Monday, 3rd of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Comb and Wattle Inn, the Village of Combe, Bree-land
Your pardon, Dear Reader; once again I am starting my tale in the middle. Allow me to recount our most recent incident with the propriety and organization it deserves.
Last night I was up late, you may remember, writing in this journal because that blasted Dwarf of ours snores with a vengeance the likes of which I have never heard in my life. I honestly think that if a dozen hungry Warg pups were tearing a live pig to pieces just outside my door I wouldn't have heard a thing. It was a mercy I finally dropped off when I did.
It seemed that no sooner had I closed my eyes than I was being shaken awake by Gaelira. If you are not already aware, I can tell you we hobbits do not take kindly to being shaken at any time, least of all when we are sound asleep and dreaming of bacon.
"Whatever is the matter?" I said crossly, trying to shoo the she-Elf away from me while clutching at my blankets.
"You are the matter," Gaelira answered, "The Sun has been abroad for three hours and she is already climbing toward midday. I sometimes wonder if you mortals pass from this world so quickly because you become so enamored of sleep you finally become unable of ever waking again."
"If you're expecting me to thank you for contributing to the prolonging of my time on this earth you'll not get it out of me today." I grumbled, in no mood for jest.
"Very well," Gaelira said, "but I think you should make your way downstairs as soon as may be and take counsel with us. With those of us who remain, that is." She turned and walked out of the room.
"What do you mean?" I said to the empty doorway. "What do you mean: those of us who remain?" I got no answer.
"Typical Elvish trick," I muttered to myself as I hopped out of bed and speedily dressed. Annoyed as I was, I was eager to learn the meaning of Gaelira's cryptic remark. I grabbed my pack and headed downstairs, but I did not don my white cloak symbolizing my membership in the Company as I was feeling rather peeved.
When I reached the bottom of the stairs I could see our Company assembled near the bar, as usual. But there were only three: the two Elves Gealira and Luean and the Dwarf. There was no sign of the Woman Nephyn nor of Raviron, the Elven archer from Lindon. The grave faces of my companions turned to greet me. Only Luean's eyes sparkled with the same odd gleam of interest they always did, as if he was thoroughly fascinated by everything he saw.
"Where are Nephyn and Raviron?" I asked as I approached the others. Drodie shrugged and said nothing, as usual. Luean seemed to grin, but said nothing as he looked at Gealira, who answered me.
"We do not know. Neither of them have been seen since last night. I was not within the Inn here since I was quietly patrolling the streets of Combe. I was concerned our first foray against the Blackwolds might have stirred them to attack the village suddenly, but my fears were needless: I think that for the moment they remain stunned and confused by our armed resistance."
"For my part I was here," said Luean, "But I was engaged in my studies and took no heed of what passed here. I'm afraid I can tell you nothing of what might have occured last night." He spoke, as ever, with an almost irritatingly cheerful detachment to our current situation.
Then Drodie said, "As for me, I was..."
"Yes, I know what you were doing," I snapped. The Dwarf gave me a quizzical look.
"Your pardon," I said to him with a curt little bow. It's not a good idea to unnecessarily anger a Dwarf, especially if you expect to be around him for any length of time.
"I do apologize," I went on, "It's just that I ... did not sleep very well last night." Drodie shrugged and said nothing.
"Well?" I said, looking about me. Drodie looked at Gaelira, but both of the Elves simply stared at me as if I had Neekerbreekers crawling out of my ears.
"Well what?" Luean asked.
"Aren't we going to go and find them?"
"Oh!" Luean said this as if the idea had never occurred to him and he considered it a new and intriguing possibility. He thought for a moment. "Do you think we should?"
"But, of course we should!" I exclaimed.
Drodie chimed in, "Aye, seems like the sensible thing to do."
"I wonder," Gaelira said, her perfect posture truly getting on my nerves for the first time. "It seems to me that they do not wish us to know what they are about." I was flabbergasted.
"But supposing those brigands followed us here and attacked them during the night!" I said. "They may be in very real danger!"
"No, I do not think that likely," Gaelira answered. "For one thing, I was watching the roads through Combe and nothing passed along them. The brigands could never hope to have snuck into the village unmarked by me, nor even by any of the villagers: Combe is watched at night by several constables in these days of doubt and fear." This sounded reasonable enough to me, but explained little.
"What then do you think became of them?" I asked.
"Both the Woman and Raviron are skilled in the hunt, and could perhaps have avoided detection if they were to escape the Inn. I've already spoken with the innkeeper and some of the constables, and no one saw anything unusual last night."
"But why escape? Why would they wish to?"
"I cannot say, but I think that the most logical explanation for how we now find ourselves," was Gaelira's answer. I had to admit there was a soundness to her thought process.
"But we still plan to look for them, yes?" I persisted.
"Wherever they have gone, from there they will eventually return, and in their own time," said Gaelira. "If they wished to leave unnoticed, as I think the evidence indicates, then there is no point in us trying to track them down." Luean nodded his approval.
"But, but we have to try!" I said.
"Aye," said Drodie, "It would be faithless of us to abandon them so! I should like to think the Company would not dismiss me so cavalierly were I to suddenly turn up missing!"
"Just so!" I continued. "What the devil did we form this Company for if not to look after each other?"
The she-Elf seemed unmoved, but Luean suddenly looked directly at her.
"This alters much, Gaelira," he said in an uncharacteristically somber tone. "We should set out to seek the Woman and Raviron at once."
I suspect my mouth was wagging openly at Luean's instantaneous and nearly comical change in demeanor and attitude toward our missing comrades; I wasn't sure whether to feel vindicated or to laugh out loud. Gaelira nodded and rose. I could see Drodie was just as perplexed as I was. I had never heard winning an argument with an Elf was such a simple affair!
"Very well, let us get started," Gaelira said. "Although I must say I have no idea where we should begin looking: as I said, nothing of note crossed the streets of Combe while we rested."
There was a bit of back-and-forth over our next step now that we had decided we would in fact search for our missing companions. In the end, it was determined we should search the Chetwood, since both the Dwarf and I figured the brigands would be the most likely cause of trouble. After all, who else in all the wide lands about us had any idea who we were? Neither Gaelira nor Luean seemed to agree with us, but they both consented to our plan. We swiftly collected our gear and departed the inn.
By now the Sun had reached late morning. It was strangely warm for Afteryule and our white cloaks streamed behind us in the gentle breeze as we made our way through Combe back down to the Lumber Yard. We were under the intense gaze of many a villager as we went our way, and I felt somewhat excited to be attracting such attention. Ours must be as unusual a sight as any in that little town can have claimed to have witnessed for many long years!
The Chetwood was a completely different place by daylight: the boles of the trees were a smooth and pleasant grey, and they seemed spaced further apart. Very different from the dark and crowded feeling one got when traveling through there by night. The air rustled the branches above us and there was the occasional sound of leaves falling to the ground about us, but otherwise the forest was quite silent: no sound of bird nor beast did we hear at any distance. We scouted deep into the wood, taking care to speak only when needed and none too loudly. We re-visited the old farmstead from the day before -- the one which had been taken over by wolves -- but there was no sign of any foe. Everything seemed to be frozen in a watchful stillness.
As the Sun fell further and further toward the West and our search proved fruitless, we stopped under a tree to refresh ourselves with some dried fruits and biscuits.
"I fear this day will be wasted," said Gaelira. "Already the day wanes and we are no closer to discovering anything of our missing friends."
"And many more days will likely do the same," growled the Dwarf, "if we continue on in this slinking manner. Let us find the nest of these brigands and kick it up! If there is any connexion between them and our friends, we will find it that way; not by skulking about these woods for hours on end."
This sounded dangerous to me, but the Elves did not object and so we climbed a small knoll to get a better view of the area around us. The folk of Combe had long believed the Blackwolds were holed up in some old ruins deep in the forest, and we had little trouble finding out where those lay from our vantage point with the Sun still in the sky. We quickly made our way there since the light would not last forever.
It turned out those ruins were indeed the headquarters of the troublesome bandits, and we certainly did stir up a hornet's nest as we strode straight up the path to them. We certainly caught them off guard: even after our little skirmish the previous night they didn't seem to expect being openly attacked in the middle of the day. I won't go into the details, but suffice it to say my companions made short work of the brigands who dared to stand against us. I think they may have had some level of bravery among themselves when there were many of them together and only farmers and herdsmen to oppose them, but against experienced fighters they didn't seem to have much grit.
We fought our way into the ruins, but the resistance became less, not more, as we progressed. They seemed content to give way as we advanced until we found ourselves in a crumbling and ancient courtyard. We halted there suddenly, as if we had all silently come to a mutual understanding. The Sun seemed bleared, as if it had ridden behind an enormous raincloud, and a strange uneasiness had settled upon us. Luean and Gaelira looked about them, each wearing an expression as if they sensed some disturbance but could not find its source. Drodie seemed unconcerned as he kicked the corpse of a Blackwold we had recently dispatched. For my part, I was absorbed in the gruesome sight which lay about our feet: at least a dozen sheep carcasses littered the earth, most of them torn inside out as though by ravening beasts. There was a greater number of them away to our left, which turned around a sharp corner of the ruins. We could hear a fierce growling and snarling in that direction. I looked up at Gaelira.
"I think we should go no further into this place," she said at once, in answer to my unspoken question. "It is clear Nephyn and Raviron are not within these walls. Let us go."
No one spoke, but we gladly turned our backs on the old fortress. After several steps, the Sun came back out from behind whatever cloud it had slipped behind. My heart felt lighter and we hastened from the ruins. We knew there were still many brigands hiding there, but they did not dare to pursue us as we departed.
Evening had settled in by the time we returned to the Comb and Wattle. Our Company was muted, each keenly aware that we had failed to locate our friends. The barkeep informed us there had been no sign of Nephyn or Raviron since we left that morning. Our errand, so far, had failed. At that point there was little more we could do besides discuss our situation and try to make plans for the morrow.
"Why did we leave the Blackwolds' Headquarters when we did?" asked Drodie. "I saw nothing except the backs of our foes as they fled like cowards before us. Why not explore the very depths of their hole? Like as not Nephyn and Raviron are rotting in a cage somewhere further in, if you ask me."
"Our friends were not being held in that place," Gaelira answered. "There were no signs of tracks going into the ruins, only leaving them. Nor did the brigands act as if they had anything of particular value to defend, such as prisoners. They were not concentrated anywhere within: they were only positioned near the outskirts. I wonder very much why that might be."
"To guard against intruders, obviously!" said Drodie. "That is not difficult to read." Here he took an enormous gulp of his ale and I quickly came to understand why Hereward Loamsdown at the Ivy Bush invented his famous term "beard-bath."
"Normally I would agree with your keen assessment, Master Dwarf," Gaelira said with a smile, "But under normal circumstances there would be some brigand chieftain or strongman ensconced within their walls and they would rally to his defense; our progress would have been slowed the further inward we progressed. Instead, our attack was met with stiff resistance at first, but once we had defeated their outward most sentries it was almost as if we were being deliberately led further into their lair." Drodie put down his tankard and became thoughtful.
"There was some hidden menace in the deepest parts of that fortress," said Luean with a distant look in his eyes. "We all felt it: my heart labored and the light faltered."
"I noticed nothing of the sort," Drodie answered. Then he unleashed a mighty belch that shook the walls of the inn. Bits of plaster fell from the ceiling into his hair. The barmaid shot him a look of disgust. The Dwarf took no notice. "Anyway, we gave those fools something to think about -- I reckon they won't be so eager to go harassing the Combe-folk anytime soon. What did ye want to go and halt our attack so suddenly for? There couldn't have been much more to those old ruins; we might've driven them out of there for good and all." Gaelira shook her head.
"Whatever was hiding there would constitute a true test -- for all of us," she said. "I did not think it wise for us to attempt it unless we were all present. I still do not fear for the fates of Raviron and the Woman -- I believe they left for their own purposes and will return when they can -- but we would need them with us if we wish to oppose the presence obscured in the Chetwood."
"Yet I fear we must do so," said Luean, "if the folk of Combe are to have any peace. It will not do to allow such a frightful adversary to fester so near to this village."
"Then it's a good thing we tried to find them," I said between bites of meat pie. "At least now we know they are not in the Chetwood, but where they could have gotten themselves to is well beyond me."
From there our talk turned to all of the possible reasons Nephyn and Raviron might have snuck off without a trace during the night and where they might have gone to, but it was all conjecture and we came no closer to any decision about what to do the next day. The night deepened outside and the few patrons at the inn had already departed for their own homes and beds. The candles on our table were burning low as their wax reached the dusty boards on which they sat. Suddenly, Luean said:
"When minds become over-worked, it can sometimes benefit their owners to unburden them, thus to think the clearer. I have another riddle for you, Padryc."
I raised an eyebrow. "Is this really the time, do you think?"
"I think it is the perfect time," the Elf replied with a smile. "I lie in a bed, yet I never rest. I murmur, yet I never speak. What am I?"
"Easy: a river. Or a stream, as you do," I answered without so much as putting on my thinking cap.
"Right indeed," Luean said. "The more of me you take, the more of me you leave behind. What am I?"
This time I admit I was forced to think for a minute. "Well?" Luean asked.
"Hm," I said cautiously. "That would be Time, wouldn't it?"
Luean blinked. "Interesting. I was thinking Footsteps, but I must say your answer does work as well! Nicely done. Have you one for me today?"
With everything that had happened since that morning I certainly hadn't been digging through my mind for old riddles to ask this peculiar Elf, so I dragged out one of my favorites:
"Two fathers and two sons went fishing. At the end of the day, each had caught one fish. They brought them home and ate all three fish. If two fathers and two sons each caught one fish and no fish were lost, how can this be?"
It's a rather old saw, but I wasn't much in the mood for riddles today. Luean chuckled.
"But of course: it was a grandfather, his son, and his son's son who went fishing -- the three of them," he said. I congratulated him on his correct response.
By now the night was aging and I was quite tired. Drodie had already excused himself and was probably upstairs splitting timbers with his terrific snoring once more. Gaelira said she wished to keep watch in the night once again. I've heard Elves have no need of sleep, so I suppose it must be true. Luean retreated to his room without a word.
For my part, I moved myself into Nephyn's room, which was further away from Drodie's. Even with the door shut tight I could still hear him, but at least it was bearable. I took some time to record today's events and to reflect for a moment on the futility of finding Raviron and the Woman -- they could be almost anywhere in the Bree-land by now while we had wasted an entire day puttering in the Chetwood. How could we possibly hope to find them?