Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 41

An Unexpected Obstacle

Hevensday, 15th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Village of Aughaire, Angmar
The Land of Angmar
This is just the sort of luck one might look to find in Angmar. After all we had accomplished in getting here the last thing I expected was to meet with utter failure quite so quickly. You may notice from my entry heading that we are now back in the Hillman village of Aughaire which is (that's right) west of our last resting place, not east. Which, of course, means we are going entirely the wrong way. Allow me to explain how this came about.

As soon as I woke up this morning I wished that I hadn't. For one thing, I could see from where we had pitched camp not far inside the Halls of Night that it was still dark outside. For another, I was told we'd be getting an early start and if I didn't shake a leg I would miss breakfast. That got me up in a hurry (as it was no doubt designed to do), but in my rush I stubbed my toe on some rock in the cave's passageway. I arrived at breakfast muttering choice words about the accommodations.

The food was once again excellent, however, and soon all such misgivings were driven from my mind. Like most folk I don't use my ears to eat, so I was able to listen to all the morning's discussions about where to go, what to avoid, and what dangers to look out for. Mallacai again warned us to steer away from any enemy encampments we might happen upon while making our way east through the swamps of Malenhad then north toward some land called Himbar. We all expressed hope a second time that we would have the good fortune to avoid running into Wenhair or any of her allies as we passed through Malenhad. Well, when I say all, I really mean Nephyn and I: Gaelira seemed to think another encounter was inevitable while Lagodir believed the best way to deal with his erstwhile kidnappers was to eliminate them altogether. As for Drodie, I believe he was just getting antsy for a fight and would have welcomed the opportunity to engage the Lossoth sword-to-sword. Anyway, unless I am mistaken, I don't believe much was said which hadn't been said once before last night, so I paid more attention to my food than to all the strategizing. Elves thrive on long speech but a hobbit needs his vittles has been a byword even in the Shire for time out of memory -- and apparently not without reason.

Mallacai proved a capital host. Aside from his being a fount of good advice for the journey (which was considerable, as I've already said), he also insisted we fill our packs with anything and everything from the cave's larder we could possibly want. We thanked him many times for this and he brushed off our praise, but even so he hinted supplies may well begin to run scarce by the time we reach the outskirts of Carn Dum. We stocked up on every kind of food (especially the less perishable sort), then refilled our water-bottles and skins until they were nearly bursting. After all, even if we manage to achieve our goal we will still need provisions for the road back.

Finally, with all of these things done, we gathered ourselves just outside the entrance to the Halls of Night. The six of us looked out over the plains of Angmar. The Sun had finally peeped over the eastern horizon, but even as the light crept across the region I saw that country looked even more dead by day than it did in the darkness. Bare branches and dry weeds rattled in the wind, and several dust-devils appeared in various places. I had heard stories of the vast and empty deserts of Middle-earth, the Sun-swept dunes of Far Harad in the south-lands, but even they sounded more lively than this place. Here everything looked as though the soil had been poisoned for generations, or perhaps a raging fire had devastated all life. The sky was low and dark, with great billowing clouds of black flecked with amber rolling in from the north. It would be hard to imagine a less pleasant landscape if one tried. Also, there was a strange pungence on the air, though it was faint. I scratched myself nervously and began paying attention to the others' speech.

"If we shall be forced to go round-about, then the more speedily we travel the better," Lagodir was saying.

"Perhaps," Mallacai answered. "My attendants and I will do what we can to draw Carn Dum's attention to ourselves here in the south-west and so help to clear the way for you in some small degree. But do not forget that stealth is now of the utmost importance -- if the Steward of Angmar learns of your approach all your efforts may be for naught."

"Who -- or what -- is this Steward, exactly?" I asked.

"I am not certain," the Elf replied. "The Hillmen of this land call him Mordirith, but whether he is a Man or some other creature I cannot say. I suspect that, before this is over, you shall know more about his origins than I, for no doubt the palantir you seek will be very close to him at all times."

"Will we be able to defeat him, should it come to that?" asked Gaelira. I was surprised to hear her voice such a question after all this time. Mallacai did not answer right away.

"The bonds of love you have forged are very strong, and they will hold you fast, one to each other, so long as your fellowship endures," he said at last. "But I can say nothing definitive. What I am able to see of the future is very dim and confused -- many things I have glimpsed of late which puzzle me greatly -- and so I will say no more. I am certain only that this noble quest of yours shall have far-reaching implications for all of Middle-earth."

"That doesn't sound so encouraging," said Drodie with a snort.

"More assurances I cannot give, unless you would have me be proven false," came Mallacai's response. "And which is more cruel: to offer hope unwarranted or despair unfounded? Either could sway the outcome of the future, for good or ill, and so I fear to say too much. Yet you five have sworn yourselves to this cause, and all Free Folk therefore have cause to praise you. And now, go forth with the blessings of Elves, Men, Dwarves, and the Shire-folk upon you all!"

We bowed low and took our leave of the venerable Elf. The others started down a slope and I made to follow, but just then I felt Mallacai's hand upon my shoulder.

"Good Fortune, great-heart," he said with a kindly smile and an immense sadness in his deep-blue eyes which caught me rather off-guard. "To have known you and seen your growth has been the most rewarding and unexpected pleasure I have had in many long years. I am sorry it must end after so short a time. Farewell."

I looked up at him with an expression that must have conveyed the many questions running through my mind at that moment, but he merely nodded and turned away. I looked after the others to see where they had gone, and when I turned back to say goodbye one more time, Mallacai was no longer there. I only paused a moment before hustling down the hill to rejoin my companions.

"Just look at this place," Nephyn was saying as I scampered up behind them. "The land itself seems... almost warped."

"Such is the fate of any land which lingers long under the Shadow," said Lagodir grimly.

"Yet it will take more than an unpleasant view to break our resolve," said Gaelira. "Lagodir, you seem to be recovered from your recent trials."

""I am feeling in better health and spirits than I have for some years," replied the Gondorian as he stretched his arms. "The spectre of Guloth no longer haunts me."

"And how are the rest of us?" Nephyn asked. "Ready for our greatest challenge?"

"I could do with a second rasher of bacon," Drodie dead-panned. The rest of us snickered.

"For myself," I said as I laughed, "I wouldn't mind the sight of something green. What a loathsome place this is! And that smell! I had noticed it before, but it seems to have gotten stronger."

"The wind is in the east," said Nephyn. "Whatever the source may be, we are headed straight for it."

The ground was rocky and uneven, and so we made poor time at first. There was a smoother area off to our left, but Gaelira said she would rather stick to the hills in hopes of avoiding any unfriendly eyes. We scrambled up one slope and down another, the shifting land constantly obscuring our view of whatever lie ahead. All at once, we came to the end of the hilly region and a grim vista stretched out before us.

It was a great, flat wasteland and it was pocked everywhere with enormous craters, crevices, and vents. Clouds of steam or smoke were mournfully drifting upward from many of these openings, and the smell that had been bothering me all morning smacked us full in our faces.

"Ugh!" I choked as I reflexively covered my mouth and nose. "Sulfur! Mercy me, what a stink!"

"Malenhad!" Gaelira exclaimed. "A swamp made of hot springs. Our going may be treacherous here; we should take care."

Care was certainly called for. The earth was comprised of sharp gravel which constantly slipped and slid out from under us, and every so often we would come upon a cracked vent in the ground and a column of steam would suddenly shoot upward and give us all a fright. We spent the remainder of the morning steadily picking our way eastward, but our progress became slower and slower. It felt to me as if there was some invisible force resisting our movement, but I said nothing to the others. It was about the third hour from noon when all five of us simultaneously came to a halt, though none of us had said a word. With an effort of will, I raised my eyes to behold a terrifying sight.

It was a massive and grotesque statue shaped to look like a dragon, or at least it was some sort of winged, serpentine visage. I honestly can't quite remember, because the only thing I noticed at the time were the eyes: they glowed with a blood-red ferocity and seemed to hold my gaze as if they were alive. I felt unable to turn and look, but I sensed that my friends were nearby and also enthralled by the stone figures. The air seemed to become heavy and breathing was difficult.

"It is very warm," I heard Drodie say from somewhere off to my right. "Let us rest a moment."

"Nay, we should not take a rest here," Lagodir said in answer. "I like not these vile monuments -- we can rest when we have moved beyond them, perhaps."

"My breath is taken away," I heard Gaelira mutter.

"Those eyes!" came Nephyn's frantic voice. "They are the eyes from my dreams! There is no hope for us. Why did we ever come to this accursed place?"

"Back! Back!" cried Lagodir. "The Enemy will be upon us in moments! We must retreat!" The large Man began to seize each of us and forcibly drag us back the way we came. Before I realized what was happening he had hefted me up onto his shoulders while hauling Drodie in one fist and Nephyn in the other. I saw Gaelira tear her eyes from the statue and follow. Lagodir took us all a short ways before ducking behind the edges of a particularly large crater -- out of the direct line of sight of the evil things. Almost immediately I felt my head become clearer.

"What in blazes was that?" I asked while gasping for air.

"There is some witchcraft inside the stones," said Lagodir as he tried to comfort Nephyn. "They reminded me at once of the images I encountered on the road to Imlad Morgul: the ones which doomed me and my men to the soldiers of the tower. It seems these images possess a similar power to those I found in my own adventures, and perhaps these, too, would alert foes to our presence. In this way were I and my men overcome. We should not remain here long in case a patrol is sent to search for us."

It took several moments for the Company to recover after that event. Nephyn was especially affected by the things, although I was the only one who knew why without an explanation. I left it to her to describe her dreams to the others which she had intimated to me many weeks ago in the North Downs.

"Dreams are curious things, and I cannot say why you would have envisioned these statues," said Gaelira. "But it is clear we cannot pass them without aid from some outside source."

"Perhaps there is a way around them?" asked Drodie. He had taken very little time to return to himself.

We spent another hour or two searching, but it turned out there was an entire row of the horrible things blocking any advance further through Malenhad. The Sun was deep in the western sky by the time we were forced to admit defeat and turned our backs on the eastern road. I felt deeply depressed as we began the long march back to Aughaire; only Lagodir retained his positive outlook. It seemed that his previous encounters with such instruments of evil gave him faith that we would find some way to overcome this new obstacle.

The Hillmen of Aughaire were not thrilled to see us return, but they allowed us to take refuge inside the gates, for we did not dare to camp outside the protection of their meager walls in that land. We kept to ourselves, well apart from the centre of the village, and discussed how we might somehow defeat the stones and continue our quest, but none of us had any clear idea of how to accomplish this. As I lie here making notes on our activities for today I cannot help but wonder: are we thwarted already?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 40.3

The Halls of Night

Trewsday, 14th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Halls of Night, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The Halls of Night
"Padryc! Wake up!"

I was being aggressively shaken, and it was Nephyn's concerned voice that kept echoing in my ears. With an effort, I managed to open my eyes. I still felt like I was falling or spinning to the point my stomach was queasy, but I could see now I was doing neither: I was lying on the floor of the same small burial chamber I had been in before. Had I fallen asleep and dreamt the whole thing?

My friends were all near me again, although most of them looked about as bad as I felt: Nephyn was bent over me, her face full of worry, but she was pale and her eyes were red. Drodie was still seated with his back up against one of the crypts, absent-mindedly stroking his beard. Lagodir was standing, but even in the dim light of a single torch I could see his eyes were unfocused and beads of sweat were running down his forehead. Gaelira was busy stomping on something off to one side. The air felt thick -- heavy, as if we were by a fireplace with a blocked flu -- and I had a splitting headache.

"Nephyn, help me get them outside" Gaelira said urgently. "Quickly now! Everyone out into the open air."

With some difficulty, we all managed to shuffle our way up the tunnel and back into the gritty, driving winds of Angmar. Dusk had fallen and the place looked even more inhospitable than it had by daylight. At the moment, however, the only thing which interested us was breathing: the instant we stepped outside the air felt suddenly both cooler and lighter. It was almost as if we had walked out of a thick smoke-filled room and found ourselves on the peak of a snow-capped mountain. At once my senses felt revived and all of us began to breathe more easily.

"What happened?" I asked as I tried to steady my legs. "I thought you all had left me behind and that I was falling to the very centre of the world. Surely I didn't mean to take a nap in a place like that! What the devil is going on?"

 "We were overcome by the fumes coming off of those braziers," Gaelira explained. "It took me a few moments to realize what was happening, but once I knocked over the charcoal and stomped out the embers everyone began to slowly recover."

"'Tis fortunate indeed you were able to discover the source of the malady," Lagodir said while rubbing his temples. 

"Aye, I'd hate to think where we'd be otherwise," said Drodie. "Still down there with our tongues lolling out and drool running down our chins, no doubt!"

"But why would there be such a powerful drug in a place like this?" asked Nephyn as she peered suspiciously at the entrance to the cave. "Someone must have put those braziers there and ensured they were lit."

"Indeed," came a familiar voice from the direction of the doorway. "And had I known you were so near I would have arranged a more appropriate welcome for you!" From the darkness under the arch stepped the smiling figure of Mallacai.

"Welcome, my friends!" he said, his arms spread in front of him. "Brave heroes! Not in many long years have I heard of such incredible tales and exploits as yours! But come: we have much to discuss and time is of the essence. Please enter! And do not fear the fumes, for I have opened a vent inside the cave that will evacuate them -- you will be quite safe from their influence now."

I heard Drodie give a low growl beside me and only Gaelira strode forward. It seemed most of us weren't quite willing to just casually walk back into that place without some further explanation. Mallacai's smile faded and he bowed low.

"I do beg your pardon," he said. "The braziers are there for my safety: there are all sorts of beasts and worse in Angmar prowling the hillsides. Even the Trev Gallorg have been known to go poking their noses in here, and so I was forced to devise a way to keep out any unwanted visitors. There has long been a supersition surrounding this cave as being haunted by malevolent spirits -- the locals call it the Halls of Night -- so I considered there would be no harm in perpetuating such legends. It has proven effective, as you yourselves can now testify. But I was not expecting you until the day after tomorrow; you must have made your way hither at a great pace indeed!"

"We came with all haste," answered Gaelira as our Company began to follow the two Elves back inside. "In fact, we would have arrived sooner, but we were distracted by an attack in Ered Luin which caused us some delay." We proceeded to tell Mallacai about Wenhair, how we defeated Brullug the drake, and the Woman's treachery as she kidnapped Lagodir and attempted to return Guloth to the world.

"So at least some of the Lossoth still keep their loyalties to the Iron Crown?" said Mallacai with a shake of his head. "Such a pity, for those people would make valuable allies in the conflict to come. Still, we can be grateful that most of their folk remain neutral in the War. Even though they do not aid us it means they likewise do not aid our Enemy, and even such a small victory as that may prove crucial in the final analysis. The Free Peoples will need every advantage we can muster."

By the light of our torch we returned to the small burial chamber. The air was still a bit stuffy, but the smothering sweet scent which had engulfed the place earlier was gone. Mallacai led us toward the back of the room, then placed the torch into an iron sconce on the wall. He pulled downward, and there was a crack and the squeaking of metal and wheels. A section of the bricks lining the tomb swung open, forming a secret doorway in the cavern wall! 

Following the Elf within this sanctum, we found ourselves in a very similar setting as the one where we had met him in Evendim, weeks earlier. There was a large fireplace at one end and in front of this was a broad table spread with all manner of books, scrolls, maps, and curious artefacts. There were few other furnishings, but there were also low arches at either end which led into additional rooms. I looked around and jumped with fright: I had just noticed there were four Elven soldiers posted, one in each corner of the room, just as before. They were totally silent and did not acknowledge us at all; had they been wax-works transported by waggon from Tinnudir to Angmar the effect would have been the same.

After several more apologies, Mallacai provided us with refreshments, which he produced from one of the two side-rooms. There were meats and cheeses, bread, grapes, dried fruits, and a delightful drink I've never had before but would love to sample a second time, if I ever get the chance. While we ate, the Elf filled us in on what he had been doing since we last met on the island of Tinnudir. It seemed that he and his entourage had left Evendim after dealing with several dangerous threats which had been roving the countryside there, but he had left the assault upon Annuminas to the Rangers.

"Such large-scale operations are beyond the scope of my resources," he explained. "And the situation was never really beyond the abilities of the Rangers in any case -- it only seemed that way from their perspective -- but one free-man fighting to regain his home is more powerful than twenty slaves in armour. No, I was needed here much more urgently, for the time is not now long off when the Steward of Angmar will move against the Free Peoples of the North."

There followed next an extensive discussion about the positions and movements of the forces of the Enemy and those in resistance to them, but I will not bore you with such details here. In the end, it was clear there was no hope of any armed affront to Angmar's advances, but that was where we figured in.

"You did well to conceal your coming to this land," said Mallacai. "If I was taken unawares then we may safely assume the Enemy is similarly misinformed, at least for the time being. The Trev Gallorg hold no love for the Iron Crown, but it is likely that word of your arrival will eventually find its way into the ears of some servant of Carn Dum, for Southrons, as the Hillmen term us, do not idly cross the Ram Duath into Angmar."

"Then it is imperative that we use this time of indecision well," observed Gaelira.

"Quite so," Mallacai agreed. "And I shall do everything in my power to aid you. As in Evendim, I have seen many powerful champions roaming the landscape here in Amgnar. If you were to encounter one it would surely mean your doom; however, I and my assistants will engage these adversaries instead. This will serve two purposes: first, assuming we are successful, we shall have removed many dire threats from this land and rendered it considerably safer for everyone therein. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the destruction of these mighty champions will cause great concern in the mind of the Steward in Carn Dum: he shall be worrying about the loss of his servants and not watching your Company as it draws ever closer to the seat of his power."

"And under his very nose, too," Nephyn said. "We must be cautious."

"Caution is certainly advised," said Mallacai, "But I aim to do more than merely advise this time. You have braved and conquered powerful opponents, my friends, and your strength, endurance, and resolve have grown to meet those challenges. I see you have brought those things which I commanded you to retrieve for me."

"We have," said Gaelira as we unloaded our trophies onto the table before him. "However, I failed to procure the crown of the Great Goblin. Events transpired which prevented us from engaging him directly." Mallacai nodded and waved his hand.

"I have heard all there is to hear about your exploits from many sources, Elrond himself not least among them," he said. "He and I do not always agree, but I think he has come to appreciate your prowess, even if he still has reservations about our ultimate goal. But I must tell you this: I sent you to retrieve these things, brave warriors, not because they are needed to craft any special weaponry or armour (although the hide of Brullug might indeed still serve that purpose). Nay, I asked these things of you because, firstly, each of these foes needed to be removed from the world, and this you have done to the great benefit of all. Secondly, because the tales of your adventures reach the ears of friend and foe alike, both of which are to our advantage. Thirdly, and above all, because these trials served to strengthen your trust in yourselves and among yourselves. In preparing you to face the evils of Carn Dum there was no greater service I could provide, but it is you who have triumphed in the name of free folk everywhere." I can't deny I felt a swell of pride as he said these things to us.

"And so, as I say, I aim to do more than merely advise you this time around," Mallacai continued. "I have here in this cavern a small armoury containing many pieces I suspect you will find useful. I urge you to take anything you find there that you wish, with my blessing and my greatest compliments."

He led us then into the second of the two small side-rooms where we found, as he said, a decent-sized horde of gear and other implements of battle. Nephyn was able to replenish her supply of arrows with a quiver of remarkable, slender Elf-darts which had wickedly barbed heads. Lagodir's broadsword had been notched many times over the course of our travels, and so it was replaced by a shining blade of excellent make. He also accepted a new breastplate, for his had been badly damaged in our battle with Brullug the drake. Drodie seemed very reluctant to trade in any of his Dwarf-made gear, but he did grudingly accept a new shield, as his old one was looking much the worse since our adventure began more than two and a half months ago. Gaelira said she was content with her beloved staff and family sword, but she did take a beautifully stitched leather satchel and filled it with a variety of things I could not see. For myself, I was not about to go trapsing about in any kind of armour, but I did trade my little hammer in for a wonderfully crafted Elven dagger. I felt like old Mr. Bilbo must have when (as the tales tell it) he first found his little shortsword at the back of a smelly troll-cave in the woods somewhere. I also yielded to the demands of my friends by taking a small buckler, despite the fact I know nothing about how to use a shield. Drodie said he would give me some pointers but that it was mostly common sense.

Thus outfitted, we thanked Mallacai many times and decded we would take a rest and resume our journey at first light. There was much more talk all about the doings of peoples and armies away in the South-lands, but I didn't pay it much mind; I was much more concerned about where we were headed, starting tomorrow! Mallacai did give us some counsel regarding our next steps and what we could expect to find as we made our way toward Carn Dum.

"The fortress of the Enemy sits on a rocky height well to the north -- almost due north from our current location," he told us. "Unfortunately, there is only one manageable approach, and you will have to travel east before you are able to turn north and find it. There are many encampments of the Enemy's soldiery you are likely to find along the way, but I would urge you to avoid them if you can and retain the element of surprise as long as possible. That may mean crossing through the valley of Imlad Balchorth, I am afraid. It is likely the least-watched way available to you, but it contains perils in its own right. I do not advise going that way if you do not have to." What frightened him about that place he would not say.

"Once you have gone far enough to the north you should look to turn west," he continued. "The road winds much, but we must hope that your ingenuity will find a way without being spotted. Once inside of Carn Dum itself I fear the well of my knowledge runs dry: there you will be on your own."

"We understand," said Gaelira with a defiant look in her eyes. "We will recover the palantir at whatever cost."

"I hope the cost does not prove too high," Mallacai said. "Is there aught else I may do in your service? For you have earned it many times over."

"I do have one question," I chirped up. "Have you ever heard of a place called Malenhad?"

"The swamps of Malenhad?" Mallacai asked. "Certainly: you are little more than half a day's march from their outskirts even now. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, bother!" I exclaimed. "Another swamp? Just my luck! Anyway, I ask because Wenhair, that Lossoth we told you about, said she would be meeting 'Guloth' there with her mother from Forochel. I was rather hoping we might be able to avoid it."

"There is no avoiding Malenhad if you are going to Carn Dum, I fear," Mallacai answered. "But perhaps you will have the good fortune to not encounter this Wenhair along the way. From what you say of her, she must be a formidable enemy."

"She is that," said Gaelira thoughtfully. "And we shall see: perhaps our paths have crossed for the last time, yet I do not think that is so."

"What should be shall be," came Mallacai's reply. "If it is ordained that you should face her again, then you shall have the advantage of knowing her true mind. Keep your eyes open and your wits sharp! In all the long wars against the darkness has treachery ever been our mightiest adversary."

With all of this settled and done, we proceeded to rest for the remainder of the night. I counted us fortunate that we did not have to camp outside in the bitter winds of Angmar, but I figured it would not be long before we'd be obliged to do so anyway. Reflecting on my time with the Company has reminded me of everything we have been through together. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared of what would be coming next, but I also feel strong in the face of this evil, for I know my friends are beside me. And we have many allies: the Rangers of Bree-land, Esteldin, and Evendim, the Dwarves of Gondamon and Thorin's Halls, the people of Trestlebridge, Gloin, Thorgest, Elrond, Halbarad, and even Old Bombadil. Oh, and Mallacai and his Seekers of the Seven Stars, too. I know Mr. Baggins had warned me about them, but they seem a decent enough lot to me. Which reminds me: it turns out that Borganeorn, the strange Dwarf we had met back in Gondamon all those days ago, is a member of the Seekers as well. You may recall he had remembered seeing Gaelira once before? Well, apparently the two of them had indeed met at some point, but it was so far in the past no one could remember when or where. It seems the Dwarf is exceptionally long-lived, even for one of his race. So that's one more little mystery solved. Mallacai might be more than a bit peculiar, but he's certainly proven himself to be wise and helpful in the long run. And he is an Elf, after all, and all Elves are strange folk.

Speaking of which, I was sitting here on my own making record of today's events when I suddenly sensed a presence nearby. It was Mallacai himself, and he was watching me with a keen eye. I greeted him cordially, but as before i felt slightly nervous under that azure gaze.

"Well, Master Halfling," he said, a slight grin playing on his lips. "What damage have the miles wrought upon you? Are you still resolved to go forward?"

"I am," I said, a bit haltingly. It was not borne so much of indecision as it was simply an uncomfortable subject to broach. "These are not just my friends; they are my family."

"This quest has already achieved many worthy aims," Mallacai said solemnly and with a slight nod of his head. "And that is far from the least significant among them. I said twice earlier that I wish to do more than simply advise, but my advice remains an option, if you desire it. Is there something on your mind?"

"Well, yes, actually," I said, a little embarassed. "I was just thinking about how you had, sort of, well, foretold that each of us would face certain, erm, hardships as we hunted for the items you requested."

"And you are surprised that they proved true?"

"No," I replied. "Or, at least, mostly no. I mean, I am surprised that they proved true in most cases. Nephyn forgave that poor river-woman when she thought I had been killed by her, and now the Eglain and the Lone-lands are doing better than they have for a very long time, from what they told us. Drodie trusted completely in us to save his life in Sarnur. Lagodir found the limits of his strength when pursuing a vendetta. And even Gaelira found redemption for what happened in the Misty Mountains all those years ago. I just... what about me? You had said I would find my true value to the Company if I could retrieve the fangs of the spider-queen in the Trollshaws and I did that -- that is to say, we did that -- but nothing really... happened. I didn't learn anything new at all."

I had expected Mallacai to chastise me for doubting him and lecture me on how I had missed the point. Then I would feel foolish for overlooking the obvious and ask Mallacai to forgive my obtuseness, but that is not what happened. The Elf simply looked at me with those incredibly piercing blue eyes. I squirmed a bit and felt very uncomfortable.

"I... I don't mean to be rude about it," I stammered, "I suppose the main thing is we accomplished what we set out to do. Of course, I could never have done it without the others." I paused, but Mallacai only continued to stare at me. I shifted my weight again, self-conciously. 

"It's just... I was expecting to have more to do with it, you know?" I continued. "It was the rest of the Company that did pretty much everything -- I was just there. They put themselves in harm's way just because I was there, and that hardly seems fair, does it?" Mallacai still made no answer.

"I mean, it's all well and good we disposed of that beastly spider," I said. "Who knows what she and her brood might have done if we had just left her there, but what has that got to do with me and... finding my value? Was that worth four people putting themselves in danger? For me? Why, if it hadn't been for me..." I stopped just as abruptly as if I had walked into a brick wall. The Elf's eyes never wavered from mine for an instant. 

"Oh," was all I managed to say.

"Good night," said Mallacai. Then he turned away and left me to my thoughts.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 40.2

The Road to Angmar

Highday, 3rd of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Elf-refuge of Duillond, Ered Luin
A hut of the Trev Gallorg
We could have probably done with another day's rest here in Thorin's Halls, but we decided to set out as soon as we could. Time was not on our side: if Mallacai was in Angmar, then it would take us almost two weeks to arrive where we just discovered he was supposed to be the last time Malkan the eagle had seen him. I was (and am still) feeling rather daunted by the distance we will have to cover, but at the same time I think we are all somewhat buoyed by our recent successes too.

We thanked our hosts many times and departed out of Thorin's Gates shortly after the fourth hour. Lagodir was still not feeling quite himself, but he refused to hold us back, saying the easy exertion of a march would do him good. We passed Noglond and Gondamon without incident, then turned southward and followed the road to the Elf-refuge of Duillond. The sky had been cloudy most of the day, but about that time things began to break up and the Sun came out, which I found very pleasant.

We are halting here for tonight. The Elves here were happy to see us again and Gaelira told them all the tale of what we encountered in Sarnur and afterward. There was a great deal of astonishment at our exploits, let me tell you. We asked several people if they had ever heard of a place called Malenhad, but no one could tell us anything.

Sterday, 4th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in Ered Luin

Today the weather was gorgeous -- a welcome sight after all of the dread and gloom we went through since crossing the threshold of Sarnur some days ago. Our path now leads us back through the Shire, but Gaelira tells us we should not allow our movements to be known since we are finally heading toward Angmar. I suppose this means we won't be visiting the Shire's finest taverns this time through.

We walked a good distance, but the Shire is still a ways off. We camped in a field under the shade of a few ash trees. There is nothing around us for miles.

Sunday, 5th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Rushock Bog, the Shire

Now that Lagodir is feeling much more like his old self, Gaelira pressed us to march on well after sunset. We reached the Rushock Gate, moved through Needlehole, and did not stop until we were well into the Rushock Bog. This wouldn't have been my chosen place to rest for the night, but I suppose we are trying to keep our journey a secret. A smelly bog is a decent enough place for that, I guess.

Monday, 6th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Bindbole Wood, the Shire

Lagodir has come down with a nasty cough. I'm worried this trip might be too much for him in his condition -- I wish to goodness we had stayed another day at Thorin's Halls. But there's nothing for it now: if we want to make sure our party isn't the topic of gossip throughout the Shire from now until Yuletide we are going to have to keep away from the roads and villages of my homeland.

We took it very easy today though we left the fens as quickly as we could. We reached the Bindbole Wood and continued eastward, taking care to avoid any hobbits or hobbit-holes we saw. We skirted across the road without being seen then waded across a shallow stream before setting up camp well into the darkest parts of the forest. No respectable hobbit would be poking around in here, especially after sundown. All the same, we lit no fire.

Trewsday, 7th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Bridgefields Wall, the Shire

We are not making very good progress, but at least the weather has been cooperative. Today we continued through the Bindbole Wood, skirted the Frogmoors on their northern edges (yay! more bogs!), then swung northward again in order to avoid getting caught inside of Budgeford. We were obliged to go north of the village then turn east again, keeping ourselves out of sight behind the hedge that borders the town on that side. Finally, we got ourselves in among the ruins of the Bridgefields Wall, which kept us hidden for the night. Tomorrow we should look to cross the Brandywine, although I'm not sure how we intend to do that without being seen, and I absolutely refuse to swim!

Hevensday, 8th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Brandy Wood, Bree-land

It seems swimming was not part of Gaelira's plan, but gate-breaking was. She had us wait until after dark before moving out (I think Lagodir appreciated the extra rest), and then we slipped over the Brandywine Bridge after distracting the watchman with one of my homemade meat pies. I told everyone they were gate-breaking and that I couldn't be held responsible for their actions. They asked me how they could be gate-breaking when there are no gates on the Brandywine Bridge. What a question! Anyway, once we were across we immediately turned north (through yet another marsh, if you please!) and promptly got ourselves lost in the Brandy Wood. This forest gives me the willies.

Mersday, 9th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Southern Bree-fields, Bree-land

Nephyn insisted we weren't lost, but I can tell you it was an awfully long time before we finally found ourselves not surrounded by trees. Once we had picked our way among some deep gorges and crossed a swift-moving stream we were in easier territory. We did have to avoid a bandit camp, however, which we did by passing it well to the north. In the end, we camped on the western edge of a very pretty lake that Nephyn told us was called Everclear.

Highday, 10th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Northern Bree-fields, Bree-land

Some rain-clouds must have come up during the night. Although it threatened to do so, it never rained all day -- it just made today's march feel very dismal and heavy-footed. We travelled up the Greenway, taking care to always stay a good ways off to one side. Like last time, we camped just outside of Trestlebridge's south-gate in order to avoid attention.

Sterday, 11th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Off the Greenway, Somewhere in the North Downs

We moved through Trestlebridge quickly this morning and continued our journey up the Greenway. Camp was pitched at the cross-roads of the Greenway and the east-road toward Esteldin. We did finally get a bit of rain today. It was cold and uncomfortable, but it was not a heavy wetting. From where we are now I can see the very edges of the Fields of Fornost. I'm very glad to not be going that way for a change.

Sunday, 12th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Esteldin, the North Downs

We marched hard today in order to reach the Ranger-encampment of Esteldin by nightfall, which we did. Halbarad was not there, but the Dunedain were happy to see us again. We did finally get a little bit of good news (if you can call it that), namely we learned that Malenhad is indeed a place: it is a large swamp of limestone and sulfur-rock which dominates a large part of Angmar's southern landscape. This doesn't sound to me like a very nice place at all, not least because I've about had my fill of swamps for a while.

Monday, 13th of Rethe, Year 1418, Shire-reckoning
Aughaire, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar

We set out with the dawn and followed the path which climbed eastward and up out of the Valley of Hope into the Nan Amlug Plains beyond. We passed the place where we had battled Bleakwind and continued north. The land rose and fell as the Sun climbed higher in the sky until, roughly around noon, we saw a cleft appear in the mountains. Those mountains were the Ram Duath, and they separate the North Downs from the evil land of Angmar.

Once we had passed through that cleft, the land became harder. The wind was always howling among the stones and what grasses we saw were withered and brown. There were trees, but they seemed to be growing up and away from the rest of the earth, as if they were repelled by it. Even the ground itself was barren, hard, and gravelly.

There was something of a road which led northward and we followed this path. Eventually it turned to the west, climbed for a ways, then sloped downward. At the bottom of this decline, we came upon a most peculiar sight.

It was a village of tribal Men. Their town was built over a low, watery area so that small wooden bridges were needed to traverse the spaces between buildings. These buildings were mostly tents and small huts covered with furs and hides, which gave the whole place a very barbarous look. The inhabitants themselves contribute to this impression as well, for they are a fierce and hard lot with weather-worn faces and deep-set, untrusting eyes. They call themselves the Trev Gallorg (whatever that means), and although I was not inclined to spend any time among them Gaelira insisted we had no choice for the road into Angmar passes through their village.

This place is called Aughaire, I am now told, but I'll be happy to have it behind us, whatever they name it. We spent a short audience with the tribe's leader, a Man named Crannog. He seemed a reasonable sort and spoke the Common Tongue well enough for us to have a conversation. He was willing to allow us to pass through, but we were instructed to ensure we caused no mischief while in Aughaire (of course we readily agreed to this!). And we did get some useful information out of him: namely that a small company of Elves had passed that way about three weeks ago. Crannog did not know whether anyone among them was named Mallacai, for he and his people had fled and hidden themselves at the Elves' coming. The group had not stayed to talk but had simply marched out the northern gate then turned eastward, and no one had seen them since then. We thanked Crannog greatly for this information then proceeded to make camp well to the outskirts of Aughaire, but still within its gates, for we were not yet ready to venture beyond, into the Land of Angmar.

Trewsday, 14th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Halls of Night, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar

I was up early, having not gotten much sleep, for I suspected we were under the watchful eyes of the Trev Gallorg all night. It turns out I was right, although I could only discern this once the Sun was up: we had been surrounded by the Hillmen (all armed with spears and bows), but they were keeping a respectful distance and seemed content merely to observe us. The others were not much concerned by this, but I was eager to be gone. Nephyn appeared to want to befriend them for some odd reason.

Anyway, we made haste out the north-gate of Aughaire as soon as we were able. Many of the denizens followed and stared after us, as if to ensure we were up to no mischief, but once we were well into the ashen plains of Angmar they turned around and went home. We decided to search eastward (since the Elves were reported to have gone that way), but we were met with difficult terrain. We scrambled up and down hills, slipped on broken gravel, cut our knees, and scraped our elbows many times before calling a rest. Peering back from the hill we were on, it looked as though we had only come a few miles from the gates of Aughaire.

"What a miserable land this is!" I grumbled. I had been happy to leave the Hillmen behind, but the place in which we found ourselves now was bleak and inhospitable. There was grass, but it was all either dead or dying, and there weren't even any trees to speak of, unless you could count the shrivelled stumps and twiggy branches of what might have, at one time, been trees. Now they were little more than dead and hollowed-out husks.

"Has anyone seen anything living since we left the village?" asked Nephyn. She shielded her eyes with her hand (the wind is constantly blowing small rocks and bits of gravel everywhere in Angmar, which has the most irritating habit of getting into one's eyes).

"I think I saw a mud-crawler a ways back there," Lagodir said with a chuckle. He had now fully recovered from his ordeals of two weeks ago and was in much better spirits. Still, he had already remarked multiple times how Angmar reminded him of the Morgul Vale more than anything he had seen before or since being a prisoner there. Drodie shook his beard.

"We'll never get anywhere at this rate," he said. "Why can't Mallacai just tell us where he's at and spare us all this bother?" He had no sooner spoken the words then there was a piercing bird's cry from behind us. Turning, we saw Malkan the eagle perched upon a stone some ways up the side of a rock-wall.

"Well!" I exclaimed, looking up at him. "There's our eagle-friend again! Perhaps he can tell us where we ought to be searching."

"I believe that is exactly what he is doing now," said Gaelira as she quickly made her way toward the bird. The rest of us followed eagerly. It turned out that Malkan was sitting just above the opening to a cave which none of us had noticed previously. Normally I would have been quite happy to see a clear sign of where we should be going next, but this doorway I found to be quite unsettling. It was very narrow and the lintel and door-posts, which were made of carven stone, were etched with very strange marks and symbols. I could not understand them, but for some reason they struck me as being warnings.

"Do you think he really wants us to go in there?" I asked. The wind howled mournfully among the craggy rocks. Where it was caught into the cave-opening itself, there came a wailing sort of sound. Even though I knew it was nothing more than a trick of the wind on the stones, I couldn't help but feel like there were ghosts calling out to us from that place.

"Yes, it is clear that is his intent," Gaelira said. "There is something strange about this cave, but I am not certain what it might be."

"You don't say?" I muttered sarcastically. "Well, if we must then we must. After all I've been through I'm not about to let some noisy cavern door stop me from going where I please." Drodie patted me on the shoulder at this, but said nothing.

"Let us light a torch though, at the least," Lagodir said. "If Malkan says we are to find Mallacai within, then there is no reason for us to go forth in secrecy."

This we did (with some difficulty, for the winds of Angmar continually threatened to obliterate the flames) and passed into the mouth of the cavern. Almost instantly I became aware of the relief that came from finally not having the wind driving bits of sand and gravel into every crevice of my body, and that was a welcome change. But the disquiet among us grew -- I can put it no plainer than to say we all felt there was something waiting for us inside.

We went on. Our steps were slow. I suspect everyone was feeling, as I was, that terrible danger lurked just beyond our weak and flickering torchlight. The passage was cramped and we were forced to go single-file: Drodie led the way with one torch, followed by Gaelira, Nephyn, and myself. Lagodir brought up the rear with another torch.

"Look there!" I heard Drodie whisper. We looked, and we could see that somewhere up ahead of us was the faint glow of firelight. We continued on as silently as we knew how. The feeling of impending evil kept getting stronger and stronger with every step, as if the next footfall would cause the floor to collapse and the five of us would plummet to our deaths. I could hear the raspy breathing of each member of the Company. The air seemed to throb in my ears to the point I thought I could feel everyone else's heartbeats. About this time I also thought I could detect an unusual, sweet smell on the air. It was making me a bit light-headed.

Suddenly, the rock on either side of us fell back and we found ourselves in a small burial chamber with three, square tombs in its very centre. The source of the light we had seen became evident: there were two small braziers of charcoal, one on each side of the chamber. They were lit and there was a thin column of smoke curling up from each one. The sweet smell was very strong: so strong that I was hardly aware of anything else by that time. We began to explore the place, but I was finding it harder and harder to concentrate. It was far too early for me to be tired! I slapped myself on the cheeks and shook my head to clear the cobwebs.

That's when I saw Lagodir slump to the ground. My mouth fell open for I had meant to cry out in alarm, but no sound came out. Nephyn stumbled, caught herself for a moment on the edge of a crypt, then collapsed onto the floor. Gaelira was still standing, but she was blinking heavily and looking around as if she couldn't remember where she was. Drodie was already seated against the far wall, his head lolling creepily to one side. The next thing I knew, I had sunk to my knees: I simply did not have the strength to remain standing.

"Wha...?" was all I managed to say before falling on my face. I heard Gaelira mutter something, but I could not understand it.

The next thing I knew I was standing again. This was odd because I didn't recall getting myself back up off the ground, and yet there I was. The others were also there, standing and looking around. We seemed to have somehow gotten ourselves into a different part of the cave. I tried to remember how we had gotten there, but I could not. We were definitely not in the small burial chamber with the three tombs where I thought we had just been.

"Come," I heard Nephyn's voice say, "We should explore." There was something strange about her voice, and about everything else, too. Anytime someone moved it looked as if they were swimming underwater, and I seemed to see everything multiple times, as if we were all leaving traces of ourselves stamped into the air.

This can't be right, I thought to myself. Why, it's as if each one of us had a torch lit inside of ourselves! Of course that makes no sense, nor should it, and yet that's what I'm seeing. No good can come of this now, mark my words!

"Don't worry, Padryc," I heard Drodie say, though I couldn't tell if his lips were moving. "Let's go exploring!"

I felt there was certainly something not right about how Drodie was apparently able to hear what I was thinking, but for whatever reason I did not say anything about it. The others began to move out ahead, leaving their weird, glowing light-trails behind them. I did my best to keep up, but they always seemed to be getting further and further away from me.

Wait! Wait for me! I called, but the blurry figures of my companions only streamed farther away. Soon they were out of sight completely and with them went all the light in the world.

"Why don't you keep up, Padryc?" I heard a voice that sounded like Gaelira's. "You don't want to be left behind, do you?" It was almost a snide, laughing remark, and I felt a hot blaze of anger from somewhere inside of me as I struggled to make my feet move faster.

Where are you? I called. There was no answer. I wanted to cry, but no tears would come. Then it felt as though the floor had vanished from under me. I was falling, falling, falling. I tried to scream for help, but the blackness swallowed up all sound. I waited to meet the bottom of the vile cave, which would mericfully put an end to everything.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 40.1

Ruse and Recovery

Mersday, 2nd of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Thorin's Hall, Ered Luin
Malkan the Eagle
The four of us drew our weapons and stood back-to-back. Try as I might, I could see almost nothing, for full night had fallen. The sounds of our quickened breathing rent the air like a massive bellows.

"That voice!" I whispered, "It's Wenhair! But where is she? I can't see a thing."

"Stand your ground," Gaelira whispered back, "Let her come to us." My heart pounded in my chest so hard I would not have been surprised if the others could hear its pattering. We made no forward movement, but then the voice spoke again.

"You are too late, my heroes -- the ritual is complete! Guloth, arise once more!"

The was a shuffling sound from the direction of where we had just seen Lagodir's body. Then came a low groan and another voice spoke. It was the voice of a Man, and it sounded like Lagodir, but there was something different about it.

"I live once more," it said in a slow and strained way. "Who has called me back from beyond the Void?"

"It was I, master!" came Wenhair's answer. It was very nearly a squeal of impish delight. "Wenhair, your loyal servant!"

"Excellent. And who are these interlopers before me?" said the strange voice that sounded like Lagodir's.

"Companions of the one who serves now as your host," replied Wenhair in the blackness. "I shall gladly dispatch them for you, my lord."

"Nay," Lagodir's cracked voice answered. "Their lives I claim as mine own, for I am newly awakened and still weak: their blood shall serve to strengthen this body."

"But, my lord --" Wenhair cut in.

"Silence, slave!" the voice roared. "Thinkest thou to command me?! Begone, ere I sup on thy blood as well this night! Go! Bring thy mother and meet me in the appointed place." There was a brief silence.

"As you command, master," came Wenhair's reply, and we heard footsteps quickly receding somewhere in the distance.

"Now then," the voice said slowly. "Let us see who you are."

During much of this, I had been quietly fishing in my pack with one hand until finally I found what I wanted: some flint and a torch. By now I had retrieved them both, and after a couple of sparks we at last had some light. There, just a short distance in front of us was the frame of a Man, and it certainly looked like Lagodir's size and build, but he was dressed in outlandish ceremonial robes of blood crimson with a deep cowl over it all. The figure began slowly walking toward us. I held my breath. The apparition seemed a bit unsteady, almost as if it was struggling to stay upright. It stopped just a few paces in front of us. No one said a word.

Suddenly, he collapsed into the snow! It was as if every last ounce of strength had gone out of that figure. I cried out in surprise, and then a weak voice came from within the pile of robes.

"Help... Fire... so cold..." It was Lagodir's voice. We rushed forward, full of concern but also caution.

"Lagodir?" Nephyn said, full of worry. "Is that you?"

"Yes, Nephyn, it is I," came Lagodir's answer. "Please... fire." We wrapped Lagodir in every blanket and fur we had while Drodie set about building a fire at once using a few dead branches and some pine-needles he found lying nearby. In moments we had a bright blaze going and all of us were glad of the warmth. The figure in crimson robes crawled itself near to the fire and huddled over it, shivering pitifully.

"Ah, that is better," he said after another minute or two. "I cannot remember ever having felt so spent -- not since the dungeons beneath Minas Morgul."

"What just happened?" I asked, incredulous. "Where is Wenhair? Are we still in danger?"

"She is gone, I hope, at least for the moment," Lagodir replied. "It seems my little bit of play-acting fooled her."

"An act?" Drodie echoed. "Do you mean to say you were pretending to be Guloth resurrected just now?"

"Yes, I tried to change my voice some, though I don't think it sounded much of anything like the real Guloth, as you all must remember," said Lagodir. "But it was the only thing I could think to do, and it appears to have worked. Seems I fooled you all as well!"

"You certainly fooled me!" I laughed. "And as the fool, I wouldn't mind you telling me what on earth we just witnessed."

"All in good time, Padryc," he said. "Just now I feel as though I've been trampled by a mumak. Have you any water?" At this point we gave him a full waterskin and offered him food as well. He took the water but would not eat the food saying his stomach was feeling rather off. A few moments later, looking somewhat refreshed, he proceeded to explain what had occurred.

"As near as I can discern," Lagodir began, "Wenhair, her mother, and this mysterious priestess of theirs are allies of the Iron Crown and have served under Guloth in especial. I know not how or why, but they seem quite devoted to him. I am not certain you are aware, but she managed to pierce my neck with a drugged dart back in Sarnur which caused me to lose my senses for quite a while. I suppose she must have carried me on her shoulders to this place from Sarnur."

"We had guessed at the use of unwholesome medicines to subdue you in the caverns," Gaelira said. "Still, she must be much stronger than she outwardly appears to have transported you all this distance."

"Yes, I would say that is so," said Lagodir. "It seems they believed they would be able to return Guloth's spirit to this world through some foul necromantic ritual. I do not know why it failed, but I am glad of it all the same."

"I may be able to hazard a guess at that," said Gaelira. "I had not told you this, Lagodir, but that weapon of your ancestor, the dagger you used to fell Guloth, was woven about with runes and spells calling for the destruction of Sauron's evil wraith-thralls, though perhaps your eyes could not see them. Were the circumstances different perhaps they would have succeeded -- who can say? But their efforts came to naught, for Guloth is utterly undone and will never again taint the mortal lands." Lagodir bowed his head at this, and I wondered what the news must have meant to him.

"Well, hurrah: there's one less creepy creep creeping about," said Drodie, ever the pragmatist. "More importantly: what now? This campfire is certainly welcome, but if I had my way we'd not be spending our time out-of-doors half-buried in snow! Surely we can seek some better accommodations? No doubt Lagodir would appreciate it."

"You bring us back to practical matters, as ever, Master Dwarf," laughed Nephyn. "Isn't the city of Thorin's Hall supposed to be near here?"

"It is just north of our current position," said Gaelira. "Let us go there for food and rest. Lagodir, can you manage?"

"Yes, I think so," came his reply. "I was still feeling the after-effects of whatever drug Wenhair had used on me, but it is passing. It took every last bit of strength I could muster to play my little part, as you saw, but if I could just get some sleep I suspect I will be much better for it."

"There is still one thing I wish to know," I said as we prepared to head north. "You told Wenhair to meet 'you' with her mother at the appointed place. How did you know they had such an arrangement? We found a parchment she had dropped in Sarnur which mentioned a place called Malenhad."

"I knew nothing of that," Lagodir answered. "It was the greatest risk I took in the whole gambit and, fortunately, luck did not fail me. But where is this Malenhad of which the letter spake?"

None of us knew, but for the moment we were more concerned with getting Lagodir to a place where he (and all of us) could have a proper rest. It was not a great distance to Thorin's Halls, although the darkness made the journey feel like it took much longer than it did. I suspect it was shortly after midnight when we finally came to the massive iron doors of the Dwarf-city, high up in the Blue Mountains. The guards could see we were no enemies and that one of our party was in dire need of aid, so they offered us no challenge at the gates and readily admitted us. We were escorted to an area set-aside for guests with beds and then we were brought victuals and medicines of all kinds. It was as good a place for recovery as one could ask for, especially in that part of the world.

If you have never been to Thorin's Halls, I can tell you that it is a wondrous city. There are Dwarves everywhere (mostly kind and well-mannered Longbeards), and the passages beneath the mountains are spacious, well-lit, and very impressive. Even at this late hour I can hear the clinking of hammers and tongs echoing off the walls and the store-houses and armouries are marvellously well-kept. I admit I have gotten rather lost among all of the unusual names they have here, for each and every hall has its own moniker. But, generally speaking, I have had no issues finding my way about because the floor-plan is quite sensible; which most Dwarvish things tend to be, as a rule. My only real concern is whether I will be able to get to sleep with all of the ambient noise which floats around in here due to all of this stone-work. On second thought, after all I've been through over the past couple of days, I don't think it will be a problem.

Oh! I nearly forgot: while we were preparing to bed down, we overheard some of our hosts discussing a large bird which had come to the gates not long after we had arrived and would not leave. From their description it sounded to us like Malkan, so Gaelira went out to see what was going on. When she returned she informed us that it was indeed Malkan the eagle and that he had made contact with Mallacai, who was now encamped in Angmar. We had a short discussion among ourselves about this and decided we would set out to find him on the morrow. I felt a quick thrill as I realized that we had, finally, accomplished everything we had been sent to do: the dress of Narhuel, the armour of the champions of Annuminas, the fangs of the spider-queen in the Trollshaws, and the hide of Brullug. Only the crown of the Great Goblin had evaded us, but we had (indirectly) left his dark kingdom in disarray and rescued two long-lost Elves in the process. It's hard to believe all of the great deeds Elladan's Outriders have achieved!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 39

The Hunters and the Hunted

Hevensday, 1st of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Vale of Thrain, Ered Luin
Borganeorn, Sage of Rhudaur
We did not rest long. I barely had time to rub my aching feet and nibble a bite of cram before Gaelira had returned. The look on her face was not encouraging.

"We must move at once," she said. "A light snow has been falling for some time now -- there is no hope of finding any prints in the snow, and every minute we are not in pursuit of our quarry wastes precious moments."

Without any talk we collected ourselves and set out again. I thought for a moment about how we had very little in the way of food and sleep for the past day and a half, but the stakes were too high: Lagodir had been captured and spirited off by some mysterious foreigner. We were the only ones who could hope to save him and yet we had no idea where to begin our search. It was all rather depressing, and the swirling snow (though it was light and not a major obstacle to us) did not help anything.

"Do you know what this situation calls for?" I asked the others suddenly.

"A bloodhound?" Nephyn posited. I thought for a moment.

"Well, yes," I admitted, "At least, that would certainly come in handy about now. But seeing as we haven't got one, I was thinking that what this situation calls for is some plain hobbit-sense." The others gave me their attention while we marched.

"Any sense, hobbit or otherwise, which can shed some light on this predicament is welcomed by me," said Gaelira.

"Well then," I began after clearing my throat. "Wenhair apparently drugged Lagodir using that little blow-gun of hers, which means she wants him alive. That means we hopefully still have some time before she does anything terrible to him, but I can't say just how long we have. In any case, she has taken him someplace she thinks secret and safe. We, of course, need to find out where that is and quickly. Well, when one is leaving Orodost, as she must have done and as we are doing now, there are really only two directions one can go: north, toward Thorin's Hall, or eastward."

"Go on," said Nephyn.

"She wouldn't go north, I don't think, since the Longbeards have a large presence up that way and (as I mentioned before) she isn't looking to attract attention to whatever it is she has planned. Therefore, it seems fairly likely she went east, which would lead her past Gondamon."

"Ah, and Gondamon commands an outstanding view of the surrounding country," Drodie put in. "And there are always sentries on guard these days -- remember what the Elves of Duillond told us about the goblins becoming a problem again? Ten-to-one odds are that someone saw something: a lone Woman carrying a large Man over her shoulders might not warrant a sortie by the Dwarves, but the sentries would certainly have taken notice of so unusual a thing."

And so it was settled: we doubled our effort and made straight for the Dwarf-fortress of Gondamon. We arrived there at roughly the second hour after noon. Although it was not a terribly long distance, we were nonetheless all quite road-weary due to our quickened pace. Without even pausing for a moment we began questioning everyone we could find as to whether a Woman carrying a Man had been seen passing that way. Unfortunately, no one seemed to have seen anything of the sort, and it appeared my hobbit-sense had failed me. I was just about ready to admit to my friends that I may have been wrong when the strangest sound reached my ears.

Someone was singing, but it was a nonsensical ditty that I could only partly understand. I've tried to record a few snippets here, as best I can remember it.

O! Hoo-dee-day,
Yes, come and play,
With me atop the world!
We'll dance and sing,
It's just the thing,
For banners are unfurled!

O! Hom-dee-doh,
I will not go,
You'll never see me move!
Except to dance,
There's ne'er a chance,
I'll leave the land I love!

O! Dron-dee-dum,
The darkness comes,
Hark to the trump of war!
The Dwarves shall fight,
Clear through til night,
For glory, evermore!

O! Hi-del-dee,
Come sing with me,
A song of mirth and cheer!
For swords are drawn,
And, ere the dawn,
We'll drown ourselves in beer!

I looked and looked, but I couldn't find the source of the balderdash. Finally, Nephyn prodded my shoulder and pointed upward. Following her gaze, I saw a white-haired Dwarf dancing a most curious little jig high up on the ramparts of the fortress. Gaelira and Drodie joined us and we four together stared at this ridiculous sight.

"What a precarious spot to be dancing," remarked Nephyn. That was, needless to say, among the more benign thoughts which were circulating through my own head at that moment. Still, there might have been a chance this odd character had seen some signs of Wenhair from his dancing-perch, and so I decided to get his attention.

"You there!" I called up to him in my shrill little hobbit-voice. "I say! You, up there! I say!" I jumped and waved my arms at him.

After a few seconds of this he appeared to take notice: he suddenly ceased his revelry and began to descend. Eager with anticipation, the four of us made our way over to him. Once he reached the ground he brushed himself off and I was able to get a proper look. He was dressed in a very lavish but exotic-looking set of robes, all covered with enigmatic symbols and runes. His hair, as I have mentioned already, was very white, but up close it could be seen that it was also quite unkempt and straggled. His eyebrows looked like they had not been trimmed in at least a century as their hairs snaked in every direction like a garden gone wild, but his eyes were very bright and full of awareness as he looked at us with great interest.

"Was someone here saying I say?" he asked. His head was thrust forward as though he were incredibly near-sighted.

"Um... yes, it was I saying I say," I said, a bit guardedly.

"And? If you are going to say I say, then you jolly well ought to have something to say! Preferrably something worth hearing, let alone saying. So, what is it you say?"

"Well, it so happens I do have something to say, and it is very much worth both saying and hearing," I said. "And what I say is --"

"I SAY!" the Dwarf interrupted while squinting hard at Gaelira. "I say! Don't I know you?"

"I... don't believe I've had the honour," Gaelira replied as politely as she could manage.

"So you say!" the Dwarf replied. "But I would say I've seen you before now."

"Yes, yes," I said, trying to cut back in. "But as I was saying..."

"You were saying?" the Dwarf asked as he turned back to me. "I've yet to hear what you were saying. It makes one wonder whether what you have to say is worth saying at all. Wait... what were you saying?"

"But that's just it," I sighed, "I've not had the chance to say anything yet."

"Well, spit it out, lad!" he cried. "If you're going to say I say, then say what you have to say! Don't say you have something to say then lolly-gag about and not say it! What nerve!"

"I say!" I exclaimed indignantly. Everyone groaned.

"Oh, to the darkness with this!" Nephyn burst in. "We haven't the time! Master Dwarf, did you see a Woman carrying a Man pass by here?"

"I am called Borganeorn, lady," the Dwarf replied with a quick bow. "And no, I've seen no such thing, but I certainly hope to someday, for it would amuse me greatly. When you've been on this earth as long as I have, sometimes you wish to see peculiar things like what you describe. I do hope I didn't miss it?"

"Oh, never mind," said Drodie. Despite our being in a Dwarf-hold, he was just as depressed as the rest of us for our search appeared to have been in vain. "We've no idea where the treacherous wench has gone with Lagodir, and we've no clues to follow either. We have failed him."

"No clues except that paper Wenhair dropped as she fled from Sarnur," I said, "Which has proved to be of no use: if Gaelira cannot read it we've no hope of finding anyone who can. Unless we want to march all the way back to Rivendell and ask Lord Elrond to have a go."

"I have tried, but I can make nothing more of these letters," Gaelira said grimly as she drew the paper out from her pocket. "It must be an ancient and obscure tongue indeed."

"Oh yes?" Borganeorn's eyes twinkled with delight. "Ancient and obscure, is it? Well then! Perhaps I can help you after all! Give that here, Elf." He rudely snatched the paper from Gaelira's hand without so much as a please or thank you and proceeded to bury his (sizeable) nose into it.

"Hmmmmmm, yes!" he said as he read the parchment. "I don't know about ancient (not by my standards, anyway), but obscure is the word, all right! Why, this is written in Old Rhudaurian! I've not worked with this language in many a long year. How exciting!"

"You mean you can read it?" I asked. "What does it say?"

"A good deal more than you do," Borganeorn answered with a chortle. "At least it doesn't go around saying I say and then have nothing to say!"

"But what is written on it?" asked Nephyn, exasperated. "Can you tell us what the words mean?"

"Oh, certainly I could do that," came the response. "I have spent the greater part of my much-longer-than-average life learning the various tongues of Middle-earth, after all! But it might take me several hours."

"Hours??" I echoed.

"Yes, indeed. And I could very well be dead by then, you know. And so could you, now I think about it."

"Dead?!" I asked.

"Why, of course: I can't possibly fight off an army of Dourhands by myself, now can I?"

"ARMY?!"

"Yes, army!" Borganeorn huffed. "The Dourhands of Sarnur are attacking Gondamon -- they should be here any minute. Didn't you know?"

"KNOW?!?!" I was at my wits end and spun around, expecting to see a rampaging horde of angry Dwarves storming the keep at that very moment.

"You know, these other two seem alright, but if I were you I'd have an eye on that one," Borganeorn whispered to Drodie, meaning me. "Might not be quite right in the head." Drodie tried to stifle a laugh, but failed.

"All the same, this is ill news," Gaelira said. "We cannot afford any delay and now we find ourselves in the middle of a siege! We should never have come this way."

"Nonsense!" Borganeorn guffawed. "Why, there might not be another person around for miles and miles who could read this delightful missive, and you'll need me to do that if you want any hope of tracking down this person you seek. And I can't translate this stuff all in a moment -- I need time! And, preferably, time not in the midst of a battle. You lot go do something about those Dourhands and I will spend my time with this delicious bit of entertaining parchment. Off you go now!" And with that the Dwarf bounded up a set of stairs and shut himself behind a door of iron. The four of us stared after him in disbelief.

"I say --" I began before catching myself.

"Please don't," Nephyn groaned.

"Yes, let us go and find whoever commands the guards here and see what aid we can lend them," said Drodie. "If Borganeorn is right and there really is an army of Dourhands about to besiege us, I'd prefer to be ready for them."

Unfortunately, there was an army of Dourhands ready to besiege us. They had swarmed out from Sarnur in wrath, thinking the Longbeards had dared to assault their strongest citadel (in reality it was our Company), and they came with their allies, the Blue-crag goblins, and many howling wolves and cruel-eyed hendrevail in their train. Describing everything that happened in that battle would be an exercise in futility, for I didn't see most of what transpired myself. The enemy surged repeatedly against the west, north, and south gates of the fortress, but the valour of the Dwarves and the determination of my friends held them at bay as the day drew to a close. Finally, as dusk filled the sky, our foes withdrew from the field and quiet descended upon Gondamon.

The damage was extensive, but the stone-work of the citadel had held its own. We were told that an errant shaft from the walls had struck and slain the Dourhand general and that the chain of command had proceeded to break down among their forces until, ultimately, there was no single commander directing the siege. Squabbles had broken out between the various evil factions arrayed against the Longbeards and, finally, the attack faltered and was beaten back. There were many losses among the Free Peoples, however, as dozens of Dwarves and many Elves (who had come to the aid of Gondamon when they had learned of the impending Dourhand assault) lay slain within the keep. Fires had to be quenched and wounds had to be tended, and Elladan's Outriders were kept very busy for a while.

I was doing what I could to ease the hurts of many a valiant warrior when I realized my companions were nearby and they had brought Borganeorn the Dwarf with them. I got the sinking feeling our Company was not going to get any rest, even after such a terrific battle.

"Well, you have all done a fine deed here, to be sure," the aged Dwarf said to us. "And I have done my part too! I will read for you the words written in that most interesting exhibit you permitted me to handle." I was eager with anticipation to hear what might be contained in that mysterious letter.

"It is a missive to someone named Wenhair from someone named... Mother," he said. "A very peculiar name, that. Can't say I've ever heard of anyone having a name like it before. Anyway, here is how it reads:

Wenhair, 

Long have I been in exile, but the time has come for us to take our place at our master's side. Word has reached my ears from the South-lands of dire news: Skullyg has told me of the defeat of Guloth to the blade of a Gondorian! Some band of would-be 'heroes' marched into Annuminas and broke our master's body in the raid which lost Angmar control of the city. 

But fear not, my child. The darkness has whispered its secrets to me upon an icy wind and a way to return Guloth has been revealed to me. Many ingredients are needed for the ritual. 

"It goes on to list several unusual items. I will spare you the tedium of reading them to you, but the last two items caught my attention:

The heart of a powerful drake and, finally, we shall require a vessel for our master. The Gondorian shall serve this purpose, Wenhair, for no other has ever done such harm to Guloth. By using him as the host, we will remove the greatest threat to our master and accomplish two great feats as one. You must procure him by any means necessary.

"How horrid!" I exclaimed.

"Necromancy!" said Gaelira. "I shall ensure Lord Elrond is made aware of this once Malkan returns to us from his errand to locate Mallacai."

"Here is the last part of the letter," Borganeorn went on.

When you have collected all of these things, bring them to the house in the Vale of Thrain I have prepared and we shall perform the ritual there. Let none stand in your way. Once Guloth is returned to us, we shall gather our strength in the swamps of Malenhad. No longer will the False King stand in place of the Witch-lord of the far South. 

I expect your prompt return.

Mother.

"There is nothing further," Borganeorn ended. "Whatever sort of perversion this may be, I certainly hope you four are able to stop it."

"As do we," Gaelira agreed, "And yet we have lost precious hours by coming here. The Vale of Thrain is back the way we came and northward, toward Thorin's Gate."

We lost no more time. We took our leave of Mathi, the garrison commander of Gondamon, and charged west with a renewed vigour. We had no idea where the house was that had been mentioned in the letter, but now we had a rough idea of where to begin our search, for the Vale of Thrain is a rocky and uneven area which spans between Thorin's Halls in the north down to Orodost and Noglond. There are many crags and gullies in that region, and plenty of places for secret things to lie hidden, but we had to try. The Sun sank behind the Blue Mountains as we jogged and we finally reached the Vale some time later.

The search for this house was not easy, but I will spare you the details. In the end, we decided to climb a height called Hunter's Notch to get a look at the land (as well as we could in the deepening gloom). This proved providential for, in the nearly extinguished light, we were barely able to discern something which looked very much like a house a ways off upon a hill, nestled well up on the side of a mountain. We managed to make our way there, but I felt a sense of foreboding with every step that took us closer to that place, and there was a chill on the air that did not seem to be the cold of a simple wintery night in the mountains.

We scaled a steep slope in the snow toward the isolated house. It was a very strange building: for one thing it appeared to be of Dwarf-make (judging from the architecture), but it was out in the middle of nowhere. Drodie said it might be an old sentry-post or perhaps a storage warehouse for errand-riders on assignment from the Lord of Thorin's Halls, but even he had never been aware of it before.

Whatever it was, it did not look deserted that night! There were torches lit in a circle in front of the building and an eerie pale light seemed to blanket the area. We saw no one, but we advanced with great caution, knowing we were tracking a cunning and dangerous adversary. As we drew nearer, I thought I could see a bundle of oddments lying on the ground in the middle of the torches. Eventually I could tell it was not a bundle but a person, all dressed in bizarre garments of crimson red. There was a disquieting chanting coming from somewhere, but it felt like it was all around us and thrumming in our very ears. The whole situation had an unwholesome feeling about it and I began to be sick to my stomach.

The four of us huddled behind a thicket of snowy pines and tried to see what was going on and whether there was any danger ahead but, despite the presence of the torches, the darkness was too heavy for our eyes to penetrate. We were forced to move even closer. There was no movement from anywhere around the house, but the chanting and the humming continued. Each step toward that place was a struggle for me, for I wanted nothing more than to run in terror and hide myself from whatever evil presence inhabited it. I forced myself to remember that, somewhere, Lagodir needed us, and I was determined to not let him down.

Many agonizing moments later, we had drawn very near to where the body lay motionless on the ground. I could hear the soft flickering of the torches as they gave off their dim and sickly light. The building itself loomed like a hunkering beast nearby; all the windows in it were dark, but still I feared it for reasons I could not tell. I wondered what sort of disgusting act might be plotted there, for the feeling of unease had grown to the point my limbs were shaking uncontrollably. We all looked down at the body in loathing. A pair of glassy eyes stared back at us and the face was illuminated in the glow of those hideous torches.

"No! It's Lagodir!" Nephyn cried, heedless of the danger in her distress. The torches suddenly went out, and total darkness fell. Even the stars in the sky seemed to go out as the night moved in to smother us.

"Welcome, my guests," came an evil, sneering voice from somewhere in the direction of the house.

"My master shall reward me greatly when I present him with your still-beating hearts. Prepare to die."

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 38

A Startling Twist

Trewsday, 30th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Orodost, Ered Luin
Brullug
The freezing air and snow swirling around our little campsite perfectly captures the feeling of what remains of our Company. Hearts are cold and feelings are numb after suffering such a terrible and shocking loss this day, but I will put my own grief aside in order to dutifully record what transpired for you.

When we had settled down next to our fire by the frozen waterfall, I had expected to get some decent rest, then rise and resume our hunt for Brullug the drake. This is not at all how things eventuated: it seemed that no sooner had I closed my eyes than I was jolted awake by roarings, shoutings, hurryings, and the ring of steel! Gaelira was screaming to bring us all to our senses, for she among us had kept the watch and not slept. This had always worked with excellent effect in the past, but this time our prey decided to hunt us, and it very nearly proved our ruin.

Brullug had never been as far off as we supposed, and in fact we now believe he had been stalking us throughout much of Sarnur. It was his dragon-ish thrumming we had been hearing the day before (or however many days ago it was -- one can never be sure in these sunless catacombs), but despite having the element of surprise he did not attack us straightaway, for he was a cunning old worm. He waited until we were mostly off our guard and resting before he perched himself like an enormous bat on the roof of the caverns, then descended on us from above like a thunderbolt! He caused a small earthquake when he struck the cavern floor and this had woken us all up, but he still retained the advantage, for one cannot go from a deep sleep to fighting for one's life all in an instant.

The first several moments were absolute chaos and I have little recollection of what happened. The ground was shaking, I was stumbling, Gaelira was shouting and everyone was hurrying to and fro as the towering figure of the drake snapped, clawed, and thrashed at each of us. I have no idea how I managed to avoid being stepped on or swallowed up, but when I finally had my wits about me I found myself panting like a hunted animal behind a large boulder. Summoning my courage, I peeked around the edge to find a small pool of dark liquid. Fearing the worst, I looked further and discovered it was indeed blood, and it was flowing out of an awful-looking gash in Lagodir's chest as he lay unconscious on the ground! Forgetful of the danger, I rushed to him and unslung my pack, desperate to find the balm and dressing needed for such an injury. Singularly focused as I was, I allowed myself the briefest of glances at the battle to ensure both the Gondorian and I were not in immediate danger. I had little confidence I would be able to drag the sturdy Man away behind my boulder, but I would attempt it or die trying if the need arose.

Luckily for Lagodir (and for me), Brullug was otherwise occupied. Drodie had hurled himself toward the worm along with a string of obscenities and insults that would have made even the most recalcitrant of Dwarves blanche. Meanwhile, I could see Gaelira and Nephyn cautiously taking up positions along Brullug's flanks and, away in the shadows, I discerned the dim form of Wenhair, the Lossoth adventurer with her twin blades. Hope rose within me seeing our adversary thus surrounded, but only briefly; I had underestimated the cunning of the drake.

No attack from my friends was able to penetrate Brullug's wily watchfulness: Gaelira and Nephyn were beaten back by the claws while Wenhair's attempts were thwarted by the lashing tail. Drodie, of course, was never able to get close enough to the head to accomplish anything, and the beast soon turned its attention from him entirely. I remembered how Drodie had only barely survived our last encounter with a drake in the North Downs: my blood ran cold at the thought of what would happen should someone get caught in its jaws who was not wearing Dwarf-armour! If Drodie remained unable to direct the monster's ire toward himself for very much longer...

"WORM!"

A fierce shout rose above the din of the fighting. It was Drodie, and he had lowered his weapons. The echoes of his gallant voice slowly faded as Brullug turned his head toward the Dwarf. The whole world seemed to pause and take notice.

"Worm!" Drodie cried again. "I tire of this fight. Come! Eat me whole! Swallow me now, if you think your foul gut can manage a meal as ornery as myself!" Then he threw his sword and shield away. I felt my heart skip a beat -- what on earth was he doing?? Gaelira, Nephyn, and Wenhair also stopped their attack and watched, dumbfounded.

Brullug lowered his head and peered at the Dwarf. There was an evil, spine-tingling glint in those yellow eyes, and I felt certain the drake understood Drodie's words. I knew the beast could strike in a split second, and that's all it would take for my friend to vanish forever. Drodie spread his arms as if in welcome of his death. I stopped breathing and total silence fell. The lips and fangs of the monster seemed to curl in a hideous smirk, then the jaws slowly parted.

Suddenly, Brullug's head snapped backward and the drake emitted a stone-splitting scream of pain that shook the very walls of Sarnur and brought small rocks raining down on us from above. I threw myself to the ground and covered my ears with my hands in pain, but I was trying desperately to discover what had saved Drodie's life. The head of Brullug was thrashing around as if in agony, and that's when I saw it: a slim, brown-feathered arrow had darkened its left eye! Like a lightning-strike I realized Drodie had been play-acting as a way to get the drake to stop moving its head around just long enough for Nephyn to get one good shot with her bow, and the gamble had worked! Even then I saw our Dwarf scoop up his weapons and rush back into the battle.

Still, the battle was not yet won. My companions suffered plenty of cuts and bruises as they continued to dodge Brullug's vicious claws and avoid his tail. Gaelira was very nearly bitten in half at one point and only just escaped by deftly rolling to safety at the last second. As I watched, I could see that some of our attacks were beginning to find their mark, and then I perceived my friends were gradually taking advantage of the beast's wound. Someone would press the attack from the right, but as soon as Brullug sought to engage them that person would back away and someone else would strike from the left (on the side where he had lost an eye), and so the drake was unable to see half of the attacks coming its way.

After one such effort, I saw Brullug noticeably stumble and let out a roar of torment. Someone had managed to land a crippling blow on the monster's left forepaw and, to my surprise, I realized it was Lagodir! I had been so riveted by the battle I had not noticed the Gondorian quietly rejoin it. His broadsword bit deep into the scales and so he was revenged upon the worm for his own injury.

Then, just as Brullug lost his balance from Lagodir's strike, I saw Wenhair run nimbly up the drake's lowered shoulder and onto its back. She raised her two white blades high over her head and plunged them into the neck, just behind the head at the base of the skull. Brullug shuddered from his snout to the tip of his tail, then collapsed in total and utter ruination. My head became cloudy and all my limbs went weak as I realized the danger was finally passed and that we had survived it.

The first order of business, naturally, was to take stock of ourselves. I was the only one who had remained uninjured, so I had quite a bit of work to do now. Lagodir had suffered the most serious wound, but I had treated it well despite the raging battle and it held together admirably (if I do say so myself). Nephyn received a few light cuts that looked worse than they were. Drodie was very bruised and declared he might not be able to move in the morning for soreness (he had been battered and hurled about several times), but he was none the worse otherwise. Gaelira had a single cut along her right arm where she had dashed it against a stone as she made her last-moment dodge away from the jaws of Brullug, but that was all. Wenhair refused any attempt of ours to aid her or even to assess her injuries, saying she needed no help.

"I do not trust your Southron medicines. It is said among my tribe that they weaken the mind and body," she said a bit haughtily. "And what of your battle-tactics? How is it you surrender yourself to your enemies? This would bring the greatest dishonour among my people!"

"We call it a ruse, or a feint, if you like," I explained. "And it worked in any case: Drodie fooled the drake into stopping his movement just long enough for Nephyn to find her aim. We would never have won if not for his quick thinking." The others agreed with me and heaped praise on the Dwarf, but Wenhair only snorted and looked displeased. Drodie, meanwhile, was having difficulty accepting his accolades and kept insisting he only did what needed to be done.

"The battle -- and the kill -- goes to you before any of us," Gaelira said with a broad smile. "And to think! Was this not just the thing Mallacai had foretold all those weeks ago on the shores of Lake Nenuial? Learn to rely on others or you shall surely perish?"

"Oh, that?" Drodie asked, nonchalantly. "I had completely forgotten about that." Something about his tone of voice made me doubt this was entirely true.

"But now to our business," said Lagodir, a little weakly. "I am faint from exertion and would fain see the Sun again, and soon. What part of this wretch's hide are we to take, do you suppose?"

"Reckon this'll do," Drodie called back. He was already at work with axe and sword hacking off a portion of scales near the creature's thigh. In a short time he had dislodged a goodly amount, and we stashed it away with the rest of our trophies.

"That's five for five!" I cheered and danced a little jig in my happiness. "Now we have only to find Mallacai and we can finally put all this behind us! I don't suppose anyone knows where he is? Calenglad didn't seem to know what had become of him since he departed Tinnudir many days ago."

"I am hopeful we will know soon," came Gaelira's reply. "I sent Malkan the eagle to search for news of him after we left Rivendell but before we had crossed into the Lone-lands, though I cannot say how long it might take for him to find what he seeks."

"Well, that's something anyway," I said. "And what about Wenhair? I suppose she still needs..."

"The heart of Brullug!" she called triumphantly as she emerged from behind the carcass. Her arms were bloodied up to the elbows and she held aloft a largish bag which was dripping with gore. I put one hand over my mouth and stifled my base reflexes. "Soon my friend shall be healed!"

"I'm... very happy for you," was all I could manage to say. "Now can we please get out of here? Or I'm afraid my toes really might turn blue and fall off."

"Oh, we cannot leave just yet," Wenhair said quickly. "I still require one last ingredient."

"Really?" I said. "And what might that be?"

"A sacrifice!"

And suddenly many things happened. Wenhair produced a strange little tube which appeared to be made out of a reed and blew through one end of it. Lagodir clapped a hand to his neck and groaned as he sank to the ground. Then, the Lossoth reached into her belt, extended her palm toward us, and blew on her hand. A billow of grey smoke erupted from it, and the next thing I knew we were all choking, coughing, and wiping our stinging eyes. It was several moments before any of us could properly breathe or see again, and when we could both Wenhair and Lagodir were gone!

"Treachery!" Nephyn cried, and we all began running about searching for any sign of the two. Unfortunately, the ground there was nothing but bare rock and ice, so there were no footprints of any kind. After a short time we regrouped and tried to calmly think through the situation.

"We must regain a clear mind," said Gaelira as the four of us congregated. "We will not help our friend by becoming desperate or distracted."

"Poor Lagodir!" I lamented, heedless of Gaelira's warning. "The poor Man! First that awful wraith, now this! And after getting gashed by that brute of a drake too! Of all the -- Hullo! What's this?" I stooped and snatched up a scrap of paper that I was certain hadn't been there a few minutes earlier.

"Wenhair must have dropped it as she fled with Lagodir!" exclaimed Nephyn. "What does it say?" I could not make out the language, and so I handed it at once to Gaelira. She scrutinized it, but then she frowned and cocked her head to one side.

"I am not familiar with many of these signs," she said slowly. "The only thing I can make out for certain is that the name of Guloth is mentioned. This does not bode well, but I need more time to translate these words or find someone who can, as I do not recognize the tongue. I cannot fathom what a Lossoth would want with our companion."

"Well, I know this," Drodie said. "Whatever her purpose may be it is not likely to be fulfilled here under the earth. Let us leave this place! Every moment we delay puts the more distance between our quarry and my blade, and I'm eager to introduce the two."

And so we began our ascent out of Sarnur. We did our best to make haste through the darkness and luckily we met no resistance from animal nor Dourhand on the way out. We also kept our eyes open for any signs of where Wenhair might have gone, but we saw nothing definitive. As we climbed, we discussed our situation a bit more in hushed whispers.

"Gaelira," I said quietly, "Why do you think that wraith, Guloth, would have anything to do with this? That's impossible... isn't it?"

"I have my suspicions, but I would rather not speak of such blasphemies," the Elf replied. Her teeth were on edge; I hadn't seen this much emotion out of her since I had forced her confession at Esteldin many weeks ago.

"Why do you say blasphemies, Gaelira?" asked Nephyn from behind me. "What do you mean?"

"Sauron styles himself more than just overlord of Middle-earth," she answered. "He worshipped the Dark Enemy, his former Master, in the Elder Days and considers himself the divine ruler of mortal lands by right as his heir. The Elves spotted the perversions of the Dark Lords long ago, when they began teaching the foul arts of sorcery to their most pious adherents. These Sauron wishes to use as his priests and prophets to subdue and terrorize his subjects with their power once he has conquered all. I wonder if perhaps Wenhair's priestess is one of these as well."

"How can any Man or Woman wish to be a part of anything so vile?" Drodie asked. "You would never find a Dwarf entertaining such delusions of grandeur: the very idea makes me feel sick."

"The ways of Men have ever been a mystery to me at some level," Gaelira said. "I suppose it may have something to do with their short lives and the desire to see their own wills accomplished on earth while they still inhabit it." Nephyn was silent. "But the Lossoth have never been fully trusted by the rest of the Free Peoples," Gaelira went on. "They remember still the tyranny of Angmar and fear to cross whatever thrall of Mordor may be leading that dark kingdom. Some have been known to openly support the Iron Crown; apparently we have stumbled across one such here. What an evil fate that our paths crossed thus!"

"And Wenhair had better hope they do not cross again," said Nephyn darkly.

When we finally emerged from Sarnur, we found the Sun riding high in the heavens. Apparently it was tomorrow (er, today), and we realized we required rest and some food before we could hope to continue our search. Gaelira left us to examine the ground around the entranceway while I tended to Drodie and Nephyn's wounds. There was so much to do I very nearly forgot to make this entry in my journal. I have no idea how we intend to find Lagodir and his kidnapper, but somehow we must!