Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 24

A High Road

Sunday, 24th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ranger-camp of Men Erain, Outside the Ruins of Annuminas
The Ruins of Annuminas
I cannot express to you, Dear Reader, just how good it feels to have my toes back on solid ground again. This entire day was not at all to my liking as we spent most of it at an altitude which is simply not natural, leastways not for hobbits. But, at the end of it all, we did accomplish one of the many tasks set to us by that Elf called Mallacai. Let me tell you what happened.

When I woke up I was very glad I did so. Although I had slept quite well, waking up and finding yourself on the idyllic shores of Lake Nenuial under a sapphire sky with just the right number of puffy clouds is better than even most dreams might chance to be. I sat up, fully awake, stretched, and breathed deeply. The air was crisp but not chilly and I found myself wondering why I had been permitted to sleep so long.

My companions were all up and about their own business. Gaelira was poring over maps of the environs, Lagodir was off somewhere having his sword sharpened by a smithy, Nephyn was busy organizing our stores, and Drodie was busy eating them. For myself, I casually ambled over and snatched up some rashers of bacon and a pouch of dried fruit while Nephyn tutored the Dwarf on what was the proper portion of cured beef to which a wise adventurer ought to limit himself -- without success. I suppressed my laughter and stole away quietly to sit at the base of an enormous pine-tree which grew right at the edge of the water.

As I sat there breakfasting, I pondered the various tasks which Mallacai had laid before us. He had asked us to hunt down several creatures and servants of the Enemy which sounded quite terrifying and which seemed to be located in a wide range of places. Three of the places he had mentioned I had actually heard of before. The name Annuminas had been thrown around more than once in the past day or two, and I gathered it was the ruins of some large, important, and ancient city of Men who used to make their capital in this region. It logically followed that place must be fairly close by. The Trollshaws and Goblin-town I knew from the silly tales told to hobbit-children about Old Mad Baggins, of all things. If memory served, the Trollshaws was a wooded area somewhere between Bree and the Misty Mountains where Baggins had encountered his first serious adventure by bumping into three large trolls. Goblin-town, meanwhile, was supposed to have been the place where Baggins and his thirteen Dwarven companions were captured by the goblins high up in the Misty Mountains themselves. The idea that we might be going there made me shudder, for although I had never really believed them, the stories had always described that place in a most horrid manner. As for Sarnur and the lurking place of the mysterious "Red-maid," I had absolutely no idea, and I hoped my friends might be able to puzzle them out for us. I wondered too what sort of boon Mallacai's expert craftsmen would be able to create for us, if we should prove successful. It was all rather exciting -- at least for now, since I was calmly munching on fruit by a beautiful lakeside and currently in no danger whatsoever.

The next several hours proved dull and tedious, so I will not bore you with extensive details. The Company came together and decided, since it was relatively nearby, to attempt and collect the armour of Angmar's champions in Annuminas first. The mood among us was buoyant as a result of having one of our new objectives waiting for us so close by: even from where we stood we could see the stone spires of the ancient city rising majestically over the lake. But I wore a wry face, for it still looked a long ways off to me.

It turned out I was right. Because the Rangers did not wish to risk betraying their position on Tinnudir, there were no boats available to take us straight across the lake to the outskirts of Annuminas. Instead, we were forced to march back across the stone bridge, wheel north back to the cross-roads with the stone king we had passed the day before, take the southward road from there, climb up a steep rise, and finally descend down toward a river. This turned out to be the Brandywine River, of all things, though we were many leagues north of the Shire, and this spur actually ran out of Lake Evendim itself before it turned south and flowed down toward my homeland. At this point, the road crossed the Brandywine by way of a massive bridge of stone which was crowned with the most colossal statue I have ever seen in my life. I would have traced a rough copy of it in this journal, but it was so large you couldn't possibly get a good view of it unless you were standing a mile or more off and had a clear line of sight. There was a contingent of Rangers camped beneath that statue (and right on the bridge itself), but we only stayed long enough to have a light lunch and get some directions from them. I sat under the statue and wondered how many hobbits would have to stand on top of each other to reach the tip of that gargantuan piece of masonry.

Soon we were moving on. Just on the south side of the bridge, the Rangers told us, we would find a rough track leading west that would take us to the ruins of Annuminas. We found this without difficulty and followed it as it looped around the foot of a sheer cliff. As we turned the corner, we were met with a most interesting sight.

The path ran onward, but it suddenly became quite well-laid (although still very ancient and clearly not recently maintained). It proceeded in almost a straight line in front of us, but smaller tracks split off to the side at many points, and at the ends of these were what looked to me like several large stone houses, but Lagodir explained that they were really tombs of kings long dead. There were gorgeous willow-trees lining the road, their long limbs reaching far down to drink in the water of the lake, but not far ahead of us we could see a small band of Men busy about a group of ruins upon a low island. It was clear they were not foes, so we made our way to them.

They were indeed Rangers and they were led by a dour-faced Man named Maladan. From him we learned that the main road into Annuminas was blocked by many enemies and we would have little hope of entering the city that way. He suggested instead that we follow the paths into the hills, for there was a track there which led around the front entrance and descended into the city behind the main gate. That sounded hopeful, so far as it went, so after another brief rest we continued on our way. It was already after the noon hour.

A short ways on, we came upon a mighty stair which climbed up, up, up into the hills. Soon we were picking our way among the rocks, slowly working our way south toward the city. I was chiefly concerned with trying to not look down, for there was nothing at all between me and a straight drop hundreds of feet to my death. If you aren't already aware, I can tell you that we hobbits do not like heights, as a rule. Even our homes never have more than one storey, and we prefer to never stand on anything taller than a short step-ladder. My poor head was quite addled by the altitude, even though my companions insisted we were nowhere near high up enough for me to be experiencing dizziness. When we were well back away from the edge of the cliffs, however, I did take the occasion to look at the sight before me. And let me tell you: no matter what happens to me in the course of this adventure, that sight was worth the risk.

"Lagodir, are there mighty buildings of stone like this in your homeland of Gondor?" Nephyn asked as we all stood looking out over Lake Evendim. At least a dozen towers of impressive craftsmanship rose high into the air and gleamed in the afternoon Sun.

"There are," the Man replied, "Though, like Annuminas, many places in Gondor have now fallen into ruin or disrepair. Osgiliath, the greatest of our mason-works and the capital of my country before its eastern half was overrun by the hordes of the Black Land, is one such. Proud Minas Ithil stands still, but it is defiled by the agents of the Enemy. Only Minas Tirith yet holds her defiant vigil o'er the plains of the Pelennor and the Harlond, and she is today the greatest example remaining. Like these spires you see before you now, the upper levels of the Tower of Guard rise so high that, on some days, they can be lost in the fleece of low-riding clouds."

"Well, here's a funny thing!" Nephyn chuckled. "We have in this Company one who has lived deep beneath the earth, another who lives just below the surface, two who (I assume) walk upon it, and now one who apparently has lived among the clouds! Perhaps Gaelira will now tell us she has walked among the stars?"

"Not I," said Gaelira with a warm smile. "Although I do not deny I would do so, if somehow given the chance."

"And I have not lived among the clouds, Nephyn," Lagodir said with a laugh. "The higher tiers of Minas Tirith are restricted in these uncertain times and only those who know the pass-words are permitted into them. I myself have only lived in the lowest circle of the White City."

I looked at them as we all cast our eyes over the magnificent sight before us. The Sun was westering and her light was falling fully on us so that every bit of iron and steel seemed to glisten as if it were gold or brightly polished silver. Each of them looked in that moment like mighty heroes of ancient legend, and I was proud to count myself among them. I noticed how the contention in our ranks seemed to have melted away now that we had a clear mission to pursue, and I dared to hope that the mistrust among us had evaporated like a shallow puddle on a hot day in Wedmath.

Speaking of summertime, I found myself thanking goodness that it wasn't summertime over the next few hours. The going became quite difficult as we searched and searched among the rocks for a way down into Annuminas. The Sun ceased to be flattering and instead became merely burdensome and hot. We ended up having to backtrack multiple times as we tried out several downward pathways, but finally, as the day reached the sixth hour after noon, we found what we were looking for.

The track ran steeply downward and right into the city. From our vantage point, we could see we were now well behind the main entrance, which lay some distance off to our right, while the bulk of Annuminas still was to our left. But at the moment we were concerned with what was directly in front of us: a patrol of four Men, three of which were dressed in crimson robes. With a shock I recognized the attire as the same worn by the two strange Men we encountered in the Chetwood all those weeks ago. The fourth Man was taller than the others and wore leather and chain armour of some black material, and his helm was adorned with cruel-looking spikes. Before we had any chance to hide ourselves, one of the Men had spied us!

"Lord Siridan!" he cried as he pointed in our direction, "Look!"

The black-armoured Man turned and beheld us. I realized that Fate had somehow deigned that we would thus encounter the first champion of Angmar with such ease, for Siridan was one of the three warriors Mallacai had demanded Lagodir slay to prove his valour. Despite the distance, I could see his eyes narrow and his lips curl in fury. A cold fear smote me then -- a fear of what hatred can do to a Man's heart.

"Kill them!" roared Siridan.

All four Men unlimbered crossbows and aimed them at us! I had just enough wits to duck behind a stone before three bolts flew through the air. One passed through the spot I had just vacated and skipped harmlessly off the gravel behind us. A second whisked past Gaelira, who had contorted her body in order to successfully dodge the missile. The third lodged itself in Drodie's shield and stuck there. The Dwarf and Lagodir both drew their swords and charged just as one of the crimson-robed Men fell with a shaft from Nephyn's bow through his heart.

Out from two crimson robes swept two long, pale swords of steel, and Lagodir and Drodie entered the battle. I saw Nephyn trying to take aim again with her bow, but she could not get a clear shot and Siridan had concealed himself behind a half-fallen pillar of stone. I could see the black-clad warrior taking aim with a hideous-looking crossbow made of some sable-coloured material. With a thrill of terror I realized that he had a dead aim on the Dwarf!

"Drodie!" I hollered at the top of my shrill voice, "Look---"

But I was too late. There was a clank as the bolt struck Drodie's breastplate. The Dwarf groaned and dropped to one knee. The Man he was fighting smiled and raised his sword to kill. But, with Drodie out of the way, Nephyn sent an arrow through the Man's eye and he fell dead. I clapped my hands to my mouth, for the Dwarf had still not recovered and I feared he had suffered a mortal wound, but I couldn't go to him yet, for the fight was ongoing. Lagodir was furiously parrying the attacks of his quarry and I could hear shouts coming from somewhere in the distance: no doubt the noise from our skirmish was attracting attention from soldiers further inside the city. We may have had only moments before we were overwhelmed. My heart pounded, but I could think of nothing to do. With another shot of horror, I saw Siridan re-load his crossbow. He had almost the exact same view of the Gondorian that he had at Drodie, and it looked like nothing could stop him from spitting another of my friends.

That's when Gaelira suddenly appeared beside me at my hiding place behind the stone. In spite of everything going on, I couldn't help but wonder what she was doing hiding back here when our friends were in such danger, and a dark cloud of old suspicions arose in my mind. But, before I could say anything, the she-Elf pointed and said, "I have summoned for help. Look!"

Following her gaze, I saw a raven swoop down and attack Siridan, interrupting his aim!

"Hremm!" I shouted, heedless of giving away my position. "Yay, Hremm!" I jumped and waved my arms as though I was cheering on someone playing at ninepins in the Lithe Festival back home.

Siridan lowered his crossbow and swatted at the bird, but Hremm was too quick. While the champion was thus occupied, I saw Lagodir finally run through the third crimson-robed Man with his broadsword. He immediately advanced on Siridan, who had finally driven off Hremm, but too late: even as he raised his black crossbow to take aim at Lagodir, the Gondorian just seized the contraption and smashed it on the ground then placed the tip of his sword against the Man's breast. Siridan stood there, frozen in amazement and helpless. Since I was still partway up the slope, I could see small figures running hither and thither inside the city and knew that reinforcements were only moments away.

"They're coming!" I yelled. Then, in one motion as fast as lightning, Lagodir lopped Siridan's head off. The rest of the champion's body fell over while Nephyn ran down to Drodie's side. The Dwarf was still upright, but he remained doubled over and on one knee. Gaelira and I ran down to them also while Lagodir surveyed the wreck of Siridan's corpse.

"What part of this armour am I meant to take?" he asked confusedly. Somehow, I felt I knew the answer.

"The helm!" I shouted at him, "Take the helm!"

Without an argument, Lagodir seized the helm of his decapitated foe and shook the head out from inside of it. I saw it thud to the ground, still wearing a wide-eyed expression of shock. By now we could all hear hurrying feet and the clash of spears on shields.

"They are coming!" Nephyn cried as she tried to lift Drodie up. "Friend Dwarf, can you run?"

"I shall have to try," came Drodie's answer, but his voice was raspy. We immediately beat a retreat up the slope and out of Annuminas just as a rush of Angmarim appeared below us. It took them a moment to examine the bodies, but they quickly began pursuing us. Luckily, we got just enough of a head-start that they gave up the chase after only a short while.

The going was slow indeed as dusk fell over us. We took it in turns to support Drodie as we wound our way back through the hills. He made a show of refusing our offers of assistance, but he still allowed himself to lean on one of us for support as he shuffled along. His breathing was shallow and laboured. After many twists and turns, we finally emerged and found ourselves at the small Ranger-camp where we had rested earlier in the day. We immediately began to search for Drodie's wounds. I noticed spots of blood on the ground behind us on the trail we had taken.

A crimson-feathered bolt was protruding from his plate-armour, and I feared our friend had suffered a grave wound indeed. The Dwarf grimaced as we removed his covering, but it turned out that he was not very seriously injured after all: the bolt had penetrated his armour, but it had been largely foiled by the leather jerkin and padding worn underneath so that only the tip had broken the skin. The wound itself had been made worse by our long walk back as the bolt-head continually ripped at the flesh with every new movement Drodie made, and I marvelled at how he had borne the pain the entire way without complaint. The Ranger Maladan happily reported to us that the projectile was not poisoned and that all our companion needed was for the injury to be cleaned and dressed. I got a small fire going and breathed a deep sigh of relief -- I think we all did. Drodie, however, didn't seem eager to be helped. He refused to let himself or his garments be touched by Gaelira, who tried to assist him.

"Unhand me, Elf!" he bellowed and shooed her away with his arms. "I'll not have it said that one of Durin's Folk needed to be babied by some pointy-eared female. Out of my way and I will clean the wound myself."

To everyone's surprise, the Dwarf stripped down to his leggings and flung himself into the lapping waters of Lake Evendim. There was a yelp from the shoreline and Drodie came bounding back up the bank, wildly flapping his arms.

"WHOA!" he cried, "Cold! Cold!" He rushed over to my campfire and shivered. At this point, he did allow me to put a blanket over him and apply bandages to his ribs. His bushy beard was sopping and it had to be wrung out like a bath-towel, much to the amusement of the Rangers.

We enjoyed a hearty supper with the Men that evening. The sunset over the Lake was simply breathtaking: I could not possibly write any description in these pages which would do it any kind of justice, so I won't try. We ate, we laughed, and we jested until night filled the sky. In the distance we could hear the sounds of marching feet and shouted orders while the smoke of a hundred campfires of the Enemy filled the air to the south. But we knew we were safe for the moment, and I took stock of the great deeds we had done that day. The Rangers were amazed at our tale of the defeat of Siridan the champion, for many had fallen to his cruel bolts before today. It was only one-third of the very first challenge laid to us by Mallacai, but it was no small feat to see the first of our foes fall before us ere the setting of the Sun this day.

As we settled down for sleep I took time, as always, to record the events of the day. But now, even as my eyes begin to droop, I chastise myself for allowing the putrid shadow of doubt and suspicion to rise in my mind at Gaelira in the midst of the battle. What, I wonder, is really in my heart? And what of the rest of us?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 22.3

The Seekers of the Seven Stars

Sterday, 23rd of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ranger-camp on the Island of Tinnudir, Evendim
Mallacai, Leader of the Seekers of the Seven Stars
Slowly, my eyes adjusted to the dim space. That's when I noticed there were four more of the heavily armed Elves, one in each corner of the room. They stood there, still as statues, but no one else seemed to pay them any heed. The Elf Mallacai placed his hand to his breast then extended it toward us in a sign of greeting.

"Nai osto eleni calyantes tier," he said.

I nudged Gaelira.

"What?" I whispered.

"It is our traditional greeting: May the Seven Stars illuminate your path," she replied. Then she turned to Mallacai and bowed.

"Well met, my lord," she said. "Yes, we are Elladan's Outriders, and we come to you seeking aid on the heels of mighty victories against our Adversary." Out of the corner of my eye I saw Nephyn shift her weight, but she said nothing. Mallacai's eyes darted to her, but then he looked at each of us in turn. I felt rather uncomfortable under that azure gaze. I blinked and lowered my eyes a little.

"Mighty victories, indeed," he said in his sharp yet buttery voice. "I confess I had not thought it possible for your Company to succeed in Fornost, yet here you are. Perhaps I was wrong not to support Gaelira's wild schemes after all, but I shall endeavor to rectify my oversight." His words might have been harsh, but he smiled kindly as he said them. After a brief pause, he addressed Lagodir, Nephyn, Drodie, and myself.

"The four of you are due some explanation, I think," he said. "No doubt Gaelira has told you of us, the Seekers of the Seven Stars, but I will tell you more. You will see the name was not given in idle fancy. It is a long tale, for our roots reach back even unto the Elder Days, but I will shorten the telling as much as may be, for there are now great deeds to be done, and I perceive that you five shall play no small part in them."

"It has been told among the Elves since the First Age that Varda, taking pity on the Exiles in their hopeless war against Melkor in Middle-earth, desired to aid the Firstborn in the conflict. However, Manwe had forbidden any direct involvement by the Valar, and so she watched her people from her throne for many long years as they fought the long defeat. At last, the Queen of the Stars could bear the anguish no longer and sought to aid the Elves indirectly. It is told that, one unnamed night in the deep darkness of the Elder Days, Elbereth caused Seven Stars to fall to the earth -- seven artifacts of incredible power which could turn the tide of war against the Great Enemy."

"No story ever fully describes the nature of these Seven Stars, as they eventually became known. Many thought them to be powerful weapons forged by Varda herself. Other tales tell of mystical lore or shards of holy power which could undo the counterfeits of Melkor. Some even spoke of heavenly messengers which had been dispatched to wage battle against the forces of darkness. No two tales agree on these points, but all do agree that these relics were sent to seven far-reaching places throughout Middle-earth, and no one was ever able to gather all of them together in one place. Some believed all seven had to be united for their true power to be brought to bear against the enemies of the Eldar, but the histories do not agree on this point either. It has afterwards been said that at least some of these artifacts were found and used in the War of the Jewels, one of which was suspected to have been discovered by Fingolfin, or somehow brought to him, and it took the shape of a mighty sword of light, which he used to battle Morgoth himself before the gates of Angband. Whatever the case, no one knows whether any of these mighty things still exist in the wide world."

"At the end of the First Age, some said that all of the Seven Stars were lost in the cataclysm known as the War of Wrath. But most believed the Stars yet survived, hidden, perhaps, until they were once again needed in the defence of the Free Peoples."

"Rumor of their being seen or heard of inspired many a lonely adventurer or brave treasure-hunting party to search for them throughout the Ages, but if anyone had ever recovered one of the Stars, it has never been reported. This ancient saga still survives to this day, and to this day no two persons agree on just what the Seven Stars actually are -- the telling always seems to shift to match the needs of the times. In times of war they are shining greatswords that lend unconquerable courage to even the faintest of hearts. In times of peace, they become powerful relics which can command the rains and ensure a fair harvest. Whatever the truth, the legend of the Seven Stars has grown over the millenia and not faded. Few indeed are those who do not dare to hope that these mighty things still exist, probably buried deep in some Dwarf-horde or dragon's plunder."

"Long ago, in the dark years of the Second Age, Sauron betrayed the Elven-smiths of Eregion by forging in secret the One Ring to rule all the other Rings of Power. Instantly aware of the Dark Lord's treachery, the Elves took off their Three rings and hid them, knowing they would be laid bare to the Master of the One if they tried to match his power with theirs. In the ensuing War of Sauron and the Elves, many began to fear for the safety of their homeland and their folk, aware they could not turn back the armies of Mordor. They began to search for weapons that could replace the Three Rings -- weapons that would not be compromised by Sauron's master Ring. The stories of the Seven Stars were in the minds of even the mightiest Elves in those days."

"And so a kinship was formed: the Seekers of the Seven Stars. Although it was originally an organization formed by the Eldar and made up of Elves, it quickly began accepting adventurous sorts from any race throughout Middle-earth. Many of the most famous treasure-hunters in history were members, as folk from every walk of life dreamed of one day, somehow, locating just one of the fabled Seven Stars. No one ever did find one of the things, though there were many who claimed such and many others who performed great service for the Free Peoples in the ensuing wars against Mordor. But, as the Second Age ended, Sauron was vanquished, and the One Ring was lost, the Seekers dwindled in number and reputation until they were little more than a odd fellowship of a few zealous believers. But now, as the Shadow stirs again in the East and the threat of war marches across many lands, the Seekers have once again arisen to swell their ranks. Our mission is to locate any or all of the mythical Seven Stars, learn their true nature, and use them in the defense of the Free Peoples against the Shadows of the Enemy."

"Today, in the Third Age of Arda, the story of the Seven Stars still survives. Times being what they are, many now believe the Stars to be legendary implements of battle, incomparable gear of war, or the Power of Command. As the minstrels continue to weave ever more elaborate tales, we seek to combat the Enemy's ever-expanding power."

My head was in a whirl of wonder: it seemed I had landed myself in the middle of a tale which came straight out of the Elder Days! Despite my elation, however, something didn't make sense to me.

"What has all of this to do with us, though?" I asked timidly. Mallacai turned his piercing blue eyes on me, but this time I did not look away.

"A just question," he said with a smile and a slight inclination of his head. "You know, of course, that Gaelira devised a plan to steal the palantir of Amon Sul, which is now held by the Enemy in the bowels of Carn Dum, in Angmar. It was a plan so desperate, so audacious, that no one, not even I, could condone it, and none of the other Seekers would support the idea. But Gaelira persevered under the withering derision of many and managed to launch the endeavor despite it all. She is to be commended for her selflessness."

"Is that how you define selflessness?" asked Nephyn heatedly. "By ensnaring innocent folk in an elaborate falsehood?"

"Your indignation is certainly understandable," Mallacai replied as he bowed deeply to the huntress. "But I implore you to forgive her; the secrecy of this mission is of the utmost importance, for if our foe gains the slightest inkling that we mean to seize the palantir from him, then all hope for this gambit will be lost. It was absolutely necessary to test each of you -- both in skill and in heart -- to ensure you had any chance of success in this dire quest. Carn Dum holds untold evil; there are forces there which could slay weaker folk out of sheer terror, and corruption will be in the very air. Only a fellowship bonded by love and trust could ever hope to triumph. Yet your Company has defeated the Bone Man, the horror beneath the Barrow-downs, and even the ancient wraith within Fornost. I deem that, with the right armaments and a strong trust, you could enter where even armies cannot go. I wish to help prepare you for what lies ahead, if you all remain resolved in this."

No one answered. I shifted nervously and I could sense Gaelira was restless. The revelations which had stemmed from Luean's discoveries had deeply shaken the trust of the Company and I was not sure whether the bond we had formed over the last month would hold. Then Lagodir spoke.

"I do not understand all of this," he said with a frown. "You say you wish to infiltrate the stronghold of the Enemy's forces in the North of Middle-earth and recover a palantir. I know enough of the history of those stones to understand how precious a thing it is and how valuable possessing it would be in the service of the Free Peoples against the might of the Nameless One. But why then did Gaelira agree with Saerdan the Ranger to make an exhibition of ourselves -- to openly attack our foes and draw the Enemy's attention to us? How can we hope to succeed at this quest, noble though it be, now that we have squandered the element of surprise?" Mallacai looked at him.

"Spoken as a true soldier," he said. "The answer to your question is twofold: The forces of the Enemy have grown bold through lack of resistance and have overrun much territory in Eriador for no other reason than those who should have resisted them failed to do so, thinking that by yielding to the armies of Angmar that Angmar would, eventually, be sated with land and seek no more. This, of course, is always folly when dealing with the malice of Mordor and its spawn. You five are among the few who have had the skill and the heart to fight back. Your victories have given more hope to others throughout the North than you seem to realize, and the morale of many Free Folk rises when they hear the tales of Elladan's Outriders as they gather at their inns and taverns. That is the first reason. The second is more practical: by crippling his forces in many places throughout the North, the Steward of Carn Dum is lulled into believing your objective is to resist his advance on the front lines; that you are pushing back at his forces where his forces are pushing in. He does not fear this, for his eventual victory is assured so long as he commands those forces from his stronghold in Angmar. Yet it is in Angmar that we will land our true blow, and this is the furthest thing from his mind." I could see Lagodir was processing this explanation. It made sense to me, when laid out in plain language that way.

"And what will you do with this Seeing-stone once you have it?" I was surprised to hear it was Drodie speaking.

"The palantir is a powerful artifact. It will be used to spy upon the Enemy and learn of his military strategies," Mallacai answered. "The knowledge gained by doing this will be invaluable to the defence of the Free Peoples of all Middle-earth. However, using the palantir also carries great risk, for we believe the Dark Lord holds one of its brethren; most likely the stone which was once held at the tower of Minas Ithil in Gondor. No one is certain what will happen to he -- or she -- that seeks to use the Amon Sul-stone. If Sauron has indeed dominated the Ithil-stone it could be that he may destroy or even possess anyone who uses another palantir against his will, for the orbs are all linked to each other. Yet, if Gaelira's plan succeeds it could mean turning the tide of the coming war with Mordor, and that is why she has volunteered herself to use the stone, should it be recovered."

I gaped. At the end of it all, it turned out that Gaelira was willing to possibly sacrifice herself in service to others! No wonder no one was willing to join her on this quest, I thought to myself. I felt heartily sorry for mistrusting her intentions.

"And that's all?" It was Drodie again. The Dwarf was making no effort to conceal his natural disdain for what he clearly regarded as nothing but more Elvish trickery. Mallacai paused.

"If, in fact, the palantir is recovered and if, in fact, it can be used safely, then we intend to use it to search for the missing Seven Stars," he said. "In this manner, it may be that evil will finally be removed from the world and the Elves will have atoned for their many, many sins." Drodie roared with laughter.

"By Durin's Beard!" he guffawed roughly. "Seeing-stones and Seven Stars! Ah, me! You can always trust an Elf -- to over-complicate everything and seek elaborate answers where none are needed, that is. If there is to be an attack on Carn Dum, secret or otherwise, then Drodie the Dwarf will be in it, and that's all I or any of you need know. You can have your silly baubles if you must, but once I personally remove this Steward's head from his bony shoulders we will see who has done the greater service in the defence of the Free Peoples. I care nothing for the rest of your nonsense." Mallacai gave him a dark look, but turned to the rest of us.

"And what of you?" he asked. "Do you also remain committed to this errand?"

"I cannot say that I agree with the strategy you have devised," said Lagodir, "But you will have my sword in its service, for I perceive that this is a most valorous quest indeed, and all of us will win immense honour thereby." I looked at him. The Gondorian's eyes were glinting with eagerness; clearly something about this mission held a strong attraction for him, and I wondered greatly what it was.

"I am not certain of anything anymore," Nephyn said reluctantly. "Save this: that my road leads me onward and not back. I will remain with the Company."

"And what of the Halfling?" asked Mallacai with a smile. I looked up at him and I swallowed. In that moment, I felt no concern for myself -- only a love for those with whom I had fought and bled, and would again.

"I will go on," I said in my small voice. "I don't understand what possible use I can be among such accomplished warriors, but in spite of -- and because of -- all that we have been through together, I know I am meant to be with them." Mallacai nodded and looked at us.

"Very well," he said, and he clasped his hands behind his back. "You have achieved much, and for that you have earned great renown, yet there remains much to do before you can hope to enter the defiles of Angmar. Yet, in this, I am able to assist you. Under my command are craftsmen of skill the like of which is no longer to be found in the World today. I shall give you now each a task to complete. If you succeed, my artisans will be able to create for you items of incomparable value, for the power of such equipment is enhanced by the great struggle to obtain it. Armed with these and the renewed bonds of trust and love that you forge in the process, you will be ready for your greatest task." He walked up to Lagodir.

"Swordsman of the South Kingdom," he said as he stared into the Gondorian's eyes, "You cannot escape your past, no matter how many leagues you put between yourself and your homeland; your past will find you, soon or late. But, if you face it instead of fleeing from it, then and only then can you hope to overcome. Bring me the armour of Unagh, Siridan, and Agarochir, the champions of Angmar which lead the forces invading Annuminas, and earn some measure of the redemption you so recklessly seek."

Next, he stood before Nephyn.

"Your life has been hard, young one, marred by a solitude of both body and spirit. You are right to say that your path lies onward and not back, for no rest would you find were you to try and return to the life you knew. The answers you seek can be found, but you will not succeed on your own. Bring me the raiment of Naruhel, the Red-maid, and may you learn forgiveness in the process."

Then, he came to Drodie.

"I have ever found your kind to be as stubborn as the mountains which bore you into this life," he said with a tinge of dislike in his voice. Drodie stared up at him defiantly. "Your self-reliance is admirable, yet in the dungeons of Carn Dum such arrogance will surely mean your death. Bring me the hide of Brullug from the deepest caverns of Sarnur in Ered Luin. There, you will come to know what it means to rely on others -- or perish."

Gaelira was next to meet Mallacai's gaze.

"Child of the fallen Noldorin," he said, sadly. "Your tale has been long, as full of acclaim as it is anguish. You cannot return Aeglas, Glorwen, and the others to this world, but you can atone for their loss. Bring me the crown of whatever animal has assumed the mantle of the Great Goblin, and I will relinquish to you your sword, which you were forced to surrender in shame all those years ago."

Finally, he came to me. I did my best to look directly into those eyes, but Mallacai bent over and smiled at me.

"I come to you last, Padryc, who have proven to be not as small in courage as you are in stature. Bring to me the fangs of the Spider-queen in the Wovenvales, and you will learn your true value to this Company." The Elf stepped back and looked us over once more.

"Go now," he said and extended his palm outward in token of farewell. "Go, and may the blessings of all Free Folk go with you. I have much to attend to here, for the armies of Angmar are already on the move. If you choose to pursue these tasks, then you must steel yourselves for much hardship. Yet only through facing and conquering such trials does your quest stand any chance of success. Farewell."

We said our goodbyes and left the dark keep. When we emerged from the building, we saw that night had descended upon Tinnudir. We made our way back to the Rangers' encampment and settled down around our own campfire for some food and talk.

"What is all this about running errands for some dandified Elf?" Drodie growled in annoyance. "I would just as soon march straight into Angmar and knock on the doors of Carn Dum first. What a waste of time!"

"You forget our near disasters in the Old Forest, the Barrow-downs, with Bleakwind, and even in Fornost," Gaelira said gently. "Victories they were, yes, but they were narrow and nearly proved ruinous. We will have no luck in Angmar." I looked down at my waybread. Thinking about all of the dreadful places Mallacai had mentioned had me in no mood for eating.

"I should like to know just how it is this Elf learned about -- about each of us," said Lagodir, who seemed a bit shaken. "Unless, of course, that was also Gaelira's doing?"

"I told him nothing you haven't openly told the rest of us," Gaelira responded. "But Mallacai is wise and his lore runs both deep and far. Those with as much knowledge about the past as he possesses can have remarkable abilities when looking to the future as well."

"Do you mean to say he can read the future?" asked Nephyn, her eyes wide. Drodie snorted, but held his tongue.

"No, I would not put it so," came Gaelira's reply, "But certain actions foreshadow certain ends, and the Eldar have seen many a tale play out to its bitter conclusion. It would be wise to heed his advice, but each of us will have to decide if we wish to face the challenges he has laid before us."

"I fear no challenge," said Drodie immediately and with finality.

"Nor do I," said Lagodir, but his voice was low, as though he was distracted by something.

"I feel I must follow this path I am on," said Nephyn slowly. "Yet I fear where it may lead me more than what I might encounter along the way."

"For myself, I am required to face a failure which has haunted me for many years," said Gaelira with a sigh. "I had feared it would prove thus, but I will not now turn away from what I have begun. Not so long as I have the rest of you with me." I wondered what event in her past Gaelira was referring to, but none of us dared to ask.

"Well, you'll have me with you at the least," I said, trying to sound more cheerful than I felt. "The places he wants us to go sound downright terrifying, but I am willing to try and make a difference. But I would like to know," I asked Gaelira, "Do you really mean to put yourself in danger by being the first to use that Seeing-stone, assuming we ever manage to get hold of it?" The she-Elf nodded.

"This War we are in now is only the extension of the Wars of the First Age, which broke the very earth itself from the fury of the fighting," she said. "The Noldorin have, sadly, been largely responsible for much sorrow which has befallen the World." Here, Drodie sucked his teeth loudly. "I hope to gain my people some measure of redemption by offering myself up for this cause."

"That is... really quite moving," said Nephyn quietly.

"Very honourable," said Lagodir.

"Once we are out of Carn Dum with the palantir, I will send Hremm to notify Mallacai, who will provide me an escort to transport it to Rivendell. Lord Elrond has heard of the Seekers' intent to steal the Stone of Amon Sul, although he was not aware of our adventure when it began. I suspect he has guessed as to my purposes now. In any case, he had previously refused to ever use the palantir even if one could be found, for he fears what the Dark Lord might do if he retains another of the stones. But there is power to protect the stone in Rivendell if we can get it there. Once safe, I will put myself in danger by using it first. Then, if I am unharmed, Elrond will be free to bend it to his own will and great good will be achieved for the Free Peoples."

"After this Mallacai chap gets his turn with it to search for his Seven Stars, no doubt," Lagodir chimed in.

"I do not believe the Seven Stars actually exist," said Gaelira as she shook her head. "I cannot fathom how, if things of such power ever lay beneath the Sun, that they could possibly remain in the World undiscovered for thousands of centuries. The Seekers certainly retain that ancient tradition, but very few of us actually believe in the old tales. We were a scholarly brotherhood for most of our existence and we performed great deeds in the service of others. In these latter years it seems we have been recruiting more warriors and fewer sages, but such is the need of the days. My only desire is to secure this mighty boon so that I can deliver it to Lord Elrond, who has the power to use it for the good of all." She paused and looked at us.

"I give you my solemn word that this is the whole truth," she said pointedly. "There is an uneasiness among our Company that bodes ill for the trials we are about to face, and part of that trial is overcoming our distrust of each other. For what I have done before now, I apologize to you all from the depths of my soul and I swear by the Valar I've never held friends so dear. This gambit of mine is my own contribution to the War, and I have a slim but steadfast hope that it may help to save those simple things which make life worth living."

"And what will happen to you if the Enemy does hold one of the other Seeing-stones?" I asked in a trembling voice. "What if it is not safe to for you to use the palantir?" Gaelira stared into the campfire.

"I do not know," she said, finally.

We talked for a while longer, but the conversations never really went anywhere. There was some discussion about what to do next, but we could not reach a consensus. After a time, we decided to hash it out in the morning, so we each began to prepare for sleep.

As I settled into my blanket and huddled near the campfire with my journal out in front of me, I saw Gaelira standing by the waters of Lake Nenuial, staring southward. I thought about the danger into which she was willing to put herself and whether I would do the same in her place. Then my thoughts were interrupted by Lagodir turning repeatedly as he lay on the ground nearby. He rolled over and saw I was still awake.

"Padryc," he said to me in a low voice, "Do you think -- do you think that a Man's honour can be regained if it is lost?" I raised my eyebrows.

"Yes, or a hobbit's," I said and grinned. "Or an Elf's, or even a Dwarf's. Right and wrong do not change with the seasons, nor are they one thing or another depending on whatever kind we happen to belong. We all make mistakes, but in the Shire when we wrong someone we work to set it right however we can. Maybe that's not what some folk call honour, but it seems more or less the same thing to me."

"Yes. Yes, you are right, of course," he said. "Good night, then."

"Good night!" I said. I finished my record, then allowed myself to be lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of the water on the shore.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 22.2

The Island of Tinnudir

Sterday, 23rd of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Island of Tinnudir, Evendim
Lake Nenuial
This morning dawned overcast and chilly. I shivered as I lay on the ground under every blanket I had, but nothing seemed to keep the wind from prodding me. The fire had gone out from the constant gusts which had made sleep elusive for most of the Company. Lagodir was stoic but clearly uncomfortable while Drodie slept like a log despite everything. I wondered if any weather of the world had the power to disturb his stone-like repose. Nephyn and I were both downright miserable.

Alone among us, Gaelira appeared undeterred by the trials of yesterday as well as the sour turn in clime. I could see her at the edge of the hill upon which we had our little camp in counsel with Torogethir the Ranger. They were both staring westward, which I knew was the direction in which we would be continuing our journey. Since sleep was impossible anyway, I got up, wrapped a blanket tightly around me, and walked to join these two as they looked out over the plains of Parth Aduial.

I saw firs and pines swaying in the harsh winds while leaves and twigs bounded across the landscape. The expanse below us looked empty and quiet, but it seemed to me more the quiet of expectancy rather than peace. It felt as though there were unseen enemies lurking behind every crumbled tower, fallen ruin, and clump of foliage I could see before me.

"If all goes well we should reach Tinnudir by sunset," I heard Gaelira saying to the Ranger. Torogethir nodded, then pointed away to the northwest.

"Yonder lies Ost Forod. It is something of a settlement, but it is peopled mainly by ruffians and tomb-robbers now; a most unsavory folk. If you have need of a waypoint betwixt here and the island you may stop there and recover yourselves, but I would do so only at need; for the inhabitants do not trust outsiders. Moreover, that place lies high up in the rocks. The going there is difficult, and it lies well to the north of your intended road."

Following Torogethir's arm, I could see a cluster of ruins nestled on the side of a tall hill -- or what one might almost describe as a low mountain. In the dim morning light, I thought I could see the distant glow of multiple campfires.

"Thank you, my friend," Gaelira said to him, "But we should not have need to turn aside from the path unless we require shelter from this weather." As if in answer to her words, a terrific spurt of wind suddenly struck us and very nearly bowled me over. Gaelira shot out an arm and saved me from tumbling into the gravel.

"There is some gale forming away to the far North, in Forochel," said Torogethir as he looked that direction. "Lothrandir, my kinsman, has journeyed there for many years, but I have never been."

"Nor I," came Gaelira's reply, "And I hope to never do so -- 'tis said to be a barren and frozen waste, the last vestiges of Dark Enemy's realm of long, long ago." I shivered, but I was glad we would not be going that way!

"And yet 'tis also said the Snow-folk, the Lossoth, have learned to thrive in that land, after a fashion," said Torogethir. "It may sound strange, but those tales give me hope. For, if the children of Men are able to subdue, in some measure, such a wild and untamed country, can there be any region of Middle-earth which cannot be conquered?"

"I know not what the children of Men may eventually do or not do," Gaelira answered. "For my part, I would see less of conquest and more habitation. Still, if this Third Age of the World is not first secured, then it may well be that your question shall have no need of an answer." Torogethir was silent.

I think the others were as depressed by the foul weather as I was because we packed up and moved out in short order. We said farewell to Torogethir with promises to deliver his report to Calenglad, then made our way slowly down the side of the hill. Everyone remained quiet as we struck the road and continued our westward journey. The path was paved, but it was heavily intruded upon by weeds and grasses, and in many places the once-well laid masonry was cracked and broken. Ever and anon the wind would kick up again, and then we would hear howls and whistles as it played mournfully among the stones. More than once we heard the crack of falling rock or some brick would be shaken loose from its perch, but aside from these sounds our trek was as uneventful as it was uncomfortable.

After several hours we came to a meeting-way of four roads. At the very centre there rose a towering figure of stone: a dour and ancient king with a greatsword between his knees. The mighty king stared southward, to our left, where the road ran up a slope amidst several ruined structures while to the right it wound up into the hills toward Ost Forod. But we followed the way ahead of us, which led to the west and gently fell down, down, down toward a rocky shoreline. Then I looked up and gasped.

At the end of the road I saw a massive bridge of stone which ran out to a large island, that could only be Tinnudir. There were many ruins on the island, and even from this distance I could see Men going to and fro on it, consumed with their business. On the far end rose a huge building of stone: it must have been two hundred feet high. It was white and majestic; in its own time and under the light of a full Sun it must have once glimmered with radiant beauty. On this day its alabaster walls were dimmed due to the heavy cloud cover, but it was still an impressive sight. But it was the lake itself which took my breath away: Even under the grey skies it covered nearly all of my field of vision, though I could see mountains encircling the lake in the far distance. It was truly a magnificent view, one could even call it an inland sea! I longed for the Sun to reveal herself so that I could see her light playing on the gentle waters below me. Nearby, the others also stood staring in admiration.

"Alas that Vasa is shrouded behind this pall," said Gaelira, "Otherwise our eyes would be dazzled by the brilliance of Lake Nenuial. Perhaps tomorrow we will be more fortunate."

"I can see why the Kings of Men would raise the seat of their reign in such a place," Lagodir said with reverence. "It even rivals the beauty of Ithilien, Garden of Gondor, and I know no higher praise to give." Nephyn said nothing, but I could see in her eyes she was greatly impressed. Drodie did not seem to care one way or the other.

We descended by way of the road and soon crossed the bridge which led out to Tinnudir. The arches of the bridge were fallen so that only the bottom portions of the pillars remained; these jutted upward like the jagged teeth in the jaw of some enormous fish of prey. But the walkway itself was solid and strong -- there were no signs of crumbling that I could see anywhere. Perhaps it had been well maintained by the Rangers which made their chief camp on the far side, but this bridge struck me as almost a symbol for the rest of the land here: clear signs of decay and ancientry, but with a lingering dignity and majesty that was not yet completely extinguished.

Once across the bridge, we found ourselves welcomed by the Rangers who were eager to hear the tale of our travels from Esteldin. Not only did they wish to hear of their kinsmen and their ongoing struggle in the North Downs, but they marvelled at the swiftness of our journey: it was now just approaching dusk of the second day since we set out from the Valley of Hope yet we had covered one hundred and twenty miles in that time. As if in response to that reminder, my feet began to ache and smart with a vengeance. I think it was the greatest sustained physical exertion of my entire life up to that point.

Yet we were not permitted to rest: we were led quickly to Calenglad to deliver our reports from Halbarad and Torogethir. The Ranger-captain listened intently to our tales and thanked us many times for them. He was a grim-faced fellow, this Calenglad, and struck me as one who had known much sorrow and trial. I supposed that leading a desperate resistance comprised of the dwindling people from a ruined kingdom against the ever-advancing armies of a tyrant would have that effect on a Man. He was bald and his beard was short, but everywhere his face was creased with worry; his brow was heavy and wrinkled.

"Glad am I to meet you all, and my distant kinsman from the South not least," he said to us in a voice that was both soft and strong, but deep as the Sea. "And it lifts my heart to hear that the battles against the forces encamped at Dol Dinen go well, for if my people had failed there, then little hope would have remained for all the North. You have my gratitude for the part your Company has played in that as well. But the Enemy is relentless: even now my scouts report that an army of dark Men out of Angmar are flooding into the ruins of Annuminas -- the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Arnor -- and that with them are trolls and other creatures more foul. My Rangers cannot hold them out of the city and already we have been reduced to a small and shrinking patch of land there. It may not be long before the entire city is captured, and once that happens it will only be a matter of time before they find us here. This island could be defended well and long against many, but we have not the numbers to do so. I am not certain what will become of us if the Enemy gains the city."

We listened to Calenglad's many worries, but there was little we could do to aid him against an army from Carn Dum and we had our own mission at hand to consider. Regarding this, the Ranger had more hopeful news.

"You say you seek an Elf? That is most curious, for several arrived here just this morning asking for quarter from which to conduct their business. They were an odd sort: my people have dealings with the Eldar folk from time to time, but I have never seen anything like these Elves. All in armour, as if headed to war, they were, and their leader was very tall with a head of gold and peculiar garments. I granted them their boon, permitting that they establish their camp within the Tinnudir Keep, there, within the tower." Here, Calenglad pointed to the enormous structure on the far side of the island. "They said they had come to learn of the invasion of Annuminas and to lend us what aid they could, which certainly sounded hopeful, but they were a small troop, so I am not sure what they meant. I have neither seen nor heard from them since then in any case, but you are free to hold counsel with them if that is your wish. Aragorn, my chieftain, has always instructed us to deal well with their kind and that they mean us no harm, so I hope I have not done ill."

After Gaelira assured him that the Elves were indeed there to help, we thanked Calenglad for his welcome and made our way to the Tinnudir Keep. The huge iron doors creaked loudly as Lagodir and Drodie swung them back on their hinges. Inside it was dim and dusty, with piles of fallen stone everywhere. On the floor I could see carpets of red and gold which must have been fair and luxurious years ago, but now they were faded and caked in mud or dirt. A bit further inside we came to another door, but this one was guarded by an Elf in grey armour. He carried a spear, a shield, and had a long sword at his belt, all of curious make. Nary a word did he speak, but upon our approach he immediately seized the door-handle and opened it for us. We stepped inside and the door clanged into place behind me.

The only light in this room came from large, stately fireplace at the far end and the six candles lit upon a long table of dark wood before us. Seated at this table was an Elf. As we entered, he looked up and rose in greeting. He was quite tall and his hair was long and golden -- so golden it seemed nearly white -- and his raiment was strange indeed. He was dressed all in black robes, but they were embellished everywhere with minute and fine designs of vines and flowers in blossom. He wore armoured pauldrons of some black metal on his shoulders and forearms, and there was a cord of crimson about his waist. But it was his eyes which gave me pause: his eyes were very different from the carefree faces of most Elves I had known, nor did they carry the tint of mourning I had always come to find there. Rather, the eyes of this Elf were hard like an icy, blue steel and they seemed to penetrate everything they looked upon. When he spoke his voice was also very unlike any other Elf I had met, for it was piercingly clear (though not loud) and smooth as silk. Yet it was also much deeper than I expected. It was the voice of a visionary: the kind of being who could sway the hearts of others to doing great -- or terrible -- things.

"Welcome to you, who call yourselves Elladan's Outriders," he said as he bowed his head slightly toward us. "I am Mallacai."

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 22.1

The Road to Evendim

Highday, 22nd of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-Reckoning
The Evendim Gate, on the Edges of Parth Aduial
The Fields of Fornost
It seemed that no sooner had I closed my eyes than I was being shaken into wakefulness. I shooed the offender away and hauled the blanket over my head, but the assault continued.

"Up with you, Master Sluggard," came Lagodir's voice. "If I, who am wounded, can suffer to be roused at this hour, then surely you shall bear my pain with me."

I groaned and struggled to compose myself. It was still dark, but there before me were the rest of my companions; all gathered around the campfire which had been well-tended during the late watches, assumedly by Gaelira. The she-Elf stood before us while the others were seated, as if she had something to say. After all of the excitement and revelations of the previous evening, I expected she would have rather a lot to say.

And so she did. Gaelira bared her heart to us all, but I will not record here every detail of that confession. Everything she had told me last night was laid out to the full Company, and there was much surprise and some confusion over a great many things. The others frequently asked her to clarify her story, or someone would go back to a previous point and probe the matter further. Dawn was fully in the sky before all were satisfied. I myself kept very quiet throughout the proceedings and busied my hands with my pipe. I must say I had gotten through a great deal of my pipe-weed before the matter was finally concluded.

In the end, things didn't really come off as cleanly as I had hoped: Lagodir seemed very suspicious of Gaelira's account while Nephyn was just short of being openly hostile. As for Drodie, he acted as though his distrust of Elves had only been further vindicated and said next to nothing, except to grunt his displeasure. I felt a surge of nervousness in the pit of my stomach as I realized that Gaelira's deception, which always carried the risk of damaging trust within the Company, was actually dangerously close to dissolving it altogether. I even found myself timidly piping up in Gaelira's defence more than once, much to my own surprise. I had intended to let the others make up their own minds about the matter but, after all we had been through together, I confess I had expected them to give her the benefit of the doubt. I was learning now just how very fragile a thing trust is, and that it remained to be seen whether the Company would survive Gaelira's toying with it. To her credit, the she-Elf openly answered everything that was asked of her and (to me) seemed genuinely repentant.

"Many Elves are not known for being humble, as I'm sure Drodie would agree," she said at one point. "But for all of you remaining in the Company and joining me on this most dangerous mission, I am truly humbled in your presence. Whether hobbit, dwarf, or man; for me race has disappeared into my friends -- Nephyn, Drodie, Padryc and Lagodir -- above and beyond any labeling. I will labour in every way I know how to regain the trust I have shamefully squandered with you all. I have never felt so chastised as when I felt I needed to deceive you in order to secure your assistance. I will convey in both word and deed that I am true to my word. And so I say to you: Guren Glassui. In the Common Tongue, Thank you from my heart. As long as I have breath you will have a true friend."

You can't say fairer than that, I thought to myself. But, when it comes right down to it, each of the others is going to have to decide for themselves what to make of it.

As time passed, however, everyone expressed their desire to continue on our path together. Then began a debate about the next leg of our journey. Lagodir and Drodie were both much better after being tended by the Rangers during the night, but both were still in no condition for any fighting or hard labour. All of us had become concerned about the state of our equipment and the lowly nature of our gear, and the conversation turned to what should be done about this. Among the entire Company, only Nephyn bore any weaponry of skilled craftsmanship in the Sword of Ringdor, save Drodie's stout (but now somewhat damaged) corslet of Dwarf-made armour. Not for the last time I looked at my own little hammer, which had seen close to nothing of battle since the beginning of the year. We even asked Halbarad whether the Rangers could assist us in any way, but his answer was not encouraging.

"My people have next to nothing to spare you, I am afraid," the Ranger-captain said ruefully, "And what we have is only what we can rescue from our foes or craft with our own hands -- hardly any better than that which you bear now. Moreover, our tactics are to be light and swift: to strike the Enemy then melt into the shadows before they can counter-strike. Perhaps the huntress, Nephyn, will find one of our longbows to be of superior make to her own. You are welcome to whatever we have in our stores, of course, but I do not think you will find anything there to grant you a serious advantage on the battlefield."

When she heard the offer Nephyn politely refused it, saying her own bow was like a natural extension of her arm and to replace it would be akin to losing part of herself. Halbarad smiled at her.

"I expected no other answer," he said. "So would any marksman among my folk say, in a like situation. May your arrows fly forever true! But what now shall be the path of your Company?"

"In the dead of night I learned from Hremm the raven that we may find an ally encamped on the island of Tinnudir," said Gaelira. "He will be able to assist us in our cause."

"In Evendim?" Halbarad asked. "Ah, then your dealings with my people are not yet ended, for the Dunedain hold that island, or at least it was so when last I heard from Calenglad, who is captain of the Rangers in that place. If you are going thither, I would ask that you extend my greetings to him. He is a valiant Man, though he can be grim and stubborn at times. I would ask also that you give him tidings of the battle at Dol Dinen, and how things go well for us there, for it will lighten his heart and grant courage to his men."

We assured Halbarad we would do this and we thanked him many times for his aid and hospitality. The Ranger-captain then bade us farewell and went about his business, but I sidled up to Gaelira.

"The ally you spoke of, would that be this Mallacai fellow?" I asked her.

"Yes," she whispered back. "Like many of us under his leadership, he is eagerly sought by the Enemy, and so rumour of his comings and goings is not one for casual dissemination. Not even among friends, if it can be helped."

"Hum!" I said, impressed. I wondered what the leader of Gaelira's covert organization, the Seekers of the Seven Stars, might be up to that would warrant such secrecy.

It was the second hour from dawn when we were finally ready to depart. Our preparations were fulfilled in a silence which made me very nervous, for the tension within the Company was thicker than clotted cream. Then Gaelira told us that the island of Tinnudir was roughly forty leagues from where we now stood. She said it would take two days' hard marching to reach it and that the road led right through the middle of the Fields of Fornost! My heart sank straight down into my hairy toes; I was so upset that I nearly forgot my second breakfast!

At long last everything was ready. We made our way out the west-gate and through the hills down toward the cross-roads where last night I had begun my search that ended in the discovery of Luean's fateful message to me. As we crested the last hill, Lagodir turned and raised his hand in token of farewell to Esteldin.

"Happy am I to see that the spirit of ancient Numenor lives on, here in the North as well as in my homeland," he said. "Despite much hardship, here my distant kinsmen continue their valiant fight against the rising shadows of Angmar."

"Here and in other places," said Gaelira. "But I should not speak nor gesture so openly -- Esteldin's safety is maintained as much by its secrecy as its strength of arms."

"Ture, but there are no falsehoods to be found within the secret fastnesses of these Men," came Lagodir's retort. Gaelira did not look round nor respond to him. I felt my stomach lurch: the discontent within the Company could become a festering sore that may worsen the longer it lay untreated, and there was a long, long road ahead of us.

I would count this day the most miserable one of all my time in the Company so far. The weather was fine and the light was broad, but it was as if in mockery of the creeping vexation and darkened hearts among the five of us. No one spoke as the miles rolled beneath our feet. We came to the bridge which we had crossed twice before and still no one had said a word to anyone else. I began to feel that this was somehow all my fault. I licked my lips and decided it would be up to me to do something about it. Even though we were walking, we were going at what seemed to me to be a terrific speed. I was obliged more than once to jog alongside my companions in order to keep up with their gait so, as the occasion presented itself, I trotted up alongside Nephyn and proceeded to have a private chat with her.

"I think Gaelira walks faster than any of us," I said, trying to sound lighthearted. "That was some uncomfortable business back there in Esteldin, right enough. But I think she's telling the truth now, don't you?" I was obviously fishing, but I couldn't think of any gentler way to broach the subject. Nephyn looked down at me and sighed as she walked.

"Yes, I do believe her. Now," she said, "But what if she is hiding something else from us?"

"I understand," I said. "I suppose we should all keep our eyes peeled for a while."

"No, I don't think you do understand, my friend," said Nephyn, but her tone was sad. "I do not fear any danger from her. But my entire life I have never had cause to trust anyone, save of course Saerdan and old Butterbur. You have no idea what it is like to be an outcast in your own homeland. Then I grant my trust to this Company and its mission only to find it has all been a lie? I can forgive Gaelira for her little games, but coming to trust her again? I do not know."

"You still have the rest of us, though," I replied. "We've all been through some scrapes, but so far we have always overcome whatever we faced. After everything we've done together, would you have Elladan's Outriders fall victim to its own internal strife?"

"Can we even call ourselves that any longer?" Nephyn countered. "It feels to me as though we are presenting ourselves under false pretenses. You may use the name if you like, but I do not think I shall. It has lost its meaning for me."

I had to let the conversation go at that. The situation was looking like it might be even worse than I had feared. I decided to tackle Lagodir next, and drew close to him so the others would not overhear us.

"I say," I said casually, "It was awfully brave of Gaelira to lay everything out the way she did, don't you think?" I imagine my question sounded just as awkward as I felt.

"That may be so," the Gondorian answered, "But the bravery would not have been needed were it not for the deceptions." The tall Man's eyes never left the road ahead of him as he spoke.

"Fair point," I conceded, but I wasn't going to let him get off that easily. "Still," I continued, "One can understand her desire to protect herself if the Enemy has been after her as she claims. Being a hunted individual might make one distrustful of others after a time, wouldn't you agree?"

Lagodir's eyes darted toward me for an instant, but returned quickly to the road. I knew my gamble had worked: the Man's continual obfuscation regarding his own past had always left me with the impression that he was running from something. Now I knew my guess was at least partially correct.

"Perhaps," came his reply. We walked on in silence for a few moments. After a while I managed to pipe up again.

"For my part, I think she is telling the truth," I said, letting my words hang on the air.

"I believe she is as well," the Gondorian answered. "The Men of Gondor do not lie, and therefore we are able to detect when others do so, and better than most, I daresay. It is what may remain unsaid by her that concerns me."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"If stealing this palantir was her true goal," Lagodir replied, "Then why agree to Saerdan's suggestion that we attack the Enemy's forces to draw his attention to ourselves? Would not stealth have served her purposes better? Until that question is resolved for me, I will continue to suspect she has not truly told us everything she knows."

I couldn't argue with Lagodir's reasoning. It was emerging that most of the Company was willing to forgive Gaelira for what she had done, but were less willing to grant her their trust a second time. I went to Drodie last, for I suspected the Dwarf would have little to say to me. Nor did he, but there was one question I wanted to ask him.

"Drodie, how did you know that Hremm was not to be trusted?" I asked him.

"It wasn't that I didn't trust the bird," he replied. "It was that I didn't trust the Elf which brought us the bird. Never. Trust. An. Elf." There didn't seem to be much else to say, so I left Drodie to himself. I wondered what it was that had happened to him to have such a thorough distrust of the Eldar people.

We continued to follow the road westward toward Mincham's camp; hours passed and the day was beginning to grow old by the time we reached it. The Ranger was not there, and only the faintest traces of a scattered campfire belied his former presence. We rested briefly, but we resumed our march much sooner than I would have liked. My feet were killing me: we had covered more than ten leagues already, but Gaelira had warned us against being caught in the Fields of Fornost by night.

As we followed the path north, I heard several mournful howls carried on the wind, but no matter how many times I looked to the sides and behind me I was never able to see their source. The dry, dead leaves of the decaying trees rattled ominously as a chill breeze swept the hills. After a time, we found the west-leading track that the treasure-hunters had taken two days earlier when we had left Fornost with them. This path, so we were told, would eventually lead us through the Evendim Gate and into the green plains of the Parth Aduial beyond. From there it was another day's journey to the Ranger-camp on the island of Tinnudir. Gaelira's description of the rolling hills of Evendim filled me with a sense of hope, but for the time being we had to navigate the deathly Fields of Fornost.

Nephyn led us from the front and I could see her head turning to the left and right as she tried to keep us on the path. At some point in the distant past it may have been well-used, but now it was overgrown and so faded that staying on it was difficult. On multiple occasions we would wander away from it and discover it again several yards off to one side. In this manner, we covered several more miles while the Sun was still in the sky, but soon dusk was in the air and the mountains which marked the end of the Fields were still some ways off. I began to get frightened and even fancied I saw the pale visage of ghosts peering at us from the tops of the hills around us. I wondered how much farther we could go before darkness fell, and what would happen to us if it did before we managed to find our way out of this hellish region.

Suddenly Nephyn signaled to us to stop, and we obliged. The huntress veered off the track and disappeared down a slope. A few minutes later her masked head re-emerged, and there was alarm in her eyes.

"We must keep moving," she said in a breathless whisper. "We must find the Evendim Gate before nightfall."

Immediately we moved on, but I took a moment to peek over the lip of the hill. The light was failing fast, but I could see the tracks of many booted feet in the soft earth which led down the slope. They ended, as far as I could see, at the edge of a sickly and stagnant pool at the bottom of a dell. There, at the edge of the pool, lay several crates, boxes, and hand-barrows. With a thrill I realized that these must be all that was left of the treasure-hunter party we had travelled with as we left Fornost two days ago. There was no sign of any bodies. I scarpered back to the group with a sick feeling in my stomach.

Nephyn was bent almost double as she struggled to keep us on the road. We all stayed close and went on nearly at a run. The track gradually began to climb upward and I could see we had drawn closer to the mountains than I had first realized, for the mountains were low in this place, though they were still virtually impassable. A gap in the mountain wall began to emerge, and I figured this must be the Evendim Gate.

Shortly thereafter a hideous visage loomed up on our left: it was the ruins of what appeared to be an ancient Arnorian city, but it was dimly lit with pale lights of purple and green. An eerie wail seemed to come from that place, and we all stood there, as if frozen to the spot. It was Gaelira who roused us to action.

"Come!" she cried, "We cannot stay here! Up the path and through the gate, now!"

We all followed her lead, though Nephyn seemed to have gone numb as she stared at the dead city. We were forced to seize the Woman and drag her with us, but once we turned the corner and were out of sight of the ruins she appeared to recover. I looked up at the sky: it seemed as though the Sun had suddenly flickered out. Darkness covered us as we ran.

The road went on at a steady rise. I began to think we were all in a nightmarish dream together that would never end. Would we keep running like this forever or until whatever evil dwelt in the city came out to hunt us down? Just then, I saw a break in the mountains ahead with a patch of sky between them. The Evendim Gate!

The Company gathered its strength for a final spurt and we passed through a gate of stone into the Parth Aduial. I collapsed, gasping for air as though I hadn't breathed in hours. Once through the gate, it felt as though a heavy weight had been removed from us -- even the air felt lighter and carried a faint scent of thistles.

Although none of us spoke, we all took great comfort in each other as we collected ourselves. I don't know about the rest, but I felt a great weariness come over me at that time. I looked out into the plains of Evendim to take in the sight. The Moon was rising and cast her light on an interesting landscape: from our current vantage point I could see gently rolling plains covered in a grass of deep green. There were also rocky outcroppings in several places, but it was the ruins which dominated everything else. I could see them at several points: large buildings of stone, some built remarkably high, dotted the fields and here and there were clumps of trees. On the whole, it looked a fairly peaceful place, but I knew I could not judge the land based on what I saw. As I looked, I suddenly became aware of a thin spiral of smoke coming from somewhere above us and to our right. Following its trail, I saw the glow of a campfire playing against some ruins atop a small hill.

"Look!" I said as I pointed. "A camp!"

We all made our way toward the light. After a short time, we came to the summit and stepped into a clearing in the midst of the ruins. We encountered there a Ranger named Torogethir who identified himself as a Man under Calenglad's command. He was very interested in our tale and, upon learning that we were bound for Tinnudir, asked that we deliver a report from him to Calenglad concerning the lands here which were under his watch. We agreed to do this and hastily made camp. We had covered an immense distance in one day, but it was only half the distance toward our goal. I rubbed my aching feet gingerly and wondered how I could ever manage to travel the same distance a second day in a row.

Torogethir offered to keep the watch and Gaelira joined him. The rest of us swiftly fell asleep, but I took some time to make this record of today's activities. The first day since Gaelira revealed her true mission to us had passed and the Company has survived, but I feel it is in more danger now than at any time since its founding. This time, however, the danger is not from Orcs, Wargs, trolls, or even wraiths or wights, but from within itself.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 21.3

Gaelira

Highday, 22nd of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ranger-camp of Esteldin, Somewhere in the North Downs
Gaelira
Neither of us spoke. My heart laboured, but I strained to conceal my nervousness. I had seen Gaelira's abilities on the battlefield and knew I wouldn't last long if she decided to attack. Halbarad was just outside waiting for my call, but it was questionable if even he would be fast enough. The Elf eyed me with great interest.

"Why this way?" she asked, sounding genuinely curious. "Why alone?"

"Because I have no idea if any of the others have been playing along with whatever scheme of yours this is," I answered. "Also, I can see Luean held you in high regard, and it seemed he would have afforded you the opportunity to explain yourself without ruining your reputation, if possible. I decided to extend you that courtesy."

"The others know nothing," she said, but her head drooped and her proud eyes were downcast. "I suppose you want answers from me?"

"That would do nicely, for a start," I said as I crossed my arms.

"Very well. You have all earned an explanation, and perhaps you most of all. I am not proud of what I have done, but I will tell you what I know and leave it to you to decide what should happen next."

"It is true that neither Elrond nor either of his sons knew anything about my mission," she began. "I invented that premise in the hopes it would inspire others to join me, since it would be impossible for me to accomplish what I intended on my own. After convincing Luean to join me, I headed to Bree, met you all, and formed the Company."

"You're not telling me anything I don't already know," I cut in.

"Yes, I will tell you about my mission," she said. "My goal is to infiltrate Carn Dum, the Witch-king's ancient fortress in the wastes of Angmar, and recover... well, an artifact from there."

"What sort of artifact?" I probed. Gaelira paused for a moment.

"It is the palantir of Amon Sul," she said quietly. "An orb of crystal which can be used to see things far away. It is a very precious relic made by the Elves and gifted to certain Men in ages past, but in the right hands it could turn the tide of the coming war with Mordor. I am privy to certain sources of information which have determined that Angmar has captured this palantir and that it is being held within the fastness of Carn Dum."

"And why not simply tell us this? Why the deception?"

"If you understood the power of the palantiri you would not need to ask that question," she replied. "Knowledge means great power, and the knowledge granted by the seeing-stones represents immense power. Think of what the Free Peoples could do with such power if it were used against our foes? But now it sits in the hands of great evil, and that power is not lying idle."

"And is this seeing-stone the manner by which the Enemy learned of you and this Company?" I asked.

"No."

"And how do you know that?"

"Because I am the reason the Enemy knows about us," she said. I gasped.

"It is not what you are thinking, however," she continued. I tried to relax and hear her out. Gaelira continued.

"I belong to an organization called the Seekers of the Seven Stars. Our objective, in part, is to resist the Enemy in any way we can, and capturing this palantir would be a major blow in our favour. But who would join a lone Elf on a mad quest to invade Angmar and steal something right out from under the nose of the Dark Lord's steward?"

"Who, indeed?" I proffered. "But what why not simply enlist others from this organization of yours?"

"I could find no one willing to join me," came her answer. "Even our leader, a wise Elf named Mallacai, would not endorse my plan, although he did see the immense value if such a gambit could somehow be accomplished. It was for that reason I dictated a message to my contact in Rivendell upon leaving there advising Mallacai that my plan was in motion. It was that message we intercepted in the Chetwood."

"Half a moment," I cried in disbelief. "Are you telling me that message, the one written in the Black Speech that I pinched off those brigands that night, was from you?"

"To the leader of my organization, yes," Gaelira said. "I had given it to my contact in Imladris by word of mouth and he sent it on in written form from there."

"So the two brigands in the Chetwood carrying the message were known to you?"

"Of course not: I do not personally know every letter-carrier and courier between Rivendell and Bree! When we encountered them I assumed they were Blackwold ruffians just as we all did. It wasn't until later when you showed the message to Saerdan that I realized what had happened."

"But the message was written in the Black Speech!" I said. "So you lied about that too? About being able to read it?"

"Yes," she answered with remorse in her eyes. "I had hoped we would not chance to encounter anyone who could translate those words. It is not uncommon for the Seekers of the Seven Stars to use the Black Speech when transmitting important messages for few folk can read that abominable tongue and it confuses even those who can, as you yourself have seen. Our organization is an ancient one and our knowledge of many secrets runs very deep. I myself am not the eldest of its members, though I am not the least wise among them."

"Hm. I may not be as wise as all that," I said with a frown, "But Handsome is as handsome does, as we say in the Shire. It would seem to me you could do with a bit less wisdom and a bit more honesty. What sort of folk are these Seekers, then, that they are willing to go around deceiving people while calling them comrades to their faces? And how am I supposed to know you're not simply making all this up to placate me, or throw me onto another false trail?"

"I have certainly earned your distrust, and for that I am heartily sorry," she said. "I have known that this moment or something like it was inevitable, and I have been dreading it for weeks. I am willing to bring you to the leader of the Seekers of the Seven Stars and let you -- and the others -- judge for yourselves. Only this can I claim in my defence: the Enemy has laid traps for me before now. It was important for my safety and the safety of my quest that I test you before I could come to fully trust you, but that time is now past. The Company has proven itself beyond any doubt in my mind, both in trust and in skill-at-arms. I am willing to lay bare to you every secret I hold in order to earn your trust in return."

"Wait, wait," I said again. "I still do not understand some things. How did we arrive in the Bree-land before the message you sent out ahead of yourself?"

"The Wild is a dangerous place," Gaelira said with a shrug. "Any number of things could have delayed the couriers."

"And what did you mean when you said that you were the reason the Enemy's forces knew about us?"

"You might remember that when we intercepted the letter-carriers in the Chetwood Drodie slew one, but the other I merely rendered unconscious. It stands to reason that this second courier, who beheld us that night, was later captured by the forces of Angmar. I have no doubt he was tortured until he told all that he knew. They would have learned of his errand and the contents of the message he bore, as well as about us: our name, our number, and the type of each of us."

"And that's where Hremm eventually figured in?" I asked, finally fitting her raven-friend into the picture.

"Correct. After the disaster with the message, I resorted to a much more secure manner of keeping my superiors informed of our progress." Her use of that word ignited a spark in my memory.

"Superiors?" I echoed. "You know Umarth -- the Elf we encountered in the Fornost keep -- don't you?" I recalled the way the strange Elf had kept his eyes on Gaelira when we first met him and now I perceived that Umarth was testing through Gaelira's expression how much or how little to tell us about why he was really there.

"Yes. He is also a member of the Seekers of the Seven Stars. As many of us do, he was scouring ancient ruins in search of relics which might be of use to our cause."

"At least he told us as much. That makes him more trustworthy than you then, I suppose," I said accusatorily, but my anger with the she-Elf was actually beginning to subside. It seemed I had somehow become entangled in a very mysterious errand -- one much more secretive and important than I had originally understood. I really wanted to trust Gaelira and to believe that this quest of ours truly was of immense value, but trust, once lost, is very difficult to regain.

"You have every right to be angry with me," Gaelira said. "I swear to you I did this only out of concern for the secrecy of my mission as well as my own safety. I am ready to reveal all of this to the others as well. If they choose to turn aside from this quest then they are free to do so. But I sincerely hope you -- all of you -- will think on your decisions long and carefully. Consider what we have accomplished in service to the Free Peoples of the North ere even the first month of our fellowship has passed! If we succeed -- if we somehow manage to capture the palantir -- we will have truly made a difference in this Age of the world; we would be the stuff of legends."

"I don't care for all that," I said, dismissively, "And I'm not sure I understand all this about seeing-stones and secret societies. But if you are prepared to lay it all out for the Company to hear and decide on together, as ought to have been the case from the start, then I will go where it goes. I've stuck to this Company through thick and thin and I'll continue to stick to it. I'm not sure there's any path for me which leads back to my old life now in any case."

"I cannot tell you how much that means to me," the Elf said, and I thought I caught a hint of tenderness in her voice. "I believe now I understand what Luean meant in the Comb and Wattle Inn when he agreed with you to go on the hunt after some of our companions turned up missing. It is not enough, sometimes, to merely be fellow travellers; even when there is a common purpose. For a mission as terrible and dangerous as what I have in mind something more is required, and that thing is love."

I looked at her. Tall and strong she towered over me and appeared to the eye as resolute and imposing as ever she was since I first came to know her. And yet now, through some method of perception other than sight, I sensed that she had changed. For an instant I tried to form these jumbled thoughts into a coherent statement, but it was all too complicated for me. Instead, I just sighed and shrugged my shoulders.

"Well, that bit's settled then," I said in plain hobbit-fashion. "We can hold council with the others in the morning, assuming Lagodir and Drodie are fit for it. But what happens next?"

"Although our fellowship's cohesion and skill have advanced wonderfully, our equipment has not," she said. "We will decide our next course of action together, but I will recommend that we seek some way to gain access to more advanced gear."

"That makes sense to me, although I'm not entirely certain how that might be accomplished," I said. The Company was not wealthy and all of the bounties, gifts of gratitude, and spoils of battle we had thus far collected amounted to precious little.

"Mallacai, my leader, may be able to direct us with regards to that," Gaelira said. "While I have been keeping him apprised of our efforts through Hremm the raven, I've learned that he is encamped fairly nearby. If we can reach him, I have no doubt his wisdom would be of great value to us."

"And it would serve to resolve any suspicions that the rest of the Company might have as to your intentions," I said, finishing her thought for her. "Seems logical enough. Though I don't mind saying I'll have my eye on you until then." I gave her a wink and a broad grin. I really didn't doubt Gaelira's story now that I had heard it from her own lips. It sounded plausible enough (despite its extraordinary nature), but I was concerned how the others might take it.

"Fair enough," Gaelira said with a laugh. The tension between us was melting faster than an April snow in the Southfarthing. "Again, I cannot blame you for harbouring some doubt after everything that has happened. I swear to you I will not steer you wrong. Soon, we will stand before the leader of the Seekers of the Seven Stars, and many strange and wondrous things will be revealed to you."

"Far too strange and wondrous for my little head, I'll warrant," I said. "Which reminds me of one other thing I don't understand: your message to this Mallacai chap said you would be leading a company called The Outriders of Elladan. How could you have known that when I'm the one who came up with the name Elladan's Outriders many days later?"

"Because I had thought up that same name for the Company before I ever left Rivendell," Gaelira said with a smile. "It was pure coincidence. Even in these days of darkness and doubt, sometimes things really are nothing more than what they first appear to be."

"Well, thank goodness for that!" I chuckled. "It's nice to know there aren't shadows and intrigue lurking behind every little thing I've encountered with this bunch."

We left Halbarad's quarters together. Seeing that everything was in order, the captain of the Rangers bade us goodnight and retired. Gaelira and I returned to our little campsite where we saw Nephyn had not budged an inch -- she was deep in much-needed slumber. A wave of sleepiness crashed over me like a tide from the deeps of the Sea. I wondered what time of the night (or morning?) it must now be. I flopped down, contemplating how I was going to stay awake, but Gaelira seemed to read my mind.

"Go to sleep, Padryc," she said in a gentle voice. "I promise you have nothing to fear from me."

"I was hoping you'd say that," I said as I let out an enormous yawn. "This has been a night as long as years -- all of that scrambling up and down hills and clawing among stones has quite worn me out; to say nothing of my terror of you." If the Elf had any ill-intentions, I was simply going to have to trust to chance this night, for my eyelids would not keep themselves open. Gaelira looked at me with a strange mixture of wonder and admiration.

"You are to be commended for putting yourself in such danger by meeting with me alone the way you did," she said. "Once again the courage of your small kind and your consideration for the feelings of others continues to surprise me. Not so much in that you possess these qualities, but rather in how they manifest themselves. May the Shire live forever unwithered!"

"Oh, well, it seemed the right thing to do, you know," I said, eager to stop talking about me and (especially) to get some shut-eye. "And, not to seem rude about it, but just now the right thing for me to do is to rest. It sounds like the five of us will have a great deal to discuss in the morning. Good night!"

"Good night," said Gaelira as she sat down across from me. It didn't take more than a few moments for me to drop off, but in those moments I could see the she-Elf sitting there in the glow of our little campfire. All I saw was her back since she was facing the other way, but I got the distinct impression that she was on guard, watching protectively over Nephyn and me.