Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 28

The Misty Mountains

Mersday, 5th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
A campsite, Somewhere in the Misty Mountains
The Misty Mountains
The day began pleasantly enough. We said our farewells to Bilbo, Elrond, and his household in the dim light of early morning before setting off across the valley to strike the path which led up into the mountains. That morning walk was a joy and a delight: even though it was still winter-time, Rivendell remained temperate and beautiful, as I imagine it might all the year round. Perhaps this is because of its location there in the valley, which must shut out the invading winds. Whatever the cause, I thoroughly enjoyed that stage of our journey.

We talked cheerily amongst ourselves about our stay in Imladris as well as the road ahead, but there was (at that time!) no concern or worry about what was to come. We laughed about my discomfort at having to wear boots in preparation for the trek through snow and ice, but we also reminisced on our time among the Elves. If someone had offered me the chance to settle down there forever, as Bilbo seemed to have done, I would probably have taken them up on the offer and I got the impression Nephyn felt much the same way. Lagodir was his usual congenial if eternally on-edge self while Drodie appeared more than ready to depart. Gaelira was typically difficult to read, but from my talks with her I thought I could detect a complex mixture of reluctance to leave but also apprehension about where we were going.

Eventually we began the climb upward on a steadily rising slope among the rocks. The weather remained agreeable, but once we had left the valley we could feel the wind as it whipped around us. We started to walk closer together and the bigger folk attempted to shield me from it with their bodies. It was around this time I noted the masterfully embroidered emblem which had been added to Lagodir's white cloak. It was a most impressive piece of craftsmanship, and I told him so.

It was roughly another hour before I first saw the light dusting of snow on the path. This gradually thickened as we went further, but it remained no higher than my ankles at that time. Finally, we crested the rise. There before me lay an amazing sight -- well, amazing to me since I had never been in such an environment before. The snow covered everything in front of us in a nearly unbroken sheet of white. It all looked so pristine and even peaceful, but the wind continued to howl around us. It was then we noticed some stone structures off to our left, and we made our way there.

It turned out to be an old way-station which contained a small contingent of Dwarves. They were led by none other than the Gloin -- the one from the tales I'd always heard about Old Mad Baggins! He was a very well-mannered fellow, and we all (Drodie especially) had a good talk with him about his doings as well as our own. Naturally, we asked him for any information he could give us about the Goblin-tunnels. It turned out the goblins were becoming quite a problem in the higher passes through the mountains. They were getting bold and attacking those few who still dared to cross through, which was why he and his Dwarves were sent to try and deal with them. The upside to this unfortunate news was that Gloin had a decent idea of where the goblins were issuing from, and he directed us far to the northeast of our current position. He wished he or some of his Dwarves could accompany us on our quest, but his numbers were too few and his mission was to limit the spreading influence of their raiding parties, not assault their caves themselves. Besides, he told us, no one had ever mapped the interior of those caverns, which would put us at serious risk once we were inside. But I also suspected he harboured a hearty dislike of the idea, perhaps based on what he experienced there once upon a time. I thought about all the times I had heard about those dreaded tunnels and wished our road was taking us anywhere else in the world.

After a few more pleasantries, we resumed our march, but the weather began a turn for the worse. It wasn't sudden: it began only with a few soft snowflakes drifting lazily down on our heads -- I even thought it quite nice at first. During this time we made our way steadily to the northeast while the air grew colder and colder. It was probably the fourth hour after noon when we first encountered the goblins. They had established a small camp a ways north of the main path and we could see the burning of many campfires. After a brief debate, we decided to try and clear them out as much as possible, but we proceeded with caution: goblins are not themselves the most fearsome of opponents, but they tend to make up for this fact in sheer numbers.

Fortunately for us the camp was not heavily occupied. I got the impression that a sizable portion of the garrison was off on other business, for the place could have held many more of their small kind than we found there. It was obvious they were not expecting to be attacked for the encampment, which was constructed right into a mountainside, had no rear exit. Many of the goblins fled before our assault and ended up with nowhere to run, only to perish at our hands. But the exertion was considerable: by the time the Sun had begun to set we were all very weary. Our fingers and toes were numbed from the cold, Nephyn's bowstring was icing over making it nearly useless, and Lagodir had twisted his ankle after taking a bad step in a snow-drift during the fighting. To make matters worse, the snow began to thicken and the wind to blow ever more fiercely as we moved to extricate ourselves from the camp and resume our search for Goblin-town.

The next few hours were absolutely miserable. The snow continued to mount and I was obliged to ride pig-a-back on Lagodir's shoulders, for I was unable to move through the accumulated snow without practically swimming. Drodie was using his shield as a sort of plow to make a way for himself while the others were forced to step high and long to keep moving, which only served to make them all even wearier. We had entered a large, fairly flat area which featured a frozen pond. While it was briefly nice to see something other than rocks for a change, it also meant we were very exposed to the wind's redoubled assaults. We struggled on in silence for some time. At last, we came upon a primitive track, barely visible in the rising snowfall, which led northeast and even higher up into the mountains.

That path wound as it climbed, which thankfully afforded us several opportunities to rest with the mountain-wall between us and the wind, but the snow continued to swirl thicker than ever. More than once we were forced to stop and light a fire just to keep ourselves going. I wondered how much longer I was going to be able to endure this torment -- the garments I had brought from Rivendell had seemed so toasty and warm in the valley but here, in the face of the full fury of the Misty Mountains, they seemed to count for nothing. I huddled as close to the fire as I could.

Rather suddenly, the storm began to subside. We quickly picked ourselves up and forced our feet to carry us for another distance, for we hoped to reach the summit of whatever path we were on before the foul weather returned. And reach it we did, but that was when I discovered what the true wrath of the mountains looked like. The wind became a gale and the snow became like piercing darts, relentlessly stabbing at our eyes and cheeks. My own legs were unable to carry me further for we were marching into the wind, and Lagodir was once again forced to heft me up on his shoulders. The one relief was the fact that we were now travelling downhill, and so the going became a bit easier, but we were also fully exposed to the whipping and stinging anger of the snowstorm. The air became so thick with snow we could hardly see anything more than a few yards ahead or to either side. My ears, nose, and lips began to throb with pain -- which surprised me considering they had been (and still were) completely numbed by the cold. I felt like I wanted to weep for the hurt, but I was terrified of what might happen to my eyes if I did. I shut my eyelids hard and tried to think about something else.

"Gaelira!" I heard Lagodir shout over the rushing winds, "We must find shelter! We cannot continue like this!" I peeped open an eye and saw Gaelira nodding vigourously, but she did not speak.

Suddenly, as if in answer to Lagodir's plea, the dark wall of a mountain loomed up in front of us through the sheets of falling snow and ice. At any other time I would have thought it had an evil and foreboding look, but just then all any of us could think about was getting out of the cold. With a final spurt of effort, we rushed to the base of the cliff-wall and began searching for a cave or anything which could protect us from the elements.

Eventually we did find a cave. We shuffled ourselves inside and threw down our baggage. Poor Lagodir was so spent he very nearly threw me down too, but of course I didn't hold it against him. We instantly set about building a fire and, after many more ice-numbed and painful moments, we all began to thaw a little. The wind and snow continued its merciless assault on the world outside, but we were safe for the moment. I took some time to devise a makeshift splint for Lagodir's ankle, which was probably more painful than he was letting on. In any case the intense cold and trudging through snow had helped to keep the swelling to a minimum, but I told him it would be best to keep off it for a few hours if he possibly could.

Soon after, wrapped in every blanket we possessed, the Company began to take an interest in the cave itself. Caves in the mountains are seldom uninhabited, as you may know, and so we took one of the logs from the fire for use as a makeshift torch and began to explore our shelter more thoroughly. The cave did not go far back, ending rather abruptly at a rock-wall. There was nothing to see there, so we returned to Lagodir at the campfire and prepared to bed down and wait out the storm before continuing our search for the goblin-tunnels. I began cooking up as hearty a meal as I could manage from our ample supplies. With some snow melted over the fire, some onions, a bit of uncooked chicken, some peeled and sliced taters and a few herbs I had the makings of a beautiful stew (and I can't say I objected to the opportunity to stand over the fire all during the process either). Once it was ready I passed it out to the others in mugs without even waiting for it to cool.

"Ah, another of the hobbit's fine culinary works!" said Drodie, who had finally stopped grumbling and became much more pleasant at the smell of the food. "Every adventuring party should have a hobbit along with them, for the meal-times help me forget whatever misery I may have endured that day."

"Truly!" said Nephyn as she fingered her bowstring. "And we have all endured much this day -- I am glad to still have all of my fingers and toes attached to the rest of me. I hope Lagodir's ankle is not giving him too much trouble."

"I will be fine," said the Gondorian with a wince. "It is not a bad sprain, although it is more painful now that I can actually feel it again." Drodie went off to make him a compress out of a rag and some snow-pack. "Still, I suppose I could try to improve my bow-skills in the time being, should we have the need."

"I believe I have yet to see you use your bow, Lagodir," I said. I had very nearly forgotten that the Man did carry a bow and some short, gray-feathered arrows among his gear.

"It is not my best skill," he said with a wry smile. "I would much prefer to rely instead on Nephyn's dead-aim."

"Little good will it do us in this ridiculous storm," the huntress answered as she looked toward the cave's entrance. "At least my bowstring is slowly beginning to recover from its exposure -- this is a process which must be done carefully and slowly lest it suffer irreparable damage."

"I do not know how much use you will be able to make of your bow once we enter the goblin-tunnels, Nephyn," Gaelira said quietly. "It is dark as pitch, and the spaces there are tight; not well-suited to archery." I eyed her curiously, for she spoke as one who had been there before.

Nephyn stood and gently pulled at her bowstring, testing it. She made as if she was stringing an arrow and aimed out the cave-door. The firelight played off her lithe figure and faded into the darkness of the cave behind her.

"I had considered that," she said as she continued to massage the bowstring, "But it never hurts to be prepared for all eventualities. There is no telling what we might find in those caves."

"Goblins and worse than goblins," I muttered, "At least, that is the way I always heard the stories."

"Stories are often embellished," said Lagodir with a grin, "As you yourself ought to know well enough. I, for one, have no fear, for I am among great heroes!"

"Hear, hear!" shouted Drodie as he drained his mug.

"Hush!" came Gaelira's whisper. "Speak more softly!"

"Bah!" scoffed the Dwarf. "Who is going to hear us up here?" We laughed.

"Besides, we are a family," said Nephyn with a broad smile, "And family watches each others' backs." Just then there was a mighty crash which shook the walls of the cave!

"BEHIND YOU!" I screamed.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 27.4

A Welcome Pause -- Part 3
Hevensday, 4th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning

The Last Homely House, Rivendell
A Tale of Two Quills
I have a fascinating tale to give you, Dear Reader, but in doing so I fear I may be breaking trust with one of my friends. I do not know whether I can now allow any of my companions to read this journal in light of what I have discovered, but I feel I simply must write down what I have learned. If I do not record it then the knowledge which was gained may never again be seen by another living soul.

Here is how it happened. Dark clouds had swept down from the Misty Mountains and were threatening rain, and so I spent most of the day puttering around Elrond's Library. It is just the sort of immense repository of lore you would expect it to be, and there I found no shortage of ancient tomes containing the most incredible stories. I assumed my companions were finding their own ways of entertaining themselves, so I made no effort to find them. That afternoon, however, Gaelira called the Company together to tell us we would be departing from Rivendell on the morrow and we had best equip ourselves to face the ice and snow of the mountains.

Together we walked the length of the valley and arrived at the Marketplace of Rivendell. We were each able to find and purchase various bits of clothing and gear which would make the going in the high places more bearable. For myself I managed to locate an outfit which must have been intended for an Elf-child, but it fit me well enough and was warm. It included a padded shoulder-wrap with a hood, a fur-lined robe, and some snug boots. Thus laden, we returned to the Last Homely house, but not before Gaelira bade us all to make ourselves present in the Hall of Fire at the evening meal. I dressed myself as well as I could manage and went to the gathering. Elrond was there, as were many of his household, Mr. Baggins, and of course my own companions. I was directed to a seat near the head of the table. Then, Gaelira rose and began to speak.

"Thank you all for being present," she said. "On behalf of Elladan's Outriders, I wish to take a moment to give thanks to our host and also to say farewell, for now. We depart for the mountain passes on a dangerous but important quest, but the power and well-being this valley offers has bolstered our courage and strengthened our resolve like no other place in Middle-earth could. I have three toasts I wish to give, and so with the permission of Lord Elrond I shall begin." Elrond nodded his assent, and Gaelira took hold of her wine-glass. All the rest of the assembled company did likewise.

"First, we raise our cups to this valley, the hospitality of Lord Elrond, and the warmth availed our Company by all here present. For me, after leaving Lindon and wandering for a long time, I came to Imladris and found not only welcome, but acceptance. A toast to the Last Homely House and its people!" We cheered and drained our glasses, but many servants immediately recharged them.

"Next," she went on, "We toast Lord Elrond, his sons, and his daughter for their support of our Company. As we go forth, we carry not only the reputation of this house, but the support of Free Folk wherever we are needed. So we drink, not to merely holding back the Darkness, but to destroying the evil in our world for good." We cheered and drank again. Out of the corner of my eyes, I thought I saw, for the briefest of instants, a look of displeasure on Elrond's face. A second time our glasses were filled to the brim.

"My final toast," Gaelira continued, "Is to the Shire." I jumped slightly in surprise. "I have learned, thanks to our esteemed friend Padryc, what this War is really about. It has been his inner strength and his belief in each of us that has kept us together. With all the great schemes being hatched on both sides of this conflict, I believe it is the simple life of the Shire that will win out in the end -- may that land remain ever green!" Again we cheered and drank. The assembled company put down their cups and applauded Gaelira's speech. For my part, I was starting to feel light-headed and privately was relieved that she had only the three toasts to give. Then, Lagodir stood.

"I would like to propose a fourth toast," he said. My face fell as a fresh goblet was placed in front of me.

"To Gaelira," Lagodir said loudly. "Who, even through defeat drives others to face the evil and protect lands that are good and green!"

"Hear, hear!" the company cried, and we drained our cups yet again. The room started slowly spinning, but then the food was brought out and the farewell banquet began in earnest. It was another fabulous meal with hours of song and merriment, and by the end of it I was very tired indeed. As the Company disassembled, it became clear that Nephyn had taken more wine than was good for her, and I was obliged to assist her back to her room. Dorwinion wine, I would later learn, was an especially potent vintage and it was preferred by the Elves due to their natural ability to resist the effects of strong spirits. Nephyn was cheerful but very subdued as I helped her lay down. Within moments she was sound asleep and I made ready to retire myself. As I turned to leave, however, I caught sight of a long letter written on parchment which lay open on a small desk with quill and ink nearby. Curious, I crept closer to take a look. It was Nephyn's writing, and I was stunned by what it contained. I record now a copy of it (or as close as my memory permits), realizing the huntress may never have intended for any living person to read what she had written. I hope beyond hope my doing this does not endanger our friendship, but I feel I cannot take the chance that this story should vanish forever.

Here is what I read while Nephyn slept nearby:

At last my past has been made clear (or clearer) to me. I never dreamed that coming to Rivendell would have such an impact on my life, but at the same time I guess I should not be surprised that it did. I am not sure why I decided to write down this story. Perhaps I am trying to set it down in some kind of order so I can better make sense of what happened today. Or maybe I feel like putting it on paper makes it real... I am not sure. I am not even sure for whom I am writing this. Maybe it is myself. In any case, this is what happened.

My tale begins the morning of our second day in the valley of Imladris. Ever since we arrived I had found within myself a sense of quiet contemplation, such as I would sometimes feel alone in the woodlands of Bree. Often times in my youth I would slip away into the woods and wander by myself for hours upon hours, simply being without thought or care. Those were the times when I felt most at peace with myself and the world, and I found the same feeling as soon as I entered this valley (though the Hobbit's uncanny ability to find the edge of several cliffs did dampen the effect a bit). It is a wondrous place, full of beauty that I'm sure Padryc will detail in his report with more eloquence that I am prone to use. 

The evening we spent in the Hall of Fire was wonderful. In fact, I would count it as one of the most enjoyable times of my life so far and it was over sooner than I would have liked, but I and my companions were weary from the journey and we all eventually retired to our provided rooms for the evening. I don't know about the rest of my Company, but I slept deep and well, such as I felt like I had not done in ages. The Sun was only just slipping above the edge of the valley when I stirred from my sleep. I had a hard go of convincing myself to rise when all I wanted to do was remain as I was, possibly forever, but I was glad when I did finally rouse myself. The sky spoke of rain to come, but the cliffs and waterfalls were dyed in a myriad of soft colors from pink to yellow in the light of the morning. I found myself thinking that nothing could please me more than a morning walk about the base of the falls.

I did not want to disturb anyone, let alone any other guests that might be staying, and the race of Men are not generally known for their softness of feet (I believe only the Dwarves come behind us on that front). So I slung on my pack, slipped over the edge of the balcony when I was sure no one was nearby, and headed down the path to the base of the falls as stealthily as I could manage. I have heard about the sensitive hearing that all elves possess and I made extra-sure to step as quietly as my mentor had taught me until I reached the top of the path directly next to one of the closer falls. There I sat in silence, munching on the bits of tack I had in my bag to keep myself from having to leave for hunger or any other reason. Around noon I felt it was high time I set about seeing to provisions for our upcoming excursion into the snowy mountains. With a sigh, I reluctantly stood up and wandered out into the more populated portion of the valley where I assumed I would find craftsmen and could perhaps trade for what I needed.

I did not have any worry for my companions, but I did wonder about how their day was faring as I headed to where the locals had told me to look for a tailor. I soon came upon two Elves at work with great piles of fabric around them. They drew out thick clothing that would suit me in size and warmth for the upcoming journey. My stock of coin had been greatly diminished as of late, but I was able to barter with them for some of the skins I had been holding onto for a while, thus procuring my full outfit as well as a dress that caught my eye. I had to trade the pristine lynx hide that I'd been saving for it, but it was worth it for a dress made by elf-hands, and I couldn't wait to try it on as I made my way back to my room with my purchases. 

Noontide was well past by the time I had changed and brushed out my hair, but I thought to make my way to the Hall of Fire once more to see if perhaps there would be anything left to nibble on. If not, I could probably find either Padryc or Drodie somewhere about and they would most certainly be able to tell me where to find some victuals to tide me till supper. I was just about to enter the room when a voice said my name, and I had to use all of my hunting prowess not to jump in surprise. I turned to see none other than the master of the house approaching me. 

“Here you are at last," Elrond said to me. "I would speak with you for a while.” I didn't dare refuse, no matter how hungry I was starting to feel, and I followed him outside to the porch where he bade me sit on a bench across from him. He asked me many things about my childhood and what I knew of my background. I told him all that I knew and all that I suspected, but little could I give him in the way of facts when I knew so little myself. He did not say much but I could tell a great many things were going on behind those ancient gray eyes as he listened to my tale. Displeasure shone when I spoke of my life at the Pony but it softened when I brought up Saeradan and learning the ways of hunt from him. After my story was ended he said nothing for a while but looked intently at me, so much so that I was beginning to feel nervous, as if something in my tale had made him think me a possible enemy of the valley, though I could not fathom what part would do such a thing. Finally he spoke.

“How old are you?” 

“Twenty-six, come the Autumn,” I replied. 

“Twenty-six...” His eyes went to his folded hands as he mulled over something again, and I could feel sweat trickling down my brow. With a sudden change in his eyes he stood abruptly. 

“Come with me.” 

I followed him to the entrance of the house but he did not go in. Instead he pointed to a tall structure just a ways down the path. 

“That is the Spire of Meeting," he said to me. "Atop the steps you will find Merilos. Tell her what you have told me. She may have answers to some of your questions.” 

Answers? I hardly dared to hope as I gave a deep curtsey and took off as quickly as I could for the landmark. An elf-maiden stood atop the stairs; she did not take notice of my approach at first for her nose was buried in a rather thick book. It took a couple gentle coughs to finally wrestle her attention away from her reading. 

“May I help you?” 

“Are you Merilos?" I asked her. "Lord Elrond said you might be able to answer some questions I have about my lineage.” Her eyebrows shot upward at that as she lowered her book with a decisive thump. 

“Really?" she said. "I don't know that I have that much knowledge about mortals and their bloodlines. Particularly...” Her voice trailed off as her face seemed to almost freeze for a few moments, as if something in her brain had clicked. She drew closer to me and studied my face much the same way Lord Elrond had done. I found myself wondering if I shouldn't fetch my mask again when she finally spoke, softly and almost under her breath. 

“How old are you and where do you come from?” 

“Twenty-six, and I've lived all my life in the Bree-land.” I answered, cautiously. Merilos nodded slowly then turned back to the book she held in her hand, quickly flipping through the pages. 

“I keep a record of the happenings of this valley: important dates, distinguished visitors, and the like. Ah, here we are.” She studied a few entries. I tried to take a look at what was written, but it was in Elvish, so I wasn't able to read it anyway. As she scanned the pages her face began to change from the almost indifference I had first seen to… something else. Pity? Sorrow? What was it that she read in the pages that moved her so? Finally she looked up and I almost thought I saw tears sparkling in her dark eyes. 

“Come, walk with me," she said gently. "This will be a story quite long in the telling.”

I followed her down the steps as she began to weave a tale that began at the destruction of Dale and Erebor by the dragon Smaug. Some of the survivors of Dale had distant relations that lived in the Eastern part of Rohan, and so they made their way south over many miles, following the river until they reached their destination. They were welcomed and soon had made a quiet little community where they lived for many years in relative peace. Nearly two hundred years later, word reached their descendants that Dale and Erebor had been rebuilt, and a longing grew in their hearts to return to the land of their grandsires. 

But it was not to be. The eastern land of Rohan had never been truly peaceful and the Dunlendings had grown ever more vicious over the years, trying to take what they claimed was theirs by right. And during one such attack they sacked the community of the Dale-men. But the Dunlendings are a tribal people, and this particular tribe decided against killing the Dale-men and instead enslaved them. And so, for many years they toiled under their cruel masters. But in secret they always sought for a way of escape, for themselves and their children.

One night, by a united effort, they managed to slip a powerful sleeping draught into every single one of their masters' drinks. When the last of the Dunlendings had fallen into a deep sleep, they piled their meager belongings, stolen rations, and little ones into a boat and sailed down the river Isen to the sea in the dead of night. Their ultimate destination was Dale, but they were closer to the sea than Rohan, and they hoped to throw their pursuers off their track by heading in the opposite direction of where they would be expected to go. They made it to sea and were able to barter passage onto a seaworthy vessel heading north. The Dale-men had intended to be dropped by the mouth of the Greyflood river and make their way northward from there, but a great storm came and blew them many leagues off course, taking them instead to the mouth of the Brandywine river. The Dale descendants were all weak from seasickness, lack of sunlight, and their harsh servitude, but they all walked onto the dry land with heads held high and with renewed purpose: they were finally heading home. As they made their way north they encountered a strange little people they had never heard of save in legends: the Holbytlan. These must have been the Hobbits of Buckland, who welcomed them into their homes once they got over their suspicions. The travellers stayed there many months to recover from their hard journey. It was at this time that one of the young woman among them discovered that she was with child. Despite everything that had happened to them, the child seemed determined to live.

It was almost six months later that they reached Imladris, as rough and rugged a group of travelers as had ever been seen in that valley. They begged shelter from the Elves, who gladly gave it. Merilos was one of those appointed to tend their wounded. The young woman she was instructed to care for did not have any visible signs of injury, but Merilos could tell just by sight that something terrible had been done to her. During their time in Rivendell Merilos was able to nurse her back to health, but there was always a heavy air of grief about her which none could pierce. Then, the very day before their departure for Dale, the young woman spoke to Merilos and told her a most sorrowful tale. She knew that they would never come this way again, and she wished to tell someone her story in confidence, hoping to relieve some of the pain in her heart.”

The young woman told about how she had been pregnant throughout their journey, but it was about the time that they were settling down for the night in a place beside the road that she felt what could only be the beginning of her birthing pains. A great fear settled upon her then, for she knew that the father was not of the Rohirrim nor of the Dalemen. None of the others knew, though she feared they suspected it, and she knew not what they would do if they were to discover the parentage. In secret she took a horse and rode off into the night toward the distant lights of Bree. She was only just inside the gate when the pains began in earnest. She rode on until she came to an inn, and somehow managed to get a room. And there, all by herself, her mouth stuffed with a rag to keep from screaming, she gave birth to a little girl. Her mother's heart was turned in an instant from joy to fear at the sound of her child's wails, for the babe was as dark as night. No one would doubt her parentage now: a child of the hated Easterlings. Even in Dale they had been a feared bedtime story -- dark men that came from far Rhun and brought with them war and death. This child would face no welcome in Dale, and neither would she. 

And so, she made the toughest decision of her life. In the still morning hours, she slipped down to the empty common room and left her sleeping child before the dying embers of the hearth. It would be safe and warm until someone would come to stir the fire in a little while. Kissing her child goodbye, she stole out to the stables and hurried back to her people's camp, despite the incredible pain it caused her to move so quickly after giving birth. Her absence had not been discovered, and her people made their way through Bree quickly, but only she knew that the commotion around the local inn was not normal.

Days passed but her secret could not be kept, for a woman who is no longer pregnant is hard to miss. She told everyone that she had lost the baby in the Bree-land, but only she knew this was a half-truth. It was not lost, but left, and the devastation it would cause her was not something she had taken into account when she had left her child behind. She spoke to Merilos of her fear and regret, but it was too late for her; she was too young and inexperienced to return for her child. That fact brought her to tears daily, for she grieved for her missing child. Sometime later it was learned that the wanderers had indeed all made it safely to Dale and were beginning their new life there in peace. No word was ever heard from them since.

Merilos and I stood beside the falls now, and I did not care that tears were streaming down from my eyes as the elf-maiden finished her tale. 

“You have your mother's face and build, she was a tall woman with perhaps more Rohirric than Dale-blood in her. Your father she never mentioned, and that is a secret only she can tell." Merilos's voice was kindly and gentle, and I heard her clearly despite the constant booming of the falls. "That is all that I know of your story, child. There can be no mistake who you are.” I wiped my eyes with my hands as I tried to catch my breath. 

“What...what was my mother's name?" I asked her. "Did she ever tell you my name?” Merilos' dark eyes softened as she shook her head. 

“She did not mention the name of the child and I never heard the family name, but her name was Annahae.”

Here ends Nephyn's secret narrative of her lineage. This copy I have made from memory I will keep with my journal, but it shall be separately written down on its own paper and tucked carefully within the other pages. I hope I have not done wrong by her for I mean no harm. My only intent is to preserve a remarkable tale which might be lost to all knowledge unless it is set down in some form, for I have no idea whether Nephyn intends for any of this to become known. She is my good friend, no matter what her bloodline may be, and may she see fit to forgive me for this intrusion.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 27.3

A Welcome Pause -- Part 2

Trewsday, 3rd of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell
The courtyards of Rivendell
That same evening I enjoyed another incredible supper at Elrond's table and decided to prod into a few more corners of this extraordinary house of his. I came across Drodie in the courtyard, but he was not one for conversation: all he did was complain about the lack of meat served during the feast. I wandered up a flight of stairs and discovered a door which seemed unattended. For whatever reason, curiosity got the better of me and I poked my head through.

I was met with a gorgeous view. The door opened onto a balcony which overlooked a stunning landscape of gardens, orchards, cliffsides, waterfalls, and fountains. I stood there for a few moments admiring it all just as the Sun dipped behind the western edge of the valley. As the light softened, I began to look more closely at the balcony itself.

It was shaped like a semi-circle with a low railing of stone around the edge. Vines and other foliage intruded upon it, but the effect was one of ancientry rather than disorder. In the very centre was a stone table or altar of some sort, round and fairly plain. Evenly spaced around this table and facing it were several chairs of elaborate make. Altogether, I got the impression I was in a place of some importance, perhaps for meetings or councils of Elrond's summoning.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" came a voice from nearby. I must have jumped two feet in the air out of surprise. When I turned toward the voice, I found it belonged to Lagodir, who was seated in one of the chairs off to the side.

"You startled me!" I chided him. "But yes, it is beautiful -- and quite peaceful, like everywhere else in this valley."

"Rivendell is certainly beautiful," he said as he looked out over the gardens. "But I do not know if it is truly peaceful. I feel ill at ease here; it is calm while the rest of the world is in chaos." The tinkling of the fountains played on as if in rebuttal to the Gondorian's musings. "Through all of Eriador we have seen the works of the Enemy, even unto the doorstep of this valley," he continued. "Yet here all is quiet. It puts me on edge."

"Still, it is an opportunity for us to rest and to equip ourselves; with both supplies and knowledge," I said, wondering what was bothering my companion.

"True," Lagodir replied. There was a pause. "Elrond knows why I left Gondor, Padryc. I will not darken your day by going into specifics, but I suffered at the hands of the Enemy for three years, and it has taken its toll. I think that I will find no peace anywhere if I cannot find it here." I looked at him. Despite our leisurely repose in this perfectly safe place, Lagodir still wore his battle-worn armour, sans helm for the moment, and his sword remained near him as always.

"The life of a soldier is a hard one, or so I have always heard tell," I said, not quite certain where to take the conversation. "Your sacrifice must endear you to your people and bring you great honour within your homeland." Lagodir looked sidelong at me and I saw the faint glow of a smile creep onto his lips.

"Honour," he repeated, and his eyes became downcast. "Your words to me mirror those of Lord Elrond. He granted me audience last night, so eager was I to speak with him. He, more than any Elf I have ever seen invokes the magnificence of the Numenorean kings; sculpted from marble, he would fit well in the Court of Anarion. He is, after all, the sire of Elros, first King of Numenor. He granted me two gifts: apparently I am the first Gondorian in many, many years to have come hither, and so he commissioned the Elf-tailor Glorielvir to make an embroider of the emblem of my rank onto my cloak; the work should be finished before we leave here."

"That was certainly well-given," I said. "And what was the second gift?"

"The second gift was far more precious: it is the dagger of Ohtar Turma, who was revered by all in my House until its destruction a thousand years ago. You are a lover of tales, are you not? Surely you must remember that Ohtar was the esquire of Isildur, son of Elendil. It was Ohtar alone who escaped the disaster of the Gladden Fields where Gondor lost its king, and he it was who delivered the shards of Narsil to Elrond. He then returned to Gondor and led the defence of Minas Ithil but, like so many others, that battle did not end well for my countrymen."

"May I see it?" I asked, for was genuinely eager to view such a relic.

"Certainly, although it is not on my person at this very moment. But I will be sure to let you handle it sometime, for I perceive you will appreciate the historical significance it bears."

"Indeed," I replied, "And I should also like very much to see the results of Glorielvir's work; the craft-lore of Rivendell has always been legendary."

"And not without cause," Lagodir said. "It is little more than a ceremonial gesture, of course, but it has ignited the flame of Numenor which rests within my soul. I am ready to face whatever trials lie ahead."

We exchanged a few more pleasant words together, but the night was already fast approaching. Soon the Hall of Fire would be filled once more with music and merriment, and I was not to be found outside of it until I could no longer hold up my own eyelids. As I wrote this account of today's events, I considered the interesting and very disparate reactions from Gaelira and Lagodir as they reposed here in the Valley of the Elves.

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 27.2

A Welcome Pause -- Part 1

Trewsday, 3rd of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell
The pine-woods of Imladris
We spent a few days in Rivendell. We all needed the rest, for the miles between Men Erain and Imladris were long and wearisome, but I also think several of us had little desire to leave. I'll count myself first among that number: no matter what you might desire, be it food, song, tales, quiet, or good cheer, you could find it in abundance in that valley. The time spent just walking and humming or thinking was invigorating and refreshing in ways I can't begin to adequately describe.

But I feel as if I'm doing you a disservice, Dear Reader, in gushing so about Rivendell when you yourself (so far as I know) have not been there. Allow me instead to inform you about a few other things of note which transpired during our stay.

It was the afternoon on the day following our arrival. I had wandered up into the hills north of the Last Homely House in search of nothing in particular save a good walk. There is a pine-wood up that way, and the scent of sap was heavy in the air despite the time of year, for of course those are evergreens. I was ambling about, wistfully going nowhere and happy to take my time getting there, when I came upon a she-Elf seated on the ground. My first instinct was to take my wanderings elsewhere for fear of disturbing whoever it was I had inadvertently discovered, but then I recognized the figure was none other than Gaelira. For no reason I can recall, I decided to make myself known. I walked up behind her and sat down on her left. The Elf made no sign she was aware of my presence, but by now I knew Gaelira too well to think I had taken her unawares. I let time pass unconcernedly, for she seemed to be meditating or deep in thought. The roar of the falls was distant and soothing while birds chirped merrily in the trees all around us.

"I'm not sure I'll find enough adjectives that'll do justice to this place when I set down to write about it in my journal," I said after several moments. I wasn't really trying to start conversation, for I was mostly speaking to myself. Gaelira stirred at the sound of my voice and smiled, though she continued to look straight ahead.

"Yes, it is a very special place," she said with an odd mixture of cheerfulness and melancholy. "I have always found here a feeling of safety which allows me to truly relax and be myself without worry. Its beauty permeates me with every moment and reminds me of the wonder of all that is Middle-earth. I find here rest with an infusion of hope -- and that hope emboldens me to action in its defence."

I did not speak. Instinctively, I knew Gaelira was unburdening onto me some issue or thought which was on her mind, and so I felt no speech from me was needed. I waited patiently. As the seconds ticked by, I remembered her seeming reluctance to come to Rivendell then tried to square that with what she had just told me.

"I held council with Elrond this morning. It was... rather a long session," she said, as though in answer to my thoughts. "Well, I call it a council, but in fact it was more like a child being scolded by her father. Lord Elrond is... special. On many levels." Here, she looked overhead and paused for a few moments. I followed her gaze and saw birds fluttering in the branches above us while the Sun sent her rays slicing through the pine-boughs in a stunning display. It was an almost otherworldly picture of radiant, breathtaking beauty, yet such visions were common in that valley. I waited.

"I didn't know what to expect as we sat in his private chambers," Gaelira went on, lowering her eyes. "He demanded to know by what authority I went about putting others in danger under false premises. For longer than I wished I was reminded of the reputation of my people and the importance of not interfering unduly in the lives of others. It was like being turned into a little girl that has been caught in a lie; all in all quite possibly the most humbling experience of my life." Still I sat and said nothing. A squirrel scampered across the ground in front of us, only pausing briefly to consider what an Elf and a hobbit might be doing alone in the woods together before hurriedly getting back to his own business.

"Do you think he is angry with you -- with all of us, then?" I asked after several more moments.

"After a long period of keeping me squirming in my seat, he actually thanked me for the outcome of our adventures and the good we have accomplished," she said. "He even went so far as to say he may have been wrong to deny my first offer, but he still thinks me foolish to attempt to use the palantir, assuming we ever manage to recover it. But he admits the value of what we are doing and has given his blessing for us to continue, if that be our will." Another pause. Somehow I sensed there was more she wished to say. Gaelira shifted her weight and I could see something was still troubling her.

"I did not mention the Seekers of the Seven Stars and neither did he," she said at last, "But I know he is aware of us. I also know he disapproves of what we do: it is the age-old question of whether the Eldar kindred should battle the growing Shadow or flee before it into the West." Here, she paused again and looked heavenward at the brilliant shafts of sunlight piercing the trees. "Yet in this, I still believe Lord Elrond has the wrong of it, for fight we must if we are to save that which is worth saving. The Seekers may cling to ancient traditions about the Seven Stars and their supposed awesome power, but it is not these things which I seek, for I do not even believe they still exist, if they ever did. I joined them long ago because they fight back -- because they resist those forces which would destroy what we value. All of this..." She paused again and looked about her. "I will not yield to those forces, Padryc. I have seen what the agents of the Enemy would do to all I hold dear if allowed the chance; I have seen it with my own eyes." Her voice trembled slightly and I looked at her. I could not be sure, but I thought there was the faintest tremor in that stern mouth. I looked away out of respect and waited patiently once more. Gaelira sighed.

"No, I do not think he is angry with us -- or me," she said. "Besides, with the first smile I saw in our meeting, he told me that the swelling of Elladan's head over pride at being our unwitting namesake has caused him great pains and great consternation with his brother. He was joking, of course, but to see those twins unbalanced would be amusing. I imagine Elrohir is now trying to find some way to outshine his brother." She laughed and I looked at her. Her face was flushed with colour and her eyes sparkled with life. Whatever chastisement she had endured and whatever grief she had seen across the ages of her long life, I saw in her no fatigue, no acquiescence. I marvelled again at the (what I found to be) strange dichotomy in Elvish personalities, for they so often seem at once both deeply sorrowful and immeasurably merry that it can be difficult to understand them without great patience and empathy. Just like before, many weeks ago at the Pony in Bree, I had a fleeting glimpse of the complex lives of the immortal folk. The idea of trying to comprehend the knowledge gained over the course of many, many of my lifetimes compounded with the need to remain in the present while simultaneously weighing the future must be an enormous burden -- one far too complicated for my simple mind to process.

"And so what is next for us, then?" I asked finally, unable to put any of these thoughts into words. "The Misty Mountains?"

"Yes, and it will be the hardest road we have taken so far, in more ways than one," she said, but her voice was tinged with defiance. "Nephyn faced her own evils in the swamps of Agamaur and proved her worth, but I fear what I will find in the High Passes. Yet I will not turn aside from this path."

"What is it you fear to find?" I asked. Mallacai's prophecy concerning Gaelira had been cryptic indeed, other than it clearly referenced some unpleasant event from her past.

"I am forced to confront my own failure," she said heavily. "But I do not yet know how deep those scars may run, so I will say nothing more about it at present. More importantly, this adventure has already taught me several valuable lessons -- some the hard way -- and I found a little of the human side of Elrond Halfelven in the process. His reputation for wisdom is well-earned."

I sat a bit longer in silence. After a while I felt it was high time for lunch and asked Gaelira if she would accompany me back to Elrond's house. She preferred to meditate a while longer, and so I left her in the peace and quiet of the woods she loved. As I walked back down into the valley I thought about the next stage of our journey and felt a thrill of fear. Yet it was not fear for myself that I felt, but rather for her.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 27.1

To Rivendell

Monday, 2nd of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell
The Valley of Imladris
It was quite dim when I opened my eyes this morning, but the soft glow of foredawn was in the sky. I rolled over and sat up, feeling very light in body and heart, while taking pleasure in the bright, crackling campfire we had made for ourselves the night before. The morning was chilly -- it would still be winter for another month and more -- but I hardly felt uncomfortable. The air was full of the twittering of birds and the buzzing of insects which I found calming and relaxing. I looked up and saw the gently swaying boughs of oak and maple trees, most bereft of their leaves, and decided that adventuring wasn't so bad after all. At least, not on days like today.

As expected, Gaelira was off speaking with Barachen, the Elf who manned the encampment. It was odd to see a couple of Dwarves here as well (I suppose I hadn't noticed them last night on account of being so tired), but they kept to themselves and would only give hints about their business which they seemed to regard as some great secret. Dwarves can be like that, you know: very protective of their knowledge and purposes, but on the whole they are a good people. I let them be, for I felt like keeping to myself today, albe it not for any particular reason. I was not upset or anything like that; in fact I felt almost serene, as if I hadn't a care in the world. I munched my breakfast in silence and solitude as I took in everything going on around me.

Nephyn was busy plotting her maps, trying (so I thought) to figure out just where in the Trollshaws we were. Drodie and Lagodir were off to one side discussing the best way to skin a bear and what kind of weather we could expect to encounter in the Misty Mountains once we had got there. It was no surprise to me that the Dwarf had been into the high places before, but it seemed the Gondorian had some experience with mountainous travel himself, and the two were clearly concerned about how to best prepare ourselves for that portion of our journey. I was vaguely worried about it as well, but just now the whole concept of trudging through ice and snow seemed too far off to bother about it yet. I let out a wide yawn, took a pull from my water-skin, and wondered what the day might bring. Shortly thereafter Gaelira called us all together.

"We are now less than a day's march from Rivendell," she told us, "But the way is still full of potential dangers and we should take nothing for granted. If we depart now, we should reach the way-point of Thorenhad by the noon-hour. That is a camp which is (or was) roughly mid-way between the Last Bridge and the Ford of Bruinen. If there are any residents of Rivendell currently at Thorenhad we should receive welcome there, and even if there are not we should still find rest and supplies. Once we cross the Ford itself we will ascend into the High Moor. That is a rough country where the going becomes more difficult. Also, the path to Imladris itself can be hard to find for most, but I will steer you right. Barring any unforeseen challenges, we should see the lights of the Last Homely House twinkling in the valley below us by dusk."

At those words I saw several reactions among the Company: Lagodir straightened himself up and his eyes sparkled with expectation. Nephyn and I seemed to share a certain wonder at walking wide-eyed into the fabled valley of the Elves, while Drodie muttered something about preferring to single-handedly wrestle an entire colony of wild cave-claws. But Gaelira was hard to read: if I didn't know better I would have thought she was reluctant to go there.

It was not much later when we had gathered our things and bid farewell to Barachen. We returned to the road by the straightest path we could find, then turned our faces eastward and resumed our march. The day was turning out to be a fine one, and we talked openly as the miles rolled beneath our feet.

"What can we expect to see in Rivendell, Gaelira?" I asked excitedly. "Do you think we will actually meet Lord Elrond himself?"

"I should think we will," she answered, though none too enthusiastically, I thought. "But I have spent many winters in the valley of Imladris, and those familiar with a place do well to not blunt the experiences of others with their own musings. Still, I shall tell you this: while I have no doubt we will meet Elrond Halfelven in his fair dwelling, I think there is another meeting which might interest you even more."

"Interest me more than meeting the famous lore-master of Rivendell?" I echoed with a laugh.

"Yes, I think so," came her reply. "Rivendell has, for no less than the last fifteen years, been home to one Bilbo Baggins."

"What?!" I cried. "Old Mad Baggins himself? You mean to say he's been living among the Elves all this time?"

"And quite comfortably, so far as I have ever seen," she said. "Stranger tales have reached my ears since he set out from the Shire in the Year 1401 as your people reckon it, but the truth is he has been living in quiet retirement among us. Some years ago (I believe you might call it long, but in truth the Eldar count them for little), he began an admirable work of translating many Elvish scripts in the great library of Rivendell by Elrond's permission. He was yet some ways from finishing when last I saw him."

"Well, what an adventure this is turning out to be!" I marvelled. "First Elrond the Halfelven and now Mad Baggins! There's a brace of meetings that'll make for some great stories in my journal!"

"No doubt they will," laughed Nephyn from behind me. "Although you should probably avoid calling him by that name!" I heartily agreed.

"Somehow I do not think the old hobbit would mind," mused Gaelira with a sly grin. "In fact, I suspect it would tickle his fancy." I wondered greatly what her remark might mean.

Time passed and the trees passed with it. We found ourselves in the midst of a deep gorge with sheer, rocky walls to either side. After a bit these also gave way to trees once more, but Gaelira began overtly searching the ground for something. Eventually, she found what she sought: a faint dirt track leading away to the north. This we followed up and down the slopes until we reached a low hill which was crowned with some ancient ruin. Gaelira informed us we had reached the way-point of Thorenhad and I quickened my pace, eager for a rest. There, amid the fallen stones and crumbled pillars, we saw a most extraordinary thing.

There were Elves there, and even a few more Dwarves who were travelling through on business of their own. But standing near a cold firepit were two Elves, absolutely identical to look at. They were tall and dark-haired with steel-grey eyes. Young they looked, yet their bodies were strong and hale with a powerful bearing of both sinew and spirit. I felt Nephyn nudge my shoulder.

"Elf-twins? Can it be..."

I did not answer for my mouth was hanging open. There was no doubt in my mind: we had just stumbled into Elladan and Elrohir, the Sons of Elrond!

Thus began a long discussion which, alas, I cannot recount for you in these pages, Dear Reader. Aside from its sheer length, the Sons of Elrond had a most peculiar way of completing each other's sentences that made following the conversation rather bewildering, at least for me. I will do my best to give you an impression of how this sounded in my writing, but I expect it will not do justice to the real experience. Gaelira was the first to approach them, and they eyed her with great interest.

"Hail, Sons of Elrond Halfelven, Master of Imladris!" she said to them with a courtesy. "I return as part of the Company called Elladan's Outriders, and may your lordships pardon our use of the name, though it was meant only in reverence and honour."

"Doubtless it was," said one of the twins (who I later learned was in fact Elladan), "Though one might ask with whose permission you use the name --"

"When we ourselves knew naught of your mission until but a fortnight ago," said Elrohir. There was an awkward silence. I worried we had inadvertently incurred the wrath of the Sons of Elrond. But suddenly they both laughed.

"Nay! You have nothing to fear from us --"

"We are greatly honoured by the name --"

"For much honour have you brought it, if half the tales be true!" I breathed much easier from that point on.

"You speak no falsehood, brother! Was it not this bedraggled band which rescued one of our folk in the Taur Gonwaith --"

"And defeated the horror beneath the Barrow-downs --"

"And bested the shadow-wraith of Fornost --"

"And drove away the drake Bleakwind on the Nan Amlug plains?" We stared at them in surprise.

"Already you seem to know much," said Gaelira, clearly baffled. "But how you do so is a mystery to me. Ever were the Sons of Elrond gifted with the talents of their father, but this would seem to surpass anything of which I have yet heard, for we have sent no word of our exploits."

"Indeed, but where you have not, others have done --"

"You forget Gildor Inglorion and his company in Meluinen --"

"Who is still on business from our father there. He took a great interest in your doings --"

"And his messages travel by swift paths of which others know nothing." (By now you must have completely lost track of which brother was speaking, just as I had done!)

"Then is Lord Elrond also aware of all this?" Gaelira asked them.

"He is, and no doubt he is eager to speak to you himself on the matter --"

"For this endeavor you have taken upon yourselves interests him greatly."

Many more words were said, but they concerned mostly the path to Rivendell or the known movements of the Enemy's servants in that land. After some time, we were reminded that it would be best for us to reach the valley by sundown and so we left the Sons of Elrond and Thorenhad behind. The Sun was well into the third hour from noon when we returned to the road and resumed our trek toward Imladris. We marvelled among ourselves over our meeting with Elladan and Elrohir while we looked eagerly forward to our arrival at their father's house.

It was another two hours or so when we came upon a placid river which was forded by the Road. That river, Gaelira told us, was the Bruinen, and we crossed it without incident. The Road then climbed steeply into the hills on the far side until it vanished altogether. The way became rocky and the path forward wound much, but the she-Elf led us with care. We took a longish rest when we finally reached the top of the High Moor, then continued on our way eastward. Dusk covered the sky as we plodded onward. Finally, just as the Sun slipped below the horizon, we turned a corner and saw it far below us: the Valley of Rivendell.

I had heard many different descriptions of the Hidden Valley of the Elves, but nothing I had heard really prepared me for what I encountered there. I saw nothing I hadn't seen elsewhere -- pathways, trees, bridges, houses, courtyards, waterfalls -- but they were all of such beauty and splendour that my breath was taken away. As we wound our way down the road, Nephyn had to catch me more than once from falling off a precipice because I was so enthralled by the view. Gaelira led us over masterfully built bridges of stone and beneath flowering trees where all sorts of exotic birds sang their lovely songs. Finally, we arrived at the largest structure in that valley: The Last Homely House East of the Sea.

It was the house of Elrond, and that house was like unto its master: ancient, yet strong; full of wisdom and beauty. We were attended by several Elves who seemed to have been expecting us. Our hurts were tended, our bellies were filled, our thirsts were slaked, and our voices were unfurled in merriment. If I had a week to attempt it I could not truly capture the wonders of Rivendell in these pages for you. Elrond himself met with us, at a long table where sat Elves of many kinds with faces fair and bright. He himself was masterful as a great king, wise as a learned lore-master, yet kindly as a summer breeze. Much of our talk with him I cannot rightly remember, for most of what was said went over my head (as the saying goes), or I was simply too entranced by everything that I saw. It was as if I had landed myself inside of a story -- I was walking among characters which had been written onto a page or sung into many songs, yet there I was with them. I do not think I should ever find the right words to describe what I experienced here.

But fear not, Dear Reader! I shall do my best, for important and noteworthy things did indeed occur during our stay at Elrond's house. Over the course of the time we spent there, I was able to meet with my friends and they told me of their own happenstances. And I myself had a singular experience which I shall relate for you now.

The very same night we arrived, following the sumptuous dinner we shared at Elrond's table, we were led into a room off the main courtyard of the house. It was a long hall with long tables in its centre and three enormous fireplaces burning at the far end. There was no other light that I could see, and everywhere about us were Elves singing, Elves reciting poetry, and Elves quietly reading tomes in their own language. Elrond told us we stood in the Hall of Fire, and that place is a place of singing, songwriting, and merrymaking where fires are kept burning all the year round. It sounded like just the sort of place where I would be quite at home, so when Elrond asked a tall Elf minstrel named Lindir to show us around, I was eager to accompany him. But, just as I was about to go with Lindir and my companions, I felt a hand upon my shoulder. It was Elrond, and with a look he commanded me to be silent. I obeyed, wondering very much what was going on. Once Lindir had led the rest of the Company out of sight, we withdrew to a very private corner of the hall where Elrond sat himself down upon a low chair and turned toward me. His eyes shone in the firelight, but his face was grave.

"I will not keep you long from your revelry, Master Hobbit, for you have certainly earned it," he said to me in a soft voice. "Would I be right to guess that the Hall of Fire is a place which suits you?"

"Yes!" I said, a bit too loudly at first. "Yes, that is, I have something of a soft spot for old tales and stories, if you take my meaning. Always was a weakness of mine."

"Hardly a weakness," he said with a slight smile. "For such is the stuff of which wisdom is made, and I deem you possess a good measure more wisdom than for which you might give yourself credit, Padryc. This adventure has tried and tested you beyond what most of your kind has ever endured. You have grown, somewhat, if what I hear is true, and that is not to be wondered at considering what you have seen since you left the quiet fields of your homeland. And yet, I am concerned for you. Why do you continue to follow this Company?"

I thought for a moment. Somehow, it almost felt like a trick question, but I couldn't detect the trick. I fumbled for a moment, but then into my mind rose images, like pictures in a storybook, of all the things I had been through with my friends beside me. Nephyn's kidnapping and rescue in the Chetwood. The vicious Warg which slew Gaelira's bear-friend. The terror of the Barrow-wights. The fear and stuffiness of the Old Forest. Merry old Tom Bombadil and Goldberry. And the Orcs, Dol Dinen, Fornost, Annuminas, Garth Agarwen, the Wovenvales... all of it right down to where I was standing now. I sighed, but I held my head high.

"How could I not?" I said at last. "After all we've been through together it... it wouldn't be right, somehow, to just up and leave them, would it? And I think Nephyn needs me. She's been abandoned one time too many if you know what I mean. And Gaelira; they might have all walked out on her if it hadn't been for me when they learned what she was trying to do. Lagodir is a tough nut, but he's one I plan on cracking eventually. And even Drodie keeps things interesting, in his own way. I guess what I'm saying is: my place is with them. I know it makes no sense and I know I'm not really doing anything but dangling along behind them and eating all their food (well, Drodie does his fair share of that too, actually), but it just feels like this is where I belong. I'm afraid I can't put it any plainer than that."

Elrond looked at me closely and was silent for what seemed like several minutes. In the end, he merely nodded his head.

"You need not try," he said gently. Then he stood and placed a hand on my shoulder.

"Come," he said and motioned to another part of the room. "There is someone I would like you to meet."

In a dim and secluded corner there sat a small figure huddled on a stool. He was wrapped in a dingy old cloak that looked rather too big for him, the colour of which was hard to discern in that light -- it might have once been a dark green. There was a loaf of bread and a mug of some liquid nearby, but they appeared almost untouched. I could hear the scratching of a quill pen on parchment and at his feet there was a small pile of books. Then I noticed the feet were unmistakably hobbit-feet. The cloaked figure looked up at me and the light of the fires fell full on his face.

"Mercy me!" I cried, heedless of my own shrill voice in that quiet hall. I was too amazed to realize the harping and singing had stopped around me. "You're Old Mad Baggins, you are!"

There was slight laughter from nearby, most of it coming from my companions. Elrond made a motion to the rest of the room that they should go about their business, then he left the two of us together. For my part, I was so surprised that I didn't even notice his departure at the time. Bilbo chuckled and pulled me close.

"Hush, lad, hush! Where the devil are your manners? Did you grow up on a farm?" he asked sternly, but there was a great amusement playing in his eyes.

"Well, yes -- as a matter of fact I did, sir," I said, making an effort to keep my voice down.

"Oh. Oh! You say you did now?" Bilbo echoed. "Which farm was that, exactly?"

"The Pemberton Farms in Southfarthing," I said excitedly but softly. "My old dad, Padferth Pemberton, he said he knew you once and all."

"Padferth? Why yes, I remember him. Stout fellow -- good bones and quite the green thumb as I recall him. Got well into the ale at my Birthday party too, if I'm not mistaken. How is he keeping himself these days?"

And so began a conversation which lasted well into the night. My friends did not disturb me -- no one did, to be honest -- and I was left alone with the Bilbo Baggins. I can't relate here everything we discussed and most of it would be of absolutely no interest to anyone save hobbits, but we talked of the doings of the Four Farthings in great detail. He was especially interested in anything I could tell him of his adopted nephew, Frodo, but sadly the well of my knowledge ran quite dry on that point. Frodo was always a solitary chap who didn't go in much for parties or gatherings, so there was precious little I could relate to him. It was very late indeed before he finally began to question me concerning Elladan's Outriders, about which he seemed to already know a great deal. I knew of no particular reason I shouldn't be forthcoming with him about our business, including our current destination in the Misty Mountains.

"So you're actually going looking for the goblin-tunnels, are you?" he asked in dismay. "I really shouldn't if I were you, you know. Not a fun place to find yourself. Nasty business." But I couldn't get him to tell me anything else about it. Instead, he turned the conversation toward our reason for going, and I found myself telling him everything about Mallacai and the Seekers of the Seven Stars. He squinted at me and lowered his voice to a whisper.

"It's none of my concern, of course," he said, "But if I were you I wouldn't go getting caught up with that lot. They've sent emissaries to Rivendell more than a few times, you know, and even that Mallacai fellow has been here more recently. Now, I can't claim to know anything definite because the talks are always very quiet-like, but I can tell you for certain that Elrond doesn't like 'em. I don't know why, but every time they leave here he falls quiet and broods for days. Now I've been around a bit, I've heard stories about these Seven Stars and I expect the Seekers are some Noldorin cult or other, set on finding the relics? Just guesses on my part, but if I'm right I can see why Elrond wants nothing to do with them -- the High Elves and their meddlings have caused more than a little grief in this world, and that on both sides of the Sundering Seas, mind you." He sighed.

"But what would I know?" he went on. "For I'm just an old hobbit. An old hobbit who missed his bedtime! My dear boy, would you be so kind as to help me back to my room? I am not usually up this late and my eyes don't work as well as they used to in these dark hours. I may be half-blind at times, but I'm certainly not and never have been 'mad.'" He gave me a wink and a broad smile.

After escorting Mr. Baggins to his room, I finally retired myself, but I found I could not sleep. The words of Bilbo, Elrond, and Mallacai continually played in my head while the Falls of Imladris roared endlessly on outside my window.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 26

Into the Trollshaws

Sunday, 1st of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Barachen's Camp, Somewhere in the Trollshaws
The Trollshaws
There was something different about the air and the sky today. From the moment I awoke I could sense it, though I never was able to quite put words to whatever it was I had detected. For one thing, the low clouds which had covered the Lone-lands the day before had raced away to the south leaving us with high, clear fields of blue, but it was something more than that. It was as if the wind felt clean and fresh; it was chilly (which is not unusual given the time of year), but there was something about the air which cleared the mind and relaxed the body. Wholesome might be the right word.

Whatever it was, I felt quite invigorated. I stretched myself out in the warmth of the noon-tide Sun then went rummaging through my pack to find a bite. Blueberry muffins in hand, I decided to explore Ost Guruth a little more than our business had thus far permitted. I found the Eglain occupied with all manner of tasks -- almost as though I were in the midst of a well-ordered city -- everything from tanning to farming, fletching to cooking.There was something different about the air and the sky today. From the moment I awoke I could sense it, though I never was able to quite put words to whatever it was I had detected. For one thing, the low clouds which had covered the Lone-lands the day before had raced away to the south leaving us with high, clear fields of blue, but it was something more than that. It was as if the wind felt clean and fresh; it was chilly (which is not unusual given the time of year), but there was something about the air which cleared the mind and relaxed the body. Wholesome might be the right word.

This last, you may recall, is something of a speciality of mine. I nosed about the ovens for some time until one of the bakers took notice of me. Her name was Deothryth, and she was a young and talkative lass. It was not long before we were both chatting about old family recipes and even each others' personal culinary secrets. Imagine my shock and horror when I learned that these rustics made their onion soup with yellow onion and not the green variety! This positively shocked me: every Shire-hobbit knows green onion goes better than yellow in soup! I took it upon myself to instruct Deothryth on the error of her ways and she promised to try my recipe the next time she was making a batch.

With that crisis averted (and having graciously agreed to sample several of Deothryth's other daily offerings), I made my way back to the campsite. I was alone when I had awoken, but now the others must have noticed my absence for they were seeking me. Slowly, we all began to congregate around the cold firepit.

"You wouldn't believe the uncouth things these people do with their victuals!" I exclaimed as Lagodir and Drodie sat down to break their fast. "Who uses yellow onion in onion soup? Only someone unschooled in the art of cooking, that's who! Fortunately, I was able to set things to rights hereabout -- I expect once they've tasted my recipe for onion soup these Eglain will never touch any other kind!"

"It's good to know our mission has met with some success then," said Lagodir with a broad smile. "I can think of no better defence against the Darkness than ensuring some gaggle of rustics living in the middle of nowhere now know the proper way to make onion soup!"

"Laugh all you like," I sniffed, "But these are the sorts of things that turn gaggles of rustics into respectable societies, if you ask me. Honestly, I've never heard of such foolishness."

"I am certain they are much improved for the encounter," said Lagodir with a slight bow, but he was still grinning at me. I was chuckling inside my head as well, but I did not let on. Drodie was taking a pull at a mug he had purloined from somewhere, but he spit out his ale and tossed the remainder away from him.

"Pah! Perhaps next you could teach this lot a thing or two about brewing?" Drodie said. "I must go in search of my water-skin to get this taste out of my mouth." He ambled off.

"As bad as the Forsaken Inn?" I asked, nodding my head after the Dwarf.

"No, it is not hardly that foul," said Lagodir with a laugh, "Still, I would not encourage you to try it -- not unless you know of some way to rid yourself of an incredibly bitter aftertaste."

"The only aftertaste I am interested in is the one we all bear from yesterday," said Gaelira from behind us. We turned and saw her standing there with an intent face. Following her gaze, we beheld Nephyn approaching and we fell silent. The huntress's outburst following the defeat of the Red-maid yesterday had unnerved everyone and we were uncertain as to her current state of mind, for she had spent the night apart from the rest of us. But her eyes were downcast as she walked. After a few moments, she stood before us.

"I... spent a long time thinking over things during the night --" she began. But, just then, Drodie returned noisily gargling water from a skin and spitting it everywhere. I cleared my throat politely to let him know he was intruding, but I was ignored. Instead, Lagodir gave the Dwarf a stiff elbow to the ribs which caused a terrific blech to erupt from those bearded lips.

"Ah, thanks for that!" he said, before noticing we were all staring at him. After a few seconds he looked up at Nephyn.

"Oh... Bad timing?" he asked. We all sighed as Drodie plopped himself down to give Nephyn his attention.

"As I was saying," the huntress continued, "I thought a lot of the events of yesterday during the night, and I realized that... I can no longer think of any of you as my friends." It was like a crater had suddenly opened up inside my stomach. My ears seemed to go deaf for a moment as if in defiance of what I had just heard. I saw the lips of Drodie and Lagodir part in disbelief. Instinctively, I shot a look at Gaelira, and even her face was one of bewilderment. None of us seemed able to speak as those words hung in the air.

"I think of you as my family," Nephyn said, finally. Time moved again. I leapt to my feet and embraced her. Her eyes became wet, but she wore an enormous smile. The others gathered round as well, clapping her on the shoulders and laughing. Drodie bowed deeply. Later, I had a hard go of it remembering when was the last time I had seen her smile.

"It's true," she went on, "We have all had our trials and disagreements, but I was allowing a bitterness to grow inside of me. Even though I eventually understood why Gaelira had concealed her real motives, I let myself hold on to those misgivings because of what I had experienced in my past. But while those failings are many and painful, they are not yours, Gaelira. I hope you can forgive me."

"There is nothing to forgive, Nephyn," said Gaelira, who bowed her head. "I am honoured that you have bestowed upon me your trust; I who have done so little to earn it these past many weeks."

"No," said Nephyn as she shook her head. "No, you have earned it many times over. All of you have, and I have been too hard -- I had become too hard -- and all the while secretly priding myself on my own lack of hardness. But last night I realized that I had not overcome my animosity; rather I was only continuing to bear it, unbeknownst to me. I, who had for years begged and wished for mercy from those around me, had none to give to one who had been forced to commit evil against her own will. Is that Mercy? Is that Justice? But for your interference, my friends, I might be standing here now with the blood of an innocent life upon my hands. That fact shook me deeply, and if I had succumbed I would have no right to name myself among you all -- among Elladan's Outriders."

"You are wise beyond your years, my young friend," said Gaelira. "It takes a humble heart to see these things and an extraordinary courage to speak them openly to others. What you have done will not go unrewarded -- of this you may be certain."

"Whether or no," Nephyn replied, "I will strive to be merciful in future. If I, who desire mercy and understanding, cannot grant it when such opportunities fall into my lap, then what hope is there that the world shall ever be made better?"

"Hear, hear!" I cried and jumped about in my happiness. "You can't say fairer than that!"

"Indeed not!" agreed Lagodir. "You have a valiant heart, Nephyn."

"Aye, and you are a formidable foe when need presses," said Drodie, ever the practicalist. "You fought like a Dwarf -- and that is no small praise coming from one who has seen his share of battle."

"The strength within all of us is formidable," said Gaelira. "It merely awaits the right opportunity to surface. I do not think the Enemy nor any of his minions have a mind to ignore us now."

"Speaking of which," I asked through a mouthful of blueberry muffin, "What's the plan for today?"

"The Wovenvales are somewhere in the Trollshaws while Goblin-town is supposed to be hidden high in the Misty Mountains," said Lagodir. "And both lie to the east of where we now stand."

"Oughtn't we to take another day of rest?" asked Drodie as he nodded at me. "The little one took a nasty crack to the head mere hours ago, don't forget."

"I feel quite myself again, actually," I said and started on another muffin.

"His appetite has clearly returned," said Lagodir with a laugh. "Hobbits seem to have an amazing ability to recover from cuts and bruises."

"I have heard this from... various sources," said Gaelira. "It interests me greatly to see it verified. More importantly, though, I think the time is ripe for us to move on from here: Khamul has clearly been in these lands, but he did not linger and I can detect no sign of his presence anywhere nearby. Since Padryc says he is well enough for it, it would be best for us to seize this opening while we can."

We prepared ourselves to depart while Lagodir consulted with the Eglain's elders regarding the whereabouts of the Wovenvales. There was little they could tell us, only that rumours had sifted across the Hoarwell of a spreading menace of spiders in places north of the road. But that seemed enough for us to go on in a pinch, so we wasted no more time. It was already the second hour after noon when we saw Ost Guruth growing smaller in the distance behind us. I looked out over the Lone-lands as we walked. The name was well-given, for the grass was brown and it was desolate and empty. A flock of crebain flew overhead and one cawed rudely at us, but we kept going.

"This would be an ideal place to open a tavern, if you ask me," I mused to the others. "Why, there's not another way-station for miles! You can't rightly count Ost Guruth as the folk there don't seem to want visitors. I reckon one could make a nice living doing that, if it weren't for all of the Orcs, goblins, Wargs, and goodness-knows-what-else roaming this land and wanting to eat all your patrons."

"But don't forget the Forsaken Inn," said Nephyn with a sly grin. "Just think: you'd have to compete with them for your customers!"

"Ha! I could serve pig-slop in a bucket and it would be better than their swill!" I said as I mimed vomiting on Nephyn's boots. We all shared a hearty laugh.

The march continued mostly in silence. The Road ran on with no perceptible changes in the landscape to the point I was beginning to wonder if we were actually moving at all. The Sun fell further and further out of the sky until finally, just at dusk, we could see a stone bridge in the distance. It had three large arches underneath and the waters of the River Hoarwell played noisily about them, but we encountered no difficulty in the crossing. As we neared the far bank, I noticed the light of a small fire ahead and to one side.

It was a pair of female Elves keeping watch on the Road. One of them, Rochwen (I fear I have forgotten the other's name), was most interested in our account of ourselves. When we mentioned that we were seeking the Wovenvales, her face became grim.

"I would have you find my comrade, Thoroniel," Rochwen said and she pointed to the north. "She had gone that way to investigate reports of increased activity from the Great Spiders in those parts, but I have heard nothing from her in days. She is a fine warrior, but has less experience with those creatures than some. And if there is one thing I know about Spiders, it is that you can never be sure how many there are until they are coming for you." I gulped audibly.

The Sun had already set when we turned off the Road and began picking our slow way north in search of Thoroniel and the Wovenvales. The paths of the Trollshaws were rocky but not hilly, and the forest had become darksome with the ending of the day. Our movements seemed loud and intrusive while I imagined unfriendly eyes peering at us from every angle. More than once I saw the black silhouette of some long-fallen tower overlooking our position from atop a hill. I supposed the Trollshaws hadn't been so named due to an overt absence of trolls beneath its eaves, a fact made all the more alarming by the swiftly vanishing light.

"I wish to goodness I hadn't insisted on leaving Ost Guruth so late in the day," I thought to myself. "Now here we are blundering about these woods in near-total darkness! I had half a mind to ask the others if we could go looking for Old Mad Baggins's three stone-trolls, for I wouldn't mind seeing whether the tales were true. But not at night!" More than once I thought I heard strange groaning or wailing sounds, but they were always so far off that I was never sure, and the others took no notice. A little further on we decided to take a rest, so I plopped myself down and leaned up against a boulder.

Suddenly the boulder moved! I yelped, leapt to my feet, and dashed away as fast as my feet would carry me!

"Troll!" shouted Lagodir from somewhere nearby. I darted behind a tree and looked back. There, hulking where I had sat just moments earlier, was a sizeable troll with thick arms and legs. It took a wide swipe at Lagodir with its arm, but the Gondorian dropped to the forest floor and rolled out of the way. I heard a snap! and another snap! It was Nephyn, whose arrows were glancing off the troll's hide as she aimed for its eyes. Drodie was slashing with his sword and banging his shield loudly to attract the monster's attention. The troll, apparently surprised at being resisted, backed up a few steps and bumped into a cliff wall as my companions closed in on it. Sensing it was cornered, it let out a roar that shook me to my toes then reached out and seized a large rock in its paw.

"Look out!" I cried. I think the others heard me, for they all threw themselves into the dirt. The troll threw the rock, but it sailed harmlessly over our heads and shattered into a million pieces with a bang! Immediately, my friends were back on the attack. It was about that time I noticed Gaelira was missing again, but I refused to let any old suspicions cloud my mind. I scanned the darkened landscape and found her: there she was, some ways up, atop the cliff behind the troll!

Now what in the blazes is she up to this time? I thought to myself. It looked to me as though she was pulling heavily on something. Suddenly, a huge boulder came loose from hill and smashed onto the troll's head! The troll stood there, dumbfounded, as the Pounding Echoes faded into the branches of the forest. It seemed as though the beast was going to come back on the offensive, but then its knees buckled. It let out a long groan and crashed to the earth. Three swords glittered in the starlight as they slashed the troll's throat out. The battle was over.

We came back together to congratulate each other on our victory. Gaelira joined us shortly, quarterstaff in hand.

"I was wondering what you were doing up there, Gaelira!" I said happily. "No Elf-magic needed this time, I see?"

"Not at all," she said with a laugh. "Just a little ingenuity in addition to a fervent hope that my rock would prove tougher than a troll's head."

"Luckily for us it did so," I said. "Once more I had nothing to do with our victory, but I'm glad it's over and well over!"

"As am I, but pray speak more softly while the Moon rides above us, Master Halfling," said Lagodir sternly but kindly. "There are certain to be more trolls about and our little ruckus may even attract them, for they are known to be curious beasts. It would be well for us to leave this place at once."

We left straightaway. I kept expecting to hear another troll come crashing through the foliage to avenge its slain comrade, but instead the Trollshaws became unnervingly quiet. Where before had been peculiar night-noises of insect and animal, tree and hill, was now nothing -- not even a solitary cricket. The only way I knew for certain I had not suddenly fallen deaf was that I could still hear our footsteps as we stumped and rustled along through the undergrowth. I kept looking side-to-side and behind me, fearing that some unknown horror was stalking us beneath the boughs.

"Try to remain calm, friend Padryc," said Nephyn to me softly. "You have the rest of us here also to detect if foes approach in the night."

"And for that I am most grateful," I whispered back, "Though I could wish I was more useful to the Company. I've lost count of the number of times I've either had to be rescued or done nothing to hinder our adversaries."

"You are too hard on yourself," came her reply, "But perhaps your fortunes will soon change? That Elf Mallacai spoke truly when he said I would learn something of forgiveness when I came to challenge the Red-maid. What was it he said to you about this adventure?"

"Bring me the fangs of the spider-queen in the Wovenvales, and you will learn your true value to the Company," I quoted. "But what do you suppose that means?"

"Haven't the foggiest," she said with a smile. "We shall just have to wait and see." I immediately began imagining all sorts of terrible trials that would befall me when we finally found the spider-queen. I tried to force myself to think about something else.

Some ways on, we saw the glow of a small campfire up ahead. It belonged to none other than Thoroniel, the companion of the Elf Rochwen who had first greeted us when we had crossed the Last Bridge into the Trollshaws. When we explained that we had come to seek out and destroy the spider-queen of the Wovenvales, she pointed us toward a pass north of her camp.

"There lie the Wovenvales, my friends, and may the stars of Elbereth guide your feet therein," she said. "I would come with you, but alas! My sword-arm was wounded when I fought the beasts earlier today. I do not know where their queen might lie hid within, but if you seek her you shall surely find her, for the spawn of these foul colonies always cluster around their matron."

"I don't fancy bedding down so close to that place," I said with a yawn. "Can't we find some other spot to camp?"

"I think you misunderstand me," Thoroniel answered, "You must seek the queen during the hours of darkness: it is during the night that they come forth to feed. During the daylight hours you will find nothing, for they retreat into their lairs and only a fool would dare to confront them there."

My heart sank. I kept hoping someone would raise an objection and spare us from this nocturnal nightmare, but no one did. Minutes later, we had crossed the threshold into the Wovenvales and began prowling around in the darkness. We lit torches, which gave me some hope, but the shadows played wickedly among the rocks and plants, always eager to excite my already frayed nerves.

I will not describe to you, Dear Reader, everything we did or encountered during the night. Nor will I delve into the fearsome details of every spooky shadow or rustling branch. It was an eternity of terror for me as we followed the trail deeper and deeper into the forest. We were attacked multiple times by large groups of spiders, but my friends always managed to beat them off. In this manner, we made our way slowly but steadily forward. The night seemed endless.

After what must have been hours, we came upon an ancient ruin. There were webs everywhere among the stones, so we reasoned we must have been getting closer and extinguished our torches. Before long we spotted a large, swollen spider sitting alone in the moonlight and worrying over the body of some dead animal. It did not seem to have noticed us, so we crouched in the shrubbery to discuss the situation.

"Are you sure that's the spider-queen?" I whispered doubtfully. "It isn't half the size of Lebrennil. Remember? From the Old Forest?"

"True, but its poison could be more deadly," Nephyn reasoned. "And there are probably many other spiders near at hand; we should take care."

Quickly, we laid our plans for the attack. Drodie would charge the queen from the front while Lagodir and Gaelira would attempt to flank. Since it was too dark for archery, Nephyn would re-light two torches and wield them as close as practical, for we considered the light might confuse and weaken our foe. My assignment was to remain in the undergrowth and keep watch for any broodlings or other enemies which might counterattack us. I hunkered myself down and prepared to do my part. Then, on a sign from Gaelira, we launched our assault.

The plan worked brilliantly. No sooner had Drodie charged the spider-queen then Lagodir and Gaelira had taken up their positions on either side of her. Nephyn kindled her torches and shouted as she waved them about. Within seconds I was called upon to fulfill my role, for two fat-bodied spiders had begun descending from the trees above on their long, sticky threads and I had no doubt others were on their way. But our tactics had been well-laid: before the other two spiders even had a chance to reach us, Lagodir had lopped off one of the spider-queen's legs while Gaelira jabbed at it with her staff. Drodie smashed his shield into the matron's eyes then stabbed into the head several times before Lagodir rushed in and drove his broadsword full into her midsection. The queen was dead by the time her protectors had landed on the forest floor, and neither of them lasted long against our combined might either.

Almost the next thing I knew we were running from the ruins as fast as we could go in the darkness. Nephyn had thrown down her torches as we fled in hopes the light would attract any pursuers and keep them away from us. Indeed, even as we scrambled away I could hear a loud rush of skittering and I knew spiders by the hundreds were probably converging on their queen's corpse even now.

We stumbled on. We were still deep within the Wovenvales and we became unsure of the way out, but we doggedly trudged on. None of us spoke, for we knew the spider colony was likely not far off and would seize upon the slightest hint of our position. I fearfully wondered whether the spiders might be intelligent enough to try and seal off the one entrance we knew about with their webs. The night drug on. After what felt like hours of being hunted by swarms of bloodthirsty monsters, I was becoming nearly frantic.

"Where in the name of wonder has the Sun got to?" I hissed. "Surely something must have swallowed it?!" I felt a hand reassuringly placed on my shoulder.

"Look to the hills, my friend," came Gaelira's voice. "Dawn is indeed in the air."

I looked and, to my great relief, I saw the faintest outline of craggy hilltops high above me. It turned out the Sun was near its rising even as we spoke, but the mountainous country in these parts had obscured the telltale signs of morning's arrival. I breathed deeply and all my limbs felt lighter.

After that we went more swiftly and it was only another hour or so before we found the exit. Thoronoiel was waiting for us and was amazed to hear the tale of how skillfully we had disposed of the spider-queen. She then directed us to an Elven waypoint a ways south of our current position which was manned by an Elf named Barachen. We bid Thoroniel farewell and started to make our way thither. With the excitement and fear of the night behind us, I began to feel quite tired, but there was still some ways to go before we could camp for the night. As we walked, I became vaguely aware that something was nagging at me, but I couldn't quite figure out what it was.

"You are awfully quiet, Padryc," came the voice of Nephyn into the midst of my thoughts. "You've not said a word since we emerged from the Wovenvales, which is most unlike your usual, jovial self. Is anything the matter?"

"No," I said. "No, well, I mean, yes, I suppose there is, actually. We handled that spider-queen rather well, wouldn't you say?" Nephyn frowned but smiled at me.

"Well, yes," she said. "I would have to say we did. But what of that?"

"Oh, I don't know," I mumbled. "It's just... I was sort of expecting, don't you know, that I was going to have a bit more to do with it, is all."

"Ah, you are thinking of Mallacai's prophecy concerning you, is that it? But you played an important role for you let us know that the other large spiders were coming. They might have caught us unawares if it hadn't been for you."

"I suppose so," I said, rather doubtfully. "Is that what you think Mallacai meant by me learning my true value to the Company? To serve as a look-out?" I kicked a branch out of my way as I walked. Nephyn looked sidelong at me.

"Well, you can't put too much stock in prophecies and foretellings," she said, obviously trying a little too hard to cheer me up. "Who knows in what other ways you might prove your true worth? Besides, as far as I'm concerned, you have nothing to prove -- and I think I can safely say that I speak for the others as well. I wouldn't worry about it if I were you."

"Yes, you're right of course," I said, but my doubt remained. I decided to forget about it and started talking about the beauty of the countryside and the curious ways of trolls. But I did it only because I did not wish Nephyn to worry about me, not because I was heeding her advice.

It was another two hours before we finally reached Barachen's camp, by which time I was nearly asleep on my feet. While the others engaged in pleasantries with the Elf, I slung my pack to the ground and decided I was going straight to bed -- even without supper -- I was that tired! Still, I managed to make my daily record in this journal before nodding off. It was at that point I suddenly became aware that today marked the first month of my adventure with Elladan's Outriders.

And yet... as proud as I felt about that fact, my disappointment with myself continued to grow, not lessen. Once again I had proven myself to be little more than a piece of baggage in the course of the Company's exploits than anything remotely resembling a heroic figure. Had I failed at my task without even realizing it?