Monday, December 11, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 44

The Northern Road Vanishes

Monday, 20th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Imlad Balchorth, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The Barrows of Imlad Balchorth
There haven't been too many times over the course of my adventures with this Company that I recall feeling quite so wretched as right now: here I am, soaked to the marrow and afraid of every little noise or flitting shadow I see! Not too many people can say they have spent the night in an evil graveyard, and I hope I live to tell the tale myself. There is no possibility of me getting any sleep tonight, so I will try to occupy my thoughts by telling you, Dear Reader, what transpired today and how we ended up in this hideous place.

Like any good band of adventurers, we were up with the Sun this morning. Actually, if we were up with the Sun I probably would have welcomed it. To be more exact, we were once again up well before the Sun; a practice which is really beginning to work on my nerves.

"Must we always be up so blasted early?" I moaned as Nephyn tried to roll me out of my blankets. With one eye I could see the others were all gathered around me and breakfasting, but even the sight of food (there was no smell for the meal was to be yet another cold one) wasn't enough to rouse me today. Despite my drowsiness, I could see that Guard-captain Gisur, leader of the Dwarves of Gabilshathur, was also nearby.

"Mustn't sleep forever," said Gaelira shortly as she strode past to converse with Gisur.

"I didn't say anything about forever," I called after her, "Just longer. Someone make sure Drodie doesn't eat my share of the muffins."

"The early bird gets the worm," said Drodie with a smile as he triumphantly hoisted a bilberry muffin from out of my pack. But I was too fast for him: quick as a thought I had rolled over, rose to my knees, and snapped the muffin out of his hands just as his teeth clamped down on nothing. The Dwarf stared at his empty fingers in confusion.

"Mine!" I laughed. "Like as not you've already had more than your share. And what manner of odd, Dwarvish proverb is this about worms? You won't find hobbits eating worms, no matter how short we might be on provender."

"Maybe, and maybe not," Drodie replied with a wink as he rummaged through my pack for another morsel. "Personally, I wouldn't put it beyond a hobbit to try... if the supplies ran low enough."

"In any case, I think it's fair to say you hobbits do eat like birds," Nephyn said with a smirk.

"What nonsense!" I cried through a mouthful of muffin. "Hobbits eating worms and flies and things out of holes? The very idea!"

"I believe it is an expression not meant to be taken literally," said Lagodir from off to one side where he was examining the edge of his new longsword.

"Well, that's just... wait..." I paused. "Do you mean about me being a bird or that bit about getting the worm?"

"I thought he meant what I said about hobbits eating like birds," suggested Nephyn.

"Actually, it applies to all three," answered Lagodir. I threw up my arms in exasperation.

"Oh, hang it all!" I cried. "Quit trying to confuse me before I've had breakfast. Marching and fighting are quite taxing enough without all of this mental exertion. Leave me in peace!" The others laughed and let me get my fill of muffins and dried fruit.

I wasn't afforded much time to do this, but I used those few moments to examine my surroundings a bit further in the dim light of foredawn. Life around the Dwarf-colony of Gabilshathur had returned to normal since our Company had managed to resolve the mystery of the garrison's missing gemstones yesterday: I heard bellows hissing, forges working, hammers clanking, and all manner of coming and going. But even with all of this activity the sounds were muted, as if everyone wished to keep from being heard and discovered. Considering the proximity of the nearby orc-camp my friends and I already had to avoid twice in two days, this was no doubt a sound policy (Pun intended!).

To make a long story short, Gaelira was insisting that we get an early start to make up for the time we had lost dealing with the cave-claws yesterday. Gisur and his Dwarves did, of course, beg our pardons many times for the delay and gave us anything and everything from their stores that we could possibly bear on our backs. I also noticed Drodie was sporting a new set of Dwarf-armour and a stout, one-handed axe which his kinsmen had bestowed upon him. The armour was a combination of both steel plate and ringmail while the axe was a thing of beauty: the blade was wide and gleaming with a single large ruby set into the cheek just forward of the shoulder, while the eye was tipped with a wicked-looking spike.

I don't think I ever mentioned it in this journal before, but the truth is I had wondered more than once why it was Drodie had always carried a sword (so long as I had known him, at least) when his kind is famous for their preference of the axe. Today I learned that many (albeit hardly most) Dwarves do actually prefer the sword, although this was not true of Drodie himself. He does indeed prefer the axe, but apparently a Dwarf can and will be judged by his peers based on the quality of axe he wields, and since Drodie had no access to such a weapon nor a smith of appropriate skill until today, he would not carry an axe at all but instead bore a sword. I'm always fascinated to learn these little curiosities about Dwarven culture, but the important thing is to know that we departed Gabilshathur very well provisioned indeed. This proved fortuitous for us, for reasons you shall soon see.

In the meantime, Gisur was not able to help guide our road any more than a furlong or two northward, for he and his Dwarves had never gone so far themselves due to the presence of two more orc-camps in addition to the one we had already seen to the east. One lay to the northeast while the other was a bit further north and a tad to the west, and so our road appeared to lie between them both.

"You should be able to pass betwixt their bivouacs," Gisur told us as we made our way to the edge of his garrison. "If you are cautious. But the greater danger may lie beyond the Orcs: my Dwarves have reported that the road passes over a bridge of wooden planks and then forks, with one path heading northeast and the other northwest. Whatever you do, avoid the northwesterly path! Bear right, if you possibly can."

"What lies on the left-hand way?" asked Nephyn.

"I am not certain," came Gisur's answer in a low voice, so as not to be overheard by the other Dwarves near at hand. "But a mining party of my folk once beheld that road: it plunges down into a dark valley through a cold arch of stone and a deadly fear flows up from it like a vapour, they said. One of that team, Arngrim was his name, succumbed to some evil fit, claiming great treasure could be found down that way. The others tried to stop him but he would not listen -- he passed through the accursed gate and never returned."

We agreed to take the more easterly road when we reached that place. After a few more exchanges with both Gisur and Braigiar the Ranger, we departed Gabilshathur and returned to the inhospitable swamp of Malenhad. Distant rays of orange glow were only just beginning to reveal themselves against the sharp-peaked mountains to the east of us (on our right) as we moved northward. It wasn't long before I became bored of avoiding crags, dodging steam vents, and bypassing sulfur pools. Besides, what little conversation there was amongst us was usually regarding that Wenhair Woman and whatever vile allies she might be dredging out from her homeland, and I was in no mood to be stuck thinking about that as we picked our way through Malenhad.

"The sooner we're out of this filthy bog the happier I'll be," I grumbled. "Come on you lot: we've heard funny stories from me and Lagodir (well, as funny as Lagodir was able to manage, anyway). And we know Drodie only allows himself a handful of words per day which isn't enough for story-telling. What about you, Nephyn?"

"What about me?" the huntress asked with a smile. "What would you like to hear?"

"Something entertaining!" I replied. "Anything to get our minds off this dull trek we're on now."

"Hm," she said and stared ahead for a short time. "Entertaining? How about this, then: when I was a little girl of about nine summers, I suddenly developed a bit of a stubborn streak."

"You don't say?" I cut in sarcastically. The others snickered.

"Now who's interrupting?" asked Nephyn with a chuckle. "Anyway, I had been Saerdan's pupil for just over a year at that time, and I'm not too proud to say that I overreached somewhat. I thought I was ready for bigger and more noteworthy game than my mentor was allowing me to hunt, whether on my own or with him. I expressed my wishes to accept a greater challenge, but Saerdan would not hear of it. And so, one day I filled my pack with as many supplies as I could fit inside it and set out before dawn without telling anyone. I headed to the northeast, as there had been rumours swirling about the Pony for a while that some great beast was stalking the farms and forests up that way."

"Oh my!" I exclaimed.

"I spent almost two days wandering, searching the ground, and tracking my foe, but finally I found it right on the border of the Bree-lands. It looked like a huge monster to me, but of course you must remember I was only nine at the time. I know now it was nothing more than a common worm, and not even a very large one at that."

"A worm in the Bree-land?" I asked. "Dear me! I've never heard of such a thing."

"Nor had I -- neither before nor since," Nephyn went on. "Yet there it was, and there I was with my little bow of ash-wood and my tiny hunting-knife. I won't deny I was more than a bit scared."

"Goodness gracious!" I interjected.

"Had I been wiser I would have turned around and gone home, but I was determined to prove my worth to Seardan," Nephyn went on. "I was able to get above it by quietly climbing a tree while the worm basked itself in the afternoon Sun. Hardly daring to breathe, I strung an arrow and let fly! The beast was rudely awakened by the loss of an eye."

"Oh!" I cried. "How gruesome!"

"Stop interrupting!" Gaelira, Drodie, and Lagodir all chastised me at once.

"Sorry!" I whispered.

"Well, the worm found me and threw itself against the tree with all of its weight, which knocked me to the ground. Before I knew what was happening the animal was astride me, tearing at my face with claws and teeth! I squirmed and tried to defend myself with my knife, but I knew in my heart I was going to die that day."

"What happened?" asked Gaelira, interrupting in her own turn. I wore a smug expression of triumph for a moment.

"The worm suddenly reared back with a roar of pain. Saerdan had found me and sent a shaft into the beast's ribs. I had the presence of mind to stab its heart out with my little knife, and so I was saved. I was a bloody mess by then and of course I was crying. Saerdan carried me home and tended my wounds. I was terrified he was going to disown me, but he never mentioned that day again. Once I had recovered, we did eventually start hunting larger game together. There! That's my story of why I hate worms and also from whence I got my lovely scar."

"Scar?" I asked. I had never noticed it before but, upon close inspection, I could see there was a faint scar running from just above her right ear down to the top of the right cheek."Well! We learn something new about our dear huntress. You're lucky to have received that when you were still so young."

"Yes, it is mostly faded by now, thankfully," she said. "Still, it serves as a good reminder to never think too highly of myself. Was my story entertaining enough for you?"

"It wasn't exactly the kind of thing I had in mind, but I won't deny I was entertained," I replied. "Surely I can't be the only person in this Company with a trove of tales which involve nothing more dangerous than birthday presents and liberal excesses of beer?"

"Ha! I do have a few stories of that sort, having grown up in a pub," Nephyn laughed. "Next time I will try to think of something more light-hearted for you."

"I will hold you to that, Nephyn," I said. "And now for you, Gaelira! Tell us a story about when you were an Elfling." Gaelira was intently watching the landscape (for we were drawing nearer to those two orc-camps I had told you about earlier) and she didn't seem much interested in story-telling at that moment. And yet, after the briefest of pauses, she proceeded to speak while still keeping her eyes trained on the space before her.

"Nephyn's account of herself brings this tale to mind," she began, "It was quite some time ago: I was working at the Grey Havens on a vessel alongside Cirdan the Shipwright. I trust you all know the name?" We were all familiar with Cirdan, even me. If you are not, then I will have to direct you to someone who knows more than I and has some time on their hands -- Cirdan is a name with a long and fascinating history behind it.

"I was tasked with setting the lines and sails. In my youth, I greatly desired to show my elders that I knew the craft," she continued. "I believe I was about thirteen at the time and I thought I knew what I was doing,"

"Thirteen years old?" I queried. "That must have been a very long time ago indeed!"

"No, thirteen hundred," the she-Elf corrected me. "But still so long ago I couldn't tell you what Year of the Sun that it was. In any case, I was going about my business, quite proud of myself, but I became over-confident and careless. When I pulled a halyard to set the lower sails, a rope caught Cirdan's ankle and whisked him overboard."

"Good heavens!" I cried.

"Hush!" Gaelira admonished me. "We are now near enough to the Orcs that such outbursts might be heard." I clammed up straightaway.

"Of course, I dove in after him immediately," she went on after a brief silence, her eyes still fixed on the horizon. "Cirdan did not need my help, naturally, for there is no finer mariner this side of the Great Sea. I wasn't permitted to set lines for some time after that, so I busied myself in the study of lore instead. I think Cirdan probably laughed about the whole episode, although never to me."

I pondered for a moment whether Gaelira had always intended to be a sailor instead of what she was now, but at that point the rest of us could plainly see the two orc-camps for ourselves, and all idle chatter ceased. We passed one amidst the rocks on our right (to the east) while the second loomed over us atop a ridge just ahead and a bit to our left. It was suspenseful work, but we managed to slink our way from one large steam vent or crater to the next and avoid being spotted by any sentries. Once beyond the two camps we hugged the cliffs to the east closely as we searched for the road which would mark the next stage of our journey.

Not long after this we came upon a broad wooden bridge which spanned a deep gorge. Although it was only the early afternoon, none of us could see the bottom, for dark clouds were beginning to gather overhead. We all became concerned that a sizeable storm was assembling and none of us wanted to be caught in it. The beams thunked ominously as we quickly traversed the bridge, and I wondered how far the sound might carry, but no one hindered our crossing. As soon as we were on the far side we began trying to find the fork in the road which Gisur had told us about, for we were determined to take the rightmost path as he had urged us to do. None of us said anything, but we remembered that Mallacai had also warned us about the place called Imlad Balchorth, and we all feared that it was now quite close.

Our progress slowed. The light became dimmer and dimmer from the storm-clouds despite it being only the third hour from noon. Thunder began to peal in great, tremulous roils and then a slow rain started to fall. To make matters even worse, a thick fog began to descend on us, probably from the cold rain mixing with the hot vapours of Malenhad. I jammed my hat down on my head in an attempt to keep the water from trickling into my ears, but of course it didn't work.

"Bother this infernal weather!" I griped, "Where is that blasted fork in the road? Surely we ought to have found it by now?"

"Should we double back and check to be sure we didn't miss it?" asked Nephyn doubtfully.

"We are still headed northward," came Lagodir's voice from behind me. "If we had come upon it we would have been forced to go one way or the other, but we have seen no crossing of paths as yet."

"Yes," agreed Gaelira from ahead. "Let us continue forward while we search the ground."

We went on. The fog grew thicker and swirled around our feet to the point I could no longer even see mine, and my toes became numb with the cold. Looking about me, I could see steep cliffs rising on either side, but their heights were lost in the mists overhead, and by now the darkness was becoming very black indeed -- as though night had fallen -- despite the fact there had been no sunset. Suddenly, with a shock, I realized the path we were on was on a steady downward slope. My heart pounded. I looked everywhere, expecting to see the massive stone gate Gisur had described which led into the valley of fear, but there was no sign of it.

What we all saw instead was the wall. It appeared in front of us out of the fog so suddenly it was as if it had been placed there by a giant's hand. It was a huge, stone cliff: utterly final and impassable. The five of us stopped dead in our tracks and looked around, but the mists defeated even Gaelira's Elf-eyes.

"Now what?" I asked miserably. "I don't recall anyone saying anything about there being a massive cliff in the way. Do you suppose we managed to take the wrong path after all?"

"I do not see how," came Gaelira's answer, but she was clearly troubled and frowned at the sheer stone face directly in front of her.

"How could we have missed it?" asked Drodie. "We were all looking for a more easterly way and none of us saw one. Nor has there been any sign of the stone-gate Gisur mentioned."

"Should we go around?" asked Lagodir. We peered into the gloom, but none of us were able to see the edges of the cliff or which direction might be shortest.

"Whatever we do, we must not get separated," said Gaelira. "Drodie, since we find ourselves amidst the bones of the earth, I would have you choose: shall we try to pass this wall on the left or the right?"

Drodie chose the right, since that was the direction we had been instructed to take. However, after only a short distance we found that way was hopeless, for the ground ran quickly up into sheer hills that could not be climbed. We were forced to turn around, keeping the smooth stone wall on our right hand, and try to find a way forward by going to the west. It wasn't much longer after that when the light began to fail in earnest as the Sun left the sky.

I started hearing mournful howls and faint rushing sounds from somewhere out there in the blackness. It was nearly pitch dark, and in fact the only thing my eyes could tell me was that we were in a valley, for the sky overhead, choked as it was with dark and boiling rainclouds, was still a shade or two lighter than the mountains and cliffsides which surrounded us. If we had been underground it could have scarcely been any darker, and any hope of finding the path backward and out of that valley quickly vanished. Nor could we light any torches, for the rain continued unabated.

Some time later the wall which had stopped our advance finally yielded to our right. We tried to follow its track with our hands, but we began to come upon fetid pools of disgusting and slimy water of an unknown depth, and it seemed we were forced constantly to circumvent them on their western edges. Before long we had lost any sense of where the wall lay, and we found ourselves in what seemed to be a desolate plain full of sickly pools. We kept trying to head north and east whenever we could, but it was a wretched and fearful business in the dark. Every now and then we started to encounter barrows, their hideous maws opening up right across our path. I was reminded at once of the Barrow-downs in Bree-land, except here it was so dark it felt like we were inside a barrow even as we walked outdoors under the sky. We turned away from these places and pressed forward in any other direction we could find. More than once we came upon stone stairs and we would ascend them, eager for anything resembling a clear road, on the hopes it might lead out of that hellish place, but the night wore on and on. And on.

Finally, we came to a halt. The rain was still beating on our heads and shoulders and every one of us was drenched through to the skin. Lagodir shook his cloak and turned to Gaelira.

"We should find shelter," he said. "There is no telling where we have gotten ourselves by now and no hope of doing so until this storm clears and the Sun returns to light our way."

"You are right," the Elf agreed. "We should take cover in the next viable opening we can find."

"You don't mean to hunker down in one of these barrows?" I asked, horrified.

"Only at the absolute end of need," she replied grimly. "But perhaps we might find a cave or at least an overhang first. Something."

"What about this?" It was Drodie, and he was a little ways ahead peering into an open archway.

"We said no barrows!" said Nephyn. "If you want to bed down in a crypt then that is your own business, but I'd sooner spend the night in the mud with the rain as my blanket than pass ten minutes inside one of these graves."

"I do not think this is a gravesite, Nephyn," said Gaelira, who was closely inspecting the archway. "See these hinges? This was once a doorway covered by a wooden door, not a tomb enclosed with stone as a barrow would be. And these markings over the lintel: they are too faded now for me to read them, but they are much more elaborate than the others we have seen thus far."

"Oh, very well," I said. "I'm willing to take the chance: let's go inside."

Once we passed within, we were forced to explore our surroundings entirely by feel for there was absolutely no light. The rain had gotten into all of our stores and caused no end of damage, including to the torches, which would be worthless until they had dried out. We were just about to give up and head back outside into the rain when Gaelira reluctantly told us to wait. We all stopped where we were and listened. There was a short pause, a spark, and then a boom! and the whole place was bathed in firelight. Apparently, Gaelira had found a large empty brazier by touch and used one of her prized fire-bombs to create a short-lived flame. We quickly dried and fed our torches using this fire and then discovered a few more ancient torches were still hanging unlit in stone sconces here and there. At once we began learning more about our campsite.

The space was not enormous, but it was not small either, and it was clearly not a tomb. We discovered multiple chambers and, where I had expected to see skeletons or rotting bodies of the long-dead, we found instead...

"Books?" asked Nephyn in surprise as she passed her torch along a row of shelves which was packed with yellowed and crumbling tomes. "Books and scrolls? Did we just stumble into some kind of library?"

"So it would seem," said Gaelira thoughtfully as she surveyed another set nearby. "But why would anyone store such a collection of knowledge in a place like this?"

"I'm sure I don't know," I said as I gazed darkly about me, "But you won't find me here looking to borrow any recipes for perch fillet, I can tell you that!"

"Still, it is dry and it appears to be free of enemies," said Lagodir cautiously as he prodded into every corner he could find. "It should suit our purposes for the remainder of the night."

"Yes, you should all try to get some rest," said Gaelira, still eyeing the ancient volumes with great interest. "As usual, I will be glad to keep the watch."

We all quietly prepared ourselves to sleep. Supper was cold, for we had no desire to light a proper campfire in that place and only a single torch was kept burning. We spread out our wet things on the stone floor in hopes they would dry overnight, but there was little chance of that since we had no fire. I wrapped myself in my blanket and tried to pretend I was somewhere -- anywhere -- else. After a short while I finally realized I had never made today's journal entry, and so here I sit, huddled in this cold corner, eagerly awaiting the Sun's return. I don't know what it is that has me so frightened as we've not encountered any enemies since entering this valley. But I would feel a lot safer if Gaelira would do her job and watch the entryway instead of constantly casting her eyes back to those strange bookshelves.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 43

Cave-claw Wrangling

Sunday, 19th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Gabilshathur, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The gem-horde of Gabilshathur
It seems our progress toward the heart of Angmar is fated to always be side-tracked and slow. Ah, but perhaps that is just me being pessimistic -- I cannot deny that something good did come of today's little digression. Here's how it happened.

I was shaken into wakefulness this morning, but it wasn't any person doing the shaking. Apparently the swamp of Malenhad, which was still all too near for my liking, has a habit of periodically spewing large plumes of gas high into the air. These eruptions are usually accompanied by a rumbling and a shaking in the earth, which I am here to tell you is most alarming. The rest of the inhabitants of this strange camp paid it no mind -- probably from being used to the phenomenon.

In any case, once I had gotten over my fright at the miniature earthquake which had disturbed my much-needed repose, I found another earthquake of a very different sort was brewing right here in the Dwarf-colony of Gabilshathur. Where just yesterday we had been welcomed heartily by the Dwarves and the Rangers alike, this morning things were completely different. There were sidelong glances, suspicious stares, and snarling lips from every Dwarf in sight. At first I thought these were directed only at me, but soon I realized they were giving the rest of our Company the same treatment. I hustled off to find my friends and learn what might be going on.

What I learned was not encouraging. The rest of Elladan's Outriders were clustered tightly around a small contingent of Rangers well out of the way and to the back of Gabilshathur. I could see Gaelira and the others were deep in serious conversation.

"What nonsense!" I heard Gaelira saying as I approached. "They actually believe we would travel all the way into the wastes of Angmar just to rob them? The very idea is absurd, and our errand cannot afford any further delays."

"I am afraid Guard-captain Gisur will let no one enter or leave this place," a tall Ranger replied. "It is clear you will not be permitted to continue your quest while this mystery remains unsolved."

"Well, whatever happened to the lot, it couldn't have just gotten up and walked off on its own," Drodie said. "Oughtn't we help them clear up the misunderstanding?"

"I do not know if they would trust you with that task, since you yourselves are the chief suspects," the Ranger (who I later learned was named Braigiar) answered. "Unless some appropriate compromise can be made?"

"It seems to me the best thing to do would be to examine the scene of the crime," said Lagodir thoughtfully. "Mayhap we shall learn something that will guide our next steps."

"That, I think, could be arranged," Braigiar said. "I shall go and request this boon of Gisur. Wait here." The tall Man walked briskly off and left us to talk among ourselves for a few moments.

"I say," I chirped as the others turned to greet me. "What exactly is going on? I haven't gotten so many hostile looks since the last time I was spotted talking to an Elf outside of Woodhall. Is everything alright?"

"I wouldn't say so," said Nephyn with a sigh. "Apparently we (and you) are all suspected of stealing a crate of precious gemstones from somewhere within this encampment during the night."

"What?!" I cried. "That's ridiculous! I suppose it explains the glares, but what a load of rot! As if we had nothing better to do than meander into this blasted, forsaken hole just to pinch a few rocks. The nerve!"

"That fairly well sums up my feelings on the matter too," said Gaelira sourly. "Still, we are at the Dwarves' mercy: they will not let us leave until the situation is resolved. I can see how it would be rather suspicious for their property to go missing just hours after we showed up here. That said, I do not think I will ever understand Dwarves and their love for such baubles."

"You did not risk life and limb seeking or mining them," said Drodie in an uncharacteristically even-toned voice. Thankfully, Braigiar returned at that moment.

"I have managed to convince Guard-captain Gisur that you should be shown the store-house from whence the gems were stolen," he said. "Please follow me. Quietly."

We suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a troop of very grim and ill-tempered Dwarves. If you've never been in a similar situation yourself, I can tell you it is not recommended. We were marched to an obscure corner of Gabilshathur and ushered into a small building. It was very cramped and dark, but when the guards lit a few torches (for there were no windows, so it was black as pitch even though it was morning outside), I could see the room was larger than it felt, for it was packed tightly with all manner of boxes, crates, chests, sacks, and other such containers. Everyone's attention was directed to one spot near the back of the room: there I saw a smallish wooden chest with metal bracings which had been broken into and emptied.

"There!" said a battled-scarred Dwarf as he pointed at the chest. "Explain that, thieves! How is it you appear in our camp by evening, and in the morning our most valuable treasures are gone?"

"How did the thief enter the store-room?" asked Lagodir. "Was the door forced open?"

"No," replied another Dwarf (it was Guard-captain Gisur). "The door was locked, for Olmoth, our provisioner, had unlocked it this morning as he prepared to cook breakfast for the garrison."

"If the door was locked, then how could we have gotten in?" Nephyn inquired heatedly.

"You must have stolen the keys off of Olmoth while he slept, taken the gems, re-locked the door, then replaced the keys after the deed was done," came Gisur's response. "Olmoth is getting on in years, after all."

"If they had managed that feat," asked Braigiar calmly, "Then why would they remain here to be discovered?"

"Because they thought themselves too clever to be found out!" said the first Dwarf with a sneer. "But you see we Dwarves are not so easily fooled."

"Oh, poo!" I said, not bothering to contain myself any longer. "If you honestly think we would troop all the way out here only to -- Hullo! What's this?"

Everyone looked as I scrutinized something on the floor. I had noticed that one of the stone tiles a bit off to one side (and partly concealed under a sack of potatoes) was out of alignment with the others. With an effort, I lifted it up and found a earthen tunnel, out of which came a pungent smell.

"Whoo!" I exclaimed as I covered my nose. "What in blazes is that stink?"

"Cave-claws!" cried Gisur. "I should have known! We have encountered large colonies of the vermin near here. There are hardly any decent folk in this land to keep their populations in check. The little beasts can sniff out valuable metals and gemstones from miles off, 'tis said. No doubt they would have been attracted to such a collection as what we had here."

"Well then!" I said as I put the floor tile back down and placed my hands on my hips. "I suppose an apology is in order?" But Gisur only stroked his beard.

"Perhaps this is only a bluff from you lot to distract us," he said, but he winked and I could see he was just teasing. "Personally, I do not believe so, but you must understand there will be no contentment in this camp until the gems are back in our possession. You see, those stones were unearthed only after two of my Dwarves were slain by wild beasts of Angmar, and the loss of the gems is an insult to their memories. Were I to let you go there would almost certainly be a mutiny in Gabilshathur and I am duty-bound to ensure that does not happen. I am not sure how we resolve this dilemma to everyone's satisfaction."

"I've an idea," said Nephyn after a moment. "It so happens we encountered a very large colony of cave-claws a ways east of here before we were forced to turn back and chanced to discover this encampment. The tunnel clearly leads eastward, and it seems likely enough your gem-horde now lies with those animals. If you will allow it, we would gladly recover them for you and your people."

"Your offer is valiant and I do not doubt your intentions," Gisur said slowly, "But there again you speak of me permitting you leave Gabilshathur with your heads intact, and that will not go over well with the garrison. What is to be done?"

"Let us do this," said Lagodir. "Two Dwarves were lost for the sake of the treasure, so two of us will pledge ourselves as weregild in their places. Nephyn and I will remain here as your prisoners while Gaelira, Drodie, and Padryc search for the gems. If they do not return with them in two days' time, you shall do with us what you will -- even if it means our lives must be forfeit." I gulped. Gisur pondered this for a long minute.

"In this way the memories of our fallen comrades would not be dishonoured," he said at last. "I believe I can keep the garrison under control using this arrangement. However, if you three should fail in your task, I hate to think what I will be required to do."

"We will not fail," said Drodie before anyone else had a chance to speak. I couldn't keep myself from sighing (quietly). How could we possibly guarantee that we would find the gems in time?

But there was nothing else for it: Gisur brought us before the other Dwarves and explained his decision. Nephyn and Lagodir surrendered themselves and were led away to be detained. Gaelira, Drodie, and I were escorted to the edge of Gabilshathur and permitted to depart -- much to the disapproval of the inhabitants. Soon we three found ourselves back in the unforgiving landscape of Angmar. We set out at once to try and locate the nest of cave-claws we had discovered the day before.

"Drodie, what makes you so sure we can find those gems in less than forty-eight hours?" I asked, somewhat rudely. "Do you have any idea where to begin looking?"

"Of course I have," he answered as we walked. "We have already said: the cave-claws from the colony we found yesterday are all but certain to be the culprits for they are nearby and to the east, which is the direction in which that tunnel leads. As for the gems themselves, you clearly do not know much about cave-claws, friend Padryc. Cave-claws may be (and are) pernicious and destructive creatures, but they are also quite organized and meticulous -- more like ants than locusts, if you understand me. When they have their talons on a batch of gems, they will store them in one spot (along with any other valuable items they may have collected), and not one piece will be out of place. The entire hive goes absolutely berserk if a single coin or glass bead goes missing, let me tell you."

"Sounds like a good way to describe Dwarves under similar circumstances," said Gaelira. Her words sounded harsh, but her voice seemed to be more contemplative than accusatory. I worried that Drodie would take offence, but he did not.

"One could well say that," he said. "In fact, it has long been a byword among my people that a Dwarf who has lost something precious is Angry as a nest of deprived cave-claws. Well, it sounds better in Khuzdul; that is only a very rough translation. Anyway, it is this natural tendency that some Dwarves have exploited by training select cave-claws as treasure-hunters. They aren't the cuddliest of companions, but if you're looking to unearth anything valuable you can ask for no better accomplices."

I pondered these odd revelations about Dwarven culture as we journeyed eastward. The Sun had already passed the noon hour by the time we spotted that orc-camp from the day before. Once again we were obliged to skirt around its northern edge to reach the burned-up pine-woods beyond. It was another hour or so when we located the path we had followed previously, but once we did it was clear we were on the right track. The path plunged down into a deep rut which was muddy and slimy at the bottom. The dirt-banks to our side were pocked with hundreds of burrows out of which came the same musky stench which had invaded our nostrils back in the Gabilshathur store-room. Drodie signalled us to proceed quiety, but suddenly dozens of cave-claws began to swarm out of the holes and attack us! We were hard-pressed at first, but once we got our footing we began to drive the vermin off.

"Now I am certain these are our thieves," laughed Drodie. "They are gathering to protect their horde and we did not see them react this way when we had passed through here less than twenty-four hours earlier. This could only be due to their theft of the gemstones. Now we need only proceed to the heart of this nest and we will have our prize."

This took a bit more effort as the path wound about confusedly, but soon it became clear our objective would be located wherever the concentration of the cave-claws was greatest. Following this logic, we eventually located a shallow cave which featured several odd earthen lumps in the ground. Once we had chased off the sentries we found these lumps had a rough consistency like hardened clay. Upon breaking them open, we discovered a marvellous collection of gold, jewels, and gemstones which -- while not extensive -- was nonetheless obviously of great value. We also found a good number of rough, uncut gemstones that we surmised must be the ones stolen from the Dwarves of Gabilshathur. We gathered up everything we could find and immediately began the journey back.

Our self-extraction from the nest was a messy business which involved tramping through loose mud and fighting off frenzied cave-claws, but in the end we emerged. It was a tiresome trek back to Gabilshathur and we arrived there just after sunset. The Dwarves were, of course, very apologetic and at once released Lagodir and Nephyn to us while begging our pardons over and over. Our friends had been treated well, and so there was no longer any cause for animus. In fact, since we had brought the Dwarves both their own stolen collection of uncut gems in addition to several other valuables the cave-claws had somehow acquired, we found ourselves being hailed as heroes. It seems the affections of Dwarves can be rather fickle in that regard, but they are also loyal to a fault once you have gained their trust.

Anyway, I am glad to report that this little detour of ours is finally resolved, much to everyone's relief. We were treated to an excellent meal (as much as a remote camp of war like Gabilshathur can offer, at least) and even to the Dwarves' best ale, so I hereby declare them capital fellows; good friends and true! It would be nice if every day in Angmar might end so satisfactorily, but something tells me that won't be the case.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 42

Through the Rammas

Mersday, 16th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning

No entry.

Highday, 17th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning

No entry.

Sterday, 18th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Gabilshathur, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The destroyed pine-woods of Angmar
I'm ashamed to say I skipped a couple of entries in this journal. I hope, Dear Reader, that you can forgive me for this oversight as many things were happening very quickly. It turns out that my negligence may have spared you the tedium of learning about a series of errands which would have made for a very dull read, so perhaps this was not altogether a bad thing. In any case, let me bring you up to speed on how we now stand.

No sooner had I completed my previous entry and plopped my little head down on my travelling pack (which I often use as a pillow), then I was awakened by the sound of voices. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, still feeling very sleepy indeed, for the miles we had covered in the previous day's march into Malenhad and then back to Aughaire in retreat from the Standing Stones had quite drained me. I wondered what local barbarian my friends had decided to converse with and whether I ought not hide my belongings from them, but to my surprise our visitor turned out to be a Ranger of Esteldin!

His name was Corunir, and he was a bright-eyed chap, full of energy and optimism -- which is quite a feat when one lives in Angmar, as he has apparently been doing for some time now. He had befriended (as much as possible) the Hillmen of Aughaire and served as a scout and huntsman for their tribe. He had just returned from a hunt with new provender for the locals when he was informed of the presence of strange Southrons (that would be us), and naturally he was curious to learn more. 

We had a long conversation with him, but since I am trying to shorten this tale and not prolong it, I will merely say that he was part of an army of Dunedain from Esteldin which had journeyed north under the command of a Ranger named Golodir. This army had also encountered the terror of the Standing Stones, and many were defeated by them (Corunir admitted to being one of these). However, a contingent of Rangers managed to pass beyond the Stones and continue their trek deeper into Angmar, and Corunir believed he knew how we might be able to follow them.

It seems that the Standing Stones, whose right name is the Rammas Deluon (I think that translates as Wall of Despair, or something similar) are inhabited by fell spirits in service to the Iron Crown and they serve as a barrier against intruders. These spirits feed on the fear of all who draw close to them, and many lose the will to challenge their malice. After long thought, Corunir had concluded that those Rangers who were able to withstand the spirits all had one thing in common: they had witnessed great evil or cruelty in their time and so understood rather than feared the Enemy's depravities, leaving the spirits with naught to feed upon. As peculiar as all this sounded, it did explain why Lagodir and Gaelira were able to largely resist the wrath of the Stones, unlike the rest of our Company. The long and the short of it was, if we wished to continue our journey, we would need to confront these foul beings and overcome our fear of them.

This was more easily said than done: it ended up being a two-day process which saw us scrabbling in the muds of Malenhad, examining smaller (and less potent) watching stones elsewhere in Angmar, slaying a dark sorcerer to discover the methods by which the spirits were bound within the Stones themselves, and even drawing one of the spirits forth from a watching stone and driving it off. It was a very taxing and time-consuming ordeal, but when we finally returned victorious to Corunir in Aughaire, he (and we) felt convinced we would succeed in passing through the Rammas Deluon the next day.

That next day (today), we bade Corunir farewell and began our return to Malenhad. We were all disheartened by the delay, but this was tempered by our collective assurance that we now carried the strength of will to defeat the Rammas and continue on toward Carn Dum. We departed Aughaire before the rising of the Sun and picked our way carefully through the decaying countryside in an easterly direction, back toward the swamps of Malenhad.

As before, we stuck to the southern hillsides in an effort to avoid unfriendly eyes. Nephyn pointed out (and I was inclined to agree) that the foliage in this land offered precious little in the way of cover, as the dead trees and strangled grasses obscured next to nothing in their barren nakedness. Still, we managed to creep through the knolls and dells without encountering any enemies. Our progress was slow, for the uneven terrain forced us to constantly change our direction, so that when the Sun peeked above the horizon we were still not free of the hills.

"Can't someone tell us a story to pass the time?" I asked. The silence was far from peaceful -- quite apart from being bored I was perpetually on edge in this unforgiving place. "What about you, Drodie? I bet there's more happening behind that beard than you let on about."

"I'm no good at storytelling," answered the Dwarf as he stumped along in his heavy boots.

"Alright then -- Lagodir!" I said, cheerfully volunteering the Gondorian. "How about it?"

"But make sure it's uplifting!" Nephyn said. "No depressing stories for me in this gloom."

"I do not think I know of any uplifting stories -- not from my own experience, at least," replied Lagodir after thinking for a moment.

"Ah, well, I suppose I shall be forced to have a go of it myself then," I said. "So here goes: some years ago, I was at a birthday party. I don't remember whose it was (nearly every day is someone's birthday in the Shire), nor does it really matter for the purposes of this tale. Mayor Whitfoot was there --"

"Whitfoot?" Nephyn cut in. "What an unusual name! It makes me chuckle for some reason."

"It's a well-respected name in my homeland," I said as we continued to march along in single file. "Pray, don't interrupt! As I was saying: Will Whitfoot, the Mayor of Hobbiton, was at this particular birthday party and the Shire Inn League had sent over a keg of fine ale for the occasion. Now the Mayor, he quite fancies his beer, and instead of waiting for a mug, he simply plopped his whole head into the keg without waiting! He proceeded to lose his balance and completely fell into the barrel. I should have mentioned he's also rather, um, stout around the middle. It comes of presiding over all those festival and holiday banquets, don't you know, and he got himself stuck! Now, none of us at hand were able to pull him out and we started to fear that he might get drownded, so we did the unthinkable: we smashed open the barrel to save him and all the ale was spoilt. Actually, there was surprisingly little left in the barrel -- it seems the Mayor had gotten the idea to try and drink his way out of his predicament. To this day Old Whitfoot doesn't get invited to many birthday parties, but he tends to show at them all the same."

"What a funny story!" Nephyn laughed. "We would do well to not let Padryc get too close to any beer-barrels while on our adventures together!"

"Just you try and stop me!" I replied, laughing in my own turn. "And it's no matter anyhow -- like as not my tale is the closest any of us are going to get to a real beer-barrel for quite some time."

"It actually reminds me of a tale of my own," said Lagodir. "If you will allow me to tell it."

"But of course!" I said.

"By all means!" said Nephyn.

"Very well. This took place many years ago, back when I was still quite young. I had been newly assigned to the watch overseeing the outskirts of Osgiliath -- we were on patrol against any skirmishes which come at us out of the Enemy's country to the East. One night, the other sentinels challenged me to a drinking game. I was able to hold my liquor in much better fashion back then. I was declared the champion, and the next morning I was too inebriated to function."

"Ha!" I chortled. "I'll bet your commander had some choice words for you the next day!"

"Not really, no," said Lagodir solemnly. "Since you ask: that was the same night the Orcs launched their surprise attack and sacked the eastern half of the city. I only survived because I had passed out into a shallow puddle and so the Orcs all thought me dead. Everyone I had drank with that previous night was slaughtered. "

"Good heavens!" I cried. "I thought we said no depressing stories!

"Your pardon," said Lagodir with a shrug.

"Hush!" said Gaelira. "We have returned to the Rammas Deluon."

The ominous wall of figures rose before us once again. This time, though, we were able to screw ourselves up and pass them by. It was a bit more complicated than that, but for the sake of brevity I won't provide further detail. Also, I'm afraid I personally did not handle the situation as well as I had hoped to, and I'd rather not embarrass myself in these pages. Suffice it to say we did defeat the Rammas at last, though the landscape was quite unchanged on the far side.

We continued on our easterly track, but our ordeal with the statues had shaken most of us and there was no more friendly banter. Instead we focused more on trying to remain unseen as the hostile glare of the afternoon Sun shone down on our backs. It occurred to me then that Spring had finally arrived, and yet here in the Land of Angmar it brought no warmth or green to ease that blasted landscape. Smokes and steams continued to waft upward, causing the air all about us and above us to be filled with a sickly yellow murk. I was forced more than a few times to cough the beastly stuff out of my lungs.

We trudged on. Inside myself I suspected it was high time to halt, but none of us wanted to spend the night in that nasty swamp. We kept following the high cliffs which ran to our right, but still there was no change in the view. Finally, the pools of steaming water and the billowing craters came to an end. Before us there suddenly appeared a tumbled collection of fences, barricades, and rickety towers, most of them perched atop a low ridge not more than a mile distant.

"Look!" said Drodie as he pointed. "An orc-camp if ever I saw one. And just in time: I was beginning to worry this day might pass without my decapitating something."

"Remember the warnings of Mallacai," Gaelira cautioned. "We should avoid any encampments of the Enemy's minions for the time being in order to preserve the secrecy of our errand."

Drodie didn't like this, but he assented. With great care, we were able to circumvent the camp and avoid being spotted. Once on the other side, we found ourselves in the remnants of what must have once been a mighty pine-wood: there were still very tall tree-trunks thrusting straight skyward, but they had no branches or needles. It looked to me as though a great fire had roared through that place at some point in the not-too-distant past. In any case, the land there was difficult to traverse for it rose and fell constantly. We began to be unsure of our direction as we wound back and forth through the gullies, so we followed an upward slope when we came across one. Some time later we found ourselves well up a mountain-side and wondering where we had gotten to. The cliffs were steep and everywhere we saw cave-claws, vultures, and other vermin scurrying about. Gaelira was peering westward with her keen eyes while Lagodir scanned the mountain and Nephyn examined the path.

"Ai!" the huntress suddenly cried. "We must leave here at once! Drakes roam these parts!"

"Come," said Gaelira as we gathered ourselves and hurried away, "Let us go swiftly but warily."

We retreated down the slopes and returned to the pine-wood in short order. We could find no way forward from there and were forced to dodge the orc-camp a second time. By now, the Sun was barely peeping over the western horizon and I began to shiver in the coming cold of evening. We had come once more to the edges of Malenhad and my spirits sank at the prospect of having to spend the night there.

"If only there was some nook or cave in which we could find shelter," said Nephyn as she looked up the cliffs to our left (southward). "But there is nothing -- it's as if these hills were cut by a giant's knife, they are so sheer. Quite impressive, actually."

"More o-ppressive than im-pressive, if you ask me," I said.

"Wait! Look there!" Drodie was pointing to a spot in the mountain-side. It was cunningly hidden, but now it had been noticed there was, clear to see, a cutting gash which thrust into the hills.

"A path!" Nephyn and I said together. We had no idea what might lie beyond, but somehow it felt just then that our discovery was a boon and not a danger.

It turned out to be quite a boon: we followed the path into the mountains and found a small but highly industrious colony of Dwarves! They call it Gabilshathur, but please don't ask me what that means or how to pronounce it. We found several Rangers encamped here as well, which identified themselves as members of Golodir's band that had penetrated the Rammas Deluon some time ago. We were able to replenish our food and water stores as well as get some directions. As it happens we should have begun heading north before we even encountered the orc-camp, so our little detour into the drake-infested hills proved providential after all.

I can't imagine what led a bunch of Dwarves to settle in a place like this. From what I've been able to gather, some of them seem to think there is a chance of finding mithril in these hills. I'm not sure what mithril might be, but apparently it is quite valuable. Personally, I'd just let it lie if it meant having to live in Angmar! I hate this place and everything about it. The Malenhad swamp was more than enough for me to grow sick of the land, and now I'm being told it only gets worse from here.

Speaking of Malenhad, I'm happy to point out we managed to traverse it without running into that Wenhair woman or any of her friends. Lagodir would still prefer to find her and deal with her directly, but I'm not so sure that's such a good idea. Either way, we did not encounter any sign of her in the swamps, and hopefully it stays that way: I don't know what that one is up to, but whatever it is, it can't be good for us.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 41

An Unexpected Obstacle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 40.3

The Halls of Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And you are surprised that they proved true?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh," was all I managed to say.

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 40.2

The Road to Angmar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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