Monday, April 10, 2017

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?

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