Monday, April 24, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 11

A Second Diversion

Trewsday, 12th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Prancing Pony, Bree-land
My new hat!
I woke this morning to a sore back. A stone had bored its way into me, rendering my verdict of the first night I spent out-of-doors with the Company a capital misery. One night under the stars and already I was finding myself wishing for the luxuries of the Prancing Pony!

I looked around and found myself alone. My friends were already up and away to my left by the Road, apparently in conversation with someone. I quickly cleared the night-cobwebs from my mind as I hurried over to see what was going on.

It turned out to be two people: the Chief Watcher of Bree-town, Grimbriar is his name, and his deputy. The Chief Watcher has a reputation as a keen thinker, and it has proven Mayor Tenderlarch's wit in selecting his lieutenants to be equally keen since it has been Grimbriar's lot to keep the peace in the Bree-land -- a charge which has become increasingly challenging of late, yet he always manages it somehow or other. He is sharper than most of his fellow Bree-folk; tall, brown-haired, and with the sort of serious and creased face which announces he is not one to be trifled with. As I trotted up to the group, I overheard was must have been the end of his discussion with my friends.

"Since the Greenway has been threatened, then all the more do I urge you to help us and look into the matter," Grimbriar was saying. "I've no men to spare what with trying to control all these newcomers pouring into the Andrath, but my scouts tell me another contingent of Orcs have made their way into the Bree-land from somewhere up north of here."

"A second distraction from our business would be most unwelcome," I heard Gaelira say. "On the other hand, I don't see how we can ignore this obvious threat to the Bree-folk. One group of Orcs in these lands is unusual enough, but two is nothing short of a planned invasion."

"It's true!" Nephyn joined in, quite vociferously. "No such thing has ever been seen in my homeland in all my life. I will make them rue the day they thought they could stroll into the Bree-land unopposed!" I found myself quite impressed with her resolve.

"I must say I am very relieved to hear that you will assist us," Grimbriar said. "But before I go, I have another request to make of you: a young girl was kidnapped by some highway robbers and taken to Brigand's Watch. It's the daughter of one of the workers at Thornley's, and I'm leading a troop of Watchers to rescue her. Their camp is a good march northwest of Bree, so I've no time myself to give your report to the Mayor, but he must hear of this new threat as soon as possible."

"How would we do that if we're supposed to be dealing with more Orcs?" I asked.

"One of us could deliver the message," Gaelira mused. "Though it would mean splitting our strength. But I agree with Grimbriar: the people of Bree must be informed as soon as may be."

"Leave it to us, Chief Watcher," Nephyn said in an uncharacteristically formal manner. "We will ensure word reaches the Mayor."

With our intent settled, we bade the Chief Watcher farewell as he set off southward. We came together and began to discuss our plans for the day.

"I believe our victory over the Bone Man buys us some time," Luean said. "Whatever force he served was dealt a serious blow by our intervention. Given the immediate nature of this new threat, I agree with the Woman that we should do what we can to assist the Town Watch."

"Agreed," said Gaelira. "In the meantime, however, we must decide who will be sent back to Bree to deliver our report. I think we can eliminate Luean and myself -- it has been recently brought to our attention that Elves are not altogether trusted in the Bree-land. Nor would I recommend Nephyn go, as we will likely need her knowledge of the land in our hunt for the Orcs. And our hobbit-friend should not be left alone now that the surrounds have become so dangerous with random kidnappings and the like."

There was a pause. We all looked at Drodie, who was off by himself noisily eating some cram. He sensed the silence and returned our collective stare.

"What?" he asked, his mouth stuffed with waybread. "O! You want me to tell the Mayor his roadways are being overrun by Orcs, do you? Well, can't say it sounds as fun as running a bunch of the squint-eyed bastards through with my own hands, but then again it does mean I'll be that much closer to where they keep the beer." He leered and winked at us.

"If you could manage to resist intoxicating yourself long enough to inform the Mayor of the threat it would be greatly appreciated," the she-Elf replied with a sigh. "And now, if that is settled, we should be about our business."

Just then we saw Robb and Alice Thornley approaching us carrying several parcels. They thanked us again for our deeds yesterday and provided us with a good store of food and drink fit for travelling as well as a tidy bit of coin (the Thornleys are known to be a family of means). Finally, Mrs. Thornley produced a small hat. We all looked at her with curiosity. Alice smiled at us.

"You know we have a large family and we all love Robb dearly," she said, blushing. "Each of us wanted to give you something as a token of our thanks for what you've done for us, and that's what you're holding now. This hat, though, this is from my youngest son, Alec, who hasn't much to give. So he offered this old hat of his. He outgrew it some time ago and I figured it had to be too small for any of you, until I remembered there's one of the Little Folk among your Company."

I accepted the gift graciously and immediately tried it on. The hat was made of brown leather with a wide brim and a pair of white feathers stuck into the band. It was a bit foppish for my taste, but it also did an excellent job of keeping the Sun off my head and might do quite well if we ever got caught in a rainstorm. Everyone commented on how perfectly it fit as we gathered our belongings and prepared to leave. The Thornleys bade us farewell and good luck as we returned to the Road. We then blessed Drodie with words of good speed as he set off southward toward Bree. We remaining four then turned our eyes northward and the hunt began.

"Nephyn, you are our resident tracker and know the Bree-land best," Luean said as we started walking up the Greenway. "Do you have any idea where the Orcs might be encamped?"

"Based on the Chief Watcher's telling of the reports he received, I believe I just might," the Woman answered. "He said they came down from the North, but East of the Road. There isn't much up that way, but there are some old ruins near Nen Harn we would do well to check in on. It would be the most logical place to establish a camp if I were in their place."

We made good time on the Road. We passed a set of ruins on our right at one point and I asked if those were the ones we were seeking. Nephyn said no, that those were what the Bree-landers know as the Old Greenway Fort -- another relic of long-vanished Arnor -- which has been overrun by wild animals. Shortly thereafter we came upon a dirt track leading eastward and we took this path. It climbed up a gentle rise and we could see stone walls, stockade fences, and some low buildings ahead and to our left.

"That," said Nephyn as she pointed at the cluster of houses, "is the Hengstacer Farm where the Hengstacer family keeps the best horses in all the Bree-lands. They do a good business despite being so far from Bree, but I expect their farmhands are having to learn to defend themselves more than they would like these days."

We did not stop at the farm but instead cut across the fields. We encountered no one in the process and soon Hengstacer Farm had disappeared in the distance behind us. The Sun had climbed past midday and I munched on some travelling rations as we walked. The grass here was deep and soft, and I took great pleasure in the refreshing scent which arose from the turf as our feet pressed upon it. The trees had become much thinner here, far east of the Greenway, but the sky was the same cheerful blue with the same puffy white clouds we had seen the day before. My thoughts, however, were of a darker nature than the idyllic afternoon through which we were walking: I was thinking about the prospect of deliberately attacking an Orc encampment, as it seemed we would be doing at any time. Yet, even as that possibility grew with every step we took, I couldn't help feeling relief that, for the second day in a row, our path toward the Great Barrow had been diverted. The things I had already seen in the Barrow-downs had filled me with a dread I never thought possible to feel in the waking world. The idea of plunging into the deepest, darkest barrow in that haunted place sent shivers down my spine even in the full light of day, so much so that I found myself welcoming the idea of a scuffle with a camp full of Orcs.

And it was at that moment I pulled myself up short in my thinking. I stopped walking, dead in my tracks, as sure as if I had run into a brick wall at the realization: here I was, a civilized hobbit from the Southfarthing of the Shire, wishing for a straight-up fight with a bunch of foul-tempered Orcs who were in the middle of a military invasion! What would my dad think if he were here right now? I marveled at what I had gotten myself into and, for a brief instant, wondered whether I was doing the right thing at all. What cause did I have, a tobacco farmer, to be gallivanting around chasing Orcs and evil spirits? Shouldn't these things be left in the hands of more capable folk? I saw my father's farm in my mind's eye (not for the first -- or last -- time) and wished I could go home and settle down in quiet contentment.

All of these thoughts flashed through my head in an instant as I stood there and my companions kept walking on ahead of me. Then Nephyn, sensing I had lagged behind, turned and looked at me.

"Are you alright, friend Padryc?" she asked. "You had best keep up -- we shouldn't risk getting separated right now."

In another flash, my conversation late at night in the Common Room of the Pony with the Woman came rushing back to me. No, I thought: this was the right thing. Strange as it sounds, my heart knew my life had somehow led me to this point, with strong friends willing to do their part to protect others. I still didn't quite understand how I fit into this odd band or why I had been chosen to be part of it, but I knew my place was with them. I also knew I still had a choice -- that I would always have a choice -- but it was a choice not between what was comfortable or uncomfortable for me, but rather it was a choice between the meaningful and the passing. Between the momentous and the trivial. Most of all, though, I was free to choose between companionship freely given (and thrice-earned) and solitude. I breathed deeply and hurried to catch up to my friends.

"It's nothing," I said as I trotted up alongside Nephyn. "I thought... I thought I saw a cloud shaped like a dragon, that's all." It was the only thing I could think of to say at a pinch!

"Really?" asked the huntress, craning her neck back to look skyward. "Where? That must have been some cloud!"

"Oh, I -- it's gone now," I said lamely. "Let's not let the others get too far ahead of us." We quickened our pace.

The Elves had concealed themselves behind one of the many large bushes that grew in this part of the Bree-fields and were staring eastward. As Nephyn and I joined them, I could see that way lay a tumbled pile of old ruins, but that they had been reinforced in places with timbers to form a crude fortification. Here and there were ragged banners of black and red. There could be no doubt: we had found our Orc camp!

"Clear signs of organization, or at least some leadership," Luean was saying as he scoured the site.

"Or what passes for leadership among these barbarians," Nephyn said, obviously upset.

"Yet there is good news for us, I think," Gaelira said in her measured voice. "This encampment certainly appears to be smaller than the one we discovered at Cirith Nur as well as more hastily constructed."

"Which means, firstly, that they cannot have been in the Bree-land long," said Luean, finishing her thought for her. "And, secondly, that we may have some chance at dislodging these creatures ourselves, even with our reduced number."

My heart sank. An open attack on an Orc-fort was not my idea of sound strategy. Without the Dwarf we were only four and I didn't count for much. Could three adventurers hope to overcome such a warlike band? But Nephyn, who seemed to almost read my mind, spoke up.

"Don't worry your little hobbit-head," she said with a smile. "Just like yesterday, our goal is not to eradicate all of the Orcs ourselves: if we can find and defeat their captain the rest of the camp will be thrown into disarray. They will slaughter many of their own number and waste days trying to sort out the new pecking order, by which time the Watchers, the Rangers, or any number of Grimbriar's mercenaries will be on their way here to slaughter the rest." That sounded more hopeful!

"So, all we really need to do is draw out this leader?" I asked. "How do you propose we do that?"

"An open attack," Luean replied with a smile. I gaped. He, Gaelira, and Nephyn all left the cover of the bushes and strode openly toward the gate of the Orc-camp which faced us.

"Have you all gone mad?!" I hissed, unwilling to leave my cover. I waited and watched what happened next.

The three of them walked casually toward the makeshift gate. Even from where I was I could see it was guarded by two surly-looking Orcs armed with bows and daggers. I saw Nephyn string her bow and let fly a shaft toward the gate. One of the two guards slumped to the ground. The other looked our way and let fly its own arrow. I gasped: there was nothing I could see that would stop the second Orc from spitting one of us just as easily as Nephyn had done to them. I watched the black orc-arrow as it arched skyward. Very soon, it became clear the arrow was terribly overshot. There was a soft thunk! as it struck the ground near me. I looked up in relief to see the second Orc fall after being shot by Nephyn's second arrow. The gate was now unguarded. I picked myself up and ran out to my friends.

"What the devil are you all playing at?" I huffed as I approached. "I'll thank you to not contemplate getting yourselves killed out here and leaving me alone for no good reason!" The three of them smiled at me and chuckled.

"My dear Shire-hobbit," Luean said, trying not to laugh, "I'm afraid you have a great deal to learn about combat-at-arms. We were never in any serious danger. In fact, by remaining behind, you were putting yourself in more danger than if you had come out here with us." I was feeling quite irritated by their mirth toward me. I crossed my arms and shifted my weight as if I were dealing with a naughty young hobbit who had just emerged from behind a barn reeking of pipe-weed.

"Explain?" I said, tersely.

"It's quite simple," said Nephyn gently, but still clearly enjoying the situation. "My bow is capable of a greater range than the short-bows of those two guards, to say nothing of the fact Orcs are not typically known to be very good shots. Since I placed the first shot well, we only had to worry about return fire from the remaining Orc, but their shorter bows would require a much higher arc just to reach us."

"Reducing their accuracy considerably," Gaelira chimed in.

"Quite," Nephyn agreed. "In addition, you may not have noticed there is an occasional breeze blowing eastward. Since the Orc was firing westward to hit us, it was required to aim even higher to accommodate for the wind. Hence, his shot had a very low probability of ever hitting us and instead ended up much closer to you due to its overcompensation of these factors. Naturally, the second Orc would only have enough time for one shot before I landed my second."

"Well -- you... I... I must insist that you not take such a cavalier attitude toward your own lives, that's all," I stammered. I was feeling rather foolish for doubting my companions.

"Ah, well in that case, we three do beg your pardon," said Luean with a bow. I sighed and looked past them to the two fallen guards.

"And what happens now?" I asked.

My answer came in the form of a lot of harsh shouting from within the fort. I was suddenly seized by the shoulder and hauled into a nearby bush. As we peeped through the leaves, we saw a dozen Orcs arrive at the gate and gawk at the two fallen archers. They then began to argue among themselves about what to do about it. After a short time, they began to spread out and search the area around the gate. We waited patiently as they fanned further and further out and began to move away from us. On a signal from Gaelira, we silently dashed toward the unguarded gate and slipped into the fortress.

We found ourselves in a small courtyard of tumbled stone which was littered with campfires, ugly tents, and a few racks of crude weaponry. Although we took in the sight quickly, we knew this was no ragged band of marauding Orcs but rather an (somewhat) organized force of soldiers. It was a small group, however, if the amount of gear and tents was anything to go by. We saw no Orcs in the entire courtyard at first, but presently from around a corner came three of them, one much larger than the other two. The big one carried a large headsman's axe and its makeshift armor was splotched with red war-paint. We all knew this must be the orc-captain we needed to somehow eliminate. We eyed them from the shadows of the palisade where we were sheltered.

"Can we manage three of them at once?" Gaelira whispered.

"We must be quick." said Nephyn as she quietly strung her bow, but Luean shook his head.

"Two," he whispered back. We followed his gaze.

"What're you for?" the orc-leader was saying to the two smaller Orcs. "Go get control of the rabble and bring 'em back to guard the fort. I'll not have orders disobeyed every time someone gets pricked by a needle."

"Garn!" one of the smaller Orcs shouted back, "You should watch yer tongue, Gazburz! Think just because yer the cap'n you can keep the lads cooped up here like cattle while we get picked off day after day? Let them use their noses and hunt down the cursed pig-skins and put an end to them, I say!"

"And I say you'll do as yer told!" Gazburz shouted back. "If you can't control yer herd then you're no use to me!" At that, Gazburz raised his axe and lopped off the head of the insubordinate Orc while the other staggered back in surprise. Gazburz turned to him with his axe still at the ready.

"Go!" Gazburz growled at the remaining Orc. "Round 'em up and bring 'em back!" The smaller Orc gave his captain an evil glare, but loped off out another gate as fast as he could. Gazburz was left alone, and we knew our opportunity had come.

"Make that one," I said, as we emerged from the shadows. Gazburz saw us and reflexively raised his axe. Then he gave us a very curious look and lowered his weapon.

"Well!" the orc-captain said, laughing, "And here I thought it was those bloody-handed tarks what had been picking off my lads lately. What's the matter? Lost two of your number already, have you, my pretties?" We all gasped.

"How -- ?" I started to ask, but Luean stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.

"We are here for your head, Orc," Gaelira said in a commanding voice. "But tell us what you know and we will ease your passing into the Light."

Gazburz roared and charged us! I heard Nephyn's bow twang and an arrow pinged off the Orc's steel armor plate at the shoulder. The next instant he was upon us: he raised his axe at Gaelira and brought it down. But the she-Elf was too fast -- she blocked that attack by bringing her staff horizontally up underneath the axe-blade. Then, quick as lightning, she turned her staff sideways, simultaneously parrying the axe and striking the Orc in the face. Finally, she spun around behind her stunned opponent and brought the staff across his throat. Nephyn drew the Sword of Ringdor and held it to Gazburz's chest. Despite being a powerfully-built Orc, Gaelira was throttling him from behind, and he sank to one knee as he struggled for air.

"Tell us what you know," Gaelira said again as Gazburz wheezed and clutched at the staff that was slowly choking the life out of him. Luean shook his head.

"Gaelira, the other Orcs," he said hurriedly. "There isn't time."

"Talk!" Nephyn shouted at the top of her lungs, her sword an inch from the Orc's heart. Gazburz gave a guttural cry and then, with his last strength, surged from his knee onto the blade. Gaelira would have been run through as well if she hadn't released her grip and dodged aside. Nephyn drew back her sword and the orc-captain fell over, dead.

"Come! We may have only moments!" Luean said as he led us out the nearest gate. Sure enough, we could see several of the other Orcs making their way back to the fortification. We quickly ducked into a leafy bush and waited. As soon as the returning Orcs sighted the slain body of their leader a cry went up and all of them ran to see. We took our opening and slipped away unnoticed.

The day was getting old by the time we finally made it back to the Greenway. With the danger behind us, I felt worn out and hungry, but most of all I was inquisitive.

"What in blazes just happened?" I asked. "If I didn't know better I'd say that Orc knew who we were! How else could he have know there were once six of us?"

"I know not and I like it not one bit," Gaelira answered, a look of deep concern on her fair face.

"The Orc was only partially correct, of course," Luean said. "We were once six, but Raviron left us of his own accord and Drodie is only temporarily away as he delivers our report about the Orcs to the Mayor of Bree, so Gazburz's information was at least several days old."

"All the same, this is a very troubling revelation," Gaelira countered. "Whence came the Orc's knowledge?"

"And, perhaps even more importantly," Nephyn said quietly, "why were we determined important enough to be spied upon?"

"And when?" I added in my amazement. "We aren't exactly famous, after all."

"In small lands, small doings doth mighty wonders make," Nephyn replied.

"That is often seen to be true," Luean agreed, "although for myself I would sooner learn just how this news contrived to find its way into the hands of an Orc raiding party out of the North Downs, as such it plainly was."

"Not just any Orc raiding party, my friend," Gaelira said. "An Orc warband seeking loot and plunder might be nothing more than it seems, but these were not that. The evidence lies in their (admittedly shoddy) organization, the banners around their camp, and their overtly warlike escarpment."

"Very true," Luean said. "As well as their apparent access to some form of communication network: there is no other way to explain how a petty orc-captain of such a small force could have learned about us so quickly."

"Yes," Gaelira sighed. But if the she-Elf had any further guesses as to what all of these signs might mean, she kept them to herself for the time being. I, on the other hand, was still full of questions. For one thing, I wasn't so sure the Orc-force had always been as small as we saw it today.

"Was it just me," I mused aloud, "or did it seem as if we weren't the first ones to attack that fortress?"

"A shrewd wit, as I've said before," said Luean with a smile. "You are correct: it was clear they had suffered losses by other hands before today."

"And what is a tark?" I asked further.

"That is the Orcs' name for a Numenorian, a Man of the West," Luean replied. "In these latter days the word is typically used among the Foul Folk for Gondorians, but the descendants of Arnor are also of that line. It tells us the Rangers of the North were most likely harrying their band as they travelled south."

"I think we can also conclude two more things from that piece of detail," Nephyn said, her face a cloud of disgust. "First, that the Rangers no longer have the strength to keep these beasts out. And second, that the Orcs were under extreme and direct orders to invade Bree-land no matter the cost." Luean nodded. We marched on in silence.

With our faces turned southward, I realized each step was bringing us nearer to the dark hills of the Barrow-downs.

"One more thing I wonder," I said in my small voice, "is whether that Great Barrow has anything to do with all of this?"

Unfortunately, none of us had any answers to that question. We continued southward for some ways, but our disquiet grew. Were we even now under the watchful and unfriendly eyes of some malevolent spy? Who would want to follow the escapades of six random adventurers so closely, and why? My head spun with possibilities, each more outrageous than the last. You can imagine just how relieved I was when Gaelira said we would be leaving the Road and spending another night at the Prancing Pony, where we would meet up with Drodie.

The shadows were lengthening when at last we plodded through the stable yard and into the Common Room of the Inn. Old Butterbur greeted us enthusiastically (and took our coin) as we set the Company up for another night in his fair house. We had no trouble finding Drodie: he was busy entertaining a good-sized audience by the fireplace with some strange, throaty Dwarf-song. It was frequently punctuated by tremendous belches that threatened to whisk the hat right off my head. When we finally managed to get his attention, Drodie assured us he had delivered our report to the Mayor, who was taking all appropriate measures to deal with the remaining Orcs north of Bree. We all breathed easier at the news and set about seeing to a meal.

The rest of the Company joined me at a table as Butterbur delivered us a hearty supper. Try as I might, I just couldn't bring myself to revel in the day's events. I picked at a loaf of bread suspiciously. Everywhere I looked I saw shadowy figures eyeing us from dark corners of the tavern. Were we being watched even now?

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 10

Of Orcs in the Bree-land

Monday, 11th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Thornley's Worksite, Bree-land

The Prancing Pony
This is exactly the sort of thing I imagined I'd be doing when I signed up with this unusual Company: camping outside around a cozy fire, telling stories, and getting to know each other. Lucky for us we had some cloud cover today, which usually makes for a warmer evening. But I must say I'm rather excited and more than a little proud of what we just accomplished, which I will now tell you.

As has become the norm for this group, our day started off with a surprise. I was still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes when I entered our usual parlour this morning -- all ready to dig into the Pony's standard breakfast fare -- when the landlord paid us a visit. Old Barliman Butterbur himself, in his typical bustle, popped his head through the door and wished us a good morning. We welcomed him with glad voices and bade him stay and chat with us, but he said he couldn't remain more than a moment as the day was dawning and that always means business about the Inn. Still, he did set the day's tone for us.

"I'm right pleased you've all been enjoying your time here with us at the Pony," he said, beaming a broad smile. "Can't say what I wouldn't mind more of your sort about -- keeping to yourselves, quiet like; not climbing onto tables, kicking over my crocks, and generally making a scene -- not like some other folk I could name! But bless me! What was it I wanted to come talk to you all for?"

He paused as he tapped the side of his head with one finger. We all waited patiently: for anyone who's ever met Butterbur, you know this is routine for that Man.

"Right!" He said, remembering. "It was the Mayor! Mayor Graeme Tenderlarch, I should say. He dropped by at first light asking if you all were up and about yet. But, as you weren't and he couldn't stay -- being that he's probably the busiest Man in Bree, even more than myself if I do say so, and that's saying a powerful lot -- he asked me to relay a short message to you all as soon you were ready to hear it and I had a spare minute of my own. And since here you all are -- Half a moment! Where's young Nephyn got to?" Nephyn had not been with us this whole time.

"She is doing some research for us in the Scholar's Stair," said Gaelira. "I expect she will return shortly, but you are free to deliver your message to us in the meantime. I hope in all truth that it is a short message." We all laughed.

"There now!" said Butterbur, laughing right along with us. "No need to go at me like that! I'm doing you all a mighty favor whether you realize it or no: folk in these parts are plenty used to seeing Little Folk and Dwarves at the Pony, of course, but Elves are not altogether welcome here. Not what anyone means any harm by it, naturally, but we ain't at all used to lodging with your kind, if you take my meaning. Besides, from what I've ever heard tell most Elves prefer the outdoors to being cooped up in a smoky tavern."

"You've heard true," said Luean, smiling amusedly. "And, being immortal, we are also a very patient people." We all snickered again.

"My, but you all are fiesty this morning!" he said, laughing again. "Yes, yes, the Mayor's message. He begs that you would call on the wife of Robb Thornley, owner of Thornley's Farm a short bit north of Bree-town. Apparently Robb has gone missing, which ain't like him at all. The Town Watch has refused to do anything about it what with all the folk travelling up the Road from south-aways, but from what I gathered the Mayor heard about somewhat or other you all did for the people of Combe and thought you might be willing to look into the matter. Robb Thornley is a rather important person 'round these parts, you see, what with all that money he inherited from his old dad. That trading post he's got planned to build out there on the Greenway is going to do wonders for business, so it's no mystery to me that Tenderlarch wants this matter settled and quick."

"This is most inconvenient," said Gaelira with a frown. "We had other plans for today." This was true enough, but none of us dared speak openly about our intent to locate and enter the Great Barrow of the Barrow-Downs: one breath of that and Barliman probably would've thrown us out on the street then and there! As for myself, I won't deny that anything which might have delayed us from returning to the Downs a third time would be a most welcome turn of events.

"Of course you have and I'm right sorry to be asking this of you," said Barliman with a worried look on his face, "But I've known Robb for years and he wouldn't just vanish with no explanation, especially with that wife of his worriting away at the farmhouse. You see, I reckon there's more to this than meets the eye, as the saying is." Here, he lowered his voice considerably.

"The Mayor wouldn't be asking if there weren't more to it," he said conspiratorially. "There's plenty of Bree-landers with no love for the Mayor, but he's a canny sort, right enough, and can see through a brick wall in time, as I've said myself for many a year." We all became very interested in the landlord's new tone and waited for him to unravel his thoughts on the matter.

"It's like this," he went on, "There ain't a soul in Bree-town nor the villages outside the walls who's heard a peep out of Trestlebridge for what must be weeks now. Now that town is a good day's march if it's a step, but we used to always have Trestle-folk (as we sometimes call them) making that journey to come visit the Pony. But lately it's been total silence. Why, even Guardsman Otley, a good friend o' mine, hasn't been down this way since harvest, so I'm here to tell you something's up. There have been no Watchmen to spare for the taking of messages up north or maybe we'd have some news, but it don't take a Wizard to know things are amiss." We pondered the wisdom in Butterbur's musings.

"Sounds to me as if we should at least look into it," I said, eager for anything to distract us from yet another foray into the Barrow-Downs. "If it's not far our plans might not be upset entirely. And if there is some trouble, we would do well to see about it."

The Company agreed to this point, much to Butterbur's relief. He thanked us several times before finally excusing himself to see to his other guests. Gaelira, Luean, Drodie, and I talked briefly about this temporary shift in our focus as we finished off our breakfast and made ready to depart.

The day was shaping up to be much fairer than yesterday with a warm Sun, a blue sky, and lots of puffy, white clouds overhead. We casually strolled down the streets of Bree until we reached the back-door of the Scholar's Stair Archives. As luck would have it, Nephyn emerged just as we approached the entrance. We quickly informed her of our meeting with Old Barliman and our intent to call on Thornley's Farm instead of marching back into the Downs.

"I think this is the right thing for us to be doing," Nephyn said. "The Thornley's are not strangers to me either and I can say with certainty that if Robb disappeared and gave no reason then something foul is indeed afoot."

We made our way out the West-gate of town and turned right at the crossroads. It was, perahps, the most fair time I'd ever experienced in the rustic Bree-land: there were birds chirping in the trees, foxes hunting in the bushes, and even the occasional bear ambling about in the fields all under a lovely, sunny sky and a mild breeze. As I looked around me, I was stung with a sudden and bitter homesickness for the Shire, but the feeling was driven out of my mind by Gaelira's voice.

"Nephyn, was the collected knowledge of Bree-town able to reveal to us anything of value regarding the location of the Great Barrow?"

"The name of Othrongroth is mentioned a few times in some old records I uncovered," Nephyn replied. "From an old map, I was able to pinpoint what should be the right place. It is a very large gravesite which lies admist several smaller ones and we passed rather near it during our last journey there. You may recall the boggy area we saw after crossing into the southern-most region of the Tyrn Gorthad? If we bear west and, this time, continue on that path, we should be led straight toward it." I felt a good deal of relief that we would not be going there just yet!

We continued walking north up the Greenway for maybe a mile. We came to a very industrious place where crafts of all types were being plied and many buildings were under construction. We had little difficulty locating Ms. Thornley, who was indeed in a state. She begged that we find her husband and tell her the worst. All she knew was he set out northward, toward Trestlebridge, and had not been seen in days. We promised to do whatever we could and continued our northerly track.

The gentle hills and waving grasses of the Bree-fields slowly marched by. We were taking it easy and fell to discussing our several adventures together. We recounted our battles with the Blackwolds, how we became separated in Combe, our victory over Lebrennil the spider-queen, and the near-disastrous assault on the fell-spirit in the depths of the Old Forest. We teased Drodie some more about his soft-heartedness when seeing me in distress which ultimately led to us defeating the evil ghost and driving it from the forest. The Dwarf, of course, got all hot under the collar when we brought it up, which just made us press the issue even more.

Suddenly, Nephyn asked, "Master Drodie, how did you come to be in this Company? I still know almost nothing of you, save that your sword-arm is a most powerful force in battle!"

"You could say the same about his odour," I muttered to Luean, who stifled a laugh. Drodie did not seem to hear us.

"Oh, there's not much to tell," answered the Dwarf in typical fashion as he stumped along in his heavy boots. "I was born in the Blue Mountains in exile, after Smaug the Accursed sacked the Lonely Mountain. My father fell in the Battle of the Five Armies fighting for our ancestral homeland, far away. He was a great fighter, my father was, and I always wanted to be like him, but he wished that I would focus on my crafts and forswear the sword. He said he had seen enough death in the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs, which I hardly need tell any of you about."

"Your father served in that great War?" asked Luean, impressed. "It is a marvel that he survived it."

"Aye, but my grandsire did not: he was a burned Dwarf. Anyway, my father happened to be out in the Iron Hills on business when the whole affair with Thorin's Company occurred, and he never came back." There was a short silence as we trudged on.

"For a while my father's advice made sense," the Dwarf continued. "I tried to concentrate on the hammer and anvil, but my heart was never truly in it. I am descended from the Firebeards, which is the longest line of warrior-zealots among the Seven Houses, and to idle away my life in sloth was simply not in me. When I was about 65 years old I left Thorin's Halls and tried to make my way in the world. It didn't go too well, to be honest: I did a lot of the stuff I hated like weaponsmithing and metalurgy in order to eat, but sometimes I would get hired as a sellsword. Those were the jobs I enjoyed! The guards of Rath Teraig know the name of my family now, I can assure you!"

"Well, one thing led to another and I found myself constantly wandering east. Long story short: one day I ended up in Buckland. I liked the hobbits since they made me laugh, where good for talk, and always had the best beer. I started asking questions about the strange Men I kept seeing roaming the countryside and was told they were called Rangers. The hobbits avoid them, but I thought they might make for interesting company. I befriended one named Lenglinn near the borders of Buckland and shared his camp for several days. I was intrigued by the plight of his people and most especially by their dedication to their chieftain: their life was the sort of thing I wanted for myself! I opened my thoughts to Lenglinn and he said that if I really wanted to make a difference, then I should seek an Elf named Gaelira at the Prancing Pony in Bree. The rest of my story you know already."

"You must have really wanted to make a difference, as you say, if you were willing to travel all the way to Bree to meet with a strange Elf," Gaelira said with a laugh.

"The same thought had occurred to me," Drodie answered with a sidelong look at her. Regardless what he thought about hobbits, I mused, it was clear the Dwarf's tale of himself had left out his general opinions on Elves. But before Gaelira could respond to him, we heard the sound of harsh laughter coming from just ahead.

We quickly veered to the right and concealed ourselves behind a small knoll. Peering over its crest, we saw below us a ramshackle barricade being partrolled by half a dozen Orcs! Yes, Orcs! I rubbed my eyes to be sure I wasn't seeing things, but there they were: six of the bow-legged brutes, all armed, and all jostling with each other. They were guarding a natural recess which thrust backward into the cliffside away from the road. There was also a slight rise which wound up and away from the Orcs just behind them. Nephyn was almost beside herself with outrage.

"How dare these foul creatures invade my homeland!" she said, a little louder than I would have cared for. "Come! Let us show them how we welcome their kind!" She would have leapt into battle then and there had Gaelira not taken her by the arm.

"Patience, young one," she said calmly. "We will give them a fitting welcome, but we must be cautious: they are six, we are five, and one of us is not fit to fight toe-to-toe with full-sized Orcs." She obviously meant me, but I took no offence. I was not inclined to disagree with her on that point anyway!

Quickly we laid our plans. I admit I didn't really like how I fitted into them, but it was a role I was able and willing to fulfill. As the others prepared, I crept as quietly as a hobbit could back to the Road and wheeled around behind the guards where I concealed myself in some brush. I looked to the top of the little hill where I knew the rest of the Company was positioned and waited. Very soon, I saw Gaelira's staff poke over the crest: that was the signal! I reached down and picked up a perfectly sized stone, took careful aim, and hurled it with all my might at the nearest Orc!

I've always been a good shot with a stone: the rock struck my target squarely in the back of the head. I heard the Orc grunt and all six of the guards turned to look in my direction. Then, a bowstring twanged and one of the Orcs had an arrow pass through his eye from behind and fell dead. The five remaining Orcs looked with surprise at their fallen comrade, then tried to find the source of the shot. Now that they were all looking away from me, I launched another stone and struck a second Orc in the back of the head. The Orc let out a cry of pain and whirled around toward me. The other four followed suit, but I was still well concealed, being so small and nestled in the brush. A second Orc sprouted an arrow from his throat and collapsed to the ground. The four remaining Orcs spun away from me again, let out a yell and started to charge toward my friends. But I was ready: I let another rock fly and one of the Orcs stumbled in pain. The others stopped their charge and turned to see what had happened. That's when a third Orc fell with one of Nephyn's arrows through its heart. The remaining three Orcs gaped, then suddenly split up, two rushing toward my companions and the third coming toward me! I wasn't going to just sit there and wait to be discovered, so I jumped out from the bushes. I couldn't see past it as the Orc came toward me with a look of confusion on its face. I tried to muster my courage.

"Come on then!" I said, bringing my hammer to the ready. "Have at you!"

The Orc laughed at me with a nasty, gravely voice.

"What we got here?" it asked with a sneer. "I'll bleed you right out, little runt!" The Orc raised its scimitar to strike!

But just then the Orc let out a choking cry and fell to the ground, dead. Drodie appeared behind it as it collapsed, having stabbed it to death from behind while it gloated. I could now see the other two Orcs had also been disposed of: Nephyn had shot one of the remaining two through the shoulder and Gaelira had handled the other one with her quarterstaff. We regrouped and prepared to explore the Orcs' makeshift camp.

"Have at you?" asked Drodie, mockingly as he sheathed his sword. "Is that what passes for a battle-cry in the Shire?" The whole Company roared with laughter.

"For goodness sake!" I said, laughing sheepishly in my own turn. "Civilized folk don't have any battle-cries! I had to make do under duress. Next time I'll be sure to research some Elven calls-to-arms before I volunteer to get myself into a scrap!"

Jokes notwithstanding, we were still just on the outside of an Orc-camp, so we proceeded cautiously. It turned out there were only a couple of Orcs inside the camp itself and they were guarding a Man who could only be Robb Thornley. After we dispatched the remaining Orcs and freed their captive, we escorted him back to the Road. He was in good shape, considering what he had been put through, and insisted he would be able to make his way back to his farm with no trouble. Robb was also able to tell us there was a much larger encampment of Orcs nearby, and that the captain of the force would likely be found there. We bade him good speed and turned our thoughts to this main camp.

It did not take long to find as it was positioned right on the other side of the Greenway (the western side) although it was cunningly hidden among the trees and not readily visible from the Road. Dusk was just setting in and night would soon follow, so we quickly moved on the camp with all the stealth we could manage. We knew that if we could strike down the captain Robb Thornley had identified, then the remaining Orcs would probably fall to squabbling among themselves for the leadership and their purpose in the Bree-lands would be all but thwarted.

It turned out luck was with us: as we picked our way amid the trees and bushes, we saw two Orcs passing nearby. One appeared to be a scout or tracker of some kind with a mean little bow of horn while the other was clearly an Orc of some importance. It was much larger than the other and carried two nasty-looking scimitars. It was also clad in some makeshift armour which included a rather odd-looking helm. As I looked I suddenly realized it was of the same make and design as several I had seen among the Bree-town Guard, and was probably stolen from one of them. Or worse. We all held our position to hear what the Orcs were saying to each other.

"I tell you I heard shouting and fighting coming from there!" the smaller Orc was saying. "You're the captain! What the devil do you keep us scouts here for if not to warn you when trouble's a-coming?"

"Garn! Your ears are made of wood, Snaga, just like the rest of you bloody snufflers," growled the captain. "The prisoner had better not be harmed: I want him to try and get some swag out of these fool farmers around here. And if you've dragged me out here over nothing I'll have your hide for it."

I suddenly realized my companions had split up. Nephyn and Luean were still next to me, but there was no sign of Gaelira or Drodie. That's when the Woman stepped into full view of the Orcs, her bow already strung.

"What the...?" The smaller Orc took a shaft between the eyes before it could finish its question. The larger Orc just kicked the carcass out of its way.

"Looky here, then!" it jeered. "Another fool hunter what's wandered too far from home! At least this time I'll have you all to myself!" The orc-captain clashed its blades together and prepared to charge Nephyn. I was ready to spring to her defence, but it turned out to not be necessary.

Drodie appeared from behind a tree and charged the Orc from the left! The Orc faced him and swung its swords, but the Dwarf deftly turned them aside with his shield. As Drodie stabbed and slashed, Gaelira suddenly appeared from nowhere and swung her staff in a huge arc at the back of the Orc's knees. The force of that blow caused the orc-captain's legs to buckle and it fell right in front of Drodie. The Dwarf instantly thrust his sword clear through it, and the battle was over.

"Well, I call that as neat as neat," I said as we came back together. "That's quite a bit of luck finding that villain wandering outside his camp with no bodyguards or anything."

"Yes, we have been strangely fortunate," Luean agreed. "But I do not think we should contemplate an attack on this encampment, at least not yet."

"Agreed," Gaelira nodded. "The remaining Orcs will slay several of their own number as the strongest among them vie for control. The few that survive will make easy work for Bree's Watchmen or the Rangers."

That settled, we decided to return to check on the Thornleys. It turned out Robb made it home a short time before we did, and Ms. Thornley was positively elated. They offered us to stay in their farm, but their small farmhouse would not have held us all what with the large family they kept, so their sons built us a small fire in the yard and we set up camp. The Thornleys brought us all manner of breads, soups, vegetables, and fruits, but what we really wanted was something tender and roasted. Thereupon, Nephyn excused herself, promising to return shortly, and made her way eastward. We lost sight of her in the darkness, but she came back quickly carrying a good-sized boar. We all praised her marksmanship in the dark and I set about cleaning and dressing the kill.

"That was a mighty shot in the dark, my friend!" said Drodie, clearly impressed. "Why, some boar will carry on the fight even after getting three or four pins stuck into them!"

"I've learned a few useful things in my short life," Nephyn laughed. "Many of them I learned from a Man who keeps a cabin very near here: Saerdan, my mentor. I decided to pay him a visit, but he was not at home. Which is not to be wondered at: the Rangers are often abroad. It has been a very long time since I saw him last and I hope I can do so once more if we are to leave the Bree-land someday." I could hear the sadness in her voice as she said this.

At this point, our Company began discussing what tomorrow would bring us. Our intent is to travel south back to the Barrow-Downs and finally locate this Great Barrow. If we can do that, perhaps we will finally track down the fell-spirit that nearly bested us in the Old Forest and maybe we will gain some answers to our many riddles. The stars leapt into the sky and we all lay on the grass, watching the constellations twinkle far above us while the fire crackled nearby. My stomach was full of roasted boar, my friends were with me, and together we had just rescued an innocent Man and slain a great orc-captain. Life doesn't get much better than this!

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 9.2

Return to the Barrow-Downs Part 2

Once we had recovered from our encounter with the Kergrim, we started discussing our next move. Nephyn, Drodie, and I lay on the grass around our small campfire while the Elves stood, as is their wont. The weather had not changed, unless perhaps it was less windy down among the crevices between the barrows where we now sat. The sky was still a somber grey and the low clouds raced overhead.

"What a pity to have yet another barrow turn up nothing useful for us," I griped as I munched on an apple from my pack. I was not feeling very adventurous after my fright.

"I would not say it yielded nothing of value," Gaelira said. "It brought the long-forgotten name of Othrongroth back to my mind. As Nephyn pointed out, that place is the greatest of all the tombs in the Tyrn Gorthad, and quite likely the very place our adversary has ensconced himself as he grows in strength and gathers his forces."

"Which means we ourselves will need to go there, sooner or later," Drodie offered. "That's just grand. Does anyone know anything about this Great Barrow? Would we be walking into an ambush?" No one answered right away.

"For myself, I can only say it is supposed to lie somewhere in the Southern Barrow-Downs," said Nephyn slowly. "It is said to be the resting place of many of the ancient kings of Cardolan, so I suppose that would make it a very large network of tunnels connecting multiple individual tombs. Apparently, even this barrow from which we just emerged used to be connected to it, long ago, and we are still in the northern half of this land."

"Then we must find another entrance," said Luean. "And that will be wearying work, considering all of the mounds which dot the landscape here." I didn't like the sound of that!

"Isn't there anything we can do?" I pleaded. "Surely you're not saying we'll have to poke our noses into each and every one of these loathsome holes!"

"We shall see," Gaelira answered. Then she turned away from us and walked several steps. She raised her hands to her lips and let out a strange, throaty call. If there were words in that cry I could not catch them. Gaelira remained staring southward while the rest of us watched and waited. Several minutes passed.

Suddenly, from around the curve of the hill to our left, there came whirling a large black bird. It landed on the ground in front of Gaelira and hopped toward her. The she-Elf motioned back to us to remain where we were, and we all obeyed while we watched the proceedings with great interest. Gaelira knelt and seemed to be speaking with the bird. After only a short time, she stood up and returned to us. The black bird cocked its head and watched us intently.

"Fortune is with us," Gaelira said as she strode up. "It seems someone does indeed know where to find our enemy!"

"That thing?" asked Drodie in disbelief, pointing at the animal. "I wouldn't trust a crow, nor anyone who does! Like as not it'll just lead us into a pit and leave us there to pick at our bones once we've died of thirst!"

"That 'thing,' Master Drodie, is a raven," said Gealira patiently, "An altogether different sort of bird, as your kindred at Erebor would readily tell you. Come, we follow his lead."

The Company swiftly collected itself and stomped out the little fire. We fell in line behind Gaelira who was watching the raven as it returned to the air. Then we started off at a quick pace behind it as it led us southwards. The raven was obliged to alight many times as we struggled up and down the hills, but always it led us in the same direction. After some time we came to what looked like an ancient path that wound up to the top of a high ridge. Once astride this high point, we could see the entire lower half of the Downs stretching away before us. The Sun was beginning its western descent just as we began ours down the southern face of the ridge.

"So this raven is leading us to the Great Barrow?" I asked Gaelira as we picked our way down the ridge-wall.

"I think so, but I cannot say for certain," came the she-Elf's answer. "I asked if he knew of any evil creatures of great power here in the Barrow-Downs. I am assuming there is only one such being for us to be concerned with and I am also assuming that creature resides within Othrongroth. Neither assumption may prove true, but Hremm certainly was eager to lead us the moment I mentioned what we were seeking."

"Hremm?" I asked, confused.

"That is the raven's name," Gaelira replied. I heard Drodie snort loudly from behind me as he stifled a laugh. Gaelira did not look around.

"The ravens are noble animals which have aided the Free Peoples for many ages. There are far fewer now which retain the ability to communicate with us, but there are still some, especially in sequestered places where hammer and anvil have not driven them from their ancestral homes."

We reached the bottom of the ridge without incident. Here, the ground became boggy in some spots and we were forced to turn westward for a short time, but we resumed our southerly course as soon as we could. We passed over yet more mounds and then began to climb a gentle rise. We were headed up a large, sloping hill the top of which appeared to be crowned with ancient and crumbling stonework, as though there had once been a sizeable city there, many long years ago. By the time we finally reached level ground again, the sky was a bright orange: the Sun was preparing to set and there was still no sign of our adversary. I heaved a great sigh and rubbed my stiff knees. We all looked around at the centuries-old masonry that lay before us. Perhaps, at one time, this place might have been a pleasing settlement for the Men of Cardolan, but now it looked positivley dead, as if the ruins themselves were the bones of the earth lying shattered and forgotten upon this wind-swept hill.

We were high up enough to see the treetops of the Old Forest marching awway from us in ranks to the west. As I looked, I also saw Hremm (the raven) perched on a partially crumbled archway, watching us. It began hopping excitedly and crying at us. I cocked my head at it, wondering what had it so bothered. Then it occurred to me we might have reached the place it was leading us! I turned to the rest of the Company.

"Do you think --" I began, but suddenly the ground in the midst of us erupted, spraying turf and gravel everywhere! I covered my face with my arms and hands and stumbled backward into a stone pillar. When I looked up, I beheld a terrible sight: the bones of some long-dead Man encased in bits of rusted and decrepit armor was raising itself from the earth! The empty eye sockets burned with a furious fire and the fleshless, grinning mouth laughed at us with a shrill and pitiless voice.

Ha! Bow down, slaves -- the Bone Man will rend your flesh!

The apparition held in its skeletal hand a longsword very much alike in design to Nephyn's, but clearly not made of the same material. We had the thing surrounded since it had emerged from the ground right in our midst. Gaelira lowered her staff at the wight, her mouth twisted in a look of utter repugnance.

"Your efforts end here, foul one," she said. "Tell me why Angmar sent you here and I will hasten your passing." That high-pitched voice cackled again.

I will tell you nothing, she-Elf. I shall enjoy tormenting your withered spirit here in the Mortal Lands. Now die!

The Bone Man's joints creaked as it raised its sword to smite Gaelira down, but the she-Elf, quick as a cat, darted in and delivered a blow with her staff to the wight's sword-arm. The entire arm came off, with sword and bones skittering across the stones. The wight looked at his missing arm, then at where they were flung to. We did not back down.

"I give you one last chance," Gaelira said, menacingly. I gripped the handle of my hammer and prepared to join her in pounding this revolting thing back into the earth.

But then the dismembered arm and sword slid along the ground and re-attached themselves at the wight's shoulder! I saw Drodie's eyes (as he was across from me) become as wide as dinner plates.

"Uh, oh..." he muttered.

Warriors! To me!

There was a rumble from beneath us and the earth exploded at several places behind us as half a dozen barrow-wights emerged. Now we were the ones who were surrounded!

Kill them...
The Bone Man

Two of the wights immediately seized Luean, their bony hands groping for his throat. I saw Drodie engaged with two more as he used his shield to turn their axes. Gaelira was locked in battle with another. Nephyn was parrying the attacks of the Bone Man and I had the last wight to myself! Horrified, I backed away from the thing, but it followed me. I kept backing up until my feet touched on nothing! I glanced back and there was a dreadful drop off the side of the hill. In front of me, the barrow-wight raised its sword for the kill, but at the last second I darted to the right. The wight's momentum carried it forward and over the edge! I heard the bones crunch onto the rocks at the bottom as I raced to help my friends.

Gaelira and Drodie were still trying to defend themselves against three wights while Nephyn continued her struggle against the Bone Man as Luean cried for help. A thrill of fear ran through my body. In a flash, I thought how our Company might find its end here, alone in these haunted hills. But I would not let it! Not this way!

Seeing how Luean was in the worst plight, I sprinted over to where he was being held down by the two wights. With my hammer, I swung with all of my might at their knees. Two bony legs were broken in half, and the wights' grip on Luean was loosed! He shoved the damaged skeletons away from him and strode with purpose toward where the Bone Man and Nephyn continued their fight. The two injured wights crawled after him, undeterred. I retreated behind a pillar. Drodie and Gaelira continued their losing battle to one side.

From where I was, I could see Luean's front. His face was a thundercloud of fury like I had never seen it before. Reaching into his satchel, he produced a rune-stone and held it high over his head.


The rune-keeper's voice echoed off the hillsides like thunder in the mountains. The remaining wights froze and turned toward him. Gaelira raced to his side and raised her staff.


Suddenly, the bones of the five lesser barrow-wights collapsed to the ground. Whatever dark spell had fused their undead bodies together appeared to have been broken. The Bone Man looked around, realizing he was now alone. Together, we once again surrounded it and Gaelira planted herself in its face once more.

"Now then," she said, mockingly. "Where were we?"

Fools! I was summoned here from Carn Dum to bring ruination to these lands. And nothing you can do will stop me!

The Bone Man raised its sword to stab at Gaelira, but suddenly its head shattered into a million pieces: Nephyn had swung her Barrow-blade clean through the rotted helm. There was a shrill cry from that undead mouth, and all of the bones and ancient armor fell to pieces. Somehow or other, we had won.

"A curse on this miserable land and everything in it!" Gaelira fumed, stalking about in her anger. I was thoroughly confused.

"But... but didn't we defeat it?" I asked hesitantly.

"No!" came her furious response. "No, they have retreated, but they are not gone. They are only waiting to spring another ambush on us in the dark of night -- and the Sun has nearly left us! There is no way we can escape these hills before She sets."

There was a loud croak from behind us. We looked and saw Hremm the raven take to the air again. He wheeled back and forth several times: it was clear he wished us to follow him.

"Let us see where he is leading us!" said Luean. We started off.

"Straight into another trap, I shouldn't wonder," Drodie growled. "Why, that infernal bird was the one as led us here, and very nearly to our deaths! I say we leave by the route we already know."

"Gaelira is right that the Sun will set long before we can hope to reach the northern pass," Nephyn said as she watched Hremm's flight. "We have no choice but to trust the bird."

It was well that we did. The raven led us eastward to the outer fences of the Downs where we discovered a passage leading to the outside! We emerged into the Andrath, roughly two miles southwest of Bree-town just as the early stars were beginning to prick the skies. Relieved, we began our walk to the Prancing Pony. Along the way, we talked about what we had experienced and learned during the day.

"You Elves always continue to surprise me!" I said to Luean. "What sort of spell was that you unleashed upon the barrow-wights?"

"Spell?" Luean looked at me in confusion. "That was no spell, little Shire-hobbit! I was merely informing the unclean spirits that they had incurred the wrath of the Elves, specifically, one of which happens to be a High Elf of Noldorin heritage."

"O!" I said, comprehending virtually none of this. "But how did you cause them to fall to pieces like that?"

"I did not," came the reply. "They did. Or, to be more precise, the spirits feared what we might do to them and decided to abandon the skeletal bodies they had inhabited for the purpose of destroying us."

"Are you saying they got scared and ran off?" I asked, somewhat apprehensively. Luean frowned in thought.

"Well, yes, I suppose you could say that."

"But how did you know that would work?" I persisted.

"Oh, I did not know," Luean laughed. "It was quite the gamble. But luckily for us, it did work!" I was so amazed I could think of nothing else to ask.

"Unfortunately, I do not think we can count on something like that working again," Gaelira said. Her mood had not improved much, even considering Hremm's effective short-cut out of the Barrow-Downs. "It is clear we are still no closer to accomplishing our objective. This Bone Man is not the source of the unrest in the Downs or in the Old Forest. He said he was 'summoned here from Carn Dum,' that is Angmar, which means he must have come here at the behest of something else. That something else is our true adversary, which remains unknown and unfound."

"That is all true, but I would argue we are in fact closer than we were," said Nephyn. "We have not yet found where the Great Barrow lies, and there are many signs indicating that is where we should seek our quarry."

"I agree," Luean said. "If we can locate Othrongroth, then we will be much nearer our goal. In the meantime, we have confirmed whatever is disrupting these lands is connected to Angmar."

"Aye, and we've also bested its hand-picked champion!" said Drodie triumphantly. "No thanks to that dratted bird, of course. I still say it led us into that ambush."

"Don't be absurd. The raven was leading us to what it perceived as the greatest threat it knew," Gaelira countered. "But that does not mean it was not an ambush: I fear that more may be known about us and our movements than I would wish."

That got us all thinking, and the rest of the trek back to Bree was a quiet one. We got our usual rooms at the Pony, but the Company's money was starting to run low -- we would have to either find some source of coin, and soon, or we might have to start camping out-of-doors. I settled down to begin my journaling while the rest of us either turned in or sat quietly in the parlour as the Moon rose overhead. Each of our minds were spinning through the questions our return to the Barrow-Downs had spawned, but none of us had any answers. Only one thing seemed certain: the Great Barrow loomed over everything like a putrescent cloud. Sooner or later we would have to face that dark tomb.

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 9.1

Return to the Barrow-Downs Part 1

Sunday, 10th of Afteryule, Year 1419 Shire-reckoning
The Prancing Pony, Bree-town, Bree-land

The Sword of Ringdor (?)
I have an incredible amount to tell you, Dear Reader, after the events of today! My aching legs will have to wait just a bit longer before I sleep so that I can record everything that has happened and all that we have learned.

This morning dawned chilly and overcast. From my little bed here in the Pony, I could see the clouds covering the sky with a white pall, but it did not look like raining to me. Luckily for us, I was right, because the day was to be filled with amazing things, as you shall soon see.

I bounded out of bed with only the barest surprise at my level of exuberance: I have become rather more fit in the past week than I was accustomed to be. Making my way through the winding hallways of the Pony to our Company's appointed parlour, many things were racing through my mind. Was Luean successful in translating the inscription we collected in the barrow yesterday? What would it tell us about the fell-spirit we've been tracking through the Barrow-Downs? Did Drodie's snoring keep Nephyn up all night instead of me for a change? Would I have more food thrown at me over breakfast? The adventurer's life is one of mystery and intrigue!

As I rounded the final corner and entered the parlour, the first thing I noticed was the table was generously laid with bread, muffins, butter, cream, honey, milk, berries, and several poached eggs. The second thing I noticed was Drodie's obscene table manners as he stuffed an entire muffin into his mouth and got crumbs everywhere. The third thing I noticed was the somber faces of the rest of the Company. The last thing I noticed was the Company had shrunk again. Gaelira answered me before I was even able to get the question out.

"Raviron has left us, Padryc," she said with only the barest hint of disappointment in her voice. "Deep in the hearts of all Elves lies the Sea-longing, which it can be dangerous to arouse. I fear that, despite his best intentions, our friend was unable to resist it any longer and has truly undertaken his final journey to the Sea. To the Sea," she repeated softly as her eyes lost their focus for an instant.

"It cannot be helped," said Luean, as aloof and undisturbed as ever. "His part in our story was brief but important, and now it has run its course. If not for him, we may have never emerged from the Old Forest, so let us remember him fondly. He is not lost to us, after all."

"Not lost to you, you mean," said Nephyn, rather more glumly than I had yet seen her. Neither Luean nor Gaelira responded to her. I got the impression there was a part of this conversation which had taken place before my arrival.

"Well, you can't expect an Elf to stick with you through thick and thin -- not like a Dwarf," said Drodie, who had apparently left his sense of empathy under his bed this morning. "You'll not find me running off at the first sign of high tide, I'll guarantee you that!" He shoved another muffin into his craw. Gaelira glared at him from across the room, but the Dwarf (just like Luean) took no notice. This was not the way I had been expecting the day to begin!

"I was very much wondering," I began as quickly as I could, "whether we were able to make anything of that peculiar rubbing we took from the barrow yesterday." Fortunately, my interruption had the desired effect; Nephyn shook off her sullen mood and Gaelira stopped boring holes into the back of Drodie's head with her eyes. Luean stepped forward.

"Indeed, I have," he said, obviously pleased with himself. "It took some time before I could recollect the more recent uses of the Dunedain tongue in carven images, and even then there are certain older modalities which would give even the most gifted linguist pause as to whether --"

"Just read the bloody thing," Drodie growled, his mouth full of poached egg. Luean cleared his throat.

"Well," he said, "I succeeded in translating the writing into both the Sindarin and the Westron, but since some of us do not speak the Elvish languages," Here, the Dwarf rolled his eyes. "I will render it into the Common Tongue, as nearly as I can."

Herein lies our lord, Ringdor, in this tomb forevermore;

May he enjoy his eternal rest, and always let his name be blessed;

His heart was strong, his sword was true, but in the end the king withdrew;

And all alone he stood and fought, but in the end 'twas all for naught;

His fate was sealed by a lone arrow, and so we lay him in this barrow.

"Not exactly the most eloquent verses I've ever heard," Luean remarked as he finished, "But the Men of Cardolan never were know as master poets."

"Nonetheless, I suspect these lines will be of some value to us," Gaelira said thoughtfully. "The barrow, then, was clearly the resting place of this Ringdor who must have, at one time, been king of the now vanished nation of Cardolan. That, of course, was one of the three sister kingdoms of Arnor alongside Arthedain and Rhudaur. I do not know that I can say much more beyond that -- save the fact that ringdor simply means 'cold-lands' in the Sylvan tongue."

There was a silence. Suddenly, we all became aware that Nephyn had a look of intense surprise on her face. Her eyes were wide and her lips parted. We turned toward her in expectation.

"The Sword of Ringdor!" she exclaimed. We all raised our eyebrows at her. She clearly expected us to share in her revelation, but it was also clear none of us did. She looked at us pleadingly, amazed at our lack of understanding.

"The Sword! Of Ringdor!" She said again. She spread her hands at us as though her meaning was self-evident. She got nothing but blank stares from the rest of us. Nephyn rolled her eyes and quickly drew her blade!

"Hey now!" shouted Drodie, leaping from his chair and fumbling for his own weapon. "Just because we've no idea what you're on about is no reason to get testy!"

"No!" Nephyn said, exasperated. "This! This is the Sword of Ringdor! It has to be!" Gaelira, Drodie, and I continued to look at the Woman in utter incomprehension. But Luean smiled kindly and said:

"Perhaps you should explain to those of us who have not heard this tale."

"Not heard?" Nephyn didn't seem to think this was possible. "O! Well, I suppose that would explain the silly looks you're all giving me. I thought everyone knew about Lord Ringdor and his gallant last stand amid the Tyrn Gorthad long ago."

"I feel a story coming on," I whispered to Drodie, who was near me. The Dwarf muttered something I did not catch and went back to his breakfast.

"Nearly two thousand years ago, the Realm of Cardolan was nearly in ashes, having been decimated by constant attacks coming from many places, but mainly from Angmar. Then came the Great Plague out of the Black Land far away which all but destroyed it. Many were buried in Tyrn Gorthad, which is just the Elvish name for the Barrow-Downs. The place was greatly revered by the Men of Cardolan, as they took death very seriously and observed rather strict burial rites for themselves and their kin. But after the year 1636, a dark wind swept the Downs and ever thereafter the dreaded Barrow-wights stalked the hills. Then, a funeral procession was attacked by the terrible things and many Men perished by their cold hands. There was a mighty outrage and lamentation throughout the realm at this new perversion from Angmar, and so finally the king of Cardolan at that time, Lord Ringdor, assembled what strength of arms he could muster and marched upon Tyrn Gorthad to eradicate the evil that had festered there. Unfortunately, his host was overcome by fear, and the king withdrew his attack. Ere he was able to escape the Downs, however, he was set upon from all sides and slain. Legends say an arrow pierced his eye and the rot of it killed him unnaturally quickly. I suspect the barrow where we found this carving was built later over his final resting place. He was a beloved and gentle ruler, by all accounts."

"Fair enough, but what does this story have to do with us and your sword?" I asked as I began to partake of the food before us.

"Well, the Sword of Ringdor was just as famous as Lord Ringdor himself," Nephyn went on. "It is said he would travel frequently to Tyrn Gorthad before it became a place of terror to pay homage to his ancestors. On one such pilgrimage, he was supposed to have found a sword of marvellous workmanship. It was such an extraordinary weapon he claimed it for himself since he discovered it in a tomb housing one of his own kin. It was supposed to be a blade crafted from ice and if anyone was wounded by that blade it would turn them into a solid block of ice themselves." We all snickered at such obvious nonsense. Nephyn laughed with us.

"Yes, obviously, those are just myths and cannot be true, but this couldn't be any other sword. Just look at the blade!" She held it up for us and, as I had originally reported when I first beheld it several days ago, the blade did indeed appear to be shaped from some unusual metal which gave it a dull sheen. I could certainly see how storytellers might invent the idea of a sword forged from ice and the other bits about freezing a body would be easily filled in by imagination.

"Most likely that is how this Ringdor acquired his name as well," said Luean, clearly enjoying the repartee. "That is not a natural name for a Man, in any case."

"So the Woman found a weird sword," said Drodie, still eating. "What of it?"

"It poses many difficult questions, at least some of which concern us," said Gaelira with a frown. "First of all, what were the Blackwolds doing with such an artifact? The brigands of this land hold the Barrow-Downs in fear just as any sane folk would and they do not go near it. We ourselves have verified this with our own eyes. If the brigands did not retrieve the sword from the tombs, then who did? And why give it to the Blackwolds? This discovery of ours seems to create more questions than answers."

"I think I could attempt to answer some of those questions," said Nephyn with a rather self-assured air. "The legend of the Sword of Ringdor has not lessened with the passing of the centuries among those who are interested in such things. Here in the Bree-land the story is known well and by many. An artifact such as this could be seen by some as a symbol of the right to rule, at least where the ancient Realm of Cardolan was maintained, to say nothing of the fear that such a weapon might inspire in those it sought to subjugate: all that nonsense about an ice-sword that turns people to ice is absurd, of course, but simple folk might not like taking their chances. The Blackwolds had been gathering considerable strength, even very near to Bree itself, right under the noses of the Town Watch, after all. I would submit to you that someone recovered this sword from the Barrow of Ringdor and gave it to the Blackwolds as a promise: a sign of what they would receive for their allegiance. It might even be the leader of the brigands, whom we slew in the Chetwood, was being promised the entirety of ancient Cardolan -- from the Brandywine to the Hoarwell and from the Greyflood to the Road. That is what my knowledge of Bree-lore suggests to me."

"And where did you acquire this lore?" asked Luean with a raised eyebrow. I don't think he meant the question as a challenge, but Nephyn's tone sounded as though she took it as one.

"From Dalton Willow, if you must know." she said haughtily. Now Luean raised his other eyebrow.

"And he is?"

"He is one of the keepers of the Scholar's Stair Archives here in Bree," the Woman answered, clearly offended. "Not everyone in the Bree-land is a farmer, logger, or herdsman! I've learned a great deal from him over the years. In fact, I've seen in the Archives a copy of an old journal kept by some forgotten Man of Cardolan documenting the corruption of the Barrow-Downs. Many pages are missing, but it tells of the coming of the dark plague and how their kin were slain or weakened by its evil. It also relates the first appearance of the Barrow-wights, the efforts to remove them, and the last stand against the Undead before Cardolan fell. The last page of that journal is torn and stained with blood." Nephyn's cheeks and ears were red with agitation. "We Bree-folk have had our own sorrows while the noses of the Elves were buried in their libraries, elsewhere."

"I am certain Luean did not mean to offend," said Gaelira, stepping back into the discussion. "And your knowledge of the lore in these parts is of great service -- to us and to all Free Folk who live here -- since I think we begin to see how these pieces are all connected to each other. Those Men of Angmar who escaped us in the Chetwood were likely the agents sent to deliver this sword and promise of payment to the Blackwolds, just as Nephyn suspects."

"But what of our strange findings in the Old Forest? The burned-down cottage, the strange Man, and the fell-spirit we are hunting in the Downs?" I asked. Gaelira shook her head.

"I do not have those answers just yet," she said, "but I am hopeful that today's return to the Barrow-Downs will yield them."

At this point we all devoured what Drodie had left us of breakfast and made ready to depart. It was still quite early, which boded well considering where we were headed. It had turned windy, and our white cloaks (most of them now a bit soiled from our several adventures) billowed magnificently behind us as we made our way down the hill and out the West Gate. After a short march, we turned south and re-entered the Barrow-Downs.

The Downs were an even more undesirable place than the day before under those low and dreary skies. My fingers and toes felt unnaturally cold as we picked our way between the hills in search for anything that might lead somewhere on our chase. As the Sun climbed higher toward noon, we happened upon a barrow the entrance of which was not blocked or fallen in. We all exchanged glances and knew we would be going in. Drodie had purchased several torches in town, so we passed these out, lit them, and marched into the underground tunnels.

To my relief, this particular barrow was not very expansive. The passage bored a short ways into the hillside and then descended by way of some crumbling stairs down into a dank tomb. We were all proceeding as quietly as we could, but our footsteps echoed alarmingly off the stone walls. I heard some bats flutter overhead, probably disturbed by the rising heat of our fire-brands. The place stank of death. I did my best to control my stomach's heaving and follow along behind my friends.

Suddenly we all heard a low, growling or gurgling sound. Nephyn held up her hand, signalling us all to become motionless. We froze. I was caught in a particularly awkward position and my muscles began to cramp, but I refused to move an inch. We all scanned the darkness around us for any sign of that animal-like rumble, but we could see nothing beyond the small circle of light created by our torches. Silence. I winced in pain out of a desire to move.

"What was that?" Gaelira's whisper was barely audible even to the rest of us, who were inches away from each other. I could see Nephyn shake her head, but she did not answer. It began to feel as though the darkness was advancing on us, shrinking our field of vision.

There it was again! And much closer! We threw our torches to the ground where they continued to burn as we all drew our weapons. The sound was like some huge preying cat, or perhaps a bear, but I don't think any bear would willingly inhabit those evil caverns. In the echoing space, it was impossible to tell where the sound was coming from. We all spun about, weapons pointed outward, searching for whatever was advancing on us.

Suddenly a huge face appeared directly in front of me and let out a terrible roar! I cried out and fell backward as three creatures attacked us.

Their faces were grotesque and misshapen with bulging eyes and enormous, leering mouths. They were ugly and bow-legged with long, muscular arms that reached nearly to the ground. At first I thought they were Orcs, then I thought they were trolls. In the end I saw they were neither, but there was no time to study them. All three were clad in some disgusting bumpy scales. The third one was a good deal larger than the other two. Much more than Orcs or trolls, these creatures made me think of the tales I had heard about great apes from the South, but those were said to be hairy, not green and scaly!

Gaelira swung her staff at the one nearest her, but it simply glanced off the thing's hideous hide. The beast swung at the she-Elf, but Gaelira deftly ducked the blow and retreated to gain some distance. Drodie ran up to it and stabbed it in the midsection with his short, broad-bladed Dwarf sword. That caused the animal to grunt in pain and withdraw. To my left I saw Luean reading words I could not understand off one of his rune-stones. The second monster was standing directly in front of him, but it was only staring at the Elf, as if in some sort of trance. Suddenly it howled as if it had been stung and fled into the darkness. I could hear a scrabbling and scratching somewhere off in the blackness; I suppose it was trying to escape. Things were looking well for us, so I started to pick myself up from where I had fallen in my fright.

That's when the biggest one grabbed me by the ankle and raised me into the air! "Help!" I cried out, instinctively. Drodie rushed at the thing, clashing his sword on his shield and trying to attract its attention. Unfortunately for Drodie, it worked. The monster reached out its long arms and seized the Dwarf around the neck, then hurled him across the room! Drodie crashed into the stone wall and fell to the floor in a heap. Suddenly I heard a thwack! and the beast let out an awful scream. Nephyn had lodged an arrow in the arm that held me up. The monster released me and I plummeted to the earth. Gaelira stepped over me to deliver the spike of her staff into the creature's soft underbelly which caused it to grunt and double over in pain. At that moment, Nephyn delivered a powerful sword-blow to its neck. The head went flying and landed right next to mine: the face was still contorted in a painful visage. I yelped and rolled away before getting back onto my own furry feet. I retrieved my hammer and raised it in self-defence, but the decapitated body of the large animal fell to the ground and lay still. The battle was over.

"Is Drodie all right?" I heard Gaelira ask from behind me. I turned and looked in the direction that Drodie had been cast by the beast, but I could see nothing for the gloom. Still, the Dwarf's voice came to us from beyond my sight.

"Bah! Of course I'm all right," he said as he walked back into the light of our torches. His voice was strong, but it looked to me as though he was just the least bit unsteady on his legs. "Got the wind knocked out of me -- I would have had that big'un if it weren't for Nephyn and her famous sword!"

"That was a palpable hit, my friend," Luean said as he joined us. Nephyn looked with disgust at the severed head lying on the ground.

"But who can say what it hit?" she asked. "I'm afraid my Bree-lore fails me in identifying these creatures! What are they?"

"Kergrim," Gaelira answered. "They are foul carrion beasts which feed upon rotted corpses; a most vile breed. They can grow quite large, but they are also mindless scavengers: they tend to avoid contact with anything not like them and are totally incapable of acting in any coordinated manner."

"And yet, Gaelira, you can see as well as I that neither was the case with these Kergrim," said Luean gravely. "They attempted to corner us and they appeared to be following the larger male. Moreover, you must have noticed all three of them wore these." Here, Luean nudged the head with his foot. As it rolled over, we could see some sort of primitive necklace made of bone and string. It was most uncouth, but it was also clearly an item made by hands and not by nature. Gaelira sighed.

"I did notice," she said. "But I was hoping we would not find what we have: these animals are clearly being led by some powerful figure they respect and have allied themselves with it. This does not bode well for the Bree-land."

"But it also confirms your suspicions," Luean replied. "Only a very strong presence would be able to hold such animals under its sway, to say nothing of the wights and even the spiders: whatever fetched the Sword of Ringdor from Ringdor's Barrow did so without slaying the spiders or being slain by them."

"I know it well, my friend," said Gaelira, "but I do not like what it portends. Let us hasten to search this cavern and go! The smell is quite overwhelming."

There was not much to see. For one thing, it seemed the Kergrim which fled from us had some holes or tunnels through which to escape, although we were not able to discover them. And the entire back wall of the tomb appeared to have collapsed in on itself, possibly many, many centuries ago. There looked to be nothing else of any value anywhere in that cold, barren gravesite. Then, off to one side and well away from the rubble, I found another carven pedestal. I called the others over.

"Look here!" I said excitedly. "It's another of these things. Should I take another rubbing, do you think?"

"That won't be necessary, little one," Luean said with a smile. "Now that I have remembered how to translate these characters I can do so with ease." He strode up to the pedestal and brushed some dirt off its face with his hand.

"Most interesting," he said after a few moments. "This pedestal is like to the one we found in the Barrow of Ringdor in its craft-make. I think we can assume these were intended to be for the recordation of epitaphs; again, like the one we found for Lord Ringdor."

"Then who is this barrow for?" Nephyn asked, looking over his shoulder. Luean hesitated.

"The writing on this pedestal was not meant to honour anyone," he said. "It is poorly done, I might even say in haste, and with tools unsuited to the task. Listen to what the words tell us!"

The Tomb of Methernil, collapsed by order of Iarchith, Lord of Cardolan, in the Year 1639 to stop the spread of the evil in Othrongroth.

"Othrongroth!" Nephyn said in surprise. "That is the proper name for what all Bree-folk know as the Great Barrow -- the largest of all the tombs in the Barrow-Downs and where many great kings were laid in death."

"It seems that even so long ago as when this inscription was made there was some great evil emenating from that place," Gaelira said. "And I fear it may be so again."

"If that carving is to be believed," Drodie chimed in, "then this passage must join with Othrongroth somewhere on the other side. But there is clearly no way for us to penetrate this wall of rubble."

"No," said Gaelira, looking pensively at the collapsed barrow. "There is nothing more for us here. And we have lingered already longer than was wise."

We emerged from the stifling tomb into the chill air, glad to be breathing freely once again. Although it felt as if we had been underground for a couple of hours, in truth the Sun had only just passed midday. We made a little campsite a short ways from the entrance to Haudh Methernil and set down to lunch. Each of us was busy with our own thoughts. What could have caused the Lord of Cardolan to seal off that tomb? What was he trying to contain there? And if, as seemed likely enough, we were bound to explore the depths of this Great Barrow, what would we find within it?

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 8.2


The Prancing Pony
I had intended to head off to bed following Nephyn's tutoring me on the history of the Barrow-downs, but something came into my head just then. It occurred to me that Nephyn knew exactly where to find that book, here, in an obscure corner of a small parlour room of a tavern. I cocked my head at her and gave a quizzical expression.

"Do you know Bree well?" I asked. I had no idea where that simple question was about to lead us.

"I've lived here for as long as I can remember," Nephyn replied. It was so obviously a non-answer that I felt compelled to say what was on my mind.

"You'll pardon my mentioning this, but you don't seem to be like the others who live here."

The Woman did not answer. She lowered her eyes slightly.

"I mean no offence, of course," I went on, "It's just: your height, the colour of your hair, your darker complexion..."

Still, she did not respond. "I'm not from here," she said. She sighed.

"I'm not offended, Padryc. If I seem upset, well, it's because I don't rightfully know the answer to what you're asking me."

"And yet you've lived here all your life?" I queried. "What can your family tell you about your past?" She looked at me searchingly.

"Follow me," she said.

We left the parlour and Nephyn led me back to the Common Room of the Pony. The night was deep outside and the place was empty, yet the huge fire on the main hearth remained, burning brightly. In the still emptiness, the room had an almost mysterious feel about it. The numerous chairs and tables cast flickering shadows everywhere. For a fleeting instant I felt as if I was in some ancient temple or majestic tomb of long-dead kings. Yet, when I looked away from the fireplace at the room itself, I saw only dusty tables and overturned mugs of beer, just like always. Nephyn led me straight to the hearth.

"Do you see that basin?" There was a wide, flat cooking cauldron on the hearthstone, meant for keeping soups and stews warm. I nodded but said nothing.

"That is where I was found one morning when the fireplace was cold," she said, sadly. "A wee baby, dark as night, and asleep. No name, no note. Nothing." The fire crackled on as we stood there, side by side.

"How sad!" was all finally I managed to say. Nephyn sighed again.

"Barliman is a good Man, but he has no mind to be taking care of children. He can barely manage to take care of himself and his inn. I essentially raised myself here. When I was old enough, I started roaming outside, wandering further and further afield with each passing day. I would pry into every old ruin and ancient forest I could find, both to explore them and also to find old relics of long-dead Arnor. At night I would bring my treasures back here to the Inn, where I'd discuss my findings with the travellers and merchants who were always passing through Bree. Sometimes I would collect some coin for the rarer pieces, and that sustained me without having to resort to a life of thievery. On a few occasions, I even met with some of the folk that are called Rangers, since now and then one or two of them could be seen here. The ones I met took a particular interest in me, though I have no idea why. They seemed to know I was not like the rest of the Bree-folk, but they never told me what they knew or suspected. I learned much from them: some took the time to show me the basics of hunting, tracking, and basically living off the land. One of the Rangers, Saerdan was his name, who taught me most of what I now know of surviving in the Wild, became something of a father figure to me, although he never stayed in Bree long. But he has a cabin not far up the Greenway -- he seems to be more settled than the rest of his kin. Anyway, I asked him once why he was willing to spend so much time training me."

I think that, one day, the Bree-land is going to need folk to defend it, he told me. And I think that you have the strength and courage to do just that.

I decided to ask him if he could tell me anything about my past. But he only looked at me.

I could guess, but it would be only a guess, he said. If Fate has not deigned to reveal this to you, then I believe my guesses would only harm matters and not help them. If you wish to learn of your past, that will be a journey you must undertake. I can help you prepare for that journey, but you must walk the path yourself.

"And so I kept learning, kept wandering, and kept wondering. Who I really was. Why they left me behind. I never asked Saerdan about the subject again, but I have never forgotten his words to me." There was a long pause.

"Is that why you joined this Elvish Company?" I asked finally. "I have heard the Road has become quite dangerous of late, but a group of experienced travellers might have less difficulty than one alone."

"In part, yes," she said. "I've searched and asked of anyone in this little land who might possibly have glimpsed whoever it was that abandoned me here, but always the answer is the same: nothing. I know all of Bree-land's wilderness, but I have yet to journey beyond it. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps by some misguided notion that I should remain here just in case someone decided one day to come looking for me. But I think I have finally given up on anyone ever coming to seek me here."

"How sad!" I said again. "It must be hard for you, having no one to tell you of your history."

"It is a little sad," she replied, "But I've never wanted to be just another sob story to be gossiped about by busybodies. I keep these things to myself and try to make the best of the rest of my life. Just because the life I've had thus far has been sad doesn't mean the rest of it has to be!"

"I think that's a very wise way to look at the situation, if you don't mind me saying so," I said. "Why, one could almost say your own identity is an adventure, in a manner of speaking."

"Indeed you could," Nephyn said, similing warmly. "I like the way you think. And while they may have given up on me I've not yet given up on them. So I'll search beyond the borders of the Bree-lands, come what may, and perhaps one day I will find my answers. And I am glad to share my tale with you, friend Padryc. Though we've known each other for only a little time, I feel as if I can trust you." A pause.

"I lost my home too," I said softly. "But at least I knew it -- once." The fire roared on unchanging.

"You mentioned that briefly when we first met," she said. "Something about an inheritance snatched away wrongfully? I am sorry for you." I shrugged.

"Well, it could have turned out better, you know, but I keep thinking that, if it had, I would have never met all of you otherwise! I was becoming more morose by the day, having to live in the Shire and service its petty residents. In an odd way, this adventure is probably the best thing for me, after all."

"I'm certainly glad you are with us! We might not have know it if things had happened otherwise, but we would be missing your uplifting spirits and wonderful songs out there on the Road." Another silence. "Were you very close?"

"To my mum and dad? Yes," I replied. "I was their only child, you see. You never really appreciate what family means to you -- until it's no longer there. After the incident with the will came about, I kept trying to find ways to reacquire my family's land. I felt as if that would somehow bring them back, but I know that will never happen. Besides, I don't see how even getting the land back would be possible now."

"Have the authorities in the Shire no respect for next of kin or blood relations?" Nephyn asked with some heat.

"O, certainly!" I answered. "But there is also great respect for rules and traditions. The manner in which inheritances have been governed has been that way since time out of memory, but I don't think there's ever been an instance of it actually being enforced, save mine."

"I hope that is true," Nephyn said. "I hope that one day soon the Shire-folk will awake from their little slumber in time to recognize the very real danger they -- and all of us -- are truly in. Perhaps then their petty rules and disputes will not seem so important and they can focus more on doing what is right by others." I chuckled.

"Sometimes I think an invasion of brigands or another Fell Winter would be good for them -- to teach them to love their homes and not take what they have for granted," I said. "But I don't feel that way now. I feel that so long as the Shire lies behind me, safe, confortable, and familiar, I shall find adventuring more bearable because I know it is still there for me to go back to; just the way it always has been."

Neither of us spoke for some time. The fire was starting to burn down while the walls creaked around us. The Inn itself seemed to be preparing for sleep.

"Well, I should get to my scribblings before the night gets much older," I said, trying to sound cheerful. "Hopefully Luean is able to make something out of that rubbing of ours. I would hate to have today's efforts wasted!"

"I hope so too," Nephyn said to me. "Thank you for talking with me Padryc. It has been a while since I've had the opportunity to talk like this to a friend. So, forgive me if this seems forward."

To my surprise and delight, the Woman knelt and embraced me tightly. I embraced her back: I will not deny I had exactly the same impulse at exactly the same time. As we parted, I breathed deeply and looked up at her.

"I guess we are just two wayward friends, fated to journey together!" I said with a sheepish grin. A smile played lightly on Nephyn's lips.

"I like the sound of that," she said, softly.