Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 19

A Gambit Amid the Ruins

Trewsday, 19th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ruins of Fornost, Somewhere in the North Downs
The Ruins of Fornost
It was still dark when I woke, but I was in such pain as to not even notice the time. Lying on a stone platform proved to be far more uncomfortable than I had expected; certainly much worse than simply lying on the ground. I groaned as I rolled over and struggled to my feet, then stretched my back before looking around.

Gaelira was nearby, but she was seated and appeared to be meditating or otherwise occupied with her own thoughts. Drodie and Lagodir were nowhere in sight. The night-song of crickets was still on the air while every now and then came a gust of wind which bore the heavy scent of pine-trees. I wondered if this portended rain to come later in the day.

I was shaken from my thoughts by a low sound to my right. I peeped around the edge of the cliff wall where I had laid down for the night to find Nephyn's sleeping form. She lay contorted in a very strange position, almost as if she had fallen over and never tried to recover. A wild fantasy sprang into my mind that some treason within the Company had slain my friend while she slept; I crept nearer to her, as if she might suddenly spring to life and attack me. Then she stirred with a moan and her eyes fluttered open, looking me full in the face. She sighed, rolled over, and composed herself.

"All you alright?" I asked. "I was afraid for you! It looked as if you had hurt yourself in a fall."

"No, I am fine," she answered, but her voice did not have the ring of truth to it. There was a slight pause.

"Well, perhaps I am not fine," she said as she looked southward over the cliffs toward Esteldin. "I have never really believed in signs and omens, but I must confess this is a strange thing: I have had the same troubling dream two nights in a row now."

"Is that so? What is it about if I may ask? I don't pretend to be an interpreter of dreams, but perhaps talking about it will ease your heart."

"That it may," the huntress replied. "Very well, I shall confide in you, if you are willing." She closed her eyes, as if remembering something difficult to recall.

"I find myself wandering in a land of darkness. The air is heavy with fumes and dust so thick I cannot see more than a few paces before me, but I feel compelled to press onward. As I walk, I realize that I am not alone. I can sense movement in the fog, but I see no one. Suddenly, as high as a great tree in the forest above me, eyes appear -- red eyes, but no bodies -- staring down at me. I can feel their evil gaze piercing through my skin and into my very bones. Their stares make my flesh feel as if it was set aflame, and my skin burns. Dark whisperings come from around me, though I am never able to see anyone. I hear a call from somewhere I do not understand, but I feel as if they are trying to have me join them where they are. My feet begin to be dragged through the dirt, moving forward even though I struggle against the pull. Just as I am about to enter the whisperings, I awake."

"How terrifying!" I said, genuinely shaken. "Why, it reminds me of the spider-queen Lebrennil and her awful brood, spying down upon us from the treetops back in the Old Forest. Brrr! I wondered then whether I would ever forget those eyes of hers."

"Yet you recovered from that experience, friend Padryc," Nephyn said with a sad look. "But I could still feel those eyes upon me even in the waking world. Even in the safety of Esteldin when I first experienced this dream I felt the unnerving need to be out of their gaze. I had hoped a change of scenery would relieve me, but the dream has visited me yet again this night."

"Is that why you decided to wear that ugly mask?" I asked, surprised. Nephyn laughed softly.

"Yes, yes, that is why, although I am ashamed to admit it," she said. "Perhaps I am not as indifferent to omens and portents as I always led myself to believe. I must remember that it is only a dream and may have no larger significance whatever. Thank you for hearing me out, my friend." She patted me on the shoulder. I was just about to say how sorry I felt for her, but then an icy grip clutched my heart: what if Nephyn was the false companion Luean had warned me about in his letter and this was all a ploy to gain my sympathies and my trust? I patted her arm in return, but I said nothing.

Just then, I became aware that the Sun was not far from its rising. Streaks of gold and purple were stealing their way across the heavens above. From our high point in the mountains, I felt as if I could stretch forth and touch the low-riding clouds overhead. I was admiring the view when my eyes were dragged earthward in search of two loud and combative voices: Lagodir and Drodie could be seen approaching our campsite, and they were engrossed in some argument.

"There is no value to us, I tell you!" I could hear Lagodir saying. "Let the Dwarves of Othrikar burrow into the hills in search of their pile of rocks until the mountains fall on them, I say; we have no reason to remain here another day."

"No, no, you do not understand!" Drodie countered vehemently. "The father-lode is no mere pile of rocks! It has been the dream of many of my folk to unearth such a find. We would be fools to not be part of it -- we would be witnessing great history!" Lagodir turned to us and threw up his hands in exasperation.

"It would seem as if our Company is once again divided as to what should come next," said Nephyn with a smile. I felt relieved to see her in light spirits once more.

"We will not waste time on another aimless debate," said Gaelira with surprising earnestness. "Lagodir you have a heritage in the North Downs through the noble men of Arnor. I know we are far from the Last Homely House you were seeking, but you may get satisfaction from avenging a wrong in time long gone; against the remnants of that same enemy. Today, we will follow you wherever you lead us."

We all yielded to this suggestion -- or command -- as it seemed plain the she-Elf was in no mood to hold a protracted council. Lagodir thought for a moment.

"I had given this some thought while the Sun was stirring this morning," he said slowly. "Halbarad had mentioned that the ruins of Fornost, the one-time capital of the North Kingdom, are now occupied by the soldiery of our foes. I confess I desire greatly to see our adversaries routed from there in vengeance of my distant kin, but it would also serve to sow doubt in the counsels of the Enemy. This, it seems to me, would be a great good that our Company could perform, but the task will not be easy. Our opponent has had many years to fortify that place, and we are still only five, no matter how skilled at arms we may be."

There was some light debate over this course of action, but we all agreed to the soundness of the plan in fairly short order. A dark thought that Lagodir was leading us into a trap in the heart of an enemy encampment flitted through my mind like a shadow of fear.

"And it may be," I heard Lagodir saying, "That we might encounter the Ranger Mincham on our way thither: the Ranger that is supposed to be able to read the Black Speech of the Enemy, or so Halbarad told us. He said Mincham was encamped on the southern edges of the Fields of Fornost, and we must cross those fields ere we come to the gates of the King's Norbury."

Before long we were ready to depart. We bid farewell to the Dwarves of Othrikar (most of which seemed eager to have us go) and left the mining colony by its main entrance. We traveled south until we reached the place where the road ran onward toward Lin Giliath and also turned west. Taking the western route, we marched on for a good ways under the hurrying clouds. I looked skyward and decided it did not look like raining today after all, but it remained overcast and grey.

As we marched along, I kept turning over the riddle from Luean's message to me in my mind. I still had no idea what it might mean. What three rivers was he referring to? Was I supposed to find a horse at some point? And what is the translation of Aure entuluva? That last was really bothering me because I was certain I had heard that Elvish phrase somewhere before, but I simply couldn't remember where, try as I might. Eventually, I got the idea that perhaps two heads might be better than one in this situation, but I also knew I could not risk exposing my reason for seeking assistance. I decided to see if anyone could come up with answers to Luean's riddle, but only in part so that no one would become aware of the full message. I started with Nephyn.

"I say," I said in my best innocent tone, but low enough that only she could hear me, "I've been working on coming up with some new riddles, but it's more difficult now that Luean is not with us. I thought up this clever line: Begin where three rivers meet. Do you think I could use that to refer to something besides rivers?" Nephyn gave me an odd look, but I ignored it and stared straight ahead.

"I suppose it could," she said. "There are any number of things which flow the way rivers do: words, air currents, time... it could be quite a long list I should think."

"Oh, I guess that's so," I said, crestfallen. "Do you know of any places where three rivers meet?" She thought a moment.

"Nothing comes to mind at present," she answered, "Although my knowledge of geography doesn't extend much beyond the Bree-land, as I've told you before."

I thanked her for her help and next turned to Gaelira, making sure the conversation remained between us. I asked if she knew of any place where three rivers meet.

"I can think of many such places in Middle-earth," she said, "But without more hints or information I'm afraid there would be too many possibilities for anyone to solve your riddle."

"Oh, yes, of course," I said evasively. "I will have to keep working on it."

I tried Lagodir and Drodie in similar fashion, but neither of them were interested in helping me and simply said they were no good with riddles. It was beginning to appear that if anyone was going to solve Luean's cryptic message, it was going to have to be me, alone and unaided. I looked all around me as if the landscape might yield some kind of inspiration, but all I saw was a fairly flat plain with abandoned farmsteads on both sides of the road. Soon after, we came to a low hill and followed the road as it skirted along its southern foot then ran on again toward a bridge. Thinking back, I tugged at Nephyn's sleeve and pointed.

"I say! Isn't that the very bridge you all were talking about some days ago? The one where those Orcs were supposed to have set an ambush for us?"

"Yes," came Nephyn's reply, "The very same. Let us hope we do not find it held against us."

It turned out the bridge was still standing and there was no sign of enemies anywhere within sight. We marveled at our good fortune and hurried across into the western half of the North Downs. The road began to wind and climb upwards past two sets of ruins, one to our left down below and another to our right and higher up in the hills. The wind would still come in gusts on occasion, and the whistling and howling it created in the jagged stones quite unnerved me. Once, the blasts shook loose some large rock somewhere which apparently caused it to fall from its perch, for we all suddenly heard a loud bang! I must have jumped three feet in the air at that, for Nephyn reached out her hand to calm me.

The distance from Othrikar to the Fields of Fornost was not small: the Sun was already seeking the western Sea by the time we descended from the hills and continued our march. After two more hours or so, we came to another road, this one running north-south and paved with flagstones, though it was overgrown with grass and weeds.

"We have returned to the Greenway!" said Nephyn with a noted excitement in her voice. She pointed to the south. "Yonder lies Trestlebridge and its resilient folk -- and beyond that is my homeland."

"Yet our road lies north, not south," said Gaelira solemnly. "We must turn our eyes away from the welcoming light and toward the darkness of fear."

Her words were not mere poetry: taking the right fork we saw a storm was brewing to the north. The Greenway ran ahead of us like a piece of string, going fairly straight on. But where the road met the horizon, at the very edge of our sight, I saw a gloomy darkness. The land rose steadily before us and all that landscape was dotted with short, stumpy trees which looked as if they were in the process of having the life slowly strangled from them. It seemed to me as though the Sun had not the power to penetrate the clouds, and a blackish-purple haze hovered low over everything. I was just about to express my dislike for the view when I heard Lagodir cry out.

"Look there!" he said as he pointed to the northwest. "A campfire!"

A thin spiral of smoke was wafting up from somewhere just ahead of us beyond a low hill. We quickened our pace and threaded our way through a few old ruins before stumbling upon the campsite.

The Ranger Mincham was there: he was attired as most of the other Rangers were, in grey and green, and wore a hooded cloak and a grave countenance. I will not recount here all of the pleasantries we exchanged, but he was gratified to make our acquaintance and learn of our mission. He told us what he could of Fornost, but as it had become very dangerous to go near that place now his reports were vague and uncertain. He did say that a party of treasure-hunters had passed up the Greenway some days prior. Mincham had tried to dissuade them from pressing on toward the city, but they did not heed him and no word had come back from them since. We were just about to continue on our way following that same path when I remembered the other reason we wished to speak with the dour-faced Ranger. I pulled out the parchment I had been carrying around for weeks and handed it to him.

"We intercepted this letter off two brigands in the North Chetwood many days ago," Gaelira explained, "But the message is written in the Black Speech of Mordor, and we have not had occasion to happen across anyone with knowledge of that foul language."

"Then your coming here was doubly fortuitous," Mincham replied, "For there are few indeed, even among the Dunedain, who take the pains to learn this tongue. I will apply what I know and attempt to translate it for you."

It did not take long. Without a word, Mincham handed the parchment back to me and I saw he had written with charcoal the Westron meanings for the words found on the paper. I took it to my companions, who were eager to finally learn the truth about it. I read Mincham's translation in a hoarse voice, my mind reeling from what it said.

They shall be called the Outriders of Elladan. The she-Elf shall lead them. She travels west by the Road toward Bree.

We all looked at each other. Several seconds passed, then we all began talking at once. It took a few moments for us all to regain our composure and have a meaningful conversation.

"How is this possible?" I asked in total surprise. "This can only mean the message was sent before our Company had ever been formed -- indeed before we had even met!"

"Dark magic!" said Nephyn, her eyes wide. "Does the Enemy have some power of seeing the future that has never been reported in the North?"

"No more than you or I," said Gaelira. "His knowledge is deep and it reaches far back in years, but even Sauron cannot truly read pages out of a tome that has not yet been written."

"Is there no indication of who wrote the letter, or to whom is was being sent?" asked Lagodir. I announced there was none.

"I cannot fathom who could have sent this message," Gaelira said, "But we may already know for whom it was intended. Recall now the foul presence which overcame Nephyn in the woods that night and which darkened our hearts as we searched for her the next day?"

"You think it was meant to reach Khamul?" asked Nephyn with a shudder.

"The Ringwraith?" Mincham was visibly concerned. "If the Nine have arisen again then it is dire news indeed. I have had no reports until now they were aboard in the lands once more."

"I fear it is true," said Gaelira. "But I am not certain what the revelation of this message means for us."

"Very little, I think," said Lagodir thoughtfully. "The identity of the author is a tantalizing mystery, but our mission to draw the eyes of the Enemy and challenge his forces in Eriador is not impacted by this. Not to my mind, at least."

"Nor mine," said Drodie, who had been munching on cram this entire time and seemed completely disinterested in the conversation. "Give me a row of goblin heads that need cleaving and I will be content -- you can keep your riddles."

I had to admit there was a certain simplicity to the way the Dwarf and the Gondorian chose to deal with this new information, and I found myself wishing I could do the same. And yet there was something about all this that just didn't make sense: how could servants of the Enemy know the name of our Company before we did? Why was Gaelira being watched before she ever even reached Bree? How was it known that she intended to form a band of adventurers on the advice of Elrond and Elladan, his son?

"And why is the name of our Company similar yet incorrect in the message?" It was Nephyn who was speaking, but it was as though she was giving voice to the thoughts which were running through my head at that very moment.

"That may be nothing more than the way the message was translated," said Gaelira.

"No," came Mincham's response, "It is not. The words were composed in a very deliberate manner to read The Outriders of Elladan, not Elladan's Outriders."

None of us had the slightest idea what this could mean. I looked at the parchment again and felt repulsed by it.

"Since this has brought us nothing but more uncertainty," I said, "I would just as soon destroy the hateful thing." I tossed it into Mincham's campfire, which was nearby. Gaelira sighed.

"I would have preferred to hold onto it a while longer and see whether it might have anything else to tell us," she said, "But perhaps this way is best. There is nothing more to be said about it now, in any case."

The day was growing old and we wished to reach the outskirts of Fornost before dark, so we said our farewells to Mincham and promised to return to him with a report of what we found, if we got the chance.

"Go with blessings of speed and stealth upon you," Mincham said to us as we departed. "If you should find the treasure-hunters' camp, look for a fellow Ranger among them. He is called Maedhrusc, and he may be able to aid you. He was camped with me here but decided to join the treasure-hunters for a closer look at the Enemy's movements within Fornost."

We thanked him and continued northward on the road. The way was long and dreary, and I found myself staring at the pavement before me rather than looking side-to-side. All I could see of the Fields of Fornost was a creeping gloom, as if the whole land around me was sick and dying. Ever and anon I might hear the howling of an animal, but the sound was loathsome as if it came from some tortured and miserable creature. Chills ran down my back, so I forced myself to think logically about the discarded Black Speech message some more as a distraction.

Putting aside any notions about black magic, I recognized the missive revealed two important things: first, that the name of our Company had been reported and, therefore, decided upon before I ever dreamed it up that sunny morning in Bree which seemed so long ago. Second, the same was true about Gaelira's decision to form the Company and to lead it. Suddenly, and unbidden, Luean's warning flashed into my mind again: trust no one. Could Gaelira have betrayed her plans to agents of the Enemy before reaching Bree? Maybe even before leaving Rivendell? I shook my head. The idea was absurd: why would the she-Elf want her movements to be known when she had argued in favor of secrecy every step of the way? And did not Luean himself accompany her from the first when departing Rivendell for Bree? I wished Luean was walking beside me so that I could ask him the answers to his riddle, which got me to thinking about his letter again.

Begin where three rivers meet.

Just then, I had a thought: if the Elf-scholar was trying to send me to some place where he would reveal his full message to me, wouldn't that place need to be somewhere I could reach it on foot? Of course! His riddle had to be directions to some spot within the North Downs, or at least reasonably close to it; otherwise I might spend weeks on such a journey and Luean knew I couldn't possibly survive by myself in the Wild for any long period of time. My heart started beating faster as I realized I was onto something solid at last. I ran up behind Nephyn, fairly bursting with a desire to tell her what I had just reasoned out.

But then I stopped myself, remembering Luean's warning again. Even my closest friend in this Company had to be treated as a suspect until I knew more. Could Nephyn be hiding anything from me? She always seemed so honest and straightforward -- not at all the type of person who would be capable of treachery. But then, I thought, she was the first person to mysteriously vanish in the middle of the night into the Chetwood -- the same night we now suspect the Ringwraith Khamul was in the vicinity. Was her succumbing to the Black Breath only a cover to remove her from suspicion? Was it she who had informed the Enemy of our Company and its members? Only days later we began encountering Orcs who knew us by sight. And wasn't her "escape" from the brigand camp all too timely and convenient? I wrung my hands in confusion and uncertainty, but I decided to play it safe for the moment.

"Nephyn, might I see your map of the North Downs?" I asked. "I... would like to trace a copy of it into my journal tonight, I think, since we have been doing so many important things here."

The huntress obliged me without question and I promised to return it in the morning. While we walked I looked it over searching for any place where three rivers might meet, but nothing seemed to fit. There were spots where small streams would fork, but at no point did three named rivers actually converge. I frowned and stuffed the map into my pocket, convinced the answer was something else entirely and I was overlooking it. I started to get frustrated, and that is bad for thinking, so I decided to drop it for now. In any case, we were approaching the outskirts of Fornost.

The outer wall of the ruined city was an impressive facade of stone, and it must have been an incredible stronghold once, but that was now many long years ago. The stonework was tumbled and fallen in many places, and here and there one could see the smoke of campfires billowing skyward. Even from a distance you could make out spots where Orcs and goblins had toiled to erect barricades and other makeshift defences where the original walls had failed or were weak, and the shapes of Wargs could be seen prowling in the failing light. I swallowed hard and tried to pretend I wasn't utterly terrified.

It turns out that the city of Fornost is so large that the Orcs were not able to properly guard the walls: their sentries were too spread out to offer any effective resistance to a determined forcible entry. We overwhelmed a few guards and slipped behind their lines.

Once through the outer patrols, we found that the courtyards between the walls and the city proper were almost entirely devoid of enemies. There were a few roaming boars and one or two bears (all of which looked like they had been stricken with some nasty disease), but we encountered no more Orcs. The Sun had nearly set and I was just wondering whether the treasure-hunting party Mincham had told us about had ever managed to reach this place when we heard voices coming from around a corner.

Nestled amid the ruins of what looked to be some ancient storehouse or possibly an inn, we discovered a group of more than a dozen sturdy Men and Women. They were not pleased to see us and dealt with us poorly, as though they expected us to rob them during them night, but we did finally locate Mincham's Ranger-friend Maedhrusc. He was a clean-shaven but brusque sort -- the type of Man who made it plain he had no time for trifling. He didn't seem my kind of chap, so I let Gaelira and the others do the talking for me while I settled down to grab a bite to eat.

As I munched on an apple, I thought about all of the questions we had which needed answering, then I thought about how I had more questions than anyone in the Company. I ran Luean's riddle through my mind again, and once again I found myself irritated that I could not seem to remember the meaning of Aure entuluva, even though I was positive I had heard it somewhere before. I tried to focus in on that, but I was interrupted by the loud thump! of Drodie sitting down near me.

"What were you all talking with the Ranger about then?" I asked, trying to make conversation.

"Dunno. Wasn't listening," answered the Dwarf as he buried his head inside the food-bag. I sighed audibly, not bothering to conceal my annoyance since I was confident Drodie wouldn't care how I felt anyway, and he didn't. I raised an eyebrow at him as he crammed some cold beef into his mouth. Could Drodie be the one Luean was warning me against? It wasn't likely: the Dwarf hardly seemed to care about anyone or anything other than food, beer, tobacco, and the next fight, unless perhaps it was showing up his fellows through feats of physical prowess. And yet, I had heard tales of some Dwarves which had allied themselves with the Dark Powers and they were, as a race, rather more disposed toward duplicity than others. There is no telling what a Dwarf might do to right a perceived wrong or recover something he claims as his own.

I sighed again and banished the thoughts from my head: there was nothing to be done about it aside from watch and wait, and tomorrow might prove a fateful day for us. I decided that whatever matters of darkness and despair the others had been discussing with Maedhrusc could wait for the morning. At the moment, it didn't look as if any morning could penetrate the dense blanket of clouds hanging low over our heads.

The Company gathered around one of the campfires and prepared to settle in for the night with almost no talk for fear of the enemies that were still very near. Gaelira went to join the treasure-hunters' sentries at the watch while the rest of us tried to get some sleep. Drodie was the first to drop off and we had to stifle his snoring with a dirty sack to keep from attracting the Orcs. Nephyn bade me good night and expressed her hope that she would not experience her disturbing dream a third time before also plunging into slumber. For myself, I began nodding even before Nephyn was asleep but, just before my eyes shut, I saw Lagodir walk off to a solitary corner of the ruins and sit down, alone, with his head bowed as if he was deep in thought. Or maybe it was remorse? But the last grain of my mental energy had been spent, and I slept through the night, though uneasily.

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