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.

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