Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 19

A Gambit Amid the Ruins

Trewsday, 19th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ruins of Fornost, Somewhere in the North Downs
The Ruins of Fornost
It was still dark when I woke, but I was in such pain as to not even notice the time. Lying on a stone platform proved to be far more uncomfortable than I had expected; certainly much worse than simply lying on the ground. I groaned as I rolled over and struggled to my feet, then stretched my back before looking around.

Gaelira was nearby, but she was seated and appeared to be meditating or otherwise occupied with her own thoughts. Drodie and Lagodir were nowhere in sight. The night-song of crickets was still on the air while every now and then came a gust of wind which bore the heavy scent of pine-trees. I wondered if this portended rain to come later in the day.

I was shaken from my thoughts by a low sound to my right. I peeped around the edge of the cliff wall where I had laid down for the night to find Nephyn's sleeping form. She lay contorted in a very strange position, almost as if she had fallen over and never tried to recover. A wild fantasy sprang into my mind that some treason within the Company had slain my friend while she slept; I crept nearer to her, as if she might suddenly spring to life and attack me. Then she stirred with a moan and her eyes fluttered open, looking me full in the face. She sighed, rolled over, and composed herself.

"All you alright?" I asked. "I was afraid for you! It looked as if you had hurt yourself in a fall."

"No, I am fine," she answered, but her voice did not have the ring of truth to it. There was a slight pause.

"Well, perhaps I am not fine," she said as she looked southward over the cliffs toward Esteldin. "I have never really believed in signs and omens, but I must confess this is a strange thing: I have had the same troubling dream two nights in a row now."

"Is that so? What is it about if I may ask? I don't pretend to be an interpreter of dreams, but perhaps talking about it will ease your heart."

"That it may," the huntress replied. "Very well, I shall confide in you, if you are willing." She closed her eyes, as if remembering something difficult to recall.

"I find myself wandering in a land of darkness. The air is heavy with fumes and dust so thick I cannot see more than a few paces before me, but I feel compelled to press onward. As I walk, I realize that I am not alone. I can sense movement in the fog, but I see no one. Suddenly, as high as a great tree in the forest above me, eyes appear -- red eyes, but no bodies -- staring down at me. I can feel their evil gaze piercing through my skin and into my very bones. Their stares make my flesh feel as if it was set aflame, and my skin burns. Dark whisperings come from around me, though I am never able to see anyone. I hear a call from somewhere I do not understand, but I feel as if they are trying to have me join them where they are. My feet begin to be dragged through the dirt, moving forward even though I struggle against the pull. Just as I am about to enter the whisperings, I awake."

"How terrifying!" I said, genuinely shaken. "Why, it reminds me of the spider-queen Lebrennil and her awful brood, spying down upon us from the treetops back in the Old Forest. Brrr! I wondered then whether I would ever forget those eyes of hers."

"Yet you recovered from that experience, friend Padryc," Nephyn said with a sad look. "But I could still feel those eyes upon me even in the waking world. Even in the safety of Esteldin when I first experienced this dream I felt the unnerving need to be out of their gaze. I had hoped a change of scenery would relieve me, but the dream has visited me yet again this night."

"Is that why you decided to wear that ugly mask?" I asked, surprised. Nephyn laughed softly.

"Yes, yes, that is why, although I am ashamed to admit it," she said. "Perhaps I am not as indifferent to omens and portents as I always led myself to believe. I must remember that it is only a dream and may have no larger significance whatever. Thank you for hearing me out, my friend." She patted me on the shoulder. I was just about to say how sorry I felt for her, but then an icy grip clutched my heart: what if Nephyn was the false companion Luean had warned me about in his letter and this was all a ploy to gain my sympathies and my trust? I patted her arm in return, but I said nothing.

Just then, I became aware that the Sun was not far from its rising. Streaks of gold and purple were stealing their way across the heavens above. From our high point in the mountains, I felt as if I could stretch forth and touch the low-riding clouds overhead. I was admiring the view when my eyes were dragged earthward in search of two loud and combative voices: Lagodir and Drodie could be seen approaching our campsite, and they were engrossed in some argument.

"There is no value to us, I tell you!" I could hear Lagodir saying. "Let the Dwarves of Othrikar burrow into the hills in search of their pile of rocks until the mountains fall on them, I say; we have no reason to remain here another day."

"No, no, you do not understand!" Drodie countered vehemently. "The father-lode is no mere pile of rocks! It has been the dream of many of my folk to unearth such a find. We would be fools to not be part of it -- we would be witnessing great history!" Lagodir turned to us and threw up his hands in exasperation.

"It would seem as if our Company is once again divided as to what should come next," said Nephyn with a smile. I felt relieved to see her in light spirits once more.

"We will not waste time on another aimless debate," said Gaelira with surprising earnestness. "Lagodir you have a heritage in the North Downs through the noble men of Arnor. I know we are far from the Last Homely House you were seeking, but you may get satisfaction from avenging a wrong in time long gone; against the remnants of that same enemy. Today, we will follow you wherever you lead us."

We all yielded to this suggestion -- or command -- as it seemed plain the she-Elf was in no mood to hold a protracted council. Lagodir thought for a moment.

"I had given this some thought while the Sun was stirring this morning," he said slowly. "Halbarad had mentioned that the ruins of Fornost, the one-time capital of the North Kingdom, are now occupied by the soldiery of our foes. I confess I desire greatly to see our adversaries routed from there in vengeance of my distant kin, but it would also serve to sow doubt in the counsels of the Enemy. This, it seems to me, would be a great good that our Company could perform, but the task will not be easy. Our opponent has had many years to fortify that place, and we are still only five, no matter how skilled at arms we may be."

There was some light debate over this course of action, but we all agreed to the soundness of the plan in fairly short order. A dark thought that Lagodir was leading us into a trap in the heart of an enemy encampment flitted through my mind like a shadow of fear.

"And it may be," I heard Lagodir saying, "That we might encounter the Ranger Mincham on our way thither: the Ranger that is supposed to be able to read the Black Speech of the Enemy, or so Halbarad told us. He said Mincham was encamped on the southern edges of the Fields of Fornost, and we must cross those fields ere we come to the gates of the King's Norbury."

Before long we were ready to depart. We bid farewell to the Dwarves of Othrikar (most of which seemed eager to have us go) and left the mining colony by its main entrance. We traveled south until we reached the place where the road ran onward toward Lin Giliath and also turned west. Taking the western route, we marched on for a good ways under the hurrying clouds. I looked skyward and decided it did not look like raining today after all, but it remained overcast and grey.

As we marched along, I kept turning over the riddle from Luean's message to me in my mind. I still had no idea what it might mean. What three rivers was he referring to? Was I supposed to find a horse at some point? And what is the translation of Aure entuluva? That last was really bothering me because I was certain I had heard that Elvish phrase somewhere before, but I simply couldn't remember where, try as I might. Eventually, I got the idea that perhaps two heads might be better than one in this situation, but I also knew I could not risk exposing my reason for seeking assistance. I decided to see if anyone could come up with answers to Luean's riddle, but only in part so that no one would become aware of the full message. I started with Nephyn.

"I say," I said in my best innocent tone, but low enough that only she could hear me, "I've been working on coming up with some new riddles, but it's more difficult now that Luean is not with us. I thought up this clever line: Begin where three rivers meet. Do you think I could use that to refer to something besides rivers?" Nephyn gave me an odd look, but I ignored it and stared straight ahead.

"I suppose it could," she said. "There are any number of things which flow the way rivers do: words, air currents, time... it could be quite a long list I should think."

"Oh, I guess that's so," I said, crestfallen. "Do you know of any places where three rivers meet?" She thought a moment.

"Nothing comes to mind at present," she answered, "Although my knowledge of geography doesn't extend much beyond the Bree-land, as I've told you before."

I thanked her for her help and next turned to Gaelira, making sure the conversation remained between us. I asked if she knew of any place where three rivers meet.

"I can think of many such places in Middle-earth," she said, "But without more hints or information I'm afraid there would be too many possibilities for anyone to solve your riddle."

"Oh, yes, of course," I said evasively. "I will have to keep working on it."

I tried Lagodir and Drodie in similar fashion, but neither of them were interested in helping me and simply said they were no good with riddles. It was beginning to appear that if anyone was going to solve Luean's cryptic message, it was going to have to be me, alone and unaided. I looked all around me as if the landscape might yield some kind of inspiration, but all I saw was a fairly flat plain with abandoned farmsteads on both sides of the road. Soon after, we came to a low hill and followed the road as it skirted along its southern foot then ran on again toward a bridge. Thinking back, I tugged at Nephyn's sleeve and pointed.

"I say! Isn't that the very bridge you all were talking about some days ago? The one where those Orcs were supposed to have set an ambush for us?"

"Yes," came Nephyn's reply, "The very same. Let us hope we do not find it held against us."

It turned out the bridge was still standing and there was no sign of enemies anywhere within sight. We marveled at our good fortune and hurried across into the western half of the North Downs. The road began to wind and climb upwards past two sets of ruins, one to our left down below and another to our right and higher up in the hills. The wind would still come in gusts on occasion, and the whistling and howling it created in the jagged stones quite unnerved me. Once, the blasts shook loose some large rock somewhere which apparently caused it to fall from its perch, for we all suddenly heard a loud bang! I must have jumped three feet in the air at that, for Nephyn reached out her hand to calm me.

The distance from Othrikar to the Fields of Fornost was not small: the Sun was already seeking the western Sea by the time we descended from the hills and continued our march. After two more hours or so, we came to another road, this one running north-south and paved with flagstones, though it was overgrown with grass and weeds.

"We have returned to the Greenway!" said Nephyn with a noted excitement in her voice. She pointed to the south. "Yonder lies Trestlebridge and its resilient folk -- and beyond that is my homeland."

"Yet our road lies north, not south," said Gaelira solemnly. "We must turn our eyes away from the welcoming light and toward the darkness of fear."

Her words were not mere poetry: taking the right fork we saw a storm was brewing to the north. The Greenway ran ahead of us like a piece of string, going fairly straight on. But where the road met the horizon, at the very edge of our sight, I saw a gloomy darkness. The land rose steadily before us and all that landscape was dotted with short, stumpy trees which looked as if they were in the process of having the life slowly strangled from them. It seemed to me as though the Sun had not the power to penetrate the clouds, and a blackish-purple haze hovered low over everything. I was just about to express my dislike for the view when I heard Lagodir cry out.

"Look there!" he said as he pointed to the northwest. "A campfire!"

A thin spiral of smoke was wafting up from somewhere just ahead of us beyond a low hill. We quickened our pace and threaded our way through a few old ruins before stumbling upon the campsite.

The Ranger Mincham was there: he was attired as most of the other Rangers were, in grey and green, and wore a hooded cloak and a grave countenance. I will not recount here all of the pleasantries we exchanged, but he was gratified to make our acquaintance and learn of our mission. He told us what he could of Fornost, but as it had become very dangerous to go near that place now his reports were vague and uncertain. He did say that a party of treasure-hunters had passed up the Greenway some days prior. Mincham had tried to dissuade them from pressing on toward the city, but they did not heed him and no word had come back from them since. We were just about to continue on our way following that same path when I remembered the other reason we wished to speak with the dour-faced Ranger. I pulled out the parchment I had been carrying around for weeks and handed it to him.

"We intercepted this letter off two brigands in the North Chetwood many days ago," Gaelira explained, "But the message is written in the Black Speech of Mordor, and we have not had occasion to happen across anyone with knowledge of that foul language."

"Then your coming here was doubly fortuitous," Mincham replied, "For there are few indeed, even among the Dunedain, who take the pains to learn this tongue. I will apply what I know and attempt to translate it for you."

It did not take long. Without a word, Mincham handed the parchment back to me and I saw he had written with charcoal the Westron meanings for the words found on the paper. I took it to my companions, who were eager to finally learn the truth about it. I read Mincham's translation in a hoarse voice, my mind reeling from what it said.

They shall be called the Outriders of Elladan. The she-Elf shall lead them. She travels west by the Road toward Bree.

We all looked at each other. Several seconds passed, then we all began talking at once. It took a few moments for us all to regain our composure and have a meaningful conversation.

"How is this possible?" I asked in total surprise. "This can only mean the message was sent before our Company had ever been formed -- indeed before we had even met!"

"Dark magic!" said Nephyn, her eyes wide. "Does the Enemy have some power of seeing the future that has never been reported in the North?"

"No more than you or I," said Gaelira. "His knowledge is deep and it reaches far back in years, but even Sauron cannot truly read pages out of a tome that has not yet been written."

"Is there no indication of who wrote the letter, or to whom is was being sent?" asked Lagodir. I announced there was none.

"I cannot fathom who could have sent this message," Gaelira said, "But we may already know for whom it was intended. Recall now the foul presence which overcame Nephyn in the woods that night and which darkened our hearts as we searched for her the next day?"

"You think it was meant to reach Khamul?" asked Nephyn with a shudder.

"The Ringwraith?" Mincham was visibly concerned. "If the Nine have arisen again then it is dire news indeed. I have had no reports until now they were aboard in the lands once more."

"I fear it is true," said Gaelira. "But I am not certain what the revelation of this message means for us."

"Very little, I think," said Lagodir thoughtfully. "The identity of the author is a tantalizing mystery, but our mission to draw the eyes of the Enemy and challenge his forces in Eriador is not impacted by this. Not to my mind, at least."

"Nor mine," said Drodie, who had been munching on cram this entire time and seemed completely disinterested in the conversation. "Give me a row of goblin heads that need cleaving and I will be content -- you can keep your riddles."

I had to admit there was a certain simplicity to the way the Dwarf and the Gondorian chose to deal with this new information, and I found myself wishing I could do the same. And yet there was something about all this that just didn't make sense: how could servants of the Enemy know the name of our Company before we did? Why was Gaelira being watched before she ever even reached Bree? How was it known that she intended to form a band of adventurers on the advice of Elrond and Elladan, his son?

"And why is the name of our Company similar yet incorrect in the message?" It was Nephyn who was speaking, but it was as though she was giving voice to the thoughts which were running through my head at that very moment.

"That may be nothing more than the way the message was translated," said Gaelira.

"No," came Mincham's response, "It is not. The words were composed in a very deliberate manner to read The Outriders of Elladan, not Elladan's Outriders."

None of us had the slightest idea what this could mean. I looked at the parchment again and felt repulsed by it.

"Since this has brought us nothing but more uncertainty," I said, "I would just as soon destroy the hateful thing." I tossed it into Mincham's campfire, which was nearby. Gaelira sighed.

"I would have preferred to hold onto it a while longer and see whether it might have anything else to tell us," she said, "But perhaps this way is best. There is nothing more to be said about it now, in any case."

The day was growing old and we wished to reach the outskirts of Fornost before dark, so we said our farewells to Mincham and promised to return to him with a report of what we found, if we got the chance.

"Go with blessings of speed and stealth upon you," Mincham said to us as we departed. "If you should find the treasure-hunters' camp, look for a fellow Ranger among them. He is called Maedhrusc, and he may be able to aid you. He was camped with me here but decided to join the treasure-hunters for a closer look at the Enemy's movements within Fornost."

We thanked him and continued northward on the road. The way was long and dreary, and I found myself staring at the pavement before me rather than looking side-to-side. All I could see of the Fields of Fornost was a creeping gloom, as if the whole land around me was sick and dying. Ever and anon I might hear the howling of an animal, but the sound was loathsome as if it came from some tortured and miserable creature. Chills ran down my back, so I forced myself to think logically about the discarded Black Speech message some more as a distraction.

Putting aside any notions about black magic, I recognized the missive revealed two important things: first, that the name of our Company had been reported and, therefore, decided upon before I ever dreamed it up that sunny morning in Bree which seemed so long ago. Second, the same was true about Gaelira's decision to form the Company and to lead it. Suddenly, and unbidden, Luean's warning flashed into my mind again: trust no one. Could Gaelira have betrayed her plans to agents of the Enemy before reaching Bree? Maybe even before leaving Rivendell? I shook my head. The idea was absurd: why would the she-Elf want her movements to be known when she had argued in favor of secrecy every step of the way? And did not Luean himself accompany her from the first when departing Rivendell for Bree? I wished Luean was walking beside me so that I could ask him the answers to his riddle, which got me to thinking about his letter again.

Begin where three rivers meet.

Just then, I had a thought: if the Elf-scholar was trying to send me to some place where he would reveal his full message to me, wouldn't that place need to be somewhere I could reach it on foot? Of course! His riddle had to be directions to some spot within the North Downs, or at least reasonably close to it; otherwise I might spend weeks on such a journey and Luean knew I couldn't possibly survive by myself in the Wild for any long period of time. My heart started beating faster as I realized I was onto something solid at last. I ran up behind Nephyn, fairly bursting with a desire to tell her what I had just reasoned out.

But then I stopped myself, remembering Luean's warning again. Even my closest friend in this Company had to be treated as a suspect until I knew more. Could Nephyn be hiding anything from me? She always seemed so honest and straightforward -- not at all the type of person who would be capable of treachery. But then, I thought, she was the first person to mysteriously vanish in the middle of the night into the Chetwood -- the same night we now suspect the Ringwraith Khamul was in the vicinity. Was her succumbing to the Black Breath only a cover to remove her from suspicion? Was it she who had informed the Enemy of our Company and its members? Only days later we began encountering Orcs who knew us by sight. And wasn't her "escape" from the brigand camp all too timely and convenient? I wrung my hands in confusion and uncertainty, but I decided to play it safe for the moment.

"Nephyn, might I see your map of the North Downs?" I asked. "I... would like to trace a copy of it into my journal tonight, I think, since we have been doing so many important things here."

The huntress obliged me without question and I promised to return it in the morning. While we walked I looked it over searching for any place where three rivers might meet, but nothing seemed to fit. There were spots where small streams would fork, but at no point did three named rivers actually converge. I frowned and stuffed the map into my pocket, convinced the answer was something else entirely and I was overlooking it. I started to get frustrated, and that is bad for thinking, so I decided to drop it for now. In any case, we were approaching the outskirts of Fornost.

The outer wall of the ruined city was an impressive facade of stone, and it must have been an incredible stronghold once, but that was now many long years ago. The stonework was tumbled and fallen in many places, and here and there one could see the smoke of campfires billowing skyward. Even from a distance you could make out spots where Orcs and goblins had toiled to erect barricades and other makeshift defences where the original walls had failed or were weak, and the shapes of Wargs could be seen prowling in the failing light. I swallowed hard and tried to pretend I wasn't utterly terrified.

It turns out that the city of Fornost is so large that the Orcs were not able to properly guard the walls: their sentries were too spread out to offer any effective resistance to a determined forcible entry. We overwhelmed a few guards and slipped behind their lines.

Once through the outer patrols, we found that the courtyards between the walls and the city proper were almost entirely devoid of enemies. There were a few roaming boars and one or two bears (all of which looked like they had been stricken with some nasty disease), but we encountered no more Orcs. The Sun had nearly set and I was just wondering whether the treasure-hunting party Mincham had told us about had ever managed to reach this place when we heard voices coming from around a corner.

Nestled amid the ruins of what looked to be some ancient storehouse or possibly an inn, we discovered a group of more than a dozen sturdy Men and Women. They were not pleased to see us and dealt with us poorly, as though they expected us to rob them during them night, but we did finally locate Mincham's Ranger-friend Maedhrusc. He was a clean-shaven but brusque sort -- the type of Man who made it plain he had no time for trifling. He didn't seem my kind of chap, so I let Gaelira and the others do the talking for me while I settled down to grab a bite to eat.

As I munched on an apple, I thought about all of the questions we had which needed answering, then I thought about how I had more questions than anyone in the Company. I ran Luean's riddle through my mind again, and once again I found myself irritated that I could not seem to remember the meaning of Aure entuluva, even though I was positive I had heard it somewhere before. I tried to focus in on that, but I was interrupted by the loud thump! of Drodie sitting down near me.

"What were you all talking with the Ranger about then?" I asked, trying to make conversation.

"Dunno. Wasn't listening," answered the Dwarf as he buried his head inside the food-bag. I sighed audibly, not bothering to conceal my annoyance since I was confident Drodie wouldn't care how I felt anyway, and he didn't. I raised an eyebrow at him as he crammed some cold beef into his mouth. Could Drodie be the one Luean was warning me against? It wasn't likely: the Dwarf hardly seemed to care about anyone or anything other than food, beer, tobacco, and the next fight, unless perhaps it was showing up his fellows through feats of physical prowess. And yet, I had heard tales of some Dwarves which had allied themselves with the Dark Powers and they were, as a race, rather more disposed toward duplicity than others. There is no telling what a Dwarf might do to right a perceived wrong or recover something he claims as his own.

I sighed again and banished the thoughts from my head: there was nothing to be done about it aside from watch and wait, and tomorrow might prove a fateful day for us. I decided that whatever matters of darkness and despair the others had been discussing with Maedhrusc could wait for the morning. At the moment, it didn't look as if any morning could penetrate the dense blanket of clouds hanging low over our heads.

The Company gathered around one of the campfires and prepared to settle in for the night with almost no talk for fear of the enemies that were still very near. Gaelira went to join the treasure-hunters' sentries at the watch while the rest of us tried to get some sleep. Drodie was the first to drop off and we had to stifle his snoring with a dirty sack to keep from attracting the Orcs. Nephyn bade me good night and expressed her hope that she would not experience her disturbing dream a third time before also plunging into slumber. For myself, I began nodding even before Nephyn was asleep but, just before my eyes shut, I saw Lagodir walk off to a solitary corner of the ruins and sit down, alone, with his head bowed as if he was deep in thought. Or maybe it was remorse? But the last grain of my mental energy had been spent, and I slept through the night, though uneasily.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 18

The Riddle-Master

Monday, 18th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Dwarf-mines of Othrikar, Somewhere in the North Downs
Birgir Listmaker
I must be careful as I write this. As unusual and extraordinary as my companions have been, I have never felt alone so long as they were with me... but now I find myself questioning everything. And everyone.

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders have, so far, been daring, exciting, moving, and wondrous; sometimes all at once! But believe me when I tell you, Dear Reader, that nothing could have prepared me for what happened today. I can say with absolute certainty that the 18th of Afteryule has been the most bizarre day of this adventure so far, and I will now recount for you exactly what happened.

I was shaken into wakefulness this morning by Drodie, who made no effort to be gentle about it. After waving him off and assuring him his manhandling (or hobbit-handling) was a success, I took note of how early it still was. There wasn't the faintest glimmer of dawn in the sky over Esteldin, and the night-speech of frogs and insects was loud on the air. Even our little campfire hadn't completely burned out: I could still see smoldering embers and smell the charcoal from where I lay.

"What the blazes is the time?" I asked while letting off an enormous yawn. "This business of getting up while the Sun is still dreaming isn't to my liking at all."

"Nor mine," said the Dwarf as he kicked Lagodir's prostrate form a few yards away. "But the Elf says we are to move before it is light, so up you get. I only hope there is time for a bite and a pipe first."

Drodie went off to rummage through the food-bags while I got to my feet and stretched in every direction. Looking about me, I saw that Nephyn was already awake and appeared to be busy stocking her quiver with arrows from the Rangers' considerable hoard. Lagodir roused himself quickly and immediately began to assemble his belongings. He seemed singularly focused on his task, so I decided to make conversation with the huntress instead. I trotted over to where she sat on a crude wooden stool with her back to me as she counted her shafts and checked their fletching. Her bow lay on the turf a foot or two to one side, and I noticed she now wore a hooded cloak with the cowl drawn over her head.

"Good morning, Nephyn!" I said as cheerfully as I could, despite not being quite sure whether the greeting made any sense in the darkness of the late watches. I wondered what mood she might be in after the events of the previous evening.

"Good morning, friend Padryc," came Nephyn's answer, but she did not turn to face me. There was an awkward pause.

"Stocking up on arrows?" I asked, innocently trying to make talk with her. "Does this mean your shoulder is doing better then?"

"Very much so, and thank you for asking," came the reply. "It is still a bit sore if I move it too suddenly, but I feel its strength returning. I have no doubt I will be as good as ever in another day or two." She finished working with her arrows and stood to sling her quiver on her back. As she did so, I reached down to retrieve her bow and offered it to her.

"Ah, thank you for that," she said as she turned toward me to take it. It was then I saw that, in addition to having her hood drawn, she also wore a mask over her face so that only her eyes could be seen through the cloth. I had seen several of the Rangers in Esteldin similarly masked, but I can't deny I was surprised at this change in Nephyn's appearance, and I'm sure my face showed it.

"Well!" I said, not quite sure what to make of this, "That's a... different look for you." Her eyes stared out at me from behind the mask, but it was uncertainty I saw there, not defiance.

"Yes, well," she said haltingly, "I just felt the need for a change, I guess." I'm not sure why, but something about all this made me just a bit annoyed. Perhaps I felt the huntress was taking last night's conversation with Lagodir a little too seriously; something about her actions smelt to me of self-pity.

"So I see," I answered, trying to sound nonchalant. "I must say I'm going to miss the rest of your face as I had always rather liked it. Was there anyone in particular you were hoping to not recognize you?"

Those dark eyes became downcast, but before I had a chance to see whether I had offended her, Gaelira hailed us from behind. I turned to see the she-Elf, Drodie, and Lagodir walking toward us.

"I must apologize for rousing you all in this manner," Gaelira said as she approached, "But despite our victory at Dol Dinen Halbarad insists we must leave Esteldin only under cover of darkness. There are still many enemies about and we must take all precautions to ensure their refuge is not discovered by any spy."

We all agreed this was worth the untimely awakening and proceeded to ask about our plans for the day.

"I was deep in talk with Halbarad far into the night," Gaelira said in response. "The Ranger-captain fears the time is coming when his people's tactics will no longer be sufficient to hold back the Shadows of Angmar and that a co-operation from the other folk throughout the North Downs to join forces may be necessary in order to ensure their collective survival. He is arranging for emissaries to be sent to the inhabitants of Trestlebridge as well as the Elves at Lin Giliath, but he has asked if we could appeal to the Dwarves of Othrikar in this matter. Since one of our number is a Dwarf, it seemed fitting that we should do this, assuming none of the Company objects."

None of us did object, though there were many questions about Othrikar and our mission there. Looking at Nephyn's map, we saw there was a small Dwarf-settlement a short distance to the northwest of Esteldin -- it would not take more than an hour or two to reach on foot. We gathered our things quickly as Halbarad bid us farewell.

"We will always have need of your courage, brave adventurers," he said to us as we departed, "You are welcome back here at any time."

"Any time except when the Sun is in the sky, you mean," said Drodie, but he laughed as he said it. Halbarad and the rest of us laughed alongside him.

"Score one for the Dwarf," Halbarad said with a wide grin. "I do beg your pardon for the inconvenience, but I know you understand the danger. The time is coming, I deem, when stealth will no longer avail us, and perhaps that time is not now far-off, but it is not come yet."

After a few more pleasantries, we left the Valley of Hope through the western path, the way by which we had first entered it two days ago. As soon as we had cleared the mountain's face we turned northward and allowed a series of hills to screen us from any unfriendly eyes. After scrabbling through some difficult terrain and climbing a steep slope, we emerged atop a hill just as the first rays of dawn were growing behind us. To our backs, the mountain-wall was outlined in sharp blackness as the Sun waxed behind them. Before us, the North Downs stretched out wide and grey in the morning light. There were a few farms visible in the dimness where plots of tilled earth and minute fences carved the landscape into neat little squares. To the southwest, we could see the road running north-south as well as the juncture with the track which led away west, back toward the Greenway and Trestlebridge. It was at that point we had turned off the road two days earlier to find Esteldin, but now our path led northward, toward a rocky and mountainous country. Looking that direction, I saw the road climb into the craggy hills before it vanished in the half-light. Somewhere that way was the Dwarf-settlement of Othrikar, where we were headed. I took a moment to breathe deeply of the morning air, which was turning damp as the warmth of the dawn stole across the quiet plains. Here and there fogs and mists lingered in the hollows and dells which pocked the landscape.

"It's a shame, really," I said as I looked at the sight before me. "If it weren't for the invading armies of marauding Orcs I think I would quite like the North Downs. I might have contemplated building a farm of my own out here; even the Bree-land has nothing on this place for peace and quiet."

"That's because this place is on the brink of war," Gaelira said solemnly. "As for peace and quiet: the quiet comes from the fact that all of those farms you see are abandoned by their owners, who have fled for their lives and those of their families. And do not conflate peace with quiet -- there is no peace here no matter how quiet it might seem at present."

"Oh!" I said, quite crestfallen. "You always were one for ruining a pleasant moment, Gaelira."

"I see things for what they are," came her terse reply. I decided to change the subject.

"Drodie, what can you tell us of this Othrikar place?" I asked. "Do you have any relatives there or anything?"

"No," said the Dwarf with his usual brevity. "It is a mining colony, or so I had always heard back in the Blue Mountains. The word was they mined iron there, so I expect it will be a fairly dull place."

"Do you think they will heed Halbarad's call-to-arms?" Lagodir asked (none too hopefully, it sounded to me).

"Not unless they themselves have been directly affected by the dangers that beset Halbarad," came Drodie's reply.

"Wonderful," I muttered as I turned my eyes back to the vista in front of us. That's when I noticed a sort of spike at the very pinnacle of one of the tallest peaks away to the north. The light of the sky could be seen through it and it looked not at all to be a natural rock formation.

"What is that there?" I asked aloud while pointing to the object of my attention. Everyone followed my finger to see what had prompted the query.

"I am unsure," said Gaelira as she peered with her keen eyes. "It was made by hands, whatever it is."

"It looks to me to be some sort of signal fire," said Lagodir, who was leaning forward and looking hard. "My people use similar structures, built on the highest peaks of the White Mountains, to call for aid in times of great need. This design is very different, of course, but it seems plausible enough."

"Plausible, surely," Drodie agreed, "But who would they be signalling to? That is what I wonder."

We descended from the hill and made our way to the road. It wasn't long before we reached it and began following it northward. As we did so, I found myself straying close to Lagodir and decided to have a private chat with him while we walked.

"I trust you are not feeling as groggy as I am this morning?" I asked him in a low voice that only he would be able to hear. "If only there were bacon and eggs frying up somewhere nearby then I would be wide awake indeed!"

"I suppose not," Lagodir replied with a chuckle. "I've spent enough uncomfortable nights alone in the Wild to miss such simple pleasures myself."

"By the way," I said confidentially, "I spoke with Nephyn a bit after we talked with her last night. I thought you should know she doesn't hold anything against you."

"That is well," he answered. There was a short pause and then he added, "Thank you, Padryc. You have lifted a shadow from my heart by telling me this."

"It is something she will have to work through on her own, I think," I said wistfully, but I was pondering the tall Man's previous statement. "I was wondering... you seem to have fought on many of Gondor's borders. Were you a captain or some great general there once?" Lagodir kept his eyes on the road in front of us.

"I was a sergeant-at-arms." He said this in a way that sounded to me as though I was prodding into unwelcome territory.

"I see! That is most impressive," I said. "I was just curious, you know, since you've mentioned being in more than a few battles."

"I have seen my share of conflict," came the reply. I felt strangely determined to overcome the Gondorian's obstructionism. I knew it was really none of my business, but between Lagodir's tight lips, Nephyn's unknown background, Gaelira's curious aloofness, and the Dwarf's natural secretiveness I admit I was starting to get a little put out.

"Are the soldiers of Gondor often permitted to go on long and dangerous journeys to unknown lands?" I asked as innocently as I could manage.

"No," was the answer. "No, they are not." But it was a hint of sadness, not anger, that I heard in his voice. Something made me decide to let the matter rest. In any case, we were nearing our destination.

By the time the Sun had risen over the tips of the mountains which hid Esteldin behind us and to our right, we had begun our approach into Othrikar. The road started to climb upward then ran under a stone archway of impressive workmanship lit with stone braziers on either side. Passing through the archway, we saw a bustling mining colony of Dwarves with folk passing hither and thither on seemingly constant business. Because the locals were so unwilling to talk to outsiders, it took us some time to locate their leader and explain what we were doing in the midst of their operations.

Quartermaster Orgrin was a (relatively) agreeable Dwarf who spoke for the inhabitants of Othrikar. He seemed to understand our mission from Halbarad and was fairly easily convinced that his people might need to lend their arms in the common defence of the North Downs if things came to such a pass. He did, however, require some form of payment -- just like a Dwarf. There had been problems lately with another tribe of Dwarves, the Dourhands, raiding Othrikar, and Orgrin wished us to put a stop to it.

I won't go into the details of our skirmishes against the Dourhands; it was dirty and necessary work, but it was nothing particularly interesting. It was what happened afterward that made the day truly extraordinary.

We had driven off the Dourhands and returned to the mining colony just as the sky was beginning to soften with the coming of dusk. After delivering our report to the quartermaster and earning his gratitude (along with assurances of alliance with the Rangers in any coming conflict), we were permitted to spend the night among his people. We started to settle ourselves down after a good day's work and got to gossipping with some of the locals. They seemed rather more disposed to speak with us now that their leader had indicated his trust by arranging for us to deal with the Dourhand problem. It was during these chit-chat sessions that we heard Drodie conversing with some of the other Dwarves in their own tongue. When we asked what he was saying to them, Drodie would tell us nothing.

"The Dwarves do not teach their native language to other races," Gaelira told us. "Even the names they go by in everyday talk are not their true names, and they reveal them to few." I wondered what Drodie's "true name" might be and whether I might ever be thought worthy of knowing it.

"It certainly sounds difficult to learn," said Lagodir, who had been listening with interest. "Does it take many years to master?"

"Aye, many," came Drodie's abrupt response, but he wouldn't give any rationale for his assertion.

"I wonder," said Nephyn, who had hardly said a word throughout most of the day, "But if I were inclined to try and learn another tongue, I can't say Dwarvish would be at the top of my list -- it doesn't seem I would have many others to speak it with!"

"Too right, you are," I agreed. "Now, if some of these chaps around here knew the Black Speech, that might prove handy," I continued, lowering my voice. "Then perhaps we could finally translate that parchment I've been carrying about with me."

"Why, I had completely forgotten you were still holding onto that accursed thing!" Nephyn exclaimed. "Have you tried asking any of the folk around here? It seems unlikely enough, but you never know unless you try, I suppose."

"Have you spoken with Birgir Listmaster?" Drodie asked me.

"Who?"

"He is the closest thing this camp has to a scholar," the Dwarf said. "I don't see any reason he would have to learn the speech of the Enemy's thralls, but if anyone here might have done, it would be him."

Birgir Listmaster was an ornery, white-haired Dwarf with a massive scar across his face who sat at a little desk off on his own. Apparently he is responsible for issuing mining tasks to the other Dwarves and also for all of the settlement's record-keeping and inventorying. I agreed to go and consult with him while the others set about preparing supper.

I walked up to Birgir's desk, which was littered with papers and scrolls of all kinds. He was grumbling about something to himself when I approached and took no notice of me whatsoever. I gave a polite cough, but it had no effect on Birgir's concentration.

"Excuse me," I said finally. The Dwarf's shaggy, white head stopped swaying about and jutted toward me. I saw his left eye was gone, the long scar running right across where it should be. His remaining eye stabbed at me like a dagger, full of irritation and annoyance.

"Hmm?" Birgir said in a gravelly voice. "Who's that? What d'ye want? Can't ye see I'm busy?"

"Yes, yes, I do see that," I said apologetically. "I was just wondering whether you might have a moment to look at this and, if you could, tell me what it means?" I quickly dug into my pack, found the Black Speech message by feel, and handed it to the old Dwarf.

Birgir didn't take his eyes off me as he snatched the message out of my hand. Then he opened it, took one look at the words, and threw the parchment into my face.

"I've no time for riddles! Now leave me be!"

I gave the taskmaster a quick bow, retrieved the parchment from the ground where it had fallen, and returned to the Company.

"Any luck?" Drodie asked as I approached.

"No," I said, defeated. "He just told me to go away -- says he has no time for riddles."

"No time for...?" Npehyn asked. "So, he can read it, then? How else would he know it's a riddle?"

"No, I... wait, what?" I asked. I had just assumed Birgir only meant he had no time to be deciphering indecipherable text. "Oh! I see... I will try again!"

I scarpered back to where the old Dwarf was still grumbling and shifting through his paperwork. I had intended to march right up to his little desk, slam the parchment in front of him and demand he read it to me. But, as I lifted the parchment in preparation for my gambit, I suddenly froze. I was not carrying the Black Speech message at all! There in my hands was some other missive I had never seen before! It was folded over and on the outside were written these words:

Dear Padryc,
I hope you find this. Trust NO ONE.
Luean

My heart pounded and my mouth went dry. In a flash I realized that Luean must have slipped this note into my pack while we had said our goodbyes back in Lin Giliath! My head was in a whirl of confusion.

"HEY!"

I jumped, realizing I was the one being shouted at. It was Birgir Listmaker, who was furious with my second intrusion upon him and his messy desk.

"Don't just stand there gawking!" he yelled. "Tell me what ye need or move along!"

My mouth opened, but no sound came out. I gave an incredibly awkward bow and nearly fell over myself as I beat a retreat. The Dwarf went back to his work, muttering about Halflings and their absurd manners. My mind was racing as I walked back to the Company. Drodie was getting a fire going while Nephyn and Lagodir were unpacking some food. Gaelira was off speaking with Quartermaster Orgrin again. I stood there witless for a second before gaining the presence of mind to put Luean's message into my pocket just as Nephyn turned to me.

"And how was the second effort?" she asked. In that moment, I wanted more than anything to tell my friends that I had discovered a secret letter from Luean, but I remembered the warning he had written. I felt my ears flush as I plunged headlong into a lie.

"He just got angrier," I said, trying my best to sound convincing. "He said he'd box my ears if I bothered him again." I suddenly became aware that my hand was still in my pocket and jerked it out. Nephyn was incensed.

"He said what?!" she asked, incredulous. "After everything we did for this two-bit mining operation? How dare he! Let's all go have words with this Dwarf together and see if we can't teach him some manners!"

"No!" I squeaked. "No, no! He only... that is... I think we should just let it go," I ended lamely.

"I am with Nephyn in this," said Drodie unexpectedly. "We Dwarves may be coarse, but we don't abide rudeness -- particularly when you consider this encampment is in our debt!" I felt the bottom drop out from my stomach; my lifetime's new grand total of experience at lying consisted entirely of the last eight seconds and already I was about to bring people to blows.

"No, wait!" I cried, throwing myself in their path. I couldn't risk them discovering my deception now that I had committed to it. "I was right, you see: he only meant that he couldn't read it since it was in a language he doesn't know, and that's what he meant when he said 'riddles,' you see. Because he can't read it, so it's a riddle to him. That's what he meant." There was an incredibly awkward pause. I held my breath.

"Well, if he can't read it then he can't read it," Nephyn said in resignation. "I could still wish he would treat you with a little more kindness, though."

I breathed again as the Company went back to its own business. I hung about for a bit to share a hot meal, but I took the first opportunity I could find to slip away on my own. While Drodie was schooling the others on the various tribes of Dwarves, the Dourhands, and the origins of their feud with the Longbeards, I snuck off down the path to a farther end of Othrikar. I wandered some until I came to the end of a walkway bordered with a low wall. I hopped over and sat on the edge of the cliff. The wind whipped around me as I drew out the paper which had just upended everything. My hands trembled with anticipation as I re-read the outer cover, then I opened the letter and read these words:

Begin where three rivers meet.
Aure entuluva!
Mount the steed before you,
and turn it about.
Behold the bones;
Three high and six across,
Just south of the crescent moon.

I read the staves again and again. I looked out from the cliff where I stood with the whole of the North Downs rolling away before me. What could the riddle mean? Was I in danger? I looked again at the warning on the outside of the letter: Trust no one. What was it Luean had learned and what was he trying to tell me?

Suddenly, I heard footsteps approaching from behind. Stuffing the letter into my pocket, I whirled around to find Nephyn walking up the path.

"Padryc!" she called to me. "Are you alright? It's not like you to wander off on your own."

"I'm fine," I answered, but I did not draw closer to her. "I just... wanted a bit of quiet after the day's excitement is all. It's... It's quite lovely up here. Marvellous view. And I thought I saw a periwinkle just now. Love periwinkles." Nephyn stared at me.

"Well, as long as you're safe," she said slowly. She turned and began to walk back towards the colony. The huntress stopped and faced me again.

"I just want you to know," she said in a clear voice, "That you're really a very special hobbit. Special to all of us, I mean; we're very fortunate to have you. I'm very lucky to have found someone in whom I can trust." Her last word echoed in my mind like some kind of terrible gong.

"Thank you very much," was all I managed to say in return. She looked at me a moment longer, then turned to walk back down the path to rejoin the others. I stood and watched her for several seconds, wondering how many friendships I might have to sacrifice to keep up this charade.

I walked around miserably for a short time. The wind moaned eerily in the crevices of the Dwarven stone-work, as if mocking my plight. If Luean's letter was true, there was a traitor within the Company! But how could this be? I had come to know the stories of each of my companions over time, and no one had ever struck me as suspicious. Then my thoughts went to Lagodir: what was that Man doing here, so far from his home? And he, more than any of the others, was constantly deflecting questions about his past. Dark theories began to form in my mind like mists above a noxious bog. I shook my head to clear through the cobwebs of doubt, trying to focus on what I knew rather than what I feared.

That's when I heard voices. I stopped and discovered my aimless pacing had taken me a short ways closer toward the center of Othrikar. Just in front of me was a stone platform about five feet off the ground and jutting out from under a huge boulder. I shrank next to the rock to hide myself from view, for I could see Gaelira and Nephyn seated by a small campfire, and it was their voices I had heard. In light of what had happened today, I confess I decided to do a little eavesdropping.

"It is such a big world," I heard Gaelira saying, "Yet it seems so small at times. Already we are close to the passes which will lead us to Angmar -- our goal."

"Have you ever been there?" Nephyn asked.

"Only as far as Aughaire, with a party of Elves and Rangers, long ago. I certainly hope the courage of our Company holds to see us through to that place."

"As do I," Nephyn replied. "Though I think there's no need to worry about Drodie or even Lagodir on that account. What do you make of our hobbit's recent behaviour?" I pricked up my ears.

"I think he may be a little insecure at seeing the world for what it is, yet he surprises himself with his own valour," Gaelira said. "He has an inner strength that will carry us all through."

"He surprises all of us," said Nephyn with a laugh. "Who ever heard of a Halfling doing the sorts of things he has done with us? Save only perhaps Mad Baggins, from the children's tales."

"I find them to be a very strange people," the she-Elf said. "And yet it was 'Mad Baggins' who set many great events in motion some 60 years ago. It seems much is fated to revolve around the Little Folk."

"Fate has dealt us a strange hand indeed," Nephyn said. "But it also seems fitting: what we are doing we are doing as much for his Shire as for any of our homes -- these times affect us all. It makes me sick to think that anything might happen to such a peaceful place as the Shire is reported to be."

"Sadly, the Shire is in as much danger as any of us. You have seen already that the Bree-land is no refuge, despite the fact most of its inhabitants do not yet see the danger. Which reminds me: you strike me as considerably better trained than some ordinary huntress stalking game through the woods. Was it your Ranger friend who taught you the ways of the warrior?"

"Saerdan?" Nephyn asked. "Yes, he taught me almost everything I know about hunting, tracking, and just taking care of myself in general. His cabin became my 'home away from inn.'"

"If I see him again I will definitely thank him, for he taught you well."

"That is high praise, coming from an Elf!"

"I only speak the truth," Gaelira said. There was a brief silence. I took a chance and peeped out from behind the boulder to see Nephyn, her hood cast off and looking at her mask as she held it in her hands. For some reason, I decided to reveal myself at that point, but I felt it was best not to let on that I had been listening in on their conversation.

"Hullo!" I said cheerily as I walked up to them. "Mind if I join you?"

"Not at all," said Nephyn with a smile, "And this time it's not on a patch of dirt!"

"Quite so!" I said as I sat on the hard stone tiles. "I expect I'll sleep soundly tonight. I never thought I'd survive this long without a proper bed and a bath."

"This Company is proving to be quite extraordinary, in many ways," Gaelira said with a grin. "And the hardier we become the better: Angmar is an unforgiving wasteland. But, if we stick together and trust each other, I know we can win in the end."

"I'm glad you can be so optimistic," I said a bit gloomily. "I wonder if things will ever be the same again in my lifetime."

"The Enemy will be defeated," Gaelira replied. "At great cost, it may be, but his evil cannot prevail. Not so long as a single Elf still stands in Middle-earth."

"But how long will that be for?" asked Lagodir, who came striding up to join us with Drodie in tow. "Your kind is leaving these shores. I have no doubt that you intend to stand with us through this great darkness, but how many will stand with you?" Nephyn nodded.

"We have already lost one of our number to the call of the Undying Lands," she said quietly.

"Yes, I miss Raviron," I agreed. "I wish he hadn't gone to seek the Havens. And now old Luean has abandoned us as well, it seems." I spoke lightly, but Luean's riddle was raging through my mind like a hurricane.

"Lost companions are a hard blow," said Lagodir as he gazed up at the sky. The Moon had waxed to the full and was riding low above us that night. Lagodir sighed. "Those who are dearer than blood might be lost to us, but still we must soldier on. Even when the night sky itself might remind us of what we have lost." We all looked at the Moon. I wondered what the Man's words might have meant about himself, but I had too many other things to think about this night.

"Well, I should get to my writing before I forget and nod off," I said. In truth, I wasn't the least bit tired.

"The hobbit has the right of it," said Nephyn. "If we stay chatting any longer we'll have talked the night away, and we all need our rest for what lies ahead."

The Company began to settle down for the night, but I crept quietly off into a corner, out of sight of the others, to record what had happened today. The bizarre revelation of Luean's cryptic message had thrown my whole world into a tailspin of doubt and intrigue. Again I stealthily drew out the letter and read the strange lines once more, but I was no more able to make anything of them than the first time I had read them. It seemed clear that Luean was using this riddle to convey a message to me, and perhaps the staves were the map that would lead me to that message. But where to begin? I kept puzzling over the words again and again until my poor head was nearly bursting, but I could get no nearer. My eyes began to droop from the mental exertion, so I carefully tucked the missive back into my satchel and curled up to rest. I slept fitfully as my dreams were invaded by queer images of rivers, horses, skeletons, and crescent moons all dancing together confusedly under the burning red glow of a setting sun.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 17

An Uproar on the Silent Hill

Sunday, 17th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Esteldin, Somewhere in the North Downs
A goblin of Dol Dinen
I opened my eyes this morning to find the beak of a large, black bird thrust into my face! I gave a cry and sat up with a jerk, at which it fluttered away onto a pile of tumbled stone and croaked at me in a loud and accusatory tone. Steadying my nerves, I rubbed my eyes and peered at the bird a second time.

"Hremm!" I said, recognizing Gaelira's raven-friend from our adventures in the Barrow-downs. "Where did you come from? I thought we had left you back in the Bree-land."

"You know this animal?" asked Lagodir, who was nearby sharpening his broadsword. "I had taken note that the raven had been shadowing our steps all up the Greenway and even into Trestlebridge, but I thought we had lost him in Nan Wathren. I had not seen him since we entered that place, so I never said anything about it. Some soldiers of Gondor (I am one) have been assigned to patrol the garden-province of Ithilien on our eastern border which is nigh to the Black Country, and one of the things we are taught is to observe the movements of the fowl there, so I tend to notice these things. What is your history with the bird?"

"Oh, he had helped us find our way about in the Barrow-downs some days back," I answered as I continued to eye the raven. Hremm cocked his head at me as if he were listening. "I certainly didn't expect to see him again, and I'm sure Gaelira will be happy to do so. She is able to speak to the bird, you know; it's a curious thing to watch."

"It that so?" Lagodir asked with interest. "It was said in Gondor that some of our bygone lore-masters knew this skill, but I have never seen it performed in my lifetime. It could be most useful to have such a companion for the bringing and sending of tidings, you may be sure."

"Useful, indeed," said Gaelira as the she-Elf and Halbarad came striding quickly up to our campsite. "And I have made great use of our friend, though you may not have noticed it." The rest of the Company began to assemble and we greeted Halbarad with kind words and gracious thanks for his people's hospitality. Drodie gave a short and polite bow to the Ranger-captain then shot a disapproving look at Hremm out of the corner of his eye, but said nothing.

"From the bird, we have learned that the Orc-army is still mired in the hills and gullies of Dol Dinen, a good march south of Esteldin," said Halbarad. "Despite their losses to the stone-trolls of Taur Gonwaith, it is still a very great force and the siege weapons they have brought with them from Angmar are the source of much fear throughout these lands." It looked to me almost as if the morning light accentuated the lines of worry on his proud face. I found myself wondering whether someone so strong and masterful could possibly be as old as he now appeared to me.

"But Hremm has also informed us of two other threats," said Gaelira. "A force of Hillmen has entered the North Downs through the eastern passes of the Ram Duath, the mountain range which separates this land from Angmar in the north. They are a much smaller force than the Orcs, but they are fierce enemies. The final threat takes the form of large worms slithering through the western Ram Duath. There have been rumours of dragons occupying those crags, and this has caused much consternation among the Free Folk of this region. For today, we should choose among these three dangers and decide how to deal with them."

"Do not forget Fornost to the west," Halbarad broke in. "I do not think you should attempt any excursion into that place for now, not at least until we get some report from Mincham who is stationed there, but the Enemy's occupation of that ruin cannot be ignored as a threat."

"Duly noted," Gaelira replied with a slight nod of her head. "How then shall the Company proceed?"

"I vote for the dragons!" I said with great enthusiasm. Everyone stared at me.

"What?" I asked, unashamed. "Seems the least dangerous task to me: everyone knows there ain't no such things as dragons, so why should I be afraid of them?"

"Isn't that what you said about spiders the size of a moose?" asked Nephyn with a sly grin. I had to admit she had got me there.

"I am not doubting the valour of this Company," said Lagodir, clearly worried, "But do you think our weapons and equipment would be up to the task were we to encounter such beasts?"

"No," said Drodie as he leaned carelessly on his sword-hilt. He said this with a thudding finality that made me think twice about the existence of dragons.

"I don't think you would really encounter full-sized dragons in the Ram Duath," Halbarad said slowly. "Dragons have a way of making themselves known, even if it is infrequently over the course of many long years. Their bastard children, the worms, however, are another matter entirely. They are much smaller than dragons, cannot fly, and (mostly) have no power of fire in them, but they are deadly adversaries for all that. A sizeable nest of worms is not a threat to be underestimated."

"It would seem we have no shortage of tasks before us then," said Gaelira as she turned to Halbarad. "How would you advise us in this matter?"

"The worms I do not think have any concern with us at all, even if they are a menace and a danger," Halbarad answered. "And the purpose of the Hillmen is not yet clear to me, although I have no doubt they mean us ill. But the Orcs at Dol Dinen are an army in search of its foe, that is: us. They are also the largest and most well supplied enemy among those we now face; I consider them to be the gravest threat at this time."

"I think that settles the question for us, then," said Lagodir as he stood and hoisted his sword.

"Aye, let our foes tremble at our coming," Drodie said, sheathing his short-sword.

"I was up before dawn to practice with bow and shaft," said Nephyn, "And my shoulder has almost fully recovered from its wound. My bow shall sing many times before the Sun sets this day."

"Then it is decided," said Gaelira. "The Outriders shall strike at the heart of the Enemy's forces in the North Downs; we make for Dol Dinen as soon as we are ready."

At that, Hremm gave a load croak and flew off eastward. I followed his flight with my eyes a short distance, but there was much to do as we prepared to move out.

"Dratted bird," I heard Drodie growl from nearby. I recalled he had never liked having Hremm about, although his distaste for the raven was baseless and even pointless. I kept my mouth shut.

"Oh, don't start that again," said Nephyn to the Dwarf with a laugh. "The raven aided us twice in the Barrow-downs and has just given us an excellent understanding of the types and locations of our foes here in the North Downs. I expect now he is off to scout our path and ensure the way to Dol Dinen is free of any enemies."

"Of course that is what he is doing," said Gaelira with clear irritation in her voice. "So please keep your absurd suspicions to yourself, Master Dwarf." Drodie just shrugged his shoulders and turned away.

It didn't take us long to get ourselves in order and set out. At Halbarad's instruction, we found a path leading out of Esteldin by a winding dirt track which went up into the hills and emerged onto the eastern Nan Amlug plains. Once on the other side we struck southward, making our way toward a cloudy horizon. The journey was almost enjoyable as I gazed at the tall pines, waving grasses, grazing aurochs, and the occasional pool along the way. But there was a brooding stillness in that land which did not seem to be the calm of peace. After some time, we found ourselves passing along a clear road which climbed to the top of a low ridge. Astride this, we looked down upon Dol Dinen and we caught our breath.

The landscape was dominated by a large but not very high hill, yet there were dells, ridges, and smaller knolls everywhere. The earth itself was darkened, as if it were dead or burned, and as far as my eyes could see there were fires: some small and some enormous, but they were all spewing their black smoke into the air to the point where a dun cloud had settled over that place, blocking out the Sun. Here and there we could see the siege engines Halbarad had mentioned, and everywhere we saw small dots moving to and fro: soldiers of the Enemy.

"What a dismal sight," I said as I looked out over the area. A dull, sullen red haze seemed to hang over the hills before us and the air was hazy with smoke.

"Oh, I don't know," said Nephyn airily. "It doesn't seem so bad to me." We all stared at her.

"Well, I'm not saying I would want to build a summer home here or anything," she laughed, "But the few trees that are still alive are actually quite lovely."

"And what about the O-R-C-S-es?" I asked emphatically.

"The Orcses?" said Nephyn with a raised eyebrow. "I do believe far fewer of them are about to exist."

"Our adversary has fortified this area," said Gaelira as she pointed down into the vale. "Look, you can see they have thrown up a network of barricades and fences in many places, and the natural landscape here will make our business a slow one."

"I have not Elf-eyes," said Lagodir as he patted his broadsword, "But I have seen enough of Orcs and their defilements to know our enemy lies before us. Let us go down and clear these vipers from their pit!"

I could not possibly record every step of our endeavors in Dol Dinen, for to do so might take a week or longer. We encountered all manner of Orcs, goblins, trolls, and other foul creatures in that place, but we were always careful to never engage too many of them at any one time. Although the force encamped there was large indeed, it also seemed to be very poorly commanded and consisted mainly of clumps of enemies congregating in smaller clusters. But carefully choosing the exact location and manner of our attacks, we were able to ensure we always outnumbered our opponents and none of them escaped our wrath to raise the alarm, which would have brought the entire camp down on us at one time. In this manner, we succeeded in carving a swath of destruction in a meandering sort of way throughout much of Dol Dinen while never being detected by the army at large. Along our path, we sighted many of the infamous siege weapons which Lagodir showed us how to disable. The Gondorian did not try to hide his concern over these.

"These engines are too complicated for Orcs to have designed and developed," he said after we had crippled a catapult. "And the workmanship on most of these is too advanced even for goblins to have built. I like it not at all."

"The Iron Crown has many servants and many allies," said Gaelira, unabashed.

By removing the key pins, levers, and pulleys which made the engines work, we managed to decimate the Orcs' ability to deploy their most fearsome arsenal. We also defeated a good number of larger and more important Orcs who were probably captains within the force. One of the most effective ways of neutralizing an Orc warband is to slay its leaders, and we slew several before we became tired enough to think about turning back toward Esteldin.

We chose our exit route carefully and avoided many more entanglements before finally emerging out from under the pall of Dol Dinen. I blinked in surprise as I saw the sky still broad with daylight.

"Well!" I said, more than a little relieved to have left the orc-camp behind us, "It's a fine day and a bright Sun after all. You would have never known it under that dismal cloud. I certainly hope we won't be going back there anytime soon."

"I think that, between our infiltration, the trolls of Taur Gonwaith, and the Rangers' constant skirmishes, the strength of the Orcs of Dol Dinen has been considerably reduced," said Nephyn.

"Yes," said Gaelira, "And we are all weary, hurt, or both. Let us make for Esteldin at once."

The she-Elf was right: none of us had escaped unscathed from our foray, although none of the injuries were serious. It was the Wargs, more than anything, which had given us difficulty: those beasts had almost a special sense for finding the weakness in any set of armor and their tearing claws and rending teeth were a constant danger for us all. Luckily, none of us had suffered any bites, but there wasn't a one of us (except perhaps Gaelira) who did not have at least some claw-scratches on them. I myself had received two wounds: one from a Wargs' clawn on my arm and another shallow cut to my leg from the sweeping slash of a goblin's knife. I dressed these carefully, but I felt braver for having borne them (and it helped that I was certain they were not poisoned).

Once back in Esteldin, I was kept very busy for a while administering medicine and bandages to everyone while Halbarad, who was very excited about the success of our efforts, ordered that food and water be brought us as well. We enjoyed a good deal of praise from the Rangers of Esteldin that evening and we all eagerly told our individual parts of the tale which the Company had woven that day. This went on until the Sun had set behind us in the west and eventually the Rangers returned to their own business. It was odd, but I felt more exhausted after all of the eating, drinking, back-slapping, and tale-telling than I did when I had first emerged from the Enemy's encampment. With the excitement having died down, Gaelira said she wished to consult once again with Halbarad while Drodie said something about going in search of a smith to repair his shield. I got a small fire going with my flint and tinder then lay on my back and stared at the evening sky while Nephyn and Lagodir continued talking about our adventures that day. I watched as the light left the sky and the stars began to kindle themselves one by one. There wasn't a cloud to be seen, which meant it might be a chilly night coming on us. I breathed deeply and took pleasure in the simple act of filling my lungs with the fragrant air in the Valley of Hope. That's when I became aware that the speech of my companions had ceased. My little fire crackled happily nearby and I let it warm my stiff feet.

"Lagodir," came Nephyn's voice suddenly. Something about her tone caught my attention. "Have you ever... have you..." Both Lagodir and I waited patiently.

"Have you ever," the huntress began again, "Met someone like me before?" There was a silence. I could feel my nerves twitching and muscles tightening as if tension were a fine mist in the air that was seeping into my body from every direction. Lagodir did not answer at first.

"I have fought some Men who came from the East," he said at length. "And they had darker skin alike to your own, if that be your meaning."

"Really?!" Nephyn asked excitedly. "You say you've seen others like me? Were they from the... wait," I could hear the crushing blow of Lagodir's response hit her as clearly as if it had been a punch from a troll-fist. I sat up. Nephyn's face was contorted in a mask of alarm and confusion.

"You said you fought them?" she asked, incredulous. Lagodir cleared his throat.

"They were descendants of the Wainriders. I met them once while on a patrol," he said, his voice uncommonly hoarse. "Well, I say met..."

"Who are the Wainriders?" Nephyn asked, almost accusatorily. "I've never heard the name before. What sort of folk are they? Are they your enemies?" I saw Lagodir open his mouth then close it again. I did not envy the difficult position he unexpectedly found himself in.

"You have heard of the kingdom of Rohan?" he asked after a brief pause.

"Only what I have heard gossiped about in Bree," the huntress replied.

"Do you then know how it was Rohan came to be?"

"Not particularly."

"The people of Rohan, the Rohirrim, once lived on the borders of Mirkwood," Lagodir began. "Many generations ago they were overrun by a vicious and warlike people out of the East, the Land of Rhun. In those days Gondor had little control over the regions to its north, but a force was sent and the Easterlings (as we name them) were eventually driven out. But, many years later, they returned. At the Fields of Celebrant, these Wainriders had their invasion halted by Cirion, then Steward of Gondor, but he was surrounded and outnumbered. Then, unlooked for, from out of the North came Eorl the Young upon Felarof, his steed. The Easterlings were crushed at last and Cirion was saved.  For their loyalty and bravery, those people were gifted the land of Calenardhon by Gondor to be their own, and it became known as Rohan, the Riddermark."

"Are you saying I could be one of these Easterlings?" Nephyn's eyes were wide, but whether out of fear or intense interest I could not tell. Lagodir cleared his throat again.

"It is possible, certainly, but it would be strange indeed," he said finally. "I have never know the Easterlings to be a people of compassion, as you are."

"That is -- comforting," said Nephyn haltingly. Her eyes became locked on the little campfire. There was a short silence, then Nephyn stirred suddenly.

"If you'll excuse me, I think I would like to be alone for a while." Then she abruptly stood up and walked away. I watched her for a time until she disappeared around the corner of a ruined building.

"I do not think I should have said quite so much, Master Hobbit," Lagodir said with a deep sigh.

"You don't really believe that, do you?" I asked in hurt tones. "I mean, you can't seriously think she could have ended up here if she was from such a far-flung land, right? Think of all the miles that must lie between here and there!"

"Think of all the miles that lie between me and Gondor," came Lagodir's reply, but he said it with great reluctance. His rejoinder had silenced me thoroughly. The Man sighed again.

"It matters not who her sire might be," he said. "All that matters is what she chooses to make of herself."

"Well, that's certainly wise," I said, unable to think of any other response.

"This day has been straining, to say the least," said the Gondorian as he began to settle down for the night. "I feel I must rest. Good night, my friend."

Lagodir was asleep within moments of uttering those words, but I suddenly found I could not sleep. It wasn't long at all before I found myself following Nephyn's footsteps around that old building. It seemed at first as if the huntress had vanished into thin air, but after a few minutes of poking around I found her. She was seated on the ground, her back to a pillar, and her knees drawn up to her chin while her hands were clasped at the ankles. I had come up on her from behind and saw that she was watching two Rangers as they practiced their archery on targets made of straw. I stood there behind her, uncertain what to do or say now that I had found her. Ever and anon the bows of the Rangers would twang and arrows would fly toward their marks or, sometimes, fly past them to strike harmlessly against a stone wall.

"I always liked archery," came Nephyn's voice to me. "Because it is simple: either you hit the mark or you do not, but you always know where the mark is. You may strike it or you may miss it, but you always know how close to it you are." I quietly sat down beside her. We watched the Rangers try their skill a few moments longer before I managed to find my voice.

"I hope you are not too down about all that business from before," I said. "Lagodir is well-meaning, of course, but he is a plain-spoken sort of Man." she nodded, but she did not look at me.

"Thank you for your concern," she said. "I do appreciate you finding me like this, truly." There was another silence.

"It is only one person's thoughts on the matter, after all," I said apologetically.

"That's still more than I've ever had to go on, even after a decade of searching," she answered with a sigh. "But I suppose that, when you've been searching for answers as long as I have, you might develop a tendency to grasp at whatever straws you come across."

"Quite so!" I agreed. "Besides, even of Lagodir is right, you ought to think of this: if these Whatsit-riders are enemies of Western lands, who's to say you weren't taken out of that place because your family did not agree with the rest of their tribe? Maybe you were removed because your parents wanted a better life for you, away from war."

"That still doesn't explain what happened to them, of course," said Nephyn a little sadly, but I could detect her spirits were rising steadily, "But it could explain why they abandoned me. If they were being pursued they might have been over-burdened by a child and meant to return for me. Or, perhaps as you say, they really did intend for me to have a better life. Still, if I am one of -- those people -- it could complicate things if we ever journey south."

"In the end, Lagodir is right," I said firmly. "You still don't truly know much, if anything at all, and who you choose to be is much more important that who your parents might have been." Nephyn wiped a little moisture from her eyes.

"Thank you, my friend, you've lifted my spirits considerably," she said with a weak smile. "And you're right: it only matters what I make of myself, not what my past had for me."

"Speaking for myself," I said, "I don't care who you might have been or where you might have come from. You're my friend -- proven many times over and many times earned. I really hope you find the answers you want someday, but if you ever do that knowledge will only colour your identity, not define it. At least, that's how I will see it." Nephyn gave me a broader smile.

"Thank you again," she said. We returned to watching the archers at work. I suddenly felt a wave of weariness wash over me, as if I had just walked headlong into a cloud of sleep.

"I should find a patch of dirt to lie down on," I said. "I'm exhausted! Besides, with my luck if I hang around here much longer, one of those chaps is bound to miss and spit me, I just know it."

"I think I'll join you on that patch of dirt," said Nephyn with a laugh. Together, we returned to the little campfire. Lagodir was sound asleep and there was still no sign of Gaelira or the Dwarf, so we settled ourselves down to rest. I closed my eyes and, while I waited for sleep to take me, I tried to picture my old dad's farm in the brilliance of a fine morning in the Southfarthing. Just as consciousness left me, I fancied I heard a deep rumble from somewhere away outside of Esteldin. I wondered for an instant whether it might have been thunder or drums, but just then I slipped into a dream I can no longer remember.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 16

The Valley of Hope

Sterday, 16th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Esteldin, Somewhere in the North Downs
A Ranger of Esteldin
I got a doubly rude awakening today. Firstly, I was jolted into consciousness by the ice-cold patter of raindrops on my face. Second, I saw the sky was still quite dark as it was very early in the morning. Grey clouds raced overhead as I lay there on my back in the midst of the Elf-settlement of Lin Giliath.

I groaned, rolled over, and slowly began to raise myself from the ground, which would soon become too wet to lie on. This was the second straight night I had slept on my back out-of-doors and, while I have to admit it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, I was already beginning to wish I could find a proper bed sometime soon.

As I looked around me, I could see there were plenty of Elves conversing with Gaelira and the others -- except Drodie, who was off on his own eating, as usual. No one but me seemed to care about the fact this Elf-refuge had no roofs and we were all being rained on. Fortunately, the rain was quite soft and intermittent, but the raindrops themselves were large, which usually means more rain to come. I quickly put my wide-brimmed hat on and hoped we wouldn't get caught in a rainstorm.

Just then, the doors to Gildor's inner study opened and Luean came walking out. The Elf-scholar looked troubled and withdrew from everyone around him. It seemed to me Luean must have been deep in conversation with Gildor the High Elf, a conversation which lasted very late into the night. I didn't remember seeing the rune-keeper enter Gildor's study, so I assumed he must have done so after I fell asleep. I could see his brows knitted together, deep in thought, and I wondered what was on his mind. While these ideas were passing through my head, the Company began to assemble.

"The skies bring us rain this day," said Lagodir as he craned his neck backward. "I think it will be a wet one. You might do well to tuck in your beard, Master Dwarf, lest it be wetted and the weight of it slow you down!" Drodie gave the Gondorian a sarcastic grin, but said nothing in answer.

"I'm not so sure," said Nephyn, who was also scanning the heavens. "These clouds are moving very swiftly indeed; it may be that this storm will pass us over before a heavy rain can develop, but we shall see."

"Be that as it may," said Gaelira as she approached the rest of us, "We have another choice before us. It seems the Orcs have established yet another war-camp near here and these Elves have asked whether we might be willing to destroy it and its occupants ere we leave Meluinen."

"I fear I will not be leaving Meluinen," said Luean as he strode resolutely up to us. "At least, not just at present." We all expressed our deepest surprise and dismay over this unexpected piece of news. Gaelira, I noted, said nothing.

"Lord Gildor is on a most important errand from Rivendell," the rune-keeper explained, "And I am uniquely able to aid him in his mission. Although it pains me to do so, I am afraid it is clear I must remain with him until his research is finished."

"But how long will that be?" I asked, despondently. "Where Elves are concerned time is like a child's plaything -- will this take a day or a century?" 

"If I could answer your question I would do so," Luean answered gravely, "But for now I can only say it will take as long as it must. The Enemy's corruption is spreading into every land under the Sun, it seems, and efforts must be made to counteract this threat or all the battlefield victories in the world will not avail us in the end. I will rejoin you all the moment I am able to do so. For now, I must bid you all the very fondest of farewells."

I felt a lump forming in my throat as we all said our goodbyes. Luean seemed genuinely saddened which, more than anything, made me realize he really was staying behind. I thought of how I would miss his perpetually wistful cheeriness and even his awkward detached nature as well as his occasional habit of engaging me in riddle-play. I drew my hand across my eyes and tried to put on a brave face to the others.

Eventually Luean did leave us and return indoors, presumably where Gildor was also, as no one had seen him since last night. We stood quietly around each other, eating bits of breakfast and talking about our plans for moving forward. Among us, Gaelira alone seemed unbothered by the rune-keeper's sudden departure from the Company.

"As I said earlier, we should decide whether to assault this new orc-camp, which lies just over the hill to the northwest of our current position" the she-Elf said in her most business-like manner. "We have crossed much of the North Downs and the hidden vale of Esteldin should be nearby, but this is another threat the Enemy has thrown in our way."

"We're supposed to be causing havoc, aren't we?" asked the Dwarf, who didn't seem to be in the mood for another committee discussion. "Let us rout the filth out of their holes! I grow tired of all these distractions -- we should be bringing pain to our foes wherever we find them."

"If nothing else, an attack should ensure that no scouts from the camp mark our path to Esteldin," said Lagodir thoughtfully. "Even if we are determined to draw Angmar's eye to ourselves, we cannot risk the Rangers' final stronghold being discovered by chance."

There was little else to say on the matter, so we all quickly prepared to leave. We said farewell to the kind Elves of Lin Giliath and set out following the northward path. The rain began to come down a bit harder, but it was still short of a real downpour. After a short way which climbed upward at a decent slope, we turned west. Almost immediately we could see the clear outline of a sturdy palisade wall with a large gate near its northern end. North of that gate, the palisade ended and was replaced by a flimsy stockade barrier. I squinted at the fortifications while the rain dripped off the wide brim of my hat. No one spoke, but it seemed clear to me from the view that the Orcs, while still far too well entrenched for anyone's liking, were nonetheless not as well dug-in here as in the other places we had seen thus far. And that was encouraging, so far as it went.

Since our purpose was now to attract as much attention as possible, we decided a direct assault on the main gate was a perfectly acceptable method of attack. Before long we had arrived there, and the astounded Orcs that were supposed to be guarding the entrance were easily overcome. Inside the fortress, we found plenty more of the foul folk about their warlike business, but we never had any real difficulty in dispatching them -- they all seemed completely taken by surprise at the idea that anyone was actually fighting back against their conquest of the North Downs.

We drove a path up a hill and down the far side slaying all we found along the way. As we reached the bottom of the hill, we saw a small cluster of tents, huts, and campfires. There were about half a dozen Orcs in the area as well as one very large Orc shouting orders to the others. We figured this had to be the leader of the rag-tag band and it would be best to eliminate him. The topography greatly favored us because, just beyond the encampment, the land fell away into a deep chasm, so once battle was joined it would be hard for any living Orcs to escape us. We strode confidently toward them and the uproar from the captain ceased; all of the Orcs looked at us and jeered. The sky was suddenly split by a flash of lightning, a terrific peal of thunder rolled across the land, and a wind swept up. Our white cloaks billowed out from behind us, and the eyes of the Orcs became wide with fear and wonder.

"The Outriders!" shrieked the orc-captain, "The Outriders have come for us!"

At that, all of the Orcs broke and fled in terror. Most of us simply gaped in amazement, but Gaelira kept her head.

"Nephyn!" she shouted, "Stop the leader! Don't let him escape!"

Nephyn understood and quickly feathered a shaft (she had managed to keep the fletching dry despite the rain, as any good archer knows how to do). Taking careful aim, she sent an arrow into the leg of the fleeing captain, who collapsed in a heap with a cry of pain. We ignored the others as they melted into the hills, but we descended quickly on the fallen leader. He was crumpled on the ground a short distance from the dreadful fall into the canyon and had nowhere to run; his fellows had abandoned him in any case, so we had him at our mercy. 

As we ran up to overtake him, the orc-captain looked and saw us coming. Even at a distance, I could clearly see the terror in his eyes.

"No!" It cried, "You weren't supposed to be here until tomorrow! Cursed devils!"

He made a great effort to rise despite his wounded leg then tried to run, but his injury caused him to slip and fall again. This time, though, he slipped too close to the edge of the canyon. The Orc grasped in vain at the land and his screams echoed off the cliffs as he plummeted to his doom.

We all stood there dumbfounded as the rain continued to patter around us. I reached under my hat and scratched my curly brown head. This was the second time we had encountered an orc-leader with knowledge of our Company who had perished before we had any chance to interrogate it. Each of us was troubled and perplexed at the knowledge we had clearly been intended for an ambush -- each of us, that is, except Drodie.

"Ha!" he exclaimed as he revelled in our unusual victory. "If this keeps up we'll have no use for our swords: these cowards seem eager enough to slay themselves at our approach!"

"Aye, let them tremble at our coming," Lagodir said in agreement. "Our efforts to create a name for ourselves have been a success, at the very least."

"That is certainly true," Gaelira said thoughtfully, "And it seems the Enemy meant to waylay us at some point, though we turned up a day ahead of schedule and -- apparently -- in the wrong place. I don't think they expected us to battle our way through Nan Wathren and survive."

"Yes, it is well that we took that difficult route, however," said Nephyn, "I would wager everything I own that the Orcs had been ordered to ambush us at the bridge. Remember? The one we weren't sure whether it was still standing? It lies not a great distance to the northwest of where we now stand and would be the most logical place for such an attack."

"But our valour upset their plans," said Lagodir, beaming. "We took the hard path through the canyons, thereby shortening our road and circumventing their ambush. What a fortuitous fate!"

"So it appears," Gaelira said, still not enthused about the turn of events, "Although I find the fact this Orc knew the name of our Company and how to identify us rather disquieting. I still think there is something dangerous afoot in all this."

"But we're supposed to be drawing their attention, aren't we?" I asked, a little confused at the she-Elf's concern. 

"Yes," came her answer, "But intimate details like the name Elladan's Outriders and personal descriptions of each of us is a level of insight that requires a certain closeness -- and it feels a bit too close for my liking."

We quickly extricated ourselves from the orc-fort by passing through the barricades and over the plains heading eastward. The grass there was thick and tall, and I frequently found myself struggling to see my companions. I could see a tall hill which rose off to our left and the dim appearance of some farmland also, but the fields looked barren and empty, and there were no signs of any inhabitants. The rain was still falling and the sky was still dismal, but I could see the clouds were beginning to break up in front of us, to the east, and my spirits rose a little.

Suddenly I heard a loud hiss! A large spider appeared right in front of me, it's hideous legs reaching, its pincers snapping! I cried out and fell backward in my fright, but the large sword of Lagodir came swooping through the air to cleave the disgusting creature in half. I pulled myself together and got to my feet.

"'Tis a good thing I saw the grass move out of the corner of my eye," said Lagodir with a smirk, "Or you might not have had such an easy escape, little hobbit."

"What on earth are those beastly things doing roaming about in the grass?!" I yelled in exasperation. "You normally see them in dark, nasty places -- brooding forests or shadowy caves, most like. Not wandering willy-nilly over the plains for anyone to stumble into!"

"It is odd," said Nephyn in agreement. "It doesn't seem the sort of place you'd expect to find spiders. Here, friend Padryc, let me carry you while the tall grass grows and we should avoid any unfortunate recurrences."

Perched on Nephyn's back, I was able to see much further and marveled at the expanse of land in this region. The tall, waving grasses swept the plains in every direction, even covering the hill to our left, but they also continued in front of us where tall trees marched at the base of a small mountain range. 

"I wonder what might be on the other side of those mountains," I mused to Nephyn as she trudged through the grass with her long legs.

"Perhaps we will see," she answered, "After all, our destination lies within those mountains somewhere, if Saerdan's mark on my map is accurate."

We soon returned to the road which ran north from Lin Giliath and Nephyn was able to return me to my own feet. We turned left and, a good ways further on, we spotted a barely noticeable dirt track leading away from the main road eastward, toward the mountains. According to Nephyn's map, we were very close to the hidden valley of Esteldin.

We passed through a rut between two hills to continue our search. For all the world, it looked to me as if we were just walking straight into a mountain wall, but suddenly a wide opening appeared before us. There, between two spurs of the hills, rose the outer edifice of a crumbled but once-mighty fortress. I gazed at it in awe: here and there were weathered but still beautiful relief carvings of ancient kings in the stone as well as the repeating sign of a seven-rayed star. I wondered very much what these might signify, but before I had a chance to ask anyone, we heard a strange voice coming from the direction of the fortress.

"Halt! Who are you and what are you doing in these lands?"

"We are friends of Saerdan, the Ranger," Gaelira answered, "And he sent us to seek the Rangers' stronghold of Esteldin."

At that, a tall Man clad in grey and green emerged from behind the archway which led into the fortress. I saw then that there were several small vertical slits in the stone through which one might watch (or shoot, if needed), though they were difficult to see at any distance. The Man took a few steps toward us, but did not get too near.

"I can see that you are not Orcs, as we initially feared," he said with a note of caution in his voice. "But whether you are friend or foe is not mine to decide. I bid you come with me and present yourselves to our captain and he shall deem what is to be done with you. Do not try to flee: there are archers positioned in several places above and around you, though you may not see them."

We had no choice to obey this request -- or order, as it seemed. The Man made us walk in front of him and he steered us with words, but there was little need of them: the path led straight under the archway and deeper into the mountains, but it was level and did not climb upward. We passed amidst several walls behind which were stationed many more Men, all geared and arrayed like the one who walked with us. It struck me that any enemy who tried to enter this way would have a very hard task before them as that passageway could be held long, even against many and even if the defenders numbered far fewer than their foes. The Men all eyed us with curiosity more than (I thought) suspicion, but no one spoke to us. Many of them were masked or hooded (some both), but they were all tall of body, broad of shoulder, slim of waist, and strong of arm. Nearly all bore long swords or daggers of curious make, and each and every one bore a longbow of yew.

Once we had passed through that long entryway, we came upon a broader space which was bustling with activity. There were stable-masters, herbalists, suppliers, armourers, and all manner of folk going about their business as if they were preparing for a war. I saw racks of axes and spears as well as dummies fitted with chain-mail, helms, and even shields hung upon them. Everywhere I saw Men practicing their prowess-at-arms or trying their skill with the bow by firing at targets. I was certain we had indeed discovered the Valley of Hope. As if to mark my own revelation of this fact, the rain stopped and the Sun flared out brilliantly as the clouds gave way before it. From somewhere far off in the mountains, I heard what sounded to me like a cardinal trill its after-rain song with a fierce excitement, and my heart leapt within me though I knew no sensible reason for it.

"What an incredible place!" I whispered, careful not to antagonize the guard. "And I would never have known it was here if it weren't for Nephyn's map."

"Aye, this fortress is cunningly hidden," Lagodir whispered back. "It is utterly impossible to see the entrance until you are upon it, but you yourself may be marked by silent sentinels long before you realize what you have stumbled into. I can see how this place has remained a secret for so long."

After a bit more walking, our captor led us to one of the few buildings in this strange vale and made a sign that we should enter. I expected him to order us to leave our weapons outside, but he only said there were more than enough guards inside to deal with us swiftly, if we had any ill intentions. I shuddered a little at the idea of anyone trying to resist these lordly and masterful folk; you wouldn't catch me doing it willingly!

As we passed inside my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. Before long, I could see we were in a small room whose walls were stacked high with books and scrolls of all kinds. As our escort had said, there were no fewer than eight Men positioned around the edges of the room, but there was one Man in the center who held my attention. He was even taller than the others with a grave, serious face and piercing, silver-grey eyes. His beard was black but trim and his hair was unkempt yet still dignified. He bore no weapon that I could see, but it was clear he was the leader of this dire band of warriors. He beheld us each in turn, then bowed to Gaelira with his hand upon his breast.

"Hail, Gaelira of Lindon!" he said in a voice that was both strong and clear. "Long has it been since any emissary of Rivendell has passed our ruined walls, and all the more do we rejoice at this meeting! You must forgive our initial welcome: we have not the luxury of trusting that any visitors to this place mean us well and not ill."

"Mae govannen, dunadan a mellon o edhellen," Gaelira said, bowing in like manner. "I have heard much about you, Halbarad, from Aragorn, your chieftain in Imladris. I can see he has chosen a very capable captain to lead the remnants of Arnor here in the North Downs."

At that, a prolonged discussion ensued which covered many topics. We told Halbarad everything about our adventures thus far and he questioned us at length regarding several points. He seemed particularly interested in Rollo Maggot, Sid Rosecane, and the cottage Saerdan and Legelinn had torched in the middle of the Old Forest. When I asked him what he thought of the matter he just shook his head.

"Rosecane never showed interest in anything save learning how he might profit off others' misfortune, and his schemes were designed to do just that, of this I am certain. We can also assume he set up his shop where he did to maintain a level of secrecy, but the real riddles in this -- whose goods he was selling, to whom, and why -- must remain a mystery for now."

We also discussed some of the other puzzles our Company had encountered, such as the mysterious parchment I still carried on my pack. Halbarad said the only one of his folk he knew who could decipher the Black Speech of the Enemy's servants was one of his kinfolk named Mincham who, unfortunately, was stationed a day's ride to the west on the outskirts of the Fields of Fornost. It appeared we would have to wait for another chance to translate that encrypted message. Halbarad also could not conceive how Angmar was gathering information on our Company and communicating it so effectively across such wide distances.

"We have ourselves seen many times that our adversaries have managed to relay important messages at great speeds and over difficult terrain," he told us. "So, I must say this does not surprise me. What gives me pause is why the Enemy should place such significance on a small band of adventurers like yourselves. I find that most curious indeed, but I cannot offer any explanation at this time."

Finally, our talk fell to how we might aid the Rangers. On this issue, Halbarad had much to say.

"Our chief concern at the moment is a large war-party which marched down from Angmar just recently," the Ranger chief said. "It is a fearsome size -- virtually a small army. My scouts have reported the presence of Orcs, goblins, Wargs, trolls, and even more than a few siege weapons. We fear they were sent to either attack us here if they found us or, barring that, they would lay siege to Trestlebridge. They made a grave error, however, in planning to move their force through the Taur Gonwaith: the stone-trolls there have no loyalty to Angmar and have prevented their passage that way so far. They could, perhaps try to circumvent these mountains by passing north of us, but that route would be difficult for engines to traverse, for it is rough and uneven. For the time being, therefore, they are trapped in the southeastern region of this land. But every day they remain increases the likelihood their sentries may discover our location, and that could well be disastrous for we are a dwindling people. Only by secrecy and shadow are we any longer able to resist Angmar's advances. If you wish to aid us, I would suggest starting with the bounty notices we have posted throughout this camp: the more of the Enemy's servants that are removed from the North Downs the longer our stronghold here will remain secure."

By now there was little daylight left to us, so Halbarad gave us a tour of Esteldin. It seemed some amount of our reputation had preceded us and the welcome we received was a warm one. We took note of the numerous bounty notices posted throughout that place and did what we could in hunting the various creatures in the lands surrounding Esteldin. There were few comforts in that militant setting, so the five of us settled down around a campfire in the midst of some old and ruined structure. I could see the shadowy shapes of many Rangers shifting as they changed the sentries on the walls around us in preparation for the coming of the night.

"What a curious people!" I exclaimed as quietly as I could to the others. "They certainly seem single-minded about this warrior business, don't they? Not a single creature-comfort to be found within these high stone walls! It's a wonder they don't tire of all this austerity."

"Their homes were taken from them -- destroyed by powerful servants of the Enemy," said Nephyn sadly as she looked around her. "Then they became homeless, yet still they were hunted throughout the North, so Saerdan always told me. They went into hiding and became outcasts to most 'respectable' folk."

"Yet they remain both hardy and vigilant for all that," said Drodie. I was surprised to hear an uncommon tone of respect from the Dwarf. "These folk don't fool about with trivialities -- they do what they must and live on what they have. A very Dwarvish quality, that is. I like 'em."

"Yes, they are a hardy people and their vigilance has, thus far, provided a great deal of comfort and security to other peoples in the North, though they knew it not," said Gaelira as she sat beside us. "But just like the Firstborn their numbers dwindle in these latter days. Who knows how much longer they can keep up their fight? Perhaps we shall see it put to the test one day."

"To me it is all exceedingly strange," said Lagodir with an odd look in his eye. "Surely these folk are my own distant kin from centuries past? Yet there is little proof of that kinship now: I see a ragged lot. Tired, worn, and even, it may be, near breaking. I alone of the Company have seen the might of Gondor with my own eyes, and even now in the waning of its strength it is still immeasurably stronger than these timid and mud-caked Rangers. It is no wonder to me that no tales of them now reach us in the South. The destruction of ancient Arnor was absolute, for all practical purposes." Gaelira shifted her weight as if in discomfort, but did not speak.

"I don't know," Nephyn replied. "I cannot deny that they have none of the trappings that speak of Gondor's majesty, at least as I hear it in the tales from travellers who have been in that land. But I sense something else here -- I think these Rangers have chosen this life, sacrificing their own comfort for the needs of others. I do not know how else to say it except to say that they seem to belong here, despite the crude appearance of their settlement."

"Perhaps you sense, from afar off, the honour of our common ancestors, the Numenoreans," Lagodir said. "I spoke in haste and out of despair, seeing my kinfolk lying low in the hills like vagabonds and highwaymen. But you are right: they do this out of necessity in the face of a brutal adversary. It is clear, at any rate, that after all of these years they still have not forgotten their bloodline; what they are, they are out of respect for their lineage."

"And out of respect for their leader," Gaelira cut in suddenly, "He is a great Man. I hope very much you may meet him someday, Lagodir. Then the actions and livelihood of your distant kinfolk would be much less a mystery to you." Lagodir did not answer, but his proud eyes did not look the she-Elf in the face.

"I think you are right, Nephyn," I said, partly out of a desire to diffuse the situation. "They do seem to belong here, almost as much as hobbits do in the Shire. Although, personally, I can't imagine trying to scratch out a living in a place like this. I would feel all bottled up and secretive."

"To me it feels like home," said Nephyn. To me, her voice sounded almost as if she was surprised at her own words.