Mersday, 21st of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ranger-camp of Esteldin, Somewhere in the North Downs
|Bleakwind the Drake|
That's when I heard the harsh voices of the other occupants within this ramshackle camp outside Fornost, and reality intruded upon me. I sighed as I continued to lay on my back, wishing I could have enjoyed the view a bit longer, but I knew the treasure-hunters were preparing to leave this place and it would be well if our Company did the same. It occurred to me then that the sky, which had been dark and foreboding the day before, was now clear. Whatever storm had been brewing there previously seemed to have moved on, which was certainly welcome news for us. I considered for a moment whether this had anything to do with our Company's victory within the city yesterday, but of course it couldn't be anything more than a coincidence.
Slowly I got to my feet. I was stiff from the chill morning air and another night on the hard ground, and I wasn't I looking forward to today's inevitable task. We were bound now to return to Esteldin and report our findings to Halbarad and the Rangers, and that journey would be long and dull. I stretched and yawned. The rest of the camp was collecting its belongings and I saw Nephyn, Drodie, Lagodir, and Gaelira doing the same. I meandered over to my pack and started checking through my gear, even though there was no reason to think anything was out of place. I watched my companions at their work. Nephyn was bartering with one of the nomads for some traps and other equipment, Lagodir and Drodie were arguing about who among us could be trusted to carry the food stores, and Gaelira, as usual, was talking with Maedhrusc the Ranger.
I stopped what I was doing for a moment and watched the four of them. I thought about everything we had been through in such a short period of time and all that we had accomplished. Maybe it was my own naivete, but it really seemed impossible to me that one (or more) of them could be false as Luean's letter to me had suggested. Was I reading too much into his message? If only I could solve his confounded riddle and put all of this doubt and intrigue behind me! I resolved to myself that I would bend my mind entirely to that task as we undertook the long hike to Esteldin; it would be the perfect opportunity for such a mental exercise.
Before much more time had passed, we had packed up and were accompanying the treasure-hunters as they left Fornost. We met no resistance at the main gate -- the Orcs must have been withdrawn inside the city in response to our attack. We walked with the others largely in silence as they seemed to regard us with a certain level of awe. For our part, Nephyn and Lagodir appeared to believe they were nothing better than tomb- and grave-robbers while Gaelira, Drodie, and I simply kept to ourselves. After a time, the treasure-hunters took their leave of us and turned west off the Greenway, saying they intended to reach a land they called Evendim. Gaelira told me that place lies some distance north of the Shire-settlement of Oatbarton, which gave me some frame of reference. With the departure of the others, our Company continued southward, but the silence remained. I used the time to rack my brain further over Luean's riddle, but I had made precisely no progress when we began to draw near to Mincham's camp on the edge of the Fields of Fornost.
Mincham was very pleased to see us and marvelled at our tale. He was particularly fascinated by our telling of the terrible wraith, the Morgul-hilt, and Amarthiel.
"I cannot tell you much more about Amarthiel aside from what you clearly know already," he said. "But she was a fearsome champion. If she has indeed returned then all the North may be in great danger. All the more now do I urge you to return at once to Esteldin, for my captain must know of this discovery."
We still had a long way to go, so we did not remain with Mincham long. Just before we left, however, the Ranger pulled me aside and asked whether we had learned anything else about the strange Black Speech message he had translated for us earlier. I told him we had not, and how the Enemy could possibly have known about our Company -- even to include its name -- before any of us had met remained a mystery. Mincham's face remained grave and he lowered his voice to me.
"Have a care then, young hobbit. I can't pretend to understand this enigma any better than you do, but it is clear to me there is something about this Company which remains in darkness. I can think of no other way to explain it. I would advise you to keep both eyes open." It was as if Luean's message of trust no one was reverberating inside my very head over and over again.
I nodded, thanked him quietly, then moved to join the others. Just then, a loud croak sounded from behind me. I turned around and there, perched on the edge of a crumbled archway on the perimeter of Mincham's camp, was Hremm! The raven was watching me as he fluttered his wings and cawed.
"Hremm!" I said. "There you are! We are just about to head back to Esteldin. Our little escapade into Fornost was quite the success, you know. Will you be joining us?"
Hremm croaked loudly at me again, then launched himself into the air and flew off into the east. I shrugged and joined the others.
"What was that, Padryc?" Nephyn asked me.
"Hremm," I answered. "He popped up again out of nowhere. I told him we were headed back to Esteldin and he flew off in that direction. I wonder if the bird really can understand me." Drodie rolled his eyes but said nothing.
"If Esteldin is indeed where Hremm is going then he will arrive there long before we do I am afraid," Gaelira said. "You all remember the journey from Othrikar to this place, and the journey back is nearly as long. It should be roughly the fourth hour from noon before we see the Valley of Hope for the third time."
We set out just as the Sun began her climb toward midday. Before long we came to the crossing of the Greenway and took the eastward track. I was trying to make good on my promise to myself and work out Luean's riddle, but the Company had become quite chatty now that the loathsome Fields of Fornost were finally behind us.
"Your skill with the bow is something quite special, Mistress Nephyn," Lagodir said as we all strolled confidently in what was turning out to be a fine day indeed. Birds were singing in the trees, the sky was clear, a slight breeze was blowing, and the wolves and crebain hid themselves at our approach.
"Your sword-arm is a wonder to behold as well, my Gondorian friend," replied Nephyn. "And the same could be said of our Dwarf, too. I'd wager there are more Orcs within Fornost which have felt the bite of your blades than not after yesterday."
"And yet you must admit that our victory in the end came down to little more than luck," Lagodir responded.
"But victory it was, nonetheless," said Gaelira, in an unusually optimistic manner. "Part of being a successful adventurer is adapting to the circumstances in which you find yourself. This Company has demonstrated a remarkable ability to overcome the challenges it has faced."
"And what is next for the Company?" I asked. "We will return to Halbarad with our report, but what then?"
"I suspect his people may have more need of us," said Nephyn.
"Or perhaps he can direct us toward Angmar," said Gaelira. "There are no roads leading thither that I can recall, but I am certain Halbarad knows the way."
"The road of this Company has been a strange one, and no mistake," I said.
"Indeed!" Nephyn agreed. "I never thought I would find myself confronting undead wights in the Bree-land, to say nothing of hunting Orcs inside Deadman's Dike."
"Don't forget battling evil trees inside the Old Forest!" I chimed in. "No, it can be hard to say where the Road will take you if you let it -- it flows on and on to all manner of strange places. Why, look at this path we're on now: it leads to Esteldin, which is a remarkable place in its own right, but it also forks and runs to the beautiful Lin Giliath as well as the hard, cold mountains in which Othrikar is nestled. And we've been to all three places, each as unique as they can be. You know, it reminds me of something Old Mad Baggins was once rumoured to have said: the Road is like a river and every door is its tributary. Odd sort of remark, and just like something Mad Baggins would say. Anyway, he might have had a bit of wisdom, you know, having been the most well-travelled hobbit in the history of the Shire, or at least the famousest--"
I stopped speaking and moving as abruptly as if I had just walked into a brick wall. My head finally caught up to my mouth -- Of course! Begin where three rivers meet! Luean would have known that I would know Old Bilbo's saying and was counting on it! I clapped my hand to my forehead in shock. Idiot! Luean's line about the "three rivers" was referring to roads, not waterways!
I suddenly became aware that my friends had turned around and were all staring at me with confused expressions.
"Padryc, are you alright?" Nephyn was asking. I swallowed and licked my lips.
"Oh yes!" I said, trying a little too hard to conceal my excitement. "Yes, yes, of course I am fine. I just... thought I saw a periwinkle again! You know how much I love periwinkles." Four sets of eyebrows shot skyward at once. I trotted off the road and made a show of looking around for some flowers.
"Nope, no periwinkles here!" I said as I returned to the group. "Must have been a mistake. Well, on we go!" I felt like a complete ass and my companions were looking at me as if I had just transformed into one.
"Yeeessss," said Nephyn slowly. "I do remember you mentioning that before; in Othrikar, I think it was. Well, if you are satisfied there are no periwinkles here for us to enjoy, then we really should resume our journey."
I nodded and kept silent. My mind was racing with possibilities. But of course Luean meant roads! How could I have missed it? But the important thing now was to decide which roads he was referencing and how to reach them while not being accompanied by the others. The conversation among the Company had wandered off into the realm of battle tactics and strategies, but I scarcely listened; I was furiously thinking about places where three roads meet. Then I remembered that Luean would had to have picked a spot that I could reasonably reach by myself and I had my answer! It could only be the three-way crossing of the very road I had just described: where the paths connecting Esteldin, Lin Giliath, and Othrikar all met! That spot was close enough to Esteldin, where the Company was headed when Luean had left us, and Lin Giliath, where he had remained. We were headed that way now and would reach it today just before returning to Esteldin. My heart was a-twitter with elation: finally I knew where to begin my search for Luean's true message to me!
But there was still a good ways to go first. We climbed up into the hills and avoided the ruins there by sticking to the road. Then we passed by some ravaged farmsteads with fallen fences and a few pathetic scarecrows still poking up from the untended fields. Wolves roamed those lands, but they didn't dare approach us. Soon we began to descend toward the river which divides the North Downs in half. We crossed the bridge, but just as we set foot onto the far side we heard someone hailing us. Following the direction of the sound, we could see a Man in the distance amidst some ruins and waving his arms at us. We waved back and made our way toward him.
He was a Ranger, of course, and his name was Orthonn. The ruins he called Ost Lagoros, and it was a lonesome place. His task, so he told us, was to keep watch over the river for signs of the Enemy's forces attempting to cross it and also to help keep the Warg population under control. We decided to take a rest from our trek since we were halfway to Esteldin and in any case it was high time for lunch. I settled myself down next to Orthonn's campfire which was comfortably set among the ruins atop what looked to have once been a section of the structure's outer wall. As the others talked I munched on some dried meats and fruits while looking around us. There were a good number of evergreen trees which kept the campsite hidden from sight of the road and one also had a commanding view of the river and its far banks from that point. I was impressed with the woodcraft of these Rangers and wondered how they learned such skill. I decided to listen to the conversation going on around me and gain what wisdom I could.
"We had long feared that some dreadful menace had made its den there in Fornost," Orthonn was saying, "But never in my worst moments could I have imagined this horrible wraith you describe. And you bested it? You are warriors deserving of great renown!"
"We did what needed to be done, though luck certainly played a role as well," Lagodir said modestly.
"Such would be the words of any true hero, I suspect," Orthonn replied with a smile. "You are a Gondorian, yes? I am proud to share even that distant kinship with you, my brother, for you are very valiant! Have you ever faced such a terrible apparition before? We get little news from the South, but word has reached my ears that there are more of these ghosts in the land of Gondor."
"There are whispers, only whispers," said Lagodir quietly. His eyes seemed to see things far away, but his voice did not waver. "Yet I, unhappily, know something about such creatures. My family was once regarded highly among the lords who commanded Minas Ithil, many long years ago. The House of Turma was respected throughout the land, but perhaps our arrogance grew with our fame. For the fortress was taken by the servants of the Dark Lord, more than a thousand years ago it was, and now no one can foresee that valley being inhabited ever again by Men. My ancestors and their descendants bear the shame of that failure, for it was our vigilance which faltered in Gondor's hour of need."
"The fall of fair Minas Ithil is a tale well known to the Dunedain, for it concerns us closely," Orthonn said solemnly. "There it was the Witch-king established his stronghold; that same foe which laid waste to our ancestral homelands here in the North. It was by his hand that beautiful Annuminas was cast down in ruin and that, finally, Fornost fell beneath the shadows of Angmar."
"That same hand it was which ended the line of the Kings of Gondor," nodded Lagodir, "For Earnur, Last-king, rode in pride and great wrath beyond the gates of Minas Ithil -- which had become foul and renamed Minas Morgul. He never returned, and Gondor has been ruled by the Stewards even unto this day."
There was a silence. I contemplated a moment on the histories of these two Men. Despite the leagues upon leagues which separated their respective homes, they were very much akin. Yet it was not pity that I felt, not for Lagodir at any rate. Despite this small insight into his past, he was still much more a closed book than an open one -- a great deal about this Man still remained unexplained.
Having taken our ease for a short time, we bade Orthonn farewell and resumed our journey toward Esteldin. I felt my heart pitter-pattering away as we approached the cross-roads, but I dared not give away what I knew to the others; Luean's warning that I trust no one in the Company meant I would have to find some other way of testing my theories. How that was to be contrived I had no idea just now -- all I could do was wait and watch.
We arrived at Esteldin without incident and just a tick after the fourth hour from noon. We immediately went in search of Halbarad, who was both amazed and horrified by our tales regarding Fornost. He praised our skill greatly, but then his countenance fell and his voice became grave once more.
"You have done much -- more, indeed, than many of the most skilled among us," he said, "Yet I must once again enlist your aid, if you are willing. You may recall that we had spoken before about the presence of worms in the Ram Duath -- the mountain range north of here which separates the North Downs from the land of Angmar? My scouts tell me that a mighty drake has emerged from there and threatens all the lands about. We are not certain if the thing can fly, but if it were to espy this refuge from the air, it could spell the doom of us all."
We agreed to do what we could about this wyrm -- Bleakwind, the Rangers had named it -- but I was so scared I could hardly think. What on earth was I going to do in a fight with a drake?! I looked again with dismay at my little Bounders-hammer.
The others resolved to find Bleakwind before we lost the light, and so we set out quickly. Going by the eastward path, we travelled up into the hills and out into the Eastern Nan Amlug plains before striking northward, toward the wyrm's last known location. We conversed in hushed voices as we walked while I constantly scanned the horizon and the skies above us for any sign of the beast.
"Why are you so skittish?" Nephyn asked me with a grin. "Weren't you the one who was saying just days ago that there was no such thing as dragons? Or perhaps you would be willing to make another wager until we are sure?"
"No, thank you!" I said. "I've seen enough unbelievable things since joining this little walking-party to know better from now on. I should just like to know what exactly it is I'm supposed to do in such a fight, aside from hide in the grass!"
"How do you fight a drake?" Nephyn asked the others. "Any ideas?" Lagodir shook his head while Gaelira shrugged.
"Well, for one thing, you want to have some advanced weaponry and armour," said Drodie in a matter-of-fact way. "But, since we've got neither, we'll have to rely on our wits instead."
"I would find that suggestion quite reassuring, if it came from someone other than a Dwarf," said Gaelira. "Pray, enlighten us with your strategies." Drodie made a rumbling noise in his throat that sounded very much like a dog growling at an unknown visitor.
"First of all," he said, none to kindly, "You want to create a distraction. Since none of you lot have any armour that could stand up to anything sharper than a tent-stake, I shall take that task upon myself. While I have the beast's attention, you'll want to wound it in the eyes or the neck. Or, if you can manage it, under the arm; but you would normally only try that if you had a lance handy, which we do not. Nephyn, I doubt your arrows will be able to pierce its hide, but if you can somehow lodge a shaft into an eye, that will make our job much easier. The one advantage we have against a wyrm is that they cannot effectively maul more than one opponent at a time. If you are the target, that is everyone else's chance to get in and do some damage, so the trick is to not die once the wyrm decides you're the one it wants to maul."
The others all expressed their thanks and seemed more hopeful, but I was feeling neither hopeful nor brave. The Sun was beginning to cast long shadows as the darkening day reflected my own waning morale quite accurately. We marched on for a ways further and climbed a low hill to get a better look of the land. The mountains of the Ram Duath loomed ahead of us to the north; they looked like a black and impassable wall silhouetted against the dimming skyline.
"Do you think it has moved on?" Nephyn asked, somewhat hopefully it sounded to me. There was no answer except the grass rustling in a mild breeze.
Suddenly there was a crash behind us! We all whipped around and there we saw Bleakwind! I stood there gaping at the monster. It was actually not as large as I had imagined it to be, but it was large enough; it had four clawed feet and two wings, each with a claw at their tips. Its skin was a peculiar mixture of pink and green, but it glared at us out of its bloodshot eyes. Then it let out a roar which blasted the hat straight off my head, very nearly knocking me over.
"Spread out!" bellowed Drodie as he gave me a hard shove. I fell into the grass while the others ran in all directions. I had fallen face-first into the turf, but I could hear the Dwarf banging his sword on his shield as he tried to draw the attention of the wyrm. Picking myself up, I saw my companions working to surround it.
"Come with me, Padryc," said Nephyn as she seized me by the shoulder. The huntress drug me off to the right and into a thicket of trees. From there, we had a good view of Bleakwind's head, and Nephyn quickly strung her bow. I saw Drodie engaging the jaws while Lagodir and Gaelira took up positions along its flanks. Then, the drake snapped toward Drodie who managed to duck and stab back with his sword. The drake recoiled and lunged again, but this time it caught the Dwarf fully in its jaws! I gasped as Bleakwind flung him what must have been a hundred yards to the east.
Drodie's cry faded into the distance and I couldn't even hear when he landed.
"There goes our distraction," Nephyn said grimly. I was certain the brave Dwarf must be dead, if not crushed by the drake's massive jaws then broken to pieces where he landed.
While I was thinking this, I saw Gaelira run in front of the drake wielding her quarterstaff. She spun it around several times in a confusing fashion, while the drake seemed undeterred as it snapped repeatedly at her. But the she-Elf was too quick: she dodged this way and that, making one miraculous escape after another before suddenly landing a stinging blow with her staff on Bleakwind's snout. The drake roared its agitation, but it was clearly not done any harm. That's when I heard Nephyn's bow twang, but the arrow passed over the monster's head. Lagodir hacked with his broadsword at the its forepaw, but it seemed to do no damage. The leg and claws swiped at the Gondorian, who cried out and fell back. Instinctively, I rushed out toward him despite Nephyn's protestations. I heard her bow sing again, but the arrow simply pinged off the drake's armoured hide.
"The eyes!" I shouted at her over my shoulder as I reached Lagodir. "Shoot the eyes!"
"Yes, I'm trying to shoot the eyes!" came Nephyn's irritable response as she ran out to me. "It's a little easier said than done when aiming at such a small, moving target, you know!"
Lagodir was lying in the grass and clutching at his side. When I removed his hand I could see a nasty wound and blood was everywhere. I steeled my nerves and worked quickly to apply bandages from my pack while I heard Nephyn draw her sword as she advanced on the drake. Gaelira had resumed her dance around the animal, but I wondered how much longer we could continue this battle with two of our number incapacitated (or worse) and me being of little help.
Suddenly, I felt something rush past me. I looked, but all I saw was a silver blur. Then, an animal leapt out of the grass and full onto the head of the drake! It was a lynx, of all things, and it was clawing viciously at Bleakwind's eyes. The monster roared and flung its head back to dislodge the pesky creature, but the cat jumped lightly back to the earth again and disappeared into the brush. But, while Bleakwind's head was thrown upward, Nephyn ran in a delivered a powerful upward thrusting stab with the Sword of Ringdor, full into the neck, then yanked the blade out again as she fled out of the drake's reach. Blood gushed from the wound and Bleakwind gave a gurgling scream of pain and terror. It began lashing out in every direction, but Gaelira and Nephyn split up and kept their distance. The drake began to retreat, keeping its head facing us but backing away toward the Ram Duath. It maintained its footing, but it was clearly defeated and wanted no more of this fight. I continued to lay low in the grass, covering Lagodir who was beginning to breathe heavily. I could see the beast take to the air and fly away northward, but it seemed to me its flight was quite unsteady. I wondered if perhaps we had dealt the thing a mortal wound and whether it would survive the night. Things didn't look good for Bleakwind.
Truth be told, things didn't look good for us either. Lagodir's wounds were terrible to see, but Gaelira said she thought they were not as serious as they appeared. His armour -- poor quality though it was -- had absorbed some of the shock, but the drake's claws had driven sharp portions of the plates into the flesh at two points. I cleaned the puncture sites with some water and applied more bandages. The bleeding was slowing, mercifully, but he needed rest and better care. While I was tending him, Nephyn came and sat nearby.
"Yet another near miss," she said. "And what became our Dwarf? I fear the worst for him, Gaelira!"
The Elf looked in the direction Drodie had been thrown, but said nothing for several moments.
"I can see him!" she said at last. "He is coming this way. I will go and fetch him."
It was rather a long time before Gaelira finally reappeared with Drodie in tow, and the Dwarf was looking worse for the wear. He had twigs and branches in his beard, his face was scratched, and he walked with a marked limp. Despite this, he refused to accept Gaelira's offers to lean on her for support.
"Drodie!" I said, relieved. "Am I glad to see you on your own feet! I seriously thought I was going to have to remember you as the bravest and the dead-est Dwarf I had ever known."
"I have the pleasure of denying you that, my hobbit," he said as he lowered himself gingerly to the ground. "Although I feel as if I've been caught between a hammer and an anvil." His voice sounded raspier than usual.
"However did you survive?" asked Nephyn in awe. Drodie patted his breastplate in response. I saw several teeth-marks which had dented it, but in no place had the armour been penetrated.
"Dwarf-armour!" he said proudly. "Didn't I tell you? This is hardly the best stuff, of course, but still a good sight better than any of you can show. As I said before the battle, if I recall."
We heaped praise on the Dwarf's courage and continued to express our amazement that he was alive at all. It turned out that the worst injury he suffered was when he landed, for he had fallen into a knot of bushes -- which had almost certainly saved his life -- but he had also twisted his ankle painfully as he came down.
We prepared to return to camp. Lagodir and Drodie were wounded, but they were able to walk. Lagodir accepted Nephyn's offer of assistance, but Drodie still refused to lean on anyone and continued to limp his way along behind us. Gaelira retrieved my hat from a tussock where it had fallen and we began our return journey, but I still had unanswered questions about the battle.
"Why on earth did that lynx attack the wyrm?" I asked to no one in particular. "It doesn't seem a natural thing for an animal to do, that."
"It is not a natural thing," said Gaelira, "The lynx did it because she was asked to help us. That was Tihe, a good friend of mine, who has helped me out of many tight spots in the past. I had seen her from the road earlier today and I asked her to follow us, though I suppose none of you noticed."
It seemed there was no end to the Elf's resourcefulness, and that was clearly to our benefit. I started to wonder what was the extent of Gaelira's silent menagerie and whether we were being followed even now by all manner of intelligent beasts. But there was still much to be done: between the injuries suffered by Drodie and Lagodir our going was very slow as we proceeded back to Esteldin. Although I looked for her, we did not encounter Tihe again on the way.
The Rangers were astounded at our tale of the battle and were able to render exceptional aid to my friends. They took Lagodir and Drodie away to their infirmary where other Rangers were convalescing from their struggles against the Enemy. Nephyn, Gaelira, and I cobbled together a campfire and settled down to ourselves in the deepening night.
"Do you think they'll be alright?" I asked as I nibbled at some cram. Although I had eaten nothing since lunch back at Ost Lagoros with Orthonn, my appetite wasn't what it normally would be.
"Yes, I am certain they will," said Gaelira. "The Company has proven itself to be resilient, powerful, and highly adaptive, even against the deadliest of enemies." She was seated, cross-legged, and staring intently at the fire, as if she saw something there that Nephyn and I could not.
"Well, I certainly hope all of this running around is worth it," I said. "For one thing, it's exhausting. I'm beginning to think it's about time we got a sight of this Angmar place and know what it is we're in for."
"You speak the truth, friend Padryc," said Gaelira as she rose. "I wish to speak with Halbarad. I suggest the two of you get some sleep." She immediately strode off into the darkness.
"What do you make of that?" I asked Nephyn, but the huntress only shook her head at me.
"I'm no good at deciphering the actions or the moods of Elves," she said wearily. "I feel the need for sleep in a way I never thought possible. I hope you do not think me rude if I nod off right here? There is no talk in me tonight, my friend."
"Of course!" I said, genuinely sympathetic. "Dear me, after everything you have done today, to say nothing of the others, you deserve all the sleep you can get! Don't mind me: I will just do my daily scribblings and nod off myself eventually, right here beside you."
Nephyn thanked me and was sound asleep within minutes. I did bring out my journal and begin writing, but in truth I was waiting. Once I was convinced Nephyn was very deeply in slumber, I stole over to her pack and found her maps. I selected the map of the North Downs and opened it. There, staring back at me from the parchment, was the cross-roads of the path just outside of Esteldin.
Begin where three roads meet.
I knew I had found the starting point to Luean's riddle, and now all I needed was the opportunity to slip outside of the valley alone to pursue it. With Nephyn asleep, Gaelira closeted with Halbarad, and the other two in the care of the Rangers I had the perfect chance! I put the map back and quietly prepared to do my very best burglar impression. Tonight, everything was going to change.