Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 12

An Axe in Exile

Hevensday, 13th of Afteryule, Year 1418, Shire-reckoning
The Prancing Pony, Bree-land
The Great Barrow
There couldn't have been a more appropriate day for our Company to have braved the Great Barrow than the 13th of the month. The number thirteen is considered to be extremely unlucky in the Shire, but I will leave it to you, Dear Reader, to decide whether our adventure today ended well or not.

I was awake before dawn this morning, much to my own annoyance. Despite doing a great deal of walking yesterday as we tracked down an orc-camp in the Eastern Bree-fields and then made the tiring trek back to Bree, my eyes popped open of their own accord. I sat up and looked out the window where I could see the stars were fading. This meant dawn was not yet come, but was also not far off. I decided going back to sleep would only make waking up again a little later that much more difficult, so I dressed and headed down to our parlour.

I was walking quietly, as hobbits tend to do, through the winding hallways of the Prancing Pony. That ancient building is full of creaks and squeaks, but nary a sound did I make as I wend my way about. I turned the corner and passed through the doorway to find Gaelira seated in a chair by the fireplace. The flames had evidently been tended during the night as they cast their flickering light across the room together with the usual single candle that was alight in the middle of the parlour table.

I don't think she knew I was there right at first because she did not acknowledge me in any way. I was standing just over the threshold, brought to a halt by what I saw. There was nothing alarming in the parlour at all -- just Gaelira sitting and staring into the fire -- but there was something about her eyes that caught me up short, as the saying goes. I had never noticed before how hard they were; hard as diamonds set in abscesses of solid granite. They had always intimidated me a little and they commanded respect from anyone who looked into them, but now I saw something different behind those eyes. I don't know how I perceived this, but to me it was as clear as crystal that those eyes had seen immense suffering in their time and that I had stumbled upon the she-Elf in some reverie in which she was remembering deep sorrows long-past. I held my breath so as not to disturb her.

Seconds ticked by like minutes. Then, even as I watched, those eyes went hard again. I don't know how to describe it, but it was as if I saw a lake turn straightaway into to a frozen pond. In the light of the fire, those grey eyes became like keen-edged swords tempered to triple-steel in the heat of a mighty forge. I saw her white hand clench the arm of her chair. As I watched her I realized how many lives of my kind she must have lived in this Middle-earth; how many joyful things she has seen, how much sadness she has endured, how many loves she has known. It also flashed through my mind that, although she clearly knew Elrond, his sons, Luean, and other Elves, she always seemed so alone. I wondered how long that had been true of her and why. Was there some far-reaching pain she has been carrying with her down through the ages? A flash of insight struck me then: a brief understanding of all of those endless years stringing on and on, time beyond the ability to count, flitted through my mind like a bright, burning cinder that is almost instantly extinguished by a night breeze. Then, somehow, she became aware of me.

"Padryc!" she said, "I hope I did not keep you standing there unwelcomed overlong. You are up early. I hope you slept well." Her moment of vulnerability was gone faster than a pile of dry leaves swept up by an autumn wind.

"Well enough," I said cheerfully as I bounded into the room, "I woke rather earlier than I would have liked, but at least I am not groggy." I felt it best to keep what I had seen of Gaelira to myself for the time being.

"That is well," the she-Elf replied, "for we shall each need all of our strength if we are to test the Great Barrow today. Indeed, I can only hope it is we who end up doing the testing and not the other way round."

"What do you mean?" I asked. I took a moment to cast my eye at the parlour table, but of course there was no food there, only a single clay pitcher of water and some mugs. Breakfast would have to wait until Butterbur, Nob, and Bob were awake and seeing to the comfort of their guests.

"I have a guess as to what lies in wait for us there," Gaelira answered, "I can only hope we are prepared to face it. This will be the Company's greatest test so far." I glanced at her and saw that she had lowered her eyes, as if in thought, or perhaps in concern.

"Well then," I offered, "hadn't you best tell us what you think and get it over? Personally, I find the imagination often conjures up ideas that are much more terrifying than the reality, so you would most likely be doing at least some of us a favour." Gaelira looked at me with interest.

"I had considered that a likelihood," she said. "I shall think on it a bit longer. For now, though, we should await the others. We need to ensure we are well-supplied for the trials ahead."

"They'll be along soon, I reckon," I said as I stood on a chair to look out the window. The soft, purple light of dawn was in the sky and I saw some of the animals beginning to stir in the inn-yard outside. "I never thought in my life I'd be sticking my toes into the Barrow-downs, but it's hard to think about that when I'm looking at the beauty of a dawning day. Ah! And this day is the 13th day of the month, by Shire-reckoning at least. That's rumoured to be an unlucky number in my country."

"Why is that?" Gaelira asked. I caught myself and thought for a moment.

"I haven't the foggiest idea," I admitted. "Like as not the tradition began so long ago none of my people remember any longer!"

"And yet that would be but a little while to my people," Gaelira said with a smile.

"I don't doubt it, but it would seem a terribly long time to me and mine," I replied. "But, there you have it -- twice we were delayed from entering the Great Barrow and the day we finally get our shot it turns out to be on the unluckiest of days. You couldn't plan that any better!" I laughed.

Gaelira did not laugh.

"No," she said thoughtfully. "You couldn't."

I looked at her curiously, but just then we heard several voices coming down the hallway, and they were clearly those of our friends and companions.

"Just because you got in the killing blow doesn't mean you won the battle!" I heard Drodie saying. "Why, I was off on my own handling no less than six of those wights, all by myself! You would never have survived to knock the Bone Man's head off if it weren't for me!"

"Six?!" I heard Nephyn exclaim. "There were six wights in total, as I recall, and two of them had our rune-keeper out of sorts, so I think you might be exaggerating a bit, my friend!" I smiled and waved at them all as the huntress, the rune-keeper, and the Dwarf entered the parlour and continued their debate.

"Pah! You were scared out of your wits, so it's no wonder you don't remember it rightly," Drodie was saying. "Besides, who was it that drove that fell-spirit out of the haunted tree in the Old Forest? It was pure Dwarven valour that saved all of your skins there, and don't you deny it!"

"Was it also pure Dwarven valour that caused the haunted tree to erupt in flames?" I heard Luean ask with a hearty laugh. "Or perhaps it was one of your legendary belches?" There was an explosion of laughter from everyone except Drodie. I got a cramp in my side and had to massage it out with my fingers. The Dwarf was not amused.

"WHY, OF ALL THE --" he started to say. But just then we heard another ruckus coming from around the corner in the Common Room of the Inn. We all went quiet to try and hear what was going on. After a moment, it became clear we were hearing the voice of none other than Barliman Butterbur, who sounded rather put out.

"And I'm telling you it'll be left outside my walls, sure's I'm standing here!" we heard him shout. "I don't like the looks of it, nor you neither, and the sooner both are outside my inn the sooner I'll be pleased! Just you see to it or I'll have the Guard down here and you can answer to them, if you like!"

We all remained frozen and silent to hear whatever might happen next, but all we heard was the front door to the Pony open and shut again. Several moments passed, then we heard footsteps heading our direction. The heads of Butterbur and Nob, the hobbit porter, appeared in the doorway to our parlour.

"Begging your pardons, all," the landlord said as we wiped his forehead with a cloth, "But I was hoping you all'd be up and about by now. First things first: Nob, go ahead and lay breakfast, if you would, please." Nob gave us a wink and headed back to the larders. Butterbur came into the parlour and looked us over.

"Seems you all are more famous than I ever realized," he said in a bewildered manner. "Two days ago the Mayor himself comes looking for you and now there's folk travelling here to find you! Well, coin or no coin, ain't no one coming into my place of business so bold as this one, and that's a fact!"

"Do you think you could tell us this tale?" Luean asked with patience. Butterbur wrung his hands together.

"It's like this," he began. "I was up seeing to a thing or two about the inn when I heard a knock at the front door. I hadn't unbarred them yet (most folk in Bree don't see the need, but this being both my home and a place of considerable business I've always thought it prudent), so I went and opened up shop. Well, no sooner had I raised the bar off the door posts when in barges this tall Man asking to see a she-Elf named Gaelira. Now, obviously he meant to get in to see you all, but I wasn't about to let him have his way in my place. All unkempt he was too; nothing more than a wandering vagabond, like as not, but he knew your name right enough, so I figured you might want to talk with him. Still, he was carrying about this huge axe -- like one of them two-handed jobs what the headsmen might use -- and that put me out, if you know what I mean. I told him to leave that dangerous piece of ironmongery on the porch outside where he can fetch it as he leaves, or he'll not set foot inside my inn. He didn't seem overly willing at first, but he did what I asked without complaint, so I left him in the Common Room as I came here to tell you what all happened. You want me to put him back onto the street where he belongs?"

"No, I would be happy to speak with him, Master Butterbur," Gaelira answered. "You may show him here."

Butterbur nodded, bade us good morning, and left noisily. As he did so, Nob returned and laid the table with a fine breakfast of ham, eggs, bread, and butter.

"Should we be entertaining complete strangers under the circumstances?" Drodie asked as we all set to. "From what you all told me last night it sounds as if someone is tailing us. You don't suppose this fellow followed us here to do us in, do you?"

"There are few reasons to think so," Luean said breezily. "For one thing, I wouldn't consider the most heavily populated building in the most heavily populated town in all Eriador, in the broad light of day no less, to be the best spot for an ambush."

"Besides," Nephyn chimed in, "As much as I admire Barliman's courage in standing up to this stranger, he wouldn't be much of an obstacle to a determined assassin. Still, I wonder very much who this Man might be."

"As do I," Gaelira agreed. "But we haven't long to wait before we learn something."

There was a knock at the door and Butterbur swung it open. Whoever was with him was still out of our sight.

"Right, here you are," the landlord said. He gave us a quick glance, then excused himself. A tall Man quickly strode into the room after he had gone.

He was tall, as I've already said, with shoulder-length brown hair, a strong jawline, sharp nose, and a beard in bad need of a shave. He wore travel-stained clothing, some of which seemed to be barely clinging to him, but underneath I caught glimpses of some battered and damaged chain mail. His brown boots fitted him poorly, were wrapped in place by leather straps, and were absolutely caked in mud. I saw a pair of chain gauntlets tucked into his belt and he still carried a traveller's knapsack over one shoulder which now looked almost completely empty. But most of these things I noticed later, for the first thing I (or anyone, for that matter) could possibly notice about this Man was his piercing sea-blue eyes. They looked each of us over quickly. He was obviously in a state of excitement. He closed the door behind him. We waited in tense expectation. His bright eyes fell upon Gaelira.

"Are you Gaelira?" he asked. The she-Elf nodded.

"I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage," she said cautiously. "To whom do I owe the pleasure?"

"Excellent!" The Man replied, ignoring her. "You cannot know what I have endured to find you --" he stopped mid-sentence as his eyes had spotted our breakfast on the table. He licked his lips and swallowed.

"You must forgive me," he said, "But might I possibly break my fast alongside you? It has been some three days since bread last passed my lips." We all moved aside to allow him access to the food.

"But of course!" I said, feeling genuinely sorry for the stranger. "Please, help yourself!" I had already filched a raspberry tart and some ham, so I was content for the moment. The Man immediately tore into the bounty while we all began to feel we had no reason to fear him.

"I expect you are all wondering who I am and what I am doing here," the Man said as he ate. "Please allow me to explain myself. I am called Lagodir, and I have been searching for a she-Elf named Gaelira who was said to be lodging at the Prancing Pony in Bree."

"And who told you that?" Nephyn asked. I got the impression the young huntress wasn't the most easily trusting among our Company.

"One Toradan, who is called a Ranger of the North by the commoners in this land," Lagodir replied. "But please, let me tell my tale in the right order." Here, he took a long pull from his mug. He sighed. We waited expectantly.

"I set out on what you might call a personal quest," Lagodir began. "I was seeking the Elf-refuge known by Northmen as Rivendell, or Imladris as the lore-masters name it. It is said to be the home of Elrond Halfelven, wisest of counselors remaining in this Middle-earth. For months I searched, but in vain -- many had heard the names in legend, but few knew where to find them. I wandered from village to village in Rhovanion with no success until finally I dared to cross the Misty Mountains into Eriador. The path was hard and cold, and I had little strength left for a lengthy search once I reached the western side of the mountains. Those lands have lain bare and empty for many lives of the Stewards, and there was no one to guide me. Finally, after twelve days, I happened upon a small cottage by the Bruinen where lived a fisherman and his wife. I asked them anything I could think to ask about Rivendell, but they knew nothing save what old tales might tell. I stayed with them to rest for two nights. On the third day, a travelling merchant happened by the cottage to sell furs and leather, so I asked him what he knew of Elrond and Imladris. He told me it was rumoured that the Sons of Elrond had been sighted in the forest well north of where that fisherman kept his cottage. Immediately I set out in pursuit, but I never found them. What I did find were trolls which had wandered south from the Ettenmoors! I was forced to flee westward, over the Hoarwell and into the Lone-lands. That is a barren, desolate place, and I wandered many days with a dwindling supply of food and medicine. There are a nomadic people there, the Eglain, and from them I received no trust nor aid, but I did receive information. They told me the city of Bree lay more than three days' march west beyond the hill called Weathertop, and so I made my way thither. I passed the famous summit but became lost among the rolling Weather Hills and there I was attacked by goblins in the dead of night! I lost all of my supplies and barely escaped with my life before crossing into the Bree-land. I was forced to skirt the marshes to avoid getting mired in them and finally found the Road and my way to Combe. There, I was nursed back from the brink by that Ranger, Toradan, who cared for me at the Comb and Wattle Inn. He said he deemed me a hardy adventurer to have made it as far as I did and that I should seek out an Elf named Gaelira who was last seen at this Inn."

"And you have found her," Gaelira said with a smile, "Although your purpose is still not clear to me, Lagodir."

"Nor me," I muttered, but I'm pretty sure no one heard me.

"I must speak with Lord Elrond, but I cannot find his stronghold," Lagodir said. "Toradan said he had never been there, although others of his kin might be able to direct me. But he also said my difficulties prove the Road has become more dangerous than ever and that I would never reach my goal on my own. The Ranger thought you would know how to find Imladris and that your Company may be headed there soon or late."

"Toradan was correct on at least two counts," Gaelira said. "Both Luean here and I have been to Imladris and lived there for many years. Yes, we know the way, but the Ranger was also correct that you would be wise to not attempt such a journey on your own again. Unfortunately, I cannot say for certain that we will be sojourning there: our path lies up the Greenway, into the North Downs and beyond. I do not think we will be taking the eastward road."

"But you also did not think we would find ourselves enmeshed in the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs, Gaelira," Luean said unexpectedly. "Yet here we are. I think it would be wise to once again trust to Fate, which clearly directed this Man to our very parlour on the same day we intend to attack the Great Barrow." Gaelira knit her eyebrows together and became thoughtful.

"What is this attack of which you speak?" Lagodir asked with interest. "Perhaps I can be of some assistance."

"It doesn't concern you, stranger," Drodie growled. "Our battles are not yours." I began to re-assess my thoughts regarding who among us was the least trusting of newcomers.

"I may not appear so at this present time," Lagodir said, showing a hint of self-importance, "But I am an accomplished warrior and can hold my own in most battles. Tell me what foe you face."

"We do not know for certain, and I see no reason we should tell you about it in any case," Nephyn said as she eyed the Man carefully. "From your tale we can see you clearly journeyed here from the East, beyond the Misty Mountains. What land is your home and who is your lord?"

"I serve Denethor, Steward and ruler of the land of Gondor in the South," Lagodir replied proudly. "Yes, I travelled far from that land to this, even as you see me now."

"And why did you leave your lord and land?" Nephyn asked pointedly. There was a pause.

"I am an exlie," Lagodir answered reluctantly. I pricked up my ears. "But I will speak no more of this matter. I give you my word I am no criminal."

"So say you!" Drodie laughed. "So says anyone accused of anything, wrongly or not! We've no time for this nonsense." Lagodir looked at us each in turn. I had to admit things weren't looking very favorable for him.

"I have another question for you," Luean said quietly from his seat across the room. "What was it you wished to discuss with Lord Elrond which inspired you to undertake this perilous journey yourself and to risk your life again -- for all you know -- with us?" Lagodir eyed the rune-keeper steadily.

"That is a private matter," he said. I sighed. It didn't seem as though there was any reason to trust him. But then he spoke again.

"You have no reason to fear me," he said. "Warrior though I may be, I could not hope to overcome five of you alone. Nor, if I meant you ill, would I reveal myself in this manner -- I would attack in the dark of night and with some trusty fellows at my heels."

"We had already considered this point," Gaelira said. "I do not think you mean us any harm, but we are in danger. We learned with certainty just yesterday that our movements are being tracked and revealed to our enemies, so by taking up with us you are putting yourself in danger."

"Danger does not frighten me," Lagodir replied immediately. "I ask again, tell me what foe you face."

"I would if I knew myself," Gaelira sighed. "Our adversary lies somewhere deep within the haunted Barrow-downs, just west of this city. The bones of Men long-dead are there disturbed by evil wights." Lagodir started.

"You say some foulness desecrates the graves of my distant kinsmen?" he asked in disgust. He pounded his flat hand on the table. "It is settled: I go with you to purge this defilement, whether you assent or no. If you refuse me, I shall merely tag along behind you until you need my axe."

We all looked at each other. Gaelira nodded.

"Very well, let it be as you wish," she said. "I am afraid we cannot allow much time for you to rest from your previous trials, for already the morning is passing us by."

We all began preparing to depart. Equipment was checked, weapons were tended, packs were trussed, and suspicions were put on hold. Among the Company, I could detect discomfort at Lagodir's joining us in Nephyn and Drodie most strongly. Gaelira seemed interested in the Gondorian in some way I hadn't yet discerned and Luean was his usual indifferent self. I counted myself more with the huntress and the Dwarf, at least for now: Lagodir might be well-meaning, but he was an exile from his right home, wandering the Wild (and I've never heard any good said about such folk), and pursuing some mysterious quest he won't explain. As far as I could see, there was just too much he was unwilling to tell us to warrant my trust of him yet.

Despite all of this, we made ready to leave in short order. We left the Inn to the hearty (albeit somewhat worried) farewells of Butterbur and we stopped so Lagodir could retrieve his weapon from the porch. Old Barliman was right: it was a headsman's axe and no mistake! It had a long shaft -- must have been a good four feet -- and a wicked-looking broad steel blade. Lagodir shouldered this with a grin as we marched down the road, out the West-gate, and out toward the Downs.

It was midday when we reached the Northern Barrows Pass and turned south. I felt no less ill at ease there than the previous two times we had ventured into that land. It was uncomfortably quiet as we walked, with only an occasional crow's call to disturb the silence. After some time, Nephyn, Drodie, and I found ourselves walking close together in the rear.

"What do you think of him?" I whispered to them both.

"There is a thick canopy and many tangled branches in that forest," Nephyn whispered back. "Like the Elves, I do not think he means us harm, but I will be keeping my eye on him all the same."

"That does make me feel better," I said quietly.

"At least this bloke has the good sense to wield an axe, unlike the rest of this silly crew," Drodie said at full voice, heedless of who overheard him. "If it were a sight shorter I'd use it myself, but my trusty sword will have to do for the time being."

"I just wish I knew where he picked it up," I muttered to myself, casting a dark look at Lagodir's cruel weapon.

We trudged on. We reached the high ridge, crossed it, and worked our way down toward the fens at the bottom. Then we veered right and found ourselves in a network of barrows. I was just starting to wonder how we could ever hope to determine which of these was the one we sought, but just then I saw the ground rise in front of us. A crumbling pathway led up into the gaping maw of an enormous open barrow. The Sun slipped behind a heavy cloud and the landscape darkened. We all stopped at once and stared: steel braziers lined the broken path leading into the barrow, and they were all lit. I felt a lurch in my stomach. None of us moved.

"Is it the custom of the people in this land to keep the braziers lit, even in the daylight?" Lagodir asked, his voice much quieter than we had heard it thus far. His striking blue eyes were wide as they scanned the sight before us.

"No," Nephyn whispered to him. "The folk of this land do not come here at any time. Gaelira, I do not like this: someone has been here. These lights were lit for us -- someone knew we were coming!"

"Aye," Drodie said beside me. "It is a warning!" Shivers swept over me as I heard the fear in the Dwarf's hoarse voice. The crackle of the fires seemed to mock us as they marched up the slope and into the yawning blackness of the Great Barrow. I swallowed hard, unable to speak. In front of me, I saw Gaelira shake her head slowly.

"No," she said coldly. "It is a welcome."

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