Monday, 22nd of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Enedwaith
Before turning in, I had quietly flipped through some of the older chapters in my journal. A lot of the writing I now find appalling, but I'm very glad to have kept this record. Some of the events I had completely forgotten -- like that time we turned a live troll to stone and Drodie had gotten stuck in its paw -- while others I remembered as vividly as you can image, such as the terrifying battle with Guloth outside the Rift of Nurz Ghashu.
It also got me thinking about all the different people with whom we had occasion to interact over the course of our adventures. Some notables, like Strider and Elrond, but also the un-famous: Luean, Raviron, Wenhair, Laddald, Umarth, and Inar, alongside many others. Now I must add Ancthas and Lagodir to that long and growing list. I felt a stabbing ache of regret when I thought of Lagodir's leaving us just a couple of days ago, and I fell to wondering how we was faring with Leofwald, the Rohirric knight who had summoned him to the Prince Theodred (whoever that may be, exactly).
I was laying on my back when I awoke. The sky overhead was a bright and cheerful blue, and I suddenly felt very happy, as if I was lying in a field full of summer blossoms somewhere in the Shire while lazing the day away. The branches of the trees in the midst of which we had made our camp swayed calmly in the light breeze and I marked to myself just how beautiful the weather was shaping up to be. Distantly, I could still hear the constant rush of the falls which had very nearly killed me two days earlier, but now it sounded calming and serene to me. For a few precious moments the fact that we were about to embark upon another long, dangerous journey didn't bother me in the slightest. I sighed, but it was an expression of contentment.
"Good morning, Padryc," came Nephyn's voice from somewhere near to my right hand. "How did you sleep?"
"Quite well," I said, but I did not turn toward my companion. Indeed, I didn't move a muscle -- I was that complacent. "Is your shoulder doing any better?"
"A bit," the huntress replied, but I heard a tinge of frustration in her words. "It was definitely a good idea that I did not try to scale Nar's Peak with you, Gaelira, and Drodie yesterday. I just hope the terrain isn't too rough in the direction we'll be taking today."
"It should not be," came Gaelira's voice, and at that point I did sit up and look around. I saw Nephyn near at hand: she was reclining against a tree-trunk with a few fruit-rinds and a water-skin beside her, as if she had just breakfasted. Minasse and the she-Elf were approaching together -- apparently they had been off somewhere -- and there was no sign of Drodie.
"Gaelira is right," said Minasse. "Our road now lies westward through the valley of Thror's Coomb. The going will be quite manageable, though it can be a bit rocky at times, as is common enough in this land."
"The greater concern is the way we must go," Gaelira continued. "We must return to the West-gate of Moria, then make our way north to the Redhorn Pass. To reach it, however, we must first cross the river to our north by way of the Araniant. That bridge is a long day's march west of our current position. Unfortunately, there is also a Dunlending village in the middle of the straight path thither, and we should not take unnecessary risks. Therefore, we will be obliged to circumvent that settlement by passing well to its south, and that will mean our journey to the bridge will likely take twice as long."
"Well, if the weather stays like this I don't think I'll mind," I said with a grin. "What time is it? And when do we start?"
"It's about half-eight," Nephyn answered me, "And we can get underway as soon as you've breakfasted. We would have woken you sooner, but it seemed unfair to do so after a prolonged night of merry-making."
"I'm grateful for your consideration," I said as I began rummaging through the food-stores. "So! I'm now thirty-seven years old, though I'm sure that counts for nothing next to our two Elvish friends here. It probably is quite young even in comparison to Master Drodie, now I think of it. Where has he gotten himself off to, anyway?"
"Not far!" came the Dwarf's boisterous halloo, and his bearded face suddenly bobbed over the grass to the north of us -- from the direction of the river. I was just about to shout him a greeting, but then my voice faltered as I stared: Drodie was naked down to his waist and sopping wet! He carried a spear in his right hand while his left was slung over his shoulder supporting something I could not see.
"What on earth have you been up to?" I asked in bewilderment, but the Dwarf only flashed me an enormous grin.
"Fishing!" he replied, then he swung his bundle down and I saw it contained half a dozen trout, each of which had at least one sizable gash through its body. A moment later I had put two-and-two together.
"What, spear-fishing?!" I asked, incredulous. "You mean to say you've been down in that freezing cold river stabbing at trout all morning?"
"Of course!" he laughed, "And done a right pretty job of it too, if I may say so. All that's needed now is a good smoking, a good salting, and there's supper for the lot of us!"
"Can't argue that," I said as I eyed the catch hungrily. "We'll need to clean and prepare them, of course, and that will take time. It'll delay the start of our march, but it'll mean we can keep going longer since the meat will just need to be heated again before we eat it. Well done, Drodie!"
"Where did you get the spear?" asked Minasse, who was peering suspiciously at the Dwarf's fishing implement.
"Eh? Oh, I nicked it off a deer-carcass I found early this morning while scavenging for fire-wood," Drodie answered. "Seemed like just the thing, what with the river so near to camp."
"A deer-carcass, you say?" said Gaelira, becoming interested in her turn. "You mean the spear was used to fell a deer but was then simply left there while the hunter made off with his kill?"
"No, not exactly," said Drodie with a frown. "Actually, I did find it a bit odd at the time: the spear was left, but so was the deer; it was untouched. It was as if the hunter got his kill then simply left everything there to rot in the Sun -- spear, venison, and all -- and it was a magnificent white stag too, when it was still alive. The kill was at least two days old, I would think, by the look of it."
"You... you don't suppose... Izarrair?" I stammered. The thought of a malicious spearman stalking through the woods had reminded me of our (we suspected) still un-bested foe.
"I do not think so," said Minasse. "That is certainly a Dunlending spear -- it looks almost identical to any of the ones used by Izarrair's lackeys when we were ambushed before. That does not mean there is any connexion between Izarrair's Men and this hunter, of course, but it is certainly unusual for anyone to go to the trouble of bringing down a deer then casually abandoning the prize to decay. Particularly if it was as large and impressive as Drodie makes out. How curious!"
"What do you suppose it means?" I asked as I looked over each of my companions faces in turn.
"I certainly have no idea," admitted Nephyn, "But I agree such behaviour is abnormal. Perhaps this Dunlending hunter was himself attacked, maybe by another tribesman eager to steal his kill?"
"Then why didn't he?" Drodie countered. Nephyn shrugged.
"Good point," she conceded. Something in her voice caught my attention, but I thought better of mentioning it at the time.
"Where was it you found the weapon, Drodie?" Gaelira asked. "I would like to examine the place, if possible."
"Certainly," the Dwarf nodded. "I will show you the way once I have dried and clothed myself."
Once he had done this, Drodie and Gaelira went off southward toward a belt of trees while I began cleaning and preparing the fish. Minasse was flipping through hand-written copies of the Dwarf-tome we read in Zudrugund, but he didn't seem able to read ancient Dwarvish, so his efforts were, I think, mostly wasted. Nephyn fell silent and kept to herself.
Gaelira and Drodie returned to camp a short while later. The she-Elf's face was lined with concern.
"It is just as Drodie had told us," she reported. "The carcass remains there, rotting in the heat of the day. I find it all very peculiar. Have you begun smoking the fish yet, Padryc?"
"Not yet," I said. "I was just about to do, though."
"Do not," she said. "Fry them instead, please, and see that the fire smokes as little as possible. Minasse, Drodie: let the three of us be on the watch while Padryc cooks and Nephyn rests. And we should speak only at need. I feel there is something strange afoot in this region."
And so what had looked at first to be a pleasant day turned instead into a silent and morose morning of tasks. I saw to the provender while Nephyn rested her shoulder and the other three stood around on guard. I went about my work as quietly as I could manage and, when it was done, I salted the fillets and let them cool in order to be wrapped. Once all was ready, we stowed our future supper, gathered our belongings, scattered the ashes of our campfire, shouldered our burdens, and started to march.
We set off going south-west, with the slopes and spires of Harndirion rising high before us. It was a very clear day, so we could easily see the Dunlending village to our right that we were keen to avoid, but we kept ourselves hidden by screening behind tree-walls as often as possible. We encountered no enemies and heard nothing but the forest-calls of birds and other small creatures. Gaelira always seemed to be hearing strange noises, however, and she would often turn her head this way and that at the slightest sound. Her demeanour was making me nervous, truth be told, and after a while I simply decided to ignore her -- I had seen nor heard anything that sounded even remotely threatening all day, and I grew tired of being constantly on edge.
We all had a nibble out of our packs around noon which passed as "lunch," but we never stopped marching. It wasn't until sometime after three that we finally had a proper rest, at which point we started to bear in a more westerly direction. The Dunlending village wasn't even visible by then, so we were all just ambling through the woods without much worry. Gaelira was still acting unusually skittish, but at that particular time she, Minasse, and Drodie had all wandered a bit ahead of Nephyn and myself. It had been obvious to me since breakfast that she was being very reserved today and I meant to find out what was bothering my friend. I decided it was as good a time as any to try probing her a little.
"How's the shoulder now?" I asked, taking the easy route to starting up a conversation. "Today's exertions haven't been too hard on you, I hope?"
"No," she said (a little abruptly, I thought), "It's uncomfortable, of course, but I'm managing well enough."
"Glad to hear it," I said. There was a brief pause as we walked. "It feels strange being only five again, doesn't it? I was missing Lagodir this morning."
"I miss him too," she said quietly. "We could have used his sword-arm that night when Izarrair attacked."
"Too right, you are!" I agreed, "I have a feeling that won't be the last time we wish he was still with us, though I hope I'm wrong. I trust he is doing well, wherever he is now."
"He is in strong company," she said. "That Leofwald looked to be a capable knight."
"To say nothing of Ancthas," I nodded, "Though, of course, his road only led him back to the south of Dunland. Still, he was an honourable chap, wasn't he? Helped us out of a couple of tight spots, he did!"
"He did, and he certainly was. Honourable, I mean. Even Lagodir eventually came to admit as much."
"Did he?" I said with raised eyebrows, then I frowned as I searched my memory. "When was that, then? I don't seem to recall him saying any such thing when I was around -- quite the opposite, actually. I suppose this must have happened while I was bumping along as the cargo of Smuin or Bedwur's Men?"
"No, it was after we had all met up again at Harndirion, shortly before we parted ways," she replied. "He and I had not... seen eye-to-eye on several subjects during our travels through Dunland so, as it was clear that he would be leaving us, I wished to resolve those differences and ensure we parted as friends. He said he had seen the strength, pride, and honour of the Dunlendings in Ancthas and his people, though he remains highly distrustful of them, I think. Still, he said he had learned to not judge them over-broadly and admitted he had been too harsh in assuming they were all alike."
"Well, that's something, anyway," I said. "And I do remember seeing the two of you talking, now you mention it. You don't suppose he was just saying those things for your own sake? To spare your feelings?"
"I doubt that," she said with a slight smile. "You may have forgotten this, Padryc, but you are still the only one among us who knows of my connexion to this land."
"Why, so I am!" I laughed. "I'm sorry; sometimes I forget I know you better than the others. Which reminds me -- why didn't you want to tell us what you really thought about Drodie's spear this morning?" Nephyn looked at me sharply.
"What makes you think I was withholding anything?" she asked.
"Oh, come on, Neph!" I chuckled. "You're not as opaque as all that; not to me, anyway. I suspect your hunter-skills told you more about Drodie's spear than you let on, but you didn't want to frighten us, am I right?"
"Not exactly," she sighed. "It's a little more complicated than that. I think... I think whoever felled that deer left it there because they were frightened."
"Well, that certainly seems to fit," I agreed. "Why else leave it there, spear and all, when you had just bagged your supper? But what do you suppose it was that frightened him off? An animal?" Nephyn paused.
"I think it was the Huntsman," she said, finally.
"The Huntsman," she repeated. "Don't you remember? We heard him referred to a few times throughout Dunland and all the various clans seemed to hold him in reverence. I think it was he I saw the night before last."
"You mean in your dream?" I asked, trying to understand her.
"It wasn't a dream," she said. "It couldn't have been because I was never awake when Minasse tended my wound, but when I saw the Huntsman my shoulder had already been dressed. And I saw him, Padryc -- I saw the Huntsman. He was curious about us and he wanted me to know he would be watching. I think he has some strange connexion to this land and he wants to protect it from something."
"And you think the Huntsman scared off whoever it was that killed the stag?"
"I know I can't prove it, but yes," she replied. "I think... I think it might have made the Huntsman angry." I blinked several times as I processed what she said to me.
"Well, I... I suppose it's certainly possible..." I started to say.
"Oh, don't humour me, Pad," Nephyn pleaded, and I was surprised to hear the pain in her voice. "You think I don't know how absurd I sound? I'm saying it because I know it. I saw it -- I saw him. I don't know what he wants; maybe he doesn't want anything from us. I'm just saying it because it's true... and because I know I can trust you."
"Hey, didn't we once fight a wraith who took over our friend's body and tried to conquer half of Middle-earth with the help of a snow-witch and a ten-thousand-year-old demon?" I laughed. "Who am I to say it didn't happen? We've seen stranger things before, you and I, and only a fool wouldn't recognise that there's something more than a little 'off' about this place anyway. Listen, I won't say anything to the others if you'd rather I didn't. We'll just keep our eyes open, right? Just you and me."
"Thank you," she said quietly, "That's all I really wanted to hear."
We didn't speak again, the two of us, but we moved to catch the others up and eventually did. The Sun sailed into the West and began to go down behind the hills as we finally passed Harndirion on our left. It wasn't until well after dusk that we stopped for the day. Drodie lit a fire and I re-heated the trout in my frying-pan with a few spices. Our supper was finer that what we had become accustomed to after months on the road, but it was also quiet and tense. Gaelira was still anxious about something, Nephyn was withdrawn, Minasse was sullen and aloof, while I was thoroughly uncomfortable, although I couldn't quite pinpoint why. Only Drodie seemed immune to the general sense of restlessness among us as he flipped calmly through the notes he had taken from the library at Zudrugund.
As I sit here, the light of the sunset is almost completely gone so I am writing by firelight. I'm positively aching to get out of this country! So much ill has befallen us here -- as if there's been a curse following us around. I'm starting to think I see Izarrair lurking in every thicket and everyone's nerves seem frayed. Nephyn's tale about the Huntsman might seem like codswallop on the surface, but I have no doubt she believes it, and that must mean something. Maybe it doesn't make any sense, but I feel like if we can just get beyond the borders of the Enedwaith and Dunland -- get back into Hollin -- that somehow we'll be safe again. There's a wildness or a prowling menace stalking this land, and right now I want nothing more than to be rid of it for good and all.