Monday, 18th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Dwarf-mines of Othrikar, Somewhere in the North Downs
The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders have, so far, been daring, exciting, moving, and wondrous; sometimes all at once! But believe me when I tell you, Dear Reader, that nothing could have prepared me for what happened today. I can say with absolute certainty that the 18th of Afteryule has been the most bizarre day of this adventure so far, and I will now recount for you exactly what happened.
I was shaken into wakefulness this morning by Drodie, who made no effort to be gentle about it. After waving him off and assuring him his manhandling (or hobbit-handling) was a success, I took note of how early it still was. There wasn't the faintest glimmer of dawn in the sky over Esteldin, and the night-speech of frogs and insects was loud on the air. Even our little campfire hadn't completely burned out: I could still see smoldering embers and smell the charcoal from where I lay.
"What the blazes is the time?" I asked while letting off an enormous yawn. "This business of getting up while the Sun is still dreaming isn't to my liking at all."
"Nor mine," said the Dwarf as he kicked Lagodir's prostrate form a few yards away. "But the Elf says we are to move before it is light, so up you get. I only hope there is time for a bite and a pipe first."
Drodie went off to rummage through the food-bags while I got to my feet and stretched in every direction. Looking about me, I saw that Nephyn was already awake and appeared to be busy stocking her quiver with arrows from the Rangers' considerable hoard. Lagodir roused himself quickly and immediately began to assemble his belongings. He seemed singularly focused on his task, so I decided to make conversation with the huntress instead. I trotted over to where she sat on a crude wooden stool with her back to me as she counted her shafts and checked their fletching. Her bow lay on the turf a foot or two to one side, and I noticed she now wore a hooded cloak with the cowl drawn over her head.
"Good morning, Nephyn!" I said as cheerfully as I could, despite not being quite sure whether the greeting made any sense in the darkness of the late watches. I wondered what mood she might be in after the events of the previous evening.
"Good morning, friend Padryc," came Nephyn's answer, but she did not turn to face me. There was an awkward pause.
"Stocking up on arrows?" I asked, innocently trying to make talk with her. "Does this mean your shoulder is doing better then?"
"Very much so, and thank you for asking," came the reply. "It is still a bit sore if I move it too suddenly, but I feel its strength returning. I have no doubt I will be as good as ever in another day or two." She finished working with her arrows and stood to sling her quiver on her back. As she did so, I reached down to retrieve her bow and offered it to her.
"Ah, thank you for that," she said as she turned toward me to take it. It was then I saw that, in addition to having her hood drawn, she also wore a mask over her face so that only her eyes could be seen through the cloth. I had seen several of the Rangers in Esteldin similarly masked, but I can't deny I was surprised at this change in Nephyn's appearance, and I'm sure my face showed it.
"Well!" I said, not quite sure what to make of this, "That's a... different look for you." Her eyes stared out at me from behind the mask, but it was uncertainty I saw there, not defiance.
"Yes, well," she said haltingly, "I just felt the need for a change, I guess." I'm not sure why, but something about all this made me just a bit annoyed. Perhaps I felt the huntress was taking last night's conversation with Lagodir a little too seriously; something about her actions smelt to me of self-pity.
"So I see," I answered, trying to sound nonchalant. "I must say I'm going to miss the rest of your face as I had always rather liked it. Was there anyone in particular you were hoping to not recognize you?"
Those dark eyes became downcast, but before I had a chance to see whether I had offended her, Gaelira hailed us from behind. I turned to see the she-Elf, Drodie, and Lagodir walking toward us.
"I must apologize for rousing you all in this manner," Gaelira said as she approached, "But despite our victory at Dol Dinen Halbarad insists we must leave Esteldin only under cover of darkness. There are still many enemies about and we must take all precautions to ensure their refuge is not discovered by any spy."
We all agreed this was worth the untimely awakening and proceeded to ask about our plans for the day.
"I was deep in talk with Halbarad far into the night," Gaelira said in response. "The Ranger-captain fears the time is coming when his people's tactics will no longer be sufficient to hold back the Shadows of Angmar and that a co-operation from the other folk throughout the North Downs to join forces may be necessary in order to ensure their collective survival. He is arranging for emissaries to be sent to the inhabitants of Trestlebridge as well as the Elves at Lin Giliath, but he has asked if we could appeal to the Dwarves of Othrikar in this matter. Since one of our number is a Dwarf, it seemed fitting that we should do this, assuming none of the Company objects."
None of us did object, though there were many questions about Othrikar and our mission there. Looking at Nephyn's map, we saw there was a small Dwarf-settlement a short distance to the northwest of Esteldin -- it would not take more than an hour or two to reach on foot. We gathered our things quickly as Halbarad bid us farewell.
"We will always have need of your courage, brave adventurers," he said to us as we departed, "You are welcome back here at any time."
"Any time except when the Sun is in the sky, you mean," said Drodie, but he laughed as he said it. Halbarad and the rest of us laughed alongside him.
"Score one for the Dwarf," Halbarad said with a wide grin. "I do beg your pardon for the inconvenience, but I know you understand the danger. The time is coming, I deem, when stealth will no longer avail us, and perhaps that time is not now far-off, but it is not come yet."
After a few more pleasantries, we left the Valley of Hope through the western path, the way by which we had first entered it two days ago. As soon as we had cleared the mountain's face we turned northward and allowed a series of hills to screen us from any unfriendly eyes. After scrabbling through some difficult terrain and climbing a steep slope, we emerged atop a hill just as the first rays of dawn were growing behind us. To our backs, the mountain-wall was outlined in sharp blackness as the Sun waxed behind them. Before us, the North Downs stretched out wide and grey in the morning light. There were a few farms visible in the dimness where plots of tilled earth and minute fences carved the landscape into neat little squares. To the southwest, we could see the road running north-south as well as the juncture with the track which led away west, back toward the Greenway and Trestlebridge. It was at that point we had turned off the road two days earlier to find Esteldin, but now our path led northward, toward a rocky and mountainous country. Looking that direction, I saw the road climb into the craggy hills before it vanished in the half-light. Somewhere that way was the Dwarf-settlement of Othrikar, where we were headed. I took a moment to breathe deeply of the morning air, which was turning damp as the warmth of the dawn stole across the quiet plains. Here and there fogs and mists lingered in the hollows and dells which pocked the landscape.
"It's a shame, really," I said as I looked at the sight before me. "If it weren't for the invading armies of marauding Orcs I think I would quite like the North Downs. I might have contemplated building a farm of my own out here; even the Bree-land has nothing on this place for peace and quiet."
"That's because this place is on the brink of war," Gaelira said solemnly. "As for peace and quiet: the quiet comes from the fact that all of those farms you see are abandoned by their owners, who have fled for their lives and those of their families. And do not conflate peace with quiet -- there is no peace here no matter how quiet it might seem at present."
"Oh!" I said, quite crestfallen. "You always were one for ruining a pleasant moment, Gaelira."
"I see things for what they are," came her terse reply. I decided to change the subject.
"Drodie, what can you tell us of this Othrikar place?" I asked. "Do you have any relatives there or anything?"
"No," said the Dwarf with his usual brevity. "It is a mining colony, or so I had always heard back in the Blue Mountains. The word was they mined iron there, so I expect it will be a fairly dull place."
"Do you think they will heed Halbarad's call-to-arms?" Lagodir asked (none too hopefully, it sounded to me).
"Not unless they themselves have been directly affected by the dangers that beset Halbarad," came Drodie's reply.
"Wonderful," I muttered as I turned my eyes back to the vista in front of us. That's when I noticed a sort of spike at the very pinnacle of one of the tallest peaks away to the north. The light of the sky could be seen through it and it looked not at all to be a natural rock formation.
"What is that there?" I asked aloud while pointing to the object of my attention. Everyone followed my finger to see what had prompted the query.
"I am unsure," said Gaelira as she peered with her keen eyes. "It was made by hands, whatever it is."
"It looks to me to be some sort of signal fire," said Lagodir, who was leaning forward and looking hard. "My people use similar structures, built on the highest peaks of the White Mountains, to call for aid in times of great need. This design is very different, of course, but it seems plausible enough."
"Plausible, surely," Drodie agreed, "But who would they be signalling to? That is what I wonder."
We descended from the hill and made our way to the road. It wasn't long before we reached it and began following it northward. As we did so, I found myself straying close to Lagodir and decided to have a private chat with him while we walked.
"I trust you are not feeling as groggy as I am this morning?" I asked him in a low voice that only he would be able to hear. "If only there were bacon and eggs frying up somewhere nearby then I would be wide awake indeed!"
"I suppose not," Lagodir replied with a chuckle. "I've spent enough uncomfortable nights alone in the Wild to miss such simple pleasures myself."
"By the way," I said confidentially, "I spoke with Nephyn a bit after we talked with her last night. I thought you should know she doesn't hold anything against you."
"That is well," he answered. There was a short pause and then he added, "Thank you, Padryc. You have lifted a shadow from my heart by telling me this."
"It is something she will have to work through on her own, I think," I said wistfully, but I was pondering the tall Man's previous statement. "I was wondering... you seem to have fought on many of Gondor's borders. Were you a captain or some great general there once?" Lagodir kept his eyes on the road in front of us.
"I was a sergeant-at-arms." He said this in a way that sounded to me as though I was prodding into unwelcome territory.
"I see! That is most impressive," I said. "I was just curious, you know, since you've mentioned being in more than a few battles."
"I have seen my share of conflict," came the reply. I felt strangely determined to overcome the Gondorian's obstructionism. I knew it was really none of my business, but between Lagodir's tight lips, Nephyn's unknown background, Gaelira's curious aloofness, and the Dwarf's natural secretiveness I admit I was starting to get a little put out.
"Are the soldiers of Gondor often permitted to go on long and dangerous journeys to unknown lands?" I asked as innocently as I could manage.
"No," was the answer. "No, they are not." But it was a hint of sadness, not anger, that I heard in his voice. Something made me decide to let the matter rest. In any case, we were nearing our destination.
By the time the Sun had risen over the tips of the mountains which hid Esteldin behind us and to our right, we had begun our approach into Othrikar. The road started to climb upward then ran under a stone archway of impressive workmanship lit with stone braziers on either side. Passing through the archway, we saw a bustling mining colony of Dwarves with folk passing hither and thither on seemingly constant business. Because the locals were so unwilling to talk to outsiders, it took us some time to locate their leader and explain what we were doing in the midst of their operations.
Quartermaster Orgrin was a (relatively) agreeable Dwarf who spoke for the inhabitants of Othrikar. He seemed to understand our mission from Halbarad and was fairly easily convinced that his people might need to lend their arms in the common defence of the North Downs if things came to such a pass. He did, however, require some form of payment -- just like a Dwarf. There had been problems lately with another tribe of Dwarves, the Dourhands, raiding Othrikar, and Orgrin wished us to put a stop to it.
I won't go into the details of our skirmishes against the Dourhands; it was dirty and necessary work, but it was nothing particularly interesting. It was what happened afterward that made the day truly extraordinary.
We had driven off the Dourhands and returned to the mining colony just as the sky was beginning to soften with the coming of dusk. After delivering our report to the quartermaster and earning his gratitude (along with assurances of alliance with the Rangers in any coming conflict), we were permitted to spend the night among his people. We started to settle ourselves down after a good day's work and got to gossipping with some of the locals. They seemed rather more disposed to speak with us now that their leader had indicated his trust by arranging for us to deal with the Dourhand problem. It was during these chit-chat sessions that we heard Drodie conversing with some of the other Dwarves in their own tongue. When we asked what he was saying to them, Drodie would tell us nothing.
"The Dwarves do not teach their native language to other races," Gaelira told us. "Even the names they go by in everyday talk are not their true names, and they reveal them to few." I wondered what Drodie's "true name" might be and whether I might ever be thought worthy of knowing it.
"It certainly sounds difficult to learn," said Lagodir, who had been listening with interest. "Does it take many years to master?"
"Aye, many," came Drodie's abrupt response, but he wouldn't give any rationale for his assertion.
"I wonder," said Nephyn, who had hardly said a word throughout most of the day, "But if I were inclined to try and learn another tongue, I can't say Dwarvish would be at the top of my list -- it doesn't seem I would have many others to speak it with!"
"Too right, you are," I agreed. "Now, if some of these chaps around here knew the Black Speech, that might prove handy," I continued, lowering my voice. "Then perhaps we could finally translate that parchment I've been carrying about with me."
"Why, I had completely forgotten you were still holding onto that accursed thing!" Nephyn exclaimed. "Have you tried asking any of the folk around here? It seems unlikely enough, but you never know unless you try, I suppose."
"Have you spoken with Birgir Listmaster?" Drodie asked me.
"He is the closest thing this camp has to a scholar," the Dwarf said. "I don't see any reason he would have to learn the speech of the Enemy's thralls, but if anyone here might have done, it would be him."
Birgir Listmaster was an ornery, white-haired Dwarf with a massive scar across his face who sat at a little desk off on his own. Apparently he is responsible for issuing mining tasks to the other Dwarves and also for all of the settlement's record-keeping and inventorying. I agreed to go and consult with him while the others set about preparing supper.
I walked up to Birgir's desk, which was littered with papers and scrolls of all kinds. He was grumbling about something to himself when I approached and took no notice of me whatsoever. I gave a polite cough, but it had no effect on Birgir's concentration.
"Excuse me," I said finally. The Dwarf's shaggy, white head stopped swaying about and jutted toward me. I saw his left eye was gone, the long scar running right across where it should be. His remaining eye stabbed at me like a dagger, full of irritation and annoyance.
"Hmm?" Birgir said in a gravelly voice. "Who's that? What d'ye want? Can't ye see I'm busy?"
"Yes, yes, I do see that," I said apologetically. "I was just wondering whether you might have a moment to look at this and, if you could, tell me what it means?" I quickly dug into my pack, found the Black Speech message by feel, and handed it to the old Dwarf.
Birgir didn't take his eyes off me as he snatched the message out of my hand. Then he opened it, took one look at the words, and threw the parchment into my face.
"I've no time for riddles! Now leave me be!"
I gave the taskmaster a quick bow, retrieved the parchment from the ground where it had fallen, and returned to the Company.
"Any luck?" Drodie asked as I approached.
"No," I said, defeated. "He just told me to go away -- says he has no time for riddles."
"No time for...?" Npehyn asked. "So, he can read it, then? How else would he know it's a riddle?"
"No, I... wait, what?" I asked. I had just assumed Birgir only meant he had no time to be deciphering indecipherable text. "Oh! I see... I will try again!"
I scarpered back to where the old Dwarf was still grumbling and shifting through his paperwork. I had intended to march right up to his little desk, slam the parchment in front of him and demand he read it to me. But, as I lifted the parchment in preparation for my gambit, I suddenly froze. I was not carrying the Black Speech message at all! There in my hands was some other missive I had never seen before! It was folded over and on the outside were written these words:
I hope you find this. Trust NO ONE.
My heart pounded and my mouth went dry. In a flash I realized that Luean must have slipped this note into my pack while we had said our goodbyes back in Lin Giliath! My head was in a whirl of confusion.
I jumped, realizing I was the one being shouted at. It was Birgir Listmaker, who was furious with my second intrusion upon him and his messy desk.
"Don't just stand there gawking!" he yelled. "Tell me what ye need or move along!"
My mouth opened, but no sound came out. I gave an incredibly awkward bow and nearly fell over myself as I beat a retreat. The Dwarf went back to his work, muttering about Halflings and their absurd manners. My mind was racing as I walked back to the Company. Drodie was getting a fire going while Nephyn and Lagodir were unpacking some food. Gaelira was off speaking with Quartermaster Orgrin again. I stood there witless for a second before gaining the presence of mind to put Luean's message into my pocket just as Nephyn turned to me.
"And how was the second effort?" she asked. In that moment, I wanted more than anything to tell my friends that I had discovered a secret letter from Luean, but I remembered the warning he had written. I felt my ears flush as I plunged headlong into a lie.
"He just got angrier," I said, trying my best to sound convincing. "He said he'd box my ears if I bothered him again." I suddenly became aware that my hand was still in my pocket and jerked it out. Nephyn was incensed.
"He said what?!" she asked, incredulous. "After everything we did for this two-bit mining operation? How dare he! Let's all go have words with this Dwarf together and see if we can't teach him some manners!"
"No!" I squeaked. "No, no! He only... that is... I think we should just let it go," I ended lamely.
"I am with Nephyn in this," said Drodie unexpectedly. "We Dwarves may be coarse, but we don't abide rudeness -- particularly when you consider this encampment is in our debt!" I felt the bottom drop out from my stomach; my lifetime's new grand total of experience at lying consisted entirely of the last eight seconds and already I was about to bring people to blows.
"No, wait!" I cried, throwing myself in their path. I couldn't risk them discovering my deception now that I had committed to it. "I was right, you see: he only meant that he couldn't read it since it was in a language he doesn't know, and that's what he meant when he said 'riddles,' you see. Because he can't read it, so it's a riddle to him. That's what he meant." There was an incredibly awkward pause. I held my breath.
"Well, if he can't read it then he can't read it," Nephyn said in resignation. "I could still wish he would treat you with a little more kindness, though."
I breathed again as the Company went back to its own business. I hung about for a bit to share a hot meal, but I took the first opportunity I could find to slip away on my own. While Drodie was schooling the others on the various tribes of Dwarves, the Dourhands, and the origins of their feud with the Longbeards, I snuck off down the path to a farther end of Othrikar. I wandered some until I came to the end of a walkway bordered with a low wall. I hopped over and sat on the edge of the cliff. The wind whipped around me as I drew out the paper which had just upended everything. My hands trembled with anticipation as I re-read the outer cover, then I opened the letter and read these words:
Begin where three rivers meet.
Mount the steed before you,
and turn it about.
Behold the bones;
Three high and six across,
Just south of the crescent moon.
I read the staves again and again. I looked out from the cliff where I stood with the whole of the North Downs rolling away before me. What could the riddle mean? Was I in danger? I looked again at the warning on the outside of the letter: Trust no one. What was it Luean had learned and what was he trying to tell me?
Suddenly, I heard footsteps approaching from behind. Stuffing the letter into my pocket, I whirled around to find Nephyn walking up the path.
"Padryc!" she called to me. "Are you alright? It's not like you to wander off on your own."
"I'm fine," I answered, but I did not draw closer to her. "I just... wanted a bit of quiet after the day's excitement is all. It's... It's quite lovely up here. Marvellous view. And I thought I saw a periwinkle just now. Love periwinkles." Nephyn stared at me.
"Well, as long as you're safe," she said slowly. She turned and began to walk back towards the colony. The huntress stopped and faced me again.
"I just want you to know," she said in a clear voice, "That you're really a very special hobbit. Special to all of us, I mean; we're very fortunate to have you. I'm very lucky to have found someone in whom I can trust." Her last word echoed in my mind like some kind of terrible gong.
"Thank you very much," was all I managed to say in return. She looked at me a moment longer, then turned to walk back down the path to rejoin the others. I stood and watched her for several seconds, wondering how many friendships I might have to sacrifice to keep up this charade.
I walked around miserably for a short time. The wind moaned eerily in the crevices of the Dwarven stone-work, as if mocking my plight. If Luean's letter was true, there was a traitor within the Company! But how could this be? I had come to know the stories of each of my companions over time, and no one had ever struck me as suspicious. Then my thoughts went to Lagodir: what was that Man doing here, so far from his home? And he, more than any of the others, was constantly deflecting questions about his past. Dark theories began to form in my mind like mists above a noxious bog. I shook my head to clear through the cobwebs of doubt, trying to focus on what I knew rather than what I feared.
That's when I heard voices. I stopped and discovered my aimless pacing had taken me a short ways closer toward the center of Othrikar. Just in front of me was a stone platform about five feet off the ground and jutting out from under a huge boulder. I shrank next to the rock to hide myself from view, for I could see Gaelira and Nephyn seated by a small campfire, and it was their voices I had heard. In light of what had happened today, I confess I decided to do a little eavesdropping.
"It is such a big world," I heard Gaelira saying, "Yet it seems so small at times. Already we are close to the passes which will lead us to Angmar -- our goal."
"Have you ever been there?" Nephyn asked.
"Only as far as Aughaire, with a party of Elves and Rangers, long ago. I certainly hope the courage of our Company holds to see us through to that place."
"As do I," Nephyn replied. "Though I think there's no need to worry about Drodie or even Lagodir on that account. What do you make of our hobbit's recent behaviour?" I pricked up my ears.
"I think he may be a little insecure at seeing the world for what it is, yet he surprises himself with his own valour," Gaelira said. "He has an inner strength that will carry us all through."
"He surprises all of us," said Nephyn with a laugh. "Who ever heard of a Halfling doing the sorts of things he has done with us? Save only perhaps Mad Baggins, from the children's tales."
"I find them to be a very strange people," the she-Elf said. "And yet it was 'Mad Baggins' who set many great events in motion some 60 years ago. It seems much is fated to revolve around the Little Folk."
"Fate has dealt us a strange hand indeed," Nephyn said. "But it also seems fitting: what we are doing we are doing as much for his Shire as for any of our homes -- these times affect us all. It makes me sick to think that anything might happen to such a peaceful place as the Shire is reported to be."
"Sadly, the Shire is in as much danger as any of us. You have seen already that the Bree-land is no refuge, despite the fact most of its inhabitants do not yet see the danger. Which reminds me: you strike me as considerably better trained than some ordinary huntress stalking game through the woods. Was it your Ranger friend who taught you the ways of the warrior?"
"Saerdan?" Nephyn asked. "Yes, he taught me almost everything I know about hunting, tracking, and just taking care of myself in general. His cabin became my 'home away from inn.'"
"If I see him again I will definitely thank him, for he taught you well."
"That is high praise, coming from an Elf!"
"I only speak the truth," Gaelira said. There was a brief silence. I took a chance and peeped out from behind the boulder to see Nephyn, her hood cast off and looking at her mask as she held it in her hands. For some reason, I decided to reveal myself at that point, but I felt it was best not to let on that I had been listening in on their conversation.
"Hullo!" I said cheerily as I walked up to them. "Mind if I join you?"
"Not at all," said Nephyn with a smile, "And this time it's not on a patch of dirt!"
"Quite so!" I said as I sat on the hard stone tiles. "I expect I'll sleep soundly tonight. I never thought I'd survive this long without a proper bed and a bath."
"This Company is proving to be quite extraordinary, in many ways," Gaelira said with a grin. "And the hardier we become the better: Angmar is an unforgiving wasteland. But, if we stick together and trust each other, I know we can win in the end."
"I'm glad you can be so optimistic," I said a bit gloomily. "I wonder if things will ever be the same again in my lifetime."
"The Enemy will be defeated," Gaelira replied. "At great cost, it may be, but his evil cannot prevail. Not so long as a single Elf still stands in Middle-earth."
"But how long will that be for?" asked Lagodir, who came striding up to join us with Drodie in tow. "Your kind is leaving these shores. I have no doubt that you intend to stand with us through this great darkness, but how many will stand with you?" Nephyn nodded.
"We have already lost one of our number to the call of the Undying Lands," she said quietly.
"Yes, I miss Raviron," I agreed. "I wish he hadn't gone to seek the Havens. And now old Luean has abandoned us as well, it seems." I spoke lightly, but Luean's riddle was raging through my mind like a hurricane.
"Lost companions are a hard blow," said Lagodir as he gazed up at the sky. The Moon had waxed to the full and was riding low above us that night. Lagodir sighed. "Those who are dearer than blood might be lost to us, but still we must soldier on. Even when the night sky itself might remind us of what we have lost." We all looked at the Moon. I wondered what the Man's words might have meant about himself, but I had too many other things to think about this night.
"Well, I should get to my writing before I forget and nod off," I said. In truth, I wasn't the least bit tired.
"The hobbit has the right of it," said Nephyn. "If we stay chatting any longer we'll have talked the night away, and we all need our rest for what lies ahead."
The Company began to settle down for the night, but I crept quietly off into a corner, out of sight of the others, to record what had happened today. The bizarre revelation of Luean's cryptic message had thrown my whole world into a tailspin of doubt and intrigue. Again I stealthily drew out the letter and read the strange lines once more, but I was no more able to make anything of them than the first time I had read them. It seemed clear that Luean was using this riddle to convey a message to me, and perhaps the staves were the map that would lead me to that message. But where to begin? I kept puzzling over the words again and again until my poor head was nearly bursting, but I could get no nearer. My eyes began to droop from the mental exertion, so I carefully tucked the missive back into my satchel and curled up to rest. I slept fitfully as my dreams were invaded by queer images of rivers, horses, skeletons, and crescent moons all dancing together confusedly under the burning red glow of a setting sun.