Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 25.3

The Red-maid

Sterday, 30th of Afteryule, Year 1418, Shire-reckoning
Ost Guruth, Somewhere in the Lone-lands
Naruhel, the Red-maid
When I opened my eyes the only thing I noticed at first was that I had a splitting headache. Then, I realized I was lying face-up in water, staring at that low, blood-coloured sky. Next, I remembered that the water beneath me was mixed with actual blood, and I instinctively jolted myself upright. My head swam in response to the rapid movement, my knees buckled, and I fell on my hands and knees into the gruesome pool. Apparently I had been knocked senseless when the Red-maid's wave of water and blood had hurled me into the stone wall. The thought flashed through my mind that I was lucky to be alive, for if I had fallen face-down into the water I would probably have drowned.

"Get away from me!" I heard a feral voice cry out. It was odd, for I thought I knew that voice, yet at the same time it I was aware I had never heard it before. Looking up, I saw an amazing thing.

There on the far side of the chamber was Nephyn, her sword drawn, with Gaelira, Lagodir, and Drodie around her. They appeared to be trying to get close to her, but seemed afraid to do so. Then, I saw that Nephyn had at her feet and seized by the hair the ghoulish woman! The Sword of Ringdor was gleaming blood-red in the light of the setting Sun as it rested at the throat of the defeated Red-maid.

"No!" Nephyn roared, "I will not spare this... this fiend!" She took a swipe at the others with her sword to keep them at bay before returning it to the neck of her captive. It seemed the Company had somehow overpowered the Red-maid while I was incapacitated, although how that had been contrived I had no idea. Yet there she was, and as I looked I saw that her appearance had changed: the horrible light had gone out from her eyes and now she looked not monstrous but haggard. I thought that she might even be (or perhaps have been) beautiful to look upon, but now she was a wizened and pitiable thing. Her frightened eyes darted in every direction, but they seemed less concerned with my friends than with the ruins surrounding her. It was as though she did not know where she was. As I was processing all of this, I heard Gaelira speaking.

"Nephyn, please, just listen--"

"Quiet!" screamed Nephyn, and I jumped at the terrible change that had come over her voice. "This monster drinks the blood of Men and slays my friend, and you would have me spare her?! Why? So she can betray us? Betray me the same way you did?" Here she raised her sword, the point toward the Elf. It seemed to me then that a light flashed in her eyes and it sent chills of horror down my spine -- it was the same alarming glint I had seen in the eyes of the fanatics as we had searched for the Red-maid.

"But I'm alive, Nephyn," I said in my small voice. The others all turned.

"Padryc! You're all right!" Gaelira, Lagodir, and Drodie all cheered and ran toward me to pat me on the back and shoulders, but Nephyn was silent. I brushed the others away and took a few steps toward her. The huntress was breathing hard and had returned her sword to the Red-maid's exposed throat. The four of us stood there, watching her. Nephyn's face was a cloud of rage, relief, and confusion. My heart was wrung with fear and sorrow for my friend, for I understood now she had thought me dead at the hands of the wild woman and meant to take vengeance. But I had not been killed, and now she was on the verge of committing a terrible deed. The Red-maid, still on her knees at Nephyn's feet, began to weep.

"What has happened to my home?" she asked miserably. "Please, I only beg that you will tell me what has happened to me and my home before you slay me." The Sword of Ringdor still hovered an inch from her neck. Despite the awful things I had seen the Red-maid do, she was now defeated and helpless. I couldn't believe the sweet and gentle friend I had known could ever murder among living thing in cold blood. I looked pleadingly at her as tears welled in my eyes.

"Nephyn?" I asked, but I'm not sure if my voice had any sound. Slowly, she lowered her blade.

"I... I'm sorry, I..." Nephyn said haltingly, then quickly strode from the chamber. I moved to go after her, but I felt Drodie's hand on my shoulder.

"Let her go, lad," he said to me in the kindest voice I had ever heard come from that bearded face. "Let her be." I nodded and stood my ground.

"We truly did think you lost, little Halfling," said Lagodir quietly as he moved to take custody of the Red-maid. "I was unsure we could have won the battle but for Nephyn's ferocity. How are you feeling?"

"Well, I have a headache the size of the Southfarthing," I said as I put my hand to feel the back of my skull. "But other than that--" My voice trailed off as I brought my hand back down: it was covered in bright-red, wet, sticky blood, and it was mine. I fainted dead away.

The next thing I knew I was lying on my back again, but this time I saw staring at the starry sky of deep night. I could feel and hear a fire crackling away to my right, and I could sense that I was surrounded.

"He is awake," I heard Drodie saying. "Perhaps he will want something to eat."

"Not just now, my good Dwarf," I said with a weak smile. "Is Nephyn there?"

"Nephyn has been off by herself since we brought you back safely to Ost Guruth," I heard Gaelira say as she checked the bandages behind my head.

"O," I was all I could think say. Try as I might, I had no recollection of the battle with the Red-maid or our journey back to the Eglain stronghold.

"What happened today?" I asked no one in particular. "It seems we got caught up in something a bit above our station, if you'll pardon my saying so."

"I too have thought this," said Lagodir grimly. "I know not what sort of thing this Red-maid was, but I am glad to no longer have her as an enemy."

"Is the Red-maid... dead, then?" I asked.

"No, she is not dead," said Gaelira, "Although she may wish it so. I had begun to guess some days ago, but that which the Eglain know as the Red-maid is really an ancient river-spirit named Naruhel. They are similar in kind to Iarwain Ben-adar, that is: Tom Bombadil, as you know him. Or perhaps a better comparison would be to Goldberry, his companion. They are a strange race, and even we Elves do not know all there is to know about them."

"But this maiden had been turned," said Lagodir in a dark voice, "And she was a most formidable adversary."

"Yes, she had been turned, though I had no idea this was even possible," said Gaelira thoughtfully. "I had always believed beings of that kind could not have their nature altered so drastically, yet clearly it was done in Naruhel's case. I wonder... the Gaunt-lord Drodie and I had encountered while we searched for her sanctum may have had a hand in that."

"Aye, but don't forget that Khamul fellow," said Drodie unexpectedly. "Remember the skeleton king had said he was headed east -- right before I buried him under a few tons of stone."

"You speak the truth, my good Dwarf," said Gaelira. "That would indeed be a more probable explanation. The Gaunt-lord was likely continuing to carry out the Ringwraith's will in these parts, but we do not know where Khamul may have gone from here. We must all be cautious."

"And what did you do with Naruhel?" I asked, still lying on my back.

"Do? We did nothing with her," Gaelira responded. "Naruhel had been blinded by the guile of the Nazgul and turned into an agent of death and destruction. We came only in the nick of time, as it were, to save her from devouring all of the Lone-lands. But when we overcame her in battle she was released from whatever enthrallment Khamul had her under and she wept long and bitterly, for it will take many years for her to restore her homeland. I think she would have welcomed death after seeing what she herself had done to her beloved country, but there are also none better equipped to set it right."

"Yes, I pity her greatly and I know that we have done the right thing by sparing her," said Lagodir, though a bit doubtfully. "I am less certain what this victory has won us, however." He looked over his shoulder, assumedly in search of Nephyn.

"The young huntress was forced to confront her own evils," said Gaelira quietly but sternly. "Her life has been a hard one, fraught from the beginning with lost family, lost friends, and many betrayals. When she thought she had lost Padryc, well, it was a difficult thing to resist."

"Aye," said Drodie. "Did you notice how easily she turned her ire from the Red-maid to you, Gaelira?" The she-Elf nodded.

"Yes, but do not stand in judgment of her, my friends. For one thing I am probably deserving of her scorn in some measure, but remember too what Mallacai had said? Bring me the raiment of Naruhel, the Red-maid, and may you learn forgiveness in the process? I fear each of us may face similar trials as we continue this journey together. Who knows how we shall fare when our time comes?"

We all fell silent. I wondered what sorts of tests I might face on this adventure and how I would act under similar circumstances. I felt heartily sorry for Nephyn and thought about what it must have been like: to grow up in a place that you knew was not your home, abandoned by your own family to be raised by strangers. It was enough to make anyone bitter and jealous, but Nephyn still maintained a kind and cheerful personality. It was then I perceived that what I saw in Garth Agarwen was her pain, the cumulative pain of her lifetime, rising to the surface and lashing out at others in her suffering. Who, indeed, could stand in judgment of such a trial? And yet, in the end, she had done the right thing. She was an altogether remarkable Woman and I thought how lucky I am to have her for a companion. But I am only a hobbit and not given to ponder such deep thoughts overlong. I started to get curious about what had happened after I had been rendered unconscious.

"How did you all manage to overcome the Red-maid?" I asked as I tried to sit up a little. Gaelira reached out her hand and made me lie down again.

"You need your rest, little Shire-hobbit," she said to me. "Already the Moon climbs high, and we have our next task before us tomorrow."

"But I couldn't possibly go to sleep now without knowing what happened!" I begged. Gaelira sighed.

"Very well, but I will leave it to Lagodir to tell you that tale," she said and got up. "I wish to speak with the elders of this place and see what I can learn about the movements of Khamul, if indeed he came this way. The last thing we need now is to encounter that foul creature somewhere far from help in the middle of the Wild."

"I will tell you enough to satisfy you," said Lagodir with a smile as Gaelira strode off. "But then you must rest and ask no questions! I am still amazed that you are alive at all."

Lagodir proceeded to tell me how the same wave of blood and water which had knocked me senseless had scattered the rest of the Company except Drodie, who had managed to keep his footing. He charged Naruhel while the others recovered and came on the attack as well. But no one was able to harm the Red-maid for she would fling walls of swamp-water into the air to block them and rain torrents of it down on their heads to befuddle them. It seemed the Company was battling the swamp itself and were in danger of being overwhelmed.

"But that's when I heard a terrible cry from Nephyn," Lagodir said. "I followed her eyes and saw you lying in the water, and I thought certain you were slain. Nephyn must have thought likewise, for she became an unstoppable force, the likes of which I have rarely seen."

"Nor I!" agreed Drodie. "We Dwarves tell many tales of Uthi the Destroyer and his twin axes -- Sharok and Karkh, that is, Fear and Hate in our tongue -- which drink the souls of their victims. It was as if the Destroyer were brought to life in front of me, but it was our friend and no bed-time story that I saw."

"Her bow was useless under the circumstances, of course, but she attacked continuously with the Sword of Ringdor," Lagodir went on. "And yet she never landed a blow, for the Red-maid simply dodged this way and that, faster than a fox; the rest of us could only stand by and watch. Finally, Nephyn raised her sword high overhead and brought it down, but Naruhel caught the blade between her hands and wrenched it from her grasp. I thought Nephyn was doomed, but suddenly she reached out her arms and caught the Red-maid by the throat! She began to throttle Naruhel with a vicious and primal fury I never thought to see out of our friend. It was at some point during that struggle in which the Red-maid inexplicably went limp, as if she had given in, but Nephyn would not relent her attack. She caught up her sword even while her other hand remained on her opponent's neck and threatened to take Naruhel's head off. The rest, I think, you know already."

"Just one thing, though," I asked. "What of Naruhel's raiment? Did we ever find it?"

"O, I had forgotten about that," Lagodir said. "Yes, it is a very unusual garment which Naruhel surrendered to us after we set her free. It is rather foul, all covered with vines, twigs, and creeping things, but it is safe in Nephyn's pack. It seemed fitting that she should be the one to carry it."

The fire crackled loudly, sending up sparks into the night sky. I wondered where Nephyn was and what might be going through her mind in that hour. Lagodir leaned forward and checked the bandages behind my head.

"Good news, my friend: it appears the bleeding has finally stopped. It was not a bad cut, but it was deep and cuts to the head have a tendency to flow for long periods. You will recover, but you must rest ere the night be much older. I will go and refill our water-bottles, for we used all of the water washing the spent bandages and we will need it on the morrow."

"Are you still in the mood for tales?" asked Drodie with a leering grin after Lagodir had gone. "Because I could tell you wonderful stories of Uthi the Destroyer -- how he could split mountains with only his voice, how he swam upstream in the frigid Source of the Bruinen high in the Misty Mountains, or how he once created a river of blood from the necks of his enemies--"

"No!" I cried in revulsion. "No, I think I've had enough story-telling for one night, my friend. Just now I think I really should get some rest." Drodie shrugged, then started humming some strange Dwarf-tune to himself as he lit up his pipe.

I lay there a little while longer thinking over the events of the past few days and marvelling at the strange adventure I had somehow become a part of. I wondered what would be our next task and whether some mysterious trial awaited us when we found it. The Moon was now directly overhead, and I finally fell asleep, bathed in her silvery light.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 25.2

The Blood-swamp

Sterday, 30th of Afteryule, Year 1418, Shire-reckoning
Ost Guruth, the Lone-lands
The Red Swamp of Agamaur
It felt like it was going to be a strange day from the moment I woke up this morning: the sky was nothing more than a cloudy pall, as though a white sheet had been drawn across the heavens. As I lay on my back studying it, I thought how this sort of weather was fairly common during the winter, but something about it still seemed threatening or oppressive.

I roused myself and started pulling my gear together, for I suspected we would start our search for the elusive Red-maid as soon as we were all prepared. The Eglain who populated this ruin they called Ost Guruth were hushed and went about their business with bowed backs while casting fearful glances at us. Since he was the only one of the Company who had previously been among them, I asked Lagodir what he thought was the matter.

"I am not certain," the Gondorian answered in a low voice, "But if I were to guess I should think they fear that we shall stir the wrath of this Red-maid against them. Whatever manner of creature she may be, the Eglain clearly fear her."

We kept to ourselves as we left the outpost shortly thereafter by way of a fallen section of wall on the eastern side. The ground quickly fell away before us and down into a bog, the waters of which ran red! I had never seen anything like it before in my life: a swamp of blood! We all crept forward with great apprehension, wondering what this sign might mean.

It turned out to be no ill omen or work of sorcery, for the fetid waters were merely overrun with some form of plant life which created a red sheen on the surface of the pools. You can imagine my relief when I saw Lagodir dip his hand into one and it came up clear -- dirty, but not sanguine. That made me feel a good deal better, but the whole impact of the Agamaur swamp (as I was later told to be the name of that place) was one of a dreary and be-plagued wasteland. My spirits sank faster than my feet did into the oozing mire.

After about an hour of mucking about the fens we spied a pass in the hills to the north and headed that direction. There was a natural defile which passed through the rock and out into an enormous series of ruins, all nearly overwhelmed by the red waters of the swamp. Based on the hints and warnings we got from the Eglain, we must have reached Garth Agarwen, the lair of the Red-maid. We pressed forward cautiously to search into every crevice.

The day wore on and we found nothing of note. Eventually, we decided to split up and cover more ground: Lagodir, Nephyn, and I would head south while Gaelira and Drodie would search northward. I silently noted to myself how neither the Dwarf nor the Elf objected to this arrangement and wondered if perhaps relations between them might be improving.

Once we split our party in two, things continued on in much the same manner as before until we began to encounter small bands of strange Men in the ruins. Some of them fled when we approached, but many would attack us. The skill of Nephyn and Lagodir was such that none of these poorly equipped and woefully untrained brutes stood any real chance, but there was something about them that unnerved me: I saw the same burning light of madness in each of their eyes, and it filled me with pity and loathing. When I pointed it out to the others, Lagodir nodded his head.

"I have seen something like this before," he  said, "In the eyes of many Easterlings and Southrons which have assaulted the borders of Gondor."

"These can only be the descendants of the Men of Rhudaur, allies of Angmar who once occupied these lands centuries ago. Do you think they are being controlled by some foul sorcery?" asked Nephyn with a voice full of fear and awe.

"No, I do not think that," Lagodir replied. "I think they are fanatics -- folk enslaved of their own will to be thralls to the masters they have chosen to follow. I know not what lies of the Enemy set them on this path."

"Such weakness of mind and will makes them deserving of death, if you ask me," said Nephyn with some heat.

"You will find no soldier of Gondor ever granting them mercy, including myself, for we slay them only in our own defence," said Lagodir. "And yet, truth be told, I do pity them, for their zealotry and loyalty would be great assets if only their owners would allow them to be used for some noble purpose." Nephyn was silent, but her eyes were hard as she stared straight ahead.

The day wore on. We encountered no more of the Men, but we somehow found ourselves deep inside a forest of sickly trees amidst the red waters of the Agamaur swamp. We spent hours picking our way among the shifting mires and the trunks of half-choked trees. By the time we finally emerged it must have been at least the third hour from noon, though it was hard to tell because those white, low-riding clouds were still casting a pall over us. It might have been my imagination, but the sky almost looked red to me, as if the clouds were reflecting the dull, blood-like hue of the waters through which we continued to slosh. Suddenly, there arose in front of us the largest portion of the ruins we had seen yet, and somehow we knew the Red-maid must be within.

There was no sign of Gaelira or Drodie, so the three of us made up a campfire and settled down to wait. Nephyn and Lagodir would occasionally journey off on their own to see if they could catch any indication of where our companions might be, but they never went far and found nothing. I fidgeted nervously as the minutes ticked by without change. We tried to pass the time in snippets of conversation about this or that, but the longer we waited the more certain I felt something terrible had befallen our companions.

It must have been more than an hour later when the Elf and Dwarf finally appeared. They both looked spent -- even Gaelira -- and took a good while to recover before they could continue. From their telling, they apparently ran into an ancient burial site of the Rhudaurian Hillmen which was now crawling with accursed wights. Our friends had pushed relentlessly onward and confronted some foul apparition called a "Gaunt-lord" which fled before them, but it was only through much more danger that they had managed to reach us.

"Never before in all my years have I seen such perversity," said Gaelira. "The Gaunt-lord was sacrificing living Men, captured folk of the Eglain, I suspect, and harvesting their souls to create undead thralls to Angmar! The evil of it takes my breath away, but all the more am I resolved to see this place cleansed. We should press on as soon as we are able."

I was curious to learn more about the black arts Gaelira had described, but the others made haste to move on and I got the feeling the Elf would not willingly speak more on the subject in any case. Besides, the light of day would soon be leaving us and I did not like the thought of being caught in that abominable swamp after dark. With no more talk, we collected ourselves and entered the ruined centre of Garth Agarwen.

The landscape was not changed from what we had seen earlier in the day, but somehow the oppressiveness of the low sky seemed even worse than before. The clouds felt as though they were directly overhead, stifling anything that breathed, and now they really did seem to glow with a hellish crimson sheen. I suddenly found myself wondering what on earth I was doing here and why I couldn't have been left to my little Southfarthing homestead in peace. But the others' faces were grim and set as we advanced silently further and further toward our quarry.

There was a strong concentration of the Hillmen there within the fortress, but our Company was more than a match for the fanatics. We also encountered several disgusting wights, but by now we were used to battling them and they also were unable to halt our progress. Finally, we stood before two enormous oaken doors. The Sun had emerged from behind the clouds as it set, and so the sky really was stained red as we swung the doors open and made our way into a peculiar place.

The area was round, as though it were some sort of meeting chamber. There were fallen pillars in various spots and for the most part it was open, but it was also covered in nearly a foot of the red-coloured swamp water. I scarcely noticed any of this, however, because directly in front of us was a horrid sight: A tall woman in red held a Man in her arms from behind. A dagger was in her grip, its edge placed against the Man's neck! But the Man just stood there with that disturbing gleam in his eyes.

"I sacrifice myself to thee!" cried the Man. To my horror, the Red-maid drew the dagger's blade across the Man's throat. A wave of crimson gushed forth as he sank to the ground and the woman let his life-blood wash over her. She was hideous -- her face was twisted in a nauseating combination of malice and glee, her hair was wild, and her body was covered and dripping with blood everywhere. That's when I saw that, unlike before, the red of the swamp really was blood in this dreadful room. My stomach lurched in revulsion. I felt light-headed and sick, but I forced myself to stand and face the Red-maid. The ghoul looked at us with wide, yellow-glazed eyes then bared her fangs at us in a monstrous smile.

"Who comes hither that are not my devoted?" she asked in a cracked voice, "I find your hearts amusingly pure. Come, children; come and let me sup upon your noble blood."

Instantly, our Company drew its weapons and rushed at her. For myself, I instinctively knew this devil would destroy us if we did not take the offensive; I was terrified of her, but attack was the only option. The Red-maid raised her arms and, suddenly, the waters beneath our feet rose high into the air before crashing down toward me in a massive wave of force! I halted and let my hammer fall as I stared helplessly at my own death.

"Padryc!" I heard Nephyn scream, but I could do nothing: the torrent slammed into me, sweeping me completely off my feet. I was hurled backwards until I crashed into a wall. My eyes went dark and I knew nothing more.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 25.1

The Lonely Road

Monday, 25th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Torogethir's camp, Somewhere in Evendim
I was up at dawn this morning and feeling mightily refreshed. The calming waters of Lake Evendim continued their endless swishing at the shores of the small island on which my friends and I had spent the night. Our hosts, a contingent of Rangers from Tinnudir, were already about their business; I saw several steal away southward at one point, most likely to scout Annuminas and bring back any reports of the Enemy's movements there. Through talking with Gaelira and Maladan -- the Rangers' leader here -- I gathered our Company would wait until word was brought back from those scouts before we attempted our next move.

To pass the time, I wandered off a little ways and made a makeshift fishing pole out of a willow-branch, some twine, and a spare hook I carry with me. Then I watched a magnificent sunrise over the lake while I nabbed a few perch and some golden mullet. After a time, I had enough to serve everyone a portion, so I seared it all over the campfire then dressed it up a bit with some rubbed sage and a pinch of salt. Together with some of our usual rations of waybread, it was the best breakfast I've had since the last time we stayed at the Prancing Pony, many days ago!

While we ate, the five of us discussed our adventure from yesterday. Gaelira expressed her apologies for what she said was a poor decision to lead us into the teeth of the Enemy's forces in Annuminas, but I don't think the rest of us held her responsible for what happened. I certainly didn't: none of us had any way of knowing that the Angmarim had so entrenched themselves within the city in such a short time. Our foray was rather touch-and-go, but once again we had emerged victorious through our creativity and teamwork -- although I can't deny a little luck helped as well. Still, I've come to realize a bit of luck is part of the adventurer's fare and sometimes risks must be taken.

Be that as it may, any uncertainty about our next move was resolved for us when Maladan's scouts began to return. For one thing, the Enemy was now watching the path we had taken to enter the city yesterday with a dedicated guard -- there was no hope of our using it again while their vigil lasted.

"The hordes of Angmar are alerted to your presence," Maladan said to us. "With both the approach from the hills and the main gate held by foes too numerous to assault, it would be best if both you and we were to vanish from sight for a time. Then, when their vigilance wanes, we will strike harder and swifter than before."

Now that any chance of penetrating further into Annuminas was gone for the time being, the Company decided to make an attempt at fulfilling the other tasks Mallacai had set before us. As it happened, Lagodir had heard rumors from the nomads in the Lone-lands about the mysterious "Red-maid" when he had journeyed in that place some time ago.

"There is a waypoint there, now nothing more than a tumbled ruin, called Ost Guruth and many of the Eglain make their home within it," said Lagodir. "When I had passed through there, I heard whispers of this 'Red-maid' among the elders. I know not what sort of creature she might be, but it was said her lair was within the ruined fortress of Garth Agarwen, in the northeastern reaches of the Lone-lands."

It was beginning to appear that this would be our next target, especially since the Trollshaws and the Misty Mountains both lay to the east of the Lone-lands. After a bit more talk it was settled. We said our farewells to Maladan and the Rangers, and set out once again.

Our path, as I understood it, was to return north across the Brandywine back to the crossroads, then travel east back toward the Fields of Fornost. We would have to cross those fields again, then turn south to Trestlebridge. That should take roughly two days to cover, then another day marching south down the Greenway to Bree. From there, it would take yet another day to reach the Lone-lands themselves and Lagodir was certain it would take a fourth day to reach the ruins of Ost Guruth and only at that point would our search for the Red-maid begin in earnest. I had to steel myself for a great deal of exertion, for there was to be quite a lot of walking ahead of me. Already my clothing was much looser on me than it was when I began this adventure some weeks ago.

There wasn't much to tell about our travels for the remainder of the day. The trip back across the Brandywine to the crossroads was uneventful and the stone king still stood there, watching over the four ways which branched out from his feet. Taking the eastern way, we covered many more miles while the Sun beat on the backs of our necks. Fortunately, it is still winter so it was not uncomfortable. We marched in silence for the most part, for the land itself was quiet as ever, but the silence among us was not the brooding uneasiness our Company felt when we had last passed this way. To the contrary, I think we were all taking stock of the tasks set before us and how we would accomplish them together, and I took great comfort in knowing that the wounds which had so recently divided us seemed to be healing swiftly.

By dusk we had reached the makeshift camp of Torogethir. The Ranger was not there, but his tent and a spent campfire still remained tucked safely amid the ruins at the top of his small hill, so we settled ourselves down and passed the night there. Just as I was wrapping up this entry in my journal I happened to look up and see Hremm perched on an ancient pillar. He looked at me with interest and cawed once, so I wished him a good night and curled up to go to sleep.

Trewsday, 26th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Trestlebridge, the North Downs

When I woke this morning I saw that Torogethir the Ranger had returned to his camp and was in council with the others (except Drodie, who was eating). Apparently the Fields of Fornost were quiet now and whatever malevolent force which had befouled that place was withdrawn to some dark crevice for reasons unknown. Torogethir wondered if perhaps it had something to do with our defeat of the wraith at Fornost, but there was no way to know for certain.

The day was pale and cloudy, but it was not oppressive. After a quick meal, we packed up and entered the Fields again. It was still a fearsome desert, but I cannot deny that our passage was much swifter and lighter than the last time. By noon we were back on the Greenway and making good time south toward Trestlebridge. As the Sun set we returned to that small town. The Trestlespan was still heavily guarded, but the people there seemed to have recovered well since the tragedy which struck them roughly two weeks prior. We were warmly welcomed and given quarters in the partially built structure that would eventually become the new Red Lion Inn. As I sit on the floor writing this I am basically behind two walls and half a roof, but it still gives me great hope for these people who suffered so cruelly at the hands of Angmar's minions. It makes me think that I should think less about my aching feet and the miles we have still to go.

Hevensday, 27th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Northern Bree-fields, Bree-land

Today dawned much cloudier than yesterday and it looked likely to turn to rain. The folk of Trestlebridge were terribly kind to us and asked if we could stay a bit longer. I would have liked to very much in light of the bad weather which appeared to be on its way, but the others insisted we had to be going. We were escorted out the south-gate by a small mob of grateful villagers who stood there waving goodbye to us until we were out of sight over the hill. I took time while we walked to reflect on what an immense impact our actions had for these people and wondered whether there might be others like them of which we knew nothing.

Thunder interrupted my reverie as a winter-storm fell upon us. It was one of those furious but fast-moving types that arrive with much fanfare but never hang around long. That was well for us because it brought drenching rain, but only for a short time. The worst was walking along with wet clothing in the chilly air which followed, but eventually the clouds parted and the Sun returned to warm our stiff bones.

We encountered no adventures on the Greenway, but we decided to not enter Bree that night. The others were concerned that the Prancing Pony offered opportunity for too many eyes probing and ears prodding, and they preferred to keep our whereabouts quiet for the time being. Instead, we set up camp in a small copse of trees roughly within bowshot of the north-gate of town. I gazed mournfully at the Inn, the lighted windows of which I could see set into the side of Bree-hill, while fancying I could hear the laughter and song of the Common Room even from this distance.

Lagodir tried to cheer me up by telling us a story of the time he fought in a duel with the famous Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth (wherever that may be, exactly). The duel went to the warrior who bested the other in two of three events: jousting on horseback, archery, and swordsmanship. Apparently the Prince is a master cavalryman for he threw Lagodir three horse-lengths off his saddle when they clashed, but he could not hit an archery target from ten yards out, and Lagodir bested him there. The match at swords was bitter, but the Prince eventually had the victory as he caught Lagodir on the cheek guard, giving him a nasty scar across the bridge of his nose, which Lagodir showed to us. It seemed our Gondorian friend was finally coming out of his shell, so to speak, and I was happy to see it for you could tell he had lived a most interesting life. After a time, somewhat recompensed for having to miss the comforts of the Pony, I drifted off to sleep and dreamed of mounted knights with shining armour, long lances, and thundering hooves.

Mersday, 28th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Forsaken Inn, the Lone-lands

The skies were high and clear but the wind was chilly today, as is so often the case following a storm. We did not loiter around Bree but circumvented it along the western edge before turning to strike the Great East Road. It was a long and dull journey, although the weather and the scenery were quite pleasant, for the most part. There was a point where the Road drew near a height which overlooked a fetid bog.

"Yonder lies the Midgewater Marshes," said Nephyn as she pointed north. "I'm glad we are not going that way, for the land is as treacherous as it is miserable."

"Truly spoken," said Lagodir grimly, "As I myself can attest. For I had to cross that swamp on my way to Bree, having been forced thither by a marauding band of goblins in the Weather Hills. I am grateful that Fate is not driving me thence a second time. Although I have seen worse places."

We continued on our way with the Midgewater Marshes to our left. Eventually, the grass became brownish and more sparse and we entered a land which was hilly, but not rocky. The Lone-lands had been aptly named, for it was a barren and empty place with few inhabitants. And yet, in front of us and just off the Road, there rose a single-storied building.

"That," said Nephyn as she pointed, "Must be the Forsaken Inn! I have heard of it in Bree, but I have never seen it with my own eyes. But the rumours about it are true enough: it really is a shell of a house and little more."

Even before we reached the inn I could see what she meant: the roof was partially caved in, leaving a large hole in the ceiling. Here and there bits of the masonry had crumbled or fallen away and many of the windows were either broken or had no coverings at all. It was an altogether dreary spectacle, and I wondered what sort of folk we would find there.

"I've always heard that there is a mixture of Bree-folk and the Eglain to be had at the Forsaken Inn," Nephyn told us. "Rough sorts, to be sure, but not a bad lot. We should be fine so long as we mind our manners and don't offend anyone."

"You're suggesting we gag the Dwarf, then?" asked Lagodir with a mischievous grin.

"Try it and you'll have yourself another scar to match the one already on your pretty face," Drodie growled. We all laughed heartily as we swung the creaking oaken door to the Forsaken Inn back on its rusty hinges.

Inside it was dim and musty. There were few candles lit and most of the light came in through the hole in the roof, but the Sun was nearing the end of its daily journey. There were two good-sized fires going in the hearths and roughly a dozen patrons milling about the place. Most seemed to be conducting business of one sort or another, and we received many doubtful glances from the regulars as we swept in with our white cloaks unfurled. I sniffed the air.

"It smells of... of rotten mushrooms and wet dog in here," I said with a grimace. The place was filthy, and the one barmaid wandering about the inn armed with a broom was using it mostly to beat off unwanted suitors rather than cleaning anything. There was damp straw on the floor, rickety tables and chairs jumbled in any manner of disorganization, and some of the most bizarre wall ornaments I have ever seen. In one corner, just to the right of the main hearth, there was the mounted head of a wolf which gripped a greasy apron in its snarling jowls. I scratched my head in disbelief.

"Well, that's one use for a mounted wolf-head!" laughed Nephyn, who was standing near me. "I can't say I've ever heard anyone call this place 'refined.' In fact, the only thing notable about it is the ale."

"Really?" I asked. I have a weakness for good spirits, but I had trouble believing this ramshackle tavern could possibly offer anything worth sampling.

"Oh yes," Nephyn assured me. "The kegs of the Forsaken Inn are legendary in these parts." It was to my own lasting misfortune that I did not catch the impish smile on her face as she said this.

One thing led to another, and eventually it was decided that Drodie and I should have a drinking contest: last one standing wins. Everyone in the place gathered around to watch the proceedings. No one seemed to think I would stand a chance against a Dwarf at this game, but such things are not unheard of in the Shire; I've seen my share of similar contests and been known to win a few as well. Unfortunately, the instant the first mug passed my lips I realized I had made a grave error.

It was the most foul, watered-down, skunky, and slimy thing called "beer" that had ever found its way into my throat! I would have ended the whole thing then and there, but I was honour-bound to hold my own and I didn't want to shame my homeland without a fight. I managed to down seven of the hideous things before I blacked out. The next thing I knew Nephyn was giving me a sliver of ginger to revive me and settle my stomach. I had the dry-heaves and my head was swimming.

"That was the most disgusting, most foul, most revolting brew I've ever tasted!" I coughed several times and rather hoped I might be able to evacuate my innards, but I had no such luck. I suddenly guessed just how it was the Forsaken Inn had gotten both its "legendary" reputation as well as its unique odour. Drodie was doing a little Dwarf-dance to celebrate his victory, although he looked a bit unsteady to me.

"Twelve!" he bellowed and laughed, his beard wet with the stuff. "Twelve swills for the Dwarfs and the Dwarfs are still on my feets. No one can out-drunk this drinkard!" He twirled in his dance and toppled over noisily.

"For once I agree with the 'Dwarfs,'" said Gaelira with a smile. The entire room exploded with laughter.

It took us a little while to collect ourselves, but we spent the night in that dilapidated watering hole. I was unable to eat anything for fear of further upsetting my stomach, but eventually I was able to get some sleep. The only thing I could think of was moving on and leaving the nauseating stench of the Forsaken Inn behind me forever.

Highday, 29th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ruins of Ost Guruth, Somewhere in the Lone-lands

This morning brought more clear skies and some clouds, all of which were easily visible through what still remained of the roof of the Forsaken Inn. Despite loud calls from the rest of the patrons for another round of the drinking game, we extricated ourselves from the shack and resumed our eastward journey.

"Well, it turns out the folk of the Forsaken Inn aren't all that bad," I said as we walked in the gentle breezes sweeping the Lone-lands. "So long as you are willing to make a complete ass of yourself and nearly die from drinking their infernal swill, that is. Nephyn, it's very possible I may never forgive you for putting me up to that! Just giving you fair warning. And turn-about is fair play, you know." I gave her a wink and a smile.

"I am sorry," laughed the huntress, "But you cannot deny you were curious! At least I gave you something to write about in your journal -- the past few days must have had very short entries indeed, for we have done little but march from morning til dark."

"Truly!" I agreed, "Though I didn't have an easy task of it: my writing last night was greatly hindered on account of there constantly being two sets of words on the page before me. How is our steel-bellied Dwarf holding up this morning?" There was a low groan from somewhere behind us. It seemed that Drodie was taking longer to recover from his ordeal than I was. We walked onward.

As the morning haze cleared, I could see away to the north a large hill that appeared to be crowned with some fallen ruins. It was an impressive landmark, and so I drew out my memory of it in this journal. It doesn't do the real thing justice, however, not by a long mark; if you should ever happen to travel the Lone-lands, Dear Reader, I sincerely hope you can see it for yourself.

"There lies Weathertop," said Lagodir and pointed. "It commands an unrivalled view of the surrounding country, but it lies well to the north of the Road and out of our direct route. Perhaps someday we will have the pleasure of scaling it together."

"Perhaps!" I said, "And I should take much pleasure in doing so, though you won't find me wandering too near the edge when we do: it looks frightfully tall."

A bit further on we came to a stone bridge, most of which had fallen down. It spanned a riverbed, but the river appeared to have dried up long ago.

"Looks like the bridge is out," I said as we approached.

"Fortunately for you, so is the river," said Lagodir as we worked our way down the banks. Hobbits have never been known as gifted water-men, and I am no exception.

"Maybe all the water was used for the bear," Drodie said heavily from behind us.

"Bear?!" I cried and whirled around looking for one. "Where is the bear?!"

"I think our inebriated Dwarf meant to say beer," said Nephyn with a wide grin. "It seems our quaffing champion is suffering from delayed onset." We had a good laugh at Drodie's expense, though my head pounded with the effort.

There is little more to tell about our journey through the Lone-lands. We kept to the road and met no adversaries all day, but we could see several places well off the Road to both sides where old ruins still dotted the landscape. I wondered whether any folk lived in those places, but Lagodir did not seem to think so. Our path kept fairly straight on but rose and fell many times in the process, until finally we could see a very large ruin looming ahead and to our left.

"That is Ost Guruth," said Lagodir, "Just as I remember it. We should find shelter and provision within, but look not overmuch for welcome."

The Eglain were not pleased to see us at first, but once we explained to their elders that we intended to destroy the Red-maid they became much more accommodating. Unfortunately, all they could tell us was she was rumoured to have her lair deep within the ancient Rhudaurian fortress of Garth Agarwen, which lay in the swamps east of Ost Guruth. No one was able to tell us anything about the Red-maid herself.

As night came upon us, we found ourselves in our own little camp, isolated from the inhabitants. This was more out of awe, I thought, rather than dislike or fear, for the Eglain seemed to think we were either great heroes or completely insane for attempting to challenge the Red-maid. I wondered what sort of creature she was and what we would do if we ever managed to find her. Luckily for me, I was too tired to worry about it tonight and decided to let tomorrow worry about itself.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 24

A High Road

Sunday, 24th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ranger-camp of Men Erain, Outside the Ruins of Annuminas
The Ruins of Annuminas
I cannot express to you, Dear Reader, just how good it feels to have my toes back on solid ground again. This entire day was not at all to my liking as we spent most of it at an altitude which is simply not natural, leastways not for hobbits. But, at the end of it all, we did accomplish one of the many tasks set to us by that Elf called Mallacai. Let me tell you what happened.

When I woke up I was very glad I did so. Although I had slept quite well, waking up and finding yourself on the idyllic shores of Lake Nenuial under a sapphire sky with just the right number of puffy clouds is better than even most dreams might chance to be. I sat up, fully awake, stretched, and breathed deeply. The air was crisp but not chilly and I found myself wondering why I had been permitted to sleep so long.

My companions were all up and about their own business. Gaelira was poring over maps of the environs, Lagodir was off somewhere having his sword sharpened by a smithy, Nephyn was busy organizing our stores, and Drodie was busy eating them. For myself, I casually ambled over and snatched up some rashers of bacon and a pouch of dried fruit while Nephyn tutored the Dwarf on what was the proper portion of cured beef to which a wise adventurer ought to limit himself -- without success. I suppressed my laughter and stole away quietly to sit at the base of an enormous pine-tree which grew right at the edge of the water.

As I sat there breakfasting, I pondered the various tasks which Mallacai had laid before us. He had asked us to hunt down several creatures and servants of the Enemy which sounded quite terrifying and which seemed to be located in a wide range of places. Three of the places he had mentioned I had actually heard of before. The name Annuminas had been thrown around more than once in the past day or two, and I gathered it was the ruins of some large, important, and ancient city of Men who used to make their capital in this region. It logically followed that place must be fairly close by. The Trollshaws and Goblin-town I knew from the silly tales told to hobbit-children about Old Mad Baggins, of all things. If memory served, the Trollshaws was a wooded area somewhere between Bree and the Misty Mountains where Baggins had encountered his first serious adventure by bumping into three large trolls. Goblin-town, meanwhile, was supposed to have been the place where Baggins and his thirteen Dwarven companions were captured by the goblins high up in the Misty Mountains themselves. The idea that we might be going there made me shudder, for although I had never really believed them, the stories had always described that place in a most horrid manner. As for Sarnur and the lurking place of the mysterious "Red-maid," I had absolutely no idea, and I hoped my friends might be able to puzzle them out for us. I wondered too what sort of boon Mallacai's expert craftsmen would be able to create for us, if we should prove successful. It was all rather exciting -- at least for now, since I was calmly munching on fruit by a beautiful lakeside and currently in no danger whatsoever.

The next several hours proved dull and tedious, so I will not bore you with extensive details. The Company came together and decided, since it was relatively nearby, to attempt and collect the armour of Angmar's champions in Annuminas first. The mood among us was buoyant as a result of having one of our new objectives waiting for us so close by: even from where we stood we could see the stone spires of the ancient city rising majestically over the lake. But I wore a wry face, for it still looked a long ways off to me.

It turned out I was right. Because the Rangers did not wish to risk betraying their position on Tinnudir, there were no boats available to take us straight across the lake to the outskirts of Annuminas. Instead, we were forced to march back across the stone bridge, wheel north back to the cross-roads with the stone king we had passed the day before, take the southward road from there, climb up a steep rise, and finally descend down toward a river. This turned out to be the Brandywine River, of all things, though we were many leagues north of the Shire, and this spur actually ran out of Lake Evendim itself before it turned south and flowed down toward my homeland. At this point, the road crossed the Brandywine by way of a massive bridge of stone which was crowned with the most colossal statue I have ever seen in my life. I would have traced a rough copy of it in this journal, but it was so large you couldn't possibly get a good view of it unless you were standing a mile or more off and had a clear line of sight. There was a contingent of Rangers camped beneath that statue (and right on the bridge itself), but we only stayed long enough to have a light lunch and get some directions from them. I sat under the statue and wondered how many hobbits would have to stand on top of each other to reach the tip of that gargantuan piece of masonry.

Soon we were moving on. Just on the south side of the bridge, the Rangers told us, we would find a rough track leading west that would take us to the ruins of Annuminas. We found this without difficulty and followed it as it looped around the foot of a sheer cliff. As we turned the corner, we were met with a most interesting sight.

The path ran onward, but it suddenly became quite well-laid (although still very ancient and clearly not recently maintained). It proceeded in almost a straight line in front of us, but smaller tracks split off to the side at many points, and at the ends of these were what looked to me like several large stone houses, but Lagodir explained that they were really tombs of kings long dead. There were gorgeous willow-trees lining the road, their long limbs reaching far down to drink in the water of the lake, but not far ahead of us we could see a small band of Men busy about a group of ruins upon a low island. It was clear they were not foes, so we made our way to them.

They were indeed Rangers and they were led by a dour-faced Man named Maladan. From him we learned that the main road into Annuminas was blocked by many enemies and we would have little hope of entering the city that way. He suggested instead that we follow the paths into the hills, for there was a track there which led around the front entrance and descended into the city behind the main gate. That sounded hopeful, so far as it went, so after another brief rest we continued on our way. It was already after the noon hour.

A short ways on, we came upon a mighty stair which climbed up, up, up into the hills. Soon we were picking our way among the rocks, slowly working our way south toward the city. I was chiefly concerned with trying to not look down, for there was nothing at all between me and a straight drop hundreds of feet to my death. If you aren't already aware, I can tell you that we hobbits do not like heights, as a rule. Even our homes never have more than one storey, and we prefer to never stand on anything taller than a short step-ladder. My poor head was quite addled by the altitude, even though my companions insisted we were nowhere near high up enough for me to be experiencing dizziness. When we were well back away from the edge of the cliffs, however, I did take the occasion to look at the sight before me. And let me tell you: no matter what happens to me in the course of this adventure, that sight was worth the risk.

"Lagodir, are there mighty buildings of stone like this in your homeland of Gondor?" Nephyn asked as we all stood looking out over Lake Evendim. At least a dozen towers of impressive craftsmanship rose high into the air and gleamed in the afternoon Sun.

"There are," the Man replied, "Though, like Annuminas, many places in Gondor have now fallen into ruin or disrepair. Osgiliath, the greatest of our mason-works and the capital of my country before its eastern half was overrun by the hordes of the Black Land, is one such. Proud Minas Ithil stands still, but it is defiled by the agents of the Enemy. Only Minas Tirith yet holds her defiant vigil o'er the plains of the Pelennor and the Harlond, and she is today the greatest example remaining. Like these spires you see before you now, the upper levels of the Tower of Guard rise so high that, on some days, they can be lost in the fleece of low-riding clouds."

"Well, here's a funny thing!" Nephyn chuckled. "We have in this Company one who has lived deep beneath the earth, another who lives just below the surface, two who (I assume) walk upon it, and now one who apparently has lived among the clouds! Perhaps Gaelira will now tell us she has walked among the stars?"

"Not I," said Gaelira with a warm smile. "Although I do not deny I would do so, if somehow given the chance."

"And I have not lived among the clouds, Nephyn," Lagodir said with a laugh. "The higher tiers of Minas Tirith are restricted in these uncertain times and only those who know the pass-words are permitted into them. I myself have only lived in the lowest circle of the White City."

I looked at them as we all cast our eyes over the magnificent sight before us. The Sun was westering and her light was falling fully on us so that every bit of iron and steel seemed to glisten as if it were gold or brightly polished silver. Each of them looked in that moment like mighty heroes of ancient legend, and I was proud to count myself among them. I noticed how the contention in our ranks seemed to have melted away now that we had a clear mission to pursue, and I dared to hope that the mistrust among us had evaporated like a shallow puddle on a hot day in Wedmath.

Speaking of summertime, I found myself thanking goodness that it wasn't summertime over the next few hours. The going became quite difficult as we searched and searched among the rocks for a way down into Annuminas. The Sun ceased to be flattering and instead became merely burdensome and hot. We ended up having to backtrack multiple times as we tried out several downward pathways, but finally, as the day reached the sixth hour after noon, we found what we were looking for.

The track ran steeply downward and right into the city. From our vantage point, we could see we were now well behind the main entrance, which lay some distance off to our right, while the bulk of Annuminas still was to our left. But at the moment we were concerned with what was directly in front of us: a patrol of four Men, three of which were dressed in crimson robes. With a shock I recognized the attire as the same worn by the two strange Men we encountered in the Chetwood all those weeks ago. The fourth Man was taller than the others and wore leather and chain armour of some black material, and his helm was adorned with cruel-looking spikes. Before we had any chance to hide ourselves, one of the Men had spied us!

"Lord Siridan!" he cried as he pointed in our direction, "Look!"

The black-armoured Man turned and beheld us. I realized that Fate had somehow deigned that we would thus encounter the first champion of Angmar with such ease, for Siridan was one of the three warriors Mallacai had demanded Lagodir slay to prove his valour. Despite the distance, I could see his eyes narrow and his lips curl in fury. A cold fear smote me then -- a fear of what hatred can do to a Man's heart.

"Kill them!" roared Siridan.

All four Men unlimbered crossbows and aimed them at us! I had just enough wits to duck behind a stone before three bolts flew through the air. One passed through the spot I had just vacated and skipped harmlessly off the gravel behind us. A second whisked past Gaelira, who had contorted her body in order to successfully dodge the missile. The third lodged itself in Drodie's shield and stuck there. The Dwarf and Lagodir both drew their swords and charged just as one of the crimson-robed Men fell with a shaft from Nephyn's bow through his heart.

Out from two crimson robes swept two long, pale swords of steel, and Lagodir and Drodie entered the battle. I saw Nephyn trying to take aim again with her bow, but she could not get a clear shot and Siridan had concealed himself behind a half-fallen pillar of stone. I could see the black-clad warrior taking aim with a hideous-looking crossbow made of some sable-coloured material. With a thrill of terror I realized that he had a dead aim on the Dwarf!

"Drodie!" I hollered at the top of my shrill voice, "Look---"

But I was too late. There was a clank as the bolt struck Drodie's breastplate. The Dwarf groaned and dropped to one knee. The Man he was fighting smiled and raised his sword to kill. But, with Drodie out of the way, Nephyn sent an arrow through the Man's eye and he fell dead. I clapped my hands to my mouth, for the Dwarf had still not recovered and I feared he had suffered a mortal wound, but I couldn't go to him yet, for the fight was ongoing. Lagodir was furiously parrying the attacks of his quarry and I could hear shouts coming from somewhere in the distance: no doubt the noise from our skirmish was attracting attention from soldiers further inside the city. We may have had only moments before we were overwhelmed. My heart pounded, but I could think of nothing to do. With another shot of horror, I saw Siridan re-load his crossbow. He had almost the exact same view of the Gondorian that he had at Drodie, and it looked like nothing could stop him from spitting another of my friends.

That's when Gaelira suddenly appeared beside me at my hiding place behind the stone. In spite of everything going on, I couldn't help but wonder what she was doing hiding back here when our friends were in such danger, and a dark cloud of old suspicions arose in my mind. But, before I could say anything, the she-Elf pointed and said, "I have summoned for help. Look!"

Following her gaze, I saw a raven swoop down and attack Siridan, interrupting his aim!

"Hremm!" I shouted, heedless of giving away my position. "Yay, Hremm!" I jumped and waved my arms as though I was cheering on someone playing at ninepins in the Lithe Festival back home.

Siridan lowered his crossbow and swatted at the bird, but Hremm was too quick. While the champion was thus occupied, I saw Lagodir finally run through the third crimson-robed Man with his broadsword. He immediately advanced on Siridan, who had finally driven off Hremm, but too late: even as he raised his black crossbow to take aim at Lagodir, the Gondorian just seized the contraption and smashed it on the ground then placed the tip of his sword against the Man's breast. Siridan stood there, frozen in amazement and helpless. Since I was still partway up the slope, I could see small figures running hither and thither inside the city and knew that reinforcements were only moments away.

"They're coming!" I yelled. Then, in one motion as fast as lightning, Lagodir lopped Siridan's head off. The rest of the champion's body fell over while Nephyn ran down to Drodie's side. The Dwarf was still upright, but he remained doubled over and on one knee. Gaelira and I ran down to them also while Lagodir surveyed the wreck of Siridan's corpse.

"What part of this armour am I meant to take?" he asked confusedly. Somehow, I felt I knew the answer.

"The helm!" I shouted at him, "Take the helm!"

Without an argument, Lagodir seized the helm of his decapitated foe and shook the head out from inside of it. I saw it thud to the ground, still wearing a wide-eyed expression of shock. By now we could all hear hurrying feet and the clash of spears on shields.

"They are coming!" Nephyn cried as she tried to lift Drodie up. "Friend Dwarf, can you run?"

"I shall have to try," came Drodie's answer, but his voice was raspy. We immediately beat a retreat up the slope and out of Annuminas just as a rush of Angmarim appeared below us. It took them a moment to examine the bodies, but they quickly began pursuing us. Luckily, we got just enough of a head-start that they gave up the chase after only a short while.

The going was slow indeed as dusk fell over us. We took it in turns to support Drodie as we wound our way back through the hills. He made a show of refusing our offers of assistance, but he still allowed himself to lean on one of us for support as he shuffled along. His breathing was shallow and laboured. After many twists and turns, we finally emerged and found ourselves at the small Ranger-camp where we had rested earlier in the day. We immediately began to search for Drodie's wounds. I noticed spots of blood on the ground behind us on the trail we had taken.

A crimson-feathered bolt was protruding from his plate-armour, and I feared our friend had suffered a grave wound indeed. The Dwarf grimaced as we removed his covering, but it turned out that he was not very seriously injured after all: the bolt had penetrated his armour, but it had been largely foiled by the leather jerkin and padding worn underneath so that only the tip had broken the skin. The wound itself had been made worse by our long walk back as the bolt-head continually ripped at the flesh with every new movement Drodie made, and I marvelled at how he had borne the pain the entire way without complaint. The Ranger Maladan happily reported to us that the projectile was not poisoned and that all our companion needed was for the injury to be cleaned and dressed. I got a small fire going and breathed a deep sigh of relief -- I think we all did. Drodie, however, didn't seem eager to be helped. He refused to let himself or his garments be touched by Gaelira, who tried to assist him.

"Unhand me, Elf!" he bellowed and shooed her away with his arms. "I'll not have it said that one of Durin's Folk needed to be babied by some pointy-eared female. Out of my way and I will clean the wound myself."

To everyone's surprise, the Dwarf stripped down to his leggings and flung himself into the lapping waters of Lake Evendim. There was a yelp from the shoreline and Drodie came bounding back up the bank, wildly flapping his arms.

"WHOA!" he cried, "Cold! Cold!" He rushed over to my campfire and shivered. At this point, he did allow me to put a blanket over him and apply bandages to his ribs. His bushy beard was sopping and it had to be wrung out like a bath-towel, much to the amusement of the Rangers.

We enjoyed a hearty supper with the Men that evening. The sunset over the Lake was simply breathtaking: I could not possibly write any description in these pages which would do it any kind of justice, so I won't try. We ate, we laughed, and we jested until night filled the sky. In the distance we could hear the sounds of marching feet and shouted orders while the smoke of a hundred campfires of the Enemy filled the air to the south. But we knew we were safe for the moment, and I took stock of the great deeds we had done that day. The Rangers were amazed at our tale of the defeat of Siridan the champion, for many had fallen to his cruel bolts before today. It was only one-third of the very first challenge laid to us by Mallacai, but it was no small feat to see the first of our foes fall before us ere the setting of the Sun this day.

As we settled down for sleep I took time, as always, to record the events of the day. But now, even as my eyes begin to droop, I chastise myself for allowing the putrid shadow of doubt and suspicion to rise in my mind at Gaelira in the midst of the battle. What, I wonder, is really in my heart? And what of the rest of us?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 22.3

The Seekers of the Seven Stars

Sterday, 23rd of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ranger-camp on the Island of Tinnudir, Evendim
Mallacai, Leader of the Seekers of the Seven Stars
Slowly, my eyes adjusted to the dim space. That's when I noticed there were four more of the heavily armed Elves, one in each corner of the room. They stood there, still as statues, but no one else seemed to pay them any heed. The Elf Mallacai placed his hand to his breast then extended it toward us in a sign of greeting.

"Nai osto eleni calyantes tier," he said.

I nudged Gaelira.

"What?" I whispered.

"It is our traditional greeting: May the Seven Stars illuminate your path," she replied. Then she turned to Mallacai and bowed.

"Well met, my lord," she said. "Yes, we are Elladan's Outriders, and we come to you seeking aid on the heels of mighty victories against our Adversary." Out of the corner of my eye I saw Nephyn shift her weight, but she said nothing. Mallacai's eyes darted to her, but then he looked at each of us in turn. I felt rather uncomfortable under that azure gaze. I blinked and lowered my eyes a little.

"Mighty victories, indeed," he said in his sharp yet buttery voice. "I confess I had not thought it possible for your Company to succeed in Fornost, yet here you are. Perhaps I was wrong not to support Gaelira's wild schemes after all, but I shall endeavor to rectify my oversight." His words might have been harsh, but he smiled kindly as he said them. After a brief pause, he addressed Lagodir, Nephyn, Drodie, and myself.

"The four of you are due some explanation, I think," he said. "No doubt Gaelira has told you of us, the Seekers of the Seven Stars, but I will tell you more. You will see the name was not given in idle fancy. It is a long tale, for our roots reach back even unto the Elder Days, but I will shorten the telling as much as may be, for there are now great deeds to be done, and I perceive that you five shall play no small part in them."

"It has been told among the Elves since the First Age that Varda, taking pity on the Exiles in their hopeless war against Melkor in Middle-earth, desired to aid the Firstborn in the conflict. However, Manwe had forbidden any direct involvement by the Valar, and so she watched her people from her throne for many long years as they fought the long defeat. At last, the Queen of the Stars could bear the anguish no longer and sought to aid the Elves indirectly. It is told that, one unnamed night in the deep darkness of the Elder Days, Elbereth caused Seven Stars to fall to the earth -- seven artifacts of incredible power which could turn the tide of war against the Great Enemy."

"No story ever fully describes the nature of these Seven Stars, as they eventually became known. Many thought them to be powerful weapons forged by Varda herself. Other tales tell of mystical lore or shards of holy power which could undo the counterfeits of Melkor. Some even spoke of heavenly messengers which had been dispatched to wage battle against the forces of darkness. No two tales agree on these points, but all do agree that these relics were sent to seven far-reaching places throughout Middle-earth, and no one was ever able to gather all of them together in one place. Some believed all seven had to be united for their true power to be brought to bear against the enemies of the Eldar, but the histories do not agree on this point either. It has afterwards been said that at least some of these artifacts were found and used in the War of the Jewels, one of which was suspected to have been discovered by Fingolfin, or somehow brought to him, and it took the shape of a mighty sword of light, which he used to battle Morgoth himself before the gates of Angband. Whatever the case, no one knows whether any of these mighty things still exist in the wide world."

"At the end of the First Age, some said that all of the Seven Stars were lost in the cataclysm known as the War of Wrath. But most believed the Stars yet survived, hidden, perhaps, until they were once again needed in the defence of the Free Peoples."

"Rumor of their being seen or heard of inspired many a lonely adventurer or brave treasure-hunting party to search for them throughout the Ages, but if anyone had ever recovered one of the Stars, it has never been reported. This ancient saga still survives to this day, and to this day no two persons agree on just what the Seven Stars actually are -- the telling always seems to shift to match the needs of the times. In times of war they are shining greatswords that lend unconquerable courage to even the faintest of hearts. In times of peace, they become powerful relics which can command the rains and ensure a fair harvest. Whatever the truth, the legend of the Seven Stars has grown over the millenia and not faded. Few indeed are those who do not dare to hope that these mighty things still exist, probably buried deep in some Dwarf-horde or dragon's plunder."

"Long ago, in the dark years of the Second Age, Sauron betrayed the Elven-smiths of Eregion by forging in secret the One Ring to rule all the other Rings of Power. Instantly aware of the Dark Lord's treachery, the Elves took off their Three rings and hid them, knowing they would be laid bare to the Master of the One if they tried to match his power with theirs. In the ensuing War of Sauron and the Elves, many began to fear for the safety of their homeland and their folk, aware they could not turn back the armies of Mordor. They began to search for weapons that could replace the Three Rings -- weapons that would not be compromised by Sauron's master Ring. The stories of the Seven Stars were in the minds of even the mightiest Elves in those days."

"And so a kinship was formed: the Seekers of the Seven Stars. Although it was originally an organization formed by the Eldar and made up of Elves, it quickly began accepting adventurous sorts from any race throughout Middle-earth. Many of the most famous treasure-hunters in history were members, as folk from every walk of life dreamed of one day, somehow, locating just one of the fabled Seven Stars. No one ever did find one of the things, though there were many who claimed such and many others who performed great service for the Free Peoples in the ensuing wars against Mordor. But, as the Second Age ended, Sauron was vanquished, and the One Ring was lost, the Seekers dwindled in number and reputation until they were little more than a odd fellowship of a few zealous believers. But now, as the Shadow stirs again in the East and the threat of war marches across many lands, the Seekers have once again arisen to swell their ranks. Our mission is to locate any or all of the mythical Seven Stars, learn their true nature, and use them in the defense of the Free Peoples against the Shadows of the Enemy."

"Today, in the Third Age of Arda, the story of the Seven Stars still survives. Times being what they are, many now believe the Stars to be legendary implements of battle, incomparable gear of war, or the Power of Command. As the minstrels continue to weave ever more elaborate tales, we seek to combat the Enemy's ever-expanding power."

My head was in a whirl of wonder: it seemed I had landed myself in the middle of a tale which came straight out of the Elder Days! Despite my elation, however, something didn't make sense to me.

"What has all of this to do with us, though?" I asked timidly. Mallacai turned his piercing blue eyes on me, but this time I did not look away.

"A just question," he said with a smile and a slight inclination of his head. "You know, of course, that Gaelira devised a plan to steal the palantir of Amon Sul, which is now held by the Enemy in the bowels of Carn Dum, in Angmar. It was a plan so desperate, so audacious, that no one, not even I, could condone it, and none of the other Seekers would support the idea. But Gaelira persevered under the withering derision of many and managed to launch the endeavor despite it all. She is to be commended for her selflessness."

"Is that how you define selflessness?" asked Nephyn heatedly. "By ensnaring innocent folk in an elaborate falsehood?"

"Your indignation is certainly understandable," Mallacai replied as he bowed deeply to the huntress. "But I implore you to forgive her; the secrecy of this mission is of the utmost importance, for if our foe gains the slightest inkling that we mean to seize the palantir from him, then all hope for this gambit will be lost. It was absolutely necessary to test each of you -- both in skill and in heart -- to ensure you had any chance of success in this dire quest. Carn Dum holds untold evil; there are forces there which could slay weaker folk out of sheer terror, and corruption will be in the very air. Only a fellowship bonded by love and trust could ever hope to triumph. Yet your Company has defeated the Bone Man, the horror beneath the Barrow-downs, and even the ancient wraith within Fornost. I deem that, with the right armaments and a strong trust, you could enter where even armies cannot go. I wish to help prepare you for what lies ahead, if you all remain resolved in this."

No one answered. I shifted nervously and I could sense Gaelira was restless. The revelations which had stemmed from Luean's discoveries had deeply shaken the trust of the Company and I was not sure whether the bond we had formed over the last month would hold. Then Lagodir spoke.

"I do not understand all of this," he said with a frown. "You say you wish to infiltrate the stronghold of the Enemy's forces in the North of Middle-earth and recover a palantir. I know enough of the history of those stones to understand how precious a thing it is and how valuable possessing it would be in the service of the Free Peoples against the might of the Nameless One. But why then did Gaelira agree with Saerdan the Ranger to make an exhibition of ourselves -- to openly attack our foes and draw the Enemy's attention to us? How can we hope to succeed at this quest, noble though it be, now that we have squandered the element of surprise?" Mallacai looked at him.

"Spoken as a true soldier," he said. "The answer to your question is twofold: The forces of the Enemy have grown bold through lack of resistance and have overrun much territory in Eriador for no other reason than those who should have resisted them failed to do so, thinking that by yielding to the armies of Angmar that Angmar would, eventually, be sated with land and seek no more. This, of course, is always folly when dealing with the malice of Mordor and its spawn. You five are among the few who have had the skill and the heart to fight back. Your victories have given more hope to others throughout the North than you seem to realize, and the morale of many Free Folk rises when they hear the tales of Elladan's Outriders as they gather at their inns and taverns. That is the first reason. The second is more practical: by crippling his forces in many places throughout the North, the Steward of Carn Dum is lulled into believing your objective is to resist his advance on the front lines; that you are pushing back at his forces where his forces are pushing in. He does not fear this, for his eventual victory is assured so long as he commands those forces from his stronghold in Angmar. Yet it is in Angmar that we will land our true blow, and this is the furthest thing from his mind." I could see Lagodir was processing this explanation. It made sense to me, when laid out in plain language that way.

"And what will you do with this Seeing-stone once you have it?" I was surprised to hear it was Drodie speaking.

"The palantir is a powerful artifact. It will be used to spy upon the Enemy and learn of his military strategies," Mallacai answered. "The knowledge gained by doing this will be invaluable to the defence of the Free Peoples of all Middle-earth. However, using the palantir also carries great risk, for we believe the Dark Lord holds one of its brethren; most likely the stone which was once held at the tower of Minas Ithil in Gondor. No one is certain what will happen to he -- or she -- that seeks to use the Amon Sul-stone. If Sauron has indeed dominated the Ithil-stone it could be that he may destroy or even possess anyone who uses another palantir against his will, for the orbs are all linked to each other. Yet, if Gaelira's plan succeeds it could mean turning the tide of the coming war with Mordor, and that is why she has volunteered herself to use the stone, should it be recovered."

I gaped. At the end of it all, it turned out that Gaelira was willing to possibly sacrifice herself in service to others! No wonder no one was willing to join her on this quest, I thought to myself. I felt heartily sorry for mistrusting her intentions.

"And that's all?" It was Drodie again. The Dwarf was making no effort to conceal his natural disdain for what he clearly regarded as nothing but more Elvish trickery. Mallacai paused.

"If, in fact, the palantir is recovered and if, in fact, it can be used safely, then we intend to use it to search for the missing Seven Stars," he said. "In this manner, it may be that evil will finally be removed from the world and the Elves will have atoned for their many, many sins." Drodie roared with laughter.

"By Durin's Beard!" he guffawed roughly. "Seeing-stones and Seven Stars! Ah, me! You can always trust an Elf -- to over-complicate everything and seek elaborate answers where none are needed, that is. If there is to be an attack on Carn Dum, secret or otherwise, then Drodie the Dwarf will be in it, and that's all I or any of you need know. You can have your silly baubles if you must, but once I personally remove this Steward's head from his bony shoulders we will see who has done the greater service in the defence of the Free Peoples. I care nothing for the rest of your nonsense." Mallacai gave him a dark look, but turned to the rest of us.

"And what of you?" he asked. "Do you also remain committed to this errand?"

"I cannot say that I agree with the strategy you have devised," said Lagodir, "But you will have my sword in its service, for I perceive that this is a most valorous quest indeed, and all of us will win immense honour thereby." I looked at him. The Gondorian's eyes were glinting with eagerness; clearly something about this mission held a strong attraction for him, and I wondered greatly what it was.

"I am not certain of anything anymore," Nephyn said reluctantly. "Save this: that my road leads me onward and not back. I will remain with the Company."

"And what of the Halfling?" asked Mallacai with a smile. I looked up at him and I swallowed. In that moment, I felt no concern for myself -- only a love for those with whom I had fought and bled, and would again.

"I will go on," I said in my small voice. "I don't understand what possible use I can be among such accomplished warriors, but in spite of -- and because of -- all that we have been through together, I know I am meant to be with them." Mallacai nodded and looked at us.

"Very well," he said, and he clasped his hands behind his back. "You have achieved much, and for that you have earned great renown, yet there remains much to do before you can hope to enter the defiles of Angmar. Yet, in this, I am able to assist you. Under my command are craftsmen of skill the like of which is no longer to be found in the World today. I shall give you now each a task to complete. If you succeed, my artisans will be able to create for you items of incomparable value, for the power of such equipment is enhanced by the great struggle to obtain it. Armed with these and the renewed bonds of trust and love that you forge in the process, you will be ready for your greatest task." He walked up to Lagodir.

"Swordsman of the South Kingdom," he said as he stared into the Gondorian's eyes, "You cannot escape your past, no matter how many leagues you put between yourself and your homeland; your past will find you, soon or late. But, if you face it instead of fleeing from it, then and only then can you hope to overcome. Bring me the armour of Unagh, Siridan, and Agarochir, the champions of Angmar which lead the forces invading Annuminas, and earn some measure of the redemption you so recklessly seek."

Next, he stood before Nephyn.

"Your life has been hard, young one, marred by a solitude of both body and spirit. You are right to say that your path lies onward and not back, for no rest would you find were you to try and return to the life you knew. The answers you seek can be found, but you will not succeed on your own. Bring me the raiment of Naruhel, the Red-maid, and may you learn forgiveness in the process."

Then, he came to Drodie.

"I have ever found your kind to be as stubborn as the mountains which bore you into this life," he said with a tinge of dislike in his voice. Drodie stared up at him defiantly. "Your self-reliance is admirable, yet in the dungeons of Carn Dum such arrogance will surely mean your death. Bring me the hide of Brullug from the deepest caverns of Sarnur in Ered Luin. There, you will come to know what it means to rely on others -- or perish."

Gaelira was next to meet Mallacai's gaze.

"Child of the fallen Noldorin," he said, sadly. "Your tale has been long, as full of acclaim as it is anguish. You cannot return Aeglas, Glorwen, and the others to this world, but you can atone for their loss. Bring me the crown of whatever animal has assumed the mantle of the Great Goblin, and I will relinquish to you your sword, which you were forced to surrender in shame all those years ago."

Finally, he came to me. I did my best to look directly into those eyes, but Mallacai bent over and smiled at me.

"I come to you last, Padryc, who have proven to be not as small in courage as you are in stature. Bring to me the fangs of the Spider-queen in the Wovenvales, and you will learn your true value to this Company." The Elf stepped back and looked us over once more.

"Go now," he said and extended his palm outward in token of farewell. "Go, and may the blessings of all Free Folk go with you. I have much to attend to here, for the armies of Angmar are already on the move. If you choose to pursue these tasks, then you must steel yourselves for much hardship. Yet only through facing and conquering such trials does your quest stand any chance of success. Farewell."

We said our goodbyes and left the dark keep. When we emerged from the building, we saw that night had descended upon Tinnudir. We made our way back to the Rangers' encampment and settled down around our own campfire for some food and talk.

"What is all this about running errands for some dandified Elf?" Drodie growled in annoyance. "I would just as soon march straight into Angmar and knock on the doors of Carn Dum first. What a waste of time!"

"You forget our near disasters in the Old Forest, the Barrow-downs, with Bleakwind, and even in Fornost," Gaelira said gently. "Victories they were, yes, but they were narrow and nearly proved ruinous. We will have no luck in Angmar." I looked down at my waybread. Thinking about all of the dreadful places Mallacai had mentioned had me in no mood for eating.

"I should like to know just how it is this Elf learned about -- about each of us," said Lagodir, who seemed a bit shaken. "Unless, of course, that was also Gaelira's doing?"

"I told him nothing you haven't openly told the rest of us," Gaelira responded. "But Mallacai is wise and his lore runs both deep and far. Those with as much knowledge about the past as he possesses can have remarkable abilities when looking to the future as well."

"Do you mean to say he can read the future?" asked Nephyn, her eyes wide. Drodie snorted, but held his tongue.

"No, I would not put it so," came Gaelira's reply, "But certain actions foreshadow certain ends, and the Eldar have seen many a tale play out to its bitter conclusion. It would be wise to heed his advice, but each of us will have to decide if we wish to face the challenges he has laid before us."

"I fear no challenge," said Drodie immediately and with finality.

"Nor do I," said Lagodir, but his voice was low, as though he was distracted by something.

"I feel I must follow this path I am on," said Nephyn slowly. "Yet I fear where it may lead me more than what I might encounter along the way."

"For myself, I am required to face a failure which has haunted me for many years," said Gaelira with a sigh. "I had feared it would prove thus, but I will not now turn away from what I have begun. Not so long as I have the rest of you with me." I wondered what event in her past Gaelira was referring to, but none of us dared to ask.

"Well, you'll have me with you at the least," I said, trying to sound more cheerful than I felt. "The places he wants us to go sound downright terrifying, but I am willing to try and make a difference. But I would like to know," I asked Gaelira, "Do you really mean to put yourself in danger by being the first to use that Seeing-stone, assuming we ever manage to get hold of it?" The she-Elf nodded.

"This War we are in now is only the extension of the Wars of the First Age, which broke the very earth itself from the fury of the fighting," she said. "The Noldorin have, sadly, been largely responsible for much sorrow which has befallen the World." Here, Drodie sucked his teeth loudly. "I hope to gain my people some measure of redemption by offering myself up for this cause."

"That is... really quite moving," said Nephyn quietly.

"Very honourable," said Lagodir.

"Once we are out of Carn Dum with the palantir, I will send Hremm to notify Mallacai, who will provide me an escort to transport it to Rivendell. Lord Elrond has heard of the Seekers' intent to steal the Stone of Amon Sul, although he was not aware of our adventure when it began. I suspect he has guessed as to my purposes now. In any case, he had previously refused to ever use the palantir even if one could be found, for he fears what the Dark Lord might do if he retains another of the stones. But there is power to protect the stone in Rivendell if we can get it there. Once safe, I will put myself in danger by using it first. Then, if I am unharmed, Elrond will be free to bend it to his own will and great good will be achieved for the Free Peoples."

"After this Mallacai chap gets his turn with it to search for his Seven Stars, no doubt," Lagodir chimed in.

"I do not believe the Seven Stars actually exist," said Gaelira as she shook her head. "I cannot fathom how, if things of such power ever lay beneath the Sun, that they could possibly remain in the World undiscovered for thousands of centuries. The Seekers certainly retain that ancient tradition, but very few of us actually believe in the old tales. We were a scholarly brotherhood for most of our existence and we performed great deeds in the service of others. In these latter years it seems we have been recruiting more warriors and fewer sages, but such is the need of the days. My only desire is to secure this mighty boon so that I can deliver it to Lord Elrond, who has the power to use it for the good of all." She paused and looked at us.

"I give you my solemn word that this is the whole truth," she said pointedly. "There is an uneasiness among our Company that bodes ill for the trials we are about to face, and part of that trial is overcoming our distrust of each other. For what I have done before now, I apologize to you all from the depths of my soul and I swear by the Valar I've never held friends so dear. This gambit of mine is my own contribution to the War, and I have a slim but steadfast hope that it may help to save those simple things which make life worth living."

"And what will happen to you if the Enemy does hold one of the other Seeing-stones?" I asked in a trembling voice. "What if it is not safe to for you to use the palantir?" Gaelira stared into the campfire.

"I do not know," she said, finally.

We talked for a while longer, but the conversations never really went anywhere. There was some discussion about what to do next, but we could not reach a consensus. After a time, we decided to hash it out in the morning, so we each began to prepare for sleep.

As I settled into my blanket and huddled near the campfire with my journal out in front of me, I saw Gaelira standing by the waters of Lake Nenuial, staring southward. I thought about the danger into which she was willing to put herself and whether I would do the same in her place. Then my thoughts were interrupted by Lagodir turning repeatedly as he lay on the ground nearby. He rolled over and saw I was still awake.

"Padryc," he said to me in a low voice, "Do you think -- do you think that a Man's honour can be regained if it is lost?" I raised my eyebrows.

"Yes, or a hobbit's," I said and grinned. "Or an Elf's, or even a Dwarf's. Right and wrong do not change with the seasons, nor are they one thing or another depending on whatever kind we happen to belong. We all make mistakes, but in the Shire when we wrong someone we work to set it right however we can. Maybe that's not what some folk call honour, but it seems more or less the same thing to me."

"Yes. Yes, you are right, of course," he said. "Good night, then."

"Good night!" I said. I finished my record, then allowed myself to be lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of the water on the shore.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 22.2

The Island of Tinnudir

Sterday, 23rd of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Island of Tinnudir, Evendim
Lake Nenuial
This morning dawned overcast and chilly. I shivered as I lay on the ground under every blanket I had, but nothing seemed to keep the wind from prodding me. The fire had gone out from the constant gusts which had made sleep elusive for most of the Company. Lagodir was stoic but clearly uncomfortable while Drodie slept like a log despite everything. I wondered if any weather of the world had the power to disturb his stone-like repose. Nephyn and I were both downright miserable.

Alone among us, Gaelira appeared undeterred by the trials of yesterday as well as the sour turn in clime. I could see her at the edge of the hill upon which we had our little camp in counsel with Torogethir the Ranger. They were both staring westward, which I knew was the direction in which we would be continuing our journey. Since sleep was impossible anyway, I got up, wrapped a blanket tightly around me, and walked to join these two as they looked out over the plains of Parth Aduial.

I saw firs and pines swaying in the harsh winds while leaves and twigs bounded across the landscape. The expanse below us looked empty and quiet, but it seemed to me more the quiet of expectancy rather than peace. It felt as though there were unseen enemies lurking behind every crumbled tower, fallen ruin, and clump of foliage I could see before me.

"If all goes well we should reach Tinnudir by sunset," I heard Gaelira saying to the Ranger. Torogethir nodded, then pointed away to the northwest.

"Yonder lies Ost Forod. It is something of a settlement, but it is peopled mainly by ruffians and tomb-robbers now; a most unsavory folk. If you have need of a waypoint betwixt here and the island you may stop there and recover yourselves, but I would do so only at need; for the inhabitants do not trust outsiders. Moreover, that place lies high up in the rocks. The going there is difficult, and it lies well to the north of your intended road."

Following Torogethir's arm, I could see a cluster of ruins nestled on the side of a tall hill -- or what one might almost describe as a low mountain. In the dim morning light, I thought I could see the distant glow of multiple campfires.

"Thank you, my friend," Gaelira said to him, "But we should not have need to turn aside from the path unless we require shelter from this weather." As if in answer to her words, a terrific spurt of wind suddenly struck us and very nearly bowled me over. Gaelira shot out an arm and saved me from tumbling into the gravel.

"There is some gale forming away to the far North, in Forochel," said Torogethir as he looked that direction. "Lothrandir, my kinsman, has journeyed there for many years, but I have never been."

"Nor I," came Gaelira's reply, "And I hope to never do so -- 'tis said to be a barren and frozen waste, the last vestiges of Dark Enemy's realm of long, long ago." I shivered, but I was glad we would not be going that way!

"And yet 'tis also said the Snow-folk, the Lossoth, have learned to thrive in that land, after a fashion," said Torogethir. "It may sound strange, but those tales give me hope. For, if the children of Men are able to subdue, in some measure, such a wild and untamed country, can there be any region of Middle-earth which cannot be conquered?"

"I know not what the children of Men may eventually do or not do," Gaelira answered. "For my part, I would see less of conquest and more habitation. Still, if this Third Age of the World is not first secured, then it may well be that your question shall have no need of an answer." Torogethir was silent.

I think the others were as depressed by the foul weather as I was because we packed up and moved out in short order. We said farewell to Torogethir with promises to deliver his report to Calenglad, then made our way slowly down the side of the hill. Everyone remained quiet as we struck the road and continued our westward journey. The path was paved, but it was heavily intruded upon by weeds and grasses, and in many places the once-well laid masonry was cracked and broken. Ever and anon the wind would kick up again, and then we would hear howls and whistles as it played mournfully among the stones. More than once we heard the crack of falling rock or some brick would be shaken loose from its perch, but aside from these sounds our trek was as uneventful as it was uncomfortable.

After several hours we came to a meeting-way of four roads. At the very centre there rose a towering figure of stone: a dour and ancient king with a greatsword between his knees. The mighty king stared southward, to our left, where the road ran up a slope amidst several ruined structures while to the right it wound up into the hills toward Ost Forod. But we followed the way ahead of us, which led to the west and gently fell down, down, down toward a rocky shoreline. Then I looked up and gasped.

At the end of the road I saw a massive bridge of stone which ran out to a large island, that could only be Tinnudir. There were many ruins on the island, and even from this distance I could see Men going to and fro on it, consumed with their business. On the far end rose a huge building of stone: it must have been two hundred feet high. It was white and majestic; in its own time and under the light of a full Sun it must have once glimmered with radiant beauty. On this day its alabaster walls were dimmed due to the heavy cloud cover, but it was still an impressive sight. But it was the lake itself which took my breath away: Even under the grey skies it covered nearly all of my field of vision, though I could see mountains encircling the lake in the far distance. It was truly a magnificent view, one could even call it an inland sea! I longed for the Sun to reveal herself so that I could see her light playing on the gentle waters below me. Nearby, the others also stood staring in admiration.

"Alas that Vasa is shrouded behind this pall," said Gaelira, "Otherwise our eyes would be dazzled by the brilliance of Lake Nenuial. Perhaps tomorrow we will be more fortunate."

"I can see why the Kings of Men would raise the seat of their reign in such a place," Lagodir said with reverence. "It even rivals the beauty of Ithilien, Garden of Gondor, and I know no higher praise to give." Nephyn said nothing, but I could see in her eyes she was greatly impressed. Drodie did not seem to care one way or the other.

We descended by way of the road and soon crossed the bridge which led out to Tinnudir. The arches of the bridge were fallen so that only the bottom portions of the pillars remained; these jutted upward like the jagged teeth in the jaw of some enormous fish of prey. But the walkway itself was solid and strong -- there were no signs of crumbling that I could see anywhere. Perhaps it had been well maintained by the Rangers which made their chief camp on the far side, but this bridge struck me as almost a symbol for the rest of the land here: clear signs of decay and ancientry, but with a lingering dignity and majesty that was not yet completely extinguished.

Once across the bridge, we found ourselves welcomed by the Rangers who were eager to hear the tale of our travels from Esteldin. Not only did they wish to hear of their kinsmen and their ongoing struggle in the North Downs, but they marvelled at the swiftness of our journey: it was now just approaching dusk of the second day since we set out from the Valley of Hope yet we had covered one hundred and twenty miles in that time. As if in response to that reminder, my feet began to ache and smart with a vengeance. I think it was the greatest sustained physical exertion of my entire life up to that point.

Yet we were not permitted to rest: we were led quickly to Calenglad to deliver our reports from Halbarad and Torogethir. The Ranger-captain listened intently to our tales and thanked us many times for them. He was a grim-faced fellow, this Calenglad, and struck me as one who had known much sorrow and trial. I supposed that leading a desperate resistance comprised of the dwindling people from a ruined kingdom against the ever-advancing armies of a tyrant would have that effect on a Man. He was bald and his beard was short, but everywhere his face was creased with worry; his brow was heavy and wrinkled.

"Glad am I to meet you all, and my distant kinsman from the South not least," he said to us in a voice that was both soft and strong, but deep as the Sea. "And it lifts my heart to hear that the battles against the forces encamped at Dol Dinen go well, for if my people had failed there, then little hope would have remained for all the North. You have my gratitude for the part your Company has played in that as well. But the Enemy is relentless: even now my scouts report that an army of dark Men out of Angmar are flooding into the ruins of Annuminas -- the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Arnor -- and that with them are trolls and other creatures more foul. My Rangers cannot hold them out of the city and already we have been reduced to a small and shrinking patch of land there. It may not be long before the entire city is captured, and once that happens it will only be a matter of time before they find us here. This island could be defended well and long against many, but we have not the numbers to do so. I am not certain what will become of us if the Enemy gains the city."

We listened to Calenglad's many worries, but there was little we could do to aid him against an army from Carn Dum and we had our own mission at hand to consider. Regarding this, the Ranger had more hopeful news.

"You say you seek an Elf? That is most curious, for several arrived here just this morning asking for quarter from which to conduct their business. They were an odd sort: my people have dealings with the Eldar folk from time to time, but I have never seen anything like these Elves. All in armour, as if headed to war, they were, and their leader was very tall with a head of gold and peculiar garments. I granted them their boon, permitting that they establish their camp within the Tinnudir Keep, there, within the tower." Here, Calenglad pointed to the enormous structure on the far side of the island. "They said they had come to learn of the invasion of Annuminas and to lend us what aid they could, which certainly sounded hopeful, but they were a small troop, so I am not sure what they meant. I have neither seen nor heard from them since then in any case, but you are free to hold counsel with them if that is your wish. Aragorn, my chieftain, has always instructed us to deal well with their kind and that they mean us no harm, so I hope I have not done ill."

After Gaelira assured him that the Elves were indeed there to help, we thanked Calenglad for his welcome and made our way to the Tinnudir Keep. The huge iron doors creaked loudly as Lagodir and Drodie swung them back on their hinges. Inside it was dim and dusty, with piles of fallen stone everywhere. On the floor I could see carpets of red and gold which must have been fair and luxurious years ago, but now they were faded and caked in mud or dirt. A bit further inside we came to another door, but this one was guarded by an Elf in grey armour. He carried a spear, a shield, and had a long sword at his belt, all of curious make. Nary a word did he speak, but upon our approach he immediately seized the door-handle and opened it for us. We stepped inside and the door clanged into place behind me.

The only light in this room came from large, stately fireplace at the far end and the six candles lit upon a long table of dark wood before us. Seated at this table was an Elf. As we entered, he looked up and rose in greeting. He was quite tall and his hair was long and golden -- so golden it seemed nearly white -- and his raiment was strange indeed. He was dressed all in black robes, but they were embellished everywhere with minute and fine designs of vines and flowers in blossom. He wore armoured pauldrons of some black metal on his shoulders and forearms, and there was a cord of crimson about his waist. But it was his eyes which gave me pause: his eyes were very different from the carefree faces of most Elves I had known, nor did they carry the tint of mourning I had always come to find there. Rather, the eyes of this Elf were hard like an icy, blue steel and they seemed to penetrate everything they looked upon. When he spoke his voice was also very unlike any other Elf I had met, for it was piercingly clear (though not loud) and smooth as silk. Yet it was also much deeper than I expected. It was the voice of a visionary: the kind of being who could sway the hearts of others to doing great -- or terrible -- things.

"Welcome to you, who call yourselves Elladan's Outriders," he said as he bowed his head slightly toward us. "I am Mallacai."