Sunday, 26th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Refuge of Gath Forthnir, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
As you can imagine, I was excited when I heard from the sentries that my companions were on their way back. Yet, when they re-entered the caverns I could see from their faces they had no more luck today than they had the day before in identifying a reliable method of entry into the fortress of Mordirith.
Dinner was a gloomy affair with tensions running high among ourselves in the face of our repeated failure to make any headway in our quest. Finally, Lagodir (who had been uncharacteristically quiet, even for him) put down his tankard and looked at us all with an expression as though he had reached some sort of important decision. We all stopped what we were doing in anticipation, for it seemed plain the Gondorian wished to speak what was on his mind.
"I may have a plan: a way which might acquire the information needed that could lead us into Carn Dum," he said. "But you will have to hear me out."
"I am always willing to hear you out," I said, "But there were an awful lot of mays, mights, and coulds in that statement of yours. What did you have in mind?"
"I think we could get the Lossoth-witch to tell us how to enter the fortress," he replied. Nephyn spit out her ale while Drodie laughed so hard he choked on his boar-steak and had to be pounded on the back until it was dislodged from his throat.
"The Man's gone mad!" Drodie cried as he washed the debris down with a pull from his mug. "I don't know whether it's the close quarters or the lousy food, but clearly he has lost his wits!"
"I'm afraid I must agree with the Dwarf," said Nephyn as she eyed Lagodir cautiously. "What in Middle-earth makes you think that one would divulge such sensitive information to us, assuming she even has it? And just how do you propose to find her?"
"As to the first --" Gaelira and I said at exactly the same time before we both stopped in deference to the other. The Elf smiled at me and nodded, giving me permission to speak.
"Erm, as to the first point," I said meekly, "I think I can hazard a guess. Remember what Lagodir told us yesterday? About there being factions within the Enemy's ranks which tend to conspire against one another? And about how the Lossoth, these Ice-folk from up north-a-ways, aren't so fond of this False King, as they call him? Well, it seems to me we might be able to use that to our advantage, you know -- the enemy of my enemy is my friend, or something like that?"
"May-be," grumbled Drodie with a gleam in his eye, "But one thing we know for certain is that these Lossoth wenches are no friends of ours. And, among my people, we consider the enemy of ourselves to always be our enemy."
"How is it the Dwarves have never come to be known for their piercing intellectual treatesies?" asked Gaelira with a roll of her eyes. "'Tis a mystery which may never be solved." Drodie's response was to send an especially loud belch in her general direction, the odour of which I think caused the Elf's eyes to go watery for a moment. I later noticed Gaelira tended to not criticize him as much from that time forward. At least, not during meals.
"It is a risky proposition, I grant you," said Lagodir grimly, "But I would not offer it as a potential course of action unless I truly believed it might yield fruit. Consider: at the base of everything, both we and the Lossoth-women want the same thing, and that is Mordirith overthrown. As to whether she would know a way in -- if I am remotely correct in thinking Guloth and his minions were planning to usurp the False King, then surely they must have scried a path for the very same purpose as ours which they intended to use themselves. What say you all?"
"I hate the delays we have suffered in this land," said Gaelira. "And I suspect it is the will of the Enemy that we are stymied so. I will support your plan, Lagodir, for I believe you are right in your assessment of our adversaries and that we can use their own hatred against them to great effect."
"I do not support this idea," said Nephyn with flushed cheeks. "Not unless I am out-voted by the Company. We have already seen what those two are capable of, nor have we any idea how many other minions they may have at their command. We have already seen what our adventures have brought upon poor Areneth, may he rest in peace, and was not the secret of Gath Forthnir itself very nearly betrayed by our coming here? To willingly seek out our foes is to walk into a trap, I say."
"For myself," said Drodie as he absent-mindedly picked at his teeth, "I would normally not care if we did charge headlong into a trap -- so much the more glory to he who overcomes it through wit and through strength! But, as I have just recently been reminded how short on wit I am, I shall have to vote against this ridiculous ploy, which is just too complicated for my poor, addled little mind to comprehend." He shot an acid sneer at Gaelira, but she ignored him and turned to me.
"That makes two votes in favour and two against," she said. "I'm afraid you will have to decide the matter, Master Padryc."
"Oh, bother!" I exclaimed. "Why do I always have to be last? Very well: I say we should do it. Quite apart from the fact we've tried three times without success to find a path into Carn Dum, I think the manner in which Lagodir and Gaelira have explained the behaviour of the Enemy's servants actually does make sense -- in it's own weird, convoluted sort of way. Besides, I can't deny I'd actually feel better knowing just where those two are and what they are up to: better that than worrying every moment about them sticking a knife in your back when you've more than enough to worry about what's in front of you!"
"Then it is settled," said Gaelira as she rose from the table. "We will depart at first light."
"Ah, but where do we look?" asked Nephyn, clearly dismayed about the how the vote had turned. "Does anyone have an idea?"
"I think we do," answered Lagodir. "According to Skullyg the goblin, the Lossoth-witch meant to form an alliance with the one called Oakheart, and they went (presumably to discuss the particulars of their arrangement) within Barad Gularan. I do not propose we enter that vile place, but I do not think the Lossoth will remain there any longer than need forces them to. We should begin our search there."
It's an odd thing how, even though half the Company did not get the outcome they voted for, everyone instantly felt better about having decided upon a way forward. Tempers cooled, and each of us went about the business of preparing ourselves for the hunt, which would begin first thing in the morning. I spent my last waking moments thinking about Wenhair -- how we had met her in the dungeons of Sarnur and how she had betrayed us, kidnapping Lagodir and leading us on a chase throughout the snowy hills of Ered Luin. It was her mother, the witch, we were seeking this time, but I thought it very likely the daughter would be close by. I wondered too, whether Nephyn might fulfill any of her several vows of vengeance should we encounter her.
Monday, 27th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
I was up and alert early today, as if I somehow knew this day was going to be important. We five assembled ourselves, checked over our supplies, and went to say farewell to Maerchiniath and thank him for his hospitality. We did not intend to leave Gath Forthnir forever, of course, but we had no idea how long it might take to find our intended target, and so we were prepared for at least a week's journey. I had stashed a good supply of milkthistle into my pack (with the permission and blessing of Lunathron, of course), just in case it might be needed.
We departed just after sunrise, making our way down the steep slope which ran away from the entrance to the Rangers' hidden refuge and skirting the pool which lay at the bottom. We passed quickly and quietly, for we remembered the way to Barad Gularan from our last journey to that place. All the land around us seemed hushed and quiet, as if waiting in expectation.
It was barely past the third hour from dawn when we came to the outskirts of the evil tower. Although there had been no sign of them when we set out, rain clouds had begun to race up from the east and blanket the sky. Thunder rumbled loudly and lightning flickered in the distance, but the rain did not come just yet. Despite the deepening gloom, the five of us made sure to keep well out of sight, for anything was an easy mark in that land, with naught to conceal you except bare rock and the general darkness. Rather than go straight toward the tower itself, we decided to circle it and look down upon it from the hillsides in the hopes of spotting anything which might indicate where our target had gone.
It was dangerous work. Nephyn led us up crumbling pathways and steep inclines which took us well up the side of the mountains. Barad Gularan, which sat at the bottom of a valley about a hundred feet below us, was illuminated by numerous bonfires and torches from every side, but we saw nothing which would give us a clue as to where Oakheart or the Lossoth-witch might be now.
But then Nephyn gave a muffled cry. She pulled us all down behind a boulder and pointed silently ahead of us and downward. We all peeped out from behind the rock and scanned the hillside. Suddenly, I saw it: facing away from us and hunched on a shallow precipice about a dozen feet below overlooking the valley was the figure of a Woman. I instantly recognized the foreign garb, even from behind: it was Wenhair. We spoke among ourselves in the quietest of whispers. Despite the constantly whipping winds of Angmar and the impending thunderstorm, we knew the Woman had exceptional hearing and all the skills of a lifelong student of the hunt.
"It is Wenhair," said Lagodir. "Of that there can be no doubt."
"Shall I shoot her?" asked Nephyn, her hands already straying to her bow and quiver. "Will we ever get another such opportunity, do you think?"
"No, we are after the mother, not this one," whispered Gaelira. "Surely Wenhair can lead us to her." Nephyn signed audibly, but relented.
"But what do we do?" I asked. "I doubt she'll take us wherever we want to go just because we ask nicely."
"Let me have a go at that," answered Lagodir. "She may still believe that I am her lord, Guloth, reincarnate."
"You really think she believes that nonsense?" I asked.
"If not, we will soon know," came his reply. "And then, I suppose, we shall have to resort to force."
It turned out there was a narrow path which led (somewhat indirectly) from where we were down to where Wenhair was keeping her vigil. We crept as quietly as we could down that way until we were within earshot. Lagodir drew himself up and once more assumed the character of "Guloth," the wraith-lord.
"Slave!" he called to the Woman in his strangled, play-acting voice. "Thy master is here!"
Wenhair jumped and whirled around. She seemed genuinely surprised (and pleased) to see Lagodir, but she eyed the rest of us darkly.
"Lord Guloth!" she gushed in her pathetic and sickening manner. "I am humbled by your presence! But... how came you here? And what are these others...?"
"Fools!" roared Lagodir. As if in answer to his mock-rage, a terrific thunder-bolt wracked the heavens just at that moment and rain began to fall. "Fools and insubordinates surround me! Must I always be questioned by my own servants at every turn? Thy snivelling accomplice, the goblin called Skullyg, dared to question me also. His head now lieth at the bottom of a lake and his corpse rotteth in the Sun -- a feast for maggots and crawling things, and no better than he deserved. Must I treat likewise with thee?" Wenhair cowered to her knees and dared not even to look up at Lagodir for some time. The rest of us simply held our tongues and let Lagodir do his work.
"Of course not, Master!" she cried. "Forgive my impudence! It is only my great devotion to you which makes me seek the destruction of all your foes."
"Yes, yes," answered Lagodir blithely. "Well do I know thy loyalty, slave. Know that I have turned these four to my service through use of the dark arts I learned under tutelage of the Witch-king himself within the halls of Minas Morgul. This is knowledge far above thy station, thrall, but thy neck I spare for now, as I require thy services. Thou shalt take me to thy mother at once."
"As you command, milord," she said as she scraped past Lagodir and began to lead the way eastward. The rest of us followed in silence, but I could plainly see Nephyn's eyes burning with a hatred and rage that could not be missed by anyone. I subtly gave her hand a squeeze as if to tell her to calm down. Her own hand was noticeably trembling.
"The way to my mother is difficult and fraught with danger," I heard Wenhair calling back to Lagodir as she led the way out in front. "But I shall lead you and your new followers aright. Follow me!"
"I don't believe for an instant that Woman actually still thinks Lagodir is her wraith-master," Nephyn whispered to me through clenched teeth. "This feels too much like a trap."
"At least this time we have the advantage of knowing we cannot trust her," I whispered back. "Just remember our larger goal and we'll both keep our eyes peeled."
"Fine," she replied, and then the faintest smile began to grow on her lips. "But I'm not rubbing Lagodir's feet or anything -- even if I am supposed to be his 'slave!'"
The paths by which Wenhair led us were dangerous and long indeed. We remained high up on the mountainsides where the road was often little more than a three-foot wide rock-shelf with a deathly plunge to our right. We climbed and dipped, wound and turned for hours and hours; all the while the cold rain pelted us mercilessly and the wind threatened to blow us off the rocks to our doom. Every now and then I'd sneak a look back at Barad Gularan as the awful tower slowly receded into the mists, but I hadn't the slightest idea where the Lossoth-woman was leading us.
After what seemed like ages (it was by this time roughly three in the afternoon), we began to descend. The rain was still falling, though the thunder and lightning appeared to have moved on. We were all positively sopping, but no one dared speak a word, for it seemed Wenhair really did still believe Lagodir was her old master and none of us wished to endanger that advantage. I wondered how long the ruse would last and whether the witch, too, might be taken in by it. I figured whatever was going to happen would happen and we would have to deal with it as it occurred, so I turned my attention to my surroundings. There wasn't much to see that I hadn't been seeing for hours, and I couldn't see far ahead of us anyhow for being so much shorter than everyone else.
But then, quite suddenly, we emerged from between two tall rocks as a grand and terrible vista spread before us. It was a wide salt-plain, ashen-grey and all blasted as if by a purifying fire. We were in a valley amidst mountainous walls on all sides, and at last the rain had slackened considerably but then I became terribly cold and shivered in my wet garments. Yet, I scarcely noticed any of these things, for I was consumed with what lay at the bottom of that valley in its very centre.
It was an enormous stone disk, like a giant dinner-plate, all written with huge and cryptic runes. It was surrounded by eerie obelisks and other stone structures as well, but those all felt like afterthoughts -- like monuments built in honour of the great monument in the centre. It came to me suddenly that the disk was not a plate or an altar, but a lid, though I don't know how I came to suspect this. And then I saw that the disk was rent: there was a massive crack in the stone on the near side and a depression in the sand which led down into that rift -- down into the earth itself. As I surveyed that awesome sight, a wave of terror swept over me, though I knew no reason for it. As far as I could see, there was no living thing in that valley except the six of us.
Wenhair brought us about two dozen paces from the disk, then placed her hands to her mouth and emitted a strange, guttural call. There was no immediate answer, but the feeling was steadily growing in me that I wished very much to leave that place. Just when I thought I could stand the silence no longer, I noticed a figure appear a short distance off from within a small copse of withered trees. As it drew nearer, I saw that it was a Woman, though she was tall and dark-skinned. In fact, if it weren't for her outlandish attire, I might have thought it was Nephyn from that distance. But the garb was all strange: this Woman wore many furs, and trinkets of bone, iron, and gold jangled from virtually everywhere. On her head was the skull of a bear, and her body was covered in frightening marks or signs. She bore also a wooden staff reinforced with iron, and at her belt was a wicked-looking shortsword like to the pair her daughter wielded -- stubby, but with a viciously sharp edge and carved with many runes.
When she had closed within a few paces, she looked us over in silence, most especially at Lagodir. Then she quickly turned to Wenhair.
"Daughter," she said in a voice which was deeper than any Woman's I had ever heard, "Leave us. Return to the mountain-passes and ensure we are not disturbed."
"But mother..." Wenhair began.
"Do as I say!" snapped the witch. Wenhair quickly bowed her head and ran off to her appointed duty.
"Now then, my lord Guloth," she said with an obvious sneer. "How may I serve you?" She gave Lagodir a deliberately off-balance courtesy and laughed aloud. It was clear our ruse had run its course.
"Well! At least that silly pretense is over," I said with a sigh, not caring who heard me. "Now can we get what we came for and be gone from here, please?"
"I hope we all get what we came for," said Drodie darkly as he eyed the witch and gripped his axe-haft.
"I could have had you all slain long ago," the Woman replied, "If I had thought it worth my time and effort. You are nothing more than impudent children, caught up in matters far beyond the reach of your thought! Still, I find your persistence entertaining -- especially this absurd trick of pretending to be Guloth returned."
"We both know Guloth is gone from this world," said Lagodir quietly. "Despite your best efforts, he is destroyed while I yet live. Twice now have you sought to harm our Company, and twice have we thwarted your designs. Still, I come to you openly now, for we are in need of aid. We wish to strike at Mordirith, the Steward of Angmar." That title seemed to infuriate the witch.
"The False King!" she screamed. "He is steward of nothing -- he whose is the rule of Angmar by right would never grant such authority to a weakling like that one! A Southron and usurper!"
"We would challenge the False King," Lagodir continued, unswerving. "But we require entrance into his city. I know you can help us in this task, for you wish to see him destroyed as much as we do."
"That much may be true," she said, "But what makes you think mere mortals have any chance of success?"
"Not all of us are mortals," said Gaelira.
"Oh, yes, you have your dear failure of a lore-master with you! How are Glorwen and Aeglas, my lady?" the witch laughed cruelly.
"They are better than they would have been, had I truly failed," answered Gaelira.
"Show me, then, the power of the Elves!"
The witch flung herself at Gaelira, weapons drawn! The rest of us instinctively backed away and, though we drew our weapons, there was no opportunity to help our friend, for the battle raged at a pace that none of us could follow. Gaelira was the very picture of grace and skill, but the witch fought with a ferocity and a power as though she had suddenly transformed into an animal. Staves clashed and blades rang as the two fought in the light rain. Suddenly, the witch's staff caught Gaelira behind the knees, and she lost her footing. The next thing any of us knew, our friend was on the earth with the witch standing over her in triumph, the end of her staff pointed at Gaelira's breast.
"So much for the skill of the Eldar!" she laughed. "If this is all you can offer, then your quest is hopeless, and no aid shall you receive from me."
"Idiot!" cried Nephyn as she swept out her sword. "We do not plan to break into Carn Dum and challenge Mordirith to the mock-battles of children! He shall face the five of us together, and together we are more than a match for him -- or you, for that matter! Now let Gaelira go."
"Let her go?" mocked the witch. "Let her go?! I would expect no less from a starry-eyed Dunlending mongrel-whelp! Ah, but this should not be the mock-battle of children, as you say, yes? I have defeated this one in single combat, and so her life is MINE!" With her left hand she swept out her shortsword and raised it as she prepared to slash Gaelira's throat.
"Never!" Nephyn threw herself forward and parried the witch's blade with the Sword of Ringdor. Gaelira was able to roll away to safety, and a second battle commenced. Drodie and I tried to come to Nephyn's aid, but Lagodir held us back.
"No!" he said sternly. "We must not interfere! The witch is testing our strength in the way of her people. If we can best her, she will freely tell us all we wish to know, but if we try to make her through force, she will die before she tells us anything." I gritted my teeth in frustration, but I held my ground.
Nephyn and the witch were a whirlwind of fury, their blades singing as they each swung at the other. I looked quickly over my shoulder, afraid the noise might bring Wenhair down from her post, but there was no sign of the daughter. My heart was racing as I watched the contest: Nephyn appeared to be at an immediate disadvantage with her single sword while the witch attacked with staff and blade, but it quickly became clear the blade was too short to be of much use against the longer Sword of Ringdor. It seemed to me the witch soon became frustrated as she bared her teeth and began swinging harder than ever.
Then, the witch snarled aloud and made a hard thrust with her shortsword at Nephyn's mid-section, but the huntress slipped to one side and struck the shamaness full in the face with the pommel of her sword! The witch staggered back, dropping her blade, and clutching at her nose. Nephyn quickly followed by grabbing the witch's hair and pulling her head downward while driving a knee into her face. As the sorceress fell to the ground, she reached for her short sword, but Nephyn planted her foot on the witch's wrist, then parried the staff one last time. The Sword of Ringdor swept back and came to rest at the tattooed throat. The battle was over.
Nephyn and her adversary were both breathing heavily and their sweat was mixed with the still-falling rain. I stood there in amazement, too stunned to cheer (which I certainly felt like doing). I wondered if the witch would acknowledge her defeat, or whether she would try some trick on us out of envy and revenge. Instead, she only eyed Nephyn searchingly.
"Perhaps Guloth was right and the Age of Man is truly upon us," said the witch. "I yield my life to you -- pray, make my end swift."
It seemed like the only sensible course of action would be to slay this evil, scheming Woman. I held my breath, wondering what Nephyn would do. No one spoke.
"You speak to Nephyn the Merciful," the huntress said at last. "I once very nearly ended the life of another of Angmar's thralls, but she was a slave against her will. I do not know whether that is the case with you, witch, but I spare you your life in the hopes that you will have the opportunity to freely decide that for yourself. Nonetheless, you will drop your weapons, and you will serve me your life-debt by telling us how we can enter Carn Dum."
The witch relaxed her grip and the staff fell from her hand. Lagodir quickly swept it up along with her blade, and Nephyn allowed her to stand. She stood a few paces off from us, her eyes blazing with hatred and shame. Blood was streaming from her nose and dripped frequently onto the gravel at her feet, but she didn't seem to notice her hurts at all, so intently was she staring at each of us in turn.
"There are no safe paths into Carn Dum," she said through clenched teeth. "Even if you managed to breach the outer defences, you have no concept of the torment that awaits within those walls."
"All the same," said Lagodir, "We mean to attempt it. If you truly wish to see Mordirith thrown down, what other chance do you think you shall have while your life lasts to see it done?"
The witch shifted her weight and seemed to calm herself a little.
"Perhaps," she said, in an almost toying manner. "Urugarth may serve."
"Who or what is Urugarth?" Nephyn asked her.
"It is a place -- a breeding ground for Angmar's Orcs," came the reply.
"What?!" I cried. "Don't listen to her! This is just another trap."
"There are paths from Urugarth which lead beneath Carn Dum," she said. "You would be least expected there -- but of course this road will not be without its own dangers."
"Then we must attempt it," said Gaelira. "Show us where to find this entrance."
The witch made a series of marks on Nephyn's map, then turned to leave.
"I have one other question for you," Nephyn called after her. The witch stopped, but did not turn back. "How do you know I am the half-breed of a Dunlending?"
"My debt was to tell you of the passages into Carn Dum," the witch answered. "Nothing more do I owe you, Southron. Now leave me to my shame." She blew a high, piercing note upon a small horn of bone as she shuffled away, and soon she was gone from our sight. Lagodir took her staff and blade and tossed them down into the rift which clove into that huge stone disk nearby. I heard them clatter and clank as they fell before coming to rest at an unknown depth.
"Let her search for her tools down there, if she dares," said Lagodir. "I cannot express how glad I am that our little gambit has paid off, though it sounds as if even greater dangers await us in Urugarth."
"You speak for me as well," I said. "And Urugarth or no Urugarth, at least those two won't be harassing us on the way there, or so it appears for now. Thanks to Nephyn."
"It was a near thing," the huntress said with a sigh. "I'm fortunate that Gaelira had sapped some of her energy during her own battle with the witch, or things might have turned out very differently."
"What did you have to go and spare her for?" asked Drodie. "Had you taken her head it would have been one less trouble-maker to worry about, if you ask me."
"Chide her not," scolded Lagodir, "For 'twas well done. Who can say to what good cause a spared life might be put?"
"Nephyn the Merciful?" I laughed. "When-abouts did you come up with that?"
"Somewhere in the Trollshaws, I think," said Nephyn as she blushed a deep crimson. "It sort of... in the heat of the moment..."
"No, no!" I said, "It suits you fine! A bit dramatic, perhaps, but then I suppose you earned it, right enough. And Gaelira! There was no time to ask, but are you all right? Were you hurt?"
"No, only my pride," the Elf replied. "Or it would have been, if I had any pride left. Personally, I find a good dose of humility and having little pride available to defend has helped me make much wiser decisions in life."
"Well, if we're all whole and hale," I said, "Are there any objections to us getting away from here?"
"You'll get no objection from me," said Drodie with a sidelong glance at the great disk.
"Nor me," said Lagodir quietly. "I know not where we are, but I do not like the feel of this place."
"Yes, we have lingered here longer than was wise," said Gaelira. "Let us go."
We departed by the way we came in. We were prepared to pretend Lagodir was "Guloth" again, but there was no sign of Wenhair at the peak of the ridge.
"The Woman makes an unreliable sentry," observed Drodie as we passed.
"More likely that horn-call was meant to summon her to her mother's side," answered Gaelira. "There is no telling where they may go or what they may plot, but for ourselves we have restored our hope and found a new way forward."
The journey back to Gath Forthnir was long and dull (unless you count the dozen or so times I thought I was going to get blown off the side of the mountain), and it was well after sundown by the time we returned there. We were welcomed back by the Rangers, but we kept the day's tale to ourselves and only said we had been out hunting for more milkthistle to replenish the refuge's stock (I sheepishly offered Lunathorn's own store I had taken earlier as evidence). I have my doubts that this simplistic excuse was widely accepted by the Rangers, but no one pressed us for details, either.
I am totally exhausted as I lie here trying to scratch out today's adventure. It seems all our trails and trials have led us to this moment -- this time, where we will finally enter the stronghold of the Enemy! I don't mind admitting that I'm scared out of my wits, but whatever tomorrow brings, I will face it as a free hobbit with my family at my side.