Monday, 25th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Torogethir's camp, Somewhere in Evendim
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.