Hevensday, 13th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Prancing Pony, Bree-land
|Map of Eriador|
"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?