Monday, 1st of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Lhan Tarren, Somewhere in the Land of Dunland
|Elder Riagan of Lhan Tarren|
"We would do well to avoid any contact with the Dunlendings whatsoever," Lagodir was saying. "They are Wild Men, and not to be trusted."
"We have nothing to fear from a bunch of farmers and herdsmen," countered Drodie. "But they would have much to fear, should they choose to welcome us with weapons rather than words."
"You do not know these people as well as I," the Gondorian replied. "They are liars and traitors -- even to others among their own kind. They can be fierce in battle, but they will choose subterfuge rather than force, if they believe doing so will advance their cause of the moment."
"I think you speak from your own emnity, Lagodir," said Nephyn, her cheeks flushed with anger. "What harm have the Dunlendings ever done to Gondor? They have no reason to hate us."
"Their feud is chiefly with the Rohirrim, the allies of my people," answered Lagodir. "It is true that Gondor has never been at open war with the Men of Dunland; they were even once subjects of the Winged Crown, at least in word if not in heart. But rumours have come to us of their wrath from out of Rohan -- the hatred of the Dunlendings toward the Mark has not abated in half a thousand years, not since Cirion, the twelfth Steward of Gondor, giften Calenardhon to the Sons of Eorl."
"But there are no Rohirrim among us," I said. "What reason would these simple folk have to despise our little band? Surely there is something that passes for hospitality even among the people of this remote place." Lagodir sighed.
"Cirion's grant of land to the Eotheod was the beginning of the Dunlendings' displacement from their ancestral homelands," he said. "And so they blame my countrymen for precipitating their loss."
"Well, no one needs to know you're from Gondor, do they?" I asked. "And I can't imagine too many of your folk ever wander out this way."
"I have grown accustomed to obscuring my heritage after the disgraceful actions of my forebears," said Lagodir ruefully. "But my hesitance is borne of mistrust, not wounded pride. Still, I can see my words will not sway you. Very well, I shall follow the will of the Company, but I beg you to heed my warning: there is no honour to be found among the Dunlendings. The fewer dealings we have with them the better we shall fare here."
We did not debate the matter much beyond this, but there was an obvious (to me) reluctance to proceed with any haste from that point on. The morning was wearing away by the time we finally cleared our campsite and returned to the road. The village grew steadily nearer as we marched, and I felt as if we regarded it the same way it watched us -- with a leery wariness.
At last we drew near to the little bridge which spanned the river and led into the huts on the far side. There were not a large number of these, I counted only thirteen, but some two score of villagers had already begun to gather on the other bank. They were eyeing us with a wide range of emotions, everything from fear to hostility, I thought, but little more than a low murmur found its way across the water to our ears. Our Company stood there just off the road, awkwardly casting furtive glances and wondering how things would turn, when a tall and dark-skinned Man with a bushy brown beard stepped out from the crowd and motioned that we should follow him.
Cautiously, we crossed the narrow bridge and entered the village. The crowd shrank away from us as though in fear, but I could clearly see dislike in the stares of some. I kept looking from side to side and I think my discomfort was obvious to the onlookers. Gaelira kept her eyes on the back of our guide's feet and seemed to be paying respect to the inhabitants of that strange land. Drodie glowered threateningly toward one side and then the other while Nephyn looked as if she was trying to read the faces of each and every man, woman, and child that surrounded us. Lagodir, meanwhile, acted like royalty among insubordinate peasants as he strode imperiously through that little hamlet. We were led through the centre of town and past what must have been their little marketplace or common-grounds. An impressive totem of a deer's head made mostly of wood and stone, rose a good ten feet above us.
"These are tribesmen of the Stag-clan," Nephyn whispered to the rest of us, pointing to the totem as we passed beneath its gaze.
"What does that mean?" I whispered back. "Are they a friendly bunch or... not?" I got no answer.
It was only a brief trek to the rear of the village, and there we were met by an aged old Dunlending who was seated by a burning fire-pit. His colourful outfit and decorative feathers indicated he was someone of importance -- no doubt the leader of this small community. He had dark, leathery skin while his hair and beard were white and wild. He regarded us slowly with sable yet watery eyes. When he spoke, his voice sounded cracked and laboured, but it was clear to me there was still a good deal of life in that old frame. Our tall guide turned and vanished quickly into the crowd behind us, which had stopped following a short distance back, apparently so we could converse with the old man.
"Welcome to our home, strangers from afar," the wizened figure began. "I am Riagan, elder of Lhan Tarren. My people speak little but the various dialects of Dunland, so there is not much use in introducing you to them. My grandson, Guto, who led you to me just now, knows somewhat of your language, but he has now gone on his daily hunt." Each of us bowed to him with a few brief words of welcome except Lagodir, who remained stiff and silent.
"We thank you for your kind welcome, Elder Riagan," said Nephyn.
"You must forgive the curiosity of my people -- it is not often we see wanderers here out of the North-lands," Riagan continued. "What brings you to Lhan Tarren?"
"We are merely a group of friends," Gaelira replied, "And we seek another friend who resides somewhere in Dunland -- Edgerin, the lore-master of no little reputation, who was in Galtrev the last I had heard from him." The old man raised his eyebrows at us and looked very impressed.
"Oh! You seek that one, do you?" he said. "Then I wish you well in your search, brave ones, though it may be that your information concerning his whereabouts is antiquated. Still, I would not know myself, as I am too old to be out wandering among the rocks. But now, what would you have of me? We are a simple folk and have little to offer travelers in the ways of supplies or even counsel."
"We are fairly well provisioned, at least for now," Gaelira said, "And we mean to trade for more upon reaching Galtrev. But we wish for nothing from you or your folk other than safe and quiet crossing through these lands as we continue on our errand to Edgerin. We are the friends of all who do not wish us ill or seek to hinder our passage."
"You are well and fairly spoken," said Riagan with a nod to the she-Elf, "We have no desire to hinder your passage, but I do wonder... if you are friends to all as you say, then can you not tell me more of yourselves? What names should I give my people across whose lands you would sojourn?" I saw Lagodir make a fist with one hand, but he did not speak.
"It may be best if we were to keep our names to ourselves," said Gaelira cautiously, "At least so long as we stand within earshot of so many."
"Ah, yet now you speak not as a friend but as one who with something to hide," said Riagan with a slight smile. "I am blessed with no little amount of wisdom after all my long years on this earth, my friends, so I know well there are times to hold one's tongue, but this, I fear, cannot be one such. Yet I am not without my own store of knowledge: here we have a Dwarf from distant lands, another like him yet less in stature, a female of the Elder Kindred, and another who may have some Dunlendish blood in her, if my old eyes haven't completely failed me. And finally, we have what can only be a Gondorian -- his sea-grey eyes and proud bearing tell me as much on his account."
"I am Lagodir of Gondor, of the House of Turma," came the Man's clear voice. Gaelira sighed.
"And I am Gaelira of Rivendell. These others are Nephyn, huntress of the Bree-lands, Drodie of the Blue Mountains, and Padryc of the North, our companions."
"I see," said Riagan, his black eyes falling swiftly upon me. "And what land of the North do you call home, Friend Padryc?"
"He calls no single place home and has wandered much with us," Gaelira answered before I had a chance to speak. "Yet he, too, hails from Bree as much as anywhere." I shut my mouth quickly and swept my hat off in a courteous bow. I didn't know at that moment why Gaelira would choose to conceal my land of origin alone out of all of us, but I assumed she had a good reason.
"I thank you for your forthrightness," said Riagan with a sidelong glance at Lagodir. "Again, you must forgive my old ears, but did you say you count yourself the friend of any who do not hinder your errand? Then perhaps you would be willing to prove your goodwill by way of a... small matter that would greatly benefit my people."
"We would prove that we are no threat to you or your folk," said Gaelira. "Name your need, that we may attempt it." I saw Lagodir's jaw clench out of the corner of my eye.
"There is a terrible wolf-sire which makes his den near here," Riagan replied. "We call him Red-Eye, for his eyes burn with a love of killing. He and his pack have grown bolder of late and begun attacking us as we tend to our herds or harvest the wild turnips which grow amidst the crags. We have tried to trap or slay the thing ourselves, of course, but he is crafty. Surely a band of five great adventurers would have no difficulty with such a minor task."
"It would be our pleasure to assist the people of Lhan Tarren," said Gaelira with a bow. "We will depart at once, with your blessings upon us."
"Most certainly!" said Riagan as he stood to see us off. "We would be ever so grateful that such masterful travelers as yourselves would deign to assist us poor folk so. His den is just to the south of here, east of the road."
Riagan escorted us to the edge of his village. He spoke to the villagers briefly, and they seemed to understand that we would be aiding them, for their expressions changed to ones less hostile and I even caught a few smiles on some of their dirty faces. The five of us tried to grin and move quickly, so that we soon found ourselves back across the river. Once free of the throng, we breathed easier and set about our task without delay.
"Why did you do that Gaelira?" asked Lagodir as we walked. "The people of this land are fractious and petty. Moreover, we require nothing from them -- why get involved with them at all?"
"As an expression of goodwill," said Gaelira. "The errand will gain us at least a small amount of favour among the people of Lhan Tarren. But I would ask of you, Lagodir: why did you reveal your right name so readily? You know well we are being sought by the minions of both Inar and Amarthiel. It was most unwise."
"I have no desire to avoid conflict with the Men of Dunland through deceit," Lagodir responded, "Particularly since conflict with them is inevitable in any case. I have nothing to hide -- if they wish me or any of us harm because of our heritage, then I say let them attempt it. But they would pay dearly were they to do so." I shook my head but kept silent.
"I just hope we are not being led into a trap," said Drodie. "That old man seemed awfully deferential to a bunch of wandering vagabonds like us, especially in a land which is not known for being especially hospitable to outsiders."
"Yes, he was laying the charm on a bit thick," said Nephyn. "On the other hand, perhaps he really is only trying to protect his people from what he cannot, and he sees our arrival as an opportunity to remove this threat."
"Whatever his motivations," said Gaelira, "We have given our word and must now see it through. We've dealt with far worse than wolves on our journey -- this task should not delay us overmuch."
It turned out to delay us a few hours. Red-Eye proved an evasive quarry, and the day wore on without success. Where our efforts at tracking the beast failed, however, Nephyn was eventually able to bait it into one of her steel traps which crippled its right foreleg, and after that finishing the thing off was easy work. Drodie stripped the wolf of its pelt while the rest of the pack fled from us, then we washed our hands and weapons in the river, which was a short distance west of the road.
"Well, it was dirty work, but less dangerous than what we're used to," I said as I fanned myself with my hat. Being the first of Wedmath, the days were now hot and sticky, and the fact we had been moving south for weeks did not help. I scanned the countryside behind us. "You know, I might almost like this place if it weren't for all the rocks. And of course the locals could use some schooling in manners, but aside from -- DRODIE LOOK OUT!!!"
I had seen movement among the crags less than a stone's throw to my right. Suddenly, the shaggy head of a Dunlending appeared and hurdled a spear at Drodie's back! But the Dwarf was not one to be taken unawares: he spun around with his shield at the ready, and there was a loud clang as he deflected the missile. Instantly, the rest of our Company was on a battle-footing; steel rang and glinted in the Sun as we turned to meet the assault.
I counted eight Dunlendings, all of them dark-skinned, swarthy Men armed with spears, axes, and knives. They were fierce fighters, but they were no match for our skill and equipment. Nephyn shot one through the neck as they approached then slew another with the Sword of Ringdor as she engaged blade-to-blade. Two more fell to Lagodir's great, curved Elven-sword while Drodie hacked the arm from a fifth with his axe. Gaelira fended off two attackers with sword and staff before running one through. The remaining pair fled, but one took another of Nephyn's shafts in the back as he ran.
"Curse my shameful aim!" she cried as we ran up to check on this last. The arrow had pierced clean through his heart and the point was protruding from his breast; the ground was wet with blood. "I had meant only to strike his leg, but there was that sudden gust of wind just as I let fly. I had hoped we would be able to question this one and learn why they attacked us."
"Do not blame yourself," said Lagodir. "Dunlendings need no reason to attack anyone, even their own kin, warlike a people as they are. It seems clear to me this ambush was arranged -- we need only go and ask Elder Riagan why he tried to have his Men kill us."
"Do not be so hasty, Lagodir," scolded Gaelira as she bent down to examine the bodies. "You yourself have spoken of the fractious nature of those who inhabit this land, have you not? See here! These Men all bear the token of a dragon. I should think they belong to a rival clan, and quite possibly have nothing to do with Riagan whatsoever."
"That could be," said Nephyn through gritted teeth, "But it does not mean that they aren't working together to exterminate us. Lhan Tarren is a small village -- I think we should go back there and tell the elder what happened to us. His reaction may tell us much."
We all agreed to this course of action. The bodies of the slain we dragged to an obscure spot near some rocky outcroppings and there we did our best to bury them. We also took the dragon-tokens from their raiment as proof of our encounter. By the time we finally reached Lhan Tarren, it was late into the afternoon. The villagers' standoffishness had thawed noticeably upon our return, but the crowd was still fairly quiet as we were led back to Riagan's hut. He was overjoyed when we presented him with the pelt of Red-Eye and seemed genuinely grateful for our work.
"We thank you for your praise, Elder," said Gaelira with a stern face. "But now we must speak of difficult matters. We were attacked at unawares while we returned, and it is only through good fortune that all five of us stand here before you now. Tell me, what is the meaning of these?" She threw the dragon-tokens at Riagan's feet, who stooped and squinted as he examined them closely.
"Oh, my!" the old man exclaimed. "These are the marks of the Dragon-clan! Don't tell me the Dragons attacked you? I had no idea they had come so far west, and I would have warned you had I known. This is terrible news! Our families in the Herd-lands could be in great danger!"
"One thing at a time," said Lagodir, not even bothering to be polite. "Who are the Dragon-clan and what relation have they to you?"
"The Dragons are the most warlike of all the disparate peoples of Dunland," Riagan explained. "They take what they want from the other tribes without thought or recompense. Women, cattle, land... nothing has ever been safe from them, but lately things have gotten far worse. And now! To know they have come into the lands of the Stag... this is terrible, terrible..."
"I am sorry to hear of this," said Gaelira guardedly, "After all, I would hate to think that you sent us to hunt Red-Eye only as a ruse for having us ambushed."
"What? Oh, no! No, no, no!" Riagan quailed. "Certainly not! Mercy, my brave friends, I beg you do not think ill of me or my people! Such treachery was never in my mind. But now, though it pains me to ask it, I must seek your aid a second time."
"So you can lead us into another trap?" Lagodir snapped. "What sort of fools do you take us for?"
"Please, please, hear me," Riagan grovelled. "I understand your mistrust, really I do! But I have no choice -- the Herd-lands, our cattle-studs to the south, are where the homes of many of the Stag-clan stand. My people have many, many relatives there and they are defenceless! Normally we would have had word of this invasion from our trained crebain, but somehow the Dragons have kept their movements hidden from us and so we were unable to warn our families. They are in great danger!"
"Then send some of your own people to warn them," growled Drodie.
"I would, I would, of course, Master Dwarf," Riagan pleaded, "But we do not have the numbers or the weapons to do this if the Dragon-clan has already attacked the Herd-lands. We would be slaughtered! Do you understand why I must ask this boon of you, despite your warranted mistrust of me and my folk?" None of us spoke for a time.
"I suppose I do understand," Gaelira sighed. "I do not think you could have arranged for two ambushes so quickly, and we have already proven our mettle against the Dragon-clan once."
"Gaelira, it is madness to trust this old fool!" cried Lagodir. "He has already led us into one trap, and he will continue to do so as long as our idealism permits him. Killing wild beasts is one thing -- I do not wish to get involved in the petty squabbles of these lesser Men." I feared Riagan would take offence at Lagodir's harsh words, but if so he did not show it.
"Come, let us discuss this matter among ourselves," said Nephyn. "After all, we do have our own business to which we must attend, Elder. We will decide whether this is worth our delay."
Riagan nodded and withdrew so that we could converse as a group without being overheard. It was not a long discussion, the upshot being that Gaelira, Nephyn, and I believed the people of Lhan Tarren were not hostile (even if they weren't exactly friendly) and genuinely needed our help while Lagodir spoke sternly against getting involved. Drodie, uncharacteristically, considered it an opportunity to make at least a few friends in a land swarming with potential enemies, and so he, too, was in favour of aiding the Stag-clan. We announced our intention to Riagan, who was overjoyed. Even the people of Lhan Tarren seemed to warm to us once their elder had conveyed the news to them in their own tongue, but there were several who seemed frightened, presumably at the news of the Dragons' encroachment and that their families away south were in danger.
Very soon, we were back across the river and following the road south, where Riagan had told us we would find the Herd-lands. We marched at a fast pace, for the day was quickly waning.
"Lagodir, I wouldn't have thought you one to deny aid to those in need," I said gingerly. I felt the whole episode since arriving at Lhan Tarren was creating tension within the Company, and I was always eager to diffuse such situations when possible.
"I am not convinced they are in need," Lagodir said. "More likely this elder of theirs is simply playing on our own elevated sense of nobility to lure us into one trap after another. It is the way of his kind."
"You seem awfully convinced that all Dunlendings are the same," said Nephyn as she walked nearby. "Did it never occur to you that perhaps not all Dunlendings think alike simply because they all live in Dunland?"
"No," the Gondorian answered tersely. "I have heard enough about the Dunlendings for my liking from the Rohirrim, true allies of Gondor, and seen them in battle on the plains of the Westfold. If the Stag-clan are indeed not of the same mind as the rest of their kin, then they are so small a faction as to not matter. How are we to know their intentions? You heard them speaking among themselves back there -- we do not even know what they were saying to one another. Like as not they were plotting to follow us and attack from the rear once the Sun sets."
"I can tell you they weren't, as it happens," said Nephyn emphatically. We all looked at her.
"And how would you know that?" asked Lagodir. "It seems Riagan is the only one among them who speaks the Common Tongue. I certainly could not make out their words to each other."
"Because -- Because I can understand their language -- a bit," Nephyn stammered.
"You?" exclaimed Lagodir in amazement. "How? Why?"
"I... well, I -- I had some spare time during our stays in Rivendell," she replied, "And I... thought I might try and spend it well, so I picked up some basics. Just words and phrases, you understand."
"And what do you think the people of Lhan Tarren were saying back there?" I asked.
"I caught the words for family or tribe," she said. "As well as farms. It was all rather rushed and not meant to be overheard. Anyway, I don't think they were plotting anything -- they were simply concerned that their friends and families might be in danger."
"I hope you are right," said Lagodir, and the conversation ended at that point.
The Sun was setting by the time we reached the Herd-lands. It was a rough country between the river to our right and some rocky hills to our left which was divided into small farms by low walls made of piled stone. Elder Riagan's fears turned out to be well-founded as the place was partially on fire and completely overrun by combative Dunlendings, all of whom bore the mark of the Dragon-clan. We made up our minds to avoid them at all costs and search for survivors of the apparent raid, but we found only dead farmers and their families, cruelly hewn down by their own countrymen. Nephyn was quite distressed over this while Lagodir simply raised his nose at the whole affair, although he was finally willing to admit that Riagan's people were the victims here and not trying to trick us into another ambush.
There were far too many Dragon-clan warriors for us to deal with on our own, so we stealthily withdrew and returned to Lhan Tarren. Elder Riagan was devastated to hear about the Herd-lands and seemed at a loss as to how he and his folk might respond to the travesty. For our part, we tried to counsel him as best we could, but the ways of Dunland were little known to us. More importantly, we felt it was well past time for us to be heading on -- not a one of us liked the idea of spending the night in that village after what had happened that day, even if the locals had been inclined to allow it.
We parted from Riagan and the villagers on good terms, but it hurt me to see the women and young children weeping as they were told the news about their families. Not a one among our Company was sad to put Lhan Tarren behind us as we struck out south and east. We continued on in the dimness of the setting Sun for a few hours before finally making camp in a small space between some boulders that was well hidden by several shrubs and low trees.
"Whew, am I glad that's over!" I panted as we settled down and began to prepare supper. It would end up being a cold one since we all agreed that lighting a fire was not advisable considering the day's events. "This land is as confusing as it is dangerous! I had no idea that Dunland was so divided -- it's a good thing we got out of there without being dragged in any more than we were."
"My thoughts exactly," said Lagodir grimly. "I am pleased to have been proved wrong about the elder's intentions, but I hope now you realize why I warned you all against getting involved."
"That said, there can be no question we accomplished some good this day," said Nephyn. "Who knows what might be the results of our actions later? I think we must continue to hold out hope that we can make a difference for good in this world, or else all of this has been in vain. Apparently the Stag-clan is one of the weaker tribes in Dunland, so we have at least done them some small service this day."
"I cannot argue that point, I suppose," said Lagodir. "But what now? Where are we headed, Gaelira?"
"In another day's march or so we should reach Glatrev," Gaelira replied as she pointed to the south-east. "That is the largest settlement in Dunland, and a major cross-roads for those few outlanders who journey here. I suspect we will find all manner of strange folk in that town, and we should be ready for anything."
"Will we also find this contact of yours there?" I asked. "What was his name again? Edgerin? You have not spoken much of him before today."
"It also sounded to me as though you were not certain where to find him," said Nephyn with a raised eyebrow. "I said nothing at the time because we were dealing with Elder Riagan, but I do hope you have some idea of where to locate this ex-Seeker of yours."
"I only know what I knew the last time I visited him," said Gaelira, "And that was many long years ago. In truth, I do not know where he might be now -- I fear this is going to involve some trial and error."
"Wonderful," I sighed. "Searching for a Dunlending in a land full of Dunlendings, large numbers of whom would be happy to chop us up into tiny pieces as soon as wish us a good morning -- what could go wrong?"
"Edgerin is not a Dunlending," said Gaelira. "He is of the race of Man, and he is well advanced in years for his kind, so far as I can tell, but he has lived long in this land and sees much that others miss. He may have knowledge of Mallacai or his passing, but more importantly he knows as much about Inar than anyone else I can think of -- at least among those I would trust. I cannot say for certain, but he might even be able to help us in dealing with Izarrair as well, perhaps."
"That sounds more hopeful," I admitted, "So long as we can find this chap sometime before winter sets in. I can't say I fancy the idea of hunting your elusive friend throughout the whole length of -- Drodie, I thought we said we weren't going to be making a fire tonight?"
"We aren't, and I haven't," said the Dwarf, who had been mending a torn corner of his traveling pack.
"Then why do I smell ashes?" I asked as I jumped to my feet. The others also immediately went on the alert. We began searching the ground and it only took a few minutes to locate the source of the odour.
"Here!" said Drodie as he pointed. "Just under the edge of this boulder -- you can see where someone made a campfire to screen in from the wind. Then they scattered the ashes when they moved on."
"And these ashes are still warm," Lagodir observed as he ran his hand through the remains. "It is so dark that we did not see it at first." He grasped a small object from the ground and peered at it closely in the dying light.
"Hum, so we are not the only travelers in this land," I said. "I guess that just means we should be sure to set the watch, but of course we were going to do that anyway. I don't suppose it necessarily means anything good or bad."
"But this might," said Lagodir, and he held up the object he had retrieved from the fire for the rest of us to see. It was a partially burned piece of heavy parchment and the lettering was written in a bold hand, as if it were meant to be seen from a distance. This is what we read:
NOTICE OF BOUNTY for
20 silver pieces for information
300 silver pieces for the Halfling
100 silver pieces for each in his Company
Inquire at the Galtrev Trading Post
WANTED LIVING OR DEAD
We gaped in silence. A crow cawed overhead as it fluttered southward on the night air.