Tuesday, 21st of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Refuge of Gath Forthnir
|The Refuge of Gath Forthnir|
"Can't we wait until the Sun is up before we start marching at least once?" I moaned in response to Nephyn's voice. Even without opening my eyes I could tell it was dark all around me.
"It seems our Halfling has taken a liking to tomb-crawling after all," came Lagodir's voice.
I was so tired I had forgotten just where we were! I bolted upright and threw my blankets off. As the dank chill of the early-morning air smote me, full memory of the night before came flooding back: the rain had driven us into this shelter as a last resort, and none of us were happy about camping inside of a barrow. It turned out that it wasn't actually a tomb, for the walls were lined with shelves and shelves of books and scrolls. This had drawn the interest of the others, but I was content to let the musty old things lie. Now that I was awake, I was eager to get out of there as fast as possible!
"Dawn is not far off," said Gaelira, "We should be able to find our way in the light, and I suspect none of us wants to spend any more time in Imlad Balchorth than we must. Let us prepare ourselves and depart quickly."
"Hear, hear!" I said. "I'm glad to see you have no desire to stick around and poke through some of these nasty, old books," I fished through my pack for something to nibble on. It was more out of habit than hunger, for being inside a barrow tends to dampen one's appetite, as I'm sure you can imagine.
"I made no such claim," came Gaelira's reply, accompanied by a sly smile. "The purpose of this place eludes me at present, but I have retained a few scrolls for later study. I have no doubt Lord Elrond would wish to see them, if we should happen to pass through Rivendell again someday."
"May that day be not long delayed," I countered. "For both our sakes: you can sift through your moldy tomes together and I can take up permanent residence there."
"Surely you don't mean that?" asked Nephyn, pretending to be hurt by my words.
"Who's Shirley?" I asked with a laugh. "And yes! Especially if the nightly accommodations don't improve with all due haste. When do I get breakfast in bed?" I demanded, hands on my hips in mock indignation. "Seriously, though, when do we move out? I'm only too happy to put this place behind us, and the sooner the better."
"We are all ready to leave," said Drodie as he tucked the haft of his new axe into his belt. "Let us go and see what the morning stars have to show us."
We made our way outside in the darkness. Dawn was indeed still some time off, but thankfully the rain had stopped and the clouds had departed. Even now in the faintest light of foredawn, the landscape of Imlad Balchorth was becoming clearer to us.
What we saw was very disquieting. The land in which we had lost ourselves was bleak and barren, even by Angmar-standards. It was quite hilly and exceedingly rocky, so that anyone attempting to make their way through that place would find themselves in a veritable maze of stone shortly upon entering it. Apparently that is what had happened to us, for it was now evident that we had somehow wound our way well up into those hills and much further to the west than we had ever suspected in the dark of night. Looking out over that valley now, we saw stony barrows falling away from us toward the east (our desired direction) and more climbing up behind us.
"How in blazes did we even manage to get up here in the first place?" I wondered. At first glance there appeared to be no clear path leading to our current location, but Lagodir pointed to the left. I saw a stone stairway, half of which had crumbled away eons ago. Anyone who missed their footing would have plummeted a hundred feet to their certain death on the rocks below.
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed. "We are fortunate none of us fell down there and smashed our heads open!"
"Yes, it was providential that the right-hand bannister had crumbled away while the left-hand bannister survived," said Gaelira. "In the dark of night, we all used the left-hand bannister as a guide, and so we were unknowingly steered clear of that part of the stair which had failed. We must take care as we retrace our steps."
We decided Lagodir should go first, since he and Drodie weighed more than any of the rest of us. The Gondorian reasoned that, if the stair had supported us last night it would do so again. He stepped out onto it and proceeded to descend.
Suddenly there was a crack and a huge section of the stairs gave way! Lagodir cried out, turned toward us, and tried to leap back onto solid ground, but then he vanished from our sight! We all gasped and rushed to the edge of the gaping hole with hearts pounding audibly.
But Lagodir had just managed to grasp the remaining bit of stairway with both hands. His eyes were wide but he remained as calm as anyone could under the circumstances.
"I could use a hand," he grunted as he tried to pull himself up. We four immediately grabbed his wrists and began to haul him back. Gaelira and Drodie got his left hand while Nephyn grabbed his right and I did my part by pulling on Nephyn's cloak from behind (though I believe I accomplished little aside from choking poor Nephyn). Finally, Lagodir was returned to safe ground once more.
"Well!" he said as he gasped for breath. "More the fool am I for not recognizing that the rains might had loosened the stones. It is well we did not all attempt it at once! But what now?"
"I think there is a way further up the hill behind us," I said as I squinted in the new light. "Of course, that's going west, the opposite direction we want to go, but it's better than nothing."
"And perhaps we will be able to see another way down, if we get ourselves into a better position higher up in the hills," suggested Nephyn.
The path further up was difficult to follow at first, but after a while it became broader and more well-defined. Eventually, I got the impression we might have been on a sort of ancient road or thoroughfare -- it became paved with small grey stones in places and on at least one occasion it crossed over a flat, wooden bridge. The cliffs surrounding us were pocked with barrows every thirty feet or so, which gave the place a spooky and unnerving feel, even in the growing light of day. After another half hour or so of steadily heading higher, we found a good vantage point and looked out over the valley.
"Look!" said Drodie as he pointed to our right. "Can you see that faint path over there which falls back toward the east? I should think we would be on the right track were we to take that road."
"I agree, " said Gaelira, "But I cannot see from here how we might reach it."
In the end, we had to continue our climb. The path wound through deep clefts in the hills and went up even more sets of stone stairways (which we climbed with the greatest of care when we encountered them) before we finally came to a large meeting of four ways. To the left there were yet more stairs while ahead of us the road began to descend. To our right, however, we saw a strange thing.
It was a Man, or so it appeared from behind, for his back was to us. He was kneeling in front of a large stone monument of evil-looking shape. It was made of black and glossy-edged stone and shaped like an enormous, jagged knife-blade pointing toward the sky. I could hear the faint murmurings of the Man's voice as he recited some sort of prayer or incantation.
"Sorcery of Sauron!" hissed Gaelira with a curl of her lips. She quickly drew her sword and the rest of us prepared for battle as well. We did not rush in straightaway, for we did not know whether there might be other foes hidden in the crags nearby. Quietly as we could manage, we crept up behind the robed figure. My heart began to beat rapidly as we drew nearer and nearer. When we were within about ten feet of his back, the chanting stopped. I gripped the hilt of my little Elf-dagger and held my breath.
Suddenly, the robed figure grabbed a staff which lay on the ground before him and spun around to face us. His eyes were wild with hatred and his teeth were bared in a vicious snarl. He raised his hand and uttered a shout in some language I've never heard before. There was a rush of air, and I felt a force strike me in the midsection which hurled me backward along with the rest of my friends. I crashed to the ground into the midst of a shallow puddle with the wind knocked out of me.
As I struggled to regain my breath, I managed to raise myself up on my elbows. I saw the others recover and charge back toward the Man. Nephyn fired a shot which pierced his left arm, causing him to drop his staff with a cry of pain. A moment later, Lagodir had run his sword through his midsection just before Drodie's axe swept his head from the shoulders. As the decapitated body slumped to the earth, I heard a strange noise like the moan of many voices. Then there was a great gust of wind which seemed to emanate from out of the monument. I shielded my eyes from flying bits of debris and rolled over onto my side as the force rushed over me. Then came a wave of frigid air, and finally everything returned to normal. Having regained my breath, I tried to get my wobbly knees to force the rest of me back into a standing position.
"Padryc, are you alright?" Nephyn asked as she jogged over to me.
"Just had the wind knocked out of me," I nodded. I was still taking deep and strangled breaths, but I looked to be in worse shape than I really was. "I will be fine in a moment. But what just happened?"
"I believe we may have had the good fortune to interrupt a most vile practice," said Gaelira as she examined the monument and the fallen body of the Angmarim. "I have heard of the perverse rituals by which fell spirits are infused into the rotting corpses of the dead, but never have I actually seen one before now. This is the same process -- or one very much like it -- that was used to create the Barrow-wights many long years ago."
"And what was that strange rush of air I felt once he was slain?" Drodie asked as he unceremoniously cleaned his axe-blade on the robes of our defeated opponent. I shivered slightly at the memory.
"I should guess the collective life-force of any number of spirits the sorcerer sought to command," the Elf replied as she glanced at the monument in disgust. "Whatever purpose our Enemy may have had for them has been thwarted; at least temporarily."
"Well, hooray for that," I said as I wrung some insipid water out of my cloak. "Although I can't understand how you lot manage to do all this fighting and running around -- I'm dead tired on my feet, myself."
"Not as 'dead' tired as those fell spirits," said Lagodir with a smirk.
"Oh!" I laughed, "Mr. Gloomy Man has jokes today! Now I know he's lacking for sleep."
"I guess I am feeling a little out of 'spirits' today," the Gondorian deadpanned. Everyone groaned.
"Punny! Very punny," I said with a roll of my eyes. "Now, can we please get out of here? I don't fancy spending a second night in this wretched place. Oughtn't we to take one of the two roads here? This way goes nowhere and that there is the way we came in... should we be going higher up or lower down, do you think?"
"Lower down for me," said Nephyn. "I've had enough of these stairs."
"You speak for me also," said Gaelira. "I believe it is time we sought a descending path."
And so we took the road to our right. The trail fell steeply downward to the point we had to be cautious to not lose our footing. The descent was so rapid we soon found ourselves back among the mists still lingering in the valley, for the morning was not yet gone. We were hopeful, but the cliffs on either side of us rose so high that we couldn't make out where we were or where we were headed until, quite abruptly, we found ourselves looking out over a wide, flat space which was dotted with tents and campfires.
"Another orc-camp!" said Nephyn in dismay. "This is what now, the fourth we have encountered in Angmar?"
"No, it is only the third," I said, looking hard. "Because it is one we have already seen before! I say! This is the camp we passed on our left as we made our way north from Gabilshathur, only now we are looking down on it from the north. Dear me, but we have gone well out of our way by getting lost among those barrows! What a jolly waste of time this has been."
None of us were eager to get entangled in an orc-camp (actually Drodie might have been the exception there), so we cautiously left the hillside and crept our way stealthily along the edge to avoid being detected. It was tedious and time-consuming work, but in the end we managed to slip past the Orcs and return to the road -- the very same road we had been walking on the day before, prior to getting ensnared by the Valley of Imlad Balchorth.
We allowed ourselves a brief rest, for we had not stopped since before dawn, then resumed our journey once more. This time we never took a single step without searching assiduously for the stone archway that was supposed to mark the entrance to the valley we had finally managed to escape. And we found it: just beyond the long wooden bridge, there it was, plain as plain. How in the world all five of us had managed to miss it -- even when accounting for the fog -- on the previous day was a mystery and a wonder. And yet, even in the full light of day we didn't at first locate the northeasterly path which had been recommended to us by Gisur the day before.
As you may have guessed we did locate it at last, but it was not easy to find: it was little more than a slight discoloration of the bare rock which hopped over a ridge then fell away into a labyrinth of dells, dips, gullies, chasms, crags, crevices, and crevasses. We tried to pick our way among the trenches, but going was so slow it gave me more than enough time to think up tons of alliterative synonyms for the word dell. Anyway, the long and the short of it is we eventually climbed out of it all as the Sun was entering the fourth hour from noon.
We found ourselves in a dusty and wind-swept region full of hard stone, blasted earth, and bleached gravel. The wind howled mournfully among the rocks as we continued to make our way northward. A while later, the faint path we were following suddenly ended at the edge of a fetid pool. It looked to me like a large crater, like the pit made by a stone cast from some giant among giants, that over time had filled with rain-water. We five stood there scratching our heads.
"Don't tell me we came the wrong way again?" I asked. We looked around for any sign of where we ought to go.
"Wait -- what is that over there?" said Nephyn as she shaded her eyes with her hand. We all squinted and just managed to make out the shadowy line of a trail on the far side of the pool which appeared to climb up into the hills. We circumvented the water and picked up the track without difficulty. It climbed at a steep rate, and we were soon quite high above the ashen wastes. I peeked over the edge of a cliff and instantly drew back: there was a sheer drop of some fifty ells just below us which made my poor head turn all giddy. To make matters worse, a cold wind had begun to blow in from the northeast with enough force to scoop my little self right over the precipice, if it had a mind. I scurried back to my companions and continued the march with them. Suddenly, the path turned hard to the left, and after another climb we came upon a broken rock wall which featured a weather-beaten door, cunningly hidden.
"Who would make a home here?" I wondered aloud as I eyed the doorway. "I can't imagine it was for the view."
"Nay, 'twas for its lack of view," came a voice from behind us which made me jump. "Or, rather, the fact that it is in a place which makes it hard to be viewed. Which raises the question: who are you and why do you seek Gath Forthnir?" A tall Man with sea-grey eyes seemed to emerge from the rocky mountain-side itself. His dark raiment all but obscured him from view as he kept vigil over the road.
"I don't know who Mr. Forthnir is, but I'm sure it will be a pleasure to meet anyone with manners in this inhospitable land," I said as I rubbed my hands together from the cold. "You can see we are not Orcs or anything like that -- don't you think introductions are in order? For that matter, aren't you going to invite us inside out of this dreadful chill? I'll catch my death of cold from this weather." The Man smiled kindly at me, but only for an instant.
"It is not within my power to grant you entry to Gath Forthnir," he said. "Which is through that door yonder, Master Halfling: it is not a person. But as to your other question, my name is Areneth, and I am the doorward of Gath Forthnir. I can see you are no Orcs nor other thralls of Angmar, and for that reason alone you live still." I gulped. Looking closer, I saw he was armed with a longbow of yew-wood with a full quiver at his back. A white knife and an axe were at his belt as well. "We Rangers are not used to receiving guests of a respectable sort."
"Ah, so you are one of Golodir's contingent," said Gaelira, "I surmised as much, for your eyes and your bearing reveal your noble heritage. We are allies: the Company of Elladan's Outriders, come from many adventures throughout Eriador, and we are here to join the growing war against the would-be tyrant of Carn Dum."
"Then you have my most sincere welcome," said Areneth with a quick bow of his head. "Allies are sorely needed, whether they be names of renown or otherwise. The battle goes ill for us and only through maintaining the secrecy of our encampment here are we able to continue the fight, so you will forgive my reluctance to permit you entry. I have not heard of your Company before now, but wait here while I consult with my captain -- mayhap he has heard somewhat of your band, for he has many ways of gathering news. I shall return." And with that he disappeared through the creaking wooden door.
I sighed audibly in annoyance at the delay, but it was not long at all before the Ranger returned to us. He begged our pardon and asked that we follow him within immediately to meet with his leader, who had, seemingly, heard of us and our doings. I rushed past the others, relieved to finally be out of the biting northerly winds.
Once inside, it took my eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness, for at first there was no light. I could tell from the echoes of our footsteps that we were in a tunnel, and we wound about a few times before reaching a broader chamber. I looked around and caught my breath.
There was a large pool of water which dominated the center of the cavern that was fed by a small waterfall which cascaded down from some unknown height above us. I saw more than a few people coming and going, passing into and out of this main area from smaller tunnels and openings which branched out from it on all sides. Most of these were Men and Women, but I saw a few Dwarves and even an Elf or two. The Men were mainly Rangers, but there were some Hillmen present as well. Areneth told us these were representatives of the tribes which stood in opposition to the power coming out from Carn Dum, for their people still remembered the cruelty with which they were treated as subjects of the Witch-king in years long past.
There were few torches and only a single bonfire in that main chamber. Despite it being dim and poorly lit, the effect was more one of mystique rather than oppression -- we had entered the secret coven of a hardened band of resistance-fighters; a people who would defend the freedom of their people even at the risk of their own deaths. We all took in the scene with silent admiration as Areneth led us into one of the side-passages.
"This is a place of great natural beauty," I admit I was surprised to hear Drodie speaking such words. "I should like nothing more than to transform this hovel into a cavern of wonders! The entrance could be fortified while this central chamber might be made into a garden of shimmering waters and flowering stone. I see others of my kind here: perhaps I could convince them to begin such a work? Any Dwarf would leap at the chance, and it would only benefit those who wish to strengthen their position here, so near to the Shadows of Angmar."
"Such a work would indeed be welcome, and in fact your kinsmen have suggested it more than once," came Areneth's smiling reply. "Yet Maerchiniath, captain of the Rangers and master of Gath Forthnir, has refused their offer each time it is made. He deems the noise and business required by such an effort would only serve to betray our position, and in this I must regretfully concede he is right in his judgment. Mayhap a time will come one day when your wish may be granted. But you shall have the chance to petition the captain yourself, if you like, for you will find him just beyond this door. As for me, I must return to my post. I bid you welcome once more. Farewell for now, friends."
As Areneth left us, we pushed open the heavy wooden door which led into the sanctum of Maerchiniath. It was a sparsely furnished little room, clearly the small and personal space of a captain at war. There was a collection of arms and armour in one corner and a crude bed of thatch in another, piled with a few books and scrolls. Maps were spread on top of hides which lay on the dirt floor, and a Man was pouring over these as we entered. He raised his head at our approach and stood to greet us. Despite his kind demeanor, I could see at once this Maerchiniath was tired -- pitifully so. His eyes were watery and bloodshot, his beard was unkempt and his shoulders sagged with weariness. Here was a Man whose last glimmer of hope was swiftly ebbing, but for all that he did not look to me like a Man defeated. Not quite yet.
"Welcome, renowned travellers, to Gath Forthnir," he said. His voice was cracked and wispy, as though he had spent weeks shouting at the top of his lungs. "Your coming may be just the light we have yearned for. Word of your exploits has reached even my ears in this forsaken land. I am honoured that you have chosen to lend your considerable abilities to our cause, but I know not what blow you can hope to land against the might of Carn Dum without an army behind you."
"We will do whatever is within our power to do," answered Gaelira. "Yet we have travelled far and became lost among the barrows of Imlad Balchorth on the way: we must first rest. Afterward, we would be grateful for any knowledge of the Enemy's positions or movements you might be able to offer."
"It shall be as you ask," Maerchiniath said. "The one thing Gath Forthnir has to offer is that we are well-provisioned. My Men will see to it that you are tended and taught the passwords which will enable you to come and go at your pleasure, save if you are marked by some adversary. But what is it you seek to accomplish here? Four warriors, no matter how tried and valorous they may be, can only do so much against the foes we face to the north and west."
"Our quest is one of strategy and stealth," Gaelira answered before any of the rest of us could speak. "We seek a deeper understanding of the Enemy's strength as well as the kind and numbers of the thralls which make up his hordes. In this way, we hope to arm Free Folk everywhere with a greater knowledge of the threat they face and thereby win new allies in this fight. For these reasons, it would be best if our mission is spoken of to none, save those in whom you place the utmost trust."
"You speak wisdom," agreed the Ranger-captain, "There are none here I do not trust, of course, for who would willingly endure the hardships such as those we face in this damned region but out of love for freedom? Still, were a Man to be made captive, there is no knowing for certain what he might divulge when placed under torture, and so I grant you your boon. I cannot tell you how much your arrival means to me and to everyone who abides herein -- it gives us great hope to hear of your adventures and, more importantly, to know that Halflings, Dwarves, other Men, and even Elves see the urgency of our cause. I did not know the Eldar cared any more for the Mortal Lands, yet my scouts tell me there is a company of Fair Folk at work even here in Angmar. They have been sighted battling some of the mightiest champions of Carn Dum which range hither and yon across the wastes. Many of my people have been lost to these roving threats."
"Yes, those Elves are known to us also, and they are more powerful allies than even you may realize," said Gaelira, "Many of my people have indeed taken the western road, but many more fight on. In these latter days, all folk who live east of the Sea shall suffer a shared fate." Maerchiniath nodded slowly.
"Come," he said after a brief pause. "I will show you what lodgings we have to spare. There are more empty beds than there once were in Gath Forthnir, I am sad to say, for our clashes with the minions of Carn Dum have been sharp and desperate, particularly of late."
Maerchiniath led us down more winding tunnels to show us those places within the caverns that passed as a mess hall, a training hall, and a barracks. We were housed in a confined area well apart from the main living spaces so as to better conceal our presence from the other inhabitants, as well as to obscure our comings and goings. I myself was quite happy with the arrangements since I am used to tight spaces and find them more comfortable than cramped, but the others were less happy with the accommodations.
After some jostling and grumbling, we finally managed to settle down. We spoke among ourselves briefly in hushed voices about what we would do next, but first we needed more information about our position, the location of the Enemy's forces, and our desired avenue of entry into the strongholds of Carn Dum. After a rest and a bite, we five went to consult further with Maerchiniath and his closest lieutenants to learn what we could of these things. I shuddered at all the talk: it was hard to believe I was poised on the edge of a war-zone and that we would soon be marching straight into its heart -- perhaps as soon as tomorrow morning!