Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 16

The Valley of Hope

Sterday, 16th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Esteldin, Somewhere in the North Downs
A Ranger of Esteldin
I got a doubly rude awakening today. Firstly, I was jolted into consciousness by the ice-cold patter of raindrops on my face. Second, I saw the sky was still quite dark as it was very early in the morning. Grey clouds raced overhead as I lay there on my back in the midst of the Elf-settlement of Lin Giliath.

I groaned, rolled over, and slowly began to raise myself from the ground, which would soon become too wet to lie on. This was the second straight night I had slept on my back out-of-doors and, while I have to admit it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, I was already beginning to wish I could find a proper bed sometime soon.

As I looked around me, I could see there were plenty of Elves conversing with Gaelira and the others -- except Drodie, who was off on his own eating, as usual. No one but me seemed to care about the fact this Elf-refuge had no roofs and we were all being rained on. Fortunately, the rain was quite soft and intermittent, but the raindrops themselves were large, which usually means more rain to come. I quickly put my wide-brimmed hat on and hoped we wouldn't get caught in a rainstorm.

Just then, the doors to Gildor's inner study opened and Luean came walking out. The Elf-scholar looked troubled and withdrew from everyone around him. It seemed to me Luean must have been deep in conversation with Gildor the High Elf, a conversation which lasted very late into the night. I didn't remember seeing the rune-keeper enter Gildor's study, so I assumed he must have done so after I fell asleep. I could see his brows knitted together, deep in thought, and I wondered what was on his mind. While these ideas were passing through my head, the Company began to assemble.

"The skies bring us rain this day," said Lagodir as he craned his neck backward. "I think it will be a wet one. You might do well to tuck in your beard, Master Dwarf, lest it be wetted and the weight of it slow you down!" Drodie gave the Gondorian a sarcastic grin, but said nothing in answer.

"I'm not so sure," said Nephyn, who was also scanning the heavens. "These clouds are moving very swiftly indeed; it may be that this storm will pass us over before a heavy rain can develop, but we shall see."

"Be that as it may," said Gaelira as she approached the rest of us, "We have another choice before us. It seems the Orcs have established yet another war-camp near here and these Elves have asked whether we might be willing to destroy it and its occupants ere we leave Meluinen."

"I fear I will not be leaving Meluinen," said Luean as he strode resolutely up to us. "At least, not just at present." We all expressed our deepest surprise and dismay over this unexpected piece of news. Gaelira, I noted, said nothing.

"Lord Gildor is on a most important errand from Rivendell," the rune-keeper explained, "And I am uniquely able to aid him in his mission. Although it pains me to do so, I am afraid it is clear I must remain with him until his research is finished."

"But how long will that be?" I asked, despondently. "Where Elves are concerned time is like a child's plaything -- will this take a day or a century?" 

"If I could answer your question I would do so," Luean answered gravely, "But for now I can only say it will take as long as it must. The Enemy's corruption is spreading into every land under the Sun, it seems, and efforts must be made to counteract this threat or all the battlefield victories in the world will not avail us in the end. I will rejoin you all the moment I am able to do so. For now, I must bid you all the very fondest of farewells."

I felt a lump forming in my throat as we all said our goodbyes. Luean seemed genuinely saddened which, more than anything, made me realize he really was staying behind. I thought of how I would miss his perpetually wistful cheeriness and even his awkward detached nature as well as his occasional habit of engaging me in riddle-play. I drew my hand across my eyes and tried to put on a brave face to the others.

Eventually Luean did leave us and return indoors, presumably where Gildor was also, as no one had seen him since last night. We stood quietly around each other, eating bits of breakfast and talking about our plans for moving forward. Among us, Gaelira alone seemed unbothered by the rune-keeper's sudden departure from the Company.

"As I said earlier, we should decide whether to assault this new orc-camp, which lies just over the hill to the northwest of our current position" the she-Elf said in her most business-like manner. "We have crossed much of the North Downs and the hidden vale of Esteldin should be nearby, but this is another threat the Enemy has thrown in our way."

"We're supposed to be causing havoc, aren't we?" asked the Dwarf, who didn't seem to be in the mood for another committee discussion. "Let us rout the filth out of their holes! I grow tired of all these distractions -- we should be bringing pain to our foes wherever we find them."

"If nothing else, an attack should ensure that no scouts from the camp mark our path to Esteldin," said Lagodir thoughtfully. "Even if we are determined to draw Angmar's eye to ourselves, we cannot risk the Rangers' final stronghold being discovered by chance."

There was little else to say on the matter, so we all quickly prepared to leave. We said farewell to the kind Elves of Lin Giliath and set out following the northward path. The rain began to come down a bit harder, but it was still short of a real downpour. After a short way which climbed upward at a decent slope, we turned west. Almost immediately we could see the clear outline of a sturdy palisade wall with a large gate near its northern end. North of that gate, the palisade ended and was replaced by a flimsy stockade barrier. I squinted at the fortifications while the rain dripped off the wide brim of my hat. No one spoke, but it seemed clear to me from the view that the Orcs, while still far too well entrenched for anyone's liking, were nonetheless not as well dug-in here as in the other places we had seen thus far. And that was encouraging, so far as it went.

Since our purpose was now to attract as much attention as possible, we decided a direct assault on the main gate was a perfectly acceptable method of attack. Before long we had arrived there, and the astounded Orcs that were supposed to be guarding the entrance were easily overcome. Inside the fortress, we found plenty more of the foul folk about their warlike business, but we never had any real difficulty in dispatching them -- they all seemed completely taken by surprise at the idea that anyone was actually fighting back against their conquest of the North Downs.

We drove a path up a hill and down the far side slaying all we found along the way. As we reached the bottom of the hill, we saw a small cluster of tents, huts, and campfires. There were about half a dozen Orcs in the area as well as one very large Orc shouting orders to the others. We figured this had to be the leader of the rag-tag band and it would be best to eliminate him. The topography greatly favored us because, just beyond the encampment, the land fell away into a deep chasm, so once battle was joined it would be hard for any living Orcs to escape us. We strode confidently toward them and the uproar from the captain ceased; all of the Orcs looked at us and jeered. The sky was suddenly split by a flash of lightning, a terrific peal of thunder rolled across the land, and a wind swept up. Our white cloaks billowed out from behind us, and the eyes of the Orcs became wide with fear and wonder.

"The Outriders!" shrieked the orc-captain, "The Outriders have come for us!"

At that, all of the Orcs broke and fled in terror. Most of us simply gaped in amazement, but Gaelira kept her head.

"Nephyn!" she shouted, "Stop the leader! Don't let him escape!"

Nephyn understood and quickly feathered a shaft (she had managed to keep the fletching dry despite the rain, as any good archer knows how to do). Taking careful aim, she sent an arrow into the leg of the fleeing captain, who collapsed in a heap with a cry of pain. We ignored the others as they melted into the hills, but we descended quickly on the fallen leader. He was crumpled on the ground a short distance from the dreadful fall into the canyon and had nowhere to run; his fellows had abandoned him in any case, so we had him at our mercy. 

As we ran up to overtake him, the orc-captain looked and saw us coming. Even at a distance, I could clearly see the terror in his eyes.

"No!" It cried, "You weren't supposed to be here until tomorrow! Cursed devils!"

He made a great effort to rise despite his wounded leg then tried to run, but his injury caused him to slip and fall again. This time, though, he slipped too close to the edge of the canyon. The Orc grasped in vain at the land and his screams echoed off the cliffs as he plummeted to his doom.

We all stood there dumbfounded as the rain continued to patter around us. I reached under my hat and scratched my curly brown head. This was the second time we had encountered an orc-leader with knowledge of our Company who had perished before we had any chance to interrogate it. Each of us was troubled and perplexed at the knowledge we had clearly been intended for an ambush -- each of us, that is, except Drodie.

"Ha!" he exclaimed as he revelled in our unusual victory. "If this keeps up we'll have no use for our swords: these cowards seem eager enough to slay themselves at our approach!"

"Aye, let them tremble at our coming," Lagodir said in agreement. "Our efforts to create a name for ourselves have been a success, at the very least."

"That is certainly true," Gaelira said thoughtfully, "And it seems the Enemy meant to waylay us at some point, though we turned up a day ahead of schedule and -- apparently -- in the wrong place. I don't think they expected us to battle our way through Nan Wathren and survive."

"Yes, it is well that we took that difficult route, however," said Nephyn, "I would wager everything I own that the Orcs had been ordered to ambush us at the bridge. Remember? The one we weren't sure whether it was still standing? It lies not a great distance to the northwest of where we now stand and would be the most logical place for such an attack."

"But our valour upset their plans," said Lagodir, beaming. "We took the hard path through the canyons, thereby shortening our road and circumventing their ambush. What a fortuitous fate!"

"So it appears," Gaelira said, still not enthused about the turn of events, "Although I find the fact this Orc knew the name of our Company and how to identify us rather disquieting. I still think there is something dangerous afoot in all this."

"But we're supposed to be drawing their attention, aren't we?" I asked, a little confused at the she-Elf's concern. 

"Yes," came her answer, "But intimate details like the name Elladan's Outriders and personal descriptions of each of us is a level of insight that requires a certain closeness -- and it feels a bit too close for my liking."

We quickly extricated ourselves from the orc-fort by passing through the barricades and over the plains heading eastward. The grass there was thick and tall, and I frequently found myself struggling to see my companions. I could see a tall hill which rose off to our left and the dim appearance of some farmland also, but the fields looked barren and empty, and there were no signs of any inhabitants. The rain was still falling and the sky was still dismal, but I could see the clouds were beginning to break up in front of us, to the east, and my spirits rose a little.

Suddenly I heard a loud hiss! A large spider appeared right in front of me, it's hideous legs reaching, its pincers snapping! I cried out and fell backward in my fright, but the large sword of Lagodir came swooping through the air to cleave the disgusting creature in half. I pulled myself together and got to my feet.

"'Tis a good thing I saw the grass move out of the corner of my eye," said Lagodir with a smirk, "Or you might not have had such an easy escape, little hobbit."

"What on earth are those beastly things doing roaming about in the grass?!" I yelled in exasperation. "You normally see them in dark, nasty places -- brooding forests or shadowy caves, most like. Not wandering willy-nilly over the plains for anyone to stumble into!"

"It is odd," said Nephyn in agreement. "It doesn't seem the sort of place you'd expect to find spiders. Here, friend Padryc, let me carry you while the tall grass grows and we should avoid any unfortunate recurrences."

Perched on Nephyn's back, I was able to see much further and marveled at the expanse of land in this region. The tall, waving grasses swept the plains in every direction, even covering the hill to our left, but they also continued in front of us where tall trees marched at the base of a small mountain range. 

"I wonder what might be on the other side of those mountains," I mused to Nephyn as she trudged through the grass with her long legs.

"Perhaps we will see," she answered, "After all, our destination lies within those mountains somewhere, if Saerdan's mark on my map is accurate."

We soon returned to the road which ran north from Lin Giliath and Nephyn was able to return me to my own feet. We turned left and, a good ways further on, we spotted a barely noticeable dirt track leading away from the main road eastward, toward the mountains. According to Nephyn's map, we were very close to the hidden valley of Esteldin.

We passed through a rut between two hills to continue our search. For all the world, it looked to me as if we were just walking straight into a mountain wall, but suddenly a wide opening appeared before us. There, between two spurs of the hills, rose the outer edifice of a crumbled but once-mighty fortress. I gazed at it in awe: here and there were weathered but still beautiful relief carvings of ancient kings in the stone as well as the repeating sign of a seven-rayed star. I wondered very much what these might signify, but before I had a chance to ask anyone, we heard a strange voice coming from the direction of the fortress.

"Halt! Who are you and what are you doing in these lands?"

"We are friends of Saerdan, the Ranger," Gaelira answered, "And he sent us to seek the Rangers' stronghold of Esteldin."

At that, a tall Man clad in grey and green emerged from behind the archway which led into the fortress. I saw then that there were several small vertical slits in the stone through which one might watch (or shoot, if needed), though they were difficult to see at any distance. The Man took a few steps toward us, but did not get too near.

"I can see that you are not Orcs, as we initially feared," he said with a note of caution in his voice. "But whether you are friend or foe is not mine to decide. I bid you come with me and present yourselves to our captain and he shall deem what is to be done with you. Do not try to flee: there are archers positioned in several places above and around you, though you may not see them."

We had no choice to obey this request -- or order, as it seemed. The Man made us walk in front of him and he steered us with words, but there was little need of them: the path led straight under the archway and deeper into the mountains, but it was level and did not climb upward. We passed amidst several walls behind which were stationed many more Men, all geared and arrayed like the one who walked with us. It struck me that any enemy who tried to enter this way would have a very hard task before them as that passageway could be held long, even against many and even if the defenders numbered far fewer than their foes. The Men all eyed us with curiosity more than (I thought) suspicion, but no one spoke to us. Many of them were masked or hooded (some both), but they were all tall of body, broad of shoulder, slim of waist, and strong of arm. Nearly all bore long swords or daggers of curious make, and each and every one bore a longbow of yew.

Once we had passed through that long entryway, we came upon a broader space which was bustling with activity. There were stable-masters, herbalists, suppliers, armourers, and all manner of folk going about their business as if they were preparing for a war. I saw racks of axes and spears as well as dummies fitted with chain-mail, helms, and even shields hung upon them. Everywhere I saw Men practicing their prowess-at-arms or trying their skill with the bow by firing at targets. I was certain we had indeed discovered the Valley of Hope. As if to mark my own revelation of this fact, the rain stopped and the Sun flared out brilliantly as the clouds gave way before it. From somewhere far off in the mountains, I heard what sounded to me like a cardinal trill its after-rain song with a fierce excitement, and my heart leapt within me though I knew no sensible reason for it.

"What an incredible place!" I whispered, careful not to antagonize the guard. "And I would never have known it was here if it weren't for Nephyn's map."

"Aye, this fortress is cunningly hidden," Lagodir whispered back. "It is utterly impossible to see the entrance until you are upon it, but you yourself may be marked by silent sentinels long before you realize what you have stumbled into. I can see how this place has remained a secret for so long."

After a bit more walking, our captor led us to one of the few buildings in this strange vale and made a sign that we should enter. I expected him to order us to leave our weapons outside, but he only said there were more than enough guards inside to deal with us swiftly, if we had any ill intentions. I shuddered a little at the idea of anyone trying to resist these lordly and masterful folk; you wouldn't catch me doing it willingly!

As we passed inside my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. Before long, I could see we were in a small room whose walls were stacked high with books and scrolls of all kinds. As our escort had said, there were no fewer than eight Men positioned around the edges of the room, but there was one Man in the center who held my attention. He was even taller than the others with a grave, serious face and piercing, silver-grey eyes. His beard was black but trim and his hair was unkempt yet still dignified. He bore no weapon that I could see, but it was clear he was the leader of this dire band of warriors. He beheld us each in turn, then bowed to Gaelira with his hand upon his breast.

"Hail, Gaelira of Lindon!" he said in a voice that was both strong and clear. "Long has it been since any emissary of Rivendell has passed our ruined walls, and all the more do we rejoice at this meeting! You must forgive our initial welcome: we have not the luxury of trusting that any visitors to this place mean us well and not ill."

"Mae govannen, dunadan a mellon o edhellen," Gaelira said, bowing in like manner. "I have heard much about you, Halbarad, from Aragorn, your chieftain in Imladris. I can see he has chosen a very capable captain to lead the remnants of Arnor here in the North Downs."

At that, a prolonged discussion ensued which covered many topics. We told Halbarad everything about our adventures thus far and he questioned us at length regarding several points. He seemed particularly interested in Rollo Maggot, Sid Rosecane, and the cottage Saerdan and Legelinn had torched in the middle of the Old Forest. When I asked him what he thought of the matter he just shook his head.

"Rosecane never showed interest in anything save learning how he might profit off others' misfortune, and his schemes were designed to do just that, of this I am certain. We can also assume he set up his shop where he did to maintain a level of secrecy, but the real riddles in this -- whose goods he was selling, to whom, and why -- must remain a mystery for now."

We also discussed some of the other puzzles our Company had encountered, such as the mysterious parchment I still carried on my pack. Halbarad said the only one of his folk he knew who could decipher the Black Speech of the Enemy's servants was one of his kinfolk named Mincham who, unfortunately, was stationed a day's ride to the west on the outskirts of the Fields of Fornost. It appeared we would have to wait for another chance to translate that encrypted message. Halbarad also could not conceive how Angmar was gathering information on our Company and communicating it so effectively across such wide distances.

"We have ourselves seen many times that our adversaries have managed to relay important messages at great speeds and over difficult terrain," he told us. "So, I must say this does not surprise me. What gives me pause is why the Enemy should place such significance on a small band of adventurers like yourselves. I find that most curious indeed, but I cannot offer any explanation at this time."

Finally, our talk fell to how we might aid the Rangers. On this issue, Halbarad had much to say.

"Our chief concern at the moment is a large war-party which marched down from Angmar just recently," the Ranger chief said. "It is a fearsome size -- virtually a small army. My scouts have reported the presence of Orcs, goblins, Wargs, trolls, and even more than a few siege weapons. We fear they were sent to either attack us here if they found us or, barring that, they would lay siege to Trestlebridge. They made a grave error, however, in planning to move their force through the Taur Gonwaith: the stone-trolls there have no loyalty to Angmar and have prevented their passage that way so far. They could, perhaps try to circumvent these mountains by passing north of us, but that route would be difficult for engines to traverse, for it is rough and uneven. For the time being, therefore, they are trapped in the southeastern region of this land. But every day they remain increases the likelihood their sentries may discover our location, and that could well be disastrous for we are a dwindling people. Only by secrecy and shadow are we any longer able to resist Angmar's advances. If you wish to aid us, I would suggest starting with the bounty notices we have posted throughout this camp: the more of the Enemy's servants that are removed from the North Downs the longer our stronghold here will remain secure."

By now there was little daylight left to us, so Halbarad gave us a tour of Esteldin. It seemed some amount of our reputation had preceded us and the welcome we received was a warm one. We took note of the numerous bounty notices posted throughout that place and did what we could in hunting the various creatures in the lands surrounding Esteldin. There were few comforts in that militant setting, so the five of us settled down around a campfire in the midst of some old and ruined structure. I could see the shadowy shapes of many Rangers shifting as they changed the sentries on the walls around us in preparation for the coming of the night.

"What a curious people!" I exclaimed as quietly as I could to the others. "They certainly seem single-minded about this warrior business, don't they? Not a single creature-comfort to be found within these high stone walls! It's a wonder they don't tire of all this austerity."

"Their homes were taken from them -- destroyed by powerful servants of the Enemy," said Nephyn sadly as she looked around her. "Then they became homeless, yet still they were hunted throughout the North, so Saerdan always told me. They went into hiding and became outcasts to most 'respectable' folk."

"Yet they remain both hardy and vigilant for all that," said Drodie. I was surprised to hear an uncommon tone of respect from the Dwarf. "These folk don't fool about with trivialities -- they do what they must and live on what they have. A very Dwarvish quality, that is. I like 'em."

"Yes, they are a hardy people and their vigilance has, thus far, provided a great deal of comfort and security to other peoples in the North, though they knew it not," said Gaelira as she sat beside us. "But just like the Firstborn their numbers dwindle in these latter days. Who knows how much longer they can keep up their fight? Perhaps we shall see it put to the test one day."

"To me it is all exceedingly strange," said Lagodir with an odd look in his eye. "Surely these folk are my own distant kin from centuries past? Yet there is little proof of that kinship now: I see a ragged lot. Tired, worn, and even, it may be, near breaking. I alone of the Company have seen the might of Gondor with my own eyes, and even now in the waning of its strength it is still immeasurably stronger than these timid and mud-caked Rangers. It is no wonder to me that no tales of them now reach us in the South. The destruction of ancient Arnor was absolute, for all practical purposes." Gaelira shifted her weight as if in discomfort, but did not speak.

"I don't know," Nephyn replied. "I cannot deny that they have none of the trappings that speak of Gondor's majesty, at least as I hear it in the tales from travellers who have been in that land. But I sense something else here -- I think these Rangers have chosen this life, sacrificing their own comfort for the needs of others. I do not know how else to say it except to say that they seem to belong here, despite the crude appearance of their settlement."

"Perhaps you sense, from afar off, the honour of our common ancestors, the Numenoreans," Lagodir said. "I spoke in haste and out of despair, seeing my kinfolk lying low in the hills like vagabonds and highwaymen. But you are right: they do this out of necessity in the face of a brutal adversary. It is clear, at any rate, that after all of these years they still have not forgotten their bloodline; what they are, they are out of respect for their lineage."

"And out of respect for their leader," Gaelira cut in suddenly, "He is a great Man. I hope very much you may meet him someday, Lagodir. Then the actions and livelihood of your distant kinfolk would be much less a mystery to you." Lagodir did not answer, but his proud eyes did not look the she-Elf in the face.

"I think you are right, Nephyn," I said, partly out of a desire to diffuse the situation. "They do seem to belong here, almost as much as hobbits do in the Shire. Although, personally, I can't imagine trying to scratch out a living in a place like this. I would feel all bottled up and secretive."

"To me it feels like home," said Nephyn. To me, her voice sounded almost as if she was surprised at her own words.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 15

On To Lin Giliath

Highday, 15th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Lin Giliath, Somewhere in the North Downs
Gildor Inglorion
Today was almost uneventful, at least as far as I have come to understand the term. We awoke in the middle of Trestlebridge around our little campfire and amidst the gaggle of displaced villagers who had slept out-of-doors with us last night. We were kept rather busy in the early hours trying to support the town guards as they maintained order and doled out rations or supplies. Eventually, we were able to settle down and hold council among ourselves.

I took a seat on the charred steps of a burned-out building (it might have even been the infamous Red Lion Inn, for all I know) while my friends gathered around. The rest of Trestlebridge was now about its own business and finally paid us no further heed. The people were very grateful for the part we had played in driving the orc threat away, but personally I found all of the praise and acclaim outside of my liking. As the Company came together to discuss our next move, I was very aware of my desire to leave that place. I suspect it was because I felt guilty for the plight of the residents, but also because I am not used to being treated like a hero. I did not feel especially heroic as the ash which was all that was left of most of these peoples' homes kept drifting down around me, nor when I glanced across the street where rows upon rows of coffins had been lined up. Most were not empty, and those that were still unoccupied would not have long to wait. A woman was there, her back to us, as she knelt in front of a small coffin. I was just thinking how glad I was to be out of earshot when I was shaken out of my thoughts by Drodie plopping his stout self beside me.

"There's not a mug o' beer to be found in this entire village," he growled, "Not for a mountain of coin. The sooner we move on from here the happier I'll be." He tore at a small loaf of barley bread from his pack. Even the Dwarf, who was normally able to find a positive angle in almost any unpleasant situation, was clearly affected by the suffering around us. I nibbled anxiously at my own breakfast. Gaelira had stood up from where she had been reclining in the grass, and she had that "we're-about-to-have-an-important-discussion" look in her eyes.

"Well, we have reached the North Downs, as we intended," she began, "Though I think it fair to say none of us expected to arrive here and find what we have." To this, we all agreed.

"I do not know that there is much more we can do to aid the people here aside from what we have already done," she continued, "And so it would seem it is time, once again, for us to choose our way forward."

"Are we not, then, still seeking the refuge of the Rangers?" Lagodir asked. "According to the mark Saerdan placed on Nephyn's map, it should lie a good ways northeast of our current position."

"Yes, we still intend to find the Valley of Hope," Gaerlia replied, "But there are two ways we might reach that place. Nephyn, may I please borrow your map?" Nephyn reached into her pocket and produced it, holding it up for all of us to see while Gaelira pointed out major landmarks for us.

"As you can see, our destination is here," she pointed to Seardan's mark. "The most sensible way for us to reach it is by travelling further north up the Greenway until it forks eastward, here. That road then passes along the southern face of the heights at Amon Raith and Minas Vrun until it crosses this river by way of a stout wooden bridge, here. We would then continue along that road until we are near enough to our goal to leave it and seek the Rangers' encampment in the mountains."

"That seems simple enough," Luean said.

"It could be," Nephyn said, "But none of us knows the state of that bridge in these difficult times. Even the people here have had no reason to travel that direction of late and could not tell me whether or not the bridge still stands. If it has been destroyed by agents of the Enemy, we will have wasted a long and tiring journey if we go that way, for the Trestle-folk tell me there is no known ford at that point in the river."

"What is that dark area, there?" I asked. I was looking uncomfortably at a region of the map, due north from Trestlebridge, which seemed ominous and foreboding in the way the map had been rendered.

"Those are the Fields of Fornost," Luean said. "If we were to take the northern way, we would turn east just before we would reach them, but I agree with Saerdan the Ranger that it would be wise for us to avoid those haunted plains." I vigorously nodded my assent.

"Perhaps I am missing something," said Lagodir as he peered closely at Nephyn's map, "But it does not appear to me that there is a second way for us to use at all."

"The second way would be to re-enter the canyons of the Nan Wathren," Gaelira answered as she traced the route with her finger for us. "We would strike east immediately, just as before, then work our way through the ridges of that dangerous place until we found our way out on the other side, here. At that point, we would be in the region known as Meluinen, which is very near to where Esteldin is supposed to lie."

"Looks to me as though going through Nan Wathren again would save us a good step," Drodie said. "And I wouldn't mind knocking off a few more goblin-heads along the way, after what that lot did to the folks here."

"Are we certain there is a way out of Nan Wathren into Meluinen beyond?" Nephyn asked with a doubtful look. "The map does not seem clear to me. Also, there is also a river marked on the far side which we would have to cross if we ever reach it. There is no indication of a bridge: we might find ourselves in the same predicament as if we went the northern route."

"That is so," Gaelira sighed. "Also, while taking the pass of Nan Wathren appears to be the more direct way, you have all seen those canyons and know the path is not straight. In addition, our progress will be impeded by many foes -- there are still more than a few enemies there that remain unfought."

"Well, if either way is unsure, then I say we do the people here another good turn and destroy more of those Orcs and their toys," Drodie said loudly. "That way, even if there is no way through to the other side, we'll still be doing Trestlebridge a service."
After a little more debate, the majority of us essentially signed on to the Dwarf's way of thinking so we prepared to move out. The morning was nearly gone when we marched across the Trestlespan for the second time in as many days.

Once on the far side of the bridge, we immediately turned east and headed back into the Orc-infested canyons of the Nan Wathren. I will not bore you with the details of everything we encountered and accomplished there, but we defeated many more Orcs, goblins, and even a few more Half-orcs in that place as we searched for the path through to Meluinen. The Sun rode high and well past three o'clock and still we saw no way out. I was just about to suggest we turn back when we came upon a dirt track which climbed steeply upward and in a northeasterly direction. Following this, we eventually crested a high ridge and looked down. There, below us, was a lush green space. Some ways off, across a still river, we could see the twinkling of lights among the trees!

"Well! So there is a way through after all!" I said, relieved. "I just hope we are able to ford that river there, or this might still be all for naught."

"And let us hope those lights are not another Orc-camp," said Drodie.

We made good time as we descended from the hills down toward the pleasant greenery of Meluinen. There were still a few Orcs and goblins which had spilled out into that fair place from the canyons, but they did not expect foes to be coming at them from behind in the direction of their stronghold, so we made short work of them. Before long, we reached the river, but it turned out to be so shallow that even I was able to wade across unassisted. We all laughed at how, all day long, we had worried over whether we'd be able to ford the river if we ever reached it only to have it end up being barely a foot deep and no challenge whatsoever for us to cross.

"Another lesson learned!" I said as I stepped out of the water and started to roll my leggings back down. "Just because something looks big and scary at a distance doesn't mean you can't overcome it!"

"Well said," Lagodir said with a smile. "Say also that something which appears small and timid from a distance may prove hardy and tenacious when put to it." I wondered what the tall Man was implying with his remark. Before I had a chance to ask him, Luean spoke.

"Unless my eyes deceive me," he said as he peered into the trees, "That is an Elven settlement ahead of us!"

It was indeed! As we drew closer to the lights we had seen earlier, the shapes of buildings began to emerge among them until it became clear we were approaching a small cluster of ancient ruins. They were obviously of Elven-make with intricate designs and flowering carvings everywhere, but they were very, very old and fallen into disrepair. There was a small band of Elves there and they were very surprised to see us. They listened with great interest as we told them of how we arrived in Trestlebridge, the attack on the village, and our subsequent trek through the Nan Wathren to their camp. When we asked the Elves to tell us of themselves, we learned that they were company under a High Elf named Gildor Inglorion and that we should speak to him at once. We were led into the ruins and shown through a set of large doors which must have once been ornate and beautiful, but now they were dull, dirty, and creaked on their hinges as they swung open. As we passed inside, my eyes adjusted to the light and I could see a single figure seated at a table, his head bowed as if he were pouring over a book or scroll. To my left, I saw Luean and Gaelira rush forward. The seated figure rose and approached us.

"Gildor! Tur mae govannen!" said Gaelira. I could see now our host was very tall with long hair and a wise, compassionate look in his eyes. He was an Elf, of course, as old as the mountains yet as gay as a bubbling spring as it sparkles in the first light of morning. First Gaelira then Luean embraced Gildor before he turned and bowed to the rest of us.

"You are come, honored guests, to Lin Giliath," he said. "I am Gildor Inglorion of the House of Finrod, and I bid you welcome to our humble encampment."

There was a good deal of talk at that point which I will not fully recount here. In short, Gildor had led this company of Elves into Eriador at the request of Lord Elrond to examine the hurts of the land and do what they could in healing them. Their work, however, had disturbed a nearby tribe of stone-trolls which had suddenly attacked them. One of their number was slain during this attack, but the trolls themselves had been driven off. This morning, however, another of their band, an Elf named Lagorlam, had headed out into the forest alone in search of the stone-trolls.

"We could not stay him, for he had been the lifelong friend of the Elf who was slain yesterday," Gildor told us, mournfully. "Lagorlam has not yet returned, and I fear very much for his safety."

We offered to search for Lagorlam ourselves, since it was clear the Elves of Lin Giliath were not armed for conflict. Gildor accepted our help gratefully, but urged us to make haste as the day was waning fast.

"You will find the trolls far more formidable adversaries by the dark of night," Gildor warned us. "Go at once, and may the stars shine upon your swords!"

We departed Lin Giliath immediately and headed eastward, following Gildor's directions into Taur Gonwaith, the very darkest part of the forest which covered Meluinen. My anxiety rose with the passing of each minute as the Sun slipped further and further westward, but we found no sign of our missing Elf. My stomach was all a-twitter as the light began to fail and Gildor's warning seemed to pound in my ears. I didn't even notice at the time that I had eaten almost nothing since we set out from Trestlebridge that morning.

The terrain was lush but difficult: the constant rising of small ridges and falling into deep gullies made our progress slow and tiring, but we were steadily making our way further and further into Taur Gonwaith. Soon, the light was almost gone and I looked up in confusion: the Sun should not have set already! And indeed she had not: the canopy of the forest was so thick that nearly none of her light penetrated down to where we scrabbled over the rocks and through the brush. The trees there were of a kind wholly unknown to me; they had curiously thick trunks which wound in strange manner upward until their sprawling branches formed a heavy roof overhead. Yet they were still tall, despite their unusual growing pattern. I wondered what they were called and why I had never seen their likeness before, but I did not wish to ask: the Company had been completely silent ever since entering this wood and no one seemed eager to speak aloud for fear of giving away our position.

We continued on like this for a while longer until we came to the top of an especially high ridge. Looking down, we saw a crumpled figure lying at the bottom of a gully. I believed we had found Lagorlam, but whether we had found his living body or merely his corpse was not yet clear. As one, we all rushed down the slope toward him, but that nearly proved our undoing.

An enormous stone-troll suddenly emerged from behind a boulder! I stopped dead in my tracks -- it was easily 12 feet tall with leering eyes and a huge mouth lined with nasty, jagged teeth and it was covered in a variety of musty old furs that must have served it as clothing. It roared at us then picked up a large stone and hurled it in our direction! We all ducked, and the stone sailed over our heads and shattered with a bang on the ridge behind us. That's when the fallen figure roused himself, rolled over, and looked at us.

"Lagorlam?" I heard Gaelira ask.

"Yes!" The Elf replied. "Help me!"

At that, the troll turned toward Lagorlam and raised its foot as if to stomp him into jelly! Lagorlam quickly rolled out of the way, but the troll tried again. Again, Lagorlam managed to roll out from underfoot. Thinking quickly, I grabbed a piece of the shattered stone the troll had just thrown at us, took aim, and hurled it with all my strength at the troll's head. It struck hard and drew the monster's attention. Now it was our turn to go on the offensive!

Drodie, Nephyn, and Lagodir all ran straight at the troll, weapons drawn. They rained blows upon it while the troll tried to shield itself with its large shoulders and forearms. I smiled, thinking even something so big and mean could not withstand such mighty blows from my companions: the battle would be over soon.

Suddenly, Lagodir came flying backward toward me and landed on the ground with a loud crunch! The troll had simply thrown him about 25 feet with a powerful back-hand. Lagodir's eyes were open, but they seemed to bounce around in his head for several seconds as he recovered from the blow. His two-handed broadsword lay near where he had dropped it in his flight: the blade was badly notched. I looked and saw that, while Drodie and Nephyn continued to land strikes with their swords, their weapons did not seem to be wounding the beast much, if at all. I could hear the clang of metal as blow after blow glanced off the troll's thick hide. My smile faded. We might be in trouble.

While the Woman and the Dwarf kept the troll occupied, Gaelira ran in to help Lagorlam to his feet. The Elf was able to rise, but he limped his way back toward me. Luean, I suddenly noticed, was no longer beside me but had retreated further up the ridge. He was now standing there, looking up into the branches of the trees. On top of the ridge as he was, the branches were much closer to him, but still out of arm's reach. I wondered for a split second why he wasn't trying to help the others with the troll.

I looked back toward the battle just as the troll shoved Nephyn away from itself. The huntress cried out in pain and clutched at her wounded shoulder. I felt my stomach tie itself in knots at that sound as the nearly forgotten fears of the Great Barrow flooded back into my mind. I began frantically thinking what I could do to help my friends! Nephyn was retreating toward us, holding her injured arm, which left Drodie alone with the troll.

"Padryc!" It was Luean. "Come here, please."

I quickly ran up the ridge to where the Elf was standing, still looking at the branches above him. I looked back and saw Gaelira run to Drodie's aid while the Dwarf continued to battle the troll, but she could do little besides distract the monster since her quarterstaff was of no use against it.

"If I were to lift you up do you think you could reach those branches, Master Hobbit?" Luean asked me.

"I -- What? Yes, I suppose I could," I said, thoroughly confused. I looked back at the battle. The troll had grabbed Drodie and hoisted him up while Gaelira was desperately trying to hold its attention. "Shouldn't we do something?" I asked fearfully.

"Yes, we should," Luean answered. Then, all of a sudden, he seized me and hurled me straight into the air over his head. I yelled in alarm and instinctively grabbed at the branches as I met them. I clutched onto the limbs and leaves as I started to fall back to earth, pulling the branches down with me. I hung there, suspended in the air and completely flummoxed.

"Luean, you fool Elf!" I shouted in my fear and annoyance. "What was that about?! GET ME DOWN FROM HERE!"

That's when I heard laughter from the direction where the battle was going on. Except the battle didn't seem to be going on: since my head was entirely enmeshed in leaves, I could see nothing but I could no longer hear any sound of fighting. Instead I heard mirth and merriment from my companions! My head swam with confusion as I wondered what in the world was going on down there.

"Luean!" I shouted again. "How do I get down? Are the others safe?"

"Yes, the others are perfectly safe," came the answer, "And you need only to let go: I will catch you and the fall is not great."

It took me a moment to summon the courage, being that I couldn't see where I was going to land, but I decided to trust my friends and let go of the branches. I fell right into Luean's outstretched arms and was placed gently onto solid ground once more.

"I do beg your pardon," said Luean as he brushed me off in a very polite manner, "But there wasn't time to explain. In any case, little Shire-hobbit, please let me be the first to commend you in the slaying of your first troll!" I looked and gaped.

The troll had been turned to stone. Even now, Drodie was still suspended in its stone-hand, some eight feet off the ground, and was fuming about how he was supposed to get himself down while Nephyn, Gaelira, and Lagodir laughed at him playfully in his plight. For a moment I was at a total loss as to how we had won the battle, but then it dawned on me that Luean's gambit of throwing me into the tree had the effect of creating an opening in the forest canopy. When I had grabbed the branches and pulled them down with the weight of my body, I allowed a patch of the setting Sun's light to shine through -- right onto the troll, instantly turning it to stone. I laughed in my own turn.

"Well, what do you know?" I said between chuckles, "I've been of some use during this adventure after all! Even if only as an over-sized paperweight!"

"Don't underestimate yourself, Padryc! You did just as well as Drodie, there," said Nephyn, still holding her arm but laughing uncontrollably. "I'd say our Dwarf performed to the highest standards, wouldn't you, Lagodir?" Drodie continued to try and extricate himself from the troll's frozen grip, cursing and raging all the while.

"Oh, yes!" Lagodir replied, also barely able to control his laughter. "It was a tall order, but he certainly rose to the occasion!"

"He was the very height of valour!" said Gaelira, joining in the fun.

"I am NOT amused!" Drodie roared at them. Using his feet, he managed to dislodge two of the troll's stone fingers, enabling him to wriggle free of the hand, but he still faced a sizable drop to the forest floor.

"Would you like for me to catch you too?" Luean offered as he tried (not very successfully) to stifle his mirth.

Drodie did not answer him, although I thought I heard the Dwarf mutter something about "catching you, rune-keeper," as he scrambled to lower himself from his perch. After several moments, he finally fell to the earth with all the grace of a drunken Oliphaunt and we were able to begin our journey out of the forest.

Our rescued Elf, Lagorlam, was eternally grateful to us for his rescue. Apparently he had stalked off into the forest that morning in a rage seeking vengeance for his fallen friend, but of course found no trolls as it was still daylight. He did not wish to return to Lin Giliath out of shame, and so continued to wander aimlessly for several hours. At one point, he had taken a bad step and turned his ankle in a divot in the ground, and so became lame. If we had not come along when we did, that troll would certainly have slain him. He also praised us for our quick-thinking in besting the monster.

"Oh, it was nothing," said Luean dismissively. "Padryc deserves most of the credit anyway: he's the one who got launched into a tree with no explanation!"

"Well, it worked better than our weapons at any rate," said Lagodir as he fingered his sword's dented edge. "I don't think any of us really harmed that creature -- I'm not sure we even managed a cut!"

"Most breeds of troll will hibernate in a position that protects their softer underbellies," Lagorlam told us. "And so a troll's hide can harden over the years until it becomes nearly as impenetrable as the stone from which they were originally made. Only very well-crafted weapons are likely to pierce the armour of such beasts." This gave us all something to think about. I looked at my little Shire-hammer with disapproval for the first time.

The Sun set well before we managed to return to Lin Giliath with the injured Lagorlam in tow. We also checked Nephyn's injured shoulder along the way. The troll's shove had not re-opened the wound, but it was still very sore and Nephyn could not draw her bow. I fashioned another sling for her from the bandages in my pack and we pressed onward.

We found ourselves hailed as heroes by the Elves when we arrived. Gildor offered us food, medicine, and rest at his camp for as long as we wished it. After an excellent supper, our Company gathered around a campfire with Gildor as the other Elves of his company played music some ways behind us. Gaelira and Luean were very interested in Gildor's doings and it seemed they all knew each other from meeting previously at the House of Elrond. Gildor filled us in on the findings of his expedition -- all of them troubling -- and asked much about us and our purposes. Gaelira explained we hoped to find the Rangers' stronghold of Esteldin and to assist them in their battles against the encroaching enemies out of Angmar. At that, Gildor sighed deeply and became very solemn. There was a silence.

"You do not believe we are doing the right thing," Gaelira said quietly.

"Why do you ask me that?" Gildor asked in response.

"It was not a question," came Gaelira's answer. Another silence.

"What would you have me say to you?" Gildor asked after some time.

"We would have your counsel, my friend," Gaelira said.

"My counsel?" Gildor asked as he turned toward the she-Elf. "My counsel? Already you know my counsel, Gaelira. You cannot have forgotten in so short a time."

"You are both strong and learned, mellon," Gaelira said in a steady voice. "Few there are who the Enemy fears as much as he fears you and your House. There is much that you could do to aid us."

"What I could do I have done already," Gildor replied. "And that was not enough. I see you remain resolute in this. Very well, but please do not insult me by feigning interest in my counsel." He quickly got up and left us. There was a tense pause. I looked at my companions to see if they were all as confused as I was. None of us spoke. Gaelira's eyes followed Gildor for several moments, then she stirred and spoke to us in a very brisk manner.

"Get some rest," she said. "We depart at first light and make for Esteldin." Then she rose and walked off in the direction opposite of the one by which Gildor had just left us, vanishing into the dark of night.

The rest of us tried to puzzle out what had just happened, but we had no idea and Luean would not speak a word. Eventually we gave up and settled down for some well-deserved sleep. I took some time to record the day's events by firelight and checked once more on Nephyn's bandages. Tomorrow, if all went according to plan, we would finally reach the hidden valley of the Rangers.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 14


Mersday, 14th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Trestlebridge, the North Downs
The Trestlespan
This morning we all rose somewhat later than we had become accustomed to doing. This was due, in part, to the prior day's notable victory in the Barrow-downs, but also to the unexpected appearance of the Ranger Saerdan, which kept us up late into the night. It was well after the fourth hour from dawn when I finally awoke and made my way down to our parlour.

Gaelira, Luean, and Drodie were already there while Lagodir and Nephyn arrived shortly after me. We started to enjoy the breakfast laid out by Nob and discussed our plans going forward. Saerdan had departed from us during the late watches, but his dark words of warning remained with us all as we thought about our next step.

"The time has come for us to strike against our Enemy outside of the Bree-land," Gaelira said when we had gathered. "What road shall our Company take? Shall we travel north into the teeth of our adversary's armies, or east, toward mystery and unknown dangers?"

It turned out that those of us who had favored the eastward path last night had changed their minds after some thought. Lagodir still maintained his commitment to holding no opinion so as to not sway our decision one way or the other, but it became clear the rest of us favored the North Downs as our next stop. I can't deny I was happy about this turn of events.

"By Saerdan's account, there isn't much in the way of hospitality anywhere in those Lone-lands," I said, relieved. "At least he mentioned some farmers and other folk who live up the Greenway; even Butterbur has friends there. Perhaps there is a chance of finding an inn or two!"

"That may very well be," Nephyn said to me with a smile. "I do not know the North Downs well at all, but we do catch bits of news here now and then. The town of Trestlebridge lies on the Greenway itself and should be our first waypoint. I've heard The Red Lion is a good tavern, by all accounts."

This raised my spirits significantly, for I had been feeling down all morning at the prospect of leaving the comforts of the Pony behind. I treated myself to two extra blackberry tarts by way of farewell. After a few other minor issues had been dealt with we decided to set out at once; the day had been ticking away and already the Sun was nearing the noon-hour. We said our goodbyes to Barliman and his staff as we departed his house in the broad light, waving heartily and promising to return if ever we could.

"Blessings be on your paths, wherever they may take you," Butterbur called to us from the front porch of his inn. "And be sure to visit the Pony, if ever you should happen to be passing through Bree! It's been a right pleasure having you all under my roof, and ever the oftener you can do so again, why the greater I'll be pleased!"

I reckon the landlord was still talking as we left earshot. Despite his endless streams of babble and gossip, I felt a noticeable twinge of regret as I turned my face away from his welcoming house. I knew no reason for thinking so, but I had an odd feeling I'd never see the place again. Or perhaps it was the fact that we were leaving the simple, rustic countryside of the Bree-land for the first time; very soon I would have travelled further than ever before in my life.

The day was warm and stagnant, with no breeze in the wind to speak of. I felt uncomfortably hot as we marched up the Greenway and my feathered cap caused me to sweat. I removed it and fanned myself with the brim as I looked about us. I could see the Thorney's land not far ahead, busy as an ant-colony, as was usual; we even saw the Thornleys themselves from a distance. We waved to them and they waved back, but we did not stop to visit. Soon we were passing the Old Greenway Fort on our right and the track which led to the Hengstacer Farm. The Sun was already westerning and there was still a good ways to go before dark.

"Nephyn, what can you tell us of Trestlebridge?" I asked as we walked. I was getting bored and was eager for anything to take my mind off the Sun, which was beating relentlessly on my bare head.

"Only what I've heard from others," she answered. "It is a town of Men very similar to Bree, although I've never heard tell of any hobbits living there that I can recall. It is not nearly as large as Bree nor as prosperous, but it is a fine settlement from all that I've heard."

"It's an unusual name, isn't it?" I said. "Trestlebridge? Wherever did they get the idea for that?"

"I believe the town is named for its major landmark," the huntress replied. "Just on its north edge there lies an enormous canyon which is spanned by a large, wooden bridge. Quite apart from the obvious connection the bridge gives the townsfolk to the rest of the North Downs, it also acts as a last line of defence against any foe, for it is the only way into the town from the north. That bridge is known as the Trestlespan, and from thence does Trestlebridge derive its name."

"O!" I said. "That sounds very simple and proper. This bridge must be a sight to see then, if they named the whole town after it."

"It is, from what I hear tell," Nephyn said. "Many's the time I pondered journeying there to see it, but now I shall finally do so. The Bree-folk and the Trestle-folk (as they sometimes call each other) are certainly akin, but this small land being what it is, you can still catch a bit of estrangement. The people of Trestlebridge have often complained of late that the Mayor of Bree does not devote enough resources to the defence of the town while the Bree-folk counter that Trestlebridge ought to look after its own affairs. I'm not sure who has the right of the matter."

"I suspect a time is coming when such issues will be dismissed as the trivialities they are," Gaelira said. That remark caused us to fall silent for a while.

After some time longer, we passed the part of the road where we had rescued Robb Thornley and defeated the orc-captain of Cirith Nur, but we saw no sign of any Orcs in either place. It seemed that the Rangers had done a very thorough job of removing whatever threat remained after we had disposed of the two camp leaders. We continued on our northward track content to see that our handiwork had brought serenity to the Northern Bree-fields. Soon, the land began to climb upward and parts of the Greenway became lost under grasses and leaves of seasons long past. I began to puff from trying to scale the incline and reprimanded myself for being so out of training.

"I hope this Red Lion is all it's rumoured to be," I complained as we neared the high point of the road. "I shall need to dunk my head in a cold trough after all of this exertion."

"As long as there's a tall pint awaiting me there," said Drodie as he laughed at my miscomfort, "I shall be content. This Sun is strangely warm for being so early in the year."

"What I wonder is whether Gaelira and I ought to show ourselves in the town at all," I heard Luean say airily from behind me. "If the people of Bree are unused to Elves then these folk might be even less well-disposed toward us."

"You raise a good point, Luean," Gaelira said. "We are coming to this place to aid the people here, but we cannot expect them to do so until we have earned their trust. It might be best if we remain on the outskirts."

"You shall do no such thing!" said Nephyn, taking offence. "No friend of mine will suffer such an affront, even if Trestlebridge isn't really considered --"

Nephyn's voice broke off. We had reached the height of the climb and before us the Greenway fell down toward what could only have been Trestlebridge.

But huge clouds of black smoke were billowing from the town! From where we stood it appeared as if the entire western half of the settlement had been blackened and burned in a massive fire. We rushed down the slope toward the south gate where we found a pair of guards posted. They challenged us at first, but when we told them we were newcome from Bree with the intent to aid their town, they allowed us to pass on the condition that we immediately present ourselves to the captain of the town guard, who had taken over command of the city in light of the "attack," such was the guard's word. As we made our way through the streets of Trestlebridge we saw many of its folks gathered in clumps here and there, clearly still reeling from whatever travesty had consumed half of their home.

"I assumed the Orc-threat had to be greater than we originally guessed after what you told me of the raiding parties which had found their way past Trestlebridge and into the Bree-land," Lagodir said, "But this surpasses anything I had expected. Why, no less than half the place has been burned to the ground!"

"I can't understand how this could have happened," Nephyn said as she looked around her. "The Trestlespan should have kept any sizable warband north of the town's borders. Even undermanned the town guard should have been able to keep any attack out unless it were a well disciplined military-style assault. Things must have changed substantially in this place, or there is more to this than it appears at first glance."

It did not take long to find the captain of the town guard, one Captain Trotter. He struck me as an arrogant, short-sighted bureaucrat with no real head for managing folks in a crisis, but I've no doubt his loyalty to the town and its people is absolute. In any case, he had the good sense to accept our help in determining just what had happened to Trestlebridge.

I must abbreviate what happened afterward, as it took quite some time. To sum up, we discovered a strange, fine black powder in several spots around town where the devastation was the worst. It turned out that the Orcs, which had become increasingly bold of late, had managed to drug the bridge guards and plant casks of this explosive powder around Trestlebridge before detonating them all at once. In the end, we asked permission of Captain Trotter to launch a counter-attack against the Orcs. He assented, though he warned us he would not be able to support our efforts in any way. We spent a little time comforting some of the locals and setting our gear and supplies in order, but before long we had sent out north of town to look into Trestlebridge's encroaching enemies.

It was some time after noon when we left the town by way of the large bridge on its northern edge. As Nephyn had told us earlier, the Trestlespan was an impressive feat of craftsmanship, perhaps three hundred feet long and roofed, which spanned a deep ford and connected Trestlebridge to the rest of the North Downs. At one point I peeked through a thin cleft in the walls and looked down -- I was glad to be on a sturdy bridge! Swift-running waters churned on sharp rocks hundreds of feet below us. I thought about how that bridge is both the town's greatest defence and its single greatest weakness at the same time.

On the far side of the Trestlespan we turned east, where we saw quite a few tents and other signs of small and hastily constructed camps. There were many Orcs ensconced there, far too close to the town for any of our liking. They were unprepared as they tried to shield themselves from the Sun, and we had little difficulty destroying a large number of them. During the fighting, I noticed that Lagodir was wielding a large, two-handed sword instead of his broad-bladed axe. I asked him where he came by it.

"I traded that axe for this sword from a smithy in town," he told me. "This is much more my style and the people there will need the axe to cut timber that will help to rebuild their homes."

Although the Orcs afforded our Company only light resistance, it was clear we were merely dealing with their most outlying scout camps. Following their settlements, we found ourselves in a series of twisting canyons (that the Trestle-folk called the Nan Wathren) which were teeming with the brutes, including many of which were more heavily armed than the ones we had seen up until that point. We raided their supplies and destroyed a great deal of the sleeping-draughts they had given the town guards as well as several crates of black-powder.

After working our way through the passes of the Nan Wathren for a couple of hours, we came upon an unusual sight: three Man-sized creatures deep in conversation across a makeshift table with some papers between them. One of them must have heard us approach, for they all turned and saw us. At first I was afraid these were traitors from Trestlebridge which were working with its enemies, but when I saw their faces a shiver went down my spine: it was clear as anything they were not Men. They drew blade against us, but none of them were heavily armed and my companions slew them all with ease. After the fight, we decided to examine the area more closely to learn what they might have been about.

"What manner of creatures are these?" I asked, looking closer at the lifeless eyes of one of the fallen. "Not Men, clearly, but not Orcs either. But ugh! What a terribly orc-like face it has."

"I think I can put a name to them," said Lagodir as he came to me side. "Half-orcs. We have heard of these revolting animals in Gondor, though I had never seen one myself before today." He kicked the arm of the corpse nearest him. "Foul contrivance of the Enemy! No doubt this breed was devised for the purposes of keeping his armies at work during the hours of daylight where common Orcs would typically be of little use."

"Half-orcs?" I choked on the words. "What is the other half, I wonder?"

"It is probably best not to know," said Gaelira.

The papers lying on the table turned out to be a mixture of design plans for siege engines as well as a several maps of the region with various spots circled, and some of the circles were marked with an X. We poured over these for some time.

"These marks don't appear to cover any spot in the North Downs that I have ever heard of holding anything like a town or village," said Nephyn. "It doesn't make sense to me: I don't think any of these spots would lend themselves to such settlements; they are all among rocky outcroppings or buried in dense wooded areas. They will not find farms or villagers to terrorize in these places."

"No, but I do not think they are looking for such things," said Luean, peering over her shoulder. "If the places which interest them are secretive and out-of-the-way, then it logically follows they are looking for something which is expected to be kept secret, and that would not be a town or village."

"Perhaps they are looking for the Valley of Hope?" Lagodir asked. "Saerdan had mentioned his kindred kept a camp of Rangers in this land -- that would be our Enemy's greatest threat in the North Downs, I deem."

"Yes, I think that is the purpose of this map," Luean agreed.

"And what about the different markings?" I asked, pointing to them on the maps. "These circles and Xes?"

"I should say the places they mean to search and those they have already searched," Drodie replied. "Just like excavating a mine, you don't want to waste your time digging in a place you have already exhumed. And you can see many of the circles have Xes in them already."

"We did well to come this way," Gaelira said. "We cannot permit the Enemy to discover the location of Esteldin. We must do what we can to delay them, but this find makes it clear we are already short on time."

At that time we heard a horn blow and a lot of harsh shouting coming from below us. The place where we stood was a good ways up the side of the canyon wall and there was a cliff overlooking a valley nearby. We went to this overwatch and looked down toward the noise where we saw many small figures running about as if preparing for battle.

"I think our presence has been noticed," Luean said.

"Perhaps it was the trail of dead bodies we left in our wake," said Drodie with a wide grin. "That has a way of getting an Orc's dander up."

"Look! What are those?" Nephyn asked. She was leaning far over the edge and pointing down into the valley. Following her finger, we beheld what appeared to be several siege engines just like the ones we saw drawn in the papers on the table behind us!

"The situation is even worse than I thought," said Gaelira. "We must inform the folk of Trestlebridge of this as soon as we can."

"Can we do anything about it while we are here?" I asked.

"I have some skill with these machines," Lagodir said. "Enough to disable them, at any rate. I should be able to remove or destroy the key pins needed to fire them without much trouble."

"I think I can see more barrels of that black-powder down there," said Nephyn as she leaned further over the edge of the cliff. "It is stacked up against the --"

Suddenly, the ground beneath Nephyn gave way and she disappeared over the side of the cliff! We all hurried to look after her and we saw the huntress slide and roll all the way down the cliffside until she finally came to rest behind a stack of barrels. Small rocks and dust continued to fall for a few moments after she ceased to move and we feared the worst. To our relief, the nearby soldiers were preoccupied with arming themselves and searching for our Company, and so they had not noticed her fall. In the failing light, we could not see whether Nephyn was alive or even if she was trying to wave at us or send us some signal about her well-being. We withdrew from the edge of the cliff.

"We have to get down to her somehow!" I said.

"I believe I can see a way down," said Gaelira as she pointed away to our right. "Over that bridge and down along that pathway there. Follow me."

It was fortunate indeed that we encountered few enemies along our way down into the valley; doubly fortunate that the Orcs which had recently gathered there to retrieve their weapons had marched off elsewhere in search of us. Once we reached the valley floor, we headed straight for the stack of barrels where we saw Nephyn fall. I held my breath as we checked behind them.

But Nephyn was hale and whole: she had slid and not fallen almost the entire way and, aside from being badly scratched and having a bruised thigh, she was basically unharmed.

"I think we have had enough adventure for one day," said Gaelira as she looked around. "Yet there is one more thing, since our foe has so foolishly left these engines unguarded in their zeal to track us down. We should disable as many of these siege weapons as possible ere we depart."

We dismantled half a dozen cruel-looking ballistae before finally turning back for town. Whether because of some luck or the stealth of our Company, we met almost no enemies on our way out of the Nan Wathren, and this was despite Nephyn being slowed by her injuries.

"You seem to be getting the worst end of all the sticks lately," I said, trying to cheer her up. "Perhaps you should tag along at the back of the Company with me for a while?"

"Perhaps I should at that," said Nephyn with a wry smile. "I don't think I've ever had such a string of misfortunes in all my life."

"I should clean your cuts when we get back," I said. "And I'll see if I can put together some padding for that leg of yours -- I reckon you'll be awfully sore in the morning!"

The night was deep by the time we returned to Trestlebridge. The people were very grateful for all of the provisions and tools we had retrieved from the Orcs, but I couldn't bring myself to smile as I passed the things out to all of the needy families. I was thinking about the common folk -- men, women, children, young and old -- who had been blasted to oblivion in the Orcs' attack. There had been no warning, no opportunity for them to flee or defend themselves. I wondered what sort of animals would so much as consider such tactics let alone use them, and what this meant for all of us if we were facing an enemy armed with such ruthless hatred.

We were not offered lodgings with any of the townsfolk, but it was only because no one had any room; so many of the inhabitants had lost everything in the attack. I also learned, much to my dismay, that the Red Lion Inn had been completely blown to smithereens, so that sent my morale to its lowest possible ebb. Our Company assembled a small camp in the village square around a campfire, and several deprived villagers joined us there. We talked some with them about the orc-threat and the hard times, but I was quickly falling asleep after the day's exertions. I forced myself to stay awake long enough to record everything that had happened, but I was asleep almost the instant I finished.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 13.2


Hevensday, 13th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Prancing Pony, Bree-land
Map of Eriador
"Friend of yours?" asked Lagodir. Nephyn rose and embraced the newcomer. He was notably older than the huntress, with black-and-grey flecked hair. His beard was short and his face was lined with years, but his skin was a deep tan and there was still much strength in his arms.

"Nephyn!" Saerdan said as he looked at her. "You look taller and stronger than ever! It has been too, too long, young one."

"This is Saerdan, my mentor and one of the Rangers of the North," Nephyn said as she offered the Ranger her seat. "You may remember, it was his cottage along the Greenway I went to visit that night we camped on the Thornley's land, but he was not there." A few Bree-folk passed by our table and cast us disapproving glances at the sight of a Ranger seated among us.

"I was not," Saerdan said, "I had joined some of my brethren as we harried a band of Orcs that had somehow crossed into the Bree-land from north of Nen Harn. We never did discover how they managed to travel so far southward, but we ensured they suffered greatly for doing so."

"That is a relief to hear," Nephyn said. "We had engaged them twice: once in some ruins southwest of Nen Harn, but the day prior we slew the captain at Cirith Nur as well."

"So you are the cause of the chaos in which we found the Orcs at Cirith Nur?" said Saerdan with a sly grin. "I should not be surprised! We came upon them and found the camp in utter disarray so that destroying the remaining forces was not difficult. You continue to impress me, Nephyn."

"It was the work of Elladan's Outriders," the huntress replied, as she gestured to the rest of us. "And a bit of luck."

"A bit of luck never hurts," Saerdan said as he eyed the rest of the Company. "Am I right in assuming you all here are these Outriders of which she speaks?"

"That's right!" I chirped. "The name was my idea." I puffed out my chest with mock importance.

"It is a name well merited," the Ranger said with a laugh. "The Sons of Elrond may enjoy some measure of fame, but few even among the Rangers appreciate both the suffering that family has endured and their age-long efforts again the Enemy."

"What can you tell us of the Enemy's plans in these parts?" Gaelira asked.

"Less than I could wish," Saerdan said, and his demeanor became somber. "But I have learned enough for my discomfort. In fact, I came here precisely to deliver to you what little I do know."

He paused to cast a furtive look over his shoulder, scanning every inch of the Common Room. I was quickly reminded that, despite our victory in the Barrow-downs, our Company was the target of evil spies which had managed to learn a great deal about us and our movements. The normally friendly atmosphere of the Pony suddenly became dark, brooding, and unwelcoming. My eyes darted from one shadowy corner of the tavern to the next, always expecting to see some menacing, hooded figure stalking us with an insidious patience.

"No amount of caution is too great in these dark days," Saerdan said, lowering his voice to the point I only just caught his words. "How this was contrived I cannot guess, but I am certain the Enemy is hunting you, Nephyn."

"We have reason to believe our entire Company is being tracked," Luean said. Saerdan raised his eyebrows at him.

"You are sure?" he said, very interested. "As my folk attacked the Orcs at Cirith Nur, we overheard two of them speaking of a dark-skinned huntress with a head of flame. There is only one person in all of the Bree-land I know that could possibly fit that description, and so I came here to warn you as quickly as I could. But it seems my haste was unecessary. How came you to know you were being spied upon?"

"We defeated an orc-captain in the Eastern Bree-fields who knew the number of our Company and recognized us," Gaelira said. "Which can only mean he was told the kind of each of us and given somewhat of a detailed description. What we cannot fathom is why the Enemy would take an interest in us at all."

With that, we gave Saerdan a full account of our actions since forming the Company back on the first day of Afteryule. He listened intently and greatly praised our defeat of the skeleton king in the depths of the Great Barrow.

"That was well done," he said, clearly impressed. "The Rangers have long known of the festering evil in the heart of the Tyrn Gorthad, of course, but we lacked the strength to do more than contain it. Yet it would appear even our vigilance has failed, for Angmar was able to send more of its minions to darken that place even further than we thought possible."

"But our steps have been hounded since the day we all met each other, if not sooner, that is plain," I said in my best conspiratorial voice. "What does it all mean?"

"Bah! Who cares?" said Drodie as he put down his flagon. "Seems to me all these spies are doing is taking back report after report to their masters of how we battered their servants to pieces in the Chetwood, in the Bree-fields, and again in the Barrow-downs!" He laughed heartily. "Let them spy! And may the tidings they bring continue to strike fear into them and their overlords."

"That is foolishness," said Gaelira. "Knowledge is strength, and our enemy possesses knowledge of us which he will undoubtedly use to his advantage. We must learn more of this and put a stop to it."

"I agree," said Saerdan slowly. "With the Dwarf." We all stared at him in disbelief.

"Come again?" asked Drodie, clearly surprised in his own right.

"I do not say this lightly, but I believe a diversion would be of great service to the Free Peoples, in more ways than one," Saerdan replied. "The Rangers have fought from the shadows for generations, always seeking to keep ourselves hidden, and it has yielded good fruits. But I deem the time for secrecy may be passing. News of defeats suffered by our adversaries would trouble their counsels while also giving hope to the free folk of Eriador -- something they have needed desperately for many years. I understand the risk to yourselves, of course, but I pray you will consider my words."

There was a silence as we all pondered the Ranger's advice.

"I can see the wisdom in this," Luean said after a time.

"When put in that way," Gaelira mused, "I admit your counsel is in line with the mission set to us by Elladan himself."

"It is an honourable calling," Lagodir said, "And I would be proud to play my part in it. There is no greater sign of valour than to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others."

"I would never gainsay the advice of Saerdan," said Nephyn. "I think it is a good idea."

"Well, of course it is!" Drodie said. Even I had to confess this approach, despite putting us in greater danger, fit with the purposes of the Company.

"You will have great honour among the Rangers of the North for your selfless service," Saerdan said as he looked us over. "If you should ever find yourselves in the region, let me show you where you will find the refuge of my kin." Here, he took Nephyn's map and marked a place in the North Downs. "That is the Valley of Hope," he said, "or Esteldin in the Sylvan tongue. If you go there, seek out Halbarad and tell him I sent you. He will aid you however he can."

"Thank you for this," Nephyn said as she tucked her map away again.

"Which raises an important question," I said, piping up. "What next?" We all looked at each other.

"Our path forward is not clear to me," said Luean at some length. "I was expecting us to head north, toward Angmar and darkness."

"As was I," Gaelira agreed, "Yet the words of the wight-lord give me pause; he spoke of evil stirring in the lands to the East. I wonder whether we ought not go that way and see what foulness the Enemy is brewing."

"For myself, I would prefer the eastern road," said Lagodir, "But that is for purely personal reasons. I will not sway the Company's decision one way or the other."

"Seems to me that if the enemy is in the East, then that is the way we should go," said Drodie with a shrug.

"If our intent is to draw Angmar's gaze, "said Nephyn, "then we could hardly do worse than to insert ourselves right in the midst of its plans."

"But don't forget the Orcs coming down from the North!" I said quickly. "That's an immediate threat we know about; seems to me that whatever the Enemy is up to away East of here is still in the early going." Gaelira turned to the Ranger.

"It would appear we are evenly split on this issue. How would you advise us?" she asked him.

"I can see your Company is at an important cross-road," said Saerdan, gravely. "Like the Gondorian, I am loathe to advise you overmuch this way or that. Too often do such counsels run ill."

"The Elves certainly appreciate your quandary," said Luean with a wry smile. "Yet you are the odd number which can help break our impasse. Besides, if all roads lead to peril, then what use is there in choosing?"

"That may well be," Saerdan sighed. "Very well, since you all wish it so. I will tell you what I know of the two roads, and I hope that will bring you resolution." Here, he drew out his own map of Eriador and pointed to the North Downs, the region north of Bree-land.

"The North Downs are in dire straights," he said. "Orcs have been pillaging the countryside and Wargs roam the plains. The hills known as Dol Dinen -- here -- have seen an enormous war party encamped which marched down from Angmar not long ago, complete with siege engines and well-arrayed companies of orcs, goblins, and even trolls. We Rangers fear they intend to make war upon our hidden refuge and, if we should fall at last, then there is no hope for Bree. Also, there have been reports that the Fields of Fornost, up around the area the Bree-folk call Deadman's Dike, are crawling with all manner of foul creatures. None of my kindred have had the opportunity to test these tidings and see what they might foreshadow, but if half of them are true then great danger awaits you. I will not hide from you that the North Downs are in need of champions to rally the simple folk and give heart even to the Rangers themselves, who have known little but strife and death for so many years."

Saerdan sighed deeply. Then, he turned the map longways and pointed to the region east of Bree.

"These," he said, "are called the Lone-lands, and they are a waste well befitting the name. The greatest landmark there is the old watchtower of Amon Sul, that folk now call Weathertop, here. The Great East Road winds through the land from Bree all the way to the Last Bridge over the Hoarwell, here, and continues on into the Trollshaws. That is a dangerous land and little known to me, but you may find other allies along your way that can direct you better."

"Luean and I know the way to Rivendell well enough," Gaelira said, "although we know nothing of the Lone-lands themselves. Do the wight-lord's words give you any idea of where Angmar may be hatching its plots or what they may be doing?"

"No," said Saerdan as he shook his head. "The Lone-lands are wide and empty, but there are also many crevices and ancient ruins of Rhudaur in which much can lie hidden. There is Minas Eriol, here, Naerost, north of the Road, Ost Guruth, here, Agamaur, Mithrenost, the Harloeg... few if any of those places have been well-explored in my lifetime. There is rumoured to be a people there, the Eglain, a nomadic tribe which settled the Lone-lands with the aim of governing their own ways apart from the influence of others, but they are supposed to be a hard lot and very untrusting of outsiders. I would not expect to get any help from them, but perhaps you will find a way. In the end, I cannot tell you much of what you will find in that desolate region." Saerdan rolled up his map and stowed it in his pocket. None of us spoke for a few tense moments.

"Perhaps we should wait until morning to make a decision?" I asked, eager to leave all of this dark talk until later. Everyone agreed to this, much to my relief. At that moment, I saw a large Man at a table near us get up and leave the Inn. I followed his back with my eyes suspiciously, but the Man did not look at us at all and left through the front door without incident. Then, someone in the Common Room struck up a lively tune and there was the sound of much singing, which drowned out our hushed conversation. I told myself to stop being so paranoid.

"What is it, Padryc?" Lagodir asked me, trying to follow my gaze.

"It's nothing," I said sheepishly. "Just being overly cautious. It seems as though every Man makes me jump out of my skin now, what with all of this intrigue. I suppose it is just because they are so much bigger than I am, you know. At least you never have to worry about a hobbit trying to ambush you!"

"I should say not," said Nephyn with a laugh. "But don't forget that stout fellow in the Old Forest! I think that Man is wishing he never decided to tussle with Rollo Maggot!" I laughed back.

"What tale is this?" Saerdan asked, curious at our amusement.

"O!" I said, getting the better of my mirth. "I shouldn't be laughing, but it was such an odd situation. I believe we left it out of our earlier account to you." I filled him in on the strange circumstances surrounding Rollo Maggot, the burned-down cottage in the Old Forest, and the dead man in the middle of it all.

"Ah, then I guess Sid Rosecane finally came back," Saerdan said with a grin. "And it seems he didn't like what he found. I expect he got no better than he deserved." We all gaped at him.

"You mean, you know what that was all about?" I asked in amazement.

"Well, mostly," Saerdan replied. "Sid Rosecane is (or was, rather) a vile, snivelling fellow who has been in and out of the Bree-jail more times than I can remember. He was always up to some mischief or other, but eventually he was found out as a horse-thief and got run out of town. He lost his left ear in a fight with the farmer he last tried to steal from. The only reason he didn't hang for it was the fact his brother is a very respected member of the Town Watch, but they still banished him. The last I knew he was headed westward with nothing to his name but the clothes on his back. But Legelinn told me later that he discovered Sid was hiding out in the Old Forest and had even built a cabin there. No one has ever lived in that place so we decided to investigate. When we came upon the house Sid was not there, but we saw a large number of crates and boxes with all manner of goods in them: clothing, medicine, food, pipe-weed... all kinds of things that clearly didn't belong to him. So we burned it all to the ground. We were very careful to see that no harm came to the trees, of course, but we made certain there was nothing to salvage. Whatever Sid was up to it was something wicked, you can be sure of that. I should not be happy that he met his end the way he did, but I will not deny it doesn't grieve me either."

"That's another of our little riddles solved!" said Luean happily. "Although I still wonder what he was doing in the middle of the Old Forest, and with such an unusual supply on his hands."

"Probably selling something to someone," said Saerdan with a roll of his eyes. "That's all that boy ever did was find villainous ways to make some quick coin."

"Yes, but how and with whom?" Gaelira said, her brows knitted together in thought. "And there is only one reason to set up shop where he did: secrecy. I shall think on this more later."

"As you like," said Saerdan. "I can assure you it is nothing sinister; Sid Rosecane was a trouble-maker and little else. It isn't worth the time of your thought, if you ask me." Gaelira nodded, but said nothing.

"And now, I really must get going," Saerdan said with a smile. "It has been the greatest of pleasures to meet all of you, and I've no doubt I will be hearing about your exploits very soon indeed."

"I wish you could come with us," Nephyn sadly. I thought of the close connection my friend had with this father-figure of hers and how deeply she must feel this parting if we were to leave her homeland, whether we struck out north or east from here.

"You do not need me any longer," Saerdan said to her softly. "Remember what I taught you: When we journey, we flee not life; rather, we ensure that life flees not from us." He put his hand on her shoulder. Nephyn winced in pain at his touch.

"Are you hurt?" the Ranger asked, full of concern.

"Yes, well, a bit," the huntress replied. "I took a shaft in the barrow, but it is healing and was not poisoned."

"I should tend it while you rest," Saerdan said. "Come, let us retire to your rooms and I will do what I can. Regrettably, I brought no medicines with me."

"I have plenty and to spare!" I said, eager to help.

"That is well," he said to me, smiling. We left the table, said goodnight to the others, and headed back to Nephyn's lodging. There, Saerdan removed the bandages and examined the wound. It did not take him long and I breathed with relief.

"This cut is deep, but it did not strike any major vessels," he said, clearly much more at ease. "It should heal well when I have treated it. Master Hobbit, have you athelas among your stores?" I paused.

"Athe-who?" I asked, confused. I had never heard the name before.

"In some lands it is known as kingsfoil," the Ranger said, patiently.

"O!" That was a name I recognized. "No, but there's no reason I would have, is there? Kingsfoil isn't more than a weed, albeit a pretty one, what with all those delicate little white flowers. I never knew it had any healing virtues."

"It does indeed," the old man said. "Far more than you must realize. If you should ever come across some in the Wild, I would strongly urge you to save it and carry it with you for as long as the leaves will last. Crush those leaves in boiling water and use it to bathe a wound, and you will see just what healing virtues it has. But I would warn you to reserve it against the last need, if you have any other balm that will serve you first. Still, this is not the time for lessons, my friend, let us see what options are available to us in that pack of yours."

I took my pack off and started to dig through it. I found some phials of fenugreek mixed with water near the bottom and I reached for them. When I drew my arm forth, most of the contents of my pack came up with it, spilling out onto the floor of the room.

"Oh, bother!" I said as I handed the phials to Saerdan. "One moment while I clean up this mess."

"Padryc?" Nephyn asked from the bed where she was lying. "What is that?" She was looking at something on the floor. I followed her gaze to a slip of paper which was covered by strange markings. I frowned as I looked at it. Suddenly, like a boulder dropping on my head from the sky, I knew what it was: that was the parchment I had slipped into my pack without thinking about it days and days ago at night in the Chetwood! To think I had been walking around with it on my pack all that time with no idea what it said! I seized the paper to read it, but I couldn't. I showed it to Nephyn, who also shook her head. Saerdan took it from me, took one quick look at it and sighed.

"I cannot tell you what it says," he said in a whisper, "but I can tell you what it says is evil. Whatever message it bears is written in the Black Speech of Mordor."

I took the parchment back from him with trembling hands. "What should I do with it?" I asked him.

"Although I think it unlikely, you should see if the Elves can read it," he said thoughtfully. "Beyond that, I would say keep it with you, for whatever it says may be of use to us and there are some among my folk who may be able to translate it. But have a care, and handle it as little as you may."

I picked up my belongings and took the paper to the others. No one was able to read it, but we all agreed it may prove valuable at some point, so I carefully stowed it away again. Then I went to check in on Nephyn, ensured her bandages were comfortable, and wished her a good night.

Although the night was very old by now, I was still wide awake. The appearance of the Ranger, the answering of so many of our questions and the revelation of the mysterious message had given me a lot to think about. More than all of these things, though, was the fact that none of us knew where we would be going next. What if there is no right choice?