Monday, April 10, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 7.1

Victory in the Old Forest

Highday, 8th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The House of Tom Bombadil, Somewhere in the Old Forest
The Haunted Tree
I'm very happy (and relieved) to be writing once more in the great room of the House of Tom Bombadil. I shall now relate to you, Dear Reader, how our Company came to be here a second time.

Yesterday, we defeated the spider-matron Lebrennil and were making our way back to Buckland to let the people there know of our victory. After departing the Weaver's Den, we stopped to rest at a spot just north of the Withywindle where we felt sure of the way to the Old Forest Tunnel. We needed a respite following our battle with the Great Spider and her brood, and so we napped under the trees beneath the afternoon sun. Even the Elves Gaelira and Raviron, who apparently have no need of rest, were glad of the opportunity to collect themselves, I think. For my part, I was asleep almost as soon as I had laid myself down on the thick turf.

About two hours had passed when I heard voices enter whatever dream I was having and that roused me to waking. I sat up and saw the rest of the Company around me at our campsite. All of them! Luean had caught up with us while we rested, and it was he who was speaking to the others as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. I trust you remember that Luean had remained behind in Bombadil's house to speak further with him, and I gathered that he was delivering a message from Tom to us.

"I have no doubt the Bucklanders would be very pleased with your defeat of the spider-matron -- those of them who believe such a thing ever existed," he was saying. "And it is for both reasons that I would persuade the Company to turn aside from that path. We should take the road back into the depths of the forest and attend to whatever is the true cause of the unrest we have found here." The mention of the "road back" into the Old Forest got my wits wide awake in a hurry, I can tell you!

"What's the point of that?" Drodie growled as he tore into a travelling ration. "The spider-queen was the cause of the spiders, that is plain as plain. Everyone knows that once the matron is dead the broodlings scatter, wander feebly, and then die. We have no reason to return there." He spewed crumbs everywhere as he spoke.

"If I didn't know better," said Nephyn with a sly grin, "I'd think you were afraid to go back, Master Dwarf."

"WHAT?!" Drodie roared. He choked on his bread and continued when he had regained his composure. "I'll wager ye do know better, Woman, and don' be fergettin' that! I'll head back to that infernal nest quicker than ye, though I be only half yer height, and I'll be the first in to boot!" Drodie proceeded to give himself a "beard-bath" from his aleskin to clear his throat.

"Don't antagonize the Dwarf," Gaelira said with only a hint of exasperation in her voice. "If Iarwain tells us there is more cause for concern beneath these trees then, while our defeat of Lebrennil was certainly noteworthy, we still have a duty to perform here."

"I would see whatever evil has befallen this place destroyed," said Raviron gravely. "Though I cannot imagine what could have blighted the wood so." He looked around himself with distaste.

"Then we five are of one mind," said Nephyn, whose back was to me. "But I wonder whether we should turn back into the forest so quickly. Should we not first return to Buckland? My thought was not only to inform the locals of what we have accomplished but also to afford Padryc the chance to rest and recover."

"I am awake, my friend." I said, standing up. "While I do appreciate your concern for me, I am quite myself again after that nap. And I must agree with Luean on this: I doubt very much most of the Bucklanders will ever believe such a monster was ever here, much less that we managed to dispose of it. I am ready to go on." Nephyn nodded at me and smiled, but I thought she had something of an appraising look in her eyes.

Our minds made up, we set out to locate and confront whatever it was Bombadil seemed to think was the real cause of the troubles in this strange forest. Since both Raviron and Nephyn were certain (from their earlier travels through the Old Forest, you may recall) that the thing we sought would not be in the northern or western reaches of the wood, we decided to search the southern ends again. We started by heading east along the banks of the Withywindle, hoping to find a shallow place to cross it.

We hadn't gone far at all when we encountered a most peculiar sight. Round a tuft of trees and underbrush, we stumbled upon the burnt-out husk of what must have been a small cottage! I had never heard of anyone ever building anything inside of the Old Forest, yet there it was, with charred beams lying amid and piles of ash. Suddenly, we noticed a small figure jumping up and down and waving at us with both arms. A voice came to our ears and I gasped in surprise, for there could be no doubt: that was a hobbit hailing the Company!

We rushed to meet him. It was immediately clear to me he was a Bucklander, probably a farmer from somewhere in the Stock area or even The Marish. He was wearing ordinary hobbit-fashion clothing (though it was rather dirty) and had short brown hair. But his eyes were wide with terror as he ran up to us.

"Thank goodness! Some civilized folk at last! You wouldn't believe what I've been through in this awful forest!" Whatever he had been through was clearly enough that he felt no compunction about greeting and conversing with such an odd band as we were. Relieved as he was to see us, we were equally eager to hear how he came to be there and what had befalled him. Once we had ensured he was not injured in any way, I gave him a bite to eat out of my bags and he began to calm down enough to talk coherently.

His name was Rollo Maggot. I must stop right there and tell you that name should instantly conjure up the quasi-famous Farmer Maggot of Bamfurlong (I was right, you see, about our newfound stranger being from The Marish!). If you are not familiar with the name "Maggot," I shall have to summarize a lot of rumours and hearsay about that name by simply telling you that Old Maggot, who has many relations, is a queer individual who has been known to journey into the Old Forest itself on several occasions. No right-thinking hobbit would ever do such a thing, so, needless to say, Farmer Maggot doesn't enjoy the best reputation inside the Shire or out of it. In any case, it seemed we had somehow run across his nephew!

I had a good deal of talk with him (he was likely to be more open with me than any of my companions) and was able to piece together his story. The essence of it goes like this:

Rollo was in Buckland on an errand from his uncle when he ran into his two cousins, Boffo and Bongo Bracegirdle. These two were loggers who have spent a decent amount of time in the Old Forest over the years. They had been talking about the increasing danger inside the forest for months, but three days ago they told Rollo they had actually seen the cause of it all: an enormous, evil walking tree! Boffo and Bongo tried to convince Rollo to enter the Old Forest with them, find the tree, and cut it down, but Rollo wouldn't hear of it. He followed them into the forest, trying all the while to convince them to give up their quest, but his cousins would not be dissuaded. Rollo finally separated from them because he was too afraid to get too near the Withywindle while Boffo and Bongo crossed it and continued southward. That was the last time Rollo saw his cousins, two days past.

I felt it was my duty to inform Rollo that his cousins would never leave the Old Forest, for these two were clearly the same two hobbit woodcutters who had brought their saw with them and met their end at the hands of Lebrennil's vile broodlings. Rollo was distressed, but it seemed to me he already knew somehow. I asked him whether he ever saw the evil tree his cousins he talked about.

"Of course I didn't!" Rollo answered. "Who ever heard of a tree that walks about?! And if they perished at the hands of those beastly spiders, then I suspect they never did neither. Nor could they: there's no such thing and everyone knows it!"

"It may have been a Huorn," Gaelira broke in.

"A what?" Rollo asked, clearly not comfortable speaking with an Elf.

"A Huorn," Gaelira repeated. "Many trees have spirits and wills of their own, and some have the power of movement. I see no reason why there might not be Huorns in this land, even if others who live nearby know it not."

"That seems the most logical explanation, given what we know," Luean chimed in. "Yet even at that, this particular Huorn must be of an extraordinary sort to have such an impact on the rest of the Old Forest. This would offer some explanation as to why Iarwain was so eager to have us destroy this thing."

"Well, there's no call to go talking of evil trees," said Rollo, obviously irritated at having his assertion challenged. "You lot defeated the spiders, from what Padryc has told me, so I'm grateful for that, but as they're now dealt with I see no reason for you to go chasing fairy tales the way Boffo and Bongo did. They threw their lives away over some ridiculous legend!"

"Which do you think more likely," Gaelira asked. "That your kinsmen perished chasing a legend or that they both bravely put themselves in great danger -- far more than they themselves even realized -- trying to stop a threat which they clearly perceived?"

Rollo opened his mouth, then shut it again. He lowered his eyes and became thoughtful. I felt it might be a good idea to change the subject, and in any case there was more I wished to know from him.

"You mean to say you've been here for two days? Didn't you think you should try to leave?" I asked him.

"No. Well, yes. I did try," came the answer. "Boffo and Bongo did leave me some food. They had brought a small stash with them. I suppose they had expected to be in the forest for at least a few days on their mission. After the first day since we parted, though, I was thinking I should head back to Buckland. It's not like I was doing them much good sitting here on my own, and I don't mind admitting I was as scared as I've ever been, being in the Old Forest by night. I never slept a wink!" I couldn't help but notice other members of the Company regarding Rollo with a great deal of surprise.

"Well, they were my cousins, and good lads," Rollo shrugged in response. "Anyway, I finally made up my mind to try and find my way out alone, but that's when the most incredible thing happened. Look at this!"

Rollo led us toward the ruined cottage. There, maybe ten feet from the front step, lay the body of a full-sized Man, face-down in the dirt! A single, sharp stake of charred timber was impaled straight through his midsection in the most gruesome manner. He was obviously dead.

"What the blazes happened here?" asked Drodie in amazement.

"It was an accident!" Rollo squeaked. "I didn't mean for it to happen, but he came at me for no reason! I don't even know who he is... er, was!"

There was clearly nothing we could do for the corpse, so we settled down to listen to Rollo's tale.

"Like I was saying, I had just made up my mind to leave here when this Man showed up out of nowhere. He took one look at this house and let out a great cry. I guess he must have lived here, because he was obviously distraught about finding it burned to the ground. But then he saw me! 'Why you... I'll gut you like a fish!!' he says to me. Then he rushed at me wielding that club just there," Here, Rollo pointed to a stout club of ash wood we hadn't previously noticed. "I can only suppose he thought I had burned his house down and meant to kill me for it. I was trying to tell him I had nothing to do with anything he was thinking, but I was afraid for my life! I was backing away from him when I slipped on a stone and fell backward. I struck the wall of the cottage and that pointy log was shaken loose and fell over. The man tried to stop himself, but he ran full onto it and... well... you can see what it did to him. Since then I've been agonizing about what to do! I've nothing to bury him proper with, but I also can't stay here. What should I do?"

I felt very badly for this poor hobbit, who seemed to have been caught up in so many incidents he never meant to get caught up in. We assured him we would handle the business of a burial. We also offered to escort him out of the Old Forest, but Rollo said he knew his way well enough and did not wish to keep us from our errand. Perhaps Gaelira's words had given him second thoughts about what caused his cousins to risk -- and ultimately lose -- their lives here.

With Rollo gone, we set about burying the body. Nephyn searched the corpse, but we found nothing to indicate who he was. The face was not unlike most of the Big Folk: bulky, bearded, and grim. The expression was one of shock, which made sense. The only other thing we noticed was the fact he was missing his left ear. With the burial completed, we discussed our next move.

"Do you think we might find something in the rubble that would tell us what happened here?" I mused, albeit none too hopefully. There was virtually nothing left of the structure but the stone foundation.

"Bah! There's nothing left to search through," said Drodie, who had been poking through the debris with his sword. "Not unless these burned pieces of furniture or blackened crates have anything to tell you."

"And in any case, we still have our mission to see to," said Gaelira. "We have spent a great deal of time here, and have only a few more hours of daylight to aid us."

The day indeed was beginning to get old. We quickly returned to our quest by crossing the Withywindle and heading southwest. We spent the remainder of the day picking our way through thickets of trees and either avoiding or slaying any lingering spiders we encountered, for we were drawing near to the Weaver's Den where we had slain Lebrennil earlier that day. As the Sun set, we found ourselves once again staring into darkness of the spiders' lair, our collective mouths and noses covered to ward off that stale reek which emanated from within.

We stalked about in that revolting lair this second time without incident. We knew we were being watched from all sides by Lebrennil's deprived spiderlings, but they did not dare to attack the party that had so recently dispatched their great matron. It was well they did not, because we finally found the target of our hunt.

In the deepest, darkest corner of that diseased region of the Old Forest we saw the thing which was poisoning the land. I've never seen anything like it, and I hope I never do again! A walking tree it was, just as Rollo's cousins had said! But more than that: it even spoke! As we drew near, the thing hissed at us and I heard a terrible, cold voice cry out:

"Death! The Iron Crown brings death to you all!" Then the fight began!

The ground erupted all around as roots and tendrils shot toward us! One caught me by the ankle, but I stabbed it with the iron spike of my hammer and it withdrew. I felt very proud for defending myself so effectively, but then I looked around me and my heart sank.

Gaelira was grappling with two roots which had seized her staff. Raviron and Nephyn both had their arms pinned to their sides by the tendrils and were struggling to free themselves. Drodie was trying to aid them, but was contending with three more roots himself, striking them with both shield and sword. Luean was almost completely encased by yet more tendrils and had already been brought to his knees. That's when I saw the great tree come toward us with a great sound of creaking and crunching. The tree looked twisted and rotten -- even dead -- on the outside, but there was a sense of hatred and power within it. I heard a thin, menacing sound in the air, and I thought the evil thing was laughing at us.

"Ai!" I heard Nephyn yell out in pain. "It is squeezing me in half!"

"Padryc! Do something!" Raviron cried.

The situation looked dire. I remember thinking our Company had overcome some powerful foes, but none of them had managed to neutralize almost our entire party at once like this. It was then I realized with a shock of horror that if someone was going to save us, that someone was going to have to be me. Without thinking why, I drew my lute out of my pack, strummed the strings, and began to sing! My throat cracked early on, but as I continued my voice grew in strength and volume.

O! Wanderers in the shadowed land

despair not! For though dark they stand,

all woods there be must end at last,

and see the open sun go past:

the setting sun, the rising sun, the day's end, or the day begun.

For east or west all woods must fail --

Suddenly, I noticed that both the tree and all of its roots had stopped moving and were aimed at me, as if listening. With an audible hiss of rage, the tree sent a flood of its tendrils after me! Before I knew what was happening my ankles and wrists were seized and I could feel myself being stretched as if on a rack. I cried out in agony and thought the end had come for us all.

But at that moment, several things happened.

"NOT TODAY, FILTH!" I heard Drodie bellow. I looked and saw him slash clear through the tendril which held Nephyn in its grip, freeing her. Baruk Khazad! Khazad-ai-menu! The Dwarf raised his sword over his head like a javelin, charged straight at the tree, and delivered a powerful stab to its trunk. It did not look to me as though the sword had penetrated very far at all, but I heard the tree hiss in pain and saw Raviron manage to wriggle free from the tendrils holding him down. Instantly, the bows of both the Elf and the Woman were bent and arrows screamed through the night air. They found their mark, but I think they did even less harm to the tree than Drodie's sword-strike. The tree, however, withdrew its roots from Gaelira and sent them to subdue the Dwarf and the two archers which were creating a nuisance. And that proved its undoing.

The instant Gaelira's roots went for Raviron and Nephyn, she reached into her belt and drew forth something I could not see. There was a spark, and suddenly the Elf had hurled another of her fireballs toward our adversary. It exploded right at the base of the tree and flames engulfed its trunk. Drodie and Nephyn both hacked at the thing with their swords. Soon, the fire had completely overwhelmed the tree and I heard that cruel voice say:

"The barrows take you all! To the darkness I return..."

The numerous roots all dropped to the ground. Then there was a thin, wailing cry, and the tree was still. We watched as the flames did their work; keeping on our guard until they had burned themselves out, but at last it was clear we had defeated that evil creature.

"That was some quick thinking, Master Hobbit," said Drodie. "If you hadn't distracted that thing no telling what might have happened!"

"Indeed! I must confess we came ill-prepared to face such an opponent," said Nephyn, doubled over. "I feel quite crushed by that thing; I hope it did not break any of my ribs!" She felt gingerly at her side in several places.

"Ill-prepared is the right word," said Luean, as he slowly extracted himself from the mass of tendrils that had kept him out of the fight from the start. "If not for Gaelira's burning embers I don't know how we might have overcome it otherwise."

"Well, I may have created the distraction," I said, "But our valiant Dwarf deserves at least as much of the credit; his sudden attack was what allowed us the opening we needed. I'm gratified to see Drodie got so worked up over witnessing me in distress -- I'm beginning to think he likes me!" I laughed.

"Don't be absurd," muttered the Dwarf, avoiding my eyes. "What you saw was that a true Dwarf never gives up on a fight."

"And for that we are all grateful," said Raviron with a chuckle. "But now I think it would be best if we were to remove ourselves from this place. It has an unwholesome feel about it."

To this all readily agreed, and we extracted ourselves with due haste. We decided to tell Bombadil of our victory, so we worked our way northward until we struck the Withywindle, then followed it almost straight to Tom's house. We could hear him singing and cavorting within as we trudged up the path to his door. The moon had not yet reached its height.

Back in the House of Tom Bombadil, we received welcome and much praise from the jolly old Man, as well as food and drink. It was decided we would spend another night under his roof, and so I close today's account in this journal.

I have become very fond of all of my new companions, if only because we have endured so many strange and difficult things together. I don't know where we are headed next, but I feel I would follow the Company into a dragon's den if need be. I don't think I can keep my eyes open much longer, and yet there are so many questions I would like to have answered...

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