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?

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