Friday, August 17, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 76

The Hunt Continues

Sterday, 13th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in Dunland
The moors of Dunland
I think my feet were hurting me more by the end of our brief rest than when we started it. Once we resumed trudging down the dusty roads of Dunland, the pain melted away as my limbs fell back into their rhythmic thumping, like the pistons of some droning machine. Morning was fully in the sky, but the minds of our Company were yearning for sleep.

Well, mine was, at least. The Elves, of course, remained as tireless and swift as ever while Drodie said nary a word of complaint as is the way with Dwarves. I could tell Lagodir was weary, but he kept doggedly on and even the shoulders of Ancthas were sagging now nearly two full days into the chase. We had followed our missing hobbit almost clear across the entire breadth of Dunland to the Barnavon Mine, but there his captors had turned aside and made for the village of Barnavon itself. Our feet were set upon that same path, but it was a long road. The Sun rose past noon then began to fall westward, and still there seemed to be no change in the country. The hard ground jarred my ankles and knees relentlessly; two days of unending pursuit was beginning to tire even me.

"Ancthas," I called ahead to our Dunlending guide and chance companion, "Can you tell us anything about Barnavon?" I was mostly making conversation to keep my mind off my aching legs, but I also knew Dunland was an inhospitable place (particularly for us), and any fore-knowledge of our destination would likely prove helpful.

"I can tell you much," he replied, "For I was brought up a boy there. The town is divided into two areas: Lower Barnavon, where live the common folk, and Upper Barnavon, wherein dwell the wealthier merchants and tradesmen. The upper portion is reached by a single gate which (as I recall) was always guarded to keep the peasants out. The entire village is nestled in a natural depression in the rock on the side of a cliff-face, so the southern edge plunges many fathoms and ends in an old stone quarry. Lower Barnavon is not unlike any other village in Dunland: ordinary people scratching out ordinary lives in a rough country. There are few farmers in these parts, for the land is hard and unyielding, but there are many miners, weavers, tanners, hunters, and other craft-folk to be found. As for Upper Barnavon, well... I can tell you little for certain as I was never permitted to go there."

"So you were one of those 'common folk,' then?" I asked. "You seem to have made a name for yourself despite that."

"Only among some," said Ancthas wryly. "Our culture values its warriors, and my reputation, sadly, is based on little more than having the good fortune to not die as quickly as the many friends I have lost to the clan-wars. More importantly, though, my tribe was nearly annihilated in those conflicts, and if you have no clan in Dunland, then you may as well not exist at all."

"What of your own family?" I asked.

"We should stop talking," came his quick answer. "We are nearing the outer gates of the village."

It was actually not until sunset, I noticed, before we finally came within sight of those gates. There were seats for gate-watchers, but they were empty.

"That's odd," said Ancthas. "Perhaps they have been sent to deal with the situation at the Mines? In any case, let us count our good fortune and take advantage while we can."

We slipped into Lower Barnavon. It was, as Ancthas had described, nothing particularly special: much the same as any other town in Dunland, although this one did have a certain industrious air about it. I inquired as to whether we ought not don our disguises while roaming about during the night, but after our earlier altercation in Avardin, everyone preferred to have their weapons close to hand. Besides, Ancthas led knew every turn and back-alleyway; he led us so expertly through the streets that we encountered no one at all as we ducked and dodged amid the low, clay houses. A short time later we came to a short incline which culminated in another gate.

"Now I know something is not right here," said Ancthas grimly, "For this is the gate into Upper Barnavon and there were always two guards there, day or night. Unfortunately, there is no other way in -- we must either take our chances or continue this search elsewhere."

We were certainly not about to leave Padryc to whatever fate his captors had in mind for him, so we passed into Upper Barnavon. It turned out to be an open area hemmed on all sides by houses and low buildings while in the centre I saw crude pavilions and overhangs which served to designate a marketplace. But the place was silent and empty -- eerily so. Looking around, my stomach slowly turned itself into knots as I realized what was traded there: everywhere around us were cages. Some small and some large, but they were cages of steel and most of these were outfitted with metal rings and chains -- it was clear they were not meant to restrain animals.

"By the Valar," I breathed, "A slave-market! I've heard about the slave-trade in places like Rhun and Harad, but here? So close to..." I couldn't even bring myself to finish the sentence.

"Yes, another of the lovely societal charms brought to us by the Dragon-clan," said Ancthas as he looked around in disgust. "I never knew, but I am not surprised: it certainly explains why the chieftains were so adamant about keeping everyone out of the upper level."

"Do you suppose this is what those slavers we saw near Lhan Tarren meant when they talked about shipping their prisoners away South?" asked Gaelira. "It is a pity all of these cages are empty, or perhaps we could have helped some more of those unfortunate souls."

"Possibly," the Dunlending answered, "Although I wouldn't be too sure: the Dragon-clan might be using some of these victims in the Mines, of course, but they must be selling their slaves to someone. I have no proof, and I know our esteemed Gondorian will not want to hear it, but I fear --"

"Look!" said Drodie and he pointed. Following his gaze, we saw that one of the cages was not empty after all. Dressed in rags and lying at the rear with its back to us was a small figure! We all rushed over.

"Padryc!" I whispered, but there was no response. "Oh no! Is he alright?!"

"Padryc!" Drodie called, louder. "Wake up!" The Dwarf yanked the cage door open.

"Wait," I said, "No lock...?"

Suddenly a chorus of battle-cries erupted all around us! We whipped around and drew our weapons, but it was clear we had walked right into a trap. Hunting-bows twanged and arrows fell among us. I saw two strike Drodie and Lagodir, but they snapped back as they glanced off their armour. Minasse twirled his way around two more aimed at him with incredible agility while Ancthas darted in front of me to deflect several more darts with his shield.

Then Dunlendings armed with axes and clubs charged us from all sides! One rushed at me so quickly I could only raise my bow to defend against his attack, and his axe broke right through it! I managed to use the undamaged bowstring to wrap up his arm then finish him off with the Sword of Ringdor, but my bow was ruined beyond repair. Ancthas was fighting two Dunlendings sword-to-sword while Lagodir and Drodie overpowered their opponents. With our guard up and our blades drawn, the ambush quickly became a rout as we slew our attackers one by one.

With the enemy defeated, we quickly discovered "Padryc" was only a small boy who had been deceased for a short time, probably from being over-worked in the Mines.

"So this poor lad was dressed and positioned just to serve as a trap for us," said Lagodir. "It would seem Padryc's captors have managed to stay one step ahead, but they clearly knew we were close behind them."

"And we know where they are headed," I said, "They must be on their way to Galtrev to cash in on their bounty, as Gaelira reminded us previously." I nodded at the she-Elf in acknowledgement of her earlier deduction -- then noticed her right forearm had been pierced by one of the Dunlending's arrows!

"Gaelira!" I cried, "You're hurt! Why didn't you say something?"

"No time," she breathed, in obvious pain. "We must leave at once -- this town is not safe."

"Not before we --" I began, but Gaelira only pushed past me, unwilling to heed my insistence that she allow us to tend her wound.

It turned out to be a good thing: the noise of the battle had roused the entire village. Bonfires flared up and torches were being lit. Very soon we would be discovered.

"This way!" shouted Ancthas, and we followed him without question. He charged through the gate which led into the lower part of Barnavon, then immediately slipped into the shadows behind some huts. Deftly he led us around the southern edge of the village. Nothing was there but a low stone wall which marked the very rim of the cliff -- beyond that was only open air; a dizzing drop of hundreds of feet into the stone-quarry below.

"Follow me," I heard Ancthas whisper from up ahead in the dark, "And do exactly as I say."

We skirted along the end of Barnavon, staying within the shadow of the stone wall. It continued east then gradually bent northward. We were coming close to the front gate and, although the guards had been away from their posts when we entered, I was fairly certain there would be some there now. Meanwhile, the cries of the villagers and the light of their torches was drawing nearer! If the villagers found us we would be trapped between them and the wall, with nothing but a death-drop on the other side -- there would be no escape.

"JUMP!"

I looked and saw that Ancthas had vaulted over the wall and disappeared! We stood there dumbfounded for a split second, but then Lagodir, Drodie, Gaelira, and Minasse all followed. I shook myself mentally and leaped over the edge into the gaping blackness.

I suddenly found I was not falling: I was sliding! I had landed in some kind of groove in the stone which carried me and my companions down the cliff-side and deposited us safely on the ground some forty feet below. Looking back, I saw that part of the mountain-wall was much less steep than the southern-facing side and the distance to the ground where we stood was not nearly as great. I blinked and marveled at how fortunate we were to have Ancthas among us.

"I was expecting my next thought to be my last," I said amid a little nervous laughter. "That is some back-door! We would have been trapped up there were it not for you, Ancthas."

"Come," he said as he helped Gaelira to her feet. "We must get away from the village and we still have to tend to the wounds of this one."

We crossed the road as stealthily as we could manage then headed north toward Galtrev. Once we had put a couple of miles between us and the gates of Barnavon I demanded that we halt. Midnight was not far off, we were all exhausted (except perhaps Minasse), and Gaelira was injured. The arrow had been shot clean through her right forearm (meaning at least there was no chance of it being embedded in the bone), and there was not as much blood as there could have been, so we counted ourselves lucky that the dart had likely not severed any major vessels. Minasse administered aid using whatever he could find in Padryc's backpack. First he broke the shaft and extracted it swiftly but firmly -- much to Gaelira's discomfort -- then he cleaned the wound with a liberal dousing of beer, applied a turmeric paste, and bound the arm with some dressing into a sling.

"The healing arts are not really my strong suit," said Minasse as he finished, "But I hope this will serve until we can find someone with more skill than I."

"You have done quite well, thank you," said Gaelira. "Only I do hope we have no need of armed encounters for a while: I fear I shall be of little value in that department until I have recovered."

With this done, we took shelter behind a large rock for a brief respite. I must conclude my record of today's adventures as quickly as possible, as we will be moving on again shortly. I believe we are gaining on Padryc's captors, but they still have the lead on us. We are still whole, but the adventure in Barnavon has definitely weakened us: Gaelira arm is wounded and I feel as if I am missing an arm myself with the loss of my beloved bow. Still, I will count even that a small loss if we can somehow find Pad before he suffers any harm.

Sunday, 14th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in Dunland

We ended up heading out before I had so much as a chance to put my sore, aching feet up for five minutes, or at least that's how it felt. The villagers of Barnavon, apparently convinced we were no longer inside the city itself, had begun spilling out into the countryside and hunting for us among the crags. We slipped away in the darkness of night and continued our pursuit of the Pad-nappers who, we presumed, could only be headed north, to Galtrev.

The journey today was long, dry, tiring, and quite uneventful for most of the way. The Elves wished to keep running, but those of us who were of Man-kind objected, saying we could not keep up such a pace endlessly. Even Drodie, who was not one to complain about matters of endurance, did not disapprove of our request for a slower clip. Ancthas, Lagodir, and Minasse had some prolonged banter about how the races of Men and Elves feel their ages differently, but frankly I wasn't really listening so I can't recount it for you here. My mind was on Padryc: had he been injured? Would Bedwur's men succeed in collecting their bounty in Galtrev? What would become of Padryc once he had been handed over to whomever had ordered his capture? Every time I thought these things, I would tell my companions that I could manage another sprint, and we ran for a few more miles.

For all our efforts, however, night had fallen by the time we finally reached Galtrev. There was a short debate outside the walls as to how we should enter and gather tidings, but it was decided that Ancthas should be our eyes and ears inside the city. The Dunlending was permitted through the gates without incident, and the five of us were left to wait in the darkness.

It was not quite an hour later when Ancthas returned, and from his demeanor we could tell he brought us news.

"Our Halfling is no more than half a day ahead of us," he said. "He was taken north, toward the Bonevales."

"Toward Enedwaith?" asked Gaelira. "Why that way, I wonder? There is not much of anything in that land, unless for some reason they make for Lhanuch?"

"I do not know their purpose," Ancthas replied, "But my source is certain that this the course we must follow." We set out at once and turned north on the road.

"Can you tell us any more about what you learned?" I asked as we marched. "Who is your source, exactly?"

"A grandmother named Catrin," he said.

"What?! You are using old crones as informants?"

"Very willing and very reliable informants," said Ancthas. "There are few things my dear Catrin enjoys more than trafficking in the local gossip, and I repay her with various salves and balms I secure from Edgerin to ease the pain in her old bones. It has proven to be a very profitable relationship for both of us."

"Do go on," I said, but I couldn't help smirking as I spoke.

 "Well, the place was very quiet, as is common enough at this time of night," he went on. "Catrin was out taking a stroll and called me over when she saw me in the marketplace."

"Well! It certainly has been a long time, she said to me. And how have you been keeping yourself, Ancthas, my love?"

"'Well enough,' I answered. 'How is that new salve I delivered working for you? Feeling any better?'"

"Oh, much, yes! Thanks to you, she replied. I expect you're here to investigate what happened earlier today?"

"'I certainly am,' I lied, having no idea to what she might be referring. 'And I know no one follows the goings-on of Galtrev better than you, so pray leave out none of the details.'"

"Oh, you're right about that! she winked. Why, these old eyes saw the whole sad affair. I was out in the market looking for some spices when all of a sudden a fight broke out! It was over near the Trading Post -- always unsavoury types milling about that part of town. There were six Men on one side and about the same number on the other. The group that came into town had a small boy they were transporting in a metal cage and they seemed to be turning him over to the other group. There was a disagreement over something (money, probably -- that's usually the way with these ruffians), and there was a full-blown brawl! Well, the Men from out-of-town seemed very tired and worn out, so they were soundly beaten down. Then the new Men took the child and skipped town right away; they left by the west-gate and in quite a hurry, too."

"'This news has certainly been of great help to me,' I told her. 'And who were these other Men that took the child?'"

"Oh, it was that good-for-nothing duvodiad Enro Smuin and his gangsters. I know you know who that is, yes? Well, he and his fellows took that poor little boy then high-tailed it out of here. I do hope you can do something about it, Ancthas, because they probably mean to sell that poor lad into the slave-trade! I wish I had never lived to see such times.'"

"'I will certainly do whatever I can about this,'" I said, 'But first you must tell me which way they've gone and how long ago this all happened.'"

"Ah! Of course, of course, how silly of me. Well, this would have been around one in the afternoon, roughly seven hours ago now, because I always go to market at one in the afternoon of a Sunday. As for which way they went, well, we have Esult to thank for that: I happened to be chatting her up later on and she said she heard from Envus that Nerus told Mari that Wunne had seen them turn north after they left town. She also said they had let the boy out of his cage, which was a mercy to hear. North is an odd direction to go, though, don't you think? There's not much up that-a-way."

"'Thank you, my dear, and you really ought to try and stay out of trouble,' I told her. 'I will be sure to bring you more salve from Edgerin the next time I get the chance, but now I must be going.' I took my leave while Catrin kept categorically promising not to keep out of trouble, then I returned to you as quickly as I could." Thus did Ancthas finish his tale. "So, it would seem Bedwur's Men were double-crossed by Enro and that he is now in possession of your hobbit."

"I can't believe that Smuin smile-ball is still mixed up in all this!" I fumed. "He must have doubled back to Galtrev after we tracked him to Avardin, the slippery little toad. But so much the better: I needed some motivation to keep my feet going and now I have it." We ran for several more miles that night.

Monday, 15th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in Dunland

The fourth day of our pursuit dawned and another rest was needed. My legs, shoulders, and neck were so sore I could hardly move, but honestly it when you reach that stage of exhaustion it is more painful to stop than it is to keep going. We had almost totally obliterated our water supply and were forced to take a detour in the middle of the night to refill our bottles and skins at a small lake that lay just east of the road where we were, some miles north-west of Galtrev. Once we had refreshed ourselves, we resumed the trail.

Around nine in the morning I could see the bluffs which marked the beginnings of the Bonevales rising up ahead of us. I see Pad provided a rather fitting description of them the last time we passed this way, and I find it to be fairly apt. I was just noting how the cliffs do seem to "frown down upon you" when I noticed a thin spiral of smoke curling up into the clear morning sky.

"Look there!" cried Minasse, who had seen the same thing I had. We all rushed forward to investigate.

The smoke was originating from somewhere in the rocks above the road. We crept through the brush and the tree-stems to get a closer look, but we heard and saw no signs of life. Eventually we decided to surround the spot and break in upon it at a signal. This we did, but no living thing did we find.

What we did find was a campsite -- certainly less than a day old. The small fire had been left in haste and not properly extinguished: a live ember had ignited some of the turves nearby, causing the smoke which had caught our attention.

"This is good news," said Gaelira. "Our quarry may know we are tailing them, as it appears they left this camp in a hurry. Perhaps we are gaining and our efforts have not been wasted."

"Let us keep after them!" I cried. "They cannot be far ahead of us now."

"One moment!" said Minasse as he stooped and examined something on the ground. From underneath a small stone he produced a folded piece of paper.

"A note!" Lagodir and Gaelira exclaimed together.

"Bless you Elves and your keen eyes!" I cheered.

"Nonsense," drolled Minasse. "It was nothing more than having the patience to look."

"Well, open it!" Drodie demanded, and the Elf did so.

It was blank.

"Now why would someone leave a blank page in the middle of a wilderness?" I mused.

"Probably because he had nothing to write with," said Gaelira. "But I think this mystery is easily solved: Nephyn, is Padryc's journal in his backpack that you still carry with you?"

It was, of course, and I pulled it out at once. After a quick comparison, it was clear that the blank page Minasse had uncovered was of the exact same sort used in this diary!

"Our hobbit has left us a message that we must answer," said Drodie. "At least now we know he still has his wits about him."

"I think we can also deduce that his captors know we are after them," said Lagodir. "Why else leave such a marker? And if they are discussing us, then perhaps they are doing so because they fear we are gaining on them, although that may be reading too deeply into the signs."

"Either way, let us press on and hope!" said Gaelira. "My arm pains me greatly, but I count it no loss for my legs are unscathed, and it is they we have need of now."

"But arms may prove useful once we overtake them," said Drodie.

We ran on. All through the day and into the night we continued, sometimes running, often walking, but never stopping until we had traversed the Bonevales. We cast ourselves on the ground just west of the road once we cleared them, and now take a few hours' rest. In a short time, we will move on once again.

Trewsday, 16th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Lich Bluffs, Somewhere in the Enedwaith

Minasse roused us after only four hours. In moments we were up again and running while we ate of the food in our packs. Our stores were beginning to run low despite the Elves having gone without for the past few days. If our adversaries were well-provisioned it could make for a very difficult situation very soon...

We walked and ran mostly just to the left of the main road since it was paved with great flagstones at that point and it would jar our knees badly. Our eyes were open for any more signs of Padryc's captors, but we saw nothing all day. The Sun rose and set with little change in the scenery, but a towering stone spire to the north and east came into view, slowly growing larger as we approached it.

"What is that?" I asked and pointed.

"The once majestic fortress of Harndirion," said Lagodir. "A Gondorian fortification, long ago abandoned. The name simply means South-watch. If we should happen to cross nearby it we would do well to ascend and see what we can see, for it commands a wide-ranging view of the surrounding country."

"It is still a long ways off," I said, "Probably another day's travel, give or take, though it's hard to tell when the land is so flat as it is here. I'll tell you one thing: if we do manage to catch up to Smuin, I shall shake his hand in admiration before I hack his feet off. How on earth has he kept such a lead on us? And with a bad leg, no less?"

"I have been wondering the same thing," said Gaelira, who was beside me, "But I have seen no indication that our quarry have left the road at any point. Unless, perhaps, we missed it in the darker hours."

"We had better not have," I muttered, and ran on.

We were forced to slow to a walk again then make camp once night fell. Lagodir, Drodie, Ancthas, and I were exhausted and quickly fell asleep. Even the Elves seemed weary as this endless chase began to weigh on their hearts. There are queer sounds all around us this night; I wonder if our enemies have turned themselves into ghosts and gone wailing up among the hills.

Hevensday, 17th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Harndirion, Somewhere in the Enedwaith

The Elves gave us six hours of sleep. I was grateful for this, but I didn't know how we could ever overtake Smuin and his Men, who seemed to have charged on tirelessly ahead of us. Although our morale was the lowest it had been since Galtrev, we shouldered our rapidly lightening packs and struggled on.

We did not run, but we walked quickly. We scanned the ground on either side of the path for any signs but we found nothing. The Sun was nearly risen to the noon hour when Minasse suddenly called to us.

"See!" he cried as he pointed to a soft patch of earth just off the eastern side of the road. "Now we know how our foes managed to maintain their lead! Horses!" There, sure enough, were the hoof-prints of several full-sized horses clear to see in the dirt.

"What... how?!" I exclaimed. "When?"

"They must have been brought to them somewhere in or around the Bonevales," said Gaelira. "You'll recall the road becomes paved at that point. Most likely we missed the incoming hoof-prints in the dark of night two days ago. But look: the track leads to the north-east -- up toward Harndirion."

We followed the trail. It wound back and forth, always picking the smoothest route up the green slopes. It took another hour and a half before we finally reached level ground again. When we did, I saw the wide lands of the Enedwaith stretched out before me, and I marveled at the view.

"It's a shame we can't spare the time to admire this," I said. "Let's see if we can tell which way Smuin went from here."

We searched around the base of the great ruin, moving west then north. We became hampered by numerous large pieces of fallen masonry that had crumbled down from the spires many years ago, and we were forced to pick our way through these. We were just turning the corner on the last of them when Minasse forced us all to take cover.

"What is it?" asked Gaelira, but Minasse only signaled for us all to keep silent and pointed around the edge. We cautiously stole a look and gasped.

"Why," said Ancthas, "It looks like the encampment of a small army!"

It did. There were a great many tents and folk moving all about between them. I saw barrels of provisions stacked high and steeds being tended as well as several fires, and these things all seemed to run up higher onto the spires of Harndirion itself. About fifty feet above us was a landing where I could see even more people going about their business amid more tents and gear of battle. Then something caught my eye.

"Erm, Gaelira..." I said as I shielded my eyes from the afternoon Sun, "Is that what I think it is?"

She did not answer me.

"Gaelira?"

High above the plains of the Enedwaith, proudly perched on the second landing of the ancient Gondorian fortress of Harndirion, there stood a tall standard waving lustily in the breeze. It was all of sable, except for seven golden stars neatly arranged in the centre.

"That," said Gaelira, "Is the banner of the Seekers of the Seven Stars."

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 75

A Desperate Chase

Highday, 12th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in Dunland
The Great Oak of the Pristine Glade
I do not have much time. I will write here what I can manage before our Company moves again this morning, but I think it important that I continue Padryc's job of chronicling our adventures. My hope is he will do so again and soon, but right now it's hard to see how that will come about.

Let me start over. This is the hand of Nephyn, Dear Reader (as I see Padryc was fond of calling whomever might eventually read this journal of his), and I suppose I must explain how it is I have come to be relating our tale for the second time. Unfortunately, I don't have our hobbit's flair for verbosity nor a great amount of time in which to get this done, so I will be brief but thorough.

Yesterday evening, Padryc and I had gone for a stroll around the Pristine Glade. Drodie and Lagodir were practicing their sword-play while Minasse and Gaelira were in conference with Edgerin. The two of us took great pleasure in seeing the Glade from many angles since it is a very lovely place. It was an invigorating walk, but he and I have been good friends almost right from the start of this adventure so, after a short while, I began to suspect he had something weighing on his mind.

"It's just odd to think," he said to me, "That Inar might have been lurking in the fields around Bree all this time."

"Yes," I said, knowing he would open up to me soon if I was patient. "None of us could have known at the time, of course."

"True," he said, then collected a stone from the shore-line of the beautiful pool by which we were standing at the time. He flung it expertly across the water and I watched as it skipped away from us. "But that's not what's bothering me, as I'm sure you've already guessed, Neph." I waited.

"It's like this," he said slowly, "If we will be going back to Bree, I wonder if I will have the heart to leave it again. It's been, what, more than eight months now that we've been abroad? I've felt homesick ever since shortly after coming to Dunland. I know it has special meaning for you, but it has been hard on me, feeling so out of place like this."

"I can certainly understand that," I said. "After all, I was the one who has felt out of place in Bree most of my life."

"I know," he sighed, "And I hate myself for feeling this way, it's just... I don't know, maybe the adventuresome side of me is getting tired. To be honest, if the road back to Bree takes us through Rivendell again, I really don't know if I would be able to screw myself up to not remain there for good." I did not answer. As much as I did not like the idea of parting from my best friend in all the world, the allure of finding a place one can truly call home hits quite close to my heart; I wouldn't want to weigh on his decision either way since I knew what I would have preferred. We kept walking. The ground began to rise steeply and I became aware we were near the entrance to the Glade. I looked up the slope; the day had ended and night was in the sky. Tilion's glow was only just beginning to creep over the edge of the hills which surrounded us.

"Say, let's go back up there and have a look down on the valley again," Padryc said as he pointed. "It was rather stunning when we arrived this afternoon -- I wonder what it looks like now that evening has fallen." We laboured up the slope through the rich grass. Once we had nearly reached the entrance, we stopped at a tall pine tree which had a clump bushes at its base and turned to see what lay below us. It had been a tiring climb, but the reward was worth the effort: everything looked so peaceful from that elevation, and the many waterfalls which fed the glade glinted like diamonds in the light of the rising Moon.

"Ha! See how small the others look from up here," Padryc laughed. Our companions did indeed look like miniature toys at that distance, and I smiled at my friend's amusement. He always could find joy in the simplest of things -- a remarkable trait of his kind which I have reminded myself more than once in the course of our travels that I would do well to emulate.

"About what you said earlier," I began with a little clearing of my throat, "I don't think anyone could blame you for wanting to live out your days in a place like Rivendell. I would miss you terribly because, of course, my own journey is not yet complete, but even I who have never had a proper home can understand the pull of one. I would never dream of denying such a thing to anyone, you least of all."

"I know," he replied, "But I also know what you mean when you say your journey is not over. And it's a funny thing, now you mention it, because lately I've -- what was that?" There was a sharp crack from the bushes behind us. Suddenly I felt myself falling and blackness overwhelmed me.

The next thing I knew, I felt my cheek being gently slapped by a gloved hand. My head and neck were seared by a blinding pain, and all I saw was a bright blur. I shut my eyes hard and tried to force myself to concentrate, but thinking only made everything hurt more. There was a cacophony of voices all around me and, while I couldn't understand what any of them were saying, I was vaguely aware that it was my companions who were speaking excitedly.

"Are you alright?" asked one voice.

"Ask her what happened to Padryc!" said another.

"Be careful where you step! I have not yet checked the ground for any signs," said a third.

"Wait, I have just the thing for pain in my satchel down by the oak three," said a fourth voice. With an effort to my memory I recognized this was Edgerin speaking. "I will return shortly." I heard his footsteps retreating down the slope. My head was throbbing so badly that my eyes hurt, and I kept them tightly closed.

"Drodie, have you any smelling salts among your gear?" said a female voice. As my mind slowly cleared I knew this was Gaelira.

"No, not for months," the Dwarf answered her. "I had transferred all such things to the hobbit's backpack. He had taken it with him when he went walking with Nephyn last night."

"Last night?!" I cried and tried to sit up, but the pain was too great and I remained laying on the ground. "Last night! Padryc and I had walked up here to see the valley in the calm of evening, but something must have hit me over the head. You mean to say I've been unconscious all night?! What time is it now?"

"A little after seven o'clock in the morning," said Lagodir. "Drodie and I had fallen asleep waiting for you while the Elves were off doing whatever it was they do. When we awoke and saw the two of you had not returned we immediately began searching the Glade. It was Edgerin who happened to notice your foot protruding out from under this bush here: apparently your attacker drug you into the undergrowth after subduing you, but we have found no trace of Padryc." My stomach turned itself into knots.

"Not no trace," came Minasse's voice from nearby, "I am no tracker, but I think I can safely say there was a struggle here recently. It is all rather confused, but I should think there are some hobbit prints here and here, but then they disappear and I can only make out the prints of I think two distinctly different booted feet. They leave the Glade by the way we came in yesterday afternoon."

"Yes, that cavern is the only way in or out of the Glade," said Edgerin, who had just returned bearing his satchel. He was puffing and blowing from ascending the slope to the entrance, but his eyes were afire with concern as he administered a salve to the back of my neck and gave me a spring of some pungent herb to chew on. The agony subsided noticably, but I remained in a great deal of pain all the rest of that day.

"Spearmint," he said as he worked. "Not as good as peppermint, of course, though still decent enough in a pinch. But this is not good at all -- it seems one of your Company has been spirited off by parties unknown! You had best get after them at once if you are to have any hope of recovering him."

"Yes," Gaelira agreed. "And there was still so much I wished to discuss with you, old friend. I don't suppose you would consider coming with us?"

"I? I am hardly fit to go adventuring," Edgerin laughed. "I would only slow you down and I am needed here to help the people of the Dunbog deal with the pestilence of Lhan Colvarn. However, if he is willing, I would say Ancthas would make a far more appropriate ally for you. Of course, he does have his own duties to consider."

"I do," said Ancthas with a frown, "And, as much as I dislike leaving my people in the face of the abominations, there is also the question of honour." I saw Lagodir give the Dunlending a sidelong glance at this. "The huntress was attacked and her friend made captive while they were in my land and under my care. If you will have me, I shall help you recover your lost companion."

"You aid would be most welcome," said Gaelira, "Particularly as we remain strangers here and do not know the various places in it one might seek to hide a thing of value."

"Of those there are many, I'm afraid," said Ancthas. "But at least for now we know the general direction Nephyn's attackers must have gone: the mountains stop any travel westward from this spot, so the only possible route is back east into the fens."

With that settled, we quickly bade farewell to Edgerin and thanked him for all his advice. In moments, we had emerged from the Pristine Glade and returned to the outer edges of the Dunbog. It was like walking through a misty portal or into a dense cloud -- the crisp air and pastoral beauty of the Pristine Glade instantly gave way to the grimy haze of the swamp.

"Now what?" I asked. Normally I would have been at the head of the search as our Company's resident tracker, but at that moment my head was still pounding so that I felt content to be led for a bit further.

"They will have had to cross the river, just as we did when we came here," said Ancthas. "Let us continue our search down by the banks."

It took no real skill to find the spot in the muddy earth where our adversaries had forded. We were just about to cross ourselves when suddenly Minasse gave a cry and darted into a thicket of trees. He emerged moments later carrying a small bundle. My insides lurched when I recognized Padryc's backpack!

"No!" I exclaimed as I ran to examine it up close. "No, no... The brutes! What did they do, drown him here in the water? Padryc hates the water! We should search the river for any sign of a body!"

"Nephyn, calm down," Gaelira said to me, "And try to be rational: your attackers wouldn't follow us all this way, overpower you, then steal our Halfling just to suffocate him in the first river they found. They are obviously after the considerable bounty placed against his capture, which means we also know the place to which they are most likely headed."

"Where?" I asked reflexively, before realizing I myself already knew the answer.

"To Galtrev, naturally," she replied, "It follows because that is where the posters all said to inquire about the bounty. It is a safe presumption but a presumption it is, so for now we should continue to follow the tracks wherever they lead us and for as long as we can. Come, let us cross the river and resume our chase! Our opponents have several hours' lead, but they have not accounted for our resolve or determination to recover our companion."

"I, like all my kin, am well-tried at the hunt," said Ancthas, "And I know these lands like a wolf-pup knows his mother's bay. So long as our bounty-hunters be not ghosts, we will overcome them."

"And woe to the bounty-hunters, should your words prove true," said Minasse darkly.

We plunged into the swift, cold water. The shock did wonders to arouse my dulled senses and, when we all emerged on the far bank, I felt myself rejuvenated. I took up the point and had no difficulty finding and following the trail for some distance. Swamps typically are excellent places for finding tracks, as a rule, and the Dunbog was no exception. In fact, Saerdan had initially trained me in the art beginning in the Midgewater Marshes for that very reason. Eventually, however, even I was unable to locate the path and we spent many long and fruitless minutes searching the ground in ever-expanding circles before finally admitting we were at an impasse. However, Lhan Rhos was not far from our position at that point, so we decided it would be worth a slight detour to the south to inquire of the locals whether anyone had seen anything suspicious.

Lhan Rhos was already visible just a short distance south through the murk. Half an hour later we had reached the edge of town. There was a guard there leaning lazily on his spear who apparently recognized us from the other night when we had passed through the village.

"Ho, you lot!" he called to us, palm outward. "You didn't pick up anything catching out there in the swamp, did you?"

"No," I said to him, "And we are not going into town; we only wished to ask if you happened to see anyone suspicious pass this way since last night."

"Well, I saw a couple of poachers," he shrugged. "At least, that's what I took them for: there were two of them and they were carrying a large sack full of something or other. They were about a half mile north of town and headed north-east, as best as I could tell in the dark, out of the Dunbog."

"And you didn't think to stop them?" Ancthas demanded.

"Oh, it's you, Ancthas," the guard said, looking a little concerned and suddenly standing up a little straighter. "Er, yes, I did think about it, but... well, I thought it would be best to not leave my post on account of a couple of poachers. Not when the abominations are out there."

"You know poaching is against the elders' decrees," Ancthas scolded him. "Moreover, they were not poachers at all -- they were bounty-hunters transporting an innocent captive, and you permitted them to escape."

"Yes, sir," the guard said, morosely, "Sorry, sir."

"We must move on," said Gaelira, "We have wasted precious time on this detour." Ancthas leaned in threateningly toward the guard and stuck one finger under his nose.

Next time, be more watchful, I heard him say in Dunlendish (or maybe it was vigilant... I am hardly fluent). Then we turned and departed.

With the guard's help, we were eventually able to pick up the trail again. The muddy footprints led us north and east, beyond the swamps, and toward Avardin. It was already late afternoon when we halted just outside the village, unsure of what to do next.

"What now?" I asked the others. "Something tells me walking into town and asking everyone we meet if they've seen our hobbit bouncing along in a sack isn't a good idea."

"What if we don our disguises and try to casually pick up information?" Lagodir suggested.

"I do not know if we can afford the time," said Gaelira. "Besides, I am not sure that Avardin would be their final destination. What do you think, Minasse? Minasse?" We all turned to look for the High Elf, but he was gone!

"What in blazes!" I exclaimed as I threw up my hands. "Has someone kidnapped him now, too?"

"No, there he is," said Gaelira. "Wait... what is he doing?!"

Minasse had strolled right into the middle of town and hopped onto the auctioneer's block. He threw aside the cowl he normally wore, and his golden hair gleamed in the rapidly westering Sun.

"People of Avardin!" he shouted. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at him.

"Two bounty-hunters came through town recently with a friend of mine tied up in a sack. I wish them brought before me or to know where they have gone." I stood there, rooted to the spot in horror and disbelief. I looked at Gaelira, and I saw her jaw was hanging slack. Then I realized mine was doing the same. There was a total silence for what felt like an eternity.

"I am not the patient sort!" Minasse shouted again.

"Cuthraul!" someone screamed.

"Druggavar!" cried another.

"GUARDS!" called many more. A small-scale riot followed as dozens of merchants, craftsmen, and villagers all pushed and shoved to exit the area. Women herded their children into their homes while the Men grabbed axes and spears. It looked for all the world like we were about to find ourselves on the wrong end of a massacre.

I suddenly became aware I was being dragged by the arm. It was Ancthas, and he led us all into the midst of the quickly evaporating crowd, seized Minasse, and thrust us ahead of him toward the town's eastern entrance (near the stables). Dogs were barking and chickens screaming as they fluttered to get out of our way. Ancthas kept shoving us until we had gone some ways beyond the edge of town and taken cover in a small thicket of bushes. Even now I am not sure how we ever managed to avoid the guards, but we took a moment to catch our breath.

"What in the name of all the spirits were doing, Elf?" Ancthas snapped at Minasse.

"What is the matter?" the Noldo asked, sounding genuinely surprised. "I was merely asking the people of that pitiful collection of malodorous huts (which they seem to believe is a 'village') about our missing companion. If anyone therein has the information we seek, then they have no right to withhold it from me." Ancthas stared at him, dumbfounded.

"You may be older than me by far, Eldar," he said acidly, "But this is Dunland. You are duvodiad. You think you can flaunt your high-born status and expect everyone to cower at your feet?!"

"I had no intention of being friendly to the folk of a town which attacked us and tried to make us captive the last time we passed through it," Minasse retorted. "Besides, I was under the impression that these people were warring with your own."

"Then perhaps you are not nearly so wise as your long years would suggest," Ancthas shot back. "It so happens the inhabitants of Avardin are not my enemies, aside from Bedwur and his scoundrels, but that is not even any of your concern. It was Bedwur and his thugs who attacked us, not the ordinary folk which live and work there. Avardin is a place like many in this world: full of frightened people trying to do nothing more than survive on a meager living when all the rest of creation seems to be against them and constantly looking down their noses at them. And if you need proof of my words, I would ask you to examine your own idiotic actions just now!" Ancthas was so furious that the spittle flew freely as he raged, but I felt a certain surge of pride in his defense of the simple folk which dwelt in his homeland.

"Quiet, both of you!" Gaelira hissed. "We should move further away from the town -- I think the guards are beginning to search out this way." Just then, one of the dogs which had gotten excited by our hasty exodus came trotting up, barking loudly. We tried to shoo him away, but with no success. We immediately dashed off, but the animal followed us. It seemed particularly interested in me and became quiet when I allowed him to get close. Now, creatures of all kinds have always tended to be friendly with me (a fact which has earned me more than a few gentle teasings at the hands of my companions over the months), but there was something unusually forward about this dog. He kept sniffing at my shoes and my leggings.

"Get off, you silly thing!" I scolded him, but in truth I was relieved it was no longer barking at us and making a ruckus. "Go on! Get out of here. You'll not get any of my food, you know -- I'm going to need all I have." Suddenly, the dog barked once and bounded off, following the road to the north-east. The realization struck me like a bolt of thunder.

"The swamp!" I cried. "He smells the swamp on my feet and my legs from wading through the muck. The bounty-hunters carrying Padryc must smell the same way. Quick! After him!!"

Without a word our entire Company sprang away with renewed vigour. The path began to climb upwards and I recognized that stretch of road as the same area where we had first beheld Avardin some days before. The Sun slowly set behind us and still the dog trotted on. We were clearly on the same road back to Galtrev by which we had initially entered the Starkmoor, but then the dog came to a fork in the road and took the eastern branch. We were surprised by this at first, but then Ancthas pointed out that road could also lead one to Galtrev if one turned north again at the next juncture.

We ran on. Midnight came and went. I was exhausted, but I would picture poor Padryc bound and gagged being driven in front of his captors and I kept running. We would overtake the swine, I kept telling myself. We had to.

The dog continued to run east and we followed him. At one point the road ran between two tall rocks; even as we approached I thought it an excellent spot to launch an ambush. From a distance and in the dark of night I thought the pass was littered with fallen stones, but the nearer we drew the more unusual shapes they took. Then the bottom fell out of my stomach: Orc-weapons! Curved scimitars and cruel flails were scattered here and there, clear signs of a struggle. At once we began to search the area, but there was no sign of Padryc nor any corpses.

"From the markings here I should say the Orcs had the upper hand," said Lagodir. "Fortunately, it appears they were not attacking to kill but only to take captives. Let us go after them!"

By that time it had been more than a full day since I had slept last -- unless you count the time I spent unconscious in a bush, which I do not. My limbs hung like lead, but I kept on. The trail led us to a small encampment of Orcs, goblins, and Wargs. We spent only a few moments scouting our enemies but we did not have the luxury of time -- we decided on our strategy and launched our assault.

I can see from Padryc's earlier entries that he often takes care to describe our battles in fine detail. Well, firstly, I am not he. Secondly, I'm dead-tired as I write this and looking for any excuse to shorten the tale before we must set out again. Thirdly, I have no desire to relive violence. However, I must also consider it my duty to relate matters of import when they occur, so I will tell you a little of what went on in that camp.

We drove the goblins and Wargs before us with a white fury that none of them dared to withstand. As the camp's inhabitants emptied, I spotted a particularly large goblin -- and he was wearing Padryc's hat! I don't even remember doing it, but according to the others I instantly drove an arrow into its mount, and that sent the goblin flying. We were upon it as soon as it hit the earth. I nocked a second arrow and pointed it straight at the goblin's heart.

"What have you done with our friend?" I demanded as Lagodir snatched the hat from its head. Drodie pinned the goblin's arms and held him up for me to interrogate.

"Friends of the little runt, are you?" the goblin sneered, although I now recall the fear behind his eyes. At that precise moment, however, I was not feeling especially empathetic. A fired my second arrow into the creature's right thigh.

"GAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!" shrieked the goblin. "Savage Woman! Leave me be!" I drew the Sword of Ringdor and held the blade to its neck.

"What of our friend?" I said again. "Speak!"

"Simply tell us what we wish to know and I will set you free," said Minasse calmly from over my shoulder.

"Fine, fine," the goblin spat. "Our scouts saw a group of Men leaving Barnavon. They acted as if they were transporting something of value, so we followed them and ambushed the lot in a narrow place. They was easy pickings, but we didn't find no gold or jools, just a Dwarf-runt wearing that stupid hat, so we figured we'd sell 'em off as slaves. We penned 'em over there in that stockade, only the little one must have had a knife hid on him somewhere, 'cause next thing we knew they had broke out! We chased 'em a ways, but they ducked into the Mine, and it weren't worth it to go following 'em in there."

"The Barnavon Mine?" echoed Ancthas. "That lies to the south and east of this place. Rumour is that place is haunted. The town watch from Barnavon has been trying to clear it for a while now, but without success."

"That's right, Man," sneered the goblin, "And I hope your little friend leads you all to a very unpleasant end in those caves. But that's the whole story, so now you must keep your promise and let me go!"

In one motion, Minasse grabbed my weapon and swung. The goblin's head skipped from its shoulders and rolled a short distance in the dusty earth. Lagodir chuckled cruelly as I grabbed the Sword of Ringdor back from the Elf's hands.

"What did you do that for?" I shouted. "You promised to set him free if he talked."

"And I did," Minasse shrugged. "I freed his miserable head from his wretched --"

"Oh, shut it!" I screamed. "Does your word mean nothing?! You'll cause an ill fate to befall us if you go breaking promises on a whim like that."

"You're starting to sound just like the primitive denizens of this land," he sniffed. That was too much for me -- I stormed off out of the camp. I didn't care at the time whether the others followed me or not, but I soon realized they had done so.

"I hope you have more faith in these companions of yours than I do," said a soft voice in my ear. I made no sign, but I knew it was Ancthas whispering to me in Dunlendish. "In Dunland, we would not trust those who would twist their own words so." I did not answer, but I felt as if my heart had been torn at that moment. I fought back the angry tears which sprang into my eyes and forced myself to think of poor Padryc, lost and alone somewhere in a haunted mine.

Ancthas was the only one among us who knew where the Mines lay, so he took the lead. It was probably the fourth hour after midnight by the time we reached the place. The entrance appeared as though it had once been quite busy with forges and winches everywhere, but even in the darkness it was clear that it had been abandoned. We wasted no time locating the opening and plunged inside.

The blackness was almost absolute, but we lit some torches and began our exploration. This would probably be the point where our usual poetic author would provide you with all kinds of colourful descriptions about how dark the caves were and how we all felt as though we were being pursued by half-imagined phantoms or whatever, but all I noticed was that the tunnels wound quite a bit and that there were definitely some odd noises coming from somewhere further within. To make a long story short, we eventually discovered someone in that Mine from the sounds of his fevered cries for help. Once we reached him we tried to ask whether he knew anything about a hobbit being down there, but he only demanded over and over again that we help him escape, so we led him back through up to the entrance and outside where he collapsed from exhaustion. The cool light of dawn was only just beginning to creep into the sky.

"You promised to tell us anything you know about the Halfling," I said to him after giving him a drink from my water-skin. The others positioned themselves to ensure the Man did not try to flee. I think the idea came into his head, but it quickly vanished when he saw our number and obvious skill at arms. He was a Dunlending, that was plain, and while this may have made him suspect in the eyes of some of my companions, I at least was willing to hear his tale before taking any action.

"Are you friends of the little one?" he asked with wide eyes. "Please, just let me get away! I don't care what happens anymore, not after this. I'm through with this business."

"Who are you? Why did you take him?!" I shouted into his face. The Man cringed and cowered away from me; he was in a truly pitiful state.

"I am called Wilim," he answered. "There were two of us, me and Siam, and we were two of Bedwur's Men from Avardin. We wanted the Halfling for the bounty, so we followed you after you left town a few days back. It was just me and him, you see, so we couldn't take you all on at once. We followed you through the Dunbog and waited for the right moment. It was Siam that hit you over the head and I plopped a sack over the Halfling's head and we were off. We got through the swamp alright and made it back to Avardin where we met up with Bedwur and his lads. Bedwur, he wanted the bounty too, of course, so he arranged for a dozen of us to transport the little one to Galtrev to collect. Well, we only made it about halfway when those wretched goblins attacked us out of nowhere. They took us captive and marched us to their camp which isn't too far north of here."

"Was the Halfling injured?" I interrupted.

"Him? No! He was whole and hale last I saw him. In fact, it was he who freed us. He must have had a dagger hidden down his trousers or something, because the instant the goblins' attention was turned he had sliced through the thong which held the cage doors shut and we were sprung! We slipped out of there quickly, I can tell you, and the goblins chased us but we had the head-start. Once the Halfling was back under our control, we ducked into this Mine to escape them, and they wouldn't follow us in there. Well, now I know why! That place is haunted! They took Siam and Matho and Inir and who knows how many others."

"Who is they?" I asked.

"Them!" he roared. "Demons! Fell-spirits! Whatever corrupt evil roams in there! You couldn't get me to go back down again, not if you promised me a king's ransom for it."

"Is the Halfling still inside then?" I demanded.

"No, the ones who held together managed to escape, but they left the rest of us to our fates in there."

"And where are they now?"

"Gone to Barnavon," he said. "I heard them say they wanted to find a more reliable way of transporting their prize."

"And how long ago was this?"

"Half a day? Maybe a day? I have no idea how long I was down in that horrible Mine. Please, just let me get away!"

"Just a moment," I said, "If the Halfling had his dagger, what became of it?"

"Oh! We took it from him after we escaped from the goblins. In fact, I'm the one who kept it and it's the only reason I'm still alive now. Here, take it." I did so.

"Very well, you may go."

Wilim muttered something about thanks and shuffled away from us wearily. The six of us allowed Ancthas to lead us on a short distance further along the road which ran back west toward Barnavon. We only made it a little ways before calling a halt: none of us had eaten or slept for more than a day, and all of us were parched from the running. We spoke little while we rested our feet and that was when I decided to go through Padryc's backpack to see if I could find anything useful. I found his journal, perfectly intact, and thought it best if I were to record today's events, which have been singularly unpleasant from start to finish.

It is nearly dawn: we will move again very soon. One way or another I will find my friend.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 74.2

Edgerin

Mersday, 11th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
The Pristine Glade, Somewhere in Dunland
Edgerin
The night passed peacefully enough, which was a mercy considering we were still fairly close to the horrors of Lhan Colvarn. I'm still convinced I barely slept a wink all night, but according to everyone else I was out cold within moments of lying down. Be that as it may, I did not feel rested in the slightest this morning, and the entire Company seemed on edge which only served to make me antsy. All of us were eager to get moving, I think, ever since Ancthas told us yesterday that Edgerin was now very near indeed.

I took a brief moment to reflect as we packed up our meager camp and prepared to move out. This whole affair had started weeks and weeks ago at Elrond's urging after it became known that the Man called Captain Inar had deposed Mallacai as leader of the Seekers of the Seven Stars. That same Inar had, reportedly, blamed us for Amarthiel's rise to power in Angmar and had been hunting us ever since. Most of us suspected, I think, that he was the one really behind the bounty posters we had seen scattered throughout Dunland. We wished to do something about it, but Inar was a very secretive and well-protected adversary, and so we had resolved to find the one person any of us knew who might have some insight on how to defeat or at least confront him, and that was Edgerin. Apparently the two had been reasonably close at one point in time, but Inar's constant quest for power had driven a wedge between them. I remembered, too, what Elrond had told us about how even a well-meaning person who embraces coercion to achieve their ends can be a very dangerous individual. After weeks of being a marked hobbit (to say nothing of the near-disaster that recently befell us in the back-alleys of Avardin), I felt I was beginning to understand what he meant.

All of this only made me more eager to get moving, although it seemed like an eternity before we finally did. We marched for a couple of hours while the Sun rose in the east behind us. The trees overhead kept the heat of the day off our backs and I had another chance to admire the pure, untamed wildness of Dunland's forests. I tried to ignore the nagging feeling in my mind that we would, at some point, probably have to traverse the vile Dunbog a second time on our way out of that area, but for the moment I decided I would concentrate instead on the natural beauty which surrounded me.

Once the Sun had passed the noon hour, however, I was truly beginning to get impatient. Ancthas led us further west, toward what looked to me like nothing more than a blank cliff wall. Once we were close enough, however, I saw there was a cave delved into the rock. We followed Ancthas inside and wound our way down a curving passage of stone. At first I thought my ears were playing tricks on me, but soon it became clear I was hearing the sound of rushing water. Then we turned a corner and I was instantly blinded. The rock walls abruptly ended, and the sky was clear overhead. The Sun suddenly shone down full onto my face so that it took a few minutes before I could see properly again. When I finally regained my sight, I gasped in amazement.

There, below us, ran a wide and lush valley. It was bordered on all sides by towering stone from which many waterfalls cascaded with unending music. In the very centre of that valley there rose the single most enormous oak tree I had ever seen in my life. Nothing, not even the Party Tree outside Bag End in the Shire, even came close by comparison. It was a giant among trees, and its boughs and roots seemed to stretch on forever while the occasional leaf fluttered down from the un-guessable heights of its branches. I saw several pools which were fed by the waterfalls, clusters of lovely flowers in all colours, and many peaceful animals wandering listlessly among the underbrush. It was a picture of pure pastoral beauty, the like of which I had never seen before and have never seen since.

Ancthas permitted us all to stand there for several moments in awe of the view, but eventually he directed our attention to the base of the great tree. There, for the first time, I noticed a tiny figure, and Ancthas led us to him. When we were near enough, I could see it was a Man, and that he was surrounded by many animals. These latter took leave of us as we approached, but the Man seemed not to notice us at all: he was engrossed in the vials of liquid he held in his hands which he had taken, I assumed, from the peculiar-looking bundle of oddities that lay on the ground near him. The Man was elderly with a white beard and a (mostly) bald head, while his raiment was almost entirely of brown robes. I saw a long walking-stick propped neatly up against the tree's bole and a small pile of books stacked behind him, but aside from these simple possessions he appeared to be alone. We walked right up to within six feet of him, but he did not acknowledge us. Finally, Ancthas cleared his throat, loudly.

"Yes, I know you are there, Ancthas, my friend," the old Man said, "I trust you were able to find what I asked for in Avardin?" At this, Ancthas removed a small pouch from somewhere and handed it to him. The old man took it and opened it immediately. It contained a small pile of salt crystals which he quickly added to his glass vial. Almost at once the liquid began to bubble and produce noxious white fumes -- I covered my mouth to guard against the pungent aroma of sulfur which hung in the air.

"Phew!" the old man said as he wafted the smell away. "It's a good thing I only had a small amount with me or there might have been real trouble just now. Well, well, that didn't exactly go as planned... back to square one, I suppose. Ah, I can get back to it later. In the meantime, Ancthas, perhaps you should introduce your friends."

"Edgerin," Ancthas said with a slight bow, "Permit me to introduce --"

"Gaelira!" Edgerin cried with a broad smile. "How have you been, my dear Elf? It has been far, far too long! And who are these others? They must be great adventurers and warriors if they are going about in your company!"

"They are that, old friend," said Gaelira as she beamed. "This is Lagodir of Gondor, Drodie of the Blue Mountains, Nephyn of Bree, Padryc of the Shire, and Minasse, Noldo of long memory. You have no idea what we have endured to reach this place; you never were an easy one to find!"

"Me? Nonsense! Just look for me where no one else is!" the old Man laughed, "I need quiet, and the Pristine Glade is a wonderful place to get it, generally speaking. Lately all my time has been taken up with these experiments, trying to discern just what happened at Lhan Colvarn. I'm afraid I've not had much luck on that count so far, but I don't give up easily, as you know."

"We are glad to hear it," said Gaelira. "We saw the place for ourselves only yesterday and the horrors therein."

"You did?!" Edgerin gasped. "Are you ill? How is your breathing? Did you drink of the water there?"

"Of course we did not drink of the water," said Ancthas. "We are all fine."

"No thanks to you!" the old Man scolded. "Didn't I tell you not to go near that place? What if the plague was carried on the wind, like the one which befell the South Kingdom all those years ago? Still, I can see none of your are affected, so (irritated as I am by your disobedience, Ancthas) I suppose this is cause for celebration. I had worried the sickness was borne through the air, but if you have been into Lhan Colvarn without contracting the contagion, then I think we can rule that out. Actually, I was rather beginning to wonder if the illness was to be found in the water supply. I thought it possible considering Orcs and Men both drink, you see, and seeing you here in perfect health lends some credence to that idea. But you, Ancthas! How could you put yourself and these others into such danger so recklessly?"

"Because I suspected you were trying to protect me from something," said Ancthas solemnly. "And I discovered what it was." There was an awkward silence, and Edgerin's eyes became downcast.

"Yes, well... you can't really blame me for trying," he muttered. "He... died well, I trust?"

"He was alive when I left him," the Dunlending replied, "But he would not leave Lhan Colvarn." Edgerin sighed.

"A good man, he was. I shall miss him terribly, and I know you will also."

"He spoke the name Sharku, Edgerin. I know you know what that means."

"And I know you think you know what that means," Edgerin countered. "We've been through this before: no one has seen anything to prove that Saruman the White has anything to do with any of this. I will not discount your theory, young Ancthas, please believe me on that, but more research is needed. Unless you can explain to me why Saruman would suddenly ally himself with Orcs, then send those Orcs into a remote village in the swamps of Dunland, then cause those same Orcs, his own foot-soldiers as you tell the tale, mind you, to become horribly deformed by an uncanny plague which he himself personally dispersed, I suppose? For what purpose?"

"I do not know," Ancthas admitted, his fists clenched at his sides.

"Exactly," said Edgerin. "Action will be taken, but first we must have reason; there are any number of conceivable explanations for all that has transpired, none of which necessarily point toward your grand conspiracies. Ah, but your companions did not travel hundreds of miles to listen to the two of us argue. Come! You lot must have some dire mission and we are doing all the talking; speak, and tell me how I can help you."

Then we told Edgerin all about our adventures against Guloth, the fall of Mordirith, the rise of Amarthiel, and the murder of Luean. We showed him the scrap of paper we found near the body. The old Man's brows knitted together in thought.

"Inar..." he said quietly. "This person the letter is addressed to, this Volfren, I have no knowledge of him. But Inar is quite another matter. I think I see now your purpose in seeking me out; there are few others anywhere in Eriador or out of it who know that Man as well as I, but even I cannot claim to know all there is to know. I myself was at least partly taken by surprise at his sudden lust for power, I must admit."

"Our understanding is that Mallacai fled before Inar made his move to oust him," said Gaelira, "And that he has journeyed south in the company of two others who remained loyal. Have you heard any news of his passing this way?"

"I have not," Edgerin replied, "Although that means little enough: I am rather isolated here, as you yourself have already pointed out, and we have plenty of our own troubles in this land. If you wish to follow Mallacai then you would have to journey near the Gap of Rohan and perhaps you will see for yourself whether Saruman is a traitor, as my headstrong apprentice here seems so ready to believe."

"We were rather hoping," said Nephyn, "That you might be able to advise us on how to deal with Inar. Beginning, perhaps, with where we might find him."

"Hm, I may be able to help you there," he said thoughtfully. "Now Mallacai, he never ran his affairs out of any one place. He was always moving about; seemed to think he would be better informed if he was out in the world, seeing things firsthand, if you understand me. But Inar was a different sort: he always loved fortresses and headquarters and camps of war, and he could ever be found in their midst. I happen to know he favoured the Bree-land -- chiefly because it was (and still is) such a major cross-roads with easy access to land-routes which can take one virtually anywhere of importance in the North, and it's also an excellent hub for the gathering of news... or the planting of spies. For the longest time he kept a bivouac in the area around Nen Harn; it was removed enough from Bree-town to keep its location a secret but near enough to conduct his business there when he needed to. If I were you, that's the first place I would check."

"You mean to say he was no more than a day or two's march north of Bree this whole time?!" Nephyn exclaimed. "Goodness -- I may have seen him in town, then, and he almost certainly knows of me. It would be hard to miss the one dark-skinned lass in all the city."

"It's certainly possible you have seen him," Edgerin agreed. "He was always very protective of his identity -- he used to wear a low cowl at most whiles and never drew attention unless he wanted to. But does he know of you? I wouldn't be so sure -- he was never one to pay much mind to anything which he held to be of no value to him personally."

"And what would you suggest when we stand before Inar himself?" asked Lagodir. It was the first time I had heard him speak all day.

"Ah, well, he is no longer young, you know," Edgerin laughed. "If I were you, I would be more concerned about his bodyguards -- the leader of that kinship always had them, of course, and I suspect Inar will have increased their numbers. If you can manage to deal with them, then I'd say your job will have become considerably easier."

"Oh dear," I said, "Teams of grim, sleepless Elves? I remember they were always with Mallacai when we saw him. However shall we overcome them?"

"For advice on Elves," Edgerin retorted, "Ask an Elf, I always say. I'd hardly qualify as an expert when you have two of them standing right here. As for Inar, you may need to outwit him."

"Is diplomacy no recourse at all?" asked Nephyn.

"Why, certainly," the old man replied, "But I don't think Inar is going to give you something for nothing. Still, sometimes an opponent's greatest strength can also be their greatest weakness, yes? Inar cares about only one thing: driving back the forces of the Enemy. He is convinced that Varda herself will gift the magical Seven Stars to him if he proves himself worthy of receiving them (fool that he is), so perhaps you have your answer right there."

"Sorry?" I said, not at all following his reasoning.

"Your own courage!" he cheered. "You have been willing to oppose the Enemy for all these many months, and with no small measure of success, I might add... don't you think that could serve as an excellent bargaining chip when dealing with the likes of Inar?"

"I see what you mean, friend," said Gaelira. "I will think on this some more later."

"A fine pickle we're in, meanwhile," Drodie groused. "Now we'll have to hoof it all the way back to Bree to hunt him down with his lackeys dogging us every step of the way. I shouldn't be surprised if we never make it there -- and that Izarrair will probably have his say at some point too!"

"What?" Edgerin snapped. "Izarrair? You mean to say you've seen him skulking around Dunland?" We proceeded to tell the old man about every encounter we had with the dark horseman.

"Ho, ho," the sage chuckled, "He must think himself veeeeery clever, I reckon. So sure of himself now that he has his new, strong friends, is he? Well, we'll see what comes of that." We all waited for him to explain himself.

"It's like this," Edgerin said, seeing we clearly wanted to know more. "Izarrair is a native Dunlending -- which you've probably figured out for yourselves already -- but he's an arrogant sort. I knew him before he turned; he was usually content to let others do his work for him while he got all the credit, but that doesn't mean he isn't a dangerous Man. He is a very skilled warrior and it would be wise to not underestimate him. I had told him to leave Dunland and never return after he allied himself with the Dark Powers some time ago, but now it seems he is back and causing trouble again. I would see to him myself if I could, but at the moment I am needed here far more urgently. If what you tell me of yourselves is true, then I think you have what it would take to defeat him on your own -- just don't allow him to demoralize you or goad you into doing something foolish with his endless taunting."

"He seemed content to merely follow our trail and harass us at convenient times," said Minasse. "I wonder what his true purpose is. He was very interested in our Halfling, but he has never made a determined move to attack us."

"I'm not surprised about that," Edgerin nodded. "You see, he fears the Elder Kindred mightily; a skirmish against the Rohirrim some years ago that went very, very wrong for him -- remind me to tell you the full tale sometime. Anyway, I suspect he's been trying to engineer things from a distance to reduce your Company's number, most especially the Elves among you, before he would attempt an outright attack himself. That you have withstood his efforts so far certainly speaks well of you, but if he becomes desperate enough to fulfill whatever dark orders he's under, then you may have much to fear. He was long renowned as the most talented spear-man in Dunland, and not without good reason. Should it come to blows, I think you will have to trust to your own strength and wits to see you through. My, my, but you lot have gotten yourselves into a -- what did the Dwarf call it? A pickle?"

"I'll say!" I agreed. "And we haven't even gotten onto that Emissary character yet."

"The Emissary?" Edgerin's smile vanished and his eyes became hard. "Why do you speak of him?"

"Well, that name has come up a few times in our travels, is all," I said. I recounted the times we had heard it starting with Morhun in Moria and ending with Iargandir in the Lich Bluffs. "Not that the Emissary has been a concern of ours, what with all the other shady folk we have to deal with," I said. "I confess I had completely forgotten about him until just now."

"Oh, it doesn't do to go forgetting about him," said Edgerin darkly. "Have you seen him?"

"No, we have not," said Nephyn.

"Oh. Well, neither have I," said Edgerin with a frown. "Actually, I was rather hoping you had. I've heard all sorts of rumours about him -- the Orcs of Moria have begun to range far beyond their gates, out into Hollin and even as far south as Thror's Coomb at times. I have heard them speak of this Emissary and his treating with Mazog, he who rules the Orcs of Moria. Apparently they are looking to strike some kind of alliance, and that could prove disastrous. I am certain the Emissary is a Man of Mordor and I'm fairly convinced he is not operating out of Eriador, though his influence has spread here. No, I think he is somewhere in Rhovanion. I had thought to inform the Lady Galadriel about him, but I am no longer fit for such a long journey, and the Lady probably knows at least as much as I do anyhow."

"That is a safe assumption, friend," said Gaelira with a smile. "And now, I think, we have troubled you long enough. We have much more to discuss, of course, but most of us could use a rest."

I suddenly realized the afternoon was quickly vanishing thanks to all our talk. I had completely forgotten about lunch, and my stomach was letting me know it. Drodie, Nephyn, Lagodir, and I decided to set up a little campsite not far from the great tree while Edgerin, Gaelira, and Minasse continued their discussions. We had to sate our appetites with cram while we made the preparations, but the four of us cooked up a masterful meal of broiled pork rashers and fried tomatoes with onion and mushrooms the likes of which I hadn't tasted in many days. When we had finished, we washed up and then I settled down to write this section of my journal. Another two and a half hours had passed since we had broken off our talks with Edgerin, but even after the Sun had begun to set there was the old Man and the Elves, still chatting away.

"Talk be the breath of life to the Eldar, goes an old saying," said Lagodir with a wry grin as he watched.

"The same could be said of most hobbits," I observed, "Except you'll only find us yammering on about food or family trees, not dark dealings or scary, mounted pursuers of weary travelers. And weary I am, indeed! That meal has brought the sleep into my eyes much too early. I think I shall take a stroll and explore some more of this remarkable valley."

"My lids have gotten a bit heavy themselves," said Drodie. "Come, Lagodir! Let us spar a bit, as we used. It has been too long since I put that last dent in your armour, and I've been itching to do it a second time."

"I seem to recall our last bout a bit differently," said Lagodir with a wink to me, "But I shall give you the chance you desire."

"Oh, enough of the fighting and noise," said Nephyn. "Padryc, I would walk with you, if you don't mind, while these two boys play soldier. It sounds to me as though we have plenty of real battles ahead of us, so I'd just as soon not spend my quiet moments thinking about them if I don't have to."

"Just let me finish off this last section," I pleaded. "You have no idea how hard it is to pick a thought back up again once you've lost it."

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 74.1

Into the Dunbog

Trewsday, 9th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Lhan Rhos, Somewhere in the Dunbog
One of the Abominations of Lhan Colvarn
It was Ancthas who roused us this morning, except, of course, the two Elves who had apparently been off scouting ahead and keeping an eye on the lands round about. There was nothing significant to report from the night hours, although Gaelira thought she had seen a shadowy figure like to a dark horseman off in the distance at one point. We were all thinking of Izarrair, but no one felt inclined to talk about him.

The day was bound to be unpleasant enough without contemplating all the various spooks and ruffians who had been dogging us throughout the length Dunland, for today would bring us into the Dunbog -- the fetid swamp which lay in the extreme south-western corner of that region. According to Ancthas, our chance Dunlending companion and current guide, Edgerin could be found somewhere within it, so we had no choice but to enter. Moreover, in return for saving us from Bedwur's ambush in Avardin yesterday, we had pledged our aid in support of him and his people who were fighting some scourge he called "the abominations." These fearsome-sounding foes had overrun the last remaining village of his people, and thus we were honour-bound to follow him in any case. Breakfast was brief and cheerless, for Ancthas insisted we had a full day's journey ahead.

"My kinfolk still hold the abominations within the walls and the immediate area around Lhan Colvarn," he told us, "And so we should meet no enemies on our way to Lhan Rhos. At least, that is my hope: things may have changed since I came north to Avardin three days ago, for our cause is very desperate. Yet, even without opposition, we cannot hope to reach the village before sundown tonight; the way through the Dunbog is shifting and treacherous. You would do well to follow me closely."

And so we did. Caution was definitely needed if we were going to have any hope of staying dry above the waist. The pools and mires of the swamp made it impossible to find anything resembling a straight road, which forced Ancthas to lead us on a winding route so as to remain on the little (mostly) dry land we could identify. More than a few times we were obliged to wade through mucky areas in order to keep going, and these were the most unpleasant times. At first I was repulsed by the activity, but after a while it become too frequent to waste energy bothering about it.

The passage of the swamp was long, dull, dreary, and uneventful. I took to examining our surroundings as we laboured on. My only real experience with swamps had been the Rushock Bog, which sits in the north-western regions of the Shire, roughly right in the middle of the land between Michel Delving, Hobbiton, and Needlehole. It sits in a natural valley there, into which the rains easily run off, and that is part of the reason the farmlands of the Shire are so well-suited to growing all manner of crops. I never had much cause to venture there except when on patrol as a Bounder: Needlehole is not an insignificant village despite its somewhat removed location (relative to the rest of the Shire), and the only way to reach it is through the Rushock. But even that road is fairly well-built and maintained by the Bounders, nor is it anywhere nearly as dismal as the place in which my companions and I found ourselves today. For one thing, there were no trees anywhere in sight. The Rushock Bog is a watery and oozy sort of place, but even there you will find plenty of stunted or moss-grown trees, and there is an overall greeness to it. Here, everything was a hazy and depressing brown or a sort of sickly, pale-mustard yellow, as if the air itself was filthy and continually blanketing everything in a thick, nasty grime that robbed even the plantlife of any discernable colour. We did not encounter much in the way of fauna either, though we heard plenty of it. There were little birds of the piping and scampering sort fluttering and twittering in the reeds (which were many and quite large). I saw more than a few sizable toads along the way as well as a goodly number of ugly looking bog-slugs. Numerous were the clouds of flies and other insects that congregated in massive groups here and there, but for whatever reason none of them seemed to be of the biting sort, for which I was very grateful. Our discomfort was still guaranteed, however, by the heat of the season: despite the murk hanging over the land, the summer Sun was steaming the waters of the fens which had us all drenched with sweat while we struggled on through the stagnant, sweltering pools.

Night had already come by the time we finally reached Lhan Rhos; we could see the glow of several fires and many torches as we approached. Ancthas explained to us the town was built mostly on wooden piers which ran from one parcel of solid land to another, and it was upon these that his people built their primitive huts. We found his description to be quite accurate once we arrived, and I also noted the place was a more populous village than I had expected to find there in the middle of a swamp. Ancthas assured me, however, that what I saw was only a tithe of his kin as most of them had been lost, first to the invading Orcs and then to the mysterious plague which had followed swiftly after.

Our arrival was greeted at first with suspicion and dismay, but then the people saw we traveled with Ancthas, and that seemed to allay their concerns. We were quickly introduced to the village elders, who appeared to welcome us once it was explained that we intended to assist them in their battle against the abominations which occupied Lhan Colvarn. I'm afraid I can't provide much in the way of dialogue for you, Dear Reader, because almost all of the proceedings were done in the natives' tongue. Besides, I was so tired from the day's exertions that I kept nearly falling asleep while standing there, trying to pay attention to everything being said. I have no doubt I would have collapsed and slept soundly in a wink had it not been for Nephyn, who kept one hand on my shoulder and shook me firmly every time I started to nod.

Once all of the niceties had been fulfilled, we were led away to wash. I wondered how in the world we were supposed to get ourselves clean when we were standing in the middle of a bog, and then I began to puzzle over just what it was these people used for drinking. Surely they didn't dip their mugs and vessels directly into the swamp? But it turned out they drew their water from wells which were dug deep into the earth, and the supply which came from them was about as clean as one might expect to find in more civilised places.

After we washed, we were led back to the elders where we joined them for a meal, which served to keep me awake a little longer. I wouldn't call it a feast and neither did they (so far as I could tell), but it was hot and well-made, and it was certainly better fare than I had become accustomed to on the open road. Many words were spoken, most of which concerned us, our purpose in their land, and the ongoing skirmishes with the abominations to the north-west. When it was mentioned that we were trying to find Edgerin, the elders became silent and seemed to regard us with a new sense of respect, which I found very curious. After the meal was over and we had been shown to the area of the village where we were obviously expected to spend the night, I asked Ancthas what it was about Edgerin's name that appeared to command such reverence among the Dunlendings.

"Edgerin is not a Dunlending himself -- he is a duvadiad, like you," the Man replied. "We do not know from what country he hails, but he is favoured by the Huntsman."

"The Huntsman?" asked Nephyn. "Who is he?" I saw Lagodir shake his head mockingly out of the corner of my eye, but no one else seemed to notice and I decided to say nothing about it.

"The Huntsman is worshiped by all the clans," Ancthas said. "He commands the gwirod, and is the Guardian of our folk, both those here today and those gone before. Few alive now still remember when Edgerin first came to Dunland, but ever since then he has been traveling to the far corners of this country aiding all the tribes with whatever struggles afflict them: war, pestilence, famine, or drought. He has aided us in so many ways -- from finding clean water to preserving meats to the best way to water our crops and aid in the harvest -- that all hold him blessed by the Huntsman. That you know him speaks well of you. I myself have been something of a student of Edgerin's for about a year now, and I can say with certainty that he is a very unique Man who wishes our people well, which is itself more than be said of most other folk."

"And you say he is near here?" Gaelira asked him.

"He is -- very," Ancthas replied. "He used to spend a good deal of his time away in the Gravenwood, but ever since the abominations appeared in Lhan Colvarn he has been here in the Dunbog helping us deal with them. Tomorrow we shall go and see that danger against which all of us, including Edgerin, currently labour. So shall you fulfill your promise to me. Once that is done, I will keep my word and lead you to him."

"So be it," said Minasse. "The manner in which you continually describe these 'abominations' tickles my curiosity -- I will be surprised, however, if they are truly as fearsome as you make them out to be, but I rather hope they are. It would be a pleasant surprise for me to see something new under this Sun." I was afraid Ancthas might take offense at the High Elf's dismissive attitude toward that which the Dunleding obviously considered to be a dire threat, but the Man only nodded his head slightly and took his leave.

Our Company quickly settled down for the night, much to my relief. Despite my tiredness, however, I found myself unable to go to sleep straightaway: I kept pondering just what manner of terror awaited us in Lhan Colvarn tomorrow, and that caused me to have very unpleasant dreams.

Hevensday, 10th of Wedmath, Year 1417 Shire-reckoning
Near Lhan Colvarn, Somewhere in the Dunbog

We were all up at the crack of dawn. I vaguely felt somewhere within myself that I really could do with a few more hours' rest, but at the same time my nerves were so on-edge at the prospect of seeing Lhan Colvarn that I was wide awake. The rest of my companions were equally alert and stoic -- it was as if we all knew instinctively that today would be a fateful day.

The elders (along with most of the village, as it happened) had turned out to see us off. Some words were spoken, but Ancthas was clearly eager to get going, and so we did before much more time had passed. As we struck out in a north-westerly direction, I looked back at the sad village of Lhan Rhos. Its inhabitants were lined up on the edge of town, watching us with mournful glances, almost as if they expected to never see us again. Yet there was something else about those people which made me uneasy, and my stomach twisted into a knot when I realized what it was. They were almost entirely women and children: among the dozens which stood there watching us, only a handful were males, and all of these were either elderly, sick, or maimed. I swallowed hard, turned my face toward my companions, and trudged on behind them.

The growing light of day gradually brought the rest of the swamp to life: the birds began their trills and the frogs started to croak. The hazy murk, which seemed to hang over the Dunbog night and day like a shroud, became a sort of golden, blurry smoke which gave the land a rather ethereal appearance. As we fought our way through the fens and the Sun rose toward noon, that cloud did lift a bit, though it did not vanish and the stifling heat of the day before returned. Very soon we were all hot and miserable again, and I still count that as one of the least pleasant times among all my months with the Company.

It might have been roughly half past the first hour after noon when we came upon an interesting sight. There, stretched for more than a mile across the soggy ground of the Dunbog, was a sturdy stockade fence. It was manned in many places by Dunlendings of all sizes and every one was armed: some with clubs, some with spears, and all of them had hunting bows. At first I feared they were positioned to oppose us, but then I saw through the reek that we were, in fact, approaching them from the rear. The fence had been recently constructed and was meant as a bulwark against incursion from the north-west -- from the direction of Lhan Colvarn.

Ancthas was quickly among these Men and speaking with them excitedly. Although I was unable to follow their speech, it was clear Ancthas was know to these people and even respected by them. By observing signs and gestures, I gathered our new friend was explaining to his troops that he intended to advance with us up to Lhan Colvarn itself. The Dunlendings grew quiet when this was told to them, but they seemed to regard us with a certain measure of awe. It was not too much longer before Ancthas was leading the six of us through the swamp again. Very soon, however, the land became less swampy while also rising a little. A short time later we were beneath a canopy of oak trees and the bog was safely behind us, but the orange haze remained over the land.

"Lhan Colvarn is not far now, and I would advise you all to cover your faces to avoid breathing the air." said Ancthas softly, "We do not yet know the source of the plague which infested our former home, so we should take all precautions. Also, the abominations have been seen in these parts. We will go quietly and warily -- stay close to me."

We masked ourselves with spare rags and followed the Dunlending Man as he flitted from one tree-trunk to the next, always continuing on his north-westerly track. My heart began pounding audibly the further on we went, always expecting some vile monstrosity to leap out at us from the undergrowth. The forest was, however, uncannily silent. We saw a few rats (some of these were quite large) and very many swarms of insects, but nothing out of the ordinary. Suddenly, Ancthas signaled for us to halt. We froze and held our breath. Slowly and stealthily, he led us around the bole of a particularly large tree, and there we saw a loathsome sight.

Two misshapen figures were hunched over a third, which lay on the ground between them. They were tearing savagely at the fallen shape, but it was hard to see clearly through the murk, so none of us could make out what it was we beheld at that time. We could hear their gruntings and half-formed speech, but it sounded to me like nothing I had ever heard before out of Man or beast.

I had turned my head toward Gaelira and was just about to ask her what she thought the figures were when the ring of steel sounded in my ear: Ancthas had drawn his sword and cried a Dunlending battle-shout as he raced toward the two shapes. The monsters charged wildly and swung their arms at him, but Ancthas fended them off with his shield. The thwick of Nephyn's bow sounded behind me and I saw her shaft pierce the left shoulder of one of the two figures, but it seemed to have no impact on it aside from the force of the blow itself. Then I noticed that, despite being wounded by several of Ancthas's sword-thrusts, the two creatures appeared unharmed: they fought as ferociously as ever! The next thing I knew, both Lagodir and Drodie had entered the fray. The beasts, whatever they were, were unarmed and fought only with fist and claw, and so were outmatched. Lagodir lopped the head off of one while Drodie and Ancthas systematically dismembered the second: first the arms, then one leg, and finally the head itself came off before the thing crumpled to the ground at last. Gaelira, Nephyn, Minasse, and I joined our friends amid the two corpses while praising their prowess-at-arms.

"Those were mighty strokes, friends," said Nephyn, "And all the more so since my darts seemed to make no difference to them. Perhaps my aim is off due to this cloudy atmosphere."

"No, you aimed well, huntress," said Ancthas as he cleaned his blade in the grass. "It is a thing we have observed concerning the abominations: they do not seem to feel pain. It was not always thus -- when first we encountered them they did not behave this way, but over time they developed this characteristic. They progressively became more deformed as well, until they ended up even as you see them now."

"But what are they?" I asked in revulsion. By then we could see what the third shape was the other two had been bending over: it was a boar, but it had been beaten and torn to pieces, apparently for its meat, which had been eaten raw.

"They are Orcs," said Ancthas. "Or were."

He used his sword to turn one of them over and I got my first good look at the creatures. They were indeed Orcs, but they have been covered in so many growths, cancers, and lesions that one had to look hard to identify their origins. Yet there were the glaring eyes, the yellow fangs, and the bowed legs of Orc-kind... but everything was deformed, even for Orcs, grotesque and mutated. Great bulging boils and creeping scabs covered almost every inch of their bodies and in some places the flesh seemed to be slowly melting away. I felt sick.

"They look like Orcs, if you can see past all of this... whatever it is," said Nephyn. "But if they no longer feel pain, do they also not fear the Sun? That would be most unusual for Orcs, yet we encountered these in broad daylight."

"Yes," Ancthas answered her, "They have slowly lost their fear of the light the more the plague took them. The three things may be related, but we do not yet know the cause. So? Where are your jokes now, Gondorian?" Lagodir looked down at the monstrosity, but he did not speak. Minasse, meanwhile, bent low to more closely examine the fallen form.

"How interesting," he said in a clinical voice. "They must have been exposed so some form of corruption. But what? And why? I suppose we would assume whatever happened to them was not meant to happen. I can think of no reason such a thing would be done deliberately."

"Our thoughts align, Elf," said Ancthas, "But we who have fought them long are no nearer to an answer than you who have beheld them today for the first time. Come, I would show you Lhan Colvarn itself; perhaps you will have some ideas on how we could dislodge the abominations from our homes."

"Are you certain you would want to?" asked Gaelira. "Would that not be dangerous, if you are uncertain as to how the Orcs came to be this way?"

"You misunderstand me," said Ancthas. "We will never return to Lhan Colvarn, but we wish to exterminate these creatures and take our vengeance for the death they brought upon us. Before the plague befell them, the Orcs murdered many of our kin and drove us from our houses. We would have justice done upon the invaders, but we hold no delusions of ever walking those streets again."

We crept along warily, all the way to the very gates of Lhan Colvarn. It was a simple village, no different than the several other Dunlending settlements we had seen throughout the region, but it was deathly quiet: only a few faint whisperings and rustlings reached my ears as we peered through the outer palisade walls.

"I see no movement within," said Ancthas quietly. "I wonder what that might mean; in the past there were always many -- Wait here!" Without any explanation, he rushed headlong into the town! My friends and I remained just outside, watching intently. We saw Ancthas run stealthily to a low hut near the entrance where he stooped as if to examine some bundle of oddments on the ground. Suddenly I realized it was another person and, almost without realizing it, the six of us moved to join him inside Lhan Colvarn.

"Haizah!" We heard Ancthas cry, his voice wrung with sorrow. "What have they done to you?!"

It was a Man, and he was alive... or at least he still had his breath. But he was so twisted and misshapen like the Orcs we had seen earlier that my heart was wracked with pity for him. Like the Orcs, his skin was mangled and bleeding with hideous pustules and gaping sores oozing everywhere. His face was half eaten by the plague, and his mouth and throat had become so deformed that, try as he might, he could not communicate with us. Ancthas wept beside him, but he would not touch Haizah, nor hold his hand.

"I will avenge you, my friend," he whispered, "I swear it."

Haizah could only make some guttural, choking sound in answer. Then, as if the Man's final living wish had been passed on to another, he promptly breathed his last. We hung our heads and Ancthas' tears fell heavily to the ground, but Minasse took him by the arm and brought him to his feet.

"Come, friend," he said, "Your duty calls you, and this place is not safe."

"I cannot leave, not yet," Ancthas said thickly. "There were others -- others I knew, others who may still live. I must search for them." Without waiting for another word he was off, darting from one pile of refuse to another in search of his kin.

I sighed heavily and looked around. The very air seemed thick with pestilence, but I felt nothing wrong in myself. The huts and houses all looked ordinary enough, except that they were all empty and abandoned as if in a hurry. One or two homes had been burned down, but in truth the place bore few marks of the Orkish invasion Ancthas had described. It was a truly surreal scene, and I was eager to leave it.

Suddenly we heard a great shout and the clash of battle! We ran up the street to find Ancthas engaged with a half dozen of the mutated Orcs. Our weapons rang in challenge as we charged into the fray. As before, the abominations were unarmed and not difficult adversaries, but their visage was so ghastly that it took an effort of will just to oppose them. Once again they showed no signs of pain as we cut and hacked them down one by one. More came. Our blades danced in the afternoon Sun beneath the gloomy boughs of the reddened oak leaves. And more came. Each new wave was more hideous than the one before it, and I began to wonder if we would die there, buried beneath a gruesome pile of deformed corpses, but all at once the onslaught ended, and the silence returned. We were very tired, but thankfully none of us were injured. We had felled some two dozen of their number, and the stink of the dead was beginning to rise.

"Your desire to find your kinfolk is admirable, Dunlending," said Lagodir, speaking for the first time that day, "But perhaps it would be wiser to --"

"Ancthas?" came a voice from somewhere up the street. "Ancthas, is that you?"

"Rhoshek!" Ancthas shouted in answer, apparently recognizing the speaker. "Rhoshek, my brother! Where are you? Tell me what happened!"

We hurried forward together and found the new survivor. This one, too, was clearly suffering from the effects of the terrible plague, but his case was not as severe -- at least not yet.

"Ancthas!" Rhoshek said as we approached. "Can it be? What madness brought you here? Leave! Leave now if you have any sense and value your life!" At this, Rhoshek shook with a violent fit of coughing, and blood flew from his lips.

"Not until you tell me what has become of you -- of everyone," Ancthas insisted. "Speak, or here I shall remain forever."

"Very well, brother," Rhoshek nodded. "I have little enough time as it is. "It was Saruman! The Orcs bore the mark of the White Hand and spoke the name Sharku. Who else could they mean but the white wizard? They must have brought some poison with them. So much death... so much pain..."

"Come with me, Rhoshek! I will bring you to Lhan Rhos and perhaps the shaman can find some cure. Or let me take you to Edgerin! He is near and would surely aid you, if anyone can." But Rhoshek shook his head.

"My time is nearly ended, Ancthas," he said. "Nor will I risk spreading this pestilence to any other, most especially you. No, I would die here, in my home and among my people, for die I must. But you! You must bring destruction to the White Hand. Swear this to me!"

"I swear I will see the White Hand thrown down," Ancthas replied. "Dear brother -- you fought bravely when they came, and I know you will rest well. Forgive me: I dare not stay longer lest more abominations find me here." Rhoshek nodded at him, then reached out his hand in token of farewell.

"Remember me as I was, brother, before this," he said. "And please -- I never had the courage: tell Idwal I love her." Ancthas nodded, then turned away. We followed him at a short distance. I saw only his back, but I almost felt as if I could see Ancthas's rage and grief swirling around him like a cloud. My heart was pounding and my breath was short -- it felt as if the Man might break like a dam at any moment and his fury would come pouring forth.

We walked quickly out of Lhan Colvarn before turning south. After about a mile or two, we suddenly stopped at the base of a large oak, though no one had given a command or asked for a halt. Ancthas knelt at the trunk and bowed his head. His sobs were deep and heart-wrenching, and our Company mourned with him, though we were unable to assuage his misery.

A short time later, Ancthas stood again and turned to face us. His eyes were red from weeping, but his voice was steady.

"You have fulfilled your part of the bargain," he said. "Now I shall fulfill mine. I will lead you to Edgerin as I said I would. This deed shall be my last before I devote the remainder of my life to taking vengeance for Rhoshek and my kin. Come, we go at once." None of us spoke, but we immediately obeyed his command.

We marched in total silence. Ancthas led us south-westward until we came to a rushing river, then he turned south and kept it on our right. The Sun sank behind the hills and evening softened the light, but still we marched on. It must have been after eight o'clock and getting dark when the Dunlending stopped us and pointed to the far shore of the water.

"Here we cross," he said. "You should take care as the current is quite strong." I blinked.

"The five of us can manage to ford," said Nephyn, "But I fear our Halfling may require some assistance." Without a word, Ancthas began searching among the river-reeds and returned when he had found what he sought: a large piece of solid drift-wood, roughly the same size as myself. Using it as a balance in the water, I was able to bob alongside Nephyn while holding her hand and so come to the other side without too much difficulty. There was a spot of bother just at the end, though, when I stupidly let go of her thinking I would have an easier time of clambering up the bank under my own power, but the current caught my drift-wood (which I was, just as stupidly, still clutching with white knuckles) and spun me off a good ways downstream. The others managed to run ahead and intercept me before I had gone more than a half-mile, and so that crisis was averted, but I was also very water-logged, bruised, and unhappy.

We decided it would be best to camp for the night after that ordeal. Drodie got a splendid fire going and I was dry again before too long. We had a hot meal too, which certainly raised my spirits, but there was always the threat of another attack by the abominations, the very memory of which was disquieting. We posted two at the watch per shift, but nothing ever showed itself within the ring of our firelight. Ancthas and Nephyn had taken the first watch while the rest of us attended to various duties. Drodie was gathering spare wood for the fire, Gaelira and Minasse were in council together (which was becoming more common of late), I was working on my journal, and Lagodir was off a little ways from the rest of us caring for his weapons and armour. I was in the middle of trying to draw a resemblance of one of the abominations for this entry when I suddenly emitted a terrific sneeze.

"I hope this doesn't mean you'll be catching cold," said Nephyn. "Mark my words, Padryc, we are going to make a waterman out of you yet!"

"Water-hobbit," I corrected her, "Of which there's been precisely none since the Dawn of Time and you, my dear Neph, are not about to change that so you might as well stop trying."

"Swimming seems like a very good skill for an adventurer to have," she said. "It would have served you well multiple times on our travels together, today not least."

"I would have no need of such a skill if you lot would stop leading me into bodies of water," I retorted. "Speaking of which, where are we, exactly? And where are we going?"

"The Pristine Glade," came Ancthas's reply. "It is not far -- we should come there before noon tomorrow."

"And Edgerin is there?" I asked.

"I believe so, yes," he said. "Whatever business you have with him is your affair, but I must tell him about the words of Rhoshek. He must know that the White Wizard is behind this corruption."

"He would be rash indeed who leaped to such a conclusion," said Gaelira and she and Minasse approached.

"Why?" Ancthas shot back.

"He is held great among the Wise -- an ally to all those who oppose evil."

"And? I care not for such things. Have not others, mightier than he, turned to dark paths before now? I will trust the words of my fallen kin over the murmurings of Outsiders." I heard Lagodir forcefully put down his work, but he did not speak.

"We only mean it would be prudent to gather proof of your suspicions," said Minasse diplomatically. "The better to rally allies to the cause of avenging your people -- I am sure your Edgerin would agree." This brought no response from the Dunlending.

"Let us set aside any words of blame this night," said Gaelira softly. "Today Ancthas witnessed a great suffering which befell those he loved. I know how terrible a sorrow it is to helplessly witness your kin falling prey to such a scourge, my friend, and we share in your grief."

"Thank you," Ancthas replied. "The White Hand have committed a crime that our people will never forgive. I will keep my word to Rhoshek: justice shall be done upon them and whatever masters they serve."

"And who is Idwal?" I asked. "Perhaps we can help you fulfill that part of your promise if we happen to be traveling near wherever she lives. It was Rhoshek's dying wish that she be told of his love for her."

"I will not keep that promise," said Ancthas. "Idwal survived the invasion and escaped to Lhan Rhos, but there she died from the plague more than three months ago. Rhoshek never knew."

There was no more conversation that night. The fire crackled merrily in our midst, but everyone's eyes were turned outward, toward the blackness, each absorbed in their own thoughts. I wondered what sorts of revelations might await us in the morning when we finally reached the mysterious Edgerin, deep in the wild country of Dunland. I slowly fell asleep while listening to an owl calmly singing his nightly tune, as if in mockery of us and our troubles.