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.

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