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?

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