Sunday, 17th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Esteldin, Somewhere in the North Downs
|A goblin of Dol Dinen|
"Hremm!" I said, recognizing Gaelira's raven-friend from our adventures in the Barrow-downs. "Where did you come from? I thought we had left you back in the Bree-land."
"You know this animal?" asked Lagodir, who was nearby sharpening his broadsword. "I had taken note that the raven had been shadowing our steps all up the Greenway and even into Trestlebridge, but I thought we had lost him in Nan Wathren. I had not seen him since we entered that place, so I never said anything about it. Some soldiers of Gondor (I am one) have been assigned to patrol the garden-province of Ithilien on our eastern border which is nigh to the Black Country, and one of the things we are taught is to observe the movements of the fowl there, so I tend to notice these things. What is your history with the bird?"
"Oh, he had helped us find our way about in the Barrow-downs some days back," I answered as I continued to eye the raven. Hremm cocked his head at me as if he were listening. "I certainly didn't expect to see him again, and I'm sure Gaelira will be happy to do so. She is able to speak to the bird, you know; it's a curious thing to watch."
"It that so?" Lagodir asked with interest. "It was said in Gondor that some of our bygone lore-masters knew this skill, but I have never seen it performed in my lifetime. It could be most useful to have such a companion for the bringing and sending of tidings, you may be sure."
"Useful, indeed," said Gaelira as the she-Elf and Halbarad came striding quickly up to our campsite. "And I have made great use of our friend, though you may not have noticed it." The rest of the Company began to assemble and we greeted Halbarad with kind words and gracious thanks for his people's hospitality. Drodie gave a short and polite bow to the Ranger-captain then shot a disapproving look at Hremm out of the corner of his eye, but said nothing.
"From the bird, we have learned that the Orc-army is still mired in the hills and gullies of Dol Dinen, a good march south of Esteldin," said Halbarad. "Despite their losses to the stone-trolls of Taur Gonwaith, it is still a very great force and the siege weapons they have brought with them from Angmar are the source of much fear throughout these lands." It looked to me almost as if the morning light accentuated the lines of worry on his proud face. I found myself wondering whether someone so strong and masterful could possibly be as old as he now appeared to me.
"But Hremm has also informed us of two other threats," said Gaelira. "A force of Hillmen has entered the North Downs through the eastern passes of the Ram Duath, the mountain range which separates this land from Angmar in the north. They are a much smaller force than the Orcs, but they are fierce enemies. The final threat takes the form of large worms slithering through the western Ram Duath. There have been rumours of dragons occupying those crags, and this has caused much consternation among the Free Folk of this region. For today, we should choose among these three dangers and decide how to deal with them."
"Do not forget Fornost to the west," Halbarad broke in. "I do not think you should attempt any excursion into that place for now, not at least until we get some report from Mincham who is stationed there, but the Enemy's occupation of that ruin cannot be ignored as a threat."
"Duly noted," Gaelira replied with a slight nod of her head. "How then shall the Company proceed?"
"I vote for the dragons!" I said with great enthusiasm. Everyone stared at me.
"What?" I asked, unashamed. "Seems the least dangerous task to me: everyone knows there ain't no such things as dragons, so why should I be afraid of them?"
"Isn't that what you said about spiders the size of a moose?" asked Nephyn with a sly grin. I had to admit she had got me there.
"I am not doubting the valour of this Company," said Lagodir, clearly worried, "But do you think our weapons and equipment would be up to the task were we to encounter such beasts?"
"No," said Drodie as he leaned carelessly on his sword-hilt. He said this with a thudding finality that made me think twice about the existence of dragons.
"I don't think you would really encounter full-sized dragons in the Ram Duath," Halbarad said slowly. "Dragons have a way of making themselves known, even if it is infrequently over the course of many long years. Their bastard children, the worms, however, are another matter entirely. They are much smaller than dragons, cannot fly, and (mostly) have no power of fire in them, but they are deadly adversaries for all that. A sizeable nest of worms is not a threat to be underestimated."
"It would seem we have no shortage of tasks before us then," said Gaelira as she turned to Halbarad. "How would you advise us in this matter?"
"The worms I do not think have any concern with us at all, even if they are a menace and a danger," Halbarad answered. "And the purpose of the Hillmen is not yet clear to me, although I have no doubt they mean us ill. But the Orcs at Dol Dinen are an army in search of its foe, that is: us. They are also the largest and most well supplied enemy among those we now face; I consider them to be the gravest threat at this time."
"I think that settles the question for us, then," said Lagodir as he stood and hoisted his sword.
"Aye, let our foes tremble at our coming," Drodie said, sheathing his short-sword.
"I was up before dawn to practice with bow and shaft," said Nephyn, "And my shoulder has almost fully recovered from its wound. My bow shall sing many times before the Sun sets this day."
"Then it is decided," said Gaelira. "The Outriders shall strike at the heart of the Enemy's forces in the North Downs; we make for Dol Dinen as soon as we are ready."
At that, Hremm gave a load croak and flew off eastward. I followed his flight with my eyes a short distance, but there was much to do as we prepared to move out.
"Dratted bird," I heard Drodie growl from nearby. I recalled he had never liked having Hremm about, although his distaste for the raven was baseless and even pointless. I kept my mouth shut.
"Oh, don't start that again," said Nephyn to the Dwarf with a laugh. "The raven aided us twice in the Barrow-downs and has just given us an excellent understanding of the types and locations of our foes here in the North Downs. I expect now he is off to scout our path and ensure the way to Dol Dinen is free of any enemies."
"Of course that is what he is doing," said Gaelira with clear irritation in her voice. "So please keep your absurd suspicions to yourself, Master Dwarf." Drodie just shrugged his shoulders and turned away.
It didn't take us long to get ourselves in order and set out. At Halbarad's instruction, we found a path leading out of Esteldin by a winding dirt track which went up into the hills and emerged onto the eastern Nan Amlug plains. Once on the other side we struck southward, making our way toward a cloudy horizon. The journey was almost enjoyable as I gazed at the tall pines, waving grasses, grazing aurochs, and the occasional pool along the way. But there was a brooding stillness in that land which did not seem to be the calm of peace. After some time, we found ourselves passing along a clear road which climbed to the top of a low ridge. Astride this, we looked down upon Dol Dinen and we caught our breath.
The landscape was dominated by a large but not very high hill, yet there were dells, ridges, and smaller knolls everywhere. The earth itself was darkened, as if it were dead or burned, and as far as my eyes could see there were fires: some small and some enormous, but they were all spewing their black smoke into the air to the point where a dun cloud had settled over that place, blocking out the Sun. Here and there we could see the siege engines Halbarad had mentioned, and everywhere we saw small dots moving to and fro: soldiers of the Enemy.
"What a dismal sight," I said as I looked out over the area. A dull, sullen red haze seemed to hang over the hills before us and the air was hazy with smoke.
"Oh, I don't know," said Nephyn airily. "It doesn't seem so bad to me." We all stared at her.
"Well, I'm not saying I would want to build a summer home here or anything," she laughed, "But the few trees that are still alive are actually quite lovely."
"And what about the O-R-C-S-es?" I asked emphatically.
"The Orcses?" said Nephyn with a raised eyebrow. "I do believe far fewer of them are about to exist."
"Our adversary has fortified this area," said Gaelira as she pointed down into the vale. "Look, you can see they have thrown up a network of barricades and fences in many places, and the natural landscape here will make our business a slow one."
"I have not Elf-eyes," said Lagodir as he patted his broadsword, "But I have seen enough of Orcs and their defilements to know our enemy lies before us. Let us go down and clear these vipers from their pit!"
I could not possibly record every step of our endeavors in Dol Dinen, for to do so might take a week or longer. We encountered all manner of Orcs, goblins, trolls, and other foul creatures in that place, but we were always careful to never engage too many of them at any one time. Although the force encamped there was large indeed, it also seemed to be very poorly commanded and consisted mainly of clumps of enemies congregating in smaller clusters. But carefully choosing the exact location and manner of our attacks, we were able to ensure we always outnumbered our opponents and none of them escaped our wrath to raise the alarm, which would have brought the entire camp down on us at one time. In this manner, we succeeded in carving a swath of destruction in a meandering sort of way throughout much of Dol Dinen while never being detected by the army at large. Along our path, we sighted many of the infamous siege weapons which Lagodir showed us how to disable. The Gondorian did not try to hide his concern over these.
"These engines are too complicated for Orcs to have designed and developed," he said after we had crippled a catapult. "And the workmanship on most of these is too advanced even for goblins to have built. I like it not at all."
"The Iron Crown has many servants and many allies," said Gaelira, unabashed.
By removing the key pins, levers, and pulleys which made the engines work, we managed to decimate the Orcs' ability to deploy their most fearsome arsenal. We also defeated a good number of larger and more important Orcs who were probably captains within the force. One of the most effective ways of neutralizing an Orc warband is to slay its leaders, and we slew several before we became tired enough to think about turning back toward Esteldin.
We chose our exit route carefully and avoided many more entanglements before finally emerging out from under the pall of Dol Dinen. I blinked in surprise as I saw the sky still broad with daylight.
"Well!" I said, more than a little relieved to have left the orc-camp behind us, "It's a fine day and a bright Sun after all. You would have never known it under that dismal cloud. I certainly hope we won't be going back there anytime soon."
"I think that, between our infiltration, the trolls of Taur Gonwaith, and the Rangers' constant skirmishes, the strength of the Orcs of Dol Dinen has been considerably reduced," said Nephyn.
"Yes," said Gaelira, "And we are all weary, hurt, or both. Let us make for Esteldin at once."
The she-Elf was right: none of us had escaped unscathed from our foray, although none of the injuries were serious. It was the Wargs, more than anything, which had given us difficulty: those beasts had almost a special sense for finding the weakness in any set of armor and their tearing claws and rending teeth were a constant danger for us all. Luckily, none of us had suffered any bites, but there wasn't a one of us (except perhaps Gaelira) who did not have at least some claw-scratches on them. I myself had received two wounds: one from a Wargs' clawn on my arm and another shallow cut to my leg from the sweeping slash of a goblin's knife. I dressed these carefully, but I felt braver for having borne them (and it helped that I was certain they were not poisoned).
Once back in Esteldin, I was kept very busy for a while administering medicine and bandages to everyone while Halbarad, who was very excited about the success of our efforts, ordered that food and water be brought us as well. We enjoyed a good deal of praise from the Rangers of Esteldin that evening and we all eagerly told our individual parts of the tale which the Company had woven that day. This went on until the Sun had set behind us in the west and eventually the Rangers returned to their own business. It was odd, but I felt more exhausted after all of the eating, drinking, back-slapping, and tale-telling than I did when I had first emerged from the Enemy's encampment. With the excitement having died down, Gaelira said she wished to consult once again with Halbarad while Drodie said something about going in search of a smith to repair his shield. I got a small fire going with my flint and tinder then lay on my back and stared at the evening sky while Nephyn and Lagodir continued talking about our adventures that day. I watched as the light left the sky and the stars began to kindle themselves one by one. There wasn't a cloud to be seen, which meant it might be a chilly night coming on us. I breathed deeply and took pleasure in the simple act of filling my lungs with the fragrant air in the Valley of Hope. That's when I became aware that the speech of my companions had ceased. My little fire crackled happily nearby and I let it warm my stiff feet.
"Lagodir," came Nephyn's voice suddenly. Something about her tone caught my attention. "Have you ever... have you..." Both Lagodir and I waited patiently.
"Have you ever," the huntress began again, "Met someone like me before?" There was a silence. I could feel my nerves twitching and muscles tightening as if tension were a fine mist in the air that was seeping into my body from every direction. Lagodir did not answer at first.
"I have fought some Men who came from the East," he said at length. "And they had darker skin alike to your own, if that be your meaning."
"Really?!" Nephyn asked excitedly. "You say you've seen others like me? Were they from the... wait," I could hear the crushing blow of Lagodir's response hit her as clearly as if it had been a punch from a troll-fist. I sat up. Nephyn's face was contorted in a mask of alarm and confusion.
"You said you fought them?" she asked, incredulous. Lagodir cleared his throat.
"They were descendants of the Wainriders. I met them once while on a patrol," he said, his voice uncommonly hoarse. "Well, I say met..."
"Who are the Wainriders?" Nephyn asked, almost accusatorily. "I've never heard the name before. What sort of folk are they? Are they your enemies?" I saw Lagodir open his mouth then close it again. I did not envy the difficult position he unexpectedly found himself in.
"You have heard of the kingdom of Rohan?" he asked after a brief pause.
"Only what I have heard gossiped about in Bree," the huntress replied.
"Do you then know how it was Rohan came to be?"
"The people of Rohan, the Rohirrim, once lived on the borders of Mirkwood," Lagodir began. "Many generations ago they were overrun by a vicious and warlike people out of the East, the Land of Rhun. In those days Gondor had little control over the regions to its north, but a force was sent and the Easterlings (as we name them) were eventually driven out. But, many years later, they returned. At the Fields of Celebrant, these Wainriders had their invasion halted by Cirion, then Steward of Gondor, but he was surrounded and outnumbered. Then, unlooked for, from out of the North came Eorl the Young upon Felarof, his steed. The Easterlings were crushed at last and Cirion was saved. For their loyalty and bravery, those people were gifted the land of Calenardhon by Gondor to be their own, and it became known as Rohan, the Riddermark."
"Are you saying I could be one of these Easterlings?" Nephyn's eyes were wide, but whether out of fear or intense interest I could not tell. Lagodir cleared his throat again.
"It is possible, certainly, but it would be strange indeed," he said finally. "I have never know the Easterlings to be a people of compassion, as you are."
"That is -- comforting," said Nephyn haltingly. Her eyes became locked on the little campfire. There was a short silence, then Nephyn stirred suddenly.
"If you'll excuse me, I think I would like to be alone for a while." Then she abruptly stood up and walked away. I watched her for a time until she disappeared around the corner of a ruined building.
"I do not think I should have said quite so much, Master Hobbit," Lagodir said with a deep sigh.
"You don't really believe that, do you?" I asked in hurt tones. "I mean, you can't seriously think she could have ended up here if she was from such a far-flung land, right? Think of all the miles that must lie between here and there!"
"Think of all the miles that lie between me and Gondor," came Lagodir's reply, but he said it with great reluctance. His rejoinder had silenced me thoroughly. The Man sighed again.
"It matters not who her sire might be," he said. "All that matters is what she chooses to make of herself."
"Well, that's certainly wise," I said, unable to think of any other response.
"This day has been straining, to say the least," said the Gondorian as he began to settle down for the night. "I feel I must rest. Good night, my friend."
Lagodir was asleep within moments of uttering those words, but I suddenly found I could not sleep. It wasn't long at all before I found myself following Nephyn's footsteps around that old building. It seemed at first as if the huntress had vanished into thin air, but after a few minutes of poking around I found her. She was seated on the ground, her back to a pillar, and her knees drawn up to her chin while her hands were clasped at the ankles. I had come up on her from behind and saw that she was watching two Rangers as they practiced their archery on targets made of straw. I stood there behind her, uncertain what to do or say now that I had found her. Ever and anon the bows of the Rangers would twang and arrows would fly toward their marks or, sometimes, fly past them to strike harmlessly against a stone wall.
"I always liked archery," came Nephyn's voice to me. "Because it is simple: either you hit the mark or you do not, but you always know where the mark is. You may strike it or you may miss it, but you always know how close to it you are." I quietly sat down beside her. We watched the Rangers try their skill a few moments longer before I managed to find my voice.
"I hope you are not too down about all that business from before," I said. "Lagodir is well-meaning, of course, but he is a plain-spoken sort of Man." she nodded, but she did not look at me.
"Thank you for your concern," she said. "I do appreciate you finding me like this, truly." There was another silence.
"It is only one person's thoughts on the matter, after all," I said apologetically.
"That's still more than I've ever had to go on, even after a decade of searching," she answered with a sigh. "But I suppose that, when you've been searching for answers as long as I have, you might develop a tendency to grasp at whatever straws you come across."
"Quite so!" I agreed. "Besides, even of Lagodir is right, you ought to think of this: if these Whatsit-riders are enemies of Western lands, who's to say you weren't taken out of that place because your family did not agree with the rest of their tribe? Maybe you were removed because your parents wanted a better life for you, away from war."
"That still doesn't explain what happened to them, of course," said Nephyn a little sadly, but I could detect her spirits were rising steadily, "But it could explain why they abandoned me. If they were being pursued they might have been over-burdened by a child and meant to return for me. Or, perhaps as you say, they really did intend for me to have a better life. Still, if I am one of -- those people -- it could complicate things if we ever journey south."
"In the end, Lagodir is right," I said firmly. "You still don't truly know much, if anything at all, and who you choose to be is much more important that who your parents might have been." Nephyn wiped a little moisture from her eyes.
"Thank you, my friend, you've lifted my spirits considerably," she said with a weak smile. "And you're right: it only matters what I make of myself, not what my past had for me."
"Speaking for myself," I said, "I don't care who you might have been or where you might have come from. You're my friend -- proven many times over and many times earned. I really hope you find the answers you want someday, but if you ever do that knowledge will only colour your identity, not define it. At least, that's how I will see it." Nephyn gave me a broader smile.
"Thank you again," she said. We returned to watching the archers at work. I suddenly felt a wave of weariness wash over me, as if I had just walked headlong into a cloud of sleep.
"I should find a patch of dirt to lie down on," I said. "I'm exhausted! Besides, with my luck if I hang around here much longer, one of those chaps is bound to miss and spit me, I just know it."
"I think I'll join you on that patch of dirt," said Nephyn with a laugh. Together, we returned to the little campfire. Lagodir was sound asleep and there was still no sign of Gaelira or the Dwarf, so we settled ourselves down to rest. I closed my eyes and, while I waited for sleep to take me, I tried to picture my old dad's farm in the brilliance of a fine morning in the Southfarthing. Just as consciousness left me, I fancied I heard a deep rumble from somewhere away outside of Esteldin. I wondered for an instant whether it might have been thunder or drums, but just then I slipped into a dream I can no longer remember.