Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 68

A Lukewarm Welcome

Monday, 1st of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Lhan Tarren, Somewhere in the Land of Dunland
Elder Riagan of Lhan Tarren
This morning we were all up early. There was a sense of expectation or nervousness about our Company that was palpable in the heavy air, but we did our best to go about our business as usual. The five of us met around breakfast and discussed our way forward, but always our talk turned to the small village which lay just ahead of us to the south.

"We would do well to avoid any contact with the Dunlendings whatsoever," Lagodir was saying. "They are Wild Men, and not to be trusted."

"We have nothing to fear from a bunch of farmers and herdsmen," countered Drodie. "But they would have much to fear, should they choose to welcome us with weapons rather than words."

"You do not know these people as well as I," the Gondorian replied. "They are liars and traitors -- even to others among their own kind. They can be fierce in battle, but they will choose subterfuge rather than force, if they believe doing so will advance their cause of the moment."

"I think you speak from your own emnity, Lagodir," said Nephyn, her cheeks flushed with anger. "What harm have the Dunlendings ever done to Gondor? They have no reason to hate us."

"Their feud is chiefly with the Rohirrim, the allies of my people," answered Lagodir. "It is true that Gondor has never been at open war with the Men of Dunland; they were even once subjects of the Winged Crown, at least in word if not in heart. But rumours have come to us of their wrath from out of Rohan -- the hatred of the Dunlendings toward the Mark has not abated in half a thousand years, not since Cirion, the twelfth Steward of Gondor, giften Calenardhon to the Sons of Eorl."

"But there are no Rohirrim among us," I said. "What reason would these simple folk have to despise our little band? Surely there is something that passes for hospitality even among the people of this remote place." Lagodir sighed.

"Cirion's grant of land to the Eotheod was the beginning of the Dunlendings' displacement from their ancestral homelands," he said. "And so they blame my countrymen for precipitating their loss."

"Well, no one needs to know you're from Gondor, do they?" I asked. "And I can't imagine too many of your folk ever wander out this way."

"I have grown accustomed to obscuring my heritage after the disgraceful actions of my forebears," said Lagodir ruefully. "But my hesitance is borne of mistrust, not wounded pride. Still, I can see my words will not sway you. Very well, I shall follow the will of the Company, but I beg you to heed my warning: there is no honour to be found among the Dunlendings. The fewer dealings we have with them the better we shall fare here."

We did not debate the matter much beyond this, but there was an obvious (to me) reluctance to proceed with any haste from that point on. The morning was wearing away by the time we finally cleared our campsite and returned to the road. The village grew steadily nearer as we marched, and I felt as if we regarded it the same way it watched us -- with a leery wariness.

At last we drew near to the little bridge which spanned the river and led into the huts on the far side. There were not a large number of these, I counted only thirteen, but some two score of villagers had already begun to gather on the other bank. They were eyeing us with a wide range of emotions, everything from fear to hostility, I thought, but little more than a low murmur found its way across the water to our ears. Our Company stood there just off the road, awkwardly casting furtive glances and wondering how things would turn, when a tall and dark-skinned Man with a bushy brown beard stepped out from the crowd and motioned that we should follow him.

Cautiously, we crossed the narrow bridge and entered the village. The crowd shrank away from us as though in fear, but I could clearly see dislike in the stares of some. I kept looking from side to side and I think my discomfort was obvious to the onlookers. Gaelira kept her eyes on the back of our guide's feet and seemed to be paying respect to the inhabitants of that strange land. Drodie glowered threateningly toward one side and then the other while Nephyn looked as if she was trying to read the faces of each and every man, woman, and child that surrounded us. Lagodir, meanwhile, acted like royalty among insubordinate peasants as he strode imperiously through that little hamlet. We were led through the centre of town and past what must have been their little marketplace or common-grounds. An impressive totem of a deer's head made mostly of wood and stone, rose a good ten feet above us.

"These are tribesmen of the Stag-clan," Nephyn whispered to the rest of us, pointing to the totem as we passed beneath its gaze.

"What does that mean?" I whispered back. "Are they a friendly bunch or... not?" I got no answer.

It was only a brief trek to the rear of the village, and there we were met by an aged old Dunlending who was seated by a burning fire-pit. His colourful outfit and decorative feathers indicated he was someone of importance -- no doubt the leader of this small community. He had dark, leathery skin while his hair and beard were white and wild. He regarded us slowly with sable yet watery eyes. When he spoke, his voice sounded cracked and laboured, but it was clear to me there was still a good deal of life in that old frame. Our tall guide turned and vanished quickly into the crowd behind us, which had stopped following a short distance back, apparently so we could converse with the old man.

"Welcome to our home, strangers from afar," the wizened figure began. "I am Riagan, elder of Lhan Tarren. My people speak little but the various dialects of Dunland, so there is not much use in introducing you to them. My grandson, Guto, who led you to me just now, knows somewhat of your language, but he has now gone on his daily hunt." Each of us bowed to him with a few brief words of welcome except Lagodir, who remained stiff and silent.

"We thank you for your kind welcome, Elder Riagan," said Nephyn.

"You must forgive the curiosity of my people -- it is not often we see wanderers here out of the North-lands," Riagan continued. "What brings you to Lhan Tarren?"

"We are merely a group of friends," Gaelira replied, "And we seek another friend who resides somewhere in Dunland -- Edgerin, the lore-master of no little reputation, who was in Galtrev the last I had heard from him." The old man raised his eyebrows at us and looked very impressed.

"Oh! You seek that one, do you?" he said. "Then I wish you well in your search, brave ones, though it may be that your information concerning his whereabouts is antiquated. Still, I would not know myself, as I am too old to be out wandering among the rocks. But now, what would you have of me? We are a simple folk and have little to offer travelers in the ways of supplies or even counsel."

"We are fairly well provisioned, at least for now," Gaelira said, "And we mean to trade for more upon reaching Galtrev. But we wish for nothing from you or your folk other than safe and quiet crossing through these lands as we continue on our errand to Edgerin. We are the friends of all who do not wish us ill or seek to hinder our passage."

"You are well and fairly spoken," said Riagan with a nod to the she-Elf, "We have no desire to hinder your passage, but I do wonder... if you are friends to all as you say, then can you not tell me more of yourselves? What names should I give my people across whose lands you would sojourn?" I saw Lagodir make a fist with one hand, but he did not speak.

"It may be best if we were to keep our names to ourselves," said Gaelira cautiously, "At least so long as we stand within earshot of so many."

"Ah, yet now you speak not as a friend but as one who with something to hide," said Riagan with a slight smile. "I am blessed with no little amount of wisdom after all my long years on this earth, my friends, so I know well there are times to hold one's tongue, but this, I fear, cannot be one such. Yet I am not without my own store of knowledge: here we have a Dwarf from distant lands, another like him yet less in stature, a female of the Elder Kindred, and another who may have some Dunlendish blood in her, if my old eyes haven't completely failed me. And finally, we have what can only be a Gondorian -- his sea-grey eyes and proud bearing tell me as much on his account."

"I am Lagodir of Gondor, of the House of Turma," came the Man's clear voice. Gaelira sighed.

"And I am Gaelira of Rivendell. These others are Nephyn, huntress of the Bree-lands, Drodie of the Blue Mountains, and Padryc of the North, our companions."

"I see," said Riagan, his black eyes falling swiftly upon me. "And what land of the North do you call home, Friend Padryc?"

"He calls no single place home and has wandered much with us," Gaelira answered before I had a chance to speak. "Yet he, too, hails from Bree as much as anywhere." I shut my mouth quickly and swept my hat off in a courteous bow. I didn't know at that moment why Gaelira would choose to conceal my land of origin alone out of all of us, but I assumed she had a good reason.

"I thank you for your forthrightness," said Riagan with a sidelong glance at Lagodir. "Again, you must forgive my old ears, but did you say you count yourself the friend of any who do not hinder your errand? Then perhaps you would be willing to prove your goodwill by way of a... small matter that would greatly benefit my people."

"We would prove that we are no threat to you or your folk," said Gaelira. "Name your need, that we may attempt it." I saw Lagodir's jaw clench out of the corner of my eye.

"There is a terrible wolf-sire which makes his den near here," Riagan replied. "We call him Red-Eye, for his eyes burn with a love of killing. He and his pack have grown bolder of late and begun attacking us as we tend to our herds or harvest the wild turnips which grow amidst the crags. We have tried to trap or slay the thing ourselves, of course, but he is crafty. Surely a band of five great adventurers would have no difficulty with such a minor task."

"It would be our pleasure to assist the people of Lhan Tarren," said Gaelira with a bow. "We will depart at once, with your blessings upon us."

"Most certainly!" said Riagan as he stood to see us off. "We would be ever so grateful that such masterful travelers as yourselves would deign to assist us poor folk so. His den is just to the south of here, east of the road."

Riagan escorted us to the edge of his village. He spoke to the villagers briefly, and they seemed to understand that we would be aiding them, for their expressions changed to ones less hostile and I even caught a few smiles on some of their dirty faces. The five of us tried to grin and move quickly, so that we soon found ourselves back across the river. Once free of the throng, we breathed easier and set about our task without delay.

"Why did you do that Gaelira?" asked Lagodir as we walked. "The people of this land are fractious and petty. Moreover, we require nothing from them -- why get involved with them at all?"

"As an expression of goodwill," said Gaelira. "The errand will gain us at least a small amount of favour among the people of Lhan Tarren. But I would ask of you, Lagodir: why did you reveal your right name so readily? You know well we are being sought by the minions of both Inar and Amarthiel. It was most unwise."

"I have no desire to avoid conflict with the Men of Dunland through deceit," Lagodir responded, "Particularly since conflict with them is inevitable in any case. I have nothing to hide -- if they wish me or any of us harm because of our heritage, then I say let them attempt it. But they would pay dearly were they to do so." I shook my head but kept silent.

"I just hope we are not being led into a trap," said Drodie. "That old man seemed awfully deferential to a bunch of wandering vagabonds like us, especially in a land which is not known for being especially hospitable to outsiders."

"Yes, he was laying the charm on a bit thick," said Nephyn. "On the other hand, perhaps he really is only trying to protect his people from what he cannot, and he sees our arrival as an opportunity to remove this threat."

"Whatever his motivations," said Gaelira, "We have given our word and must now see it through. We've dealt with far worse than wolves on our journey -- this task should not delay us overmuch."

It turned out to delay us a few hours. Red-Eye proved an evasive quarry, and the day wore on without success. Where our efforts at tracking the beast failed, however, Nephyn was eventually able to bait it into one of her steel traps which crippled its right foreleg, and after that finishing the thing off was easy work. Drodie stripped the wolf of its pelt while the rest of the pack fled from us, then we washed our hands and weapons in the river, which was a short distance west of the road.

"Well, it was dirty work, but less dangerous than what we're used to," I said as I fanned myself with my hat. Being the first of Wedmath, the days were now hot and sticky, and the fact we had been moving south for weeks did not help. I scanned the countryside behind us. "You know, I might almost like this place if it weren't for all the rocks. And of course the locals could use some schooling in manners, but aside from -- DRODIE LOOK OUT!!!"

I had seen movement among the crags less than a stone's throw to my right. Suddenly, the shaggy head of a Dunlending appeared and hurdled a spear at Drodie's back! But the Dwarf was not one to be taken unawares: he spun around with his shield at the ready, and there was a loud clang as he deflected the missile. Instantly, the rest of our Company was on a battle-footing; steel rang and glinted in the Sun as we turned to meet the assault.

I counted eight Dunlendings, all of them dark-skinned, swarthy Men armed with spears, axes, and knives. They were fierce fighters, but they were no match for our skill and equipment. Nephyn shot one through the neck as they approached then slew another with the Sword of Ringdor as she engaged blade-to-blade. Two more fell to Lagodir's great, curved Elven-sword while Drodie hacked the arm from a fifth with his axe. Gaelira fended off two attackers with sword and staff before running one through. The remaining pair fled, but one took another of Nephyn's shafts in the back as he ran.

"Curse my shameful aim!" she cried as we ran up to check on this last. The arrow had pierced clean through his heart and the point was protruding from his breast; the ground was wet with blood. "I had meant only to strike his leg, but there was that sudden gust of wind just as I let fly. I had hoped we would be able to question this one and learn why they attacked us."

"Do not blame yourself," said Lagodir. "Dunlendings need no reason to attack anyone, even their own kin, warlike a people as they are. It seems clear to me this ambush was arranged -- we need only go and ask Elder Riagan why he tried to have his Men kill us."

"Do not be so hasty, Lagodir," scolded Gaelira as she bent down to examine the bodies. "You yourself have spoken of the fractious nature of those who inhabit this land, have you not? See here! These Men all bear the token of a dragon. I should think they belong to a rival clan, and quite possibly have nothing to do with Riagan whatsoever."

"That could be," said Nephyn through gritted teeth, "But it does not mean that they aren't working together to exterminate us. Lhan Tarren is a small village -- I think we should go back there and tell the elder what happened to us. His reaction may tell us much."

We all agreed to this course of action. The bodies of the slain we dragged to an obscure spot near some rocky outcroppings and there we did our best to bury them. We also took the dragon-tokens from their raiment as proof of our encounter. By the time we finally reached Lhan Tarren, it was late into the afternoon. The villagers' standoffishness had thawed noticeably upon our return, but the crowd was still fairly quiet as we were led back to Riagan's hut. He was overjoyed when we presented him with the pelt of Red-Eye and seemed genuinely grateful for our work.

"We thank you for your praise, Elder," said Gaelira with a stern face. "But now we must speak of difficult matters. We were attacked at unawares while we returned, and it is only through good fortune that all five of us stand here before you now. Tell me, what is the meaning of these?" She threw the dragon-tokens at Riagan's feet, who stooped and squinted as he examined them closely.

"Oh, my!" the old man exclaimed. "These are the marks of the Dragon-clan! Don't tell me the Dragons attacked you? I had no idea they had come so far west, and I would have warned you had I known. This is terrible news! Our families in the Herd-lands could be in great danger!"

"One thing at a time," said Lagodir, not even bothering to be polite. "Who are the Dragon-clan and what relation have they to you?"

"The Dragons are the most warlike of all the disparate peoples of Dunland," Riagan explained. "They take what they want from the other tribes without thought or recompense. Women, cattle, land... nothing has ever been safe from them, but lately things have gotten far worse. And now! To know they have come into the lands of the Stag... this is terrible, terrible..."

"I am sorry to hear of this," said Gaelira guardedly, "After all, I would hate to think that you sent us to hunt Red-Eye only as a ruse for having us ambushed."

"What? Oh, no! No, no, no!" Riagan quailed. "Certainly not! Mercy, my brave friends, I beg you do not think ill of me or my people! Such treachery was never in my mind. But now, though it pains me to ask it, I must seek your aid a second time."

"So you can lead us into another trap?" Lagodir snapped. "What sort of fools do you take us for?"

"Please, please, hear me," Riagan grovelled. "I understand your mistrust, really I do! But I have no choice -- the Herd-lands, our cattle-studs to the south, are where the homes of many of the Stag-clan stand. My people have many, many relatives there and they are defenceless! Normally we would have had word of this invasion from our trained crebain, but somehow the Dragons have kept their movements hidden from us and so we were unable to warn our families. They are in great danger!"

"Then send some of your own people to warn them," growled Drodie.

"I would, I would, of course, Master Dwarf," Riagan pleaded, "But we do not have the numbers or the weapons to do this if the Dragon-clan has already attacked the Herd-lands. We would be slaughtered! Do you understand why I must ask this boon of you, despite your warranted mistrust of me and my folk?" None of us spoke for a time.

"I suppose I do understand," Gaelira sighed. "I do not think you could have arranged for two ambushes so quickly, and we have already proven our mettle against the Dragon-clan once."

"Gaelira, it is madness to trust this old fool!" cried Lagodir. "He has already led us into one trap, and he will continue to do so as long as our idealism permits him. Killing wild beasts is one thing -- I do not wish to get involved in the petty squabbles of these lesser Men." I feared Riagan would take offence at Lagodir's harsh words, but if so he did not show it.

"Come, let us discuss this matter among ourselves," said Nephyn. "After all, we do have our own business to which we must attend, Elder. We will decide whether this is worth our delay."

Riagan nodded and withdrew so that we could converse as a group without being overheard. It was not a long discussion, the upshot being that Gaelira, Nephyn, and I believed the people of Lhan Tarren were not hostile (even if they weren't exactly friendly) and genuinely needed our help while Lagodir spoke sternly against getting involved. Drodie, uncharacteristically, considered it an opportunity to make at least a few friends in a land swarming with potential enemies, and so he, too, was in favour of aiding the Stag-clan. We announced our intention to Riagan, who was overjoyed. Even the people of Lhan Tarren seemed to warm to us once their elder had conveyed the news to them in their own tongue, but there were several who seemed frightened, presumably at the news of the Dragons' encroachment and that their families away south were in danger.

Very soon, we were back across the river and following the road south, where Riagan had told us we would find the Herd-lands. We marched at a fast pace, for the day was quickly waning.

"Lagodir, I wouldn't have thought you one to deny aid to those in need," I said gingerly. I felt the whole episode since arriving at Lhan Tarren was creating tension within the Company, and I was always eager to diffuse such situations when possible.

"I am not convinced they are in need," Lagodir said. "More likely this elder of theirs is simply playing on our own elevated sense of nobility to lure us into one trap after another. It is the way of his kind."

"You seem awfully convinced that all Dunlendings are the same," said Nephyn as she walked nearby. "Did it never occur to you that perhaps not all Dunlendings think alike simply because they all live in Dunland?"

"No," the Gondorian answered tersely. "I have heard enough about the Dunlendings for my liking from the Rohirrim, true allies of Gondor, and seen them in battle on the plains of the Westfold. If the Stag-clan are indeed not of the same mind as the rest of their kin, then they are so small a faction as to not matter. How are we to know their intentions? You heard them speaking among themselves back there -- we do not even know what they were saying to one another. Like as not they were plotting to follow us and attack from the rear once the Sun sets."

"I can tell you they weren't, as it happens," said Nephyn emphatically. We all looked at her.

"And how would you know that?" asked Lagodir. "It seems Riagan is the only one among them who speaks the Common Tongue. I certainly could not make out their words to each other."

"Because -- Because I can understand their language -- a bit," Nephyn stammered.

"You?" exclaimed Lagodir in amazement. "How? Why?"

"I... well, I -- I had some spare time during our stays in Rivendell," she replied, "And I... thought I might try and spend it well, so I picked up some basics. Just words and phrases, you understand."

"And what do you think the people of Lhan Tarren were saying back there?" I asked.

"I caught the words for family or tribe," she said. "As well as farms. It was all rather rushed and not meant to be overheard. Anyway, I don't think they were plotting anything -- they were simply concerned that their friends and families might be in danger."

"I hope you are right," said Lagodir, and the conversation ended at that point.

The Sun was setting by the time we reached the Herd-lands. It was a rough country between the river to our right and some rocky hills to our left which was divided into small farms by low walls made of piled stone. Elder Riagan's fears turned out to be well-founded as the place was partially on fire and completely overrun by combative Dunlendings, all of whom bore the mark of the Dragon-clan. We made up our minds to avoid them at all costs and search for survivors of the apparent raid, but we found only dead farmers and their families, cruelly hewn down by their own countrymen. Nephyn was quite distressed over this while Lagodir simply raised his nose at the whole affair, although he was finally willing to admit that Riagan's people were the victims here and not trying to trick us into another ambush.

There were far too many Dragon-clan warriors for us to deal with on our own, so we stealthily withdrew and returned to Lhan Tarren. Elder Riagan was devastated to hear about the Herd-lands and seemed at a loss as to how he and his folk might respond to the travesty. For our part, we tried to counsel him as best we could, but the ways of Dunland were little known to us. More importantly, we felt it was well past time for us to be heading on -- not a one of us liked the idea of spending the night in that village after what had happened that day, even if the locals had been inclined to allow it.

We parted from Riagan and the villagers on good terms, but it hurt me to see the women and young children weeping as they were told the news about their families. Not a one among our Company was sad to put Lhan Tarren behind us as we struck out south and east. We continued on in the dimness of the setting Sun for a few hours before finally making camp in a small space between some boulders that was well hidden by several shrubs and low trees.

"Whew, am I glad that's over!" I panted as we settled down and began to prepare supper. It would end up being a cold one since we all agreed that lighting a fire was not advisable considering the day's events. "This land is as confusing as it is dangerous! I had no idea that Dunland was so divided -- it's a good thing we got out of there without being dragged in any more than we were."

"My thoughts exactly," said Lagodir grimly. "I am pleased to have been proved wrong about the elder's intentions, but I hope now you realize why I warned you all against getting involved."

"That said, there can be no question we accomplished some good this day," said Nephyn. "Who knows what might be the results of our actions later? I think we must continue to hold out hope that we can make a difference for good in this world, or else all of this has been in vain. Apparently the Stag-clan is one of the weaker tribes in Dunland, so we have at least done them some small service this day."

"I cannot argue that point, I suppose," said Lagodir. "But what now? Where are we headed, Gaelira?"

"In another day's march or so we should reach Glatrev," Gaelira replied as she pointed to the south-east. "That is the largest settlement in Dunland, and a major cross-roads for those few outlanders who journey here. I suspect we will find all manner of strange folk in that town, and we should be ready for anything."

"Will we also find this contact of yours there?" I asked. "What was his name again? Edgerin? You have not spoken much of him before today."

"It also sounded to me as though you were not certain where to find him," said Nephyn with a raised eyebrow. "I said nothing at the time because we were dealing with Elder Riagan, but I do hope you have some idea of where to locate this ex-Seeker of yours."

"I only know what I knew the last time I visited him," said Gaelira, "And that was many long years ago. In truth, I do not know where he might be now -- I fear this is going to involve some trial and error."

"Wonderful," I sighed. "Searching for a Dunlending in a land full of Dunlendings, large numbers of whom would be happy to chop us up into tiny pieces as soon as wish us a good morning -- what could go wrong?"

"Edgerin is not a Dunlending," said Gaelira. "He is of the race of Man, and he is well advanced in years for his kind, so far as I can tell, but he has lived long in this land and sees much that others miss. He may have knowledge of Mallacai or his passing, but more importantly he knows as much about Inar than anyone else I can think of -- at least among those I would trust. I cannot say for certain, but he might even be able to help us in dealing with Izarrair as well, perhaps."

"That sounds more hopeful," I admitted, "So long as we can find this chap sometime before winter sets in. I can't say I fancy the idea of hunting your elusive friend throughout the whole length of -- Drodie, I thought we said we weren't going to be making a fire tonight?"

"We aren't, and I haven't," said the Dwarf, who had been mending a torn corner of his traveling pack.

"Then why do I smell ashes?" I asked as I jumped to my feet. The others also immediately went on the alert. We began searching the ground and it only took a few minutes to locate the source of the odour.

"Here!" said Drodie as he pointed. "Just under the edge of this boulder -- you can see where someone made a campfire to screen in from the wind. Then they scattered the ashes when they moved on."

"And these ashes are still warm," Lagodir observed as he ran his hand through the remains. "It is so dark that we did not see it at first." He grasped a small object from the ground and peered at it closely in the dying light.

"Hum, so we are not the only travelers in this land," I said. "I guess that just means we should be sure to set the watch, but of course we were going to do that anyway. I don't suppose it necessarily means anything good or bad."

"But this might," said Lagodir, and he held up the object he had retrieved from the fire for the rest of us to see. It was a partially burned piece of heavy parchment and the lettering was written in a bold hand, as if it were meant to be seen from a distance. This is what we read:

NOTICE OF BOUNTY for
ELLADAN'S OUTRIDERS

20 silver pieces for information
300 silver pieces for the Halfling
100 silver pieces for each in his Company

Inquire at the Galtrev Trading Post

WANTED LIVING OR DEAD

We gaped in silence. A crow cawed overhead as it fluttered southward on the night air.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 67

Through the Mournshaws

Sunday, 30th of Afterlithe, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Enedwaith
The Mournshaws
I awoke to Nephyn's gentle prodding and found the sky was still dark. I rolled over, yawned, stretched, and tried to rub the sleep from my eyes.

"I see we are back to our old ways of rising well before the Sun," I said. "No doubt I have Gaelira to thank for this. What is the time?"

"About the fourth hour from midnight, I think," came Nephyn's reply, "But I am hardly sure myself as I too was only just roused by Lagodir. There is something strange going on: when we went to sleep there were a few small lamps burning here in Maur Tulhau, but now it is as dark as the dregs of an ink-pot. Let's go and see what is afoot."

After blundering about for a little while in the gloom, Nephyn and I were able to locate a small cluster of people near the town centre. Iolo Brachtu, mayor of the village, was there and speaking with Gaelira, Lagodir, and Drodie in hushed tones.

"I think this gambit of yours is wise, she-Elf," the mayor was saying, "By leaving here so soon and under cover of darkness you hide your trail. Moreover, you remove yourselves from our home, thereby keeping your promise to us while, at the same time, you set your path upon that of your enemy. He rides south and you march behind him, hidden from his eyes because you are treading the very road he himself just traveled! Very clever."

"That is my intent," answered Gaelira. "I only hope we do not somehow catch up to him unawares, but I am eager to leave your people in peace. We are very grateful for your hospitality, brief though it has been, and we know you have done much for us even in this small gesture."

"You speak the truth, perhaps more than you realize," said Brachtu. "Few if any of our folk wished to aid you directly or indirectly, for the wars and troubles of the outside world are not our concern. Still, I can see that you and your friends are not like that other one, the Man Izarrair, so I can say that you go with our goodwill and wishes of good fortune upon your journey."

"We respect the desires of these, your kind people," said Gaelira as we all bowed our heads to the mayor. "I pray indeed that you will be spared from the coming travails which threaten to engulf all lands, though none accounted wise may foresee it."

"In such matters, our own counsel shall we keep," said Brachtu.

The mayor led us to the edge of town where we bade a very quiet and solemn farewell to the inhabitants of the strangest little village I had ever yet seen in my life. We had barely gone south for half a mile when I, looking back, saw the curious crowd and any sign of the path to Maur Tulhau seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. I wondered just how many centuries that people had lay hid among the crags of the Enedwaith and how many more might pass before anyone else from the world beyond stumbled upon their dwelling. I wished I had a chance to spend more time among them, learn their names, their crafts, and their manner of speech, but Fate would not have it so. Instead, I hefted my pack and plodded along behind the shadowy figures of my companions.

We picked our way south for a few hours. Gaelira was apparently following directions she had received from Iolo Brachtu because we made very good time: it was still a little before dawn when we came to the crossroads we had seen the day before. Here, we traversed the stream without difficulty and continued on our way. The five of us were perfectly silent. For one thing, the forest around us was quite still as the Sun began to paint the sky, but the woodland canopy quickly blotted out her light as we continued across the water and into the woods on the far side. The radiant morning was lost to us, replaced by an oppressive stuffiness as the trees seemed to press in more and more the further we walked. These were mostly oaks, I think, but they were all rather twisted and gnarled in the most unlovely fashion. Piles and piles of damp, rotting leaves were everywhere on the forest floor and gave off a pungent, malodourous reek while the only sounds were those of insects -- nary a birdsong did we hear all the time we walked among that wood. Suddenly, there came the wailing cry of some distant beast. At first I thought it was the voice of a wolf, but if it was then it was unlike any wolf-howl I had ever heard before, so forlorn and melancholy it was. We halted briefly, listening for several minutes with strained ears to make sure we were not being pursued, and then gingerly resumed our trek. The place had not been named the Mournshaws in idle fancy.

The day drug on yet the light grew dimmer the further we went. We stopped for lunch (or what we felt might have been lunch, since the Sun was lost behind the tangled boughs overhead), then we pressed on again. It was some time later when we came upon a rather unusual sight: about a dozen large stones, all arranged in some sort of circular pattern. They were of immense size -- I should say at least fourteen feet high -- and most were set on edge in pairs with another, smaller stone lying across their tops. The effect was like looking at a series of high, stone doors, all of which faced inward on each other to a central point. That point was a beautiful green sward, and a bright shaft of the Sun's light stabbing down on it through a break in the trees above gave it a mystical appearance. We stopped our march, and there was not a sound to be heard in any direction.

"What is this place?" whispered Nephyn. None of us seemed eager to break the eerie silence which hung like a cloud over that clearing.

"And who placed these stones here?" I asked, my eyes wide with wonder. "Certainly not our little friends from Maur Tulhau."

"More importantly," said Lagodir with an uneasy frown, "What is their purpose?"

"Pah, it's just an altar, most likely -- some place for ancient ceremonial rites," said Drodie, but even he did not allow his voice to rise above a whisper.

"I do not know," Gaelira said, "But I think we should move on from here -- I distrust the uncanny silence."

To this we all heartily agreed. We began to move around the western edge of the stone circle, keeping it always a good distance to our left. Suddenly, we schlooped right into a thick, muddy puddle that was well-hidden by the forest undergrowth. No doubt it had been a collection point for much of the heavy rains which had pummeled that country the day before last.

"Ack!" I cried as I withdrew my feet from the sticky mess, "What rotten luck! I had disliked this wood already, but now --"

"Wait! No one move," commanded Nephyn. We froze and the young huntress bent over to examine the viscous earth.

"A shod horse passed this way," she whispered. "And very recently, unless I am much mistaken." Once she had called our attention to it, the marks were plain to see: it appeared we were following the exact same path, in a wide circle around the edge of the standing stones.

"Izarrair," said Gaelira grimly. "We should strike out in another direction at once."

"Why not go that way?" I asked and pointed toward the east. There, the murk of the trees grew less, and there even appeared to be a golden haze some distance on which might have been sunlight. The Company leaped at the prospect of seeing the sky again, so we immediately left our course and headed for the thinning treeline. It was a good step, but eventually we could see that the Sun was, in fact, shining down in that place and that it continued to do so both north and south of where we were headed.

"Why, it might well be a creek, or even a river," said Nephyn. We hurried our pace.

And so it was: a heady river which flowed south down from the highlands to our right. It had a swift current and the banks were overgrown with shrubs and rushes, but we five were only grateful to feel the free wind on our faces once more. We followed the river south a ways before Nephyn suggested we cross it since doing so would wash away our scent and make tracking us more difficult, if anyone was so inclined.

Accomplishing this took a bit of effort, for the river proved swift and strong, but after wading out in several places to test the depth with the lower limb of her bow, Nephyn located a spot which was shallow enough for us to ford easily enough. The water came up past my waist, but even I did not need to be carried across. Once we were on the western bank we began to make excellent time. The trees were spaced much further apart and the increased airflow made us feel rejuvenated. Many miles slid by as quickly as the rushing river in its reedy bed.

We continued on like this for a fair ways until I was abruptly yanked by the cloak into a knot of rushes. Both Nephyn and Gaelira clapped a hand over my mouth, but I could already see the cause of their alarm: as I peeped through the reeds eastward across the river, there on the far bank stood an imposing figure on horseback. I also saw that Lagodir and Drodie had remained in sight and drawn their weapons.

"Hold, drudge of Mordor," Drodie called in challenge. "Do not think to cross this river, if you wish your limbs to remain attached to the rest of you!"

"Hail, heroes," came Izarrair's cold voice from across the water. "I did not think to cross paths with you again so soon. So, you are making for Dunland? What is your business in that worthless land, I wonder? And where are the other three simpletons which follow in your train? Lost themselves in the haunted woodlands, perhaps?" He laughed.

"The others have gone off with the Elf," Lagodir answered.

"I am not a fool, Gondorian, so pray do not speak to me as one! Wherever you go the others are sure to be nearby. Hiding in the rushes, are they? Protecting the females and the little rat-footed holbytlan you picked up in this wretched place, I guess? I would like very much to know why you keep that one around. But you need have no fear of me just yet, Lagodir, honoured guest of Mordor: Izarrair does not disobey orders for any cause -- certainly not for your inconsequential neck. When I strike at you it will be at a time and a place of my own choosing; you shall watch as your friends fall one by one, and then I will see you hauled back to Minas Morgul in chains."

"NEVER!" Lagodir roared, and he even jumped into the river so to get at the horseman, but the current proved too strong for him and he was obliged to cease his attack. Izarrair merely laughed at his efforts.

"Bested by a little water, I see," he mocked. "Just how much of your old self is left, I wonder? We shall put it to the test one day, but not yet, my friend. Not yet." With that, Izarrair turned his horse and sped away southward at a hard gallop.

Nephyn, Gaelira, and I rejoined the others once the horseman was out of sight. None of us knew what to make of his words other than the obvious fact he was under orders from Amarthiel and that, whatever his mission, it must be one of terrible importance. We remained on the west bank of the river all the rest of that day as we continued our journey south. None of us spoke, but I think each of us was puzzling over why Izarrair seemed determined to keep us at arm's length.

The Sun had sunk behind the hills to the west when we finally decided to cross the river again. There was no easy place to ford, so I clambered up onto Lagodir's back as the Company swam to the other side. We camped on the very edge of the Mournshaws and lit a fire to dry our wet clothes while Nephyn and I stared off into the south.

"Dunland," she said, her voice heavy with emotion. "To think, my mother once lived somewhere in this land, and tomorrow I shall set foot upon its soil."

I nodded, but found no words to say. The region which lay before us looked hard and rocky to my eyes, with few trees and many crags while the river continued its swift journey on ahead. Looking down the banks, I suddenly marked a tiny light appear. Then there was another, and another! I blinked as I realized I was looking at the dim outline of a small, rustic village that was perched on a little island out in the midst of the river and connected to the shore by a rickety wooden bridge.

"Neph, look!" I said and pointed. "A town! Or what might pass for a town in Dunland, at any rate -- I think there can't be more than a dozen huts all told."

We brought this news to the others around the campfire, but no one else seemed terribly excited by it. Gaelira was interested only so far as she mused the inhabitants might be able to tell us which way Izarrair had gone while Drodie just wanted to know whether they might sell him some beer. Lagodir, meanwhile, had suddenly become very intent on stoking the fire (which didn't really look like it needed stoking at all).

It was an awkward evening. Gaelira was on the watch, Drodie was whetting his axe, Lagodir was quiet and withdrawn (for reasons I never found out that night), and Nephyn was brooding upon the prospect of entering the region where, almost thirty years prior, her mother had been escaping slavery at the hands of the Dunlendings. I wanted more than anything to talk to her, to find out what was going through her mind, but I knew she would never allow it -- I had already betrayed her trust once by copying down the personal letter she had written long ago in Rivendell which laid out her family history (so far as it was known), and I could not openly discuss that, not even among our closest friends, without her permission. And getting away to speak in private was no option with Izarrair and whatever other dangers lurking in the darkness.

After a while I engrossed myself in my writing while Nephyn (whose turn it was) prepared supper. It had been a most unusual day and there was a lot to get down, and soon no sight, sound, or smell beyond my work was able to disrupt my concentration. I had just finished describing the strange standing stones when something blocked my vision. It was a hand -- Nephyn's hand. She was holding a wafer of cram into the midst of which she had thrust a carrot-stalk. I put down my journal and stared at her in confusion. Her face was lit with an enormous smile, and I could see she was trying desperately not to laugh. The others were also watching me and seemed greatly amused, but I had no idea what was so entertaining. I blinked uncomprehendingly at the weird concoction as I took it from her hand.

"Um, Neph..." I asked finally, "What is this?"

"Happy Birthday!" she cried, and the others wished me the same. I laughed aloud.

"Well, bless me!" I said with a smile, "I was worried you had all lost your wits there for a moment. On second thought, maybe you have -- my birthday isn't for another twenty-one days yet, that being the twentieth of Wedmath when I'll turn thirty-seven years old. You're three weeks early!"

"Oh, well, you know," Nephyn hawed, "I remembered you mentioning your birthday was coming up next month, and that starts tomorrow. Besides, we all looked like we needed a laugh after what we've been through these last couple of days, so I made you a little something special."

"What, this?" I asked as I held up the carrot-impaled biscuit. "What on earth is this supposed to be, anyway?"

"Why, it's carrot-cake!" she giggled and the Company rolled with laughter, heedless of the watchful night.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 66

Of Horsemen and Hobbits

Sterday, 29th of Afterlithe, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Maur Tulhau, Somewhere in the Land of Enedwaith
A hobbit-house in Maur Tulhau
Our Company had made camp well outside of bowshot from the walls of the Algraig settlement of Lhanuch in the midst of the Enedwaith -- in fact, we had pitched our tents in a small copse of trees off the eastern side of the Great North Road, so it was a good ten-minute walk to its gate. Having agreed to not bed down among the suspicious natives, we decided it was best to keep a respectful distance. I, for one, was perfectly happy with the arrangements given the welcome we had so far received in that land.

It was after midnight. Dark clouds had suddenly rose up from the West and thunder rumbled ominously in the hills, but it sounded to still be some ways off. I had been tossing and turning in my blankets for hours, unable to sleep: the wind had risen again and howled in the rocky crevices of the plains while the tree-branches above us creaked and groaned as they were tossed about. 

Finally, I could stand the din no longer. As I rose and began to walk about, I saw Lagodir was asleep (ever since the destruction of Guloth in Rivendell I had noticed he could sleep through anything) while Gaelira was perched partway up a tree as she observed the gathering storm.

"I think I could do with a quick stroll," I called to her, nearly shouting to be heard over the noise of the weather. 

"You ought to be sleeping," she answered me.

"And who could sleep through this gale? Aside from him, that is," I deadpanned with a motion toward Lagodir. "I just need to move about, is all. I promise I won't go far."

"Nor alone," said Nephyn, who was suddenly beside me.

"And I might as well go with you two, too." It was Drodie. His head was bare of helm, but he wore still his armour and his axe was at his belt. "By the by, that's two as in the number, and too as in..."

"Yes, yes, we know what you meant," I said. "Well! It appears I've gathered myself a merry little troop. Still, I can't deny I'd be happy for the company. And that's company as in..."

"Oh, stop it!" Nephyn chuckled, "Or we'll never be off before the rain comes. Lead the way, Master Hobbit."

"And do not wander far!" Gaelira warned us. "Nor too near the gates of the village. Their eyes are not unwatchful, though perhaps you cannot tell from here."

We promised to do as she instructed, then I led the three of us away from our camp. I wasn't going anywhere in particular, but for whatever reason my feet took me westward, across the Road, and north of Lhanuch. We could see the bridge of the Araniant not far to the north on our right, and we decided to follow the river's southern bank a-ways to see where it might lead. After a short walk, we discovered ourselves overlooking an enchanting pool, fed by several thin waterfalls which fell into it from the nearby streams. That water had a secluded and tranquil feeling, so I lingered there and my friends remained with me. As we milled aimlessly about the place, we found an interesting obelisk planted into the hillside. Drodie was particularly fascinated by it.

"This would be a Dwarf-marker, sure as I live and breathe," he said. "You could never mistake the craftsmanship for aught else."

"That is true, certainly, but what does it signify?" asked Nephyn. "The pool is lovely, but it hardly seems the sort of thing that Durin's Folk would feel it necessary to memorialize."

"Ah, but that is where your lack of knowledge concerning the lore of my people shows itself," Drodie replied. "And this is not even very ancient lore: like as not what we see here marks part of the journey of the Dwarves of Erebor as they fled the desolation of Smaug and made their way to the Blue Mountains. It was told that hardship along that journey drove them far off the Great East Road, and they came to the Ered Luin by hard paths through strange lands that few have traveled."

"Well, that's a fitting description of this place, right enough," I said with a grimace. There was a silence as I looked out over the calm water, into the West.

"Aye, we've not exactly gotten the royal treatment here," Drodie agreed. "Still, seeing this gives me hope: it reminds me of Erebor that was lost to my kin, the long trials we endured to start a new life in the West, and the sacrifices made to regain the Lonely Mountain. Seeing this marker is like seeing a little piece of home and my heritage."

"Yes," I said quietly, but I did not turn my gaze.

"Padryc," came Nephyn's voice, "Are you really here due to lack of sleep?" I sighed.

"I miss the Shire," I said after a pause. "It's not that I want to turn away from you all, but... well, it's been a long time. And it's not even that, really, when I get down to it. This land... It's so, so different from anything I've seen before. I've always felt a bit out of place -- any hobbit would with everywhere we've been -- but I've never felt so... like such an outsider before now."

"Not even among the Elves in Rivendell?" she asked me.

"Yes, to be honest," I answered. "At least, I never felt unwelcome even if it was a bit awkward. I think that, at the barest bottom, I'm really truly homesick for the first time in a long, long while. Still, I'm sure this all sounds like nonsense to you, Neph, what with everything you've been through: you've never really been welcome anywhere you've lived or journeyed your entire life. I'm sure you'll tell me to tough it up, and you'd be right to do so."

"No," she said, and her face was solemn. "It's true, I've never really belonged anywhere, at least not yet, but why should I begrudge you the fact that you have? Feelings of loss can only come when one has something worth losing, but I am happy that you can still find what your heart will miss from time to time. Perhaps, one day, I too will have a home -- and the privilege to yearn for it."

"Aye, you cannot have one without the other," said Drodie. "Fifty-score, six, and thirty years it has been since Durin's Folk fled the halls of Khazad-dum, my friend, yet even now its memory lives in our songs and in our stories. Great anguish was wrought by the loss -- even still we feel it -- but that would never have been, were it not so dear to us."

'You're both right, of course," I said. "Besides, we must do whatever we can to clear up this mystery surrounding Luean and what befell him in Eregion. As melancholy as I might be, I feel I must at least see that through."

"You speak for me as well," said Nephyn with a smile. "But come! We should return to camp before the others start to worry -- I do not think they would forgive us if they had to come searching afield on a night such as this is shaping up to be."

The three of us made our way back the way we came and returned quickly to the copse of trees. As we arrived, lightnings began to crease the sky while the wind howled more fiercely than ever. We saw Lagodir was now awake and peering off into the East. There was no sign of Gaelira.

"Greetings, Lagodir," said Nephyn as we approached. "Where is Gaelira? And why do you watch that way when the storm approaches from behind?" asked Nephyn. 

"Because I need not watch for the known dangers," answered Lagodir, his back still to us, "But for the unknown ones."

Curious, we followed his gaze. Some distance off we descried a dark and hulking shape which slowly became larger as it drew near. After a time, I saw it was a lone figure atop a horse, and both were arrayed in sable. The apparition's garb was soiled and ragged, but here and there I caught the glimpse of steel rings (as of chain mail) and I saw many spikes of iron protruding from his pauldrons, cannons, and couters. His face we could not see: it was hidden behind a grotesque mask of horns which gave him a monstrous look, but for all that I could see it was in the shape of a Man. His mount sauntered to within about twenty feet of our Company and halted, his eyeless mask betraying no thought or emotion. 

"Hold, traveler!" Nephyn called to the towering shadow. "We are but a wandering company and wish for no quarrel. What is your business in this land?" The horseman halted, but made no sign or sound.

"Speak!" Lagodir shouted above the din of the weather. The horse swayed and flicked its tail, but still we received no answer. I cowered behind Drodie as the others drew their weapons. Only then did the masked figure give answer. His voice was sneeringly soft yet rough as iron, but it was indeed a Man and no Orc or wraith which stood before us.

"Ah, Elladan's Outriders -- erstwhile heroes of Eriador! I expected to find you sooner or later since word of your passage runs like a plague wherever you pass. My mistress told me you were arrogant, but even I did not think you were foolish enough to so brazenly declare yourselves with your filthy white cloaks."

"We have no fear of you or whomever holds your leash, slave," said Lagodir, "Fouler foes have we faced and bested than the likes of you."

"Is that so?" scoffed the horseman. "Such is not the tale as I've heard it. What of Brullug in Sarnur? Defeated, from what I understand, by a female out of the frozen North. Mordirith? Overthrown by the machinations of Guloth the Weakling. Guloth? Supplicated himself to my mistress before he was destroyed. Surely you don't think to count yourselves among those who threw down Thaurlach? Anyone could claim as much when they have an army in front of them as you did. Even Bleakwind the drake lives, though wounded, in the wastes of the Ram Duath. Ha! Some warriors. What do I see before me? Lagodir of Gondor I know already, for he was once our guest in Minas Morgul. That imbecile Guloth permitted you to depart our hospitality for his own ends, so be assured the fate he suffered was a mercy compared with what his ambition had purchased him in the Dark Tower. And this dark-skinned waif must be your servant-girl. I trust she keeps you warm on cold nights such as this, friend Lagodir -- such has long been the way among your fallen and decadent people, has it not? Debasing your once-noble lineage out of a desperate hope to propagate your seed?"

"Silence, cur!" Lagodir shouted as he raised his sword. "I'll not listen to more of your perversity!"

"Oh, I think you will," returned the horseman with a cruel laugh. "You know as well as I that your arm is weakened after its many trials, valiant Sergeant-at-Arms. Still, you have your companions, don't you? Behold: Drodie of the Mountains! Famous throughout the land for being quick at the elbow and slow of the mind! And cowering behind him I see his rat-footed Dwarf-servant. But dear me! It seems that, in your stupidity, you have misplaced your Firstborn-witch. Or perhaps she is hiding? That would be in keeping with the wont of her kind. What a merry little band!" He laughed again and reached for something hanging at his saddle. He held it up, and I could see it was a wickedly barbed spear, the blade forged of some dark metal. His mount took two steps forward, eager for battle, but the horseman checked its advance.

"Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to end your sad, overwrought tale here and now," he continued, menacingly. "Fortunately for you, however, there are more important matters to which I must attend. My mistress, Amarthiel, sends you this word of greeting: I have what it is you seek, and I await your pleasure to retrieve it. Guloth was nearly your doom, yet I am vastly more powerful; Even your pathetic 'victory' over him has only served to further my own designs. Face me, or die like the cowards you truly are."

"Amarthiel's threats do not frighten us," said Nephyn as she raised her bow, "Nor do the caterwaulings of her nameless thralls."

"Nameless?" the horseman echoed, and I could tell from his voice that he smiled behind his mask. "Did I fail to introduce myself properly? How careless of me! I am the Captain of Ered Lithui, Warden of Udun, Lieutenant of Carn Dum and Enforcer of Amarthiel -- I am Izarrair!"

"Never heard of him," Drodie growled. "Long on titles, short on deeds, I'll warrant, unless you'd like to hop your pointy-hatted self down here and prove otherwise."

"Soon enough, though it looks to be a long way down indeed, my stunted friend," Izarrair replied. "Know this: Amarthiel has plans for each of you, and so do I. I truly hope none of you meets their end before I finish my business and return to destroy you all myself. From the look of it, though, I would do well to hurry. I suspect the Dwarf-rat or the dark-skinned whelp will be dead ere I find you again, and so I take my leave. Fare-thee-poorly, my heroes."

With that, Izarrair spurred his mount right at us and we leaped aside in order to avoid being run down. The horse and rider quickly charged off toward Lhanuch, vanishing into the storm. Lightning ripped across the sky, thunder roared in the distance, and at last the rain came streaming down.

"What nerve!" I cried as I drug myself out of the mud-puddle in which I had landed. "First Inar and now this black chap -- for Heaven's sake, is there anyone left in all the West-lands of Middle-earth who's not hunting us down?!"

"Stooge of Amarthiel and thrall of Mordor," grunted Drodie. "I had always wished to be world-renowned as a Dwarfling, but this isn't quite what I had in mind."

"Indeed! Our success and notoriety throughout Eriador has come with a price, it seems," said Lagodir. "Still, we must not be discouraged -- the Enemy thrives on extinguishing hope among his adversaries, for only then is his victory truly achievable. I wish Gaelira were here; perhaps she could tell us more about this Man Izarrair. She said she would return within the hour, and that is now nearly up."

Gaelira did return shortly, as it happened, with her cloak raised over her head to try and ward off the rain. We hailed her as soon as she was within sight and she hastened to meet us, sensing that something was amiss.

"Greetings, friends," she said as she entered our campsite and shook the rain-water out of her hood.

"Yes, how d'ye do," I said mockingly. "Now, where the devil have you been?!"

"I only went to scout a path which, according to the maps I brought with me from Imladris, is supposed to lead to a fabled library somewhere up in the mountains surrounding Thror's Comb," Gaelira replied. "Why? Has something happened in the short time I was away?"

"I should say so!" I exclaimed, then the four of us proceeded to recount for her the entire episode with the dark horseman. She had never heard the name Izarrair before, and she had us tell her the entire story a second time, then asked us all several pointed questions about the encounter. She seemed particularly interested in what he thought of me, and had me repeat his exact words over and over.

"Are you getting some kind of twisted enjoyment out of his insults?" I finally asked her. "What is the point of my telling you this again and again?"

"I think," the she-Elf answered, "This Izarrair had never seen a hobbit before. I could be wrong, of course, but it seems plain to me that he did not quite know how to characterize you, and somehow I think this might be important."

"Well, I wouldn't expect his sort to know decent, respectable folk from a swine's slopping-trough," I sniffed, "Not if it would earn him a mountain of gold! But why should that be important?"

"Be that as it may," interrupted Lagodir, "This encounter has proven beyond doubt that we must take to concealment at once. We have been far too careless up to now."

"I agree," said Gaelira, who left my last question unanswered. "Furthermore, we must shun the road, though I fear doing so will slow our progress. Still, that cannot be helped, given tonight's events."

"And where, then, shall we go?" asked Drodie as he wrung the water from his beard.

"The maps of the Enedwaith I saw in Rivendell were largely incomplete and of little use," the she-Elf replied, "But I remember there was a forest in the west of this land, the Mournshaws, which may suit our purposes: it is broad and trackless, yet it seemed to me a way did exist to continue southward into Dunland, if we can find it."

"Mournshaws?" I repeated. "Oh, well, that doesn't sound ominous at all! Let's be off then, shall we?"

"There is a range of tall hills between us and that forest," Gaelira went on. "If memory serves, we will need to backtrack some distance and try to find a way leading west off the main road. Gather your things --  we shall waste no time."

"Oh, you...?" I stammered, "I was only joking. You really mean to set out at once? In this abominable weather?"

"I do," she replied. "It would be unwise for us to linger here a moment longer, and we are all in for a wet night, whether we are awake or not."

I couldn't argue with her logic and the Company was ready to move in two wiggles of a hobbit's toes. That was the most wretched night I could remember in a long while as we trudged northward, back over the Araniant, retracing our steps. The darkness and the terrible visibility made finding Gaelira's westward track nearly impossible, and it was some time before we finally found what we were looking for. Eventually, though, we sighted a muddy path which led west and very quickly began to climb up into the hills. It was shrouded in trees on both sides and very soon the wind and rain were lessened by their presence so that our situation became considerably less miserable.

Over time our path became a bit more well defined, but it also began forking repeatedly. Our choices were mostly to either continue west or to turn northward, but Gaelira consistently kept us on the westerly track, always keeping the rushing river to our left. After a while the way leveled off and the rain ceased, so our going became easier, but the trees also began closing in upon us and I started to feel rather confined. This continued for some while until, just when I thought I couldn't stand it any longer, we reached a clearing. The river still ran to our left, but just ahead it was shallow enough to ford and one leg of the path turned south while the other went north. Ahead of us, the track vanished into the grass and the forest was wild and overgrown.

"I think we have come far enough into the trees," said Gaelira.

"What now?" asked Lagodir. "Shall we take yonder southward road?"

"No," said Gaelira. "Not yet: Let us turn north and look for a spot to rest. That would be less expected, were anyone to be hunting for us in these woods."

By this time it was nearing foredawn and I wasn't sure how much further I could go before falling asleep on my feet, but I walked doggedly on behind my companions. The path north led into a labyrinth of hills and gorges, such that we were soon quite lost. All five of us tried to navigate those ravines in an attempt to shake off any pursuit, but the place was such a confusing maze of ditches, hedges, hills, and dells that very soon we were unable to find the way by which we had come. If anyone was tracking us in those woods, they would certainly have had a time of it! The soft light of day was growing in the East and we had just decided we would turn south and continue that way by any means possible when we suddenly heard the most incredible thing.

It was a flute. No one could have mistaken it for anything else, though there was a very bird-like piping quality about it. Someone was playing a spritely tune in welcome of the dawn! Without a word the five of us crept carefully through the underbrush in search of the musician, and it was not long before we had found him.

If I was surprised to hear a flute play in that wild and untamed forest, I was far more surprised by what I saw then. There, lounging on a hillock with his back to us (for we happened to approach from behind him) near a deep cleft in the rocky hillside was a little figure. He wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, rustic clothing, and no shoes. And there was thick, brown and curly hair upon his feet.

"It can't be!" I blurted out, heedless of giving us away. Instantly the piping stopped and the little figure jumped up, whirled around to face us, and whipped out a crude little stone dagger.

"Who's there?" he called. His face was rough and dirty, but it was round and kindly nonetheless, though just then it was also filled with fear. He spoke the Common Tongue, however he had the most peculiar accent I had ever heard in my life.

"We're friends," I called to him as I walked forward, hands up and palms outward in token of peace. "Just travelers who have lost our way in these lovely hills, and we'd be ever so grateful if you could point us toward the southward road. We'll just continue on our way and leave you be, although..." Here I peered closely at him and smiled. "I never thought to see hobbits in this land! A joyous meeting this is! Padryc Pemberton, very pleased to make your acquaintance!" And I bowed low, then proceeded to introduce my companions.

"'These be strange names ye give," replied the little fellow. "An' what's all this late 'bout hobbits? We be holbyltan here. Rhus am I, Rhus Cornchuthur, and ye've found yer way to the village of Maur Tulhau." Here, he pointed to the cleft in the hills through which (I now perceived) led a faint dirt path. "We hain't ne'er be trustin' of duvodiad -- Outsiders, that is -- but ye don' bear the look a' evil folk ter me. Ye're welcome to visit if'n yer o' mind, but I'll ask that ye present yerselves to th' mayor straight'way. Ye'll find Iolo up the path, near the village centre, I reckon. Now, yer pardon, but 'tis me duty to honour the Huntsman at the rise o' the Sun." 

We entered the rock-cleft and left Rhus to continue his piping, though he eyed us suspiciously as we passed. Once through, we saw the path became straighter and more well-used. Then, after brushing aside some enormous ferns, we beheld a truly magnificent sight.

We were in a beautiful gorge through which ran the road we were on. It climbed over small bridges of stone, wound down among the rocks, then rose back again all the way up the hillside. And everywhere it went it passed by the most curious little houses and gardens. Hobbit-houses! A few were holes, not terribly different from Shire-holes, but the majority were actual low houses, all of wood or brick or delved right into the rock-wall. One could almost believe one had suddenly been transported away to some remote corner of the Shire, except here the gardens were all overgrown -- as if the foliage in this land was uncommonly large in its natural state -- and also several of the houses had more than a single storey, which would be quite unusual in my homeland.

"Look!" I cried as we passed one of the houses. "Look there! Why, shave my toes and call me an Elf, that's a field of pipe-weed, that is! And look! They are hanging it to dry and packing it in barrels for smoking later!"

"Why, so it is," remarked Nephyn, "Getting a bit over-excited, aren't we, Pad? Or have you smoked through your entire supply already?"

"No, no, you don't understand," I said. "The vaguest histories of hobbit-lore say my people traveled into the West of Middle-earth many, many years ago, but we did not settle the Shire itself until the year 1601, at which time the Shire-reckoning began. It had always been said that our ancestors brought pipe-weed with them on that journey, though it was used primarily for aromatic or medicinal purposes at the time. It wasn't for another thousand years and more when our tales say Tobold Hornblower first invented the art of smoking the stuff -- long after the migration was complete. Quite aside from the fact that these folk must be distant relations of Shire-hobbits (those as never completed the journey, I suppose), this proves that the art of smoking made its way back across the leagues of Eriador if they have learned of it here! Truly fascinating! I shall have to be sure and write it all down tonight; at last my journal shall have real historical significance!"

"I'm gratified to know our trials and efforts have not been in vain," smiled Lagodir, "If only to ensure the lineage of what in my country we call the westmansweed is thoroughly documented for posterity."

The denizens of Maur Tulhau shied away from us as we walked through their fair village. Not that I was surprised: from the look of things, I should have said they were a very isolated people indeed. Once we reached Iolo Brachtu (the mayor) in the centre of town, however, I learned that their stand-offishness could be attributed to more than just the oddity of seeing five outlandish travelers striding through their town in the light of a fair morning.

Izarrair had been there ahead of us. At least, if it wasn't him then there must be two of him, for the description we got from the mayor of the terrible Man which paid them a visit not hours before could be no one else. According to their account, he had threatened them at the points of his spear and javelin to tell him all they knew about hobbits and the Shire, and also whether they had seen any trace of some strange creeping frog-like creature for which Izarrair had no name. But the people of Maur Tulhau, though frightened, resisted him. And in any case they did not have the information he sought, at least not knowingly, for they call themselves holbytlan, not hobbits, and they knew nothing of the Shire. When they said this to Izarrair he cursed their uselessness, warned they should pray he never have cause to come there again, and bolted away into the forest like a raging fire.

"My people deal seldom with the Big Folk of any land," Iolo said to us, "But never before had we seen anything like that one. We will never submit, though we have not the strength to defeat him should he return, I think. You five feel quite different. I will allow you to remain here for the space of one day, if you wish it, but then I will demand that you begone: we know nothing of what goes on outside this forest nor do we wish to, and I will not have strangers bringing danger to my people."

We agreed to this request (or demand) full-willing, since it was sound and certainly justified. Once word of this arrangement went about, the inhabitants were much more accepting of us, but none of them would ask us to stay in their houses. It wouldn't have done much good anyway, as none but myself (and possibly Drodie) could even fit into their homes, but we preferred to remain together and so camped out-of-doors once more.

I am lying now in my blankets with the others around a fire near the well at the centre of town. Of all the things I thought I might see on my journeys I had never expected this! I just hope we have not endangered these kind folk and that Izarrair leaves them alone; it turns out our steps are being dogged, and not just by Inar and his lackeys. Perhaps Gaelira's wager that we will lose any pursuit in the dense forest of the Mournshaws will prove effective, but the fact that at least one of our pursuers has already passed this way doesn't bode well.

P.S. The name the Man gave us for himself he pronounced EEZ-are-ire, but my spelling of it is only a guess based on how it sounded in my ears. Neither I nor any of my companions were certain as to what tongue might have held its origins, so I may modify it later if I should acquire more information.

P.P.S. I also learned through discussion with one of the natives that Maur Tulhau translates into the Common Speech roughly as 'large hole' or 'great digging.' I find this captivating since that is the same (general) translation of Michel Delving, the chief settlement of the Shire. I wish I could spend more time among these, my distant kin but, alas, it simply isn't possible under the circumstances.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 65

The Wilds of Enedwaith

Sunday, 23rd of Afterlithe, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Enedwaith
One of the Shadow-wolves of Enedwaith
The howling wind woke us all quite early as branches creaked and cracked in the gale. A fierce wind was blowing down from the North, driving all the clouds in the overcast sky before them with the threat of rain. As I collected my belongings (or tried to, as several of them kept getting blown away), I hoped the day would not be a wet one.

Breakfast was little more than a biscuit or two while standing amidst the ruins of Echad Mirobel while saying our farewells to Maegamiel, leader of the Elves in that place. He thanked us many times for our assistance in the defeat of the half-orcs the day before, but was disappointed that he could tell us nothing more about their aims or purposes.

"I know naught of these half-breeds," said Maegamiel in disgust, "Save that their coming to Eregion heralds nothing good for me and my people. I hope very much that our efforts against them yesterday will serve as a deterrent to any others which may seek to harry our lands."

"Maintain your vigilance, good Maegamiel," Gaelira told him, "I fear that more evil things than these may be nigh to you, though as yet we know them not."

The Elves watched somberly as we headed south from the ruins in which they had made their homes. The Sun was now fully in the heavens, but the cloud cover remained and this caused the day to be comfortably cool, though the wind would still gust at times. Following an ancient road, we turned this way and that before fording a deep stream. Lagodir was kind enough to allow me to cross while astride his broad shoulders, though he mocked me lightly for refusing to learn how to swim.

Once ashore on the far side, occasional drops of rain began falling, so it was decided we would break for lunch under a nearby clump of ash-trees and see what the weather meant to do. As I absent-mindedly munched some cram in the midst of the howling wind, my thoughts began to wander. What were the half-orcs doing so close to Mirobel? What was the meaning of the black wolf-hides we found everywhere amidst their camp? Had Elrond or Malkan found any trace of Minasse since our departure from Rivendell? And what did Gaelira hope to learn from her mysterious informant in Dunland, to whose abode we were now headed? Finally, what of Inar and the Seekers of the Seven Stars? Were we being hunted even now?

I broke from my reverie and looked around. The faces of my companions were glum and downcast, probably because of the grey and depressing weather. Still, I had been on the road with that bunch long enough to know a great deal about them just from each person's demeanor, so I opened my eyes (as it were) and peered a bit closer.

To the casual onlooker Lagodir would have appeared subdued, even unhappy. But I who had come to know him even in the depths of his life's greatest trials thus far knew that he was in fact lighter of spirit than he had been since we first met. He had lost some of his hulking strength from those days, but his sinews remained hard and his will unbroken. In his eyes I saw both persistence and a renewed sense of purpose.

Drodie might also seem depressed to some, but that would be the mistake of an observer less well acquainted with him than I. He was merely bored -- absent any foe against which to test his will and enhance his glory, he saw little point in doing much else. As he slowly drew a whetstone across the curved edge of his axe, I saw his eyes sparkling with imaginary duels fought and adversaries vanquished. There was no need to be concerned for him.

Nephyn was another matter: our Company is often a quiet lot while on the road (particularly of late, under threat of being followed), but Nephyn could always be counted on to lighten our mood. Today, however, it was as though all power of speech had been taken from her. Even when directly addressed she had done little more than nod or shake her head in response, and I was growing worried for her. I wondered if perhaps the fact that we were headed directly for Dunland (that region being the birth-place of one of her missing parents, you may remember) might have had something to do with this. I could only guess at what sorts of thoughts might be racing through her mind as we marched south.

And then there was Gaelira. She was standing, as she often did, with her staff in hand and her sword at her belt. The wind would whip her raiment and her hair about wildly when it stirred, but she was the same rock I had always known her to be. And yet, despite her solid and determined nature, I could see her eyes searching the horizon -- many questions resounded inside that keen mind to which she had not the answers. I saw in her a sort of metaphor for our entire Company: strong, resolute, and true, yet ever in doubt because of the untiring winds that threaten to overturn us. Those winds are wild and dangerous, blowing from sources unseen and with purposes that we cannot discern, but still our loyalty to each other keeps us on our feet and always moving toward the fulfillment of our quest.

And then a thought flashed into my mind: what now was our quest? For the longest time our goal had been the recovery of the palantir held by Mordirith in Carn Dum. Gaelira had selflessly pledged herself to the recovery and use of that crystal, but now the relic was now lost to us, by all accounts; seized by Amarthiel, as the new regent of Angmar when our plans went so horribly wrong in the North. Since then, our fates had seemed to become interwoven with so many other places and things: Mallacai, Inar, Guloth, Amarthiel, Elrond, Minasse, and others. It was all become rather confusing and I suddenly wondered how long our Company might stick together, if we should lose a common purpose.

But then, as if from outside my own mind, came an image of Luean. Not as I had last seen him, cruelly hewn in the dirt and rubble which littered the floors of Tham Mirdain, but rather in the fullness of life, smiling, and exploring the wide world that he loved. I felt my will hardening within me. We owed our friend that, at least: to find the reason for his murder and bring his killer or killers to justice. The discovery of Inar's message near his body had inspired us to examine the possibility that the Seekers were somehow involved, and that was why Gaelira was leading us away from Eriador but toward her friend in Dunland -- in the hopes that we might learn something of value there. Friendship demanded that we unravel this mystery once and for all.

"Padryc!"

Jolted from my thoughts, I saw it was Drodie speaking to me.

"Are you going to eat our entire store of cram before noon? I thought you hated the stuff?" I suddenly realized I had continued eating absent-mindedly all that time. Sheepishly, I put the food away and wondered aloud whether it was time we were moving on.

The rain never materialized though the weather remained grey and drear. At this point we were hemmed between a rise of steep hills to the west (our right) and the river to the east (our left), so we continued due south between the two. We covered many more miles before halting again. It was not yet dusk, though the sky was just beginning to turn orange, but we were all tired and miserable because the damp air never allowed us to properly dry ourselves after wading through the river (in this situation, I was better off than my companions, having not gotten wet much at all above the ankles, thanks to Lagodir's generous offer). As a result, we decided to end the day's efforts in a little dell which was ringed with trees on all sides.

"This has a nice, cozy feel to it," I remarked as we began to settle ourselves down. "And most convenient! I wish all of our nightly rests could be had under similar accommodations. At least these trees will help to keep out the wind."

"That is my hope as well," said Nephyn, and I was surprised to hear her speak. "Though I would sooner choose a less exposed location. I wonder if we could manage to find a spot further up in the hills?"

"We should have little fear of discovery in this land," said Lagodir. "There are no settlements around us for many miles, or so it was when last I passed this way."

"When was that?" I asked.

"Nigh onto a year ago now," came the Gondorian's reply, "When I made my way north through the Gap of Rohan, among the Dunlendings, and thence into Eriador. I remember well the wide, trackless moors with little succor to be found for a lone wanderer upon the road. Glad am I to be among friends as I walk those paths now a second time, for the journey was a long and lonely one indeed."

There was not much talk beyond this was we all prepared to rest for the night. Lagodir, Drodie, and I were sort of bunched together on the eastern edge of the dell while Gaelira was standing on the lip, peering south. Nephyn, though, had removed herself to the western edge and continued her silent brooding. I wondered very much what was causing her to become so withdrawn.

Suddenly there was a terrible cry from behind us! Turning, I saw the shape of a Man outlined on the crest of the dell against the dimming sky -- his hands clasped a battle-axe over his head as he rushed down upon us! I was too stunned to react properly while Drodie and Lagodir fumbled for their weapons. Gaelira came running, but almost instantly I heard a swzzipp! A brown-feathered arrow sprang from the Man's heart and he fell over, dead. Turning, we saw Nephyn lower her bow.

"By thunder!" Drodie barked, "That was a praiseworthy shot, young huntress. I thought the smelly brute was going to cleave one of us in half before you -- Nephyn?" She had sunk to her knees and her face had lost its colour. We all rushed to her aid.

"Neph!" I cried. "What is it? Are you hurt?"

"I... I...," she stammered, her eyes transfixed on the fallen intruder. "Is he all right?"

"Who? Him?" I asked, bewildered. "I certainly hope not! What was he about, anyway, charging at us for no reason like that? But Neph, what on earth is the matter?"

"It's... I just... for the first time in my life I've finally met someone who looks like me. And I killed him."

I looked back at the corpse and saw she was right. The Man was sturdily built with wild hair and a matted beard, but his skin and eyes were all dark -- there was an obvious kindred between our attacker and our friend, though I thought I could see something a bit different in Nephyn as well.

"I guess I can't argue with you there," I said, more than a bit reluctantly. "Still, you did what you had to, didn't you? He was about to reduce one of us to very small pieces, if he'd had his way; I don't think he brought that axe along as a party-favour."

"The hobbit's got the right of it, lass," said Drodie as he prepared to haul the body off for burial. "Don't you go worrying yourself about this one -- I'll make sure he's taken care of. Erm, buried and all that, of course, but well-hidden, mark you."

"I would... just like to be alone right now, that's all," said Nephyn, and she abruptly left the dell heading west.

"She shouldn't be wandering alone out in the dark," I exclaimed, "What if there are more ruffians out there? Someone stop her!"

"Let her be," said Gaelira. "I will shadow her footsteps and ensure no harm comes to her, but mind yourselves! Keep your eyes and ears open -- and make sure the Dwarf does his job properly." Then Gaelira vanished into the gathering dark while Lagodir made to follow Drodie.

"Those two can fend for themselves," he said to me. "Padryc, you get a fire going and I will return straightaway -- I'd like a look at that body before Drodie makes it disappear." The next thing I knew I was alone at the campsite. I threw up my hands in frustration.

"Why doesn't anyone listen to me?" I griped to the trees, but I did as I was told and soon had a small fire burning at the very bottom of the dell, well shielded from the wind which, though lessened considerably from earlier in the day, would still occasionally gust with some force. Every slight noise had my jumping out of my skin while I remained there alone, but my fears were needless as Lagodir and Drodie returned after only a brief time.

"I could learn very little from our unwanted visitor," said Lagodir as he sat down upon a flat stone. "He was a Dunlending, of that there can be no doubt, and there was nothing particularly remarkable about him."

"What?" I blinked. "Do you mean to say we are in Dunland already?"

"No, that land lies yet many leagues to the south," came Lagodir's reply. "We are only just now on the very borders of the Enedwaith, a rough and borderless country. And that is one point which is certainly curious -- I never knew his kind to be seen so far north of their homeland, which makes me wonder what is afoot there. But also this: when I was last among that people, the males always carried with them some token or symbol of the clan to which they belonged. It is not uncommon with these lesser Men of Darkness (such is the name we have for them in Gondor), and their clans are usually associated with natural things, especially animals: goats, oxen, deer, birds of prey, and so forth. But this Man bore no such token, which I find most unusual."

"And why did he attack us?" I asked.

"Highway robbery, no doubt," growled Drodie with a wave of his hand. "Probably figured one of us would have some gear worth pinching, and he wouldn't be far wrong at that."

"Perhaps," said Lagodir with a frown, but I read in his voice that he was not convinced. I didn't speak my own thought that highway robbery typically involved multiple robbers and, well, a highway -- both of which were notably absent in our case.

I sat there worrying about Nephyn and Gaelira for a while, but eventually they both returned, safe and sound. The remainder of the evening was spent largely in silence as we kept watch in the hopes of avoiding any more unwanted guests.

Monday, 24th of Afterlithe, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Enedwaith

The day dawned clear and blue, as much a contrast to the day before as one could wish for. We breakfasted quickly, scattered the ashes of our little fire, and moved on with minimal delay. According to Lagodir and Gaelira, both of whom had previously travelled through that land, we should attempt to put as many miles as possible behind us each day since there was little hope of restoring our supplies at any point on the journey. There were few inhabitants along the path, for one thing, but those as did exist were not to be readily trusted -- the allegiances of the Algraig (the Men of the Enedwaith, and even more so of the Dunlendings, from what they told us) were flimsy and fickle; they held the Men of the North as condescending overlords and they feared the Elder Kindred. There was not much we could do to obscure our own identities, of course: the height of Drodie and myself left little doubt as to our kind while no one would ever mistake the bearing of Lagodir and Gaelira for anything other than what they were. Nephyn continued her silence from the day before and cast her hood over her face, yet she alone among us had any real hope of blending in.

We headed south at once, and for all the morning we encountered no difficulties. The land was rocky and uneven, but it was fair in a wild and untamed way which held its own sort of natural beauty. I continued to see the occasional holly-tree, but the sight became more and more isolated until it ceased altogether. Around the noon hour we suddenly came upon a rough track which led up into some hills to our right. We followed this as it wound among several boulders and then discovered ourselves in a set of tumbled ruins atop a low rise.

"Elven-make, by the look of them," said Lagodir, and I was inclined to agree. It must have been an age since any Elves lived there, however, judging from the worn and sad state of those stones which remained, lingering.

We lunched in that place and soon the day began to turn hot. The path we had followed into the ruins did not lead out of them, so we improvised a way down the western slopes of the hills into a ravine in order to continue our journey south. We were surprised to find that direction only led to impassable drops off of cliffs at a depth of fifteen or twenty ells, and these we found constantly to our south and west. Because of this, we were obliged to trek south and east, but soon enough that brought us to trouble.

Being driven by the cliffs to our right, we had just clambered up another small rise when I was suddenly forced onto the grass by Nephyn's firm grip. I saw the entire Company had followed suit, and I wondered what was going on, but I held my tongue. Gaelira signaled that we should all look eastward, and so we did using the greatest of care.

What we saw as we peeped over the edge of the hill caught me rather off guard: there below us in a little depression was an entire camp of Men (and Women, too), quite well-ordered and brimming with all manner of supplies and weaponry. They were Dunlendings, as well as I could make out and, while their numbers were not great, they looked to be a fearsome people. We had very nearly exposed ourselves while coming up over the crest of the hill, but the others' quick thinking appeared to have spared us, for the Dunlendings made no sign they had seen our approach.

"What do you make of that, Lagodir?" I heard Gaelira whisper nearby. Lagodir craned his neck to see the full expanse of the camp in the dell below us.

"Outlaws," he said after a short time. "Deserters, perhaps, but I cannot be certain without a closer look at them and their gear. They are remarkably well-supplied for being this far from any settlement that I can recall. And here again I see the oddity of which I spoke to Padryc and Drodie yestereve: I can see no sign of any banner, token, or charge among them which might declare their loyalties."

"How many?" asked Drodie. I was wondering the same thing, but no doubt for quite different reasons than the Dwarf.

"I count at least three dozen," came Lagodir's reply, "But there may well be more in the hills behind."

"Oh, c'mon, we can take 'em!" said Drodie, the light of battle gleaming in his eyes. Both Nephyn and I shot him an exasperated look, but he paid us no mind.

"Let us not draw blade needlessly," said Gaelira, her voice tinged with confusion. "Like as not this troop has nothing whatever to do with us, nor do they know we are here. The trust borne our ilk by those who inhabit this land is uncertain enough already without exacerbating it through pointless bloodshed. Come -- if we can find some way to head south or east then we can avoid them completely."

After a brief search we did discover a way: there was a gentle rock-slope nearby that we were able to slide down, and from there the land became easier to traverse. We gave the outlaw-camp a wide berth to the east, but then we heard the baying of wolves coming up from the south, ahead of us. This caused us to swerve further eastward yet again, and Gaelira became very anxious because so many unforeseen obstacles were driving us well out of our intended direction.

After a few more hours of heading east or southeast against our will, we spied what looked to be a crude dwelling atop a low ridge of hills. We debated among ourselves whether or not to approach it and beg guidance from the inhabitants, a point over which we were sharply divided. In the end, the ayes carried the vote, and we made our way thither. The place turned out to be a single, large, oval-shaped hut -- the walls were of stone while the roof was thatched. From the tilled earth surrounding it, we surmised we had come upon the humble abode of a farmer and his small family.

As we were pondering this, a Woman suddenly appeared in the entrance to the hut, eyeing us suspiciously. She spoke the Common Tongue well enough, though it was heavily accented, so we were able to assure her we meant no harm and that we only sought the quickest way to travel south. Through word and sign we gathered there was a natural gorge which ran south from her home that would eventually lead over a swift-running river by way of a stone bridge. This path, however, was recently plagued by wolves, for which the Woman had no name that we could recognize. She seemed genuinely afraid of the beasts, and I thought that strange for someone accustomed to living well apart from any large settlement, as she and her family would clearly be.

We thanked her many times for her kindness (in truth, she struck me as being cooperative mostly out of fear, but I'll take that over hostility any day), and we made to leave in peace. Gaelira, in standard Elvish fashion, bowed in respect to the Woman, but in so doing she revealed Nephyn, who had hidden herself behind the rest of us. One look at her, and the Woman flew into a rage: she screamed at us in her own language, motioning for us to be gone before retreating inside her house and slamming the door in our faces. Bewildered, our Company quit the place at once and fled from her lands. I thought it fortunate that her husband or sons (assuming she had any) were not nearby enough to give us any trouble.

The sun was already setting by the time we had put a comfortable amount of distance between us and the aggrieved native. We nestled ourselves among some boulders and prepared to bed down for the night, but each of us was disturbed by the day's events.

"I was surprised to see so many Dunlendings this far to the north," said Gaelira. "Like Lagodir, I never saw anything like it when last I was in this land."

"And what were they doing, I should like to know?" I asked. "Are all Dunlendings so war-like?"

"It is the natural state of their people," said Lagodir, not bothering to hide his contempt.

"One could say the same of Gondor," Nephyn shot back acidly. It was the first time I had heard her speak all day, but her tone shocked me far more than her finally breaking silence. I thought for a moment Lagodir was going to respond, but he merely shrugged his shoulders.

"As unusual as it was," said Gaelira cautiously, "Our encounter with the Algraig Woman at her home was even more confounding, in a way. She did not trust us, of course, and she aided us mostly out of fear, but her sudden change upon seeing Nephyn has me truly perplexed."

"Indeed!" Drodie exclaimed. "I would expect to be shunned in this land, and yet that Woman flies into a rage at the sight of the only one among us who looks anything at all like her!"

"I do not look anything at all like her!" cried Nephyn as she stood. "She is of the Algraig -- I have Dunlendish blood, you stupid Dwarf! Even if none of us speak her tongue, can't any of you see? She is afraid that my people have come to conquer her people, and she hates me for it." Tears starting in her eyes, Nephyn left our circle to sit at the base of a tree some distance off.

Our camp has been a quiet one this evening, and I have had time to ponder the meaning of all that was said earlier. It occurred to me that perhaps some of us had not given much thought to the customs and traditions of the people whose land through which we now travel, but one of our Company traces at least part of her lineage to this region. Nephyn did eventually rejoin us and apologized for her outburst, but the rest of us begged her forgiveness as well for our lack of insight (even Drodie). The huntress tried to act as if the whole episode was of no great moment, but I who knew her best could see she remained deeply troubled.

Trewsday, 25th of Afterlithe, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Enedwaith

All such issues were largely forgotten by the morning, not least because the howling of the wolves seemed unending during the night. I've heard more than a few wolf-cries in my day; I've even gotten to the point I can distinguish them from Warg-cries, and those are most vile, but what I heard today day in the wilds of the Enedwaith was truly blood-chilling. It was as if the beasts were calling to us with fell-voices which spoke of death.

In the light of day, however, the power of those voices grew less, and we pressed onward following the guidance we had received from the Algraig Woman the day before. As she had told us, the ravine ran in winding ways amidst the hills for many miles, but ever greater grew the sense that something evil was stalking our tracks. It was late morning when we came upon a network of caves in the hills and we knew that we had found the source of those voices.

I will not willingly tell much of what I saw there, for the fear it of haunts me still. The wolves which inhabited that place were unlike any I had ever seen in my life -- and I hope to never see again. They were black, but not black like any ordinary black-furred animal, for even the darkest beast will have subtle variations in their colour. These creatures were as black as jet while the air around them seemed to bend and warp in a frightening way; they were clearly not of the natural world. Their eyes were as piercing as swords, their fangs gleamed with a foul light, but always it was the cries of their mouths which was the most terrifying.

Of our Company, only Gaelira did not wish to leave at once; she insisted that we explore those caverns and discern the source of the monsters. Held by nothing more than her will and our bond of friendship, we dared to enter their den. The wolves fled before the light of her face, but Gaelira did not seek to battle the apparitions. Instead, she discovered the presence of many strange torches on the walls of those caves -- torches which put forth a stench and a dark, impure light that seemed to illuminate nothing. These she threw down and extinguished one by one until the sense of crushing malice around us was greatly diminished, and only then did we emerge gasping into the Sun-filled air once more. We put many miles between ourselves and the dens before halting, but when we asked Gaelira what she thought it all meant she could not give an answer.

"Those spectres were placed there, obviously," she said with downcast eyes, "But by whom or for what purpose, I cannot say any more than you. They may have had something to do with the black wolf-hides we found among the half-orcs, and they may not. We shall have to be content that we may have delayed the designs of their masters, but I fear we have accomplished little else this day."

Hevensday, 26th of Afterlithe, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Enedwaith

Today was another fair one, such that it nearly erased all memory of the horror we had found in the wolf-dens yesterday. By now it was clear we had been travelling much too far to the east, so Gaelira led us almost due westward. There was some debate as to whether we ought not journey in a southwesterly direction, since the bridge crossing the stream mentioned by the Algraig Woman was supposed to lie that way, and so we would be going in a much straighter line to reach it. The thinking prevailed, however, that if we could locate the Great North Road (which lay somewhere to the west), then we would make excellent time and compensate for our previous detours.

For once I can say our reasoning proved well-founded: the trek back to the west was slow and ponderous, but after a day's travel we have indeed found the Road. We are camped now just a stone's throw from it in a small copse of firs. Tomorrow should be a good day in making up for lost time, assuming the weather holds.

Mersday, 27th of Afterlithe, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Enedwaith

The weather was outstanding today, as fine as you could ask. We got started early, for we were all eager to put this strange land behind us, and the Great North Road certainly aided in that regard. Despite being of ancient make, the Road ran straight and true, south to north, and it was well-laid and smooth. We must have covered at least fifty miles today, maybe a little more, but I have a curious tale to relate which befell along the way.

It was probably half-past the second hour from noon. The five of us were enjoying the excellent clime (the Road reduced the need for exertion, which made hiking a much more pleasant experience), when from up ahead we heard the most peculiar sound: it was a deep-throated voice singing an odd and lilting ditty, a snatch of which I was able to remember.

Hey! Dain the Dwarf had an iron foot,
His beard was full and long,
His axe of steel and his steed of pork,
Dain's legend lives in song!

Oh, Nain's son, grandson of Gror,
Who founded the Iron Hills,
A stripling young, near Khazad-dum,
Azog the Accursed he killed.

Then armies five clashed on the slopes
Of golden Erebor,
With Elves and Men and eagles swift
Lord Dain rode to war.

The Orcs he smote with crip'ling blows,
They fled before his hand,
Yet Thorin King fell in that fight,
Now Dain rules the land.

Hey! Dain the King has an iron foot,
His beard still full and long,
What means it, to be Ironfoot?
Who cares?! His rule is strong!

There came into view a Dwarf riding a white goat. Most of his raiment was white also, which is an uncommon thing among Dwarves in any land I have ever visited. It was not a leap to suppose he was far from home (since most anyone would be in that land), but his bulging saddlebags and weather-worn cloak belied a well-travelled sort. Drodie was particularly excited to meet a kinsman on the Road, for he sang of the King Under the Mountain and the Iron Hills far to the north and east, so we hailed him. Turning his steed, the Dwarf waved at us and even dismounted to bow when we approached.

"Odec, at your service!" he said. His beard was black as a raven's wing, but his eyes were merry and he smiled broadly at us. "My, my! What would cause such unusual companions to journey along such a lonely road in such a desolate land? No doubt there's a tale worth hearing behind this!"

"I should say there is," Drodie replied, "But I would equally like to know what brings a Dwarf across the endless leagues from Erebor to the same place. No doubt there is a tale worth hearing behind that!"

"Ha! Well turned, kinsman, and I would expect no less," said Odec with a laugh. "But since I perceive behind your question a desire to hide your purposes until you learn of my own, then you shall have your way for I've naught to hide. I hail from the Iron Hills, not Erebor, though I did stop there on my way. I bear a summons from Dain, King Under the Mountain, to his distant but dear friend Nar in Thror's Coomb, which is some ways south and east of where we now stand. There! You now all there is worth knowing about Odec, so what of your own tale?"

"A single messenger dispatched across all that wide distance?" asked Drodie. "I would think the king's words worthy of more... surety."

"I have seen my share of miles, friend," answered Odec with a wink, "Nor am I entirely defenceless." Here, he reached up and patted a compact and cleverly-wrought crossbow which hung from his saddle. "But enough dodging -- come! Tell me who is it I have the pleasure of meeting in this forsaken land! I had taken to composing songs in my boredom, but I would much sooner speak with travelling companions for, as you no doubt heard, mine is not the voice of a minstrel."

We laughed then introduced ourselves one-by-one, starting with Drodie. Odec was very interested in us, but he was courteous and did not press overmuch about our errand since we were obviously not inclined to discuss it in any detail. We walked together the rest of that day (Odec as well, leading his goat by the halter, so as to give his "poor backside" a rest, he said), and the conversation was always lively and interesting. At dusk, we could hear the rushing of water, and Odec said we should halt for the night.

"Yonder lies the Araniant," he said, "The great stone bridge which spans the swift river that divides the Enedwaith into its two chief regions, north and south. Tomorrow we will cross together, but shortly thereafter I shall leave you, for you tell me your errand is to Dunland and the south while my duty takes me eastward."

He led us off the Road into a thicket, and there we made camp. We exchanged stories of our respective travels deep into the night, with each subsequent tale being more incredible than the last. I finally drifted off to sleep with visions of Dwarf-battles and greedy dragons racing through my mind.

Highday, 28th of Afterlithe, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Enedwaith

We crossed the Araniant first thing in the morning without trouble. On the southern side of the river the trees suddenly failed, and all the land before us wide, flat, and empty. The winds swept over all that bare country while the tall grasses swayed this way and that at its will. We continued along the Road a bit further but, as he had said before, Odec was obliged to part ways with us shortly thereafter.

"Crossing paths with you lot has been the most pleasant thing that's befallen me on this long journey since I feasted at the King's table beneath the Lonely Mountain," he said. "I dearly hope we might do so again, as unlikely as that might seem." Raising his hand in farewell, he turned his goat off the Road and slowly disappeared into the East, his deep voice merrily rolling back over the plains toward us as he sang.

"Nice chap, what?" I said as I watched him go. "It's a pity we don't meet more folk like him on our travels. Can't say I would mind hearing his storytelling more of an evening, though they did tend to be a bit gory and somewhat more, ah well, Dwarvish than I would normally go in for."

"That's only because you didn't get the full experience," said Drodie with a grin. "What you were missing was a few mugs of ale inside you. Then you'd be in the right spirit!"

Our Company was in fine spirits indeed the rest of that day as we continued south along the Road. Near the end of the day, we saw a rising hill up ahead and to our right, atop which was a crude wooden palisade.

"That is one of the few settlements one will find in the Enedwaith," said Lagodir as he pointed. "It is called Lhanuch by its people, the Algraig, if my memory serves. We should be able to avoid being seen from its walls if we turn east and keep among the tall grasses there."

"It would be my counsel that we avoid them not," countered Gaelira. "We have seen much which is mysterious in this land, and I would endeavor to find some answers to our many questions. What better way to do so than by walking among those who know the land best?"

"I do not think this counsel is good," said Lagodir, "But I am willing to adventure it, if it be your advice. Still, I would think it best if Nephyn not enter there -- let her and Padryc remain outside the walls so that none of us are left alone, while you, Drodie, and I attempt to treat with these Men."

I was afraid Nephyn might take offence at Lagodir's suggestion, but in fact she seemed to think it wise. We took up position just out of bowshot from the walls of Lhanuch behind a shallow rock-wall and waited for our companions to return. The shadows lengthened while we sat there, but our fears proved needless when the three of them rejoined us just as dusk was filling the sky.

"The people of Lhanuch were not hostile," Gaelira reported, "Though they do not trust us and gladly accepted our offer to camp outside their walls tonight. We told them only that we are journeying swiftly as may be through the Enedwaith and mean them no harm. They were even willing to sell us what meager supplies are among their stores, although at exorbitant prices."

"Hmph! Some hospitality," I huffed. "I'll be perfectly happy out here, thank you very much."

"You and I are in agreement on that point, Master Hobbit," said Lagodir. "Still, our visitation was not without its value. We learned that many companies of Dunlendings and also half-orcs have passed north through the Enedwaith of late, though of course that we knew already. What interests me is that the Algraig speak of unrest in Dunland and the splintering of the tribes there. Personally, I welcome these tidings: if the enemies of Rohan have become less united, then perhaps their feud with the Rohirrim, true-hearted allies of my people, may at last come to its long-awaited end. Like as not the unmarked troop we saw two days' past was a company of deserters even as I had said at the time: Men who are dissatisfied with the shifting politics of their folk. Perhaps the Dunlendings are become split on whether they should continue to pursue their hopeless conflict against the Horse-lords? Indeed, it must be so, for what other foes have they? I deem this good news for Gondor and Rohan, and therefore good news for the Free Peoples."

"I do not agree," said Gaelira, shaking her head. "If the loyalties of the Dunland tribes have indeed begun to fracture, then why now? Have not they maintained their hatred of the Rohirrim for many lives of Men? What has happened to cause this shift of which you speak? I sense an ill-meaning hand in this matter, but the mind which guides it is hidden from me. Be that as it may, the three of us should be able to secure some additional foodstuffs to restock our supplies in the morning, ere we go."

We spent the night in silence, each busy with his or her own thoughts. It seemed we were walking straight into the land of a combative folk that were in the midst of some sort of upheaval. I think that I, like Nephyn, will try to keep a low profile for the foreseeable future.