Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 56

The Room of Rest

Sterday, 23rd of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell
Lagodir's bed in the Room of Rest
I'm told I slept straight through to the next afternoon as if I hadn't a care in the world. No doubt it was all of this adventure -- combined with limited commons, extensive marching, hunting spectres, and fighting pitched battles -- which simply wore me down. But beyond that, there is something very special about Rivendell and I'm finding it hard to describe to those who have never been here. For one thing, it's rather hard to keep awake in this valley until you get used to doing it and if you're so exhausted you cannot keep awake or have simply lost the will to do so, then all I can suggest is to ensure you have a deep feather pillow ready to hand.

I am always inclined to write glowingly about the Valley of the Elves (all the more so when we're fortunate enough to be guests here), but I shall have to forego that ritual this time as quite a lot happened today. I had only been up and about for a few hours -- having been treated to a fine meal and hobnobbed plenty with my companions -- when we were approached by a tall Elf with a very melodious voice. He introduced himself as Lindir, a member of Elrond's household, and he informed us that the Lord Elrond wished to see us in his study regarding a most important matter. My friends were all relieved to hear this for (so they told me) Elrond had disappeared shortly after we entered Imladris and no one had seen him since. Gaelira was clearly becoming worried that we had somehow offended him or that he was wroth with our Company's shortcomings in Angmar, but it turned out to not be the case at all.

Elrond's "study" could easily pass for a full-sized building in its own right, stuffed as it was from floor to ceiling with lore of all sorts. I stared at the towering shelves of ancient texts -- wondering what sorts of exciting tales they might contain -- as the five of us approached the elf-lord. Gaelira did him a courtesy and spoke on behalf of us all, as she was wont to do in that place.

"Hail, Lord Elrond!" she said with only the slightest waver of the voice betraying her nervousness. "You summoned us and we have come to you. How may we serve you in repayment of your most excellent hospitality?" Elrond waved his hand.

"You are welcome in my house always, brave adventurers," he said, "Including this newest companion who travels with you. A Noldor, unless I am much mistaken, and a most unusual travelling companion. Still, such things are to be expected when one wanders the wide world, as you have done. All that you have accomplished is already known to me, my friends, and I ask that you be at peace concerning the results of your efforts -- not all is as dark as it may seem. Truly, much good is often done in tandem with our own actions, though we may know it not."

"But our actions and efforts have failed," said Drodie unexpectedly. "We were not able to recover the palantir, and succeeded only in supplanting one would-be tyrant with another."

"And yet Angmar is at the least momentarily divided and confused, but of these matters we shall speak soon enough," said Elrond with a kind smile. "First, I should tell you something that will bring you great happiness: your friend, Lagodir of Gondor, is here and in my keeping."

All of us were overcome with joy at this news and of course we all wished to see him that instant, but Elrond waited patiently and calmed us in our exuberance.

"You shall see him as soon as may be," he said, "But not just yet. He is extremely weak -- even now I am allowing myself only a few brief moments with you before I minister to him again -- but rest is what he needs most. Indeed, in his current state I am not certain he would even recognize you. He was found on the borders of this land not two days past. I am told he was wayward and not in his right mind, so my servants subdued him and brought him here. I, of course, was otherwise occupied in the Ettenmoors at the time, but that is another curious subject of which we have no time to speak just now."

"Then what can you tell us of him?" begged Nephyn. "Surely we, who hunted him all across the length and breadth of Eriador are deserving of some explanation!" She quickly blushed at her own effrontery, but Elrond took no offence at her words, for he knew they were borne of concern for her companion.

"Of course," he said, "I shall tell you what I know and what haste permits. As some among you know already, the Enemy has long infused the corpses of the dead with malevolent spirits which animate those forms and give them the appearance of the Dead returned. These, of course, are only counterfeits, but this matters little to mortals who have the misfortune to behold them. In this way did Sauron earn himself the name of necromancer in days gone by. But Guloth, an undead wraith in the Dark Lord's service, sought instead to inhabit the body of one still living, a blasphemy so foul I do not believe I have ever heard the like of it before. And in so doing, both Guloth and Lagodir found themselves confronted with... challenges, the like of which I think no others have ever contended."

"What do you mean?" I asked. "What is it Guloth was trying to do to him?"

"I am not certain Guloth intended to possess Lagodir's body to do anything to him. At least, not if by that you mean the wraith's sole purpose was to harm Lagodir in especial. No, from what I have learned of Guloth in the time I have spent in his company through your friend, I see his was an ambition of immense proportions. I believe his purpose was to possess the body of a living soul with the aim of supplanting that soul and taking command of the body with the ultimate objective of worming himself free of Sauron's domination. These undead who walk beneath the Sun are thralls to their Master's will, but some may, I think, seek to free themselves from it. There were rumours in years long past that the Witch-king himself once pursued this very end, though he failed. It may be that Guloth, so enamored of his own power over the living, sought to separate himself from Sauron's oppression then become a Power in his own right. And it may be that he saw possession of a strong soul such as Lagodir to be the key in achieving his dream, but things clearly did not go according to plan."

"No, indeed!" said Drodie. "We saw what happened when Guloth tried to strike down Padryc in Angmar -- we believe it was Lagodir who stopped him from landing his stroke. But what exactly happened within Lagodir? How can two minds occupy the same body at the same time?"

"This phenomenon is, as far as I can recall, unique in my experience," Elrond answered, "And so I could not tell you. For what it is worth, my own belief is that such a perversion would not be permitted to continue for long, and perhaps that is how Lagodir came to partially subdue his tormentor. Whether it was Lagodir or Guloth who made his feet carry them to this valley and whether they had any clear purpose in mind I cannot say, but at some point one would have overcome the other. The physical and mental toll of this, however, would have eventually either slain Lagodir's body or overthrown his mind."

"But will live?" asked Nephyn eagerly.

"I have hope that he will," said Elrond, "Though I am unsure as to his state, for things are still very precariously balanced; there is much more I must do for him even now. Therefore, I ask that you be patient during the treatment. You are welcome to do as you will in my house in the meantime, and I shall send for you when he awakens."

Elrond quickly left us and we five returned to the main courtyard since we had very clearly been dismissed. The hours from that point were slow and dreadful, for we always expected someone to come running and tell us that Lagodir had breathed his last. But the day drag on into the night and we heard no news.

Sunday, 24th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell

This morning was much the same as yesterday with the interminable waiting and long hours. I made it a point to see Old Mr. Bilbo again, though the conversation wasn't as lively as before since I was on pins and needles about Lagodir the whole time. But then, just as the old hobbit was regaling me with the story about how he had first discovered Sting (for the second time), Drodie's bearded face popped through the door to tell me that Lagodir was awake and Elrond had called for us! I jumped up and nearly forgot to take proper leave of the venerable Mr. Baggins, but he merely waved me out the door.

"No point in standing on ceremony, lad," he said, "Just you off and do what Master Elrond wants, and be quick about it!"

We were all quick about it, and very soon Elrond's grave face was looking us over once more from within his study. It occurred to me briefly that he was looking for something among us, but just as I became aware of the feeling he spoke.

"Your patience has been rewarded, my friends. Lagodir is going to live."

We all cheered with relief, but Elrond held up his hand.

"He will live," he said again, "But I am not certain in what manner. I was able to suppress the spirit of Guloth such that the Gondorian is once again in control of his faculties, but as I have said before now this malady is one with which I have had no direct experience. I cannot say whether Guloth might be able to re-surface again, although I think it will be some time before he might be able to try. The fact that he could, at any time in the future, is a cause for great concern. The wraith's power is greatly lessened, yet his will does remain."

"Then what can we do for him?" I asked, crestfallen.

"I have given this much thought," came Elrond's answer. "And there may yet be hope. Like you, I would see Guloth destroyed and removed from the world altogether, but to do so would require the use of certain artefacts which have not resided in Rivendell for many, many centuries."

"Name them!" Nephyn exclaimed, her eyes bright with defiance.

"They are called the gondath, the shadow-stones, and they have always been quite rare objects. At some forgotten time in ages past, Elven-smiths discovered how to imbue suitable gems with certain properties which enabled them to attract and hold the essences of unseen things. It was a distant glimmer of the ancient Feanorian craft which brought so much sorrow to the world, but perhaps their time has finally come to aid the Free Peoples and not harm them. I believe that, if you could somehow recover one of these artefacts and bring it to me, then I should be able to destroy Guloth forever."

I could sense the spines of everyone in the Company stiffen. I myself felt like a cornered hound ready to fight to the last end of my strength.

"Unfortunately," Elrond continued with a sigh, "I cannot say where you might find such a rare object, nor even where to begin looking. But you have proven yourselves to be clever and resourceful, and so I will leave it in your capable hands."

"We will do as you ask," said Gaelira. "Will Lagodir be required to remain here while we journey abroad?"

"The Man must rest for now, but once he has recovered he may be fit enough to accompany you on this new quest," the elf-lord replied. "Although I should caution he is not likely to be in fighting form: this trial very nearly extinguished his spirit. But now we must discuss other matters. Gaelira has already told me how the palantir which Guloth stole from Mordirith was not found on Lagodir when you overtook him in Angmar. We both hope the Seeing-stone was lost in the Rift when that cavern collapsed in the ruin of Thaurlach, but I fear that is not what happened. I understand that you tracked Guloth to Barad Gularan at one point, but it was clear he did not enter that place. Instead, he treated with a small person which had unshod feet. I fear this was none other than Sara Oakheart -- or, more exactly, the one who now possesses Sara Oakheart's deceased body. Amarthiel has returned."

"Furthermore," Elrond continued, "I believe that Guloth had realized by this time that his attempts to overcome Lagodir's will were not going as planned, and so he may have surrendered the palantir to Amarthiel at Barad Gularan."

"This may be assuming a bit too much," said Minasse, and I was surprised at the High Elf's forthrightness.

"Perhaps," said Elrond cooly, "But recent events bear out my suspicion. Consider: how did the Orcs of Ongbishuk know to attack Gabilshathur on the very evening of your arrival there, and how did they know to rescue Lagodir who, by all outward appearances, was nothing but a Man and an enemy to them? Also, how was it the trolls of the Ettenmoors came to assault Rivendell -- drawing me away from here -- while another force led by Ningrat suddenly appeared to attack the Ford of Bruinen?"

I hadn't thought about these three events as being linked before, but now that he had laid it all out like that I had to admit is was rather curious.

"These are not accidents," said Elrond. "No, I believe that Amarthiel now holds the palantir and is using it to coordinate her attacks on us. Unless we can find some way to end her or to recover the orb from her, then our danger is increased manifold. But perhaps it will not fall to you to do these things. In any case, there is now a short period of doubt and confusion that we must use to maximum effect. Like Guloth, Amarthiel cannot hope to command all the hordes of Angmar at once -- she will need time to consolidate her position. But there is something she could use which would help her considerably to do so: in years gone by, Amarthiel was the keeper of one of the lesser Rings of Power; Narchuil, the Ring of Truth. If she has indeed returned to trouble Eriador, then she will certainly seek to recover her old Ring. And therein lies our chance: if we can intercept Narchuil before Amarthiel does, her ability to command the Enemy's forces in the North will be greatly diminished."

"And where might we find this Ring?" asked Gaelira.

"Sadly, none know where it now lies," said Elrond, "But my best lore indicates it may be hidden among the Elf-ruins of Eregion, many leagues south of here. It was for this reason I sent your friend Luean thither to begin the search. With any luck, we may discover Narchuil before Amarthiel does, and that would be a great victory for us. If you are agreeable, I would ask that you journey south to Eregion, find Luean, and help him in any way that you can. Eregion is also a logical place to begin your search for the gondath, since their makers once inhabited that land, and in this way you will be fulfilling two purposes with one journey. You have already done much, my friends, but our safety and our freedom demand more. Many stand in awe of your deeds already, for they have been mighty. Though the outcome may seem dark now, do not despair! Even the very Wise cannot see all ends, but noble and courageous actions such as yours do not go unrewarded -- of that you may be certain."

"We will of course consider what you ask," said Nephyn, "But could we possibly see Lagodir now?"

"Indeed you may," Elrond said with a smile. "He has been awake only a short time, but he is recovering. You will find him in the Room of Rest, on the far side of my house across the courtyard."

We thanked Lord Elrond many times before making our way to the infirmary. Within, we found our friend lying abed. He was himself, to the point he spoke defiantly about remaining bed-ridden for long, which made us all laugh because he was so obviously in such a weakened state. At one point he declared that a midnight stroll would do him good and he even rose as if to make for the door, but he quickly collapsed and had to be helped back into bed. Nephyn scolded him firmly for his obstinance while I wondered if maybe we could compromise by loading Lagodir up on Drodie like a backpack and have him cart the Man around for an hour or so in the fresh air, but of course I wasn't serious.

I can't rightly remember everything that was said that night -- only that it felt wonderful to be a whole Company again. We spoke with Lagodir about many things that day until the hours wandered further and further into the night. More than once we were obliged to let him rest, but always he seemed eager to tell us more and we always had more to ask of him. I will not write here what he told me concerning "sharing" a body with the horrors of Guloth because I don't feel I could really do the experience justice. Even Lagodir had great difficulty describing how it felt and none of us were eager to make him relive those awful times. Suffice it to say our friend was in his right mind again and we were all greatly relieved to see it. It was a joyous meeting, for we had risked much to save him, but I always felt just a bit on edge knowing that Guloth was not yet completely defeated.

Eventually everyone did actually retire, finally leaving Lagodir to get the rest he desperately needed (as we were continually reminded by one especially fussy Elf-nurse). Despite my tiredness I am having a hard time dropping off; it feels like today was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, but at the same time it feels like the previous chapter isn't really over for good and all... not just yet, anyway.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 55.2

A Decision Delayed

Highday, 15th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Forsaken Inn, the Lone-lands
The Ford of Bruinen
The day dawned as fair as you could ask. Breakfast was warm and cheery, for we were still in the heart of Bree-land and, despite the increase in ruffians throughout the countryside, we ourselves met no unsavory characters that morning. We were now well into Spring and the weather was warming to the point of being hot in the afternoons, so we made it a point to do more of our marching early and later in the day when the temperature was less objectionable.

We followed the Great East Road as it swung southward to avoid the Midgewater Marshes and I had a chance to admire the view. The trees weren't so close here as they were in the Northern Chetwood, and there were all manner of creatures running about on their own business. No one paid us any mind, although once we reached the further edges of the Bree-land we began to see farms and houses that were boarded up and (seemingly) abandoned. This was the first overt sign we had witnessed of Butterbur's dark warnings from two days ago.

In spite of the urgency of our mission, we were taking things fairly easy. The miles rolled by us as the Sun climbed higher and I began to sweat a little. I removed my hat and proceeded to use it to fan myself as we walked. Thinking back, I remembered how I had been gifted that hat by one of the Thornley's sons months ago in the earliest days of our adventures. It was much the worse for wear (the feather had been lost some time ago, whether burned, blown, or stolen I cannot remember), but it was now quite dear to me if only because I had carried it with me so far. I also still had my travelling pack and even my little Shire-hammer, which was carefully stowed away for use as a tool if needed, but now my weapon of choice was the bright Elven dagger which hung at my belt. I thought with sadness about the beautiful shield Mallacai had given me in the Halls of Night and how it had been destroyed at the hand of Guloth, and that memory made me shudder.

Returning to the present, I saw the day was still bright and the birds were still singing all around me. I also noticed that Minasse and Gaelira had wandered on a little ways ahead while Drodie was tramping along a ways behind me, but Nephyn was quite close, as if she was deliberately trying to speak to me without being overheard by the others.

"Nice day," she said, and I noticed right away that she was using a quieter voice than our obvious isolation on the road would have demanded.

"Very," I agreed, then nodded to my left, where lay the marshes. "I doubt you'd be saying the same if we had to go that way, though the day remained as nice!"

"No doubt," she chuckled, then she pointed away to the right. I saw a deer lope away from us into a thicket. "I bet that doe would make a wonderful pet."

"Deer are too skittish to be tamed without a lot of effort," I said. "Really! Is there any life-form in Middle-earth that you are not determined to domesticate?"

"Worms," the huntress answered with a laugh. "I hate worms."

"Oh, right, I had forgotten that," I admitted. I laughed in my own turn, but I was waiting for Nephyn to broach whatever subject was clearly on her mind.

"Those two seem to be getting along well enough," she said with a nod ahead to the two Elves, who were deep in conversation.

Ah, now we're getting somewhere, I thought, but I merely grunted my agreement and let her drive on.

"Do you think I was wrong to demand Minasse reveal his reasons for accompanying us?" she asked. It was common for Nephyn to worry about such things.

"I don't think so," I said, lowering my own voice since we were now getting nearer to whatever my friend was really interested in discussing. "He seemed open enough about his reasons, although I admit a lot of it goes over my head. I can't imagine what it must be like to have a memory that stretches back thousands of years!"

"Nor I," said Nephyn, lowering her own voice even further, "Nor could I ever hope to understand harbouring such anger over so long a span! I clearly uncovered more than I had intended."

"You're right about that," I said, "I still don't think he minded -- I don't think he was angry at you, I should say -- but that one certainly carries a lot of anger with him."

"He reminds me of the tales of the Old Elves, the Elves of the Second Age," Nephyn said with a nod. "All of Eldar I've ever met have been much more tame by comparison."

"Well," I said after a thought, "Gaelira has her moments too, you know." I remembered back to the early days of our Company when the she-Elf had exhibited flashes of intensity on more than one occasion, and I always found them rather unsettling. By and large, though, Gaelira was a calm, quiet, and contemplative sort.

"I suppose that is so," Nephyn agreed, "I too have seen her passion flare, but Minasse is... something different. It is the difference between a warm hearth and a raging forge."

"Well put," I said as I eyed the High Elf from behind. "I wonder what use he sees in us? We are no army and four lone adventurers -- five if we ever manage to find poor Lagodir -- aren't about to set right all the wrongs he's laid out."

"I don't know," said Nephyn, "But I can't help thinking his is a book from which we have read only a few leaves."

It was just at that time Gaelira called us to a halt. We rested for a while off the road under the cover of some rowan trees and took lunch. Once the Sun had passed from her height we resumed our march and reached the Forsaken Inn by sundown.

None of us were in the mood to try the inn's legendary fare (though Nephyn did try, unsuccessfully, to trick Minasse into partaking), while it was clear the denizens of the tavern had no desire to hobnob with Elves and Dwarves. Minasse looked everything over with such disgust that I feared for a moment he might grab a torch and try to burn the whole place down, but we merely excused ourselves and set up camp outdoors. Personally, I was relieved at this because the smell of the interior brought back some rather unpleasant memories. The night sky was a wonder of starlight as we settled in around the fire with the two Elves keeping watch.

Sterday, 16th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Lone-lands

It was quite windy today. Our little campfire was snuffed out in the early morning by a great gust and it hasn't let up for long since; I only just saved my hat from blowing away so many times I eventually gave up trying to wear it and just carried it tucked under my arm the rest of the day.

The road itself was uneventful. We did spy Weathertop away to our north again, and I thought about the time Lagodir had suggested he and I might scale it together some day, but then I wondered if maybe we was already up there and the pale, merciless eyes of Guloth were peering down on us from on high. I kept glancing at the hilltop nervously and so often that Nephyn took notice and asked me if I was not feeling well. I forced myself to think about something else.

I had forgotten just how long and dull the journey through the Lone-lands can be. At the moment I am lying in my bedroll, doing my best to write in this journal while the wind keeps threatening to disperse my pages. I think I will stop writing for today: the last thing I want is to have to run around the Lone-lands chasing missing pages... I hate it when that happens.

Sunday, 17th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Lone-lands

More Lone-lands, more dullness. The Sun was very hot for this time of year and that, combined with the drudgery of marching through this boring land, put me in a rotten mood I was unable to shake all day. At least there was less wind.

Monday, 18th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Ost Guruth, the Lone-lands

We arrived at Ost Guruth late in day. The inhabitants were happy to see us, though they seemed frightened of Minasse, who glowered disapprovingly at them. I bought a few trinkets and old Arnorian relics off some of their traders, but it was only out of kindness and compassion for their indigent state. I suppose I might be able to get a little coin out of them if I can find a collector in some place like Bree, assuming we ever make it back there.

Gaelira says we are still a good four days out from the Ford of Bruinen and that we need to start seriously thinking about whether we intend to travel all the way to Rivendell or if we should turn south to try and find Luean instead. I still think making straight for Elrond makes the most sense and I believe Nephyn agrees with me -- we are in desperate need of advice and information.

Trewsday, 19th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Last Bridge, on the Borders of the Trollshaws

We departed Ost Guruth at first light. There was some discussion about our road as we walked, but I think most of us are still content to let the days pass without coming to any serious decision. The Last Bridge loomed up in front of us at twilight and we camped on the far side. Nephyn said she could make out marks in the earth on both sides of the stone bridge, but she was unable to say of what sort they were or how long ago they might have been made.

Hevensday, 20th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Trollshaws

Now we are well inside the Trollshaws. I never liked this place much, and even the prospect of finding old Mr. Bilbo's stone-trolls doesn't make me like it any better. It was cloudier today but still bright and warm. I'm sure I would enjoy walking among the trees more if I didn't feel like we're constantly being watched.

We halted just before the road passed through a rock-wall, turned north a little ways off the path, and set up camp. Gaelira and Nephyn insisted that we light no fire tonight though they wouldn't give their reason. Maybe it is the howling off all these wolves I'm hearing around us.

Mersday, 21st of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Trollshaws

We proceeded into the Bruinen Gorges after a very unsettling night. At some point a weather front must have come through because everything is overcast and looks likely to turn to rain, although we never did get a drop all day. I can't be certain, but I think I heard distant thunder once or twice.

Sometime around noon we came upon the faint track which leads away north to the ruins of Thorenhad where, you might remember, we first met the Sons of Elrond. There was some debate as to whether we ought not go there and seek what help we might in that place, but after a short examination of the path Nephyn confidently declared no one had passed that way for at least two or three days and all of the prints were leaving. It was eventually decided that our errand would be best served by reaching Rivendell as soon as possible, and there was still a long way left to go.

We covered another twenty miles or so by the time we finally stopped for the night. My feet are killing me from all of this travel and I'm getting very tired of eating the same foods over and over again. I keep thinking about the lucious tables of the Last Homely House, but then that sets me thinking about whether I'll have the heart to leave it again, too. So long as Lagodir is still out there I suppose I shall have to.

Highday, 22nd of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Ford of Bruinen, Somewhere in the Trollshaws

There was no doubt about the thunder this morning: it woke us up (those of us who require sleep, anyway) with a fury and soon after large raindrops began falling, but it did not become a downpour right away. We quickly packed up our things and resumed our march toward Rivendell.

About the first hour from noon we reached the Ford. Its waters were beginning to swell a bit from the rain, but we had no real difficulty in crossing (though I was obliged to ride Nephyn pig-a-back, as often happens when we are required to cross any body of water). But it was when we had reached the far side and begun our ascent into the High Moor that we received a remarkable surprise.

It was Elladan and Elrohir, the Sons of Elrond, at the head of a large company of Elves, and they were marching on the Ford of Bruinen! They hailed us asking if we would accompany them, and of course we did so. As we made our return to the Ford, the twins informed us of their errand.

"We are well met and in the very nick of time, friends," said Elrohir (at least I think it was Elrohir), "A force of the foul folk has come down from the Ettenmoors and threatens to cross the Bruinen!"

"From there they can only mean to assault Imladris itself," said Elladan (I believe), "And we cannot permit that to happen."

"Nor shall we," said Gaelira, "But tell me: where is the Lord Elrond? Is he not among you?"

"Our father was forced to lead another contingent of our household against the trolls of the Ettenmoors some days ago," they replied, "And he had not yet returned when we set out to counter this impending threat. But now we are assured of victory, for we have the might of Elladan's Outriders with us!" We all laughed, for the Sons of Elrond are remarkable warriors in their own right, but I was apprehensive because it finally dawned on me that we were marching straight into a full-fledged battle.

And such it was: once we reached the Ford, the forces of Rivendell took up positions with archers in the rear and other stout folk (including ourselves) in the middle, barring the way across. The thunder crashed and rain came pouring down. After another hour or two, we suddenly saw the movement of large shapes away to the north of the Ford on the far side of the river. We waited, and those shapes eventually took up positions on the opposite side of the Bruinen. Elladan and Elrohir strode into the midst of the Ford and raised their hands, palms outward, signalling the enemy force to halt. There was a rush of harsh laughter away on the other side, then a cruel voice boomed across the river:

"Out of my way, whelps! I, Ningrat, have come to lay your precious homeland to waste. Without your sire to protect it, Rivendell is as good as ours. This is your only chance to run, little ones."

"We will not flee before the likes of you," the brothers shouted in return. "Turn back now or not one of you will be spared."

"Ha!" the voice replied, "So be it, then: I shall set fire to the Valley of the Elves and, when your mongrel-father returns to weep over your corpses, I shall have him brought before me in chains!"

So began the Battle of the Ford of Bruinen, and it was long and wearying. Waves of orcs, goblins, and other foul creatures threw themselves against us while arrows whistled overhead. Our line held firm, but the enemy seemed endless as the waters ran dark with the blood of our adversaries. The Elves were excellent marksmen, and many orcs fell to their arrows ere they could even reach the battle, but our forces were slowly bending -- given enough time they would have to break.

And then, just as I thought we could not withstand another assault, Ningrat shouted aloud and there came several trolls. They crashed into the Ford spraying water everywhere and blinding us. Many fled before them, but Elladan, Elrohir, and the Outriders held their ground (I was back among the archers), withstanding fist and club from the beasts. I held my breath as my friends fought for their very lives, and then I saw Elladan signal the retreat. Rivendell was lost.

But suddenly there came from the north a high, piercing note! It was no orc-horn, and everyone, friend and foe alike, turned to look in bewilderment. The jeers and laughing from the far side of the river went silent. Lightning flashed, and then I saw them.

"Elrond!" I screamed in my joy, and I jumped and waved my arms as if I had gone mad. "It is Elrond! Elrond has returned!"

There he was, on the far side of the Bruinen, astride a gleaming white stallion. His armour and sword flashed as if they were wrought from the avenging fire of Heaven itself while the knights of his retinue strove to match his pace. But the Elf-lord outran them all, and he fell upon the host of villains set against us with a fury that drove all the black-hearted to flight and wailing. Those around me took up the cheer and pressed the attack. The trolls moaned in distress -- even their dull wits sensing that things were amiss -- before they took off in full rout, stampeding back through their own lines and crushing all in their path. Elrond himself took the head of Ningrat, then his cavalry crashed into the foe while his sons ordered a charge of their own, and our enemy was utterly destroyed.

With the battle won, our forces converged on the western shore of the river. There was much cheering and celebration, for the losses on our side were light, though many had suffered wounds of varying severity. I checked on my friends, of course, but they were all safe. Then, like a sorry spectator at some sporting event, I went looking eagerly for Elrond. I found him dismounted and speaking with his sons and Gaelira, and he smiled at me as I ran up to him.

"Elrond!" I said, heedless of decorum in my elation. "Thank goodness you turned up when you did! I thought all was lost there for a moment." The Master of Rivendell regarded me kindly.

"Welcome back to Rivendell, Master Pemberton," he said. "Gaelira has been telling me about your adventures and there is much to discuss. But first we must tend to the injured and dispatch those enemies which fled the field. Then you shall accompany us to Imladris, where we shall determine what is next to be required of you."

A wave of exhaustion struck me then, and all I could think of was sleep. The rain had finally relented and the storm was passing away to the east when I heard that everyone was to begin marching toward the High Moor. It took another two or three hours of traversing the rough terrain to finally reach the Gates of Rivendell. As I descended into that valley, the pungent scent of pine-needles smote me, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the cares and exertion of the past several weeks, as if my ability to remain awake and all worry was taken from me. I swooned into Nephyn's arms and finished my journey to Rivendell with a smile upon my sleeping face.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 55.1

A Message From an Old Friend

Hevensday, 13th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Prancing Pony, Bree-land
Our parlour-room in the Prancing Pony
We all awoke refreshed thanks to a good night's rest, a hearty breakfast, and an early start. We had some business to attend to before leaving Trestlebridge, but I let the others deal with such things. Drodie sold several trinkets and trophies he had been collecting throughout our trials in Angmar (our stock of coin had been running terribly low, so this was a necessary and welcome task) while Nephyn repaired a few hunting-bows for needy families. Once these things had been seen to, we departed the village by the southern entrance. It was turning into a fine day and I, at least, had quite the spring in my step as we journeyed along the road. There were no unpleasant encounters and no one spoke much, but I could tell just from everyone's general demeanour that spirits were higher than they had been for some days, most likely at the prospect of returning to Bree.

We made good time down the Greenway despite taking one brief detour to visit Saerdan's cabin (but he was not at home). We reached Bree at dusk and received more stares and shakes of the head than we might have gotten a few months back. Our gear and apparel were, for one thing, a bit more outlandish than when we had previously passed through, but now we also travelled in the company of Minasse, whose proud bearing and extravagant clothing cut quite a scene in that rustic village. Still, no one bothered us despite all of the prying eyes, since we made straight for the Prancing Pony, just as any band of adventurers would be expected to do.

The Sun was just setting when we swung open the door to Bree's finest inn. There were smiles on each of our faces as we strode into the Common Room (except, I think, for Minasse's, who made little effort to conceal his disdain for what he obviously considered to be inferior lodgings) and we quickly made ourselves comfortable at a long table near the main hearth. There was hardly anyone else in the place although two characters excused themselves mere moments after we had settled in. I eyed them both suspiciously as they slipped out of the room, but then my entire field of vision was obstructed by an apron which was covering an ample mid-section and wiping a pair of dirty hands.

"Well!" said a familiar voice, "Lookit what the Dwarves dragged in here this evening? Why, it's my little Nephyn and her travelling companions! Didn't think I'd close out this day on such a happy note, and that's a fact!"

It was none other than Barliman Butterbur, the Prancing Pony's porcine and perpetually pre-occupied proprietor. We had a good conversation in the light of his fireplace, but I honestly think he didn't follow half of what we told him regarding our journey. He did seem to grasp that some malady or other had befallen Lagodir (or, "that scruffy-looking fellow with the big axe," as Butterbur kept calling him) and that we were in search of a cure, but beyond that I believe most of our story went rather over his head.

"What did I always tell you, young lady?" he asked as he wagged one fat finger at Nephyn. "Mind your own matters and you'll never find yourself minding things what don't matter! Now you've gone and gotten this foreign chap infected with some plague or other and you're obliged to go chasing down a remedy -- if there is one. And what did you say became of him in the first place? Lost him, did you? Well, that only complicates things further, don't it? Tell you what I'll do, though: I'll rout out Bob and send him round to ask whether anyone here in Bree has seen hide or hair of him. If he's acting as queer as you say then folk round here will have noticed him if he passed through, sure's I'm standing here."

"We really do appreciate it, Mr. Butterbur," I said, "But to be honest there's little chance that Lagodir did pass this way -- he was in such a state that if you yourself haven't already heard about it, then I expect no one in these parts will have anything to tell us."

"Aye, you may be right at that," came his reply. "Folk hereabouts would welcome any chance to talk about something besides our own troubles. It seems we Bree-folk are going to be in for hard times if half what I hear is true. Hard times, you mark my words."

There followed a lengthy discussion of the strange people which had been seen flowing into the Bree-land from down south, and it was beginning to cause all sorts of difficulties with the current residents. Highway robbery was becoming so common that every person down to the local farmers was obliged to defend themselves even on short journeys to market, and the general attitude was that Graeme Tenderlarch, the mayor of Bree-town, was not doing enough to stave off the problems. Barliman seemed most happy to see us because he clearly expected us to do something about it all, but we dashed his hopes when we explained that we would only be staying the night before resuming our search for Lagodir.

"Well, if you must then you must," he said glumly, "But I wish I knew what was going to become of us here: we Bree-landers don't take to change all sudden-like, such as what's going on now, and we certainly don't want to see changes for the worse. Now, if you lot will just follow me, I'll show you to your rooms. You can have your pick of them, actually -- I wouldn't say business has been slow, but that's only because it's been downright terrible. You'll find plenty of layabouts in the Common Room most evenings, but there simply aren't as many folk on the Road seeking lodgings as there once was, and my house ain't maintained just from selling mugs o' beer, if you follow me."

Although we had an easy road that day, I sank into my bed with a deep sigh of immense satisfaction. Somehow it felt as if I had finally returned home, even though my home was, in point of fact, still more than a few miles away to the west. I pondered this curious feeling until sleep overcame me.

Mersday, 14th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the South Chetwood, Bree-land

We were all up quite early this morning, courtesy of Nob's clanging hand-bells. Old Butterbur had ordered him to march down the halls ringing them to wake us at quarter to six and I, for one, did not appreciate it. It turned out, however, that the time of our rousting was specifically requested by Gaelira, who summoned us all into the little parlour where we had met several times before. Butterbur was up a bit later, but since Nob was already busy preparing a full breakfast we did not lack anything. The five of us gathered around the parlour-table and drew up chairs while Drodie set a fire blazing in the little grate nearby. I smiled as I thought about all of the momentous things our Company had discussed and decided in that room, and I wondered what this time would be like. There was a smattering of small talk as we congregated and everyone except Gaelira seemed to be in high spirits -- even Minasse appeared to be enjoying himself. After a short time, the she-Elf rose and we became quiet, sensing she had something important to say.

"I am sorry for waking you all so early when our night was lengthened by talk," Gaelira said as the cool light of dawn began to creep in through the windows. "And yet, it appears this morning will be full of talk as well. I speak not of our loquacious host, but rather of this." She drew from her satchel a piece of folded parchment. "A letter," she went on, "Which I received in the dark hours of the early morning. It came to me tied to the leg of Malkan."

"Oh!" I said, genuinely happy, "Malkan has found us! Hurrah! Is it from Elrond? Does it say anything about what to do regarding Lagodir?" The others also made known their excitement, but Gaelira's expression did not change.

"You shall see for yourselves," she said, then she unfolded the letter and spread it out on the table before us. We four crowded around and I stood on my chair to read these words:

Dear Gaelira,

Greetings from Imladris! It seems you and I share an acquaintance: I have known Malkan for many years, but I had no idea he was assisting you -- and at the behest of Gwaihir, no less! That is quite an honour, as I'm sure you know. I could tell from the bird's signs that you wished him to find Lord Elrond but, sadly, he is not here. There have been rumours of an attack on Imladris by trolls out of the Ettenmoors and so he has led a contingent of his folk thither to deal with the threat. I fear that whatever mission you had for Malkan will have to wait a bit longer (I never did have the patience to learn the speech of such beasts anywhere near as well as you).

In the meantime, let me tell you of myself, for what I have to say may be of interest to you. First of all, Elrond has informed me all about you and your true purpose. I hope you will forgive me for doubting your intentions, but you cannot deny it was a riddle that needed solving and you know how I am about riddles! In any case, you should be aware that my errand and your own may have some connexion: by now you have no doubt been informed that Gildor and I were entrusted by Lord Elrond to find Sara Oakheart who, inexplicably, is said to have been seen wandering the Wild. Surely you remember Sara Oakheart? The mortal Woman who was the guardian of Narmeleth? She cannot possibly still be alive after all these years. There is only one explanation: Amarthiel has returned and now walks in Oakheart's likeness. For this reason was I charged with Gildor to find her but, alas, our quest has proved fruitless. I returned here to report to Elrond that she was last seen entering the ruins of Fornost, and we were unable to follow her further.

Gaelira, if Amarthiel has somehow escaped her prison then all of Eriador may be in more danger than even Elrond foresaw. He is aware of this, of course, but since it was I who lost her trail he has asked that I help him further: I am to journey to Hollin and find the cold Ring-forges of Celebrimbor. Somewhere among them, Elrond believes, I may be able to find Narchuil, Amarthiel's lesser Ring of Power. If Amarthiel has returned, she will no doubt seek her old Ring, but if we were to reach it first...

I know not where you are or what might be your current aim, Gaelira, but if you should happen to be travelling near to Eregion then seek me out! Like as not I will be digging in the rubble of the old college at Tham Mirdain. Perhaps we could help each other? Moreover, it would be very good to see you and the others again. I wish you good fortune in your endeavors and pray you will do the same for me and mine.

Yours in Haste,


P.S. Please be sure to destroy this letter... it contains more than I would care to set down in writing, but I trust Malkan is a safe courier.

"Luean!" I cried. "It's from old Luean! Well, of the many things I thought we might hear this morning I least of all expected this!"

"How good to know he is well!" said Nephyn. "It's a shame Malkan could bring us no counsel from Elrond concerning Lagodir, but this is a pleasant surprise."

"It is," said Gaelira as she returned the letter to her keeping. "But it also presents new challenges. That Amarthiel walks the earth again I do not doubt, and we may be required to act against her."

"And who is she?" I asked. At that moment we were interrupted by Nob bustling through the parlour-door to lay breakfast on the table. When everything was in order he excused himself and we all set to.

"Amarthiel," said Minasse in his usual superior tone, "Was the champion of Angmar during the wars which ultimately ended the North Kingdom of the Dunedain. She was a fearsome adversary: cunning, cruel, and ambitious beyond compare. No one knew whence she came, but the Wise had long suspected she was of some immortal race. Certainly such fears have been confirmed if she has somehow managed to don the mantle of Sara Oakheart and now plots her old schemes anew. This means much for the Free Peoples, and none of it good."

"But what of our own task?" asked Nephyn with a hint of anger in her voice. "What of Lagodir? Surely you're not suggesting that we abandon him in favour of some other quest?"

"I said this letter presented new challenges," Gaelira answered, "And that is one of them. We have heard no rumour of our companion since Aughaire and our efforts to receive some remedy or cure from Elrond have failed, at least so far. What shall we do next? Shall we journey to Rivendell to seek Lord Elrond in person, assuming he is there when we arrive? Or shall we turn southward to Eregion, where perhaps we will find Luean and aid him as he seeks to recover Narchuil before the agents of the Enemy do the same?"

"We do have one bit of solace, at least," said Minasse. "If those are our two choices then we will have no need to decide one way or the other, at least not for several days. The road to both Imladris and Eregion lies eastward, and only once we come to the Ford of the Bruinen will we be required to choose our path."

"Our path?" asked Nephyn unexpectedly as she eyed the golden-haired Elf. "Forgive my forwardness, but this is something I've been wanting to ask for a long time now: what is it you want with us, Minasse? Why do you walk our path?"

"A great war is coming," the High Elf answered in a detached voice. "Soon, deeds shall be done that will echo throughout all Time. Civilizations will shatter or they will be forged anew. 'Tis a time for choosing, and no one can escape the march of Fate."

"These things are not unknown to us," Nephyn retorted, "Nor do they answer my question."

There was a pause. I shifted my weight uncomfortably in my chair. Minasse hung his head slightly, then stood, took a few paces away from us, and placed one hand on a bookcase which stood by the wall.

"You wish to know my story?" he said quietly. "Very well, but I shall be forced to keep it brief, for my memory reaches back to the Elder Days -- to the bright green fields and forests of Beleriand. Before it was lost to us. Before my home was destroyed by the Valar."

"But wasn't Beleriand destroyed because of the war against the Great Enemy?" I interrupted. "At least, that is how I always heard the tales. I thought the Valar had no choice in the matter."

"No choice?" cried Minasse. "No choice?! It was the Valar in their madness who pardoned Melkor and allowed him to return to Beleriand where he caused no end of grief to my people for thousands of years! Their ignorance led to the near annihilation of the Elves; the loss of our first homes in Cuivienen, the theft of the Silmarils... Feanor was a fool, certainly, but it was the Valar who permitted Morgoth to go free."

"It was not the Valar who chose to pursue him," said Gaelira calmly, "Nor were they responsible for  the kinslaying at Alqualonde."

"Regrettable choices were made by many following Morgoth's flight, to be sure," Minasse rejoined, "But none of them would have been necessary had it not been for the short-sighted Powers and their soft hearts. Nay, spare me your lectures! Think you I have not heard nor pondered such things all my long life? Moreover, know this: Earendil was not the first to beseech the Valar for their aid against the Dark One. I myself sailed west on one of seven ships which set out from Eglarest, bound for Valinor, but all seven ships were lost in a great storm ere we reached the further shore. I believe I was the only one of that flotilla to survive, washed up back on the shores of Beleriand. As I made my way back to Gondolin, I met a Man named Tuor. I succored him in his time of dire need, leading him to my home, the secret of which had been maintained until that time, and so was its fall finally brought about. Only much later, when Earendil made his fateful journey into the Uttermost West, did the Valar finally bring their might to bear against Thangorodrim, and in that cataclysm all of Beleriand was drowned beneath the Sea. For these reasons do I say the Guardians have caused so much needless suffering."

There was silence among the rest of us. Minasse's eyes burned with a blue flame as I turned this all over in my own mind. Was the storm of the Valar's making? Did they ordain that he would meet Tuor and show him the road to Gondolin? Or was the Elf simply projecting his own grief onto the Powers as a way to justify his anger? No matter the truth, he did not appear to be in the mood to argue such things, and none of us were eager to gainsay him. I cast a quick glance at Gaelira, but she remained passively watching Minasse as he paced back and forth in his wrath.

"And it is for these reasons that I follow your Company," he continued. "There are too many who hide themselves in fear of the Enemy, but I have seen before what will come to pass if he remains unopposed. Too long have I myself only watched, doing nothing. But no more! If Morgoth's lieutenant, who has surely returned, is victorious in this coming war, then the fate of Beleriand would be a welcome one compared to what awaits Middle-earth under his dominion. I travelled into Angmar to do my part against the evil which slept there and that is now accomplished, but in this Company I see brave souls willing to do their part against the gathering Darkness. I wish to fulfill my own destiny in this conflict; I will not flee to the Havens as so many of my kindred have done -- that is the way of surrender. The time of the Elves may be fading, but it is not yet ended, nor will I be led by the nose in humiliation beyond the Sundering Seas."

"I have heard of those Elves which refused the Pardon of the Valar and remained in Middle-earth," I said. "Are you one of those?"

"I am," came his answer, "And there were many of us, though far more did indeed seek the Havens when the Valar extended their insulting clemency. Galadriel of Lothlorien was another, but there were others of less notoriety."

"Each of us has our own reasons for remaining with this Company," said Gaelira, "And we do not pass judgment upon each other for having them. I cannot say whether our purposes will always match with your own, Minasse, but if you are willing to assist us then you may, indeed, be playing some part in the struggle against the Enemy, as we have done despite our mixed success so far. And so, unless any of the Company objects, I will extend to you the hand of fellowship, that you may be formally acknowledged as a member of Elladan's Outriders."

No one did object, though I think we were all a bit leery in the wake of Minasse's outburst. Still, there was much to do and already the morning was slipping away. Once we had finished breakfast and cleaned up we heard Bob the hobbit servant come bustling through the door of the inn. He conferred with Butterbur briefly, then informed us that no one he knew in Bree or Staddle had heard or seen any sign of anyone matching Lagodir's description.

This left us with little choice but to continue our march back to Rivendell. We had, of course, still the decision before us whether to see that journey all the way through or to turn aside at the Bruinen and seek our old friend Luean in Eregion to the south, but many long miles must be covered before we will be forced to elect one way or the other. In the meantime, we said our goodbyes to Nob, Bob, and Butterbur then left town through the south-gate.

The weather had turned quite fine and Spring was in the air. Birds and beasts were busy in the Chetwood and we passed several farmsteads where we saw families at work in their fields. There were only a few puffy white clouds in a sky of profound blue above the tree-branches which waved gently in the breeze. It was hard for me, in that moment, to remember that our friend was lost somewhere in the wilderness and still battling with his possessor and tormentor, but the others kept their focus.

"Where do you suppose Lagodir has gotten himself to?" asked Drodie. "Dwarf though I be, I do not relish the thought of pursuing that Man through every fen and forest in Middle-earth. Can't anyone think where he might be headed?"

"I certainly cannot," said Gaelira. "Nor can I tell whether it is Guloth or our friend who is charting the path that his feet now walk. But I agree we cannot hope to track him across all the fastness of Eriador, and so I believe the wisdom of Elrond remains our best recourse."

Because we had gotten such a late start we did not reach the Forsaken Inn by sundown. We camped under the fragrant leaves of a large maple tree while a bear cub eyed us curiously before ambling off to find its mother. As the night deepened and we shared a hearty meal (our packs newly weighted down after a visit to the Bree market on the way out of town), we five recalled the many strange things we had seen together since we first met more than four months ago. So much has changed, even among ourselves, and I can't help but wonder what we might encounter next.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 54.2

A Rescue in Ruins

Monday, 4th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The entrance to Gabilshathur
To my shame I did not rush forward; none of us did. We had all been wounded and more than one of us nearly killed by the evil spirit now dwelling inside that body, yet at the same time we knew our friend was in there too, and we would do anything to save him. Slowly, carefully, we approached.

I volunteered to creep ahead and try to bind his wrists using a length of rope from Nephyn's pack. It was a nerve-wracking business, but I managed it. One thing I could plainly see in the process was that Lagodir was not dead, for the body breathed still, but that probably meant Guloth lived too. With the hands secure, the others joined me in turning him over.

It was Lagodir, but our friend was grievously changed. His beard and hair were greying, his face had shrunken, and his eyes seemed to protrude from his head in a pitiable way. All over his skin was pallor while his flesh seemed robbed of warmth. He would occasionally mutter things we could not understand -- names of people and places that were not known to us -- and his eyes appeared to see things we could not. We tried all sorts of medicines, talking to him, or plying him with food and drink, but he would take nothing, nor did he heed our voices. Twice he flew into a rage and attacked us with his bare hands, but the binds held fast and we managed to subdue him again. At Gaelira's instruction we even heated water over a fire and cast a few athelas leaves (the ones we had taken from the stores in Gath Forthnir, you may remember) into it, but this actually seemed to incite Lagodir to the worst sorts of fury and he would wretch and cough violently, so we did not try that again.

As the Sun set behind the western horizon I cast myself down and wept. Was there no hope for our brave friend who had sacrificed so much for others? We were at our wits' ends and finally decided to begin the long road to Rivendell while hoping to receive some word from Lord Elrond along the way. It seems certain that Lagodir will perish long before we ever get there. As I cried myself to sleep, I could hear Nephyn's faint sobs mixed with my own.

Trewsday, 5th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Swamps of Malenhad, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar

It was another dreary day today. We were up early and moving quickly, but our going has been agonizingly slow due to Lagodir's condition. Sometimes he walks with us like a Man in a dream while other times we are forced to wrestle him into submission. Still other times he seems entranced and sits as still as the most stubborn mule you've ever seen. I think we might have managed barely twenty miles today, at the most.

Our camp tonight is cheerless and hardly anyone has spoken a word all day. Our eyes have been on the sky just as much as on our road out of hope that Malkan might suddenly appear, bearing some magical cure from Rivendell, but of course no such thing happened.

Lagodir still refuses to eat. I don't know how his body continues to function without food, but it's starting to look like it won't for much longer. He did accept a small amount of water, though, when he was at his most placid today, but shortly thereafter he tried to throttle poor Gaelira. None of us knows what to make of it.

Oh, speaking of Gaelira, she insisted I make mention of the fact that, although we searched Lagodir thoroughly yesterday, the palantir was not found on him. The Elves said perhaps it was lost in the destruction of the Rift and I certainly hope they are right. That glass ball has caused us enough trouble and I'm sure the world would be better off without it.

There was one other curious development today: through boredom in the evening I was playing around with my lute and noticed that Lagodir seemed to incline to me at the sound of some tunes. Normally he is off in his own world (except when he gets it into his head to try and kill you), but he seems a little less... distracted in those moments. I wish I knew what it all means.

Hevensday, 6th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Dwarf-colony of Gabilshathur, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar

Just when things appear to be going your way, that's when the worst happens. We actually managed to get Lagodir to eat some bread this morning, though it was quite the ordeal. Gaelira and Minasse seem to think that Guloth is repulsed by the wholesome things our friend might eat, but at the same time he cannot allow his human host to perish for lack of sustenance. We've come to learn that any introduction of food or water is quickly followed by raging outbursts of anger and violence, so by now we are ready for it. He continues to mumble indistinct ramblings -- today he mentioned the names Tuine and Lintendar, but none of us had idea what (or who or where) those might be.

We made somewhat better time today because I discovered my music pacified him somewhat and made it easier to get him to move. He seemed to respond especially well to the few songs of the South-lands I happen to know, but all told I think we only made another twenty-five miles or so today. That was far enough, however, to reach the Dwarf-colony of Gabilshathur.

The Dwarves were happy enough to see us again, but they weren't too keen on allowing what they took to be a raving lunatic into their midst. They considered him to be touched by some plague out of Angmar (and I suppose on that count they weren't too far wrong), but we did not tell them the nature of Lagodir's malady. Instead we offered to camp more toward the outskirts of the colony, and this was accepted, but we had to keep Lagodir tied by the hands to a wooden post.

The Sun had set and we were lying about our campfire pondering whether Lagodir might survive the road to Rivendell after all when shouts erupted from behind us. Gabilshathur was under attack! We five grabbed our weapons and rushed to aid in the defence. The attackers were a raiding-party out of Ongbishuk, one of the many orc-camps situated near the Dwarves. The Orcs were fierce and many, but they were at a distinct disadvantage: the only approaches into Gabilshathur were two narrow ravines through which at most three or four Men might be able to walk abreast. In this manner, the defenders repelled the attack with minimal losses. We Outriders were unscathed since the Dwarves insisted on taking the front lines themselves (I, for one, was only too happy to oblige them), and so we congratulated Guard-captain Gisur and Braigiar the Ranger on their victory.

"The valour of your people is deserving of the highest praise, Master Gisur!" Nephyn cheered as the garrison began to sing a rousing battle-song. "I did not know the Orcs placed such a high value on this colony."

"Neither did I, if I'm honest," replied Gisur. "We long suspected they knew we were here, but they never seemed interested in driving us out -- whether because of our ample defences or our small size I was never sure. I wonder why today was different?"

The five of us froze. Like a thunderclap we realized what had happened and our feet flew as we hastened back to our camp.

But we were too late. The ropes which had bound his hands to the wooden post lay shredded upon the ground. Lagodir was gone.

Mersday, 7th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Village of Tyrn Lhuig, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar

Needless to say we spent the remainder of the evening trying to track down our friend, but we had no luck. Gabilshathur sits inside of a canyon, so there were no footprints to follow. Of course, there were only two ways into or out of that place as well, so we checked both areas quickly. Unfortunately, being the only thoroughfares by which one might enter or leave the Dwarf-colony, they were overrun with prints of all shapes and sizes, nor were they easy to differentiate in the loose gravel that makes up the terrain in the swamps of Malenhad. To make matters worse, the fact that the orc-attack and Lagodir's escape happened at the end of the day meant we were forced to wait for the light of dawn to conduct any kind of meaningful search, which gave Guloth a head start of several hours.

As the morning wore away and our search proved fruitless, we were finally obliged to sit down together and think through what was to be done next. I suspect each of us were frustrated with ourselves for being so careless in leaving Lagodir unattended during the assault on Gabilshathur, so there were a lot of hot tempers in the Company at first. A heated argument arose concerning which direction we thought Lagodir had gone and none of us were able to agree on this point. Some angry words were spoken among ourselves briefly, but Minasse kept a clear head and implored us to examine the situation rationally.

"It has not escaped my attention," he said in his usual haughty manner, "That Lagodir -- or Guloth, as you will -- did not make for Carn Dum as we had initially expected him to do. Yes, he approached Barad Gularan, but he did not enter there, though it is unclear why. Instead, his path led ever southward until we overtook him. Therefore, I think we can conclude he does not intend to return to the strongholds of the Enemy. Whether this is because Lagodir's will is currently dominant or whether Guloth has some new scheme in mind I cannot say, but we should at least consider the possibility that our friend did not turn back toward the north while the ways east and south are blocked by impassable mountains. Let us therefore search to the west ere we leave this place."

To this we all agreed and it was well we did so. By sheer chance we happened upon a brief set of footprints, clear to see in the gravel, well to the west of the Dwarf-settlement. We quickly took up the trail, but it was so faint it was almost impossible to follow. Still, there were never any tracks leading in another direction, such as north, which would have been easy to spot on the softer ground, and so we continued our westward road.

In this manner the day drug on til sunset, whereupon we stumbled into a curious outpost of Hillmen. They were indifferent to us if not outright friendly, and they permitted us to spend the night within the rickety walls of their settlement. I think they may have been a contingent of the Men of Aughaire, but I was never able to make certain because no one would speak to us at any length, other than to say that their little camp was called Tyrn Lhuig. All the same, I felt a good deal safer for them being there, and I was able to pass the night in peace.

Highday, 8th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Village of Aughaire, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar

We set out at first light. Breakfast consisted of cold meats and new bread we had been gifted from the Dwarves' larders at Gabilshathur while the talk among ourselves was mostly aimed at trying to guess at Lagodir's (or Guloth's) purpose in coming this way. Naturally, we got no nearer to any revelation on that topic, but it helped to pass the time.

The morning was spent crossing the remainder of the Malenhad. By the second hour from noon we had left it behind us, much to my relief, for the smell of sulfur was nearly sickening. We found ourselves in the hilly moors which led toward the village of Aughaire and this slowed our progress, but now and then we did find faint signs which might have indicated Lagodir's passage in those parts.

At one point we happened upon a rather grisly sight: it was a wild pig which had been slain and partially eviscerated. Flies were heavy upon it as Nephyn examined the carcass.

"I can't say how this animal died, but it was young and not likely to have been taken ill," said Nephyn. "I see no wound marks upon it, but that may not mean much since a large section of the flank is missing."

"What's unusual about that?" I asked, eager to leave the smelly mess behind us. "Surely this is just the leftover meal of some roaming predator? Such things can't be that uncommon in these parts."

"What's unusual is that so much of the animal remains," Nephyn replied. "Any ordinary beast would have drug the carcass off to its den to do with as it wished or to feed it to its pack. Scavengers have picked this, it's true, but to my eye the initial kill used relatively little of the body for itself."

"Wargs?" asked Drodie, becoming interested in the proceedings. "I've heard tell those foul beasts will slay for the fun of it and leave the corpses to rot in the Sun so that they might spread pestilence among their adversaries."

"Perhaps," said Nephyn, "But that seems unlikely to me. How would one boar, alone and so far away from any known settlement, serve such a purpose?"

"What, then, do you think?" asked Gaelira.

"I think," she responded after a brief pause, "That Lagodir came this way. And I think he slew this animal somehow. And I think he ate of the carcass."

"What, raw?!" I asked, incredulous.

"I assume so, since I can see no trace of a fire," said Nephyn with a sigh. "We know that Lagodir is a mortal Man and must eat. We also know that Guloth, inhabiting a mortal body as he is, cannot allow his host to starve, for it would deprive him of his anchor to this world. We also have seen how Lagodir responded when fed ordinary foods... perhaps raw meat was as much a compromise as he was able to reach here in the Wild."

"The poor Man!" I said, my heart truly aching for him. "We must find him and end this somehow!"

"When do you believe this animal perished?" asked Minasse.

"I see many signs of carrion-birds about the corpse," the huntress answered. "And the remains have been greatly disturbed. I should think this site to be a day old by the signs, not more."

"Our delay in picking up his trail has cost us much time, then," Drodie said with a grimace, "But we shall see whether he can outlast a Dwarf on the hunt. Come! We must try to lessen his lead."

"I know of no way to depart this land save the clefts of Ram Duath to the south, since that appears to be his aim," said Gaelira as he jogged off. "And he will have to cross through the village of Aughaire on that road. Mayhap there we shall hear news of his passing."

The Sun had already set by the time we finally reached Aughaire, and we found its residents in a worse state of panic and unrest than ever before. They spoke of how, at dusk the previous day, a strange Man had entered their village and resisted all efforts to forestall him. He fought them with only his hands, but his wrath was great and they fled before his face. Most seemed to regard him as some unfortunate adventurer smitten with madness in the wastes of Angmar and they dared not restrain him.

We are now camped just south of Aughaire since the inhabitants of the village are in no mood to have any more foreigners traipsing through their home. We are largely a morose band at the moment thanks to the news the day has brought us: our friend is a raving madman roaming the wilderness killing wild animals with his bare hands and eating them raw! It's hard to see how Lagodir could possibly survive such an ordeal, but whenever I mention this aloud Minasse reminds me that Guloth needs Lagodir to live too. All of this is a bit above my head, if you know what I mean, but I'll follow my friend's trail to the ends of the earth if it means I can somehow help save him.

Sterday, 9th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Eastern Nan Amlug Plains, the North Downs

Despite another early start we became bogged down in the passes of the Ram Duath this morning. After following the trail a ways southward, it looked to us as though Lagodir had suddenly struck west, into the dens of the rock-worms and drakes which inhabit those parts of the mountains. It was some time later before we finally realized our error as we came upon the mutilated remains of an unfortunate worm-hunter wearing a pair of heavy boots quite similar in size and fashion to those of Lagodir, but Lagodir it clearly was not. Angry and dejected, we re-traced our steps and took up the track anew, hours later. Nephyn chastised herself relentlessly for what she saw as her own failure, but to be honest I think that even the most experienced tracker would have made the same mistake and we all told her so.

When we finally emerged from the Ram Duath into the sprawling plains of the Nan Amulg, it was like taking a long draught of fresh water after days of wandering in the desert. The sight of trees, the smell of grass, the chirp of birds -- all of the little things that you take for granted in everyday life -- were all deliciously present. I breathed deeply and hoped I'd never have to see another place like Angmar again so long as I lived.

This welcome joy was, however, tempered by a new problem: Lagodir's trail had vanished. Following a (faint) trail of boot-prints was manageable in Angmar, with its ashen plains and gravel-strewn plateaus, but here there was deep, springy grass newly minted by the burgeoning Spring. We spent the rest of the day trying to find any sign we could that might have indicated which way Lagodir had gone from there, but it was hopeless.

As the Sun set we made camp under the spreading branches of a short pine-tree. We tried to reason out which way he might have gone, but there were too many possibilities in that wide, open land. In the end, we decided it would be best to pay our friends at Esteldin a visit, since that place was close by, and hope we might hear something of value.

I am very tired, but I'm spending a little time lying awake under the heavens. It feels like months since I was last able to see the stars thanks to the dismal clouds which always seem to hang low over Angmar, but tonight my perseverance is being rewarded with an exceptionally bright, clear sky. I'm certain that, somehow, we will find a way to save our friend.

Sunday, 10th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Valley of Esteldin, the North Downs

We made our way to Esteldin with all speed. The Rangers were pleased to see us again and marvelled at the tales of our adventures in Angmar. No one there had seen any sign of a Man fitting Lagodir's description, so there were no new leads for us to follow. In light of this, our Company decided our best course of action would be to return to Bree, through which many well-travelled feet are known to pass. Perhaps someone there will have seen something of use to us.

We've elected to rest and go no further today. I want to find Lagodir just as much as anyone else here, but we've probably walked more than three hundred miles in just the past eight days. If we ever do manage to save that Gondorian he's going to owe me one spectacular foot-rub.

Monday, 11th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Ruins of Amon Raith, the North Downs

Rain wasn't what any of us wanted, but it's what we got -- lots of it. Our departure this morning was delayed considerably as the heavens unleashed themselves on us for hours; it was well after ten o'clock before we finally left Esteldin. The rain, though lessened, did not actually stop, so we were obliged to don our cloaks and hoods as we set out.

The march today was long, cold, and dull. We headed west past the many abandoned farmsteads (and, incidentally, past the spot where I had discovered Luean's letter to me... it now feels like ages ago!) then we reached the bridge spanning the river that cuts the North Downs in two. Crossing that, we followed the road as it wound up into the hills and eventually camped at a tumbled old ruin called Amon Raith. The name was made known to us by the handful of farmers and other simple folk who had taken refuge there after being driven from their homes by the Orcs. I wish we could have done something to help them, but we had our own errand to consider. We gave them instructions on how they might reach Esteldin telling them the Rangers were not enemies, and they thanked us for this.

We have no fire tonight since the rain still hasn't stopped.

Trewsday, 12th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Village of Trestlebridge, the North Downs

More rain. We left the hills today, struck the Greenway, and plodded south. My only comfort comes from the foodstuffs we were permitted to take from the Rangers back in Esteldin -- I find that Man-food suits me much better than Dwarf-food, as a general rule. Though I'll not deny that Dwarves tend brew the better ale. But neither compares with hobbit-standards, if you ask me.

Anyway, food and drink was all I could think about as we tramped through the mud and mire all the way down to Trestlebridge. We found safe lodgings there (the Red Lion Inn is now mostly rebuilt, although I can personally attest that the roof could still use some patching) and warm beds. The townsfolk are as pleased to see us as ever, but there have been no sightings of Lagodir. Tomorrow we should reach Bree, and then perhaps we'll have some real news.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 54.1

A Bloody Pursuit

Sterday, 2nd of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The remains of Lagodir's sword
I didn't sleep a wink last night. Despite my exhaustion from the day before, a cold wind kept biting into me as we lay, exposed, perched on this wretched height amid these tumbled ruins. I must have looked about as terrible as I felt because everyone kept asking me how I was feeling, to which I responded, "miserable." Probably the one thing in the world that could have done me any good under the circumstances would have been a pot of hot coffee, but of course no one had any, and the discovery of that fact only served to make me miserabler. I plopped myself down with the rest of my companions to discuss the day's plans while trying to improve my demeanor by sneaking a few mouthfuls from Drodie's ale-skin.

I normally wouldn't bother you with all the minutiae I tend to overhear in those types of conversations, Dear Reader, but in this case I couldn't tell you much of what was said anyway since I was in such a foul mood that I was scarcely paying attention. A lot was said (or re-said) about Guloth and where he might have gotten himself to or what he might do next following the collapse of the caverns inside the Rift of Nurz Ghashu, but all I found clear was that no one really knew anything. It also became clear that, if anything useful was to be learned, it would be up to us to do the learning. Iorelen's company was nearly halved by our foray against the Balrog and very few of those who survived were unharmed. We five Outriders had somehow escaped quite intact, and that realization put me in a very different (more grateful) mood than any amount of coffee might have done. I slowly became aware that Iorelen, her arm still in its sling, was advising us to not assume Guloth crushed along with Thaurlach in the rubble, for he was a crafty foe.

"Don't you think we ought to go and look for Guloth, then?" I asked, interjecting myself into the conversation rather awkwardly. The others turned and stared at me.

"Padryc, that's what we've been saying most of this time," Nephyn said in a polite whisper. "Haven't you been listening at all?"

"Oh!" I stammered, "Yes, of course. That is, I only meant that, you know, perhaps it was high time we went and did the looking? The longer we wait, the further away from us he's likely to make himself, is all."

"Quite so," said Iorelen, but the Elf-maid's bright eyes betrayed the smile she was suppressing out of courtesy toward me. "What concerns me is what to do if you manage to overtake your quarry, Master Halfling. 'Tis most unfortunate, but none of us here have any clear idea how to cure your Gondorian friend or if he can be cured. Like as not only Elrond himself could answer that question, but it may be some days ere Malkan, your eagle-friend can return to you with his instructions, for the leagues are long from here to Imladris."

"And yet the hobbit has a point," said Drodie as he gulped ale in between mouthfuls of dried beef. "We cannot simply wait here until the bird comes back -- either we set out to find the patient without the cure or we wait for the cure and lose the patient! But the latter carries the greater risk, at least that is the way I see it." He burped then got a confused look on his face as he realized his ale-skin was lighter than it should have been.

"I would also assent to the former course of action," said Gaelira thoughtfully, but her face was troubled. "I think we shall have to trust that Malkan will make all speed he possibly can and that he will find us swiftly. I do not believe there is any other practical option available to us at this time."

"Then I shall bid you farewell, friends," said Iorelen as she rose to leave us. "I must remain here, for my first duty is to my comrades-in-arms; our wounds are many and grievous. But you five cannot forsake your companion, possessed as he is by this foul wraith. I wish there was more I could do to aid you. I wish, too, that we might have spent longer in each other's company, but evidently Fate would not have it so."

"The valour of you and your warriors will be remembered, Iorelen," said Minasse. "Yours is a story of immense bravery, and we are honoured to have played some small part in it."

"More than a small part," Iorelen replied with a laugh. "But your own story is only beginning, I deem. May the Valar bestow their blessing upon it, mellyn, and may each of you come to see clearly your own parts therein. Namarie."

Once we had gathered our things and said farewell to the rest of the camp, we began the descent down into the valley of Nurz Ghashu. Large sections of the earth were now greatly disturbed, as you might imagine, but that accursed stone disk still lay, unchanged, in the very centre of the dell. I found the quiet unnerving at first, but slowly I began to feel as though it was actually the quiet of peace and not malice... or what malice remained there was now faint and far-off.

The five of us spread out and began to search for any signs that would indicate what might have become of Guloth (and, of course, of Lagodir). I wanted to go with Nephyn, but I knew we'd cover more ground by splitting up. I scanned the earth haphazardly. What was I supposed to be looking for? I was no use as a tracker, and I saw plenty of footprints from us and Iorelen's company all over the place anyway. I shrugged to myself then looked up at the sky, shielding my eyes. Despite a heavy cloud cover, the heavens over Angmar appeared brighter than usual and, after so many days of flitting about in darkness or hunkering in caverns, it seemed almost painfully bright to me. Then I remembered Malkan the eagle, so I searched above me for a moment, but of course there was nothing to see: it was hundreds of miles from here to Rivendell -- even in a straight line. If we were going to receive instructions on how to cure Lagodir from Guloth's influence, we were going to have to be patient. I sighed and allowed my thoughts to wander.

That's when I heard a loud halloo from behind me, to the east. It was Drodie, and he was waving his arms in excitement. The rest of us quickly converged on his location, which was a good ways behind the stone disk and in the shadow of the encircling mountains.

"Here at last we find news!" said the Dwarf, looking quite pleased with himself. "There are none better than a Dwarf for the reading of signs -- if you are among the bones of the earth, that is. See here!" He pointed at a flat slab of unremarkable stone lying, like so many others, in the dust of that valley, then he bowed as a manner of self-congratulation. We watched him bewildered and no one spoke for several moments. A crow cawed mockingly from somewhere overhead.

"Drodie, perhaps you took more ale than was good for you at breakfast?" Nephyn asked him.

"Erm, yes, I happened to notice his ale-skin was looking a bit light," I said, knowing full well I was the reason for it.

"By Durin's Beard!" Drodie cried. "Don't tell me you think that is a stone slab?"

"I don't... what would you have us think it is?" Nephyn replied confusedly.

"Ha!" laughed the Dwarf triumphantly. "Then what do you say to this?" With that, he seized the huge rock at its base with both hands and easily swung it open, as if it were on a hinge! The "rock" remained there, pointing straight upward, while beneath it was revealed a set of stone stairs, descending down into darkness. A thin cloud of dust wafted up to meet us and I gave it a sniff.

"Phew!" I said as I waved the stuff away from my face. "Why, that reminds me of that infernal Rift we were just in! Can't you smell the sulfur and ash?"

"Aye, but there's a good deal of stone dust in that smell also, little hobbit," said Drodie with a broad smile. "Thanks to the cave-in, naturally. And so here is our answer: Guloth escaped through some secret back-channel, but he emerged here and I'd wager made his getaway starting at this very spot."

"I doubt you no longer, Master Dwarf!" said Nephyn, who was now a short distance away and bent over double to examine the ground. "Look! Boot-prints! They are alone and they would be Lagodir's boots -- I'd swear to it."

"Well done, the both of you!" said Gaelira. "Which way have they gone?"

"West," said Nephyn, and we began to follow her as she led us. The trail led around the edges of the stone disk, at the feet of the surrounding hills, and it seemed as though they kept behind boulders or among the strange obelisks or other structures that littered the valley -- as if the owner of the prints wished to remain hidden. Very soon we were approaching the eastern edge of the valley. By now it was very nearly noon. I was trying to follow the trail of boot-prints myself, but I never had success. Yet Nephyn always seemed to know which direction to go and I was at a loss as to how she managed it.

"Neph," I asked as we trotted along, "How on earth can you even see these tracks? I'd swear I've not seen a clear print since we started back at the stone!"

"The prints are rarely clear," she answered, "But even that sometimes can reveal important information. For instance: don't you see how these marks are so close together? Why, they are not even as far apart as my own stride, and Lagodir has a much larger frame than I. This indicates to me that he may be wounded in some way, though of course I cannot be certain without some clearer sign. There have been no blood-marks that I have seen so far, though it can be hard to tell when tracking on such rocky ground."

"Ah, do you think then that Guloth was injured by the cave-in as he fled the Rift?" asked Drodie. "That might work in our favour."

"It's possible, and yes it might," said Nephyn worriedly, "But if that is so then I would fear for Lagodir, who we must not forget still inhabits that body. So you see, Padryc? It's all about observation."

"No doubt of that," I said, "But observation of what? All I see are a few dimples in the dirt --"

"Hold!" It was Minasse, who seized me by the shoulder and brought us all to a halt. Instinctively, I began to scan the area in front of me. There, suddenly revealed to us as it came into sight from behind a broken pillar, was a body lying on the ground; a cruel-looking sword was thrust into it. Gaelira dragged us all behind the shadow of a large obelisk and held us there.

"What a gruesome sight!" I said, but I had learned enough to keep my voice as quiet as possible. "You don't suppose that's one of Iorelen's --"

"No," said Gaelira. "I saw it clearly: it is the body of the Lossoth-witch."

"Ha-ha!" laughed Drodie at full voice. "Got what was coming to her, didn't she?" There was a sharp clang as Nephyn's hand slapped him across the head, though his helm largely absorbed the blow.

"Don't be an idiot!" she hissed at him. "Didn't you recognize the sword? You ought have, considering it was used to knock you senseless not two days past: it is the sword of Guloth!"

"Yes. He may be watching us from somewhere among the stones even now, perhaps," said Minasse grimly as he carefully looked this way and that. Drodie's eyes became very wide as the threat slowly dawned on him, and he began to search the ruins of his own account.

"But... why would Guloth kill his own servant?" I mused, still quietly and very aware of the danger. "That doesn't make sense to me."

"Nor me," answered Gaelira, "Still, we must use all caution: that is most certainly Guloth's blade and the Enemy's servants have no compunction about sacrificing their allies to further their own ends, as we ourselves have seen before now. It may be a trap."

"Or it may be a diversion," I said. "Suppose it is a ruse only meant to delay us? Let me try to get closer and see what there is to see -- I promise I will be careful."

I was granted permission to try, and so I did. I won't deny I was frightened throughout the whole ordeal, but something deep inside me seemed to think this was no trick. Once I reached the body I satisfied myself that it was the Lossoth-witch and that she was indeed deceased, then I took a chance and showed myself openly. I looked around. Nothing happened. I waved my arms at my companions, signaling them to join me, which they did in short order.

"Looks like there's just what our eyes have seen, so far as it goes," I said as the others jogged up. "It's definitely the hag, though, and no doubt about the sword -- don't reckon I'd ever mistake that piece of ironmongery for anything else, ever."

"Yet now we find ourselves with another mystery to solve," said Gaelira, her hand upon her chin. "Guloth clearly escaped the cataclysm within the Rift and we know he came this way, but what are we to make of this sign?"

"Judging from the prints, I would say that Guloth slew the Woman," said Nephyn as she continued her study of the ground. "At least, I can't detect any other prints in this immediate area. Of course, the sword alone could have told us as much, I suppose. But what does it mean?" I looked at the weapon with disgust. It had been thrust into the upper torso near where the shoulder meets the neck and left there, stabbing upward, like an omen of death. The huntress's question hung in the air for a moment.

"Are there any other wounds?" asked Gaelira suddenly. We all looked. There were a several, and they were all the deep, thrusting punctures of sword-wounds. The serrations on the blade had rent the flesh cruelly, and the ground was dark with the Woman's blood; the left arm had been completely severed. Nephyn spent many minutes examining the blood stains.

"I do not think this killing happened long ago," she said slowly. "Maybe... maybe, twelve hours? Quite possibly less."

"If your guess is correct then it could have occurred around the time we fled from the Rift," said Minasse.

"Can you see where Guloth's tracks lead from here?" asked Gaelira. "Are they still visible?"

"Yes," said Nephyn and pointed. "You can see where he left a short trail of prints in the gravel just there as they climb up into the hills leading south of here."

"Then let us follow them!" said Drodie as he clapped his hands. "The foe flees before us and we five are on the hunt! Just let me at him -- I'll teach that Guloth to pop me in the head! And may-be he'll be more polite now that he's without his sword, too!"

The Outriders sprang into action. We raced up the hill in pursuit of the trail, our hearts hot within us. Thinking back on it now, this may have been a rather foolish thing to do since we still had no idea how we would defeat Guloth and save Lagodir even if we did manage to overtake him, but I suppose we were all so intent on finding our friend that none of us were contemplating this at the moment. But whether or no, our fervour began to cool rather quickly thanks to the terrain.

As soon as we cleared the first ridge, we descended into a ravine on the other side. Then it was another hard climb to the top of another ridge, and another plunge down the other side. Before long we were all puffing and blowing as the day wore on, yet we were not covering much actual ground. Nephyn was continually stooped over in search of the trail, and sometimes it would take her a long while before she felt sure enough of its direction to go on. In this way, the first full day of our pursuit came to an end. Gaelira and Minasse did not wish to halt, but there was no way the mortal folk could continue without a rest, and in any case we could not be sure to keep on track in the dark, especially in such a rocky and rugged country. We took what little food and sleep we could and rose at the first light of dawn before setting off again.

Sunday, 3rd of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Near the Dwarf-colony of Gabilshathur, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar

"My feet are in desperate need of a hot bath," I groused as I rubbed them gingerly. The harsh landscape of Angmar was no place to be walking unshod -- even for a hobbit -- and I was beginning to feel it after so many days of marching across its unforgiving surface. The sunrise had bathed the heavens with bright colours, but in that place the light seemed likely to betray us to unfriendly eyes while the orange sky only reminded me of fires and burnings. Drodie paused a moment to watch me while Gaelira and Minasse had already set off in pursuit of Nephyn's lead. Today was our second day of following Guloth's trail, but I would have never thought... Well, I will simply tell the tale as it happened and let you make up your own minds about it.

"If I had a second pair of boots I'd give them to you," he said to me with a grin, "But I doubt you would find Dwarf-boots any more comfortable than your current condition. Come! You must forget such things for now if we are going to catch up to the others -- they are already well ahead of us." I groaned my obeisance.

Once we had reassembled, I saw Nephyn on her hands and knees as she examined the ground. The two Elves were a little off to one side, whispering to each other in their own tongue. I stood there, a little impatiently, waiting for someone to explain what was going on. We had spent the night near the bottom of one of the ravines which pocked this part of Angmar, and I was not looking forward at starting the day by clambering up another ridge, but it looked as if that was in the cards for the moment. I peered distrustfully at the sky for a bit, then threw up my hands in exasperation, for I had heard a very faint rumble of thunder in the distance.

"What, more rain?!" I complained. "Is there never a day without darkness, gales, or tempests in this accursed land?"

"Yes. Today," said Minasse curtly. "What you heard is too far off to be of any concern to us, at least for the present, and in any case it came from the south while the wind is currently in the west. You should enjoy the day as it is, Master Halfling, instead of worrying about what it might or might not eventually become."

I huffed my displeasure at being preached to, and the fact I knew the Elf was right only made me grumpier. I fished an apple out of my pack and decided it would be better if things were going into my mouth rather than out of them at that particular moment. A little while later, Nephyn stood to address the rest of us.

"I apologize for this delay," she said, her brow knitted in frustration, "But there are signs here that required very careful examination. We followed Guloth's trail down into this ravine last night, but when I sought the trail again this morning I noticed something I had missed before in the dark. Unless my skill has left my entirely, I must conclude that Guloth fell into this ravine, and it looks to me as if he lay here, as though he were injured."

"Are you sure?" asked Minasse. His tone made it plain he thought Nephyn capable of very little as a tracker, but true to form the huntress ignored him and let her intelligence speak for itself.

"I am," she replied, and she pointed to an area on the ground. "It's as plain as can be that a largish body, roughly the same size and shape as Lagodir, lay here and that he struck this spot with some force."

"How do you know he fell?" I asked, intrigued by her perceptiveness.

"Because of the depth of the indenture in the earth, obviously," Minasse interjected before Nephyn could respond. This time she shot him a disapproving look, but the Elf paid her no heed.

"There is that," she said, "But also the trail itself: I feel quite certain he lost his footing somewhere along the way down and stumbled to this spot -- he may have even rolled part of the way. Unfortunately, I can't say how long ago or for how long he remained here."

"And where does the trail lead now?" asked Gaelira, clearly eager to keep moving.

"Not up the next ridge," she said, much to my relief. "He continued west, along the bottom of this ravine."

"Then let us follow him!" said Drodie, and we did.

Our trek lasted a few more hours before we came to our next serious halt. The ridges on either side of us obscured our view of the surrounding land, but eventually it became clear we were headed directly toward Barad Gularan. Gaelira and Minasse both warned us to use caution, but the warnings were hardly needed: even in the light of midday the turrets of that evil tower sent shivers down my spine. We moved on taking great care to keep ourselves out of the view of its windows and cruel spires. I found myself glancing up at that place repeatedly, as if it was going to suddenly reach out and strike me, but despite my fears everything seemed quiet -- almost brooding -- on that rocky height.

We were passing quite near to one of the bridges leading up to the tower itself when Nephyn showed us her palm.

"Stay here!" she said, "Do not follow me for a moment."

She crept forward while the rest of us waited in the shelter of a boulder-pile. My ears strained for any sign of Nephyn's voice in distress, but long before I started to get truly scared she came crouching back to us with her report.

"The footprints lead up to the bridge that spans the gorge into Barad Gularan," she said.

"Ah, then our search is ended," said Minasse. "But we cannot hope to assault that tower."

"No, no, you don't understand," Nephyn said, obviously agitated at the interruption. "The trail leads up to the bridge, but it does not cross it; Guloth -- or Lagodir, I don't know -- did not enter the tower. The tracks lead back this way: back south."

"What?" asked Gaelira. "He walked right up to the bridge then simply left? What can that mean? Was he turned away?"

"I'm not sure," said Nephyn. "But there is a large collection of other prints on the ground this side of the bridge as well. Some are clearly iron-shod orc-feet. Some look like goblin-feet. Others I couldn't say what they are, but it was almost as if Guloth was challenged at the bridge and not allowed to pass."

"Then this is a complex riddle indeed," said Gaelira with a frown. "Was there anything else?"

"Just this: I saw the prints of whomever faced Guloth in the gathering, but..."

"Yes?" asked Minasse sharply.

"They were... the prints were small. And unshod." Like machines, every head swiveled to look at me. My mouth fell open.

"What?!" I gasped. "A hobbit in Angmar? In there?! Neph, you must be mistaken!"

"Well, we don't know that they were hobbit's feet," she said, "But I have no doubt they were smaller than a full-grown Man or even a Dwarf. And I'm positive it was no goblin. A child, maybe? Or some prisoner?"

"That seems more likely than anything else I can think of," said Gaelira, "Though it is still very confusing and troubling. Who was this person and how did they come there? And why would Guloth wish to see this prisoner? If I can send word to Mallacai perhaps the Seekers of the Seven Stars could do something, but against the might of Barad Gularan even their hopes would be small. It seems that fortress hides many secrets, but there is no time for us to fathom them now. You say the trail leads southwards again?"

"It does."

"Yet Carn Dum lies to the north and west of here," said Gaelira, almost to herself. "This thread ties itself in ever more convoluted knots, but lead on."

"I will show you the way," said Nephyn.

We followed her. The day wore on as the wicked spires of Barad Gularan receded into the distance, and I think we all breathed a little easier as they did so, but that was not to last for we began to climb upward again and the exertion was all I could stand. We were well above the plains of Nan Gurth (the valley which houses Barad Gularan) once night fell, and I wasted no time in going to sleep.

Monday, 4th of Astron, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Land of Angmar

Today dawned much the same as yesterday. I was probably the most glad to be moving on since hobbits do not, as a general rule, like heights very much at all. It was another hour or two of dull work before we finally emerged at the top of that high ridge. We looked back on the ashen valley of Nan Gurth with Barad Gularan rising out of its centre. I waved goodbye to it in mocking fashion.

"Let's hope we never have to look into that valley ever again!" I said. "So the trail continues southward, Neph?"

"It does," she said as she peered at the ground. "South and east. Follow me."

"Gladly!" I said. "My heart already feels lighter with that accursed tower well behind us. Lead on!"

For all my newfound enthusiasm, the going began harder as the trail faded amidst the rocky earth. Nephyn was forced more than once to double-back and recheck her steps. Several times she admitted a need to guess at the trail's direction and she did not always guess correctly, but despite all of this she kept her morale high.

"Even though our progress is slower I think we are gaining on him," she said to me as she continued her work. "These strides are no longer even, Padryc; they have become halting and shorter -- something is slowing our adversary down."

We pressed on. There on the plateau it became obvious that we had left the blasted lands of Himbar behind us as the skeletons of dead trees began to crop up all around, but we scarcely noticed because we were all so intent on finding and keeping the trail. All at once, Nephyn signaled that we should stop. She pointed ahead, and there I saw the stump of a withered tree at the base of which was the figure of a Woman, seated and leaning up against it as if resting. We all crept slowly forward, but I thought I knew already who it was we had found.

"So it is," I heard Drodie say grimly as we drew near enough to see clearly. "Wenhair. Another of our foes has met their end."

"But at whose hand?" asked Minasse. I followed his gaze and saw the source of the Lossoth-woman's demise: it was the hilt-shard of Lagodir's shattered broadsword. It was thrust through her breast all the way up to the cross-guard and into the tree itself, pinning her in place. Her garments were wet with blood.

"Well, Lagodir's obviously!" said Drodie. "Why would Guloth do such a thing to his most devoted followers?"

"Why indeed?" pondered Gaelira. "And yet we could ask the same question about Barad Gularan: why would Lagodir willingly go there, of all places, be seen by the guards and yet not be taken captive? I fear this mystery is only growing more complicated."

"This, at least, is clear to me," said Nephyn as she examined Wenhair's clothes. "That the poor Woman has only been recently dispatched. In fact, she might --"

Suddenly, Wenhair's eyes flew open! I cried in fear and hid behind Nephyn. The Lossoth-woman's mouth worked, struggling to make words with sound. She was clearly in immense pain and, in spite of her betrayal of us in the dungeons of Sarnur, I felt an overwhelming sense of pity.

"My master!" she managed to say, "He has gone mad!" A thick stream of blood pooled at the corner of her mouth and began to run down her chin and onto her neck. Her whole body began to tremble as her voice gurgled on her own gore. "Do not..."

"Be still, Wenhair," Gaelira said to her softly. "We mean you no harm."

"Do not..." Wenhair continued, "Do not... let him..."

And then she was gone. We paused a moment out of respect for the dead, but we knew we could not linger there. We looked around, but Guloth was not present though we did find his boot-prints again, still heading southeast.

"This is the second body in as many days we have been forced to leave thus," said Nephyn as she looked on Wenhair's corpse. "And I do not like it. Could we not at least bury her?"

"We have neither the tools nor the time," said Minasse, who was already scouting the trail ahead. "Besides, the ground is all rock here -- there would be no suitable earth for an internment." Once again I felt a sting of dislike for the Elf even though I knew what he said was true. Guloth -- or Lagodir -- seemed to be hindered by something, but he was still ahead of us somewhere and we knew nothing about his condition. What if our friend lay dying not far from where we currently stood? What if Guloth tried to destroy Lagodir's body out of spite? What if Lagodir let him? The possibilities were too horrible to think about, and time was indeed of the essence.

"Perhaps we might build a cairn?" Nephyn asked, but even I could see there was no hope for that idea: all about us were rocks, certainly, but it would have taken far heavier tools than a spade to turn then into anything suitable for such a task.

"Not unless you plan on cutting the stones out of the hills with your teeth," said Drodie. "Face it, lass, there truly is nothing we can do here."

"Yes, you're right," she agreed, then she returned to her task of leading our pursuit and we followed her intently.

This continued for another hour or more. The trail became so obvious that even I was able to see it: every so often our target could be seen to have stumbled or fallen, and the tracks started to show the feet dragging. Shortly afterward Nephyn declared he was crawling. We quickened our pace: it would not be long now.

The Sun was just beginning to pass the fourth hour from noon when we came upon a prostrate body facedown in the earth, the arms out above the head. The tracks led right to the soles of two large Gondorian boots. The black robes were rent and tattered.

We had found Lagodir.