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!

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