Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 37

The Hunt for Brullug

Monday, 29th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Caverns of Sarnur, Ered Luin
A Dourhand Dwarf
Suddenly there was a chorus of frenzied shouts from ahead of us! My eyes had next to no time to adjust to the dim light, but several rough-looking Dwarves were charging with axes and swords drawn! Instinctively, I dropped back behind my companions while fumbling for my hammer.

Drodie rushed forward with a battle-cry that boomed off the walls of Sarnur. He bowled one of the Dourhands over with his shield before engaging another sword-to-sword. Lagodir, meanwhile, had disarmed one Dwarf and lopped off the arm of another even as I watched. That's when someone seized me by the shoulder and forced me to the ground! A cruel-looking Dwarf's throwing-axe sailed through the air where my head had been a moment before and clattered harmlessly to the stone floor. I found myself at Nephyn's feet and watched as she let fly from her bow. There was a hoarse grunt from somewhere further within the cavern, and I knew she had found her mark.

Once I had regained my feet, my only thought was to somehow help in the battle, but I never really got the chance. Gaelira's quarterstaff was always a whirling fury in any fight, but now she also wielded her family blade, and none of the Dourhands were a match for her. Drodie had run another of our would-be assailants through while Lagodir was already chasing off the remaining three. Nephyn's bow sang twice more and I could see two bodies stumble and fail to rise again. The third was out of range and managed to escape.

Or so we thought at first. We were just regrouping and checking ourselves for injuries when we heard a terrible scream from somewhere in the direction of that last, fleeing Dwarf. It was suddenly cut off, and the echoes hung eerily in the air as we listened.

"And what do you suppose that was all about?" I asked, trying to conceal the obvious quaver in my voice. "I only saw Nephyn fire two shots, so unless she has learned how to make her arrows change direction and slay multiple enemies then there's something curious going on in here."

"I wish I could say I had learned such an art," said the huntress with a grin, "But, alas, I cannot claim credit for that last kill. Perhaps he fell down some hole and plunged to his death?"

"It is dim in here, but it is not as dark as all that," came Lagodir's voice. "And to my ear, that was the sound of a dying scream cut off by force -- I would wager it upon my life." I wondered how the Gondorian would be so sure of such a morbid thing, but I simply bit the inside of my cheek and kept quiet.

"Beasts?" asked Drodie as he squinted ahead into the gloom. "It is true Sarnur was a settlement once, but that was many long years ago; who knows what manner of animals may have infested this place since those days?"

None of us had an answer, although I suspected we would not be long in finding out the truth. For the moment, however, we had other business: Drodie and Lagodir had both suffered minor cuts and bruises in the fighting, so we quickly attended to them. While we were doing this, we praised ourselves for our quick recovery and ability to neutralize the enemy in such short order.

"And I am lucky to still have my head attached, too," I said with a shy chuckle. "A Dourhand had very nearly taken it off with his throwing-axe! Thank goodness you pulled me out of the way, Nephyn." But Nephyn only stared at me.

"I didn't pull you anywhere," she said with a puzzled expression. "I noticed you tumble over near my feet, but I just assumed you had tripped or fallen." Now it was my turn to wear a puzzled expression.

"But I didn't fall," I insisted, "And I'm quite certain someone pulled me out of the way of that axe." No one else could have done it, for I had seen the other three as they were fighting. I scratched my head in bewilderment.

"Well then," I said, totally at a loss, "Maybe it was the ghost of my old Dad looking out for me. Whether or no, I wish I could thank them proper: there's no way I would be alive right now if I hadn't been moved at that exact moment."

"Then why not?" asked Gaelira. I raised my eyebrows at her.

"Sorry?"

"Why not go ahead and thank them?" she said. "After all, they are watching us even now."

"Your sight is keen, Elf," came a husky voice from directly behind me. I admit I must have squealed and jumped two feet in the air out of fright. I quickly shrank to Nephyn's side and tried to penetrate the darkness with my eyes.

Out from some shadowy corner there suddenly appeared a most unusual sight. It was a Man, but it was shorter than most with a lithe body and arrayed in the most peculiar outfit I had ever seen. It appeared to be some form of armour (hide most likely), but it was covered in red war-paint and dangling with all manner of trinkets and charms. Two wicked-looking short swords rested at the belt. All the members of our Company immediately drew their weapons, except Gaelira. The stranger made no hostile move, but simply observed us with a calm stare.

"I am dishonored," he said as he bowed his head. "You knew of me when I was trying to remain concealed." His voice carried an exotic accent I had never heard before, but he used the Common Tongue well enough for us to understand him. "How did you know this, Elf?"

"I did not know," came Gaelira's reply. "But I was expecting you to be there. The seemingly uncoerced demise of that Dourhand Dwarf coupled with Padryc's tale of being moved by some 'ghost' just in time to save his life led me to believe we were not the only ones who were eager to explore the depths of Sarnur."

"And what brings such strange travellers to this place?" the stranger asked as he looked us over once more.

"We are strange?" I exclaimed with an open laugh. "This coming from the fellow who is in here by himself."

"Herself, if you please," the stranger cut in. My mouth fell open.

"Good luck recovering from that one," Nephyn muttered as she dug her elbow into my side. I felt my ears flush in embarrassment.

"I am called Wenhair," she said as she made an odd little motion with her right hand that I suppose passed for a bow in her country. "What manner of folk are you?"

"Well met, Wenhair," I said with a bow of my own (Her name was pronounced VEN-hire, if you wish to know). "Padryc Pemberton of the Southfarthing at your service, and these are Nephyn of Bree-land, Gaelira of the House of Elrond, Drodie the Dwarf, and Lagodir from the land of Gondor."

"May your hunts be always bountiful," she replied (I assume this was meant as a compliment). "It seems the Fates have ordained that our paths should cross here. I would be glad of your company; for the sake of my friend I must not fail in my task."

"Some friend to send you into a place like this by yourself," I said with another laugh, "Though I suppose I owe you my thanks for saving my life and all that."

"It was nothing," Wenhair replied. "But I ask again: what brings you to Sarnur?"

"Your pardon," Lagodir said politely, "We seek one Brullug in these caverns, yet we know not where to begin our search."

"Ah! I also seek that one," Wenhair answered. "And what is your reason to hunt the drake?"

"DRAKE?!" I cried. "Do you mean to say this Brullug is a dragon?"

"Not a dragon -- a drake," she said.

"Oh! Well, let's just break out the Brandy Wine and celebrate now then!" I exclaimed sarcastically. "You'd think Mallacai would have thought to mention that little tidbit before sending us to our deaths!"

"Calm down, Padryc," Gaelira said to me. "You forget we have already dealt with one drake before now: remember Bleakwind on the Nan Amlug Plains."

"The one that tossed Drodie half a country mile after nearly biting him in half?" I asked, incredulous. "How could I forget?"

"I was thrown, not tossed," grumbled Drodie threateningly.

"Oh, have it your own way," I said before sitting down to sulk with my arms crossed.

"We require the hide of Brullug to complete a task that was set to us by a master craftsman," Gaelira explained. "He told us it would be invaluable in the creation of various armaments."

"I can see how that would prove so," Wenhair said. "For myself, I require its heart. The priestess of our tribe tells me it is needed to cure my friend." I made a face at the thought of digging a drake's heart out of its chest cavity, but I held my tongue.

"We'll get neither hide nor heart so long as the thing remains alive," Nephyn pointed out. "And the thing will remain alive so long as we have no idea where it is. Does anyone have the slightest inkling on where to start looking? I've never been in Sarnur before, but the echoes alone tell me this place reaches deep into the roots of the mountain."

"I, too, have never been here before," Wenhair replied. "Alas that my mother could not be with me, for she is the greatest tracker of all our tribe."

"From where do you hail, if I may ask?" Nephyn queried with a raised eyebrow.

"Far to the north," Wenhair answered. "You Southrons are known to call our land Forochel."

"Forochel!" I jumped up in excitement, quickly forgetting my foul mood. "So you are one of the Lossoth of Forochel! How excellent! I've heard many strange tales about your country since I was a lad."

"Indeed?" she asked. "You know of my people, beardless Dwarf?" There were snickers from everyone as my mouth gaped.

"Beardless --?? Madam!" I huffed, "I am no Dwarf!"

"Then what sort of creature are you?" Wenhair sounded genuinely curious, but I could not help but be offended at such language.

"Creature?!" I echoed. "Well, I never! Imagine calling someone else 'creature' when one goes about dressed up like that!" Wenhair looked herself over then looked at me, evidently perplexed by my comment.

"But at least my feet will not freeze, unlike yours." Laughter erupted from the Company. "How is it your toes do not turn blue and fall off?" The laughter became howls of mirth. The Woman looked at us as if we had all gone mad.

"I like this one," I heard Nephyn say to Lagodir with a nudge to his arm.

"How rude!" I exclaimed, hands on my hips. "My kind has always gone about with bare feet. I am a hobbit, if you please."

"Hob-bit?" Wenhair repeated, clearly unfamiliar with the word. "A strange name! What does it mean?"

"It means -- why, it means hobbit, of course," I said in exasperation. "It doesn't mean anything -- that is what we call ourselves."

"Where I am from our names have meaning," Wenhair replied in confusion. "It would be a great dishonour among my people to be named after nothing."

"Oh, confusticate and bebother this nonsense!" I said, finding nothing else to say. "Hadn't we better be getting on? If we are going to poke and prod into every corner of this miserable cavern then the sooner we are about it the better I'll be pleased." The laughter eventually died down and we prepared to move out. I had made something of a show about the foreigner's manners, but in truth I was both fascinated by her and deeply relieved to have another (seemingly quite capable) adventurer among us as we hunted for Brullug. For her part, Wenhair seemed to regard us as a most peculiar band of bedraggled travellers, but she also said we had proven our valour against the Dourhands and that it would be foolish of her to refuse such help once offered.

It was not much longer before we began our joint exploration of the caverns. We were at a disadvantage for, as previously mentioned, none of us had been here before and no one knew where might be the best place to hunt for a drake. Still, we did not let that dissuade us as we began to explore the tall chambers of Sarnur. Shortly after we set out together we came upon that last, unfortunate Dourhand. Blood flowed freely from a dreadful gash in his neck. He was quite dead.

"Your handiwork?" Drodie asked our new companion.

"Yes. I saw no point in allowing him to go and raise the alarm," she replied. "Hunting a drake is dangerous enough business without also having an entire garrison of Dwarves to bother about." We passed the corpse quickly and trudged onward.

There isn't much to tell about the remainder of the day (such as it was, being inside the mountain and all). We found multiple passages which probed deeper into Sarnur, but none of us had the foggiest idea where Brullug might be. In the end, we decided to follow a tunnel which headed down several flights of stairs and into a wide chasm. We explored this for some time until we found another narrow passage which led down further still, and so on and on for hours until we finally called a halt. There had been queer noises all around us while we walked, mostly of the groaning or rumbling sort, but it was always hard to tell what it was or where it was coming from due to the echoes playing off the stone pillars of Sarnur. I voiced my hope that the walls here were still safe, but Drodie assured me they were. We had seen nothing threatening nor had we encountered any more of the Dourhands -- it seemed we had been moving away from whatever areas of the keep they had occupied, for the lighting got progressively worse and we were eventually obliged to light torches. We began to see snow-beasts, worms, and even the occasional bear, but none of them were concerned with us in the slightest (for which I, at least, was very grateful).

We drew up a campfire near the frozen remains of some ancient waterfall and tried to make a hot meal. Then we passed a bit of time by telling Wenhair more about ourselves and our adventures throughout the lands of Eriador. She reciprocated by spinning us fine yarns about her homeland with its strange and mysterious legends. It was much later when we finally all dropped off with Gaelira taking the watch, as usual.

As I re-read this entry from today, I cannot help but laugh at the extraordinary way in which we met up with this extraordinary Woman. I do feel better about having such an ally alongside us as we search for Brullug, but I'm not feeling quite so confident now that I know we are actually hunting a drake. Also, I went back several entries to read what it was Mallacai had said to Drodie about what might happen to him in our coming encounter. I wonder very much what it could mean.

There is another of those rumblings just now. Odd, but this time it sounded to me more like a growl...

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 36

Into Sarnur

Highday, 26th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
On the Road to Ered Luin
The Caverns of Sarnur
The Sun rose, shining its golden rays through the haze and murk of the Rushock Bog to see four sleepy companions huddled around a campfire on the outskirts of Needlehole in the Shire. The companions themselves rose too, but much later than the Sun did.

"Whose bright idea was it to sample every ale, mead, cider, wine, lager, porter, and stout offered by all the taverns in the Shire?" I asked as I cracked open one bleary eyeball. "Drodie, would you be so kind as to stop ramming your shield into my forehead?" There was a groan from somewhere nearby, but no one answered me.

"It seems the only thing more stout than our Dwarf is stout itself," came Lagodir's voice. Normally I would have been inclined to laugh at this jest, but I restrained myself due to fear of what laughing was likely to do for my headache. It was a wise decision: I heard Lagodir give a soft chuckle at his own joke, but then he quickly moaned and fell silent.

"We should not tarry here any longer than needed," said Gaelira as she strode up to the rest of us. "It is still another two days' march before we cross the River Lune, and the leagues remain long from there to the gates of Sarnur where Brullug awaits us."

"Not so loud, if you please," mumbled Nephyn. I wondered how it was that Gaelira was the only one of us who appeared unaffected by our Shire-wide imbibing from the past two days.

It was some time before our Company had collected itself, eaten, washed, and finally set out once more upon the westward road. We passed slowly over a couple of impressive stone bridges I had never seen before (having had no reason to come this far beyond Needlehole even as a Bounder) which were obviously of Dwarf-make. I wondered when the Dwarves had built them and why, but either Drodie didn't know or he was still feeling too poorly from yesterday to bother answering me. Eventually, we passed through the Rushock Gate at the very western edge of the Shire and left my homeland behind us. I had an odd sensation as I did so: almost as if I was no longer really from there, but was merely passing through; like the rest of my friends.

The scenery today was rather unremarkable: it was smooth grass in every direction with only the occasional copse of trees to break the monotony. What really held our attention was the horizon: there, not terribly distant and always growing closer, were the Blue Mountains. We trudged on well into the evening with the landscape not changing at all. Finally, we settled down in a small grove of ash trees for dinner and a sleep.

There had been rather little conversation among ourselves all day and I could sense everyone was eager for another rest, so there is not much to tell about today as a whole. The air tonight is cool but not too chilly and the stars are out like I have rarely seen them before. There are no clouds, for one thing, but more than that: they almost seem like they're closer to the earth than normal. As I lay on my back I feel I could stretch out my hand and snatch one (if I were quick enough!), then hold it gently and watch it flicker as it danced on my palm.

I don't expect that makes any sense, so I will leave well enough alone for tonight.

Sterday, 27th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Elf-haven of Duillond, Ered Luin

This morning was quite different from yesterday: the Company was up early and talkative -- energized and ready for another day of travel. We had a good deal of laughs at everything we had done while in the Shire; some of us started comparing our pub-crawl to various enemies we had encountered during our time together and wondered which of them had done us the more lasting harm. After a solid breakfast of eggs, ham, and toast we set off again. Gaelira said she expected us to reach a place called Duillond before sundown.

Our surroundings didn't change much all day until after dusk. Just when I was beginning to think we would have to wait another day before reaching Ered Luin, I began to hear the sound of rushing water. Then we came to a remarkable bridge of stone (once again clearly of Dwarf-make) which spanned a swift and noisy river. Gaelira informed us this was the River Lune, and we were indeed crossing into the region of Ered Luin at that time.

As we walked across the bridge, I peeped over the edge and saw white foams cascading over smooth rocks and tumbling away southward to our left. The Lune then widened and calmed and stretched all the way to the edge of my sight, where it must have eventually met the Sea. The light was quickly fading, but I thought I could see -- far off in the distance -- the elegant sails of an Elven ship gliding along the water. Normally I might have felt rather giddy at that sight for we were somewhat elevated by then (we had been gently climbing with the land over the past two days as we drew nearer to the mountains, but I hadn't noticed it for the incline was so gradual), but thanks to the sturdy parapets of the Dwarf-bridge I was able to enjoy the view comfortably.

"Are those the Grey Havens?" I asked Gaelira as I pointed. "I've heard of them in more tales than one! Never thought I'd be seeing them myself one day."

"Yes, yonder lie the Havens," Gaelira answered, but she did not share the view with me; her eyes and her feet remained pointed toward the west. "Our road lies not that way. Not yet." I looked after her.

The she-Elf's voice didn't sound angry to me, or even annoyed. I left my perch and followed after her. As we walked, I thought about everything I had heard regarding the Havens. I began to wager I could guess why she did not wish to discuss them -- and I did not mention them again.Very soon after this I spied lights twinkling in the rocks above us and the faint sound of singing floated down to cover us like a cloud.

"Those are Elvish voices!" said Lagodir. "Were I blind and forgetful of our road together, I might have thought I was once again wandering into the Valley of Rivendell."

I won't deny the thought had occurred to me as well. Duillond proved to be a delightful place, full of food, song, and cheer. It was very much like a small town (only much older, as one could easily see from the tall and beautiful towers and carven walls which rose all around us) and apparently we had arrived in the middle of some sort of festival or gathering. We were invited to stop, rest, and feast with the inhabitants, and what a curious lot they were!

There were Elves of every kind -- some taller and fairer than others (although everyone was taller than me, of course); some with golden hair like the Sun on a wheat field, and others with dark hair, black as a raven's wing. There were also some rather haughty and lordly types which were introduced to us as "High Elves." I have some limited understanding of what was meant by this, but much of what was said in that place went clean over my head. The fact that I was exhausted from a hard day's march and now quite comfortably full from ample and sumptuous foods did not help matters.

What I did gather from all the discussions was that the goblins of Ered Luin had become a nuisance once again, only this time they appeared to be forming an alliance with the Dourhand Dwarves. The Dourhands, you may remember, are not unknown to me as the Bounders have had issues with them on the borders of the Shire recently, but I had never heard of anything like this about them working together with goblins! The very thought nearly took my appetite away (nearly).

A good while later we were given comfortable lodgings and permitted to rest before taking up our road again in the morning. Gaelira remained outside talking with the other Elves while the rest of us chatted among ourselves. We all found Duillond to be a capital place and its citizens to be a very respectable people. Drodie, true to fashion, merely grunted and said nothing.

As I lay myself down for sleep, I wonder whether we will see Sarnur tomorrow and what sort of plans Gaelira and the others have devised for conquering that place. I admit I'm starting to get a little nervous about it.

Sunday, 28th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Fortress of Gondamon, Ered Luin

I awoke feeling most refreshed and ready for another day of travel. The Elves of Duillond seemed rather different toward us this morning than they had last night. Not in any disrespectful way or anything like that, but they seemed more somber and brooding. I suspect Gaelira had filled some of them in on (at least parts of) our mission, and so there was a good deal of advice-giving going on, as is typical with Elves.

They advised us to not go directly to Sarnur but instead to stop in at some place called Gondamon first. There, we would be able to consult with the Dwarves and gather news about the doings of the Dourhands and the goblins; this way it was hoped that we would learn about them before running into them and so avoid a few unneeded complications. This seemed like sound advice, so after many fare-thee-wells and at-your-services, we were off.

We returned to the main road and struck northward. The way was well paved and obviously cared for by someone, so we made very good time. I was able to take in some of the countryside as we walked. There were tall firs and prickly pines aplenty, but the mountains themselves always held my awe above the rest. We were practically among them now, though still about the knees. With their heads hidden high in the clouds, I wondered just how tall they were. As I was staring upward contemplating this, I felt something cold but soft strike my face.

"Well, look at that!" I exclaimed. "Snow! I had no idea we were so high up already."

"We have been slowly climbing upward for some time now," said Lagodir as he squinted at the distant mountain-peaks. "Since not long after our departure from your Shire, unless I am mistaken."

"Quite right," came a voice, which I was surprised to realize was Drodie's. The Dwarf was usually quiet, but he had been downright mute since our epic pub-crawl.

"Do you think we will reach Sarnur today then?" I asked. I tried to sound casual, but I really was starting to hope we might somehow find a way to avoid this whole stage of the adventure.

"The Elves of Duillond recommended we gather our strength in a place called Gondamon before attempting to enter Sarnur," said Nephyn from behind me. "Although I could not tell you where that place might be, for I have never been in this land."

"It is a funny name!" I said with a laugh. "Who came up with it, I wonder? It sounds to me like a gonging bell: GOND-a-monnnnnnnnnnn..." I amused my friends by imitating the sound.

"The Elves named it, of course," said Gaelira with a laugh, "As they did most places in these lands, for my kindred lived here long before the Dwarves settled it. But, Padryc, I thought by now you had learned at least enough Elvish to know Gond-amon. That is: Stone-hill, or Hill-of-stone, if you prefer, and a most appropriate name too: for it is a stone-height which commands an excellent view of the surrounding country."

"Pah!" spat Drodie unexpectedly. "Gondamon may have been nothing more than a pile of rock when last you skipped your little fairy-feet over these lands, Gaelira, but today it is a fortress, and one to be proud of! Many centuries ago we Longbeards raised a bastion of stone atop that hill, and now it is one of the strongest fortifications you are likely to find west of the Misty Mountains. The Dwarves took your little knoll and transformed it into an impassable citadel."

"You will hear no argument from me on that count, my friend," the Elf replied, "Your folk have indeed created an impressive work there, as we should see ere this day be past us. And you are right also on the first count: the Gondamon I knew was indeed little more than a hill of stone, for the centuries in which the current fortress has stood are but small count in the years of my life."

"You will get one argument from me though, Master Dwarf," said Lagodir grimly. "But only this: that there be no such thing as an impassable citadel."

"Truly spoken," came Gaelira's reply. "Time was when Ered Luin was nothing more than the easternmost reaches of the great realm of Beleriand, which boasted the mighty citadels of Gondolin and Nargothrond. Menegroth there was also, where my people lived upon a time in bliss -- yet none of those places survived the wrath of the Great Enemy. Impregnable we deemed them all, and now they lie beneath the waves." No one spoke again for a long while after that.

We saw nothing too interesting for the rest of that day except a lonely wolf and a few foxes. Around the time when the sky turned orange we saw the tips of the spires of the fortress at Gondamon. Even from a distance I could see that Drodie's description of the place was not off the mark: it was a strong fortification -- built of solid stone -- the like of which would be the pride of many lesser kings or vassals in Middle-earth to occupy and command from. I felt very safe knowing we would be spending the night there.

A while later, just after sunset, we arrived at Gondamon. The Dwarves welcomed us eagerly, especially Drodie, (although I think some of them had an eye on Gaelira), for they understood from our talk that we had come to explore the depths of Sarnur. The reports were that Dourhands had been using that place as a sort of barracks and fall-back position, and that meant any effort by us to enter it would mean fighting through the Dourhands, and that meant we'd be aiding the Longbeards in their mission to eliminate them and the goblins from the surrounding areas. Dwarves, whatever else they may be, are a very practical people.

There was a good deal more talking and reporting and planning and strategizing that night, but I paid it all no mind. I was much more concerned about the prospect of walking headlong into the main encampment of a bunch of surly Dwarves who were, for all intents and purposes, at open war with a bunch of other surly Dwarves. Here I am, trying to calm down for some decent sleep, and I have to be thinking about this?

You know, it occurs to me that nearly all of Mallacai's tasks seem to have taken us straight into spots which were on the brink of armed conflict...

Monday, 29th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Caverns of Sarnur, Somewhere in Ered Luin

It was mostly cloudy this morning as we breakfasted with the Dwarves of Gondamon keep. I was surprised to find several Elves milling about as well (I suppose I had missed them during the previous evening due to the failing light), but we did not linger there long. The Dwarves saw us off as we trotted out the west-gate, then followed the road as it turned north, then west again. The snow starting falling lightly once more and the woods around us became strangely quiet.

By noon we had passed under a water-course and saw another Dwarf-bridge spanning a small river to our left. Finally, we came upon another small outpost of Longbeards at a place called Noglond. From the sentries we learned that the entrance to Sarnur was not far at all: it was across the Vale of Thrain and on the far side of an old Dwarf-ruin called Orodost. The only problem was the fact that Orodost was now infested with goblins while the Dourhands were holed up in Sarnur itself. It looked like either some sneaking or some fighting was going to be in order.

We initially elected to try sneaking, but that proved impossible. For one thing there were far too many goblins to sneak around. Couple this with the single entryway which ran up a narrow staircase, and stealth was clearly not an option. However, fighting proved to be a perfectly acceptable alternative as the goblins were a weak breed and mostly just fled from us when we came upon them in wrath. We all marvelled at the ease with which we cut them down and made our way further and further into Orodost.

"These must be a decidedly less tough strain of the little beasts than the ones we faced in the Misty Mountains," said Nephyn with a laugh. "May all our battles go so easily! I have always known goblins to be craven cowards, but this lot is the worst I ever heard of."

"It is not the goblins that are different," said Gaelira as she wiped her sword clean of goblin-blood in the snow. "It is you, and all of us, that are different. We are stronger for what we have faced over the past three months -- both individually and as a Company." I hadn't thought about it that way.

A short while later we had penetrated deep into Orodost. That ruin was comprised chiefly of stairways and landings which climbed higher and higher up the mountain-side. At long last, we found ourselves looking at a cavernous opening in the rock. We had fought many goblins, but none of us were tired. Rather, we hesitated a moment at what felt to me like a cloud of uncertainty or fear that was emanating from that yawning crevice.

"Sarnur," said Drodie, simply. "Just another of my people's works which the traitorous Dourhands have defiled with their presence."

Together, we walked under the shadow of the mountain-wall and into Sarnur. The light was quickly swallowed up and our eyes took some time to adjust to the dimness. A ways further in, we came to a large door of iron. It looked incredibly heavy and I was wondering whether we'd even be able to open it, but Drodie and Lagodir were able to haul each panel back with relative ease. As we passed within, I was surprised to find the place was not at all what I had been picturing in my mind.

"Dear me!" I said as I looked overhead. "I was expecting something more along the lines of Goblin-town -- all close and stuffy with no light at all. This is quite different; just look at how high those ceilings rise!"

"This is no goblin-hole, Padryc," said Drodie from just ahead of me. "It is a proper Dwarf-keep which has known light, feasting, laughter, and music. Besides, while goblins may love the darkness and the Dourhands ally themselves with it, no Dwarf would deign to live crawling around dank tunnels in blackness like vermin: if they are using this place as a bivouac, we can expect there to be light within these caverns -- along with drink and victuals."

"What a pity!" I replied. "It's a bit grandiose for my tastes, but I wouldn't have minded exploring the place back when it was as you say, Drodie. But from the look of things, it must have been a very long time ago indeed since anyone has walked here."

"A very long time ago?" asked Nephyn. "Then how would you explain them?"

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 35

Leagues and Lagers

Mersday, 25th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
High-King's Crossing, Parth Aduial, Evendim
Mmm... Beer...
The Sun rose this morning, but the only reason one would know it was because it became slightly less dark. Storm clouds had arisen during the night and began pelting us with cold droplets which made for a rather uncomfortable awakening. We, for the most part, didn't really care about this since we were much more interested in Lagodir's condition. Ever since he had dared to strike down that terrible wraith in the ruins of Annuminas he had been in an awful state, but after some more adventures we had procured enough medicine to revive him.

The Gondorian was faring exceptionally better today and probably would have been feeling even more himself had it not been for the cold and wet weather -- what luck Fortune had bestowed yesterday in dealing with the unsavory merchant Enro Smuin and his demands seemed to have been spent as the climate itself turned against us. Still, the Company was not much bothered by this as Lagodir was clearly improving, and that was something for which to be grateful: saving his life had been a rather close shave, as the saying goes.

So began the last and, in a way, the most intimidating part of our quest to supply the artisans of the Seekers of the Seven Stars with the material needed to secure us the equipment we would require in Angmar. For one thing, none of us really knew what our final task involved -- aside from the fact that Sarnur was an old Dwarf-keep located somewhere in the Blue Mountains -- but the nature and threat of Brullug, the foe we were required to defeat, remained a mystery. The immediate issue, however, was not Brullug or Sarnur, but rather the immense distance which now lay between us and the Ered Luin; a distance that would take nigh onto a week for us to cover. And we were in no hurry to get started either, which one can understand after everything we had been through. For one thing, none of us had eaten or slept since the day before yesterday.

This would explain why it took us quite a long time to get moving. Even though Ost Forod was a seedy place populated by the most shifty-looking characters, we loitered about longer than we really needed to. We had to replenish our stores in preparation for the coming journey, for one thing, and we also did not wish to hurry Lagodir in his (still weakened but obviously improved) state. While I kept the Man company and warm, the others went about business with the locals. I don't think most of them liked us being in their little stronghold, but I also think they were somewhat intimidated by us. And well they should have been -- I doubt that any of these layabouts would dare to so much as look at us disapprovingly if they had the slightest notion what this Company has faced and overcome.

Anyway, the long and the short of all this is to say we were some time in getting off. This would explain why we only made it as far as the High King's Crossing (where we are now and where I am writing this entry) before calling a halt. The colossus served useful in keeping us out of the rain during the night but we all needed a good drying out by a fire, for the weather had been miserable all day. There wasn't much talk among the Company except to ensure Lagodir was alright, but the Man has been assuring us he is feeling better with each passing hour.

Highday, 26th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Village of Oatbarton, on the borders of the Shire

The rain did not let up all night or even into this morning, but that did not stop us from getting back onto the Road. It was not a driving rain -- merely a light sprinkle at most times -- but we also wished to make up for some of the time we had lost yesterday. We had dried out our wet things overnight, but they ended up getting wet again in short order.

The road today was long and boring. Once we left the bridge at the Crossing we climbed upwards for some ways then were obliged to follow a non-existent path southward. The Road itself vanishes in those parts, giving way to a fine gravelly soil, but we steered ourselves using the western bank of the Brandywine River for a very long distance. We saw a variety of odd creatures today such as sand-crawlers and a few rather large lizardish-looking things, but they minded their own business and we minded ours. After many miles of trudging through this unchanging scenery we finally struck the Road again and continued along it southwards.

Our intent was to try and find an inn or perhaps a hospitable hobbit in the town of Dwaling, but things didn't work out quite according to plan. Dwaling is a small hamlet nestled in a dell just east of the Road. Though it lies well north of the Shire-bounds it is still populated by hobbits, but when we finally arrived there we found the whole place in an uproar. Apparently there had been trouble with some foreign Men muscling their way in on the place (though just where they had come from and for what purpose no one seemed to know). Such things had never been heard of before in those parts, so we were not offended when the residents asked us to please move along and leave them in peace.

Though we were very tired (and very wet, for the rain had still not abated), we pressed on all the way to Oatbarton, where we are now. News of the happenings at Dwaling had, of course, found their way here in no time at all, and in fact nearly all of the Bounders assigned to the north-bounds had been sent up that way to deal with the problem. Needless to say, we found the folk of Oatbarton no more welcoming of strangers than we did the folk of Dwaling, but we did not make a fuss. We planted ourselves well outside of town under a huge oak tree, lit a bit of fire and made the best of it. We still get dripped on now and then, which is annoying (especially when one is trying to get some sleep after marching all day), but I can bear it. For one thing, it is far less bad than many other places I have seen by now, but also (and more importantly) we are now on the very borders of my homeland. I haven't felt this safe in many weeks.

Going to sleep now. Still raining.

Sterday, 27th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Golden Perch, the Shire

I hadn't noticed it previously, but when I got up this morning I made it a point to find out which direction the clouds were travelling because (you guessed it) it was still raining! As you might have surmised, the clouds were of course moving south, so we had been walking along with them and keeping ourselves sopping wet for the past two days. There was some grumbling over this, but of course there was nothing to be done about it except to get a move on.

This we did with some enthusiasm despite the disagreeable weather, for we were finally crossing into the bounds of the Shire, my home. We made our way through the Bullroarer's Sward and into the Greenfields shortly after sunrise, and I had been regaling my friends with tales of the Four Farthings all morning. Naturally, these revolved chiefly around food and drink, and I was insistent that we visit each and every one of the Shire's famous taverns since we had to cross through anyway.

"Once we're at the south end of these fields we'll reach the Brockenbores," I said as I pointed ahead of us. "The Plough and Stars Inn sits on a low hill overlooking the town. They have this excellent cider called Stars of Old that we simply must sample. After that the quickest way through the Shire would be to head west through Overhill and down to Hobbiton, but I would have us bear slightly eastward instead: that way we will come to The Golden Perch, which is held by most to serve the finest beer in the Eastfarthing."

"I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing more of this land," said Nephyn as she looked about her. "How green this place is! It is aptly named."

"Would your detour cost us too much delay?" Gaelira asked me.

"I would say not more than half a day," I replied. "It is out of the direct way, but the distance is mostly southerly and only a short ways east. Besides, we will have to cover the southward distance in any case if we are to strike to Road and continue on toward the west-bounds."

The rest of the Company agreed to this plan and there quickly arose a dispute as to whether Drodie or I would win a rematch of the drinking contest we had played at weeks ago in the Forsaken Inn. Eventually, we all decided to test our drinking derring-do in a series of contests which would be held at each of the six major taverns throughout the Shire! It was as delightful a game as we had ever devised yet on our long and (usually) darksome journey together.

Reaching The Plough and Stars was like greeting an old friend. You may recall, Dear Reader, that I used to frequent every pub and eatery in the Shire back in my time as a Bounder. Old Halson Tubwort greeted me warmly (despite the unusual nature of my companions) and set us up by the fireplace to warm ourselves as well. Once we had dried our skins and thawed our toes, we began to discuss that contest again. I was just about to head over and place an order with Hal when a most peculiar hobbit hopped down from his stool and planted himself in front of us.

"Well met, friends!" he said cheerily. I was a little taken aback at first: it was not at all usual for hobbits to be so welcoming of Outsiders, especially when the Outsiders are comprised of Elves, Dwarves, and Men (all of whom were so obviously from foreign parts) in the company of a Shire-hobbit. Still, I retained my Southfarthing politeness and greeted him in appropriate fashion.

"Good evening!" I said aloud. "To whom do we owe the honour?"

"My name is Lightfoot," said the hobbit with a bow. "Caedman Lightfoot, at your service. You don't know me, nor I you, though it's as clear as the hairs on my toes that you, at least, are from 'round here," he said, meaning me. "Your dress and your speech make that as plain as plain."

"And what can I do for you, my good hobbit?" I asked in return. Perhaps a life of nearly three months on the road and in all manner of unsafe conditions had put me more on my guard than I otherwise might have been, though of course there was nothing to fear in the Shire.

"Well, I couldn't help but overhear your conversation and it sounds to me as though you've all been a-travelling of late. Ah, I thinks to meself, That lot must be chilled to the bone from the looks of them and I reckon they could all use a little pick-me-up. So that's what I'm offering: how would you like a round of Stars of Old Cider on me?"

"That really is a most kind offer," I said, genuinely grateful. "We can pay you, of course."

"No need! No need!" he chirped as he scampered off to the bar to place the order with Tubwort. "I represent the Inn League, you know, so it's my duty to provide samples of the local fare to passers-by. Though I daresay we've not seen the like of your company in some time, maybe ever! Still, be that as it may, you lot wouldn't have come into The Plough if you hadn't been a-lookin' for some beer in the throat, eh?"

"We cannot deny that!" I said.

"Nor would we, even were it untrue," laughed Drodie. "Let us see about that contest, Padryc!"

Whatever misgivings the locals may have had about our queer Company we dispelled by riveting their interest in a rousing drinking game. In the end, everyone but me was lying in a heap on the floor, and this created a fine round of cheering from the hobbits, for they were very happy and proud to see one of their own kind best the others at imbibing. We hung around a bit after that, but it was best that we put a few more miles behind us while the day lasted. We bid farewell to the patrons and to Mr. Lightfoot, after thanking him many times for his generosity.

When we set out again I was relieved to find that the rain had finally stopped. The air remained thick with moisture as we walked eastward past Scary then turned south until we reached Budgeford. We then took to the Road, but turned east again instead of west, since that was the way toward Stock. By sundown we had stepped over the threshold of The Golden Perch. 

The common room there was much more crowded than was The Plough, it being a more famous inn and also it being eventide. Just as before, there were some dark glances thrown our way, but once again we overcame this with another drinking contest. This time Nephyn was the winner, which surprised everyone (including Nephyn, I think!). There was still great appreciation and cheer at our display, to say nothing of the fact that several of the patrons recognized me, and so our welcome in the Shire probably went off about as well as it ever was likely to do given the circumstances. We then set down to a hearty supper of mutton pies and roasted vegetables.

The inn, however, did not have the means to house my oversized companions (save, perhaps, the Dwarf), so we all pitched camp out-of-doors once again. None of us minded, though, including me: it is a fine evening with a clear sky and everything is fresh and clean thanks to the rains. Tomorrow we should be able to cover a good deal of distance, assuming we don't get too bogged down at the four remaining taverns along the way.

Sunday, 28th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Needlehole, on the western bounds of the Shire

I could easily go into great detail about the places and things we saw today, but I doubt very much anyone besides a Shire-hobbit would be much interested in it all. I will provide enough for you to understand where we went, where we are now, and where we intend to go next, but I shall endeavor to avoid boring you with too much minutiae.

We had ourselves an excellent breakfast at The Golden Perch before setting out westward on the Road. It was roughly ten o'clock in the morning when we came to Frogmorton and popped into The Floating Log. The Log is not an outstanding inn, but it is a good, down-home and rustic sort of pub and worth at least paying a visit. This we did then moved on to lunch at The Green Dragon in Bywater. The Ivy Bush was next, which lies a little further west in Hobbiton, and finally we supped in The Bird and Baby which adorns the very centre of Michel Delving, the largest village in the Four Farthings. Finally, we walked even further through dusk and into the evening, passing through the Rushock Bog, before settling down in Needlehole for the night.

I, of course, have been to Needlehole before, but it's some time since I was here last. The folk of this village feel a bit different from the rest of the Shire. And small wonder -- the Rushock Bog has a road which runs through it, but it is not a place most hobbits would prefer to travel unless they really must, so they are a bit isolated out here. Also, there are sometimes bands of Dwarves which journey to Needlehole out of the Blue Mountains for trade, and this serves to further enhance the exotic feeling. This had the odd effect of actually making us more readily welcomed by the inhabitants than we had initially experienced at some of the other stops along the way.

In any event, our journey through the Shire is now very nearly over: we have only to pass through the Rushock Gate and we will have crossed into Ered Luin. From there, Drodie tells us it will be another two days' march before we reach the River Lune and finally start to draw nearer to our goal. He seems to have some idea of where and what this Sarnur place is, but if he knows anything at all about Brullug he is keeping it to himself.

There was, of course, a great deal of talk among ourselves as we walked at ease through my country, but I said I would not tire your ears (or your eyes) with such trivialities. Mostly they asked about local customs, various landmarks, and of course my own home and where it lies. The proper answer to that last is nowhere, since my home was unjustly sold to the Sackville-Bagginses some time ago, but what home I used to have is a good ways off in the Southfarthing. I won't deny that I wished very much to see the place, but I did not let on about this to the others. For one thing it would create a much greater delay than my little detour to visit The Golden Perch, but also I do not think I would take it well -- seeing my old Dad's farm being squatted on and run by strangers.

I should probably get some sleep now. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the remaining four drinking contests were split between Nephyn and Lagodir at two apiece. That makes Nephyn our quaffing champion, much to everyone's shock. Nephyn swears she hardly ever touches beer, but personally I don't believe her: how can someone be (quite literally) raised in a pub and not?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 34

Striking a Bargain

Hevensday, 24th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Ost Forod, Parth Aduial, Evendim
Enro Smuin
Calenglad's recommendation was the only real option available to us, so we lost no time. Despite the fact that night had only recently descended upon Tinnudir we immediately took our leave and began the journey to Ost Forod. There, according to the Ranger-captain's description, we should find the merchant called Enro Smuin from whom we could hopefully obtain some athelas and cure our ailing companion. Calenglad graciously lent us a horse, so we helped Lagodir onto it and set out at once.

The going was slow, for we did not wish to disturb Lagodir any more than necessary and it was dull work in the dark under a faint moon in any case. The Gondorian's chills seemed to be getting worse and he would occasionally mutter in his dreaming, but none of us could catch the words. At one point Nephyn suggested I sing a song to lighten all of our hearts and I did so, but I did not want to sing too loudly for fear of attracting preying beasts or prowling tomb-robbers in those parts, so I'm not sure it did much good.

Once we reached the crossroads of the standing king we took the northern track and the road began to climb steadily upwards. It also became rocky, which slowed our progress even further. Finally, we saw ahead and above us a looming shape and we knew we had reached our destination.

Ost Forod turned out to be little more than a tumbled ruin which sheltered a motley collection of rather unsavory folk. Some of them greeted us with kind words, but for the most part all we got were hard stares, curled lips, and untrusting eyes. If it weren't for the word of Calenglad himself, I would have thought we had just wandered into a den of thieves and highwaymen. My hand gripped the shaft of my little hammer and I held my head high in defiance.

It occurred to me suddenly that we had no idea how to identify this Smuin character since Calenglad had never described him, other than to say he is a merchant of some note. We spent a short time poking around the place, but it was not long before we heard a loud Pssst! coming from our left. There, just outside a low building with a great iron door was a gathering of Men, and none of them looked the respectable sort. One Man was seated amidst several others, and he waved us over. I tried to get a look at him in the dimness: he was less than average height with a sharp nose, a thin black beard, and small, watery eyes. I did not like the look of him one bit.

"You are newcomers here, yes?" he asked us in an unpleasant and nasal voice. "What are you doing in Ost Forod?"

"We are upon an urgent errand," Nephyn replied for us. "Our friend here is very ill and we require some measure of the athelas plant to treat him."

"Athelas, you say?" the Man said with raised eyebrows. "Ah, then you have come to the right place! I had you pegged all along as folk who might wish to transact some business. Allow me to introduce myself: Enro Smuin, marketeer and... local collector of revenues." The gang of Men behind him snickered at this last remark.

"A pleasure," Gaelira replied, but it was merely a polite nothing. "We have heard that you may have some of the plant for sale. We will pay you handsomely."

"Hm, yes, I do have a small stock," Smuin said in answer, "Though I shall require something of you besides mere coin."

"What, then, is your price?" asked Drodie.

"There are certain... competitors in this region that I wish to have removed," Smuin explained. "It seems they got the silly notion that they have a right to move in on my territory, and I would like for you to teach them otherwise. This would be of much more value to me than just your money."

"Why not handle them yourself?" Nephyn asked as she eyed Smuin's entourage. "You look like a gallant band of well-trained warriors." The huntress made little effort to conceal her sarcasm.

"Because I am a businessman, not a charity," came Smuin's reply, along with a grin that revealed many crooked and discolored teeth. "These Men cost me money, so I'd prefer not to waste them in a turf war. You, on the other hand, cost me nothing. And when I see an opportunity, I take it. You have my offer: bring me signs that you have disposed of my adversaries and I shall give you what you need to heal your friend."

There was nothing for it, so we agreed to his terms. Smuin provided us with the last known locations of his targets then withdrew into his home and left us to our own devices. Among ourselves, we decided that I would remain behind with Lagodir to do what I could for him while the others went on the hunt. We felt that every minute which passed was drawing Lagodir closer and closer to the end of his life. It was just around midnight when they left me with the ailing Man and set about their tasks. I saw Gaelira and Nephyn both head north while Drodie strode quickly in a southeasterly direction.

I decided it would be best for me to try and keep Lagodir warm, so I helped him down off his horse, covered him in blankets, and got a fire going. It was difficult work for I myself was shivering with the cold, but Lagodir was faring far worse: his body was being wracked by violent chills that broke my heart to watch. I forced myself to think about how to help him so as not to get distracted; I even set about making him some soup, but he was not able to eat it. The night crawled on with no change, except that every now and then Lagodir would mumble something incoherent. After this happened a few times I tried talking to him, although I don't know what I expected to accomplish. Perhaps I felt it might take his mind off his own torments.

"You were really quite brave back there in Annuminas, you know," I said to him, trying to sound cheerful and unconcerned. "I'm sure I've never seen such swordsmanship in my life as when you fought that awful wraith."

Probably best to not talk about that, you fool, I thought to myself. I clammed up for a while and stared into the fire as it crackled nearby.

"I've been carrying everything needed to make a campfire about with me for a long time," I said for no real reason. "Every since Combe, now I think of it! I haven't had much use for them since then, though, as Drodie and Nephyn are so handy at making a fire in the Wild. I'm glad to be proving useful for a change: more often than not I feel like I've been little more than an extra set of baggage on this journey." There was, of course, no answer to my ramblings, but for whatever reason I decided to keep talking.

"You know," I went on, "I was wondering about you for a long time. In fact, at the first I thought you might be some lunatic vagabond who would slit all our throats in the middle of the night! I know it sounds silly to say so now, but you did look a sight when we first met, you can't deny that -- especially lugging that huge axe around the way you were. Still, that's all in the past, isn't it? How things have changed! And we've all grow so much more fond of each other too, although that's not to be wondered at what with everything we've been through together. And so don't you worry yourself -- the others will be back soon and then we'll have you right as rain by sunrise, you'll see; you just have to hold on for a little while longer, hear?"

Lagodir shifted his weight a little. As I looked at him, I thought I saw him crack open an eye at me, but it was too dark to be sure. I leaned forward a little to try and get a better look at his face. The skin seemed drawn too tight to be natural and there was sweat beading on his forehead, yet his body still shook violently from his chills.

"Tell me... about... the Shire," I heard him whisper to me.

My heart leapt into my mouth, but I tried to put a brave face on my excitement.

"Oh, the Shire?" I said in a nonchalant manner. "Well, it's frightfully dull, don't you know. Or, rather, it's not nearly as exciting as most other places, like Gondor, must be. We're mostly farmland, after all, but we do have our regular festivals throughout the year. And we're very fond of birthdays; why, nearly every day is someone's birthday in the Shire, so the odds are there's always a party going on nearby. Not exactly what you might call high-living: no armies or palaces or kings or any of that. Just ordinary folk trying to make a plain, down-home, honest living. Not the sort of place you'd be interested in, I fancy."

"It sounds... wonderful," the Gondorian managed to say.

I went on to tell him all about the Farmers' Faire, Harvestmath, and Yule Festivals in the Shire, since those were my favourites. Then I told him everything I knew about the Spring Festival -- since that would be coming up in another month or two -- and went on to tell him the outlandish story of Mr. Bilbo Baggins and his infamous disappearance at his own birthday party some seventeen years ago. I myself had been there (which is not saying much since the entire Shire was invited to attend), but of course I had no unique knowledge about the oddities of that strange evening since I had been head-first in a vat of beer at the time everything peculiar had happened. My talk went on and on to the point I was hoarse and dying for a drink, but I kept right on talking as if Lagodir's life depended on my continually finding something to say.

Eventually I began to notice the light was growing in the sky. In the quiet hour before dawn, my companions began to return. Gaelira was first, then Drodie and, shortly after, Nephyn appeared. They all looked weary -- even the Dwarf's shoulders were sagging -- but after checking briefly with me they went straight to Enro Smuin's door and pounded forcefully upon it. Smuin emerged, yawning hugely and asking why business could not be left to a more appropriate hour. One by one my friends threw objects at his feet: Gaelira dropped a small thing which glinted golden in the rising Sun. Smuin reached down to examine it.

"Ah! The ring of Harry Hinchcliffe!" His beady little eyes gleamed with excitement. Next, Drodie tossed down a broadsword and a dagger.

"The sword of Bill Tripper and the knife of Andy Idden!" said Smuin, even more pleased. Finally, Nephyn unwrapped an object she had been carrying inside of a bag and flung it at the merchant. Smuin cried out as he caught it and let it fall to the ground. There was a thunk as blood flew up and spattered all over him: it was the head of a large Warg, its face still caught in a vicious snarl.

"And the... the head of Thauk, the Warg," Smuin ended in a weak voice. Warg-blood dripped softly off him and onto the gravel around his feet.

"You should probably wash that off," said Nephyn menacingly, "Somehow it makes even you smell the worse for it." Smuin looked himself over and found no words to say.

"What of our fee, Enro?" asked Gaelira. The robber looked up at the three of them and his eyes darted fearfully. Then he reached into his belt, drew forth a small dirty looking pouch, and dropped it on the ground before retreating behind his door. We seized the pouch and found within it a few leaves. Right away we could tell it was athelas by its scent, though the leaves were small and rather dried out.

"Hm, not the freshest crop, is it?" I said grimly. "I hope they will do."

"They had better," said Nephyn with a dark glance at Smuin's door, "Or one more head will roll tonight."

Nonetheless, we quickly set about preparing its use: Drodie stoked the fire while I scampered off to fill a pot of water at the nearest well. When I returned we brought the water to a boil, then Gaelira crushed the leaves in her fingers and cast them into the cauldron. Almost instantly I could sense a change in the air around me, although it's a hard thing to describe. If you can imagine air that shimmers the way a calm lake does when the Sun is shining on a clear day; that's about as close as I can manage.

Anyway, Gaelira got a rag, dipped it into the water, let it cool a bit, then began to lave Lagodir's forehead while softly speaking to him. The rest of us watched, hardly daring to breathe. After some time, we saw the Man open his eyes a little and mumbled something. Nephyn leaned down to embrace him.

"Don't ever scare me like that again!" she said joyfully. "I forbid you."

"And when... have I ever... followed your orders?" Lagodir replied with a weak smile. We all sighed, then began laughing, cheering, and clapping each other on the back and shoulders. Lagodir did not feel immediately better, of course, but it was obvious he was rapidly improving. We all drew up around him and settled down to a much-needed meal, for none of us had eaten since the morning of the day before -- prior to the attack on Tyl Annun.

As everyone rested and Lagodir continued to breathe in the vapors of the weed, we fell to talking about our great accomplishments over the past few weeks. With the defeat of the three Angmarim champions within Annuminas, we were only one victory away from completing Mallacai's tasks and finally proceeding into Angmar itself. Our final target was something named Brullug located in a place called Sarnur. From Drodie we learned that Sarnur was an extensive network of caverns under the Blue Mountains, far to the west of the Shire, but none of us knew what manner of Man or beast Brullug was supposed to be. At this point, however, we felt confident that we would succeed once we reached the place. All of us were finally able to relax now that it was clear Lagodir was going to recover.

Even though the Sun was now fully into the morning sky, I started to feel the need for sleep overcoming me. I had just enough strength left to make my journal entry and marvel at what we have done so far. More than anything, I was excited at the prospect of starting the next stage of our journey, for the path to the Blue Mountains would take us straight through the Shire! Perhaps I could talk the Company into stopping by the Golden Perch along the way...

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 33.3

The Siege of Annuminas

Trewsday, 23rd of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Island of Tinnudir, Evendim
The Sword of Guloth
I cannot sleep for worry. Have all our adventures -- our challenges and our triumphs -- all come down to this utter failure? I will never forgive myself if our good friend dies as a result of my own carelessness!

Anyone reading this would have no idea what I'm talking about, I suppose. So much happened today that I'm still not sure if it was only one day, for it feels like a week has passed since the day dawned, red and fierce, in the East this morning. Let me go back and try to tell this woeful tale in its proper order.

I awoke shivering from the chill breeze blowing in off of Lake Evendim. I tried pulling my blankets tighter around me, but soon became aware that there was much movement and bustle going on nearby, so trying to find sleep again was useless. I got up and squinted to see what all the to-do was over, but it was not easy because the dawn was still some hours off.

After a short time I managed to locate my companions by the half-light of a few campfires and was informed that the Rangers were preparing to move a sizable number of Men by boat down into Annuminas. Their intent was to reinforce someone already there named Daerdan who, it sounded to me, was the leader of the resistance in the ruined city. I thought this was certainly fine information to have, but then I was told our Company would be going with them and I had best sort myself out in a hurry or risk being left behind!

In what seemed like no time at all I found myself stuffed into one of about a dozen small rowboats which were all bobbing their way across the surface of the lake in a southerly direction. Everyone was as silent as the grave while the water lapped against the sides of our water-craft. I was starting to feel seasick (hobbits and boats generally don't mix well) and was just wondering to myself what the deuce was the point of getting us up well before dawn when the answer suddenly presented itself: a white fog began to roll over the surface of Lake Evendim. So this early start was to take advantage of the morning fog, which would serve as a veil to obscure us from the eyes of our enemies! It drew up slowly at first, but before long we were positively smothered by a mist so thick that you could have used it to butter your toast. Our hair hung lank and dripping on our foreheads and everyone soon began to shiver. It was so quiet I could hear peoples' teeth chattering from the dank, when my own teeth weren't chattering themselves and making a noise, that is. The journey went on and on to the point my fingers and toes all went numb from the cold. I would have wrapped myself in warmer things but I was told to bring only what I would need in a fight, so most of my belongings were back on the island of Tinnudir (I had brought as many of my medicinal supplies as I could shoulder, of course). Finally, just as the first rays of light were starting to peep above the eastern horizon, we put in at a sort of stone jetty. We then moved quickly and quietly through many dark and crumbled streets until we turned a corner and came upon a mass of tents, banners, and much gear of war. There, we were greeted by many more Rangers.

We had arrived in the midst of Annuminas at the war-camp of Captain-General Daerdan, but I felt less safe there than when we were thumping along in our boats. The talk was all of fighting and retreating, advancing and dying -- really not my sort of thing! Gaelira, Lagodir, and the others were all in the very middle of these discussions, but I was content to stay off to the side and let them bother about it. No one ever asked a hobbit for advice on military matters, and rightly so! I would have been better suited to asking the warriors whether they'd prefer that I make them bacon or sausage rashers when they returned from the battle. I busied myself by looking round and trying to learn what I could about these Men, but it was still quite dim in those foredawn hours.

Suddenly, there was a tremendous blowing of horns! Swords clashed on shields and I saw many Rangers rush away to my left.

"To arms! To arms!" I heard the captain-general shouting. "Ware! The Enemy is upon us!"

I moved myself out of the way to avoid being trampled by tall Men with bright swords as they swept toward the east. Cries of war went up and there was a loud booming sound, as if boulders were falling from the sky and smashing into the earth. I heard arrows whistling through the air and wondered whether any of them might be from Nephyn's bow. Then I overcame my fear a little and tried to see what was going on, but my sight was obscured by all of the tents, people, and ruined walls surrounding me. It appeared the fighting was happening perhaps three stones' throws away, but all I could make out was a cloud of dust rising from that direction. Then came a terrible roar, as from some enormous beast in its fury. There was a great crash, and the sounds of battle began to recede.

About a half an hour later it was truly morning and my friends returned with Daerdan, the Rangers' captain-general. It seemed the Enemy had launched an attack against the encampment, but that the danger was past for now.

"This is not the the first time we have had to deal with these gethryg, these hill-trolls out of the Northlands," Daerdan was saying, "And this one lasted less long than most, for we have grown skilled in slaying the things with bow and pike. Yet our victory rings hollow, for 'tis likely not a tithe of the force which my scouts tell me Balhest has amassed within the city. His purpose is likely to draw us further into Annuminas where he thinks to deal with us piecemeal (Balhest, I would later learn, was the leader of the Men from Carn Dum which was directing the occupation of the Rangers' ancient capital)."

"We should cut the head from this snake," I could hear Gaelira respond. "Am I right in guessing he has set himself up in Tyl Annun? Rarely do these servants of evil miss an opportunity to mock their victims and defile their most revered monuments."

"You speak as one who knows our adversary well," Daerdan answered, "For he has indeed done that very thing. Yet, in this, he has perhaps made his most serious error: Tyl Annun was never designed to be a citadel in time of war. There was no war in these parts when the Kingdom of Arnor was founded and the city of Annuminas was raised. It was many hundreds of years later when the Witch-king first led his armies out of Angmar to begin the slow suffocation of our land that my kinfolk knew strife. Nay, Balhest has unwittingly placed himself into our hands -- if only we can penetrate into the city and cut the bridge which leads to the island upon which Tyl Annun sits, then we will have him like a serpent in a snare. It was in hope of executing this very stratagem that I begged Calenglad to send every Man he could spare across Lake Nenuial. And yet, now that our full strength is gathered, it may be that we cannot launch this attack after all."

"And why not?" asked Lagodir with a sudden heat that made me prick up my ears.

"The Doorward of Balhest," said Daerdan, and he lowered his voice to the point I was forced to creep nearer to continue listening to their conversation. "He is some great captain or commander which goes about with Balhest, and my Men will not challenge him but flee before his countenance. They say that at his coming every Man sees in his mind's eye his worst fears and nightmares come true. I would call it coward's talk, except I know my Men and there be not a dastard among them -- this I swear to you upon my very life."

"Guloth," said Lagodir grimly.

"You know of this apparition?" Daerdan asked him.

"It can be no other," came the Gondorian's reply, and I could hear the fury building in his voice. "Yet Fate is with you, my friend: it is for this very purpose which we are come."

"Actually, we are here to see the remaining two champions of Angmar defeated," Gaelira cut in. "Agarochir and Unagh evaded us during our previous visit to Annuminas."

"I will destroy Guloth and clear the way for your Men to Balhest," said Lagodir, giving no sign he had heard Gaelira's remark. "With my own hands and the weapon of my ancestors I shall do this." Daerdan eyed him cautiously.

"I see you are strongly resolved," he said after a short time. "So be it: together we shall move in force until, if it be the will of the Valar, we have reached Tyl Annun. Then, you and your companions shall enter Ost Elendil to confront this Guloth. Once that deed is done, I and my Men shall take care of the rest."

After that there was a great deal of movement all throughout the camp as the Rangers of Evendim prepared to assault the army of Angmar which had occupied the city. Before the morning was much older our plans were laid, our ranks were formed, and we began our march into Annuminas.

I cannot possibly recount here everything which happened during that assault, Dear Reader. I myself kept well out of the way of the fighting and served mainly to aid those who fell wounded by blade or by shaft. And there were many who suffered hurt that day, but never near so many as our foes, for the Wardens of Annuminas were dour-handed and veteran warriors who were fighting to regain their ancient homeland. I should tell you that we (with the Rangers) slew both Agarochir and Unagh during the attack, and I saw Lagodir secure bits of their armour as well -- the vambrace of one and the pauldron of the other -- and so the penultimate task set to us by Mallacai had finally been achieved. Yet even this great accomplishment was driven from my mind by what happened at dusk.

The sky was a terrible and fiery orange while the Sun set in the west as we finally reached the doors of Ost Elendil, the centre-most tower in all that majestic and ruined place. Dozens were wounded and all were tired, for the battle had raged for many hours all through the streets of Annuminas. There, we said our farewells to Daerdan and his troops before plunging into the dim tower. As we did so, I couldn't help noticing that a great number of the Rangers, who had just fought valiantly through to the very heart of Angmar's greatest army in the North of Middle-earth, looked doubtfully and (dare I say it) even fearfully after us. The huge doors boomed shut, and we were within Ost Elendil.

I won't go into the fear I felt as we silently crept our way through that place, for I think the shadows were playing tricks with my mind. No matter what I thought I saw or heard, I just kept plodding forward behind Lagodir. He was upright and tense like I'd never seen him before. Finally, we reached a large metal grate, before which stood a dreadful sight. It was a tall figure, all swathed in a great, black robe or cloak. I could see no face, yet a voice came to us from beneath that cowl. It was a harsh, cruel voice which brought to mind the sound of animals in torment. Just to hear it speaking was enough to make you want to run and hide.

"Welcome, my old friend," it said, and we knew it spoke to Lagodir. "Long have I awaited thee, knowing thou wouldst seek me out in thy foolishness."

"There is only one fool here, thrall of the Abhorred," said Lagodir in response, "And his life shall end by my hand ere this day be spent." The wraith laughed, a horrible sound that was like being plunged into a lake of icy water.

"Thy valour is but ignorance, suckling of the downfallen West," it replied. "Your usefulness to me is ended. Thy puny life I shall crush at last and then Balhest shall subdue these lands in the name of my glorious Master."

"As I live and breathe it shall not be so!" said Lagodir as he raised his sword. "I did not escape thy dungeons and torments only to find thee and fail at the last. I shall have vengeance!!"

"Escape?" said the wraith, its voice hideous with mockery. "Escape? Thinkst thou still, all these years later, that thy wit alone allowed thee to flee my hospitality?" It laughed again and I wretched where I stood. "Thy wit were insufficient for any such thing. I it was who allowed thee to escape, imbecile, after I had learned from thee what my Master wished to know."

"Liar!" Lagodir shouted, but I could see doubt behind his eyes. "You learned nothing from me! Not an ounce of truth did I give you. I am no traitor."

"Nothing?" The voice was quieter, but somehow that only made it more unbearable, not less. "Nothing at all? Nothing about, say, the location of the great vaults of Denethor which lie deep beneath Mindolluin and that graveyard thou callest a city?" There was a silence.

"I never spoke to you about that," Lagodir said, but his face had gone deathly white.

"To me, nay," came the wraith's reply. "But thou spokest of it in great detail to what thou thought wert the ghosts and spirits of thy ancestors, didst thou not? It seems thou and thy simple people know very little of the methods my Lord hath developed for acquiring what we wish from our guests."

There was another silence. Lagodir's sword was still at the ready, but I could see his hands were shaking. His voice became cracked and hoarse.

"You would gain nothing from such knowledge," he said. "The passwords --" The wraith's laughter cut him off.

"Ha! What need hath the Dark Lord of such things?" it cried. "When thy city lies in ashes and thy stupid folk are slaughtered what shall remain to stand in his way? All that thy masters hath stolen from my Lord's kingdom of old shall be returned to him, and thou shalt die a traitor's death, steeped full in the knowledge that thy weakness of mind made it so. Or perhaps thou might prefer the honour of housing with me once more beneath Minas Morgul -- and there shall be room for thy friends as well!"

"NO!" Lagodir shrieked, and he rushed at Guloth with his sword flashing and flying. The rest of us were so dumbfounded by what we had just heard that it took a moment for us to come to his aid. The fighting was fierce, for Guloth wielded a massive, serrated broadsword with incredible skill. As the battle raged, every now and then I would see one of my friends drop their weapons or sink to their knees with a far-away look in their eyes, as though they saw things in their minds which I could not. When this happened, I would rush over and shake or slap them until they responded to me, for I perceived it was Guloth's terrible power which was eating away at our Company's will to resist him. I kept waiting for the evil fit to come upon me, yet it never did.

Finally, with the most powerful blow I had ever seen a mortal Man deliver, Lagodir knocked Guloth's sword from his hand with a great clang! He seized the wraith's cowl in his left hand then dropped his sword and drew the Dagger of Ohtar Turma with his right.

"Minion!" he roared as a fire leapt into his bloodshot eyes, "Thy foul lips I silence at last!" And he drove the dagger into the blackness under the cowl. There was a high-pitched cry and several of the glass windows which remained on either side of the hall were shattered as if by a great wind. Then I saw nothing more than a pile of black robes on the ground at Lagodir's feet. The Gondorian was upon his knees, tears streaming down his haggard face. We four looked at him, unsure of what to do next. The dagger of Ohtar Turma writhed and smoked on the stone floor before bursting into flames and vanishing forever.

Suddenly, there came from behind us a boom and a great shout. Daerdan and his forces had thrown open the doors of the tower and were rushing past us toward the gate. In a few moments they were through it and searching for Balhest. I later heard they overpowered him and his advisors in a brief battle; none of the enemy were spared for they had all fought to the death rather than be taken prisoner.

But my companions and I had eyes only for Lagodir. His breath was coming in huge gasps, as though he was weeping from the depths of his soul. We managed to get him up and helped him out of Ost Elendil. With the fighting over and the leader of the Angmarim army slain, the Rangers escorted us back to Daerdan's camp where there was food and medicine in plenty, but nothing would calm Lagodir's condition, and we began to fear for him. Daerdan suggested we take him at once by boat back to Tinnudir where Calenglad's leeches would surely know how to treat our friend.

The trip back wasn't nearly as bad as the earlier ride, for I was focused entirely on Lagodir's face: it had almost a jaundiced look and he never opened his eyes at all. When we landed at the island it was well into the night hours. We bundled him off, lay him down by a campfire, and covered him with every blanket we could find, for his flesh was rapidly going cold. I finally realized that he was reacting in much the same way Nephyn had after striking the fearsome wraith we had encountered in the heart of Fornost some weeks ago, only this time the situation seemed much more dire.

"What about the funny things that strange Elf did for Nephyn in Fornost?" I asked Gaelira in a hushed voice. "Can't you do something for him?"

"Perhaps I could if we had any athelas with us," came the Elf's reply. I reproached myself sternly for never having had the presence of mind to keep an eye open for any of the stuff during our travels. Gaelira proceeded to administer what healing arts she knew, yet nothing seemed to lessen the Gondorian's fit.

Calenglad joined us by the fire and regretfully informed us that his healers had no athelas left to use, for the fighting in Annuminas had been great over the past two weeks and they had depleted the stores in the discharge of their duties.Yet he did offer a glimmer of hope.

"You should go with all speed to Ost Forod, the rough settlement in the hills northeast of here," he told us. "There is a Man there, Enro Smuin by name, who knows the virtues of the athelas-plant and usually has some on-hand for sale. It is the nearest and the fastest way I can think of to saving your friend besides wandering off into the forests to sniff it out for yourselves in the darkness."

And so here I sit by Lagodir's side, my journal in my lap and my tears falling periodically on the pages. The others are still debating what is to be done, but I will let them sort that out: whatever is needed I will do, even if it means leaping into a dragon's den -- if only I can somehow save this brave and sorrowful Man.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 33.2

Return to Evendim

Sterday, 14th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Thorenhad, Bruinen Gorges, the Trollshaws
The Northern Bree-fields
We were awoken in the early hours by a drenching downpour and had to seek what shelter we could under a rocky outcropping among the boulders of the High Moor. This did little good thanks to the great wind which drove the rain right into us so that, although the tempest eventually passed to the southwest, we were all soaked and miserable. Worse still, the Sun never came out to warm our stiff bodies but stayed hidden behind those beastly clouds which had descended on us yesterday morning. I hope I do not develop a cold from all of this maltreatment.

We crossed the Bruinen river around noon then tried to make up for the time we had lost from cowering under a rock all morning. My cold legs seemed to drag like lead, but we managed to reach the Elf-camp of Thorenhad just after sunset. The evening was chilly and cheerless as the place was uninhabited and a biting north-wind refused to let us sleep. There is no sign of Elladan or Elrohir.

Sunday, 15th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Barachen's Camp, Somewhere in the Trollshaws

The sneezing woke me today: my own sneezing. True to my usual luck, I have come down with a head-cold thanks to walking all of yesterday in wet clothing under the loving caress of a winter breeze. Nephyn wanted to make me some hot soup for breakfast, but both Gaelira and Lagodir insisted we had lost precious hours yesterday and could not afford the delay.

We followed the Road west through the gorges and into the woods. Nothing of note happened except we had to continually call Lagodir back or catch him up: the Man keeps getting ahead of us as if he's being driven by a whip. No doubt he's just anxious to get back to Tinnudir where his kinsmen are struggling to hold back the lackeys of Angmar, but we can only go so fast. My aching body won't let me go much faster than a weary stroll.

We're camping at the outpost kept by the Elf Barachen tonight. He gave me some herbs for my tea which cleared my head well enough that I feel I can get to sleep. I normally have no hope of dropping off if I can't breathe through my nose properly.

Monday, 16th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Ost Guruth, the Lone-lands

I felt no better today than I did yesterday, despite Barachen's herbal tea. Apparently the Elves can cure all manner of sorcerous hexes and wraith-spells that freeze the body and enslave the soul, but no one can cure a stuffy nose. Typical.

Anyway, we crossed the Last Bridge within a couple of hours after setting out from Barachen's Camp. It was a long, boring march from there to Ost Guruth and I have as little to say about the westward journey as I did when we had passed eastward by the same road many days ago. The only good news was my head began to clear a little and the Eglain (as the folk who live in the Lone-lands call themselves, you may remember) welcomed us back with open arms. Apparently things had improved in those parts substantially since our escapades with Narhuel way back when, and they were most grateful toward us for it. I was plied with various medicines and given all of the hot onion soup I could eat. And yes, since I know you are wondering, Dear Reader, the onion soup was indeed made with green onions, just as I said it would be! Even Lagodir cracked a smile when I told him this. It might have been the first time I've seen him mirthful since before we left Rivendell.

Trewsday, 17th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Lone-lands

I haven't the foggiest idea where we are other than knowing we are headed in the right direction. Ever since we left Ost Guruth at dawn we've been trudging westward. While the land has been slowly marching by it seems as if we're going nowhere: everything looks just as bleak and bare as it did twelve hours ago! The only bit of good news is my cold has pretty much cleared up, so I should sleep well tonight. Lagodir wanted to continue walking well into the night hours, but the rest of us out-voted him on the matter.

Hevensday, 18th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Forsaken Inn, the Lone-lands

Does this place never change? I would swear the exact same people are still here in this rickety old building as when we last passed this way which, according to my journal, was exactly three weeks ago! There was no room for us so we slept out-of-doors, but honestly I didn't mind: I'd rather not think what sorts of vermin might be infesting the bed-rooms of this establishment.

Before you ask: No, there were no drinking-contests between any members of the Company.

Highday, 19th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Southern Bree-fields, Bree-land

It was good to see Bree-town again, even if it was only briefly and mostly from without. Gaelira would not stand with us putting up at the Inn for an evening out of fear that our movement back toward Evendim might be noticed and reported, so we made camp instead. We still had to go into town to obtain supplies, but we left that to Lagodir and Drodie, who would stand much less chance of being recognized by anyone. I did my best to imagine myself reclining at ease in the Pony, which was easier than usual since the weather was quite pleasant today.

Sterday, 20th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Northern Bree-fields, Bree-land

The weather continued to co-operate today, although I'm beginning to think whatever battles may be going on at Annuminas might be well over by the time we ever get back there. Once again we were not allowed to rest within the walls of the town (Trestlebridge) so as to keep our position a secret. I have a new pouch-full of tobacco thanks to Drodie's trip to the Bree-market yesterday, so I am content. Lagodir is becoming noticeably irritable and keeps urging us to make speed. He should try being three-and-a-half feet tall and on a cross-country march sometime, especially when everyone else is nearly twice your size.

Sunday, 21st of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Torogethir's Camp, at the Edges of Evendim

We passed swiftly and silently through Trestlebridge in the early hours of the morning today so as not to make a stir. From there it was several hours of steady marching north up the Greenway then into the Fields of Fornost. That place was still dire and sickly, but it was also quiet and did not seem so threatening. We passed through unhindered, although I felt we were being watched the whole way.

We reached Torogethir's campsite well after sundown, for Lagodir is constantly pressing us to move farther and faster. Tempers have been flaring a bit today as all of us are becoming more than a little road-weary. I'm glad to be finally going to sleep.

Monday, 22nd of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Island of Tinnudir, Evendim

It was a long trek from Torogethir's camp to Tinnudir, but under Lagodir's Lash (as Nephyn and I have begun calling the Gondorian's incessant demands to hurry) we covered the entire distance in a single day. When we finally reached the Rangers' camp at dusk we found it in a very different state than when we were last here: everyone was grim and quiet. Calenglad, their leader, greeted us with kind words, but nary a smile ever crossed his lips during the entire exchange. The situation in Annuminas was apparently quite bad, and we resolved to go to the front lines first thing in the morning. Gaelira also asked whether she might still find Mallacai on the island, but Calenglad shook his head.

"The Elves left some time ago," he said. "They proved very capable warriors when they joined us in forays against the Angmarim, I'll not deny it, but there were not enough of them. Also, frankly, I suspect they had other business of their own here about which they would not speak to me."

We quickly prepared for sleep. I don't quite understand everything being discussed, but it sounds for all the world to me as if tomorrow we will be charging headlong into a live battlefield! I will try to stick close to the others and do what I can, whatever happens.

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 33.1

The Gondorian's Tale

Mersday, 12th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell
The Dagger of Ohtar Turma
It has been three days now since we returned triumphant from the bitter heights of the Misty Mountains. Our welcome was quite an event, let me tell you, for our Company played a significant part in the thwarting of the goblins' attack on the Valley of the Elves as well as the rescue of two long-lost members of Elrond's household. I've since discovered it is now the evening of the third day (one tends to lose track of time when reposing here), and I am sad to report that we will be setting out in the morning -- leaving Rivendell again and, this time, perhaps never to return.

The past three days were mostly spent resting, eating, drinking, singing, and (when I could not avoid it in favor of more pleasant things) preparing for the next phase of our journey. From the others I got the vague notion we were to head back west, but I must admit I wasn't paying too much attention to all their talk of marching, camping, and questing. If someone had told me then and there that I could never leave that house again for the rest of my life I probably would have danced for joy.

Instead of that, what I got was a long tale of dread and sadness. This morning the Company assembled just beyond the doors of the Last Homely House, across a swift stream and upward on a small lawn where there are a few stone benches. We were all in a merry mood -- all except Lagodir. There was something about his demeanor which made me guess (rightly) that we had been gathered to hear what Elrond had to say to him shortly after our return to the valley from our adventures in Goblin-town three days earlier. After sharing greetings and some of our usual banter, we turned our attention to the Man, who sat with downcast eyes.

"No doubt you are all wondering why Elrond called me to him so quickly once we had come back down from the mountains," he began. "A letter had arrived from Calenglad, the Ranger-captain on the island of Tinnudir. It was addressed to Aragorn, who I understand is the leader of these Northmen, but Elrond has taken it upon himself to share its contents with me."

"Some great need must have driven Calenglad to trust to a written message," said Gaelira with raised eyebrows. "I would hate to think what might have happened if it had fallen into the wrong hands."

"You perceive aright the great need of Calenglad and his folk, for things have taken a bad turn in Annuminas," said Lagodir. "It seems the occupation of that place has been doubled since our little foray there many days ago, and now the Dunedain are in danger of losing their foothold within the city. The leader of Angmar's thralls is named Balhest, who is thought to be one of the Black Numenoreans out of Carn Dum, but chief among his captains is a foul wraith of Mordor."

"I know this wraith, this Guloth," Lagodir said as his eyes became piercing and hard. "Many years ago, I led an expedition into the Morgul Vale. My Lord Denethor had become desperate for tidings of our Enemy and his doings away in the Black Land, for the rumours were that he had returned to his Dark Tower. We began to fear he was gathering strength and meant to make war upon us, and so small parties of spies were sent to scout various points on the edges of his realm. It was my lot to lead the group which would cast its unwilling eyes upon Minas Ithil of old, now twisted and perverse under the influence of the servants of the Nameless." Lagodir paused; his eyes seemed to see things far away from us and his fingers worked. We all waited patiently.

"We encountered no resistance until we neared the gates of that accursed tower," he continued in a hushed voice. "But as we went to cross the bridge which spans the Morgulduin, we became ensnared by some dark sorcery. To me, it seemed to emanate from two statues of hideous design which stood like sentries on either side of that bridge. A fell cry went up and before we knew what was happening we were surrounded. A blackness fell upon my company then and we were slaughtered like sheep -- all save myself. I was taken prisoner and brought to the lowest dungeons under that hellish City. For three years I anguished beneath that Tower; the very place where my forebears had fought and died for Elendil, but now was become a pit of utter despair and torment. I do not think any living thing, fair or foul, resides there except against its own will. Any living thing, say I, for there are other things which haunt the passes of Morgul Vale, yet I deem they live not. One such was Guloth: my host and chief torturer. Many long hours did I spend in his company."

He paused in his tale. The rest of us were quiet and tense. The Sun itself seemed to have dimmed as we five walked the vile passageways on the Tower of the Black Wraiths in our collective minds.

"Guloth," said Lagodir again. "He flayed my flesh and withered my mind and soul. I felt I was nearing the end of my life, but then a strange thing happened: I saw -- not dreamed, but saw -- in shadowy form the ghosts of my ancestors, the spirits of the House of Turma, long dead. They spoke to me of the doom of Gondor and the ruination of all lands, but my will hardened and I would not be cowed. Then, one day, I discovered a tunnel which led out of my cell through the walls and beneath the earth. It must have been a secret way made by the city's original architects before it fell to the Enemy more than a thousand years ago. I followed it, and found myself outside of the Morgul Vale, free at last. After much hunger and wandering, I was rescued by two Rangers of Ithilien who recognized me by my uniform, tattered and dishevelled as it was. I was returned to Minas Tirith and slowly nursed back to health, but I had not the strength to wield blade again. The Lord Denethor questioned me relentlessly for two days on what I had learned during my captivity. Finally, satisfied that I had told him everything, I was dismissed from the army and permitted to go where I would. It was some time later when I decided to make my journey to the North and our paths crossed. And now I see clearly the path I must follow next: I will return to Annuminas. I will find Guloth. And I will destroy him forever. I do not ask any of you to come with me."

There was a silence. The roar of the Falls went on and on, unbroken by any of our voices for many minutes. Finally, Gaelira spoke.

"You have a great claim on my companionship after everything that has passed between us since we first met," she said quietly. "I shall accompany you. But how do you propose to defeat this terrible servant of evil?"

Here, the Gondorian drew forth a dagger with a cleverly carven handle and a long, bright blade.

"Now at last I keep my promise to you, Padryc," he said to me with a smile, "For here is the dagger of Ohtar Turma, which Elrond gifted to me upon our arrival to Rivendell some days ago. It is the work of Westernesse, but older far even than the Sword of Ringdor which you bear, Nephyn. This blade, unassuming though it may be in appearance, shall be the end of the wraith Guloth. And I shall be the one to strike that blow. Whether or not you choose to journey with me I must go. I shall be grateful for your friendship, Gaelira, but I lay no claim upon any of you."

"For my part," I said thoughtfully, "It seems clear that our earlier excursion into Annuminas has put those Ranger chaps in a rather bad spot. So it's only fitting that we should do our part to help them out of it. You can count me in." I hoped I sounded braver than I felt.

"And I am with the Company," said Nephyn with a smile. "Whether you will it or not."

"As for me," said Drodie with a shrug, "I am up for a good battle and it sounds like Annuminas is just the place to find one. Besides, by my count we still owe two of Angmar's champions there a good thumping."

The rest of the day was spent in preparation for our early departure on the morrow. I had the opportunity to say farewell to Mr. Bilbo. He told me to bring him back some descriptions of Annuminas and advised me to stay clear of the Seekers of the Seven Stars (apparently forgetting that he had already done so), but wished us all the very best. I spent another long time alongside him in the Hall of Fire earlier this evening, and afterward I found the Company loitering about the main courtyard of the house. They were all crowded around something I could not see, so after helping Mr. Baggins reach his room I hurried back to see what all the excitement was about.

It turned out to be none other than Thorgest the Dwarf. He was down on leave from his watchpost high up in the Misty Mountains, and he also brought us a bit of news. The goblins had all retreated back to Goblin-town where it appeared the Great Goblin was desperately trying to hold onto his throne, for the sounds of battle under the earth could be heard at most times of the day and night. He also mentioned Gloin's regrets that he was called away on his errand to King Dain with such urgency, but the venerable Dwarf had left us his undying thanks for our services along with a not unsubstantial sum of money. This proved providential, for our Company had been running dreadfully short on coin for some days and we had all been concerned about where we might pick up more for the purchasing of necessities: a life on the move, I have discovered, is not a cheap enterprise to maintain. Of course we expressed our supreme thanks to Thorgest and, after many bows and sweeping of hats or hoods, we all retired for the night.

Even now that I have written down all of today's events I am having trouble getting to sleep. I'd be happy to never leave this peaceful valley ever again, but at the same time I know that I must. I feel certain the Company still has an important part to play in these times, even if I still can't see clearly my own part in it all. Also, something about Lagodir and his account of the Morgul Vale has me feeling a bit on edge. I think I shall mention it, quiet-like, to Gaelira whenever I should happen to get the chance.

Highday, 13th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The High Moor, Somewhere in the Trollshaws

This morning was a solemn affair. Elrond and select members of his household bid us farewell on the steps of the Last Homely House under the pall of a cloudy sky. There was no particular reason for me to feel so gloomy after our recent successes, I suppose, and yet I could not help it in light of our departure from that happy valley. I reclined against a tree some ways off from the rest of the Company where I was unable to overhear the conversation between the master of Rivendell and my companions; I was in no mood for whatever ominous warnings and dark prophecies were probably being thrown around at that hour.

Instead, I cast my mind over the contents of my pack, now newly replenished with equipment suitable for a life on the Road. Best that at least one of us keep a clear head about such things, I thought to myself. Far more practical than giving a mind to all of this gloomy talk about wraiths, armies, and the rest of it. Imagine listening to such nonsense at your age! I had stocked up on balms and medicines, trail food, tea leaves, cram, and of course pipe-weed (But not enough to last us more than a fortnight, I shouldn't wonder). My desire for adventure was at its lowest ebb since our journey began.

Once the traditional exchange of courtesies had been made and we had thanked Elrond many, many times for his hospitality, we did finally leave Rivendell in earnest. The long, dull climb out of the valley began as we headed southward. Our intent was to return to the High Moor, taking it fairly easy, and make camp somewhere near to the Ford of Bruinen, which we would cross first thing on the morrow. As we trudged up the winding path which led away from Imladris, I cast my eye about me. It was still winter, of course, but at that time and in that valley you would scarcely have known it if it weren't for the depressing cloud cover on that particular morning. The pine-trees were swaying in the breeze, insects were buzzing about their business, and even the grass was full and fragrant. Then, looking skyward, I saw a large bird circling directly above us. I tugged at Gaelira's sleeve, as she was nearest to me.

"See that?" I asked as I pointed. "That must be the first bird of prey I've seen in all the days we've spent in Rivendell. Odd that I never noticed it before."

"Not at all odd," Gaelira answered, not even bothering to look up at the object of my attention. "The wind currents down in this narrow valley are too treacherous for most large birds to navigate safely, and there is game aplenty roaming the High Moor in any case. No, that bird has a particular interest in us." I looked at her.

"Oh?" I asked, genuinely intrigued. "And what might that be? Is Drodie walking around with raw meat in his satchel again?" The Elf chuckled.

"No, at least not that I know of," she said. "But I see you did not hear our counsels before we departed this morning, so I shall enlighten you. You should know that Hremm, our trusty raven-friend, will no longer be accompanying us on our journey. He followed us all the way here, but now he has found a mate and will not leave again. However, it seems word of our exploits against the goblins of the Misty Mountains have reached the ears of Gwaihir the Windlord, the Lord of all Eagles, and he has pledged one of his people to our service. The feud between the Eagles and the goblins is a bitter one, and so we have earned ourselves another valuable ally."

"You don't say!" I exclaimed as I tried to get a better look at our new companion. "What, will he fight for us and claw at the eyes of our enemies then?"

"Perhaps, if the need is very great," came Gaelira's reply. "But the way of the Eagles typically is to interfere as little as may be in the activities of those that go on two legs. Also, this is not one of the enormous Great Eagles: he is of a lesser strain, though still somewhat larger than your average preying bird, so we won't be riding him anywhere like your good Mr. Baggins did once, long ago. His name is Malkan, and he is a rather quiet sort, but he is brave and absolutely loyal to his liege-lord Gwaihir. More importantly --" and here Gaelira did finally look to the sky and shielded her eyes with her long, white hand, "I suspect his company is also a mutually agreed-upon arrangement between Gwaihir and the Lord Elrond." I pondered this last for a moment.

"You mean, so he can keep an eye on us?"

"On me, more likely," she said with a mischievous grin. I smiled in response, but then I realized that, in our talk, the two of us had lagged somewhat behind the others. Now was the perfect moment for me to ask Gaelira about something which had been on my mind without the others overhearing.

"I was wondering, you know," I began a bit clumsily, for it was an uncomfortable subject to broach, "About Lagodir. Or, well, about what he told us yesterday." I could hear Gaelira take a deep breath, almost a sigh, and then I went on. "Does anything seem at all, erm, odd to you about his story? I mean, I wouldn't dream of saying he's being untruthful --"

"No, I do not think so either," Gaelira said, cutting me off (for which I was grateful). "But your insight serves you well -- the idea that someone, anyone, could so easily fly from Imlad Morgul on their own is not possible. The only conclusion, therefore, is that he was permitted to leave. I certainly believe that Lagodir believes he managed his own escape, but I know too well the wiles of the Enemy and his delight in destroying the minds and wills of his prisoners to think his version of events is the full truth. The real question is: why did the Enemy release him?"

"You don't think... you don't suppose he would betray us, do you?" I asked in a quavering voice.

"I think we need not fear treachery," Gaelira answered in little more than a whisper. "There are some things even the sorceries of the Enemy cannot break, though he can sow doubt, mistrust, and loathing in others. I doubt not that our friend is wholly loyal to us and harbours no thoughts of evil intent, but if the long lives of the Eldar has taught us anything it is that even good intent can turn to evil when the fire of passion is not cooled by rational thought." We walked for a few moments in silence.

"Lagodir must have been a mighty champion among his people indeed, if he is now only a shadow of his former strength as he says," I observed. "I shudder to think what he could do if really roused to anger."

"As do I," the she-Elf said. "What might a Man do to regain what he sees as his lost honour? And what also for vengeance? I am no Man, so I cannot say, but it shall be our duty, I think, to care for our friend and intercede for him if events go ill. Yet I know not what form such a thing may take, if it comes, so I beg you to say naught of what we have discussed -- neither to Lagodir nor even to the others. We know nothing for certain and have seen before what even the appearance of mistrust can do among the Company. But come, Padryc, the others are getting far ahead of us."

This seemed like sound counsel to me, so I agreed to it. We two quickened our pace to catch up to our friends, then joined Drodie and Nephyn's ongoing conversation about the merits of coffee versus tea when on a journey. But it was also then I noticed for the first time today that Lagodir was walking at a very brisk pace and had gotten well ahead of the rest of us.

Once we reached the plateau of the High Moor we struck westward, picking our way among the trees, bushes, and boulders of the forest floor toward the Ford of Bruinen. We encountered no difficulty all day and eventually settled down to a campsite which was within a stone's throw of the river. As night fell over the Trollshaws and I lay writing in this journal by the light of a small fire, I can see the Gondorian seated some distance away and with his back to us, staring out into the West. I thought about his long captivity and torment at the hands of the Dark Lord's minions and wondered what sort of toll that must have taken on him. I also remember how, when we had first encountered him, he had refused to say why he had left Gondor and was seeking out Elrond of Rivendell, greatest lore-master and healer still alive in the World today. But I suspect I can now guess the reason.

I'm pretty sure I just heard thunder coming up from behind us. I certainly hope our first full day out of Rivendell is not going to be a wet one.