Monday, April 10, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 7.2

A Brief Interlude

Sterday, 9th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The House of Tom Bombadil, Somewhere in the Old Forest

It is very early in the morning and I am wide awake. Unlike the last time we stayed in the House of Tom Bombadil -- when I was forced to sleep on the flagstone floor at the hearth in order to dry myself out after my little encounter with the singing willow tree, you may remember -- this time I slept in a proper bed. I was so tired after our adventure with the evil tree (or "Huorn," as Gaelira keeps calling it) that I drifted off almost as soon as I lay myself down.

We returned here to inform Old Tom of our victory over the Huorn very late last night -- it must have been nearly midnight -- so I was quite worn out and did as much writing as I could before my eyelids started to droop. The bed was so soft (made of rushes, of all things!) and the pillow so deep that sleep covered me like a hobbit lying down in a field of dandilions.

Unfortunately, I didn't stay asleep. I can't quite recall the dream I was having, but I remember how it ended: I was staring into the burning eyes of that hideous spider-queen Lebrennil! I kept trying to turn away, but I couldn't; the horrible bulk of that spider body kept getting closer and closer... until, mercifully, I woke up and leapt straight out of my bed and onto the cold floor. The feel of those smooth flagstones under my feet brought my mind back to reality, and I breathed a deep sigh of relief.

"You need fear no dark dreams or noises in the night, my friend," came a gentle voice from nearby. It was Gaelira, who was standing quite still and staring out into the night through the window in the guestroom. "We are in the House of Tom Bombadil, and nothing passes within unless the Master himself wills it." Fully awake, I pondered her remark for a moment.

"Who, or what, is he?" I asked. It had been a burning thought in the back of my mind since we first met the odd fellow, of course, but there had been so much to do and no one else seemed interested in asking what was (to me, at least) the obvious question.

"He is," said Gaelira, still not turning from her vigil at the window.

"Yes?" I persisted.

"He is as you have seen him," she went on, unhelpfully. "Iarwain Ben-adar, or Tom Bombadil as the people of the Bree-land prefer to name him, is the Eldest of all things in Middle-earth. He was here before the Elves had awoken. He saw the fathers of the fathers of Men explore the wide plains. He knew of the coming of your kind beside the long waters much later. He is a caretaker of all that lives within his ever-shrinking realm. I wonder how much longer he will remain here." This was much to digest.

"And how is it the Elves seem familiar with him when even those who live in these lands, the Bree-folk and even the Bucklanders, seem to not know of him?"

"More do than you might think," came her answer. "The Rangers of old Arnor still tell their tales of him, and I think even one or two of the more curious Halflings have met him. Even the Dwarves have their own name for him, so I can only suppose his legend somehow survives among them as well. But he is not an easy riddle to unravel, as you yourself have seen -- that would be a study of many lifetimes. The Elves have long known of him, but he has withdrawn now into this little land and will not step outside its boundaries. And so it has been many centuries, I think, since even the Eldar have had speech with him. Few now come willingly under the eaves of the Old Forest."

"I can see why," I said. "Even after our brief time here I've seen things more terrible than I could have imagined existed." Gaelira had still not turned to face me even after all of this talk, and it was starting to annoy me. As a result, my thoughts turned away from Old Bombadil and to her and the Elves.

"Is it true, then, what I've heard about Elves? That they never sleep?" I'm afraid my voice may have had a slight edge to it, but she seemed to take no notice.

"No, I would not say so, but the same word may have different meanings for your kind and mine," she said, still not turning from the window. "Among the Eldar, we have long known that it is the mind which requires rest, not the body. What you call sleep is really a sort of resetting of the mind and spirit, and this is something my kind has learned to do without slipping into unconsciousness, as you do. I do not quite understand the ways of mortals, but it is my theory that your more primitive way of what you call sleeping is a result of your shorter lifespans -- since you do not live long enough to develop sufficient curiousity about such things, you also never develop a desire to test them."

I'm not certain whether Gaelira meant to sound so condescending, but it certainly came across that way to me. On the other hand, I suppose being immortal would have an impact on one's perspective. I guess it's one of those things that would be very hard to imagine or relate to. Put another way, you can't really appreciate just how mortal you are until you meet someone who is not so, and I (having now travelled with three such folk) am still struggling on how to transfer these impressions to you on paper. What I can tell you is that it's too much to process when you're in the middle of a conversation with an immortal, which makes asking coherent follow-on questions rather difficult. But there was still a large number of things I wished to have addressed.

"Tell me," I asked, "Do all Elves have the ability to conjure up fire at will? Twice now I've seen you issue flames from your hands: once against the spiderlings during our battle with Lebrennil and again to defeat the Huorn. Or are you a specially gifted sorcerer?"

"Sorcery?" asked Gaelira sharply, finally turning to face me. "Nay, not sorcery! Only the close acolytes of the Dark Powers practice such abominable arts. In ages past, the Noldor first discovered that the sap of certain trees burned hotter and longer than others. I suppose this knowledge is not common among most people: the sap which is fitting for such devices is found only in the wild regions of the South and the crafting of suitable containers for these missiles is known now to very few. But I long ago mastered these arts and employ them at great need." I must admit I was relieved to know I was not travelling in the company of some untamed magician.

"But what of the tree? The Huorn?" I said, correcting myself. "Do all such creatures have the ability to speak? And what did its words mean? I could make no sense of them." Gaelira paused, then sat in a nearby chair.

"That is what I have been pondering as the rest of you slept," she said. "Now that I have had time to think, I do not believe that was a true Huorn. It spoke of returning to the darkness, which can only mean it came to that tree from outside of it. A Huorn's spirit is always within its body. It also mentioned 'the barrows,' which I think can only refer to the Barrow-downs, near where we currently stand. It seems to me that some powerful fell spirit inhabited that husk and began spreading its evil throughout the lower regions of the Old Forest."

"And what is the Iron Crown?" I was feeling rather pleased with myself for getting answers to so many questions. Gaelira sighed.

"The Iron Crown was the standard of the Witch-king of Angmar, who ruled from Carn Dum far to the North hundreds of years ago," she replied. "It was the Iron Crown which overthrew the Dunedain Kingdom of Arnor. He is the most terrible servant of the Elves' most terrible adversary."

"And is this why you have been so eager to press toward that dreadful place?" I asked.

"Yes, although thanks to Iarwain, Luean, and Raviron I have changed my thinking about the directness of our way thither. Perhaps they are right that the straightest road is not always the best, nor what Fate intends. Our Company has learned and accomplished much both in Combe and here in the Old Forest."

"True indeed!" I said. "After all, it would not do to march straight into the dragon's lair, as it were, while there is dragon fire aplenty in the lands around you. Even if you managed to defeat the dragon you might return to nothing but ashes and waste."

"Well spoken, my friend," Gaelira said, smiling. "Just as importantly, we may have an opportunity to learn much more about our enemy's plans: I believe we should try to find the spirit which possessed that tree and learn what manner of creature it is. It was the Witch-king who caused the Barrow-downs to become a place of great fear, now more than a thousand years ago, and I fear he or his steward may be stretching his hand thither again. If the Dead should rise from there, I do not think the people of this land will be able to stand against them."

"I am more afraid of the Barrow-downs than anything else I know," I said, trembling a bit. "But folk must act in their own defence, or there must be others, like us, who are willing to do so. What ought we to do?"

"I think --" Gaelira began, looking hard at me as though she was not quite sure, "I think that since we have driven the threats from the Old Forest, we should scout the Barrow-downs and see whether my fears about Angmar being at work there prove true. If they are, we must do what we can against the forces gathered there, whatever they may be."

"I will go with you, despite my own fear," I said, trying to sound braver than I felt. "I am duty-bound, in any case, to look into this matter since it caused the death of two Buckland hobbits. I admire their courage for trying to hunt down and destroy that -- whatever it was living inside that tree -- but I don't think they could have succeeded where the six of us very nearly did not."

"That is true," said Gaelira sadly. "The stout hearts of your kind have impressed me more than once now, but I cannot understand their evident lack of wisdom when dealing with these matters. I suppose they had no idea what they were hunting, and they themselves quickly became the prey. But of course, neither did we, and that should not lessen the greatness of their sacrifice."

"Hear, hear!" I agreed. "But I should still like to know --"

"Have mercy!" she said, laughing. "Am I to unveil all the knowledge I have gathered over my life to you, which reaches back before Laurelin and Telperion first gave their light to the world? What more could I tell you before this night ends? Dawn is nearly in the air!"

"Why not?" I replied, laughing in my turn. "It's the least you can do for convincing me to join this ridiculous walking-party! But I am not in a hurry tonight: I was only wondering whether you had any notions about Rollo Maggot, the strange Man, and his burned-down house we found in the middle of the forest?" Gaelira's smile faded and she knit her brows in thought.

"I cannot say, but I find it the most peculiar event of our journey thus far. I have never heard of anyone building anything inside of the Old Forest -- certainly not Men or Halflings. Rollo Maggot's discovery of the house was pure accident, as his story bears out: he has no reason to deceive us on this point. But the Man's presence there disturbs me greatly, although I know not why. I also noted that the house was not burned down by happenstance: it was clearly a controlled fire. Whoever destroyed that cottage was very careful to ensure no harm was done to the surrounding trees."

"The same thought had occured to me," I said. "But who would do such a thing, and why?" Gaelira shook her head.

"Someone who did not wish that Man to be there, or who wished to stop whatever he was doing," she said. "Unfortunately, we may never know the answer to these riddles and there's certainly nothing more to be done about it at present. You should get what rest you can, Padryc, for the morrow may bring great trials for us all."

I took a few moments to find a drink of clear spring water and also to jot down this account well away from Gaelira. I wasn't sure if she'd appreciate me documenting our entire conversation like this, but after all this journal was her idea and it was certainly a very enlightening chat.

Also, I'm not looking forward to tomorrow...

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