Monday, July 10, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 22.1

The Road to Evendim

Highday, 22nd of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-Reckoning
The Evendim Gate, on the Edges of Parth Aduial
The Fields of Fornost
It seemed that no sooner had I closed my eyes than I was being shaken into wakefulness. I shooed the offender away and hauled the blanket over my head, but the assault continued.

"Up with you, Master Sluggard," came Lagodir's voice. "If I, who am wounded, can suffer to be roused at this hour, then surely you shall bear my pain with me."

I groaned and struggled to compose myself. It was still dark, but there before me were the rest of my companions; all gathered around the campfire which had been well-tended during the late watches, assumedly by Gaelira. The she-Elf stood before us while the others were seated, as if she had something to say. After all of the excitement and revelations of the previous evening, I expected she would have rather a lot to say.

And so she did. Gaelira bared her heart to us all, but I will not record here every detail of that confession. Everything she had told me last night was laid out to the full Company, and there was much surprise and some confusion over a great many things. The others frequently asked her to clarify her story, or someone would go back to a previous point and probe the matter further. Dawn was fully in the sky before all were satisfied. I myself kept very quiet throughout the proceedings and busied my hands with my pipe. I must say I had gotten through a great deal of my pipe-weed before the matter was finally concluded.

In the end, things didn't really come off as cleanly as I had hoped: Lagodir seemed very suspicious of Gaelira's account while Nephyn was just short of being openly hostile. As for Drodie, he acted as though his distrust of Elves had only been further vindicated and said next to nothing, except to grunt his displeasure. I felt a surge of nervousness in the pit of my stomach as I realized that Gaelira's deception, which always carried the risk of damaging trust within the Company, was actually dangerously close to dissolving it altogether. I even found myself timidly piping up in Gaelira's defence more than once, much to my own surprise. I had intended to let the others make up their own minds about the matter but, after all we had been through together, I confess I had expected them to give her the benefit of the doubt. I was learning now just how very fragile a thing trust is, and that it remained to be seen whether the Company would survive Gaelira's toying with it. To her credit, the she-Elf openly answered everything that was asked of her and (to me) seemed genuinely repentant.

"Many Elves are not known for being humble, as I'm sure Drodie would agree," she said at one point. "But for all of you remaining in the Company and joining me on this most dangerous mission, I am truly humbled in your presence. Whether hobbit, dwarf, or man; for me race has disappeared into my friends -- Nephyn, Drodie, Padryc and Lagodir -- above and beyond any labeling. I will labour in every way I know how to regain the trust I have shamefully squandered with you all. I have never felt so chastised as when I felt I needed to deceive you in order to secure your assistance. I will convey in both word and deed that I am true to my word. And so I say to you: Guren Glassui. In the Common Tongue, Thank you from my heart. As long as I have breath you will have a true friend."

You can't say fairer than that, I thought to myself. But, when it comes right down to it, each of the others is going to have to decide for themselves what to make of it.

As time passed, however, everyone expressed their desire to continue on our path together. Then began a debate about the next leg of our journey. Lagodir and Drodie were both much better after being tended by the Rangers during the night, but both were still in no condition for any fighting or hard labour. All of us had become concerned about the state of our equipment and the lowly nature of our gear, and the conversation turned to what should be done about this. Among the entire Company, only Nephyn bore any weaponry of skilled craftsmanship in the Sword of Ringdor, save Drodie's stout (but now somewhat damaged) corslet of Dwarf-made armour. Not for the last time I looked at my own little hammer, which had seen close to nothing of battle since the beginning of the year. We even asked Halbarad whether the Rangers could assist us in any way, but his answer was not encouraging.

"My people have next to nothing to spare you, I am afraid," the Ranger-captain said ruefully, "And what we have is only what we can rescue from our foes or craft with our own hands -- hardly any better than that which you bear now. Moreover, our tactics are to be light and swift: to strike the Enemy then melt into the shadows before they can counter-strike. Perhaps the huntress, Nephyn, will find one of our longbows to be of superior make to her own. You are welcome to whatever we have in our stores, of course, but I do not think you will find anything there to grant you a serious advantage on the battlefield."

When she heard the offer Nephyn politely refused it, saying her own bow was like a natural extension of her arm and to replace it would be akin to losing part of herself. Halbarad smiled at her.

"I expected no other answer," he said. "So would any marksman among my folk say, in a like situation. May your arrows fly forever true! But what now shall be the path of your Company?"

"In the dead of night I learned from Hremm the raven that we may find an ally encamped on the island of Tinnudir," said Gaelira. "He will be able to assist us in our cause."

"In Evendim?" Halbarad asked. "Ah, then your dealings with my people are not yet ended, for the Dunedain hold that island, or at least it was so when last I heard from Calenglad, who is captain of the Rangers in that place. If you are going thither, I would ask that you extend my greetings to him. He is a valiant Man, though he can be grim and stubborn at times. I would ask also that you give him tidings of the battle at Dol Dinen, and how things go well for us there, for it will lighten his heart and grant courage to his men."

We assured Halbarad we would do this and we thanked him many times for his aid and hospitality. The Ranger-captain then bade us farewell and went about his business, but I sidled up to Gaelira.

"The ally you spoke of, would that be this Mallacai fellow?" I asked her.

"Yes," she whispered back. "Like many of us under his leadership, he is eagerly sought by the Enemy, and so rumour of his comings and goings is not one for casual dissemination. Not even among friends, if it can be helped."

"Hum!" I said, impressed. I wondered what the leader of Gaelira's covert organization, the Seekers of the Seven Stars, might be up to that would warrant such secrecy.

It was the second hour from dawn when we were finally ready to depart. Our preparations were fulfilled in a silence which made me very nervous, for the tension within the Company was thicker than clotted cream. Then Gaelira told us that the island of Tinnudir was roughly forty leagues from where we now stood. She said it would take two days' hard marching to reach it and that the road led right through the middle of the Fields of Fornost! My heart sank straight down into my hairy toes; I was so upset that I nearly forgot my second breakfast!

At long last everything was ready. We made our way out the west-gate and through the hills down toward the cross-roads where last night I had begun my search that ended in the discovery of Luean's fateful message to me. As we crested the last hill, Lagodir turned and raised his hand in token of farewell to Esteldin.

"Happy am I to see that the spirit of ancient Numenor lives on, here in the North as well as in my homeland," he said. "Despite much hardship, here my distant kinsmen continue their valiant fight against the rising shadows of Angmar."

"Here and in other places," said Gaelira. "But I should not speak nor gesture so openly -- Esteldin's safety is maintained as much by its secrecy as its strength of arms."

"Ture, but there are no falsehoods to be found within the secret fastnesses of these Men," came Lagodir's retort. Gaelira did not look round nor respond to him. I felt my stomach lurch: the discontent within the Company could become a festering sore that may worsen the longer it lay untreated, and there was a long, long road ahead of us.

I would count this day the most miserable one of all my time in the Company so far. The weather was fine and the light was broad, but it was as if in mockery of the creeping vexation and darkened hearts among the five of us. No one spoke as the miles rolled beneath our feet. We came to the bridge which we had crossed twice before and still no one had said a word to anyone else. I began to feel that this was somehow all my fault. I licked my lips and decided it would be up to me to do something about it. Even though we were walking, we were going at what seemed to me to be a terrific speed. I was obliged more than once to jog alongside my companions in order to keep up with their gait so, as the occasion presented itself, I trotted up alongside Nephyn and proceeded to have a private chat with her.

"I think Gaelira walks faster than any of us," I said, trying to sound lighthearted. "That was some uncomfortable business back there in Esteldin, right enough. But I think she's telling the truth now, don't you?" I was obviously fishing, but I couldn't think of any gentler way to broach the subject. Nephyn looked down at me and sighed as she walked.

"Yes, I do believe her. Now," she said, "But what if she is hiding something else from us?"

"I understand," I said. "I suppose we should all keep our eyes peeled for a while."

"No, I don't think you do understand, my friend," said Nephyn, but her tone was sad. "I do not fear any danger from her. But my entire life I have never had cause to trust anyone, save of course Saerdan and old Butterbur. You have no idea what it is like to be an outcast in your own homeland. Then I grant my trust to this Company and its mission only to find it has all been a lie? I can forgive Gaelira for her little games, but coming to trust her again? I do not know."

"You still have the rest of us, though," I replied. "We've all been through some scrapes, but so far we have always overcome whatever we faced. After everything we've done together, would you have Elladan's Outriders fall victim to its own internal strife?"

"Can we even call ourselves that any longer?" Nephyn countered. "It feels to me as though we are presenting ourselves under false pretenses. You may use the name if you like, but I do not think I shall. It has lost its meaning for me."

I had to let the conversation go at that. The situation was looking like it might be even worse than I had feared. I decided to tackle Lagodir next, and drew close to him so the others would not overhear us.

"I say," I said casually, "It was awfully brave of Gaelira to lay everything out the way she did, don't you think?" I imagine my question sounded just as awkward as I felt.

"That may be so," the Gondorian answered, "But the bravery would not have been needed were it not for the deceptions." The tall Man's eyes never left the road ahead of him as he spoke.

"Fair point," I conceded, but I wasn't going to let him get off that easily. "Still," I continued, "One can understand her desire to protect herself if the Enemy has been after her as she claims. Being a hunted individual might make one distrustful of others after a time, wouldn't you agree?"

Lagodir's eyes darted toward me for an instant, but returned quickly to the road. I knew my gamble had worked: the Man's continual obfuscation regarding his own past had always left me with the impression that he was running from something. Now I knew my guess was at least partially correct.

"Perhaps," came his reply. We walked on in silence for a few moments. After a while I managed to pipe up again.

"For my part, I think she is telling the truth," I said, letting my words hang on the air.

"I believe she is as well," the Gondorian answered. "The Men of Gondor do not lie, and therefore we are able to detect when others do so, and better than most, I daresay. It is what may remain unsaid by her that concerns me."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"If stealing this palantir was her true goal," Lagodir replied, "Then why agree to Saerdan's suggestion that we attack the Enemy's forces to draw his attention to ourselves? Would not stealth have served her purposes better? Until that question is resolved for me, I will continue to suspect she has not truly told us everything she knows."

I couldn't argue with Lagodir's reasoning. It was emerging that most of the Company was willing to forgive Gaelira for what she had done, but were less willing to grant her their trust a second time. I went to Drodie last, for I suspected the Dwarf would have little to say to me. Nor did he, but there was one question I wanted to ask him.

"Drodie, how did you know that Hremm was not to be trusted?" I asked him.

"It wasn't that I didn't trust the bird," he replied. "It was that I didn't trust the Elf which brought us the bird. Never. Trust. An. Elf." There didn't seem to be much else to say, so I left Drodie to himself. I wondered what it was that had happened to him to have such a thorough distrust of the Eldar people.

We continued to follow the road westward toward Mincham's camp; hours passed and the day was beginning to grow old by the time we reached it. The Ranger was not there, and only the faintest traces of a scattered campfire belied his former presence. We rested briefly, but we resumed our march much sooner than I would have liked. My feet were killing me: we had covered more than ten leagues already, but Gaelira had warned us against being caught in the Fields of Fornost by night.

As we followed the path north, I heard several mournful howls carried on the wind, but no matter how many times I looked to the sides and behind me I was never able to see their source. The dry, dead leaves of the decaying trees rattled ominously as a chill breeze swept the hills. After a time, we found the west-leading track that the treasure-hunters had taken two days earlier when we had left Fornost with them. This path, so we were told, would eventually lead us through the Evendim Gate and into the green plains of the Parth Aduial beyond. From there it was another day's journey to the Ranger-camp on the island of Tinnudir. Gaelira's description of the rolling hills of Evendim filled me with a sense of hope, but for the time being we had to navigate the deathly Fields of Fornost.

Nephyn led us from the front and I could see her head turning to the left and right as she tried to keep us on the path. At some point in the distant past it may have been well-used, but now it was overgrown and so faded that staying on it was difficult. On multiple occasions we would wander away from it and discover it again several yards off to one side. In this manner, we covered several more miles while the Sun was still in the sky, but soon dusk was in the air and the mountains which marked the end of the Fields were still some ways off. I began to get frightened and even fancied I saw the pale visage of ghosts peering at us from the tops of the hills around us. I wondered how much farther we could go before darkness fell, and what would happen to us if it did before we managed to find our way out of this hellish region.

Suddenly Nephyn signaled to us to stop, and we obliged. The huntress veered off the track and disappeared down a slope. A few minutes later her masked head re-emerged, and there was alarm in her eyes.

"We must keep moving," she said in a breathless whisper. "We must find the Evendim Gate before nightfall."

Immediately we moved on, but I took a moment to peek over the lip of the hill. The light was failing fast, but I could see the tracks of many booted feet in the soft earth which led down the slope. They ended, as far as I could see, at the edge of a sickly and stagnant pool at the bottom of a dell. There, at the edge of the pool, lay several crates, boxes, and hand-barrows. With a thrill I realized that these must be all that was left of the treasure-hunter party we had travelled with as we left Fornost two days ago. There was no sign of any bodies. I scarpered back to the group with a sick feeling in my stomach.

Nephyn was bent almost double as she struggled to keep us on the road. We all stayed close and went on nearly at a run. The track gradually began to climb upward and I could see we had drawn closer to the mountains than I had first realized, for the mountains were low in this place, though they were still virtually impassable. A gap in the mountain wall began to emerge, and I figured this must be the Evendim Gate.

Shortly thereafter a hideous visage loomed up on our left: it was the ruins of what appeared to be an ancient Arnorian city, but it was dimly lit with pale lights of purple and green. An eerie wail seemed to come from that place, and we all stood there, as if frozen to the spot. It was Gaelira who roused us to action.

"Come!" she cried, "We cannot stay here! Up the path and through the gate, now!"

We all followed her lead, though Nephyn seemed to have gone numb as she stared at the dead city. We were forced to seize the Woman and drag her with us, but once we turned the corner and were out of sight of the ruins she appeared to recover. I looked up at the sky: it seemed as though the Sun had suddenly flickered out. Darkness covered us as we ran.

The road went on at a steady rise. I began to think we were all in a nightmarish dream together that would never end. Would we keep running like this forever or until whatever evil dwelt in the city came out to hunt us down? Just then, I saw a break in the mountains ahead with a patch of sky between them. The Evendim Gate!

The Company gathered its strength for a final spurt and we passed through a gate of stone into the Parth Aduial. I collapsed, gasping for air as though I hadn't breathed in hours. Once through the gate, it felt as though a heavy weight had been removed from us -- even the air felt lighter and carried a faint scent of thistles.

Although none of us spoke, we all took great comfort in each other as we collected ourselves. I don't know about the rest, but I felt a great weariness come over me at that time. I looked out into the plains of Evendim to take in the sight. The Moon was rising and cast her light on an interesting landscape: from our current vantage point I could see gently rolling plains covered in a grass of deep green. There were also rocky outcroppings in several places, but it was the ruins which dominated everything else. I could see them at several points: large buildings of stone, some built remarkably high, dotted the fields and here and there were clumps of trees. On the whole, it looked a fairly peaceful place, but I knew I could not judge the land based on what I saw. As I looked, I suddenly became aware of a thin spiral of smoke coming from somewhere above us and to our right. Following its trail, I saw the glow of a campfire playing against some ruins atop a small hill.

"Look!" I said as I pointed. "A camp!"

We all made our way toward the light. After a short time, we came to the summit and stepped into a clearing in the midst of the ruins. We encountered there a Ranger named Torogethir who identified himself as a Man under Calenglad's command. He was very interested in our tale and, upon learning that we were bound for Tinnudir, asked that we deliver a report from him to Calenglad concerning the lands here which were under his watch. We agreed to do this and hastily made camp. We had covered an immense distance in one day, but it was only half the distance toward our goal. I rubbed my aching feet gingerly and wondered how I could ever manage to travel the same distance a second day in a row.

Torogethir offered to keep the watch and Gaelira joined him. The rest of us swiftly fell asleep, but I took some time to make this record of today's activities. The first day since Gaelira revealed her true mission to us had passed and the Company has survived, but I feel it is in more danger now than at any time since its founding. This time, however, the danger is not from Orcs, Wargs, trolls, or even wraiths or wights, but from within itself.

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