Sterday, 13th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in Dunland
|The moors of Dunland|
Well, mine was, at least. The Elves, of course, remained as tireless and swift as ever while Drodie said nary a word of complaint as is the way with Dwarves. I could tell Lagodir was weary, but he kept doggedly on and even the shoulders of Ancthas were sagging now nearly two full days into the chase. We had followed our missing hobbit almost clear across the entire breadth of Dunland to the Barnavon Mine, but there his captors had turned aside and made for the village of Barnavon itself. Our feet were set upon that same path, but it was a long road. The Sun rose past noon then began to fall westward, and still there seemed to be no change in the country. The hard ground jarred my ankles and knees relentlessly; two days of unending pursuit was beginning to tire even me.
"Ancthas," I called ahead to our Dunlending guide and chance companion, "Can you tell us anything about Barnavon?" I was mostly making conversation to keep my mind off my aching legs, but I also knew Dunland was an inhospitable place (particularly for us), and any fore-knowledge of our destination would likely prove helpful.
"I can tell you much," he replied, "For I was brought up a boy there. The town is divided into two areas: Lower Barnavon, where live the common folk, and Upper Barnavon, wherein dwell the wealthier merchants and tradesmen. The upper portion is reached by a single gate which (as I recall) was always guarded to keep the peasants out. The entire village is nestled in a natural depression in the rock on the side of a cliff-face, so the southern edge plunges many fathoms and ends in an old stone quarry. Lower Barnavon is not unlike any other village in Dunland: ordinary people scratching out ordinary lives in a rough country. There are few farmers in these parts, for the land is hard and unyielding, but there are many miners, weavers, tanners, hunters, and other craft-folk to be found. As for Upper Barnavon, well... I can tell you little for certain as I was never permitted to go there."
"So you were one of those 'common folk,' then?" I asked. "You seem to have made a name for yourself despite that."
"Only among some," said Ancthas wryly. "Our culture values its warriors, and my reputation, sadly, is based on little more than having the good fortune to not die as quickly as the many friends I have lost to the clan-wars. More importantly, though, my tribe was nearly annihilated in those conflicts, and if you have no clan in Dunland, then you may as well not exist at all."
"What of your own family?" I asked.
"We should stop talking," came his quick answer. "We are nearing the outer gates of the village."
It was actually not until sunset, I noticed, before we finally came within sight of those gates. There were seats for gate-watchers, but they were empty.
"That's odd," said Ancthas. "Perhaps they have been sent to deal with the situation at the Mines? In any case, let us count our good fortune and take advantage while we can."
We slipped into Lower Barnavon. It was, as Ancthas had described, nothing particularly special: much the same as any other town in Dunland, although this one did have a certain industrious air about it. I inquired as to whether we ought not don our disguises while roaming about during the night, but after our earlier altercation in Avardin, everyone preferred to have their weapons close to hand. Besides, Ancthas led knew every turn and back-alleyway; he led us so expertly through the streets that we encountered no one at all as we ducked and dodged amid the low, clay houses. A short time later we came to a short incline which culminated in another gate.
"Now I know something is not right here," said Ancthas grimly, "For this is the gate into Upper Barnavon and there were always two guards there, day or night. Unfortunately, there is no other way in -- we must either take our chances or continue this search elsewhere."
We were certainly not about to leave Padryc to whatever fate his captors had in mind for him, so we passed into Upper Barnavon. It turned out to be an open area hemmed on all sides by houses and low buildings while in the centre I saw crude pavilions and overhangs which served to designate a marketplace. But the place was silent and empty -- eerily so. Looking around, my stomach slowly turned itself into knots as I realized what was traded there: everywhere around us were cages. Some small and some large, but they were cages of steel and most of these were outfitted with metal rings and chains -- it was clear they were not meant to restrain animals.
"By the Valar," I breathed, "A slave-market! I've heard about the slave-trade in places like Rhun and Harad, but here? So close to..." I couldn't even bring myself to finish the sentence.
"Yes, another of the lovely societal charms brought to us by the Dragon-clan," said Ancthas as he looked around in disgust. "I never knew, but I am not surprised: it certainly explains why the chieftains were so adamant about keeping everyone out of the upper level."
"Do you suppose this is what those slavers we saw near Lhan Tarren meant when they talked about shipping their prisoners away South?" asked Gaelira. "It is a pity all of these cages are empty, or perhaps we could have helped some more of those unfortunate souls."
"Possibly," the Dunlending answered, "Although I wouldn't be too sure: the Dragon-clan might be using some of these victims in the Mines, of course, but they must be selling their slaves to someone. I have no proof, and I know our esteemed Gondorian will not want to hear it, but I fear --"
"Look!" said Drodie and he pointed. Following his gaze, we saw that one of the cages was not empty after all. Dressed in rags and lying at the rear with its back to us was a small figure! We all rushed over.
"Padryc!" I whispered, but there was no response. "Oh no! Is he alright?!"
"Padryc!" Drodie called, louder. "Wake up!" The Dwarf yanked the cage door open.
"Wait," I said, "No lock...?"
Suddenly a chorus of battle-cries erupted all around us! We whipped around and drew our weapons, but it was clear we had walked right into a trap. Hunting-bows twanged and arrows fell among us. I saw two strike Drodie and Lagodir, but they snapped back as they glanced off their armour. Minasse twirled his way around two more aimed at him with incredible agility while Ancthas darted in front of me to deflect several more darts with his shield.
Then Dunlendings armed with axes and clubs charged us from all sides! One rushed at me so quickly I could only raise my bow to defend against his attack, and his axe broke right through it! I managed to use the undamaged bowstring to wrap up his arm then finish him off with the Sword of Ringdor, but my bow was ruined beyond repair. Ancthas was fighting two Dunlendings sword-to-sword while Lagodir and Drodie overpowered their opponents. With our guard up and our blades drawn, the ambush quickly became a rout as we slew our attackers one by one.
With the enemy defeated, we quickly discovered "Padryc" was only a small boy who had been deceased for a short time, probably from being over-worked in the Mines.
"So this poor lad was dressed and positioned just to serve as a trap for us," said Lagodir. "It would seem Padryc's captors have managed to stay one step ahead, but they clearly knew we were close behind them."
"And we know where they are headed," I said, "They must be on their way to Galtrev to cash in on their bounty, as Gaelira reminded us previously." I nodded at the she-Elf in acknowledgement of her earlier deduction -- then noticed her right forearm had been pierced by one of the Dunlending's arrows!
"Gaelira!" I cried, "You're hurt! Why didn't you say something?"
"No time," she breathed, in obvious pain. "We must leave at once -- this town is not safe."
"Not before we --" I began, but Gaelira only pushed past me, unwilling to heed my insistence that she allow us to tend her wound.
It turned out to be a good thing: the noise of the battle had roused the entire village. Bonfires flared up and torches were being lit. Very soon we would be discovered.
"This way!" shouted Ancthas, and we followed him without question. He charged through the gate which led into the lower part of Barnavon, then immediately slipped into the shadows behind some huts. Deftly he led us around the southern edge of the village. Nothing was there but a low stone wall which marked the very rim of the cliff -- beyond that was only open air; a dizzing drop of hundreds of feet into the stone-quarry below.
"Follow me," I heard Ancthas whisper from up ahead in the dark, "And do exactly as I say."
We skirted along the end of Barnavon, staying within the shadow of the stone wall. It continued east then gradually bent northward. We were coming close to the front gate and, although the guards had been away from their posts when we entered, I was fairly certain there would be some there now. Meanwhile, the cries of the villagers and the light of their torches was drawing nearer! If the villagers found us we would be trapped between them and the wall, with nothing but a death-drop on the other side -- there would be no escape.
I looked and saw that Ancthas had vaulted over the wall and disappeared! We stood there dumbfounded for a split second, but then Lagodir, Drodie, Gaelira, and Minasse all followed. I shook myself mentally and leaped over the edge into the gaping blackness.
I suddenly found I was not falling: I was sliding! I had landed in some kind of groove in the stone which carried me and my companions down the cliff-side and deposited us safely on the ground some forty feet below. Looking back, I saw that part of the mountain-wall was much less steep than the southern-facing side and the distance to the ground where we stood was not nearly as great. I blinked and marveled at how fortunate we were to have Ancthas among us.
"I was expecting my next thought to be my last," I said amid a little nervous laughter. "That is some back-door! We would have been trapped up there were it not for you, Ancthas."
"Come," he said as he helped Gaelira to her feet. "We must get away from the village and we still have to tend to the wounds of this one."
We crossed the road as stealthily as we could manage then headed north toward Galtrev. Once we had put a couple of miles between us and the gates of Barnavon I demanded that we halt. Midnight was not far off, we were all exhausted (except perhaps Minasse), and Gaelira was injured. The arrow had been shot clean through her right forearm (meaning at least there was no chance of it being embedded in the bone), and there was not as much blood as there could have been, so we counted ourselves lucky that the dart had likely not severed any major vessels. Minasse administered aid using whatever he could find in Padryc's backpack. First he broke the shaft and extracted it swiftly but firmly -- much to Gaelira's discomfort -- then he cleaned the wound with a liberal dousing of beer, applied a turmeric paste, and bound the arm with some dressing into a sling.
"The healing arts are not really my strong suit," said Minasse as he finished, "But I hope this will serve until we can find someone with more skill than I."
"You have done quite well, thank you," said Gaelira. "Only I do hope we have no need of armed encounters for a while: I fear I shall be of little value in that department until I have recovered."
With this done, we took shelter behind a large rock for a brief respite. I must conclude my record of today's adventures as quickly as possible, as we will be moving on again shortly. I believe we are gaining on Padryc's captors, but they still have the lead on us. We are still whole, but the adventure in Barnavon has definitely weakened us: Gaelira arm is wounded and I feel as if I am missing an arm myself with the loss of my beloved bow. Still, I will count even that a small loss if we can somehow find Pad before he suffers any harm.
Sunday, 14th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in Dunland
We ended up heading out before I had so much as a chance to put my sore, aching feet up for five minutes, or at least that's how it felt. The villagers of Barnavon, apparently convinced we were no longer inside the city itself, had begun spilling out into the countryside and hunting for us among the crags. We slipped away in the darkness of night and continued our pursuit of the Pad-nappers who, we presumed, could only be headed north, to Galtrev.
The journey today was long, dry, tiring, and quite uneventful for most of the way. The Elves wished to keep running, but those of us who were of Man-kind objected, saying we could not keep up such a pace endlessly. Even Drodie, who was not one to complain about matters of endurance, did not disapprove of our request for a slower clip. Ancthas, Lagodir, and Minasse had some prolonged banter about how the races of Men and Elves feel their ages differently, but frankly I wasn't really listening so I can't recount it for you here. My mind was on Padryc: had he been injured? Would Bedwur's men succeed in collecting their bounty in Galtrev? What would become of Padryc once he had been handed over to whomever had ordered his capture? Every time I thought these things, I would tell my companions that I could manage another sprint, and we ran for a few more miles.
For all our efforts, however, night had fallen by the time we finally reached Galtrev. There was a short debate outside the walls as to how we should enter and gather tidings, but it was decided that Ancthas should be our eyes and ears inside the city. The Dunlending was permitted through the gates without incident, and the five of us were left to wait in the darkness.
It was not quite an hour later when Ancthas returned, and from his demeanor we could tell he brought us news.
"Our Halfling is no more than half a day ahead of us," he said. "He was taken north, toward the Bonevales."
"Toward Enedwaith?" asked Gaelira. "Why that way, I wonder? There is not much of anything in that land, unless for some reason they make for Lhanuch?"
"I do not know their purpose," Ancthas replied, "But my source is certain that this the course we must follow." We set out at once and turned north on the road.
"Can you tell us any more about what you learned?" I asked as we marched. "Who is your source, exactly?"
"A grandmother named Catrin," he said.
"What?! You are using old crones as informants?"
"Very willing and very reliable informants," said Ancthas. "There are few things my dear Catrin enjoys more than trafficking in the local gossip, and I repay her with various salves and balms I secure from Edgerin to ease the pain in her old bones. It has proven to be a very profitable relationship for both of us."
"Do go on," I said, but I couldn't help smirking as I spoke.
"Well, the place was very quiet, as is common enough at this time of night," he went on. "Catrin was out taking a stroll and called me over when she saw me in the marketplace."
"Well! It certainly has been a long time, she said to me. And how have you been keeping yourself, Ancthas, my love?"
"'Well enough,' I answered. 'How is that new salve I delivered working for you? Feeling any better?'"
"Oh, much, yes! Thanks to you, she replied. I expect you're here to investigate what happened earlier today?"
"'I certainly am,' I lied, having no idea to what she might be referring. 'And I know no one follows the goings-on of Galtrev better than you, so pray leave out none of the details.'"
"Oh, you're right about that! she winked. Why, these old eyes saw the whole sad affair. I was out in the market looking for some spices when all of a sudden a fight broke out! It was over near the Trading Post -- always unsavoury types milling about that part of town. There were six Men on one side and about the same number on the other. The group that came into town had a small boy they were transporting in a metal cage and they seemed to be turning him over to the other group. There was a disagreement over something (money, probably -- that's usually the way with these ruffians), and there was a full-blown brawl! Well, the Men from out-of-town seemed very tired and worn out, so they were soundly beaten down. Then the new Men took the child and skipped town right away; they left by the west-gate and in quite a hurry, too."
"'This news has certainly been of great help to me,' I told her. 'And who were these other Men that took the child?'"
"Oh, it was that good-for-nothing duvodiad Enro Smuin and his gangsters. I know you know who that is, yes? Well, he and his fellows took that poor little boy then high-tailed it out of here. I do hope you can do something about it, Ancthas, because they probably mean to sell that poor lad into the slave-trade! I wish I had never lived to see such times.'"
"'I will certainly do whatever I can about this,'" I said, 'But first you must tell me which way they've gone and how long ago this all happened.'"
"Ah! Of course, of course, how silly of me. Well, this would have been around one in the afternoon, roughly seven hours ago now, because I always go to market at one in the afternoon of a Sunday. As for which way they went, well, we have Esult to thank for that: I happened to be chatting her up later on and she said she heard from Envus that Nerus told Mari that Wunne had seen them turn north after they left town. She also said they had let the boy out of his cage, which was a mercy to hear. North is an odd direction to go, though, don't you think? There's not much up that-a-way."
"'Thank you, my dear, and you really ought to try and stay out of trouble,' I told her. 'I will be sure to bring you more salve from Edgerin the next time I get the chance, but now I must be going.' I took my leave while Catrin kept categorically promising not to keep out of trouble, then I returned to you as quickly as I could." Thus did Ancthas finish his tale. "So, it would seem Bedwur's Men were double-crossed by Enro and that he is now in possession of your hobbit."
"I can't believe that Smuin smile-ball is still mixed up in all this!" I fumed. "He must have doubled back to Galtrev after we tracked him to Avardin, the slippery little toad. But so much the better: I needed some motivation to keep my feet going and now I have it." We ran for several more miles that night.
Monday, 15th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in Dunland
The fourth day of our pursuit dawned and another rest was needed. My legs, shoulders, and neck were so sore I could hardly move, but honestly it when you reach that stage of exhaustion it is more painful to stop than it is to keep going. We had almost totally obliterated our water supply and were forced to take a detour in the middle of the night to refill our bottles and skins at a small lake that lay just east of the road where we were, some miles north-west of Galtrev. Once we had refreshed ourselves, we resumed the trail.
Around nine in the morning I could see the bluffs which marked the beginnings of the Bonevales rising up ahead of us. I see Pad provided a rather fitting description of them the last time we passed this way, and I find it to be fairly apt. I was just noting how the cliffs do seem to "frown down upon you" when I noticed a thin spiral of smoke curling up into the clear morning sky.
"Look there!" cried Minasse, who had seen the same thing I had. We all rushed forward to investigate.
The smoke was originating from somewhere in the rocks above the road. We crept through the brush and the tree-stems to get a closer look, but we heard and saw no signs of life. Eventually we decided to surround the spot and break in upon it at a signal. This we did, but no living thing did we find.
What we did find was a campsite -- certainly less than a day old. The small fire had been left in haste and not properly extinguished: a live ember had ignited some of the turves nearby, causing the smoke which had caught our attention.
"This is good news," said Gaelira. "Our quarry may know we are tailing them, as it appears they left this camp in a hurry. Perhaps we are gaining and our efforts have not been wasted."
"Let us keep after them!" I cried. "They cannot be far ahead of us now."
"One moment!" said Minasse as he stooped and examined something on the ground. From underneath a small stone he produced a folded piece of paper.
"A note!" Lagodir and Gaelira exclaimed together.
"Bless you Elves and your keen eyes!" I cheered.
"Nonsense," drolled Minasse. "It was nothing more than having the patience to look."
"Well, open it!" Drodie demanded, and the Elf did so.
It was blank.
"Now why would someone leave a blank page in the middle of a wilderness?" I mused.
"Probably because he had nothing to write with," said Gaelira. "But I think this mystery is easily solved: Nephyn, is Padryc's journal in his backpack that you still carry with you?"
It was, of course, and I pulled it out at once. After a quick comparison, it was clear that the blank page Minasse had uncovered was of the exact same sort used in this diary!
"Our hobbit has left us a message that we must answer," said Drodie. "At least now we know he still has his wits about him."
"I think we can also deduce that his captors know we are after them," said Lagodir. "Why else leave such a marker? And if they are discussing us, then perhaps they are doing so because they fear we are gaining on them, although that may be reading too deeply into the signs."
"Either way, let us press on and hope!" said Gaelira. "My arm pains me greatly, but I count it no loss for my legs are unscathed, and it is they we have need of now."
"But arms may prove useful once we overtake them," said Drodie.
We ran on. All through the day and into the night we continued, sometimes running, often walking, but never stopping until we had traversed the Bonevales. We cast ourselves on the ground just west of the road once we cleared them, and now take a few hours' rest. In a short time, we will move on once again.
Trewsday, 16th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Lich Bluffs, Somewhere in the Enedwaith
Minasse roused us after only four hours. In moments we were up again and running while we ate of the food in our packs. Our stores were beginning to run low despite the Elves having gone without for the past few days. If our adversaries were well-provisioned it could make for a very difficult situation very soon...
We walked and ran mostly just to the left of the main road since it was paved with great flagstones at that point and it would jar our knees badly. Our eyes were open for any more signs of Padryc's captors, but we saw nothing all day. The Sun rose and set with little change in the scenery, but a towering stone spire to the north and east came into view, slowly growing larger as we approached it.
"What is that?" I asked and pointed.
"The once majestic fortress of Harndirion," said Lagodir. "A Gondorian fortification, long ago abandoned. The name simply means South-watch. If we should happen to cross nearby it we would do well to ascend and see what we can see, for it commands a wide-ranging view of the surrounding country."
"It is still a long ways off," I said, "Probably another day's travel, give or take, though it's hard to tell when the land is so flat as it is here. I'll tell you one thing: if we do manage to catch up to Smuin, I shall shake his hand in admiration before I hack his feet off. How on earth has he kept such a lead on us? And with a bad leg, no less?"
"I have been wondering the same thing," said Gaelira, who was beside me, "But I have seen no indication that our quarry have left the road at any point. Unless, perhaps, we missed it in the darker hours."
"We had better not have," I muttered, and ran on.
We were forced to slow to a walk again then make camp once night fell. Lagodir, Drodie, Ancthas, and I were exhausted and quickly fell asleep. Even the Elves seemed weary as this endless chase began to weigh on their hearts. There are queer sounds all around us this night; I wonder if our enemies have turned themselves into ghosts and gone wailing up among the hills.
Hevensday, 17th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Harndirion, Somewhere in the Enedwaith
The Elves gave us six hours of sleep. I was grateful for this, but I didn't know how we could ever overtake Smuin and his Men, who seemed to have charged on tirelessly ahead of us. Although our morale was the lowest it had been since Galtrev, we shouldered our rapidly lightening packs and struggled on.
We did not run, but we walked quickly. We scanned the ground on either side of the path for any signs but we found nothing. The Sun was nearly risen to the noon hour when Minasse suddenly called to us.
"See!" he cried as he pointed to a soft patch of earth just off the eastern side of the road. "Now we know how our foes managed to maintain their lead! Horses!" There, sure enough, were the hoof-prints of several full-sized horses clear to see in the dirt.
"What... how?!" I exclaimed. "When?"
"They must have been brought to them somewhere in or around the Bonevales," said Gaelira. "You'll recall the road becomes paved at that point. Most likely we missed the incoming hoof-prints in the dark of night two days ago. But look: the track leads to the north-east -- up toward Harndirion."
We followed the trail. It wound back and forth, always picking the smoothest route up the green slopes. It took another hour and a half before we finally reached level ground again. When we did, I saw the wide lands of the Enedwaith stretched out before me, and I marveled at the view.
"It's a shame we can't spare the time to admire this," I said. "Let's see if we can tell which way Smuin went from here."
We searched around the base of the great ruin, moving west then north. We became hampered by numerous large pieces of fallen masonry that had crumbled down from the spires many years ago, and we were forced to pick our way through these. We were just turning the corner on the last of them when Minasse forced us all to take cover.
"What is it?" asked Gaelira, but Minasse only signaled for us all to keep silent and pointed around the edge. We cautiously stole a look and gasped.
"Why," said Ancthas, "It looks like the encampment of a small army!"
It did. There were a great many tents and folk moving all about between them. I saw barrels of provisions stacked high and steeds being tended as well as several fires, and these things all seemed to run up higher onto the spires of Harndirion itself. About fifty feet above us was a landing where I could see even more people going about their business amid more tents and gear of battle. Then something caught my eye.
"Erm, Gaelira..." I said as I shielded my eyes from the afternoon Sun, "Is that what I think it is?"
She did not answer me.
High above the plains of the Enedwaith, proudly perched on the second landing of the ancient Gondorian fortress of Harndirion, there stood a tall standard waving lustily in the breeze. It was all of sable, except for seven golden stars neatly arranged in the centre.
"That," said Gaelira, "Is the banner of the Seekers of the Seven Stars."