withdrew his hand before asking Ancthas for pardon.

"Forgive my words, which I spoke in undue haste," he said, though he continued to eye Ancthas with caution. "Clearly there is a tale here worth the hearing, and I look forward to it as we journey together -- as allies. It seems we shall have plenty of time for the telling as I have only my own horse to share among the three of us."

"Volfren will take you to where our steeds are kept," said Inar from nearby. "The mounts of Enro Smuin and his associates will be turned over to you for your use. I've little doubt they will approve of their change in fortunes despite the long miles which are now their lot to travel."

I was relieved at this turn of events and we all thanked Inar many times for his generosity, but I hung my head in sadness. In the space of ten minutes I had lost two friends, the old and the new. We set about preparing to leave while Inar's company did the same. It only took me a short time but everyone else took rather longer, what with all the battle-gear lying about. As this was going on, I saw Nephyn and Lagodir standing rather apart from everyone else and speaking quietly together. I also noticed Inar and Gaelira had met up and were looking northward, down the tumbling slopes of Harndirion and toward a low range of mountains which ran east-west in a straight line before us -- a brief spur of the Misty Mountains thrust out from the main range -- and I thought I could see the line of a river at their feet as well. I realized that river must be the same one we had crossed by the bridge of Araniant twice the first time we had made our way through the Enedwaith. Then, just as I was thinking these things, I found I could hear the two of them speaking.

"My best lore indicates it may lie there, Gaelira," Inar was saying, "Somewhere up in the mountains most likely."

"Of course!" Gaelira replied, "Thror's first major settlement after Smaug sacked the Lonely Mountain. It was long rumoured to hold the greatest collection one could find outside of Moria."

"Exactly," said Inar. "It will certainly create a delay, but I think it would still be worth paying a visit. If you guess anywhere near the truth (and I believe you do), then I can think of few other places in Middle-earth that might hold the answers you seek."

This conversation intrigued me greatly, but I was unable to hear more for suddenly Ancthas, Nephyn, Lagodir, Drodie, and Minasse all stood before me.

"I do not wish to make this any more difficult than it has been already," said Lagodir. "I am no good at these sorts of things; may fortune favour you all on your journey."

"Must you really go?" I asked, crestfallen. I think part of me had been holding out hope that something would happen to upend the seemingly inevitable breaking of our fellowship.

"Sadly, yes," the Gondorian replied. "I do not make (or break) my oaths in idle fancy, nor would the Lords of Rohan call upon me to fulfill them except in the gravest need. However, while I am off seeing to my own promises, Padryc, I would be obliged if you were to promise me you will take good care of yourself in my absence."

"I will do that," I said, "But only if you will do the same to me in return. Still, I must say it hardly seems fair that you should go stealing Ancthas at the same time we must lose you."

"I fear this is indeed where we part ways," said Ancthas with a smile. "You led us on quite a chase, Master Halfling. It proved a nice test of my mettle, and it is good to see you emerged whole and hale in the end."

"Yes, it all worked out quite satisfactorily," I hawed, not quite knowing what to say. "It's a shame, though: we barely got to know each other, which is a pity considering all the discomfort I've caused you recently."

"It has been a wearying few days, I won't deny that," he laughed, "But my word is fulfilled and now I must make all haste back to my people in the south."

"Yes, of course you must go," I said gloomily, "Your people need you, and I really do hope you and they may soon find peace."

"May your words bring truth with them," he said. "For my part, I am just glad to have met Outsiders who do not wish more harm brought to my country. If I could work my own will, I would have you come with me, to where valour and brave deeds are greatly needed." He reached down and patted my shoulder, but his gaze was upon Nephyn as he spoke. The young huntress' eyes did not long remain fixed with his, but instead looked to the east.

"Your people are your first duty," she said with some difficulty, "And I feel I cannot wish you peace, for it seems that you go forth into great danger -- as do we all -- though our roads lie in opposite directions."

There was a silence. Then Ancthas nodded his head, turned, and walked away slowly. Nephyn's eyes followed him for a moment.

"Farewell, Ancthas," she said to his back, "May the spirits guide your steps and your arms to victory." The Dunlending halted only briefly. "Farewell," he said over his shoulder, then strode away.

"Tell me you will see him safely home," Nephyn said, and I somehow knew she spoke to Lagodir though her eyes following the Dunlending as he departed from us.

"I will," Lagodir answered her. "My eyes have been opened to the courage and the honour which abides in this land. Its nature may be strange to me, but I see now I was wrong to condemn its people so thoroughly. I suppose the hearts of Men may be weakened and confused by the will of the Enemy in every land and we must all be on guard against his wiles together, lest we each fall separately. I have him to thank for showing me this -- and others as well." The glances of Lagodir and Nephyn met briefly, then the Gondorian followed after Ancthas. At the last moment he turned back to us.

"I will not say farewell to you, dearest friends," he said. "Who knows what lies ahead down these winding roads we each must travel? Perhaps we shall meet again in some time or place that none can yet see." And then he turned and was gone.

The rest of that day was a blur to me. Lagodir, Leofward, and Ancthas rode their horses swiftly south down the Great North Road back toward the Bonevales while Inar's company slowly packed up its equipment and began to move south-eastward into the hills. The five Outriders who remained made our way north down the slopes of Harndirion and toward the snow-capped mountains and that distant river. We did not really set out until quite late in the afternoon what with all the myriad preparations, and so we did not make it more than ten or fifteen miles before halting for the night.

The Company remained almost completely stone-silent all that time. Drodie had hummed a peculiar Dwarf-song for some of the way while Gaelira, Nephyn, and Minasse had chatted back and forth about our upcoming road. I paid little enough attention as I was feeling rather depressed about everything which had transpired. The most I was able to gather was that Gaelira was leading us north toward the river where she hoped to find some place to cross it before climbing up into the mountains in search of... well, I never really did hear what, exactly, and I was content to leave all such matters until the morning.

We made camp in the middle of some rowan-trees which grew in a clump amidst some large rocks. It was hard to make it out in the dusk, but we could just see the line of the river maybe three or four miles to the north. To the north and west, however, nestled up against the river, was a collection of huts wherein torches and bonfires burned in the gathering gloom. It was obviously a small Dunlending village, and we had every intention of skirting well to the east of it when day came again.

Supper was quiet and cheerless as we each dealt with our our inner thoughts. We lit no fire due to our proximity to the village -- we had no idea whether the inhabitants were friendly or otherwise, but there was no point in taking chances; after all, we were only five again, and Gaelira still had a wounded arm. The Elves remained seated cross-legged and speaking quietly while the rest of us gradually drifted off to sleep. The night-air seemed heavy and oppressive to me while thunder rumbled far off to the south.

In many of my favourite tales there are often stanzas which sing of the awful pain one feels at the loss of a comrade-in-arms. In fact, those lines are so common that I had long felt I understood (albeit distantly) what it must be like to experience it, but that day I realized I knew nothing of such grief. Even the passing of my dear old Dad wasn't quite the same (perhaps because it was at least somewhat expected), whereas this truly felt like losing part of myself. And even then I knew it was not the ultimate parting of ways, for of course Lagodir was still alive. All of these thoughts raced through my mind in the flash of an instant, and I remember thinking then that I'd really rather not know what it must be like to genuinely lose such a close friend for good and all.

Suddenly the weather took a nasty turn as an unseasonably cold wind blew in. I huddled under my blanket while the boughs creaked and groaned overhead. One can hear strange sounds when camping out-of-doors at such times, but I was quite certain that, more than once, I caught the faintest of sobs coming from where Nephyn lay, seemingly fast asleep.