Mersday, 14th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Trestlebridge, the North Downs
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.