Monday, April 10, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 8.1

The Mysteries of the Barrow-Downs
Sterday, 9th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Inn of the Prancing Pony, Bree-land

The Barrow-Downs
I never thought I would ever find myself poking around into the dark crevices of the Barrow-downs, but that is exactly what our Company did today, and we lived to tell about it! Well, write about it, I should say, and that is precisely what I shall do now.

I awoke this morning in the House of Tom Bombadil for the second time to the sound of our host banging about the kitchen in his usual boisterous and coupleted manner. He laid us another scrumptious breakfast and called us all to it with a loud halloo!

Hey, dol! The table's laid with honeycomb and butter!

White loaves, yellow cream, and berries all a-clutter!

Break ye fast, my hearty friends, and be ye quick as lightning!

The Sun, she dawns o'er dreary Downs ere Old Tom goes a-wighting!

Like flies to honey, the Company gathered at the table and we set to with the fierce sort of hunger that only adventuring out-of-doors can get you. Meal-times with this odd fellowhip have always been unique affairs, and this one was no different.

"Oi! Someone tie that hobbit's hands behind his back," said Drodie shortly after our host had left us to our meal. "Five more minutes of his eating unrestrained and there'll be nothing fer the other five of us!"

"My dear Dwarf," I said in between mouthfuls of bread slathered with cream, "If I'm expected to hike all over Eriador with you lot, then I, in turn, expect to be well-provisioned for my efforts. I don't fancy wasting away from hunger on the side of the Road like some vagabond."

"I'd say you look to be in no danger of wasting away anytime soon," Nephyn said with a laugh. "Why, you look to be twice the hobbit you were when first we met."

"And well he should," Drodie cut in, "considerin' he's been eating now for more than ten minutes straight! Where the blazes does it all get to? I would have never thought someone so small capable of tuckin' away such a load!"

"Ith beecuth ah fororee choo mah foo," I said, my mouth stuffed with blueberries. Everyone laughed at me unroariously. Drodie laughed so hard he choked on his mug of water and much of it shot out his nose. He hurled another load of bread at me playfully (which I ducked) as he tried to cough it out of his throat in his mirth. Dwarves seem to have a thing about chucking food at others when eating. Which I only find to be a waste of perfectly good food.

Our banter continued in this manner for quite some time. We had our fill of all Tom's house had to offer, then briefly discussed our plans for the day. I was dreading that talk, since it seemed clear to me what would, in the end, be our duty and mission to fulfill.

Gaelira spoke to the Company about our conversation from the early hours of the morning. Our next step was to pry into the Barrow-downs themselves in the hope of finding and confronting the fell spirit which had inhabited that tree-husk and tried to corrupt the Old Forest from within. It was clear that I was not the only one among us who felt more than a little apprehensive about this plan, but it was also evident that we had no choice if we wished to learn the truth about the evil presence which had tried to infest this land. Before much more time had passed, we had gathered our belongings, bade farewell to Old Bombadil, and set out upon the path which led northward, away from that merry household.

In spite of my misgivings about our impending visit to the Barrow-downs, the day which had dawned bore no ill omens for us. The Sun was abroad in all her glory, her golden light playing on the deep green leaves of the trees overhead. Even the Old Forest seemed less shabby and more welcoming: I felt I might have been on a morning stroll through the Woody End in the Shire.

Which is why our arrival in the Downs came all to soon for me. We followed a dirt track north from Bombadil's house and up a short hillside. As we crested the ridge, I saw mound after mound of green grass rolling away from us to the north, south, and east. Here and there were jagged stones poking out of the earth like knives stabbing upward through some enormous green tablecloth (There I go thinking about tables again...). It was a rather unsettling view, and the prospect of prodding around that land did not appeal to me at all. Even the Sun, which had been strong and vibrant moments before, here seemed bleary and weakened, as though the place rejected her light and warmth.

"Well, here we are," I said more quietly than usual. "It seems a very unpleasant region to me, though doubtless my brave and well-travelled companions have seen worse." The Barrow-downs have been the subject of many horrible tales in the Shire, even worse than the creepy ones about the Old Forest, and no sensible hobbit would ever dream of passing through there on purpose.

"I have seen worse," Gaelira answered, "But that does not make what you say untrue. These hills have known little but fear and death for many, many lives of Men." A crow cawed mournfully some ways off to our right. Raviron scanned the hilltops with his keen Elf-eyes.

"My recent journey through this place was in the dead of night, and the memory is very evil," he said. "Glad I am that it is daylight and the rest of you are with me this time."

"Then let us go down while the Sun still rides in the sky," Luean said cheerfully. "The sooner we start the more we shall accomplish ere the skies begin to darken."

We descended the ridge and entered the fabled Barrow-downs. Despite all of the stories I had heard (many probably embellished through years of hobbit-tellings), my understanding of their history was still rather sketchy. Every hobbit child has heard tell of the dreaded Barrow-wights which stalk the Downs, searching endlessly for little children to devour or drag down into their dark barrows where all manner of awful things happen to them. But the origins are shrouded in a distant past: the most I had ever been able to piece together (when I thought about such things at all, which was seldom) was that those mounds were once the burial grounds for a vast kingdom of Men in older times. At some point, the Men of that kingdom were afflicted by a great plague which rode on dark winds out of the North, and the graves multiplied. Later on, the wights appeared, prowling the hillsides with the clink of rings on their lifeless fingers. I myself never understood just how the wights came to be there, and now I was hoping I would not have the misfortune to encounter one to find out.

The hills and dells of the Barrow-downs were not plagued by the wrathful silence of the Old Forest, at least not by day. We ran across more than a few rats, mud-crawlers, and other nasty things as we poked about the place. We were heading in a generally easterly direction, although I wasn't sure just what it was we were looking for. We had spent most of our time winding around in the depressions between the various hills, but eventually we climbed one of the larger mounds to have a look about. The Sun was riding high toward noon, but I felt no increase in the heat, even there on top of a hill, as I had been expecting to find. There was no wind.

"Yonder lies the northern pass into this land," said Raviron, pointing away to our left. "I would advise us all to bear that direction in mind, in case we should lose our way. It can be difficult to navigate here when off the hilltops and down among the crannies."

"What exactly are we looking for?" I asked, not liking the place any more than I had last night, before ever setting foot there.

"Our goal is to find the creature which inhabited that dead tree," Gaelira said as she shaded her eyes with her long hand. "We need to learn what manner of being it is and why it invaded the Old Forest. I have little doubt, based on its threats to us, that we will learn something of what plans Angmar has in store for the Bree-land."

"O!" I said, none to hopefully. "Are we looking for tracks or something then? How does one track a spirit, anyway?"

"If you ever find out, be sure to let me know," said Raviron with a smirk.

"Our adversary will not be walking about openly in the light of the Sun," Gaelira said, unmoved. "That, my friends, is what we're looking for." She was pointing away to the east. There, yawning ominously even in the noonday Sun, was the dark outline of an open barrow.

"What?" Nephyn exclaimed, obviously distraught. "You're not seriously suggesting we go into a barrow, are you?"

"I'm with the Woman!" I piped up, attracting the attention of precisely no one.

"It's either we go in after it or we wait for it to come out looking for us," Gaelira countered patiently. "And I would not recommend the latter."

We pressed on. Although I was not the least bit hungry after my gargantuan breakfast, I felt it was time for lunch. I merely nibbled the corners off a travelling ration. I was not feeling very enthusiastic about what was in store for us and my appetite suffered for it.

Before long we had reached the barrow Gaelira spotted from the hilltop. The yawning pit of its entrance seemed to beckon mockingly to us while fear flowed out from it like a dark fume.

"I don't like this," Drodie muttered from behind me. We were all inclined to agree, but no one else spoke. Together, we plunged into the darkness of the barrow.

Even though it was a bright day outside, the darkness became total after no more than a few steps. We were forced to backtrack until we found what must have been an ancient torch hanging from a wall sconce. I was able to light this using my flint and tinder, and we resumed our exploration.

The floor was cold and dusty while there was a heavy, putrid smell on the air. Our footsteps echoed repeatedly down the winding tunnels as we slowly made our way deeper and deeper underground. I could feel long, sticky things brushing against me and, even though I couldn't see much in the dim light of the torch Nephyn was carrying, I already knew what they were.

"Spiders," I whispered. "Wonderful."

"Hush!" said Gaelira. "What is that?" asked Raviron at the same time.

Nephyn thrust her torch at full arm's length and we beheld a loathsome sight: a dismembered body, with its head and right arm fully missing, was awkwardly shuffling toward us! The six of us stood there, gaping in disbelief.

"A Barrow-wight!" I said hoarsely.

The thing reached out its left (and only) arm toward us. It was slow-moving, but we were sure it was deadly nonetheless. Raviron bent his bow and sent a shaft directly into its heart -- or at least where its heart used to be. It continued to come at us. Nephyn fired a shot of her own. The arrow stuck fast into its torso, also with no effect. It kept getting closer. Gaelira raised her staff and delivered a shivering blow to it. There was the sound like someone clubbing a thick rug or slab of beef and the walking corpse yielded under the power of that strike, but it had no real effect. It reached out its hand and seized Gaelira's staff. The she-Elf tried to pull it away, but the undead strength of that hideous body was too much for her! It kept dragging the staff and Gaelira with it closer to itself, inch by inch, as the two struggled for control.

"Someone please do something," Gaelira said steadily, but there was a noticeable tinge in her voice. Raviron drew his sword and swung at the body. The arm suddenly left Gaelira's staff and grabbed Raviron's blade instead while in mid-swing. The sword and hand hung in the air for a second. Suddenly, there was a sharp snap, and Raviron's blade shattered! The Elf stepped back in amaze. The corpse kept coming at us, that awful hand still reaching, reaching.

That's when Nephyn drew her sword. She stepped slightly to one side, then brought her blade down on the wight's elbow. The sword passed clean through it and the arm dropped to the ground. She then quickly thrust her torch at the body and the dead, dried-out flesh was almost instantly engulfed in flames. We breathed a sigh of relief as that dreadful apparition collapsed in defeat.

"AH! It's got me! It's got me!"

It was Drodie, who seemed to have gone mad. He was hopping about and spinning in the most bizarre fashion.

"What??" I cried, eager to help. "What has got you?!"

"Leg! LEG!!!" he hollered back. Nephyn searched with her torch. Suddenly we saw it: the severed arm and hand were gripping the Dwarf's ankle and trying to climb his leg! Nephyn quickly slashed it to pieces with her sword. With it removed from him, Drodie proceeded to stomp the vile thing into the dirt. It was some time before we all felt calm enough to go on.

"Really?" Nephyn was the first to recover her voice. "A dead hand? Why a dead hand?!"

"I do not fully understand the powers that drive these perverse creatures," said Luean. He alone among us seemed untroubled by what we had just encountered. "But they animate the bodies of the deceased, and so they feel no pain, no fear. It is possible we will meet many of these foul things here beneath the earth."

"But at least now we know how to deal with them," I said. "That was some quick thinking with your torch, Nephyn!"

"That did prove effective, thankfully," said Raviron, still a bit shaken. "But I would like to know what it is about her blade which was able to penetrate its disgusting hide while mine was so easily bested."

"I may be able to hazard a guess at that," Luean said lightly. "I think we can now assume whence came Nephyn's strange sword."

"The one she recovered from the Blackwolds' Headquarters in the Chetwood?" I asked.

"Exactly," Luean continued. "The sword must be the work of Westernesse and it was probably found here, in the Barrow-downs. Only a sword of such advanced craft would have dealt that thing so grevious a blow. This would explain why none of us Elves were able to readily identify it -- the elder works of the Men of Numenor have not been widely seen in these lands since the fall of the North Kingdom, and even then the truly master-works were not common. Only now do I recall having seen drawings of similar craft in my mind's eye from long study in Elrond's Library. They are little more than a blip in the long history of the Elven-smiths; nonetheless I would venture to say you have a genuinely rare find there, my friend."

"But what would the Blackwold brigands be doing with such a thing?" Nephyn mused, looking at her blade with renewed interest. "I don't suppose one of them just happened upon it while out for a casual stroll through the nearest haunted barrow!"

"No indeed," said Gaelira. "But like so many of the other riddles we have encountered, we have no time now to ponder this one. Let us press on."

The barrow wound ever further into the hillside. Soon, we entered what must have been some sort of chamber, for the light of our torch no longer illuminated the walls to our sides. There was a familiar skittering sound from several points in front of us.

"Spiders!" Drodie called out. "On your guard!"

Like mindless drones, several spiders flung themselves at us. We beat them back without difficulty. I admit that even I was beginning to gain something of a knack for this fighting business after so many scrapes over the past few days. We explored the chamber and recovered two more ancient torches, which we wasted no time in lighting. Our spirits raised somewhat with the increased light, and once again we pressed on.

The thickness and the frequency of the spider-webs surrounding us increased. Several times Nephyn was obliged to use her sword to hack through some webbing which obstructed our advance, but the spiders did not seem to wish to attack us again. We followed the web-encased tunnels all the way to another chamber, which was absolutely covered in the beastly stuff. We stuck our heads and our torches in through the entryway.

"Looks empty," said Drodie.

He was wrong. An angry hiss came from above us, inside the chamber. Holding our torches aloft, we beheld a spider; a much larger one than the others we had bested earlier.

"A brood-queen!" Raviron cried. "Beware! Her broodlings are likely not far!"

Indeed they were not: a rush of skittering came from behind us and in front. We were trapped in that narrow hallway! There was only one thing to do.

"Into the chamber! Quickly!" Gaelira shouted. If we did not penetrate into the open space before the spiderlings reached us, we would surely be overwhelmed. But it was also a brave gamble: the spider-queen herself was perched upside-down on the ceiling right in front of us and we would be running straight toward her.

As one, we lurched into the open chamber. The spider-queen quickly dropped from above using its line and placed itself directly in our path. It was a good deal bigger than the other spiders, but it was not the size of Lebrennil by any measure. Still, a brood-queen with a horde of broodlings at her command is not a foe to be taken lightly.

In an instant, the spider colony was upon us. Luean, Nephyn, and I waved our torches about to keep the things at bay while Raviron, Gaelira, and Drodie brandished their weapons. We all knew that slaying some of the spiderlings might provoke the queen into attacking us herself, and that defeating her would certainly mean the scattering of the colony, just as before. But things were not going our way: the spiders were not attacking us and instead were using their long, sticky strings to seal off the exit!

"We must not get shut in!" Raviron shouted.

At once Nephyn charged the entryway, waving her torch and slashing at the webbing with her sword. The spiders gave way before her but began attacking the rest of us. Raviron was unable to use his bow in such close quarters and, after losing his sword to the barrow-wight, had only his long knife for defence. Gaelira was landing blows with her quarterstaff and I was managing to keep myself unharmed, although it was more through my torch than anything else. Drodie was having a difficult time as one spider after another would climb onto him, but he would throw them off or stab at them before they could do him any harm, and no spider-sting was able to penetrate his Dwarf-armour.

I was still swinging my torch at the vile things when I heard a cry behind me: Nephyn had been pinned in webs and the spiders were already on top of her! Immediately, Drodie and I rushed to her aid. We stabbed and hacked the broodlings off of her, but she did not get up right away.

"Nephyn is hurt!" yelled Drodie. "We must do something quickly!"

"The matron!" Raviron shouted. "Let us work together! Padryc, stand guard over the Woman!"

I did as I was told, still waving my torch at the mass of legs that threatened to engulf me. I turned around and around while doing this until I felt completely dizzy and nearly lost my footing. Then I saw the others confront the spider-queen.

The four of them charged straight at the revolting thing, cleaving through or casting aside the lesser spiders as they did so. When they reached the matron, Drodie quickly delivered a smashing blow to its head with his shield, stunning it. Gaelira thrust her staff between its left legs then yanked it out again, pulling the matron's legs out from under it. With the queen off-balance, Luean thrust his torch directly into one of its eye clusters and the monster cried out in pain. Then Raviron leapt lightly on top of it and stabbed it several times with his knife while Drodie hacked two of its right legs off. Raviron delivered one last stab to the head, just behind the eyes, and the spider-queen slumped lifeless to the ground. As expected, the rest of the spiders quickly retreated, and we were victorious. But Nephyn had still not recovered.

"Is the Woman all right?" Luean asked. The others had gone to ensure the spiders had truly left us in peace. I knelt beside Nephyn.

"I will live," I heard her say softly to me, "But I do not feel well at all. I fear I may have received a sting, or possibly more than one."

I quickly untrussed my pack and rummaged to find one of the vials of milkthistle we had found at the abandoned camp in the Old Forest. With some difficulty, I undid the stopper and held it to her lips. Nephyn made a face.

"I've always hated this stuff," she said before taking a mouthful of the antidote. Gaelira came over and began using Nephyn's sword to remove the webs which had partially covered her. Soon, she was able to stand.

"Thank you," she said as she slowly raised herself up. "It will be a few moments before the milkthistle takes effect, but I should be fine soon enough. Let me rest a moment."

Drodie, Raviron, and Luean were poking into the far corners of the chamber. There were webs and cocoons everywhere. Even the floor was covered in the stuff.

"It seems the spiders have delved a great network of their own tunnels throughout the barrow where the original masonry has cracked or failed," Drodie was saying. "It's a good thing you Elves were so quick on your feet: there's no telling how many more might still have set upon us if we hadn't defeated the queen as quickly as we did."

"And there's no telling how many might still set upon us even now, if we do not leave this place swiftly," Raviron said. "But the Will of the Strong should never be underestimated; we three Elves have seen a few battles in our time."

"And fer that we can be grateful," Drodie replied. "But I would much rather have three stout Dwarves with me, if we're goin' to be doin' battle underground for a while."

"As would I, my friend. What is this?" Raviron was looking at some sort of pedestal which stood away to one side. We all came to see. It looked like it was meant to be something of importance and was covered in what might have been some sort of writing.

"I cannot read these letters," Raviron said. He motioned to Luean and Gaelira. "Can either of you make them out?"

"I do not think we should spend any more time in here than we must," Gaelira said, looking overhead.

"Perhaps we could take a rubbing of it and examine it later?" I suggested. It was agreed this would be best, and so I quickly dug up some spare parchment and charcoal and busied myself with this task.

"Well!" I heard Luean exclaim. "This must have been the tomb of quite an important individual; look at all of these artifacts!" The rune-keeper had discovered an ornate sepulcher which had several urns and other vessels around its base. Luean knelt to examine them more closely.

"See! These would have been buried with someone of great standing among the Men of Cardolan. With enough time I should be able to --"

Suddenly the relics exploded in a cloud of dirt and dust. Drodie had stomped on them all with his heavy leather boots.

"The she-Elf says we go," Drodie growled. "And, in case ye've fergotten, there's a bloody horde of spiders still livin' here. More importantly, I'm hungry. Move it."

"What is the Dwarf doing?" Luean asked, bewildered. "Do you not realize the value of these artifacts...?"

"Don't care," Drodie answered, prodding the rune-keeper toward the exit with the point of his sword. "Move it."

"The Dwarf is right, Luean," Gaelira sighed. "We have an injured comrade and this place is not safe. Let us go."

We managed to pick our way back to the entrance as our torches began to burn themselves out. By the time we finally emerged outside, dusk was in the sky. Raviron breathed deeply.

"Ah! The free air! I feel quite revived. Let us head northward to find the path which leads back to the Road."

Our going was slow as Nephyn was still recovering from the spiders' poison, but she was clearly improving as the antidote began to take effect. It was not long before we struck the path and had finally regained the Road. From there, it was a straight shot eastward to Bree. We decided to lodge in at the Prancing Pony, which we reached just as night was setting in.

There were more than a few curious and disapproving looks cast at us by the Bree-folk, but we were too worn out to care. The prospect of a hot bath, a good meal, and a warm bed was our only collective thought as we trudged up the hill and into the inn-yard. Mr. Butterbur gave us the same parlour we had originally met in a week prior, and we all attacked the excellent dinner Nob delivered us in short order. With Nephyn feeling very much herself again, we decided to talk about the day's events a bit. Above all, it was clear we had discovered nothing in that barrow which shed any light on our search for the spirit we were trying to locate.

"There are many barrows in the Barrow-downs, of course," Gaelira told us, "And I have no idea where we might find this spirit for which we are searching. However, this thing is clearly of a more powerful order than the common fell-wraiths which inhabit the bodies of the long dead, and so it will likely seek to gain sway over many other such beings, and in this way, perhaps, we may be able to identify our adversary."

"Aye, and learn what it knows!" Drodie pitched in.

"Quite so," Gaelira continued. "Therefore, while today may have seemed fruitless on that point, it is only the first step of our efforts in the Downs."

"And don't forget that rubbing we took!" I reminded them. I produced it from my pack and we passed it round.

"Recording the inscription in this manner was an excellent idea, my dear hobbit," Gaelira said to me. "Yet, I am unfamiliar with this mode of writing. What do you make of it, Luean?" Luean had the parchment at this time and was studying it closely.

"I am not certain, so I will not say just yet," he said slowly. "Allow me to review this during the night and then, perhaps, I will have something to tell you. I seem to recall having studied these letters before, but their use in this writing is unknown to me. It will require some thought."

We all happily agreed to this since it meant we would learn nothing -- unsettling or otherwise -- until the morning. I was interested to know what the inscription could tell us, but I had a feeling it would be something dark and evil, since everything about the Barrow-downs seemed dark and evil.

The table was beginning to look rather bare, so we each bade the others good night and began to find our lodgings for sleep. Nephyn and I remained behind the others; I was still finishing off a delicious apple turnover and the Woman was content to rest in her chair. We fell to talking about our unusual time together and the amazing things we had seen, even right here in the Bree-land, where everything seemed so mundane to most folk.

"There is much more to the world than meets the eye," Nephyn said to me, a little sadly. "Many people are not able to see it; some because they are pre-occupied with other things, and others because they do not wish to. Still others do not see because they do not know how to."

"But how can such a dreadful place like the Barrow-downs exist, and so close to Bree-town!" I exclaimed. "And how is it the dead walk about so? It's not natural, none of it!" I finished off my turnover and began to nurse a tankard of ale.

"No, it isn't natural," Nephyn sighed. "But it is the state of the land in these times in which we are doomed to live. The Downs were not always as they are now."

With that, she got up and made her way to a wooden bookshelf behind us. It had always been there, but I had taken no notice. From it, she drew forth an old but rather lovely book bound in green leather entitled A History of Bree.

"The Mayor of Bree-town likes to spout facts from the pages of this book," Nephyn said, smiling, "But I don't know if he really understands the significance of half of the things he thinks he knows about. And of the other half I suspect he knows very little."

She proceeded to read to me a chapter of the book which dealt with the Barrow-downs, how they were a part of the Dunedain kingdom of Cardolan, which split from the sister regions of Rhudaur and Arthedain of Arnor. Then she told me of the great war which broke the North Kingdom and the Plague which ravaged the lands more than fifteen hundred years ago. Many of the Men of Cardolan succumbed to illness and were entombed in those barrows. Then she told me about how the Witch-king of Angmar sent his foul servants to infest those graves and of the coming of the Barrow-wights. As the Moon climbed in the night sky and the lights of the candles and hearths in the inn cast their dancing shadows on the walls, I got the impression I was a young hobbit again listening to ghost-stories at the fireside. Except I had actually been to these places and seen one of the fabled wights myself. I shivered. Nephyn smiled at me.

"I should let you get some rest," she said, gently.

And that's when a most interesting conversation began, but I shall have to leave that for my next entry.

No comments:

Post a Comment