Highday, 15th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Lin Giliath, Somewhere in the North Downs
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.