Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 20

Trouble in Fornost

Hevensday, 20th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ruins of Fornost, Somewhere in the North Downs
The Shadow-wraith of Fornost
I continue to be amazed at the progress our little Company has made inside the space of a month. With all that has happened, I often have difficulty believing it hasn't been years since this adventure began when in truth it has been only three weeks. We performed yet another considerable service in defence of the Free Peoples today, although we had some rather unusual help in the process. Allow me to tell you how it happened.

I awoke this morning next to a cold campfire and was surprised to see I was up before the others for a change. Nephyn and Drodie were both sleeping soundly nearby while Lagodir was seated propped against a wall and appeared to also be asleep. Gaelira was nowhere in sight, but that was not unusual for the sleepless Elf. I felt surprisingly refreshed and decided to go for a short stroll to warm up my limbs before the day's exertions. Most of the rest of the treasure-hunters' camp was also still in slumber, although there were several sentries patrolling the edges of the little settlement. I would not go far: we were, after all, still inside the ruins of Fornost and the Enemy held both the outer walls and the inner courtyards.

I strolled casually just beyond the edges of camp and walked around the tumbled piles of stone, tracing the borders of the treasure-hunters' escarpment. The Sun was not up yet although the faintest glow of dawn was beginning to paint the skies. The air was damp and chilly, so I walked at a brisk step and tried to get the blood flowing in my veins. While my muscles needed warming up, my mind was wide awake, which was just as well since I had a lot to think about. For one thing, I was nervous about the idea of attacking the orc-force which was surely holed up inside of Fornost proper, but I found myself thinking instead about Luean's riddle again. I ran over his verses once more in my mind, hoping the fresh air of another morning might bring some revelation which had thus far eluded me.

Begin where three rivers meet,
Aure entuluva!
Mount the steed before you
And turn it about.
Behold the bones;
Three high and six across,
Just south of the crescent moon.

I stopped walking and stuck my hands in my pockets. I still had no idea where Luean's three rivers might be or what anything else in the riddle might refer to, but I was positively incensed that I couldn't seem to remember where I had heard the phrase Aure entuluva before. I decided to meditate on this while I had a few quiet moments to myself. I took a deep breath of the cool morning air and looked skyward. The light of dawn was steadily growing through the heavens and a red tinge was covering the land. I suppose it was something about that crimson dawn, but suddenly I remembered! Of course! Aure entuluva was the battle-cry of Hurin, Hero of the First Age, who fought through the troll-guard of the demon-lord called Gothmog in Beleriand many thousands of years ago! 

I remembered having heard the tale somewhere before, but it had frightened me. Hurin wielded a great two-handed axe which was said to have smoked in the blood of the trolls -- seventy of which he slew -- and after each that he felled he had cried Aure entuluva! Day shall come again! The story did not have a pleasant ending since Hurin was eventually captured and brought before the Dark Lord, and perhaps that was why I was having trouble recalling the text: I prefer happy endings and the story of Hurin is long and sad. Unfortunately, I still had no idea what the phrase meant in the context of Luean's riddle, but I felt strangely buoyed anyway because it seemed to me that the Elf-scholar chose it since he knew about my penchant for epic tales and expected I would recognize it. Somehow that had a calming effect on me and, while I still had a lot of work to do to uncover the rest of the puzzle, I knew I was one tiny step closer to doing so. I walked back to camp, taking it slowly. I fervently wished I could share my discovery with my friends but, thanks to Luean's clear warning to not trust anyone in the Company, I was forced to keep silence for now. That, more than anything else, hardened my will to somehow solve the riddle and finally uncover Luean's message to me.

As I turned the corner into camp again, I saw all four of my companions huddled together in some discussion. Drodie noticed me coming and must have told the others, for they all turned toward me. Although I could hear nothing, I got the distinct impression that I was the topic of their conversation and had prematurely interrupted them with my return. I decided to not let my thoughts show and hailed them all cheerfully in the growing light of day.

"I am glad to see you safe, Padryc," Gaelira said as I reached them. "This day holds the greatest test of our Company so far: if we fail, then our story ends here." I swallowed hard. "If we succeed, then we will be ready to face the next task, whose demand shall be sterner yet. But I have faith in each of you, that together we are a force that will disrupt the will of Angmar."

"May what you say continue to be proven true," said Lagodir. "Despite many foes and challenges, still we have had the victory thus far."

"Hear hear!" Nephyn cried.

"Well, if we're going to cause havoc and mayhem to draw the Enemy's attention, then let's be about it," said Drodie as he patted his sword-hilt. I looked woefully at my little hammer which seemed more and more ill-suited to my new profession with each passing day.

We had a brief and cold breakfast then shouldered our equipment and began the march north, into the city of Fornost. Maedhrusc the Ranger was nowhere in sight as we departed and no one seemed to know where he had gone. I heard some diseased bear moan pitifully a ways off to the east. The whole land around us felt riddled with sadness and decay. We were quiet as we walked lightly through the dry and brittle grass.

"Padryc, did you get that copy of the North Downs traced, as you wished?" Nephyn asked. I fumbled for a moment, for I had forgotten to what she was referring -- I had borrowed her map yesterday and promised to return it this morning. My objective was to search it for any spot within the North Downs where three rivers met in reference to Luean's secret message to me, but I had found nothing.

"Yes! Yes, and thank you," I said as I fished the map out from my pack and handed it to her. "Really, this has been one remarkable adventure already, and it seems to have only begun!"

"Not to me," she replied. "To me it feels like the continuation of an adventure that never had a beginning."

Before long we came to a long, rising ramp of stone which climbed up, up, up toward an impressive stone gateway. By the time we finally reached the top I was quite winded, so we took a few moments to recover on the threshold of Fornost. There was a fallen arm from an enormous statue which had collapsed; many years ago, from the look of it. I amused myself and the others by sitting on its palm, which was quite large enough to hold me and probably two other additional hobbits.

"What do you think we will find in there?" I asked, trying to make light of the situation. The idea that we were about to storm into a major garrison of Angmar's soldiery wasn't something I was eager to face.

"Orcs, goblins, and Wargs at the very least, I should think," said Drodie with a leering grin, as if he relished the thought of battling them all at once. "And, if we're lucky, maybe a few trolls as well!"

"I should hope not!" I said. "I'll thank you to not go frightening me for sport like that."

"But it will be dangerous. Very dangerous," said Gaelira in her usual solemn manner as she peered through the gates. "If we can overcome this challenge, then we may truly be ready." Something in her voice caught my attention. Ready for what? I looked at the others to see if they had noticed it, but no one else seemed to have heard her. Nephyn was trying to keep Drodie from eating more than his daily share of the rations while Lagodir seemed to be absorbed in some private reverie. I wondered if he was thinking about his distant ancestors who had once lived in this place so long ago; his kinsmen whose graves were now defiled by the presence of Angmar's minions in its once-happy streets.

It was not much longer before we finally entered the city of Fornost, for the Sun was climbing and we had no desire to be trapped by the dark of night in that place. We did encounter many Orcs, goblins, Wargs, and trolls, but I cannot possibly recount every battle in these pages, or I would be writing in this journal until this time next winter. Suffice it to say we wound our way through the city, always being careful to choose our path, for the streets were often choked with crumbled masonry, defensive barricades, or the piled filth of the Orcs. We cautiously engaged our enemies in such a way as to never get overwhelmed and so, although the going was slow and dangerous, we nonetheless had the mastery. We had spent hours picking our way through winding avenues and narrow alleyways, but finally, just as the Moon was beginning to rise, we reached the city's central keep. A tall tower of immense height rose before us which was set into the side of a small mountain. I looked up at it from the base where we stood and nearly fell backward with the effort. My heart sank when I realized the Company intended to enter and scale this imposing structure, but I was obliged to follow.

"Keep your chin up, Master Hobbit!" Nephyn said to me. She was in high spirits with her shoulder fully healed and a string of bested foes behind her. I myself had kept out of the fighting as much as possible, although I was always ready with medicine and bandages. We had been fortunate that the wounds we had sustained thus far had been light.

"You are all such accomplished warriors," I said, a bit downcast. "I feel ashamed to have done next to nothing in all of this foray."

"Nay!" said Lagodir. "You know not your value, young Halfling. Your being with us fills me with hope -- that, though the world may darken, still there are lands yet left untouched by the Shadow."

"That's right," Drodie agreed. "You never fail to make me laugh, little one, and that lends strength to my arm!"

"For me," Nephyn chimed in, "You are a reminder of one of the reasons why I undertook this adventure -- to try and defend those who cannot defend themselves." I won't deny I felt a bit encouraged by all of this.

Shortly thereafter, we prepared to enter the keep of Fornost -- the final leg of our effort to disrupt the Enemy's plans in the North Downs. But then, the most peculiar thing happened.

Lagodir laid his hands on the huge iron rings of the door to the keep and pulled with all his might. The hinges groaned as the oaken panels swung back. The light of the Moon fell full on an astonished face!

It was the face of an Elf, and I admit I cried out in surprise when I saw it. At first I thought it was an Orc, but it began to flee from us.

"Wait!" Lagodir called after the figure. It halted at his voice, then turned and came outside to join us. It was indeed a male Elf, tall, slender, and with large eyes which seemed half-frightened, half-curious. His raiment was most unusual with robes and wrappings all of a most dishevelled nature and patches everywhere. But he wore the most astoundingly odd hat on his head that I was very much inclined to giggle at him. The Elf carried two satchels at his belt, one much larger than the other. What was remarkable about these was the quality of the embroidery: the satchels were in stark contrast to the rest of the Elf's lowly appearance, giving him a very comical impression indeed.

"Who are you? What are you doing here? Have you --" the Elf suddenly broke off, staring at Gaelira.

"Our new friend must be surprised to find another Elf mucking about in these ruins," I laughed. "Whatever he might have been looking for, I'm willing to bet it wasn't that!"

"No, indeed," answered the newcomer, his eyes still fixed on the she-Elf. "I am here seeking, well, relics. I collect them, you know." We all stared at him in disbelief.

"You'd risk your neck in this Orc-infested husk for some old rocks?" asked Lagodir, incredulous. "Forgive me, but either your story or your head must be full of holes."

"Oh, but not just any relics," said the Elf, finally taking his eyes off of Gaelira. "These are priceless valuables from ancient Arnor! Yes, very expensive! Very lovely, yes!"

"They must be," said Nephyn with a raised eyebrow, "For you to endanger yourself so. But I've never heard of an Elf putting such a value on money. Come, what is your name?"

"My name?" the Elf paused, as though confused. "My name? Oh, well, it's Umarth, if you must know."

"Umarth?" I echoed. I felt certain I had heard that name somewhere before, but I couldn't quite place it. Most likely it was mentioned in one of the myriad tales from bygone days I kept stashed away in my head.

"Yes, yes, I know," the Elf replied bitterly while misunderstanding me. "It translates into the Common Tongue as the Ill-Fated. A most unfortunate, if not entirely undeserved name."

"Well, whatever you call yourself you are clearly in danger here," said Gaelira. "I think you should come with us until we are safely outside the walls of this fortress."

"That would be for the best," Nephyn said. For my part, I thought this Umarth must be the strangest Elf I'd ever met. Moreover, I found his flimsy explanation for being completely alone while deep inside an orc-garrison to be somewhat less than credible. Still, there was no question he would be safer with us, and at least that way we could keep an eye on him.

"Yes, we'd be happy to have you along," I said aloud.

"I wouldn't," growled Drodie. "This one sounds like trouble to me." He was clearly not happy about the prospect of continuing on with a second Elf in tow.

The Dwarf's objections notwithstanding, Umarth was willing to join our Company for the time being. From what he told us, he had been hunting artifacts within the keep but had been forced to flee for his life at the appearance of undead wights in the tower.

"A most unsavory perversion," he said with a frown, "And, I fear, not the worst of the unnatural entities now residing here." But what he thought might be lurking inside the ruins he would not say.

Once inside the keep, we found Umarth's tale was true: the place was becoming overrun with animated corpses of Men long dead, and we were hard put to it to advance further. The night wore on endlessly as we steadily climbed the tower. It felt as though something was drawing us in, but we continued to ascend toward the summit.

Finally, we threw open one last door and found ourselves on a balcony with a breathtaking view of the city. It was good to feel the wind on our faces after the close stuffiness of the tower, although this wind was a bit icy. We walked to the edge of the balcony where an ancient and rusted iron fence was all that stood between us and a sheer drop down into Fornost. We looked out over the maze of ruins we had traversed that day and Nephyn whistled.

"If it weren't crawling with Orcs I'd say it was a lovely view," said Nephyn. "No doubt it would look more welcoming in the sunlight."

"The same could be said of you," Umarth quipped. "Fortunately, I am searching for things of great value, not great beauty. I wouldn't have expected either out of you, in any case." Nephyn narrowed her eyes at the Elf in irritation.

"I can't believe we came all that way," I said, trying to distract from Umarth's rudeness. The city stretched out beneath us like a labyrinth, but it was so crumbled and decayed that it looked like the carcass of some enormous python lying curled up in the moonlight.

"Neither can I," said a cold voice from behind us. We all whipped around to see an extraordinary thing: a full set of ancient ceremonial armour blocking the way off the balcony. But there was no one inside of the armour: it was standing there on its own! In its hand it held a large two-handed sword and I could see there was another blade which was thrust into the right breast of the armour so deep that only the hilts protruded from it. A pair of unblinking eyes stared at us malevolently.

"A wraith!" cried Umarth, "A wraith commands the wights in the tower. I should have known! A tiro nin, Fanuilos!"

"You have come far indeed," the voice said. I felt a cold chill spreading through my limbs which at once reminded me of the dark chambers inside the Barrow-downs. "I have been waiting for you. Did you think to find Amarthiel here? This keep belongs to us now."

"Who is Amarthiel?" I whispered to Gaelira.

"We have come to banish you to the darkness," Gaelira said to the wraith, ignoring me. "Prepare to fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your masters."

"You cannot stop us," the wraith answered. "You are witnessing an event hundreds of years in the making: Amarthiel has awakened us, and now you shall die." The wraith raised its sword and began to walk toward us.

"Padryc, light those beacons!" Gaelira shouted at me as she grabbed her quarterstaff. I looked around wildly, and discovered there were three large braziers of bronze around the balcony. I ran to grab a torch from a sconce on the wall and scuttled to each brazier in turn, holding the torch in the fuel long enough for it to catch and burn. But, while I was doing this, much else happened.

Lagodir and Drodie rushed at the wraith and there was a great clanging of steel as they met, but my friends were not able to penetrate the enemy's defences. Nephyn fired two arrows, but the first pinged off the wraith's armour while the second simply passed through where its head should have been. The huntress drew her sword while I reached the second brazier and lit it. Suddenly, a host of bats which had been roosting over the balcony were startled by the rising heat and smoke, and they began to swarm at us! We all tried to cover our heads and faces from the onslaught. The wraith laughed, reached out its gauntleted hand, and seized Lagodir by the throat. The Gondorian gave a choking cry as the wraith threw him across the balcony where he smashed into the wall, then fell to the ground and lay still. Drodie shouted his battle-cry and charged, but the wraith delivered a powerful back-handed blow which sent the Dwarf flying as if he had been struck by a thunderbolt. He crashed through the fence at the edge of the balcony and tumbled over the precipice! I cried out in despair while Gaelira ran over to help. I saw her seize the Dwarf's arm and struggle to raise him back onto the balcony -- Drodie must have managed to grasp the fence as he careened through it or else he would surely have plummeted to his death.

Now Nephyn was engaged with the wraith using the Sword of Ringdor while I was lighting the third beacon. My mind raced trying to think of some way to help my friends. That's when I realized Umarth was standing next to me, as if he were hiding from the battle. The third brazier blazed alight, but just as I was about to accost the Elf for being a coward, he signed with his hands that I should help him do something. He began to push at the brazier, and then I understood what he wanted: using my hands, I too pushed at the beacon. The swordplay between Nephyn and the wraith continued while Gaelira tended to Drodie. Lagodir was still motionless nearby. Then, I saw the huntress land a blow on the wraith, but she cried out in pain, dropped her sword and clutched at her arm as she fell to her knees. The wraith laughed again and raised its sword to take her head off.

I felt a burning orb of fury inside my stomach. I turned my back to the brazier and, using my feet against the wall, I pushed using all the strength in my legs. The brazier finally toppled over just as the wraith was about to land its killing blow. Fire from the beacon engulfed the ghostly armour and the wraith hissed in pain and anger. Then, Umarth ran toward it, placed his hand upon the sword-hilt stuck in the armour's breast, and pulled it out. There was a wailing cry, then the armour collapsed and did not move again.

The fires from the fallen beacon began to smoke and go out as we took stock of our Company. Drodie was shaken, having come closer to death than any time before in his life, but he quickly recovered as is common with his kind. Lagodir was unconscious, but once we revived him he seemed alright, though he said his head was hurting him terribly. I gave him a pouchful of lavender and bay leaves to breathe over as well as a mixture of hemlock and henbane, since I expected he would be rather sore in the morning. But Nephyn lay on the ground, shivering. She still clutched her right arm and her teeth chattered uncontrollably. I covered her with a blanket and tried to comfort her.

"What has happened to Nephyn?" I asked miserably. It suddenly came to me that my friend had suffered some awful wound through her sword-arm for having managed to strike that foul apparition, and that she would die from it. Umarth knelt beside me.

"She has taken a terrible shock, which is not uncommon when dealing with such deadly enemies," he said, gravely. "By cleaving that undead flesh, she experienced a taste of death herself, and the cold of it may have paralyzed her. Fortunately, I have some skill at need as a healer of such hurts. More fortunately still, this wraith was far from the most powerful of its kind, though still a great danger to mortals. Yet I think she will recover well, once I have tended her."

The Elf reached into his smaller satchel and drew forth the long leaves of a plant.

"I have here some athelas," he said with a smile. "You should never go adventuring without it, you know." I nodded ruefully, remembering Saerdan's similar admonishment of me many days ago in the Prancing Pony. Under Umarth's direction, we built a small fire using the burning fuel from one of the braziers and drew Nephyn close to it. Then we covered her with every blanket and fur we possessed and heated water over the fire. Once it was boiling, Umarth cast his leaves into the water. I felt the air tingling in my nostrils as I inhaled their pungent aroma. My head was cleared and my muscles calmed, and I clearly saw Nephyn relax and begin to breathe more deeply. Umarth laid his hands on her forehead and spoke softly to her words that I could not hear. The others came over to join us and we sat in silent vigil for a while.

"Poor Nephyn!" I finally said in a quiet voice. "She always seems to get the worst of our little escapades, doesn't she?" I felt genuinely sorry for her.

"Her spirit is fierce and cheerful is her heart, though she carries a sorrow with her as well," said Umarth as he looked at her. "She will recover from this encounter, I am sure of it. What becomes of the private pains she bears I cannot say." I looked hard at the Elf, who seemed to be more than he appeared. Certainly his clownish apparel made one think little of him, yet he proved to be wise enough beneath it all.

"Whatever was that thing?" I asked him. "And how did you manage to defeat it?"

"Firstly, I didn't defeat it," Umarth replied with a wry grin. "But I did disrupt it. These sorts of spirits are usually not so easily destroyed, but in our case we had luck on our side. This wraith was once a living creature -- a Man of Arnor, most likely -- who had suffered a dire wound from a Morgul-blade. I took a chance that extracting the blade would dissipate the spell which held the thing together and, fortunately, it worked." I looked for the vile weapon and saw it lying on the balcony floor where Umarth had discarded it. The blade itself was gone, with only the hilt remaining.

"A Morgul-blade?" asked Lagodir in surprise. "I have heard of such things in my homeland of Gondor, but I never believed the tales. Is it true what they say? That a Man can be struck by these evil weapons and bent to the will of the Nameless One?"

"It is true," said Gaelira, "But this manner of sorcery is as horrid as it is rare: there are very few in Middle-earth who wield such power."

"Yet I do not think this Man was overcome by the will of Sauron himself," said Umarth thoughtfully. "For one thing, this wraith was far less powerful than others I have heard tell of. Who is Amarthiel? I seem to remember that name, but I cannot recollect from where."

"Amarthiel was the champion of Angmar hundreds of years ago," said Gaelira, "And she played a critical role in the fall of Fornost to the hordes of the Witch-king. Her defeat at the hands of Narmeleth the Renowned was set into many songs, for she was a terrible foe. There had always been contention among the lore-masters as to whether Amarthiel was of the Race of Man or had some other origin. But if this wraith spoke true -- that she has returned -- then that debate has finally been settled."

"Yes, and none too happily," said Drodie. "I prefer it when slain enemies stay dead."

"Hm, this is troubling," said Umarth. "It would be best if our superiors knew of this development."

"Who?" I asked, confused.

"Oh, I was... talking to myself," the Elf replied. I frowned and said nothing.

"Couldn't we at least remove ourselves from this foul place?" Lagodir asked as he looked around. "It would seem we have removed a great evil from these ruins and the sooner we leave the happier I will be. Should we carry Nephyn down from here?"

"There is no need, my friend," Nephyn said as she slowly got to her feet. "I am woozy, but I am alright otherwise. Let us go."

It was during the late watches of the night that we slowly left the ruins of Fornost. Our mission accomplished, we made sure to avoid any enemies on the way out. As the first light of dawn was just beginning to steal across the horizon, we returned to the treasure-hunters' camp. The people there were amazed at the tale we told and we convinced them to turn back from their endeavor upon hearing of the immense corruption which awaited them behind those walls. The Ranger Maedhrusc begged us to bring word of our exploits to Halbarad in Esteldin, although he himself could tell us nothing of Amarthiel or the terrible wraith we had faced in the city tower. I felt my last strength ebbing and the need for sleep overwhelming me. It was at that time Umarth took his leave of us.

"I must report what was found here," he said. "And there are many more ruins in these lands which need exploring! I hope to encounter your Company again in the future, but for now I must bid you farewell."

We settled down around a campfire and shared a quiet meal together. I woke up long enough to eat ravenously, having had nothing since that morning, but I was soon nodding toward sleep again. It was with great effort that I managed to rouse myself and record the day's events. While I wrote, Nephyn was dozing beside me.

"I was very worried for you up there in that tower," I said in a quiet voice. "I'm very glad you pulled through."

"Yes," she whispered. "I had never felt so cold in my life, but the feeling has passed. Just now all I really need is to rest." She was asleep moments later.

I finished my writing, put my papers and quill away, and snuggled into my blanket near the fire, glad to be finally going to sleep myself. For a fleeting instant I was reminded that I still had Luean's cryptic riddle to solve, but I shoved the thought out of my mind in favor of much-needed slumber.

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