Monday, 20th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Imlad Balchorth, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
|The Barrows of Imlad Balchorth|
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.