Sterday, 30th of Afteryule, Year 1418, Shire-reckoning
Ost Guruth, Somewhere in the Lone-lands
|Naruhel, the Red-maid|
"Get away from me!" I heard a feral voice cry out. It was odd, for I thought I knew that voice, yet at the same time it I was aware I had never heard it before. Looking up, I saw an amazing thing.
There on the far side of the chamber was Nephyn, her sword drawn, with Gaelira, Lagodir, and Drodie around her. They appeared to be trying to get close to her, but seemed afraid to do so. Then, I saw that Nephyn had at her feet and seized by the hair the ghoulish woman! The Sword of Ringdor was gleaming blood-red in the light of the setting Sun as it rested at the throat of the defeated Red-maid.
"No!" Nephyn roared, "I will not spare this... this fiend!" She took a swipe at the others with her sword to keep them at bay before returning it to the neck of her captive. It seemed the Company had somehow overpowered the Red-maid while I was incapacitated, although how that had been contrived I had no idea. Yet there she was, and as I looked I saw that her appearance had changed: the horrible light had gone out from her eyes and now she looked not monstrous but haggard. I thought that she might even be (or perhaps have been) beautiful to look upon, but now she was a wizened and pitiable thing. Her frightened eyes darted in every direction, but they seemed less concerned with my friends than with the ruins surrounding her. It was as though she did not know where she was. As I was processing all of this, I heard Gaelira speaking.
"Nephyn, please, just listen--"
"Quiet!" screamed Nephyn, and I jumped at the terrible change that had come over her voice. "This monster drinks the blood of Men and slays my friend, and you would have me spare her?! Why? So she can betray us? Betray me the same way you did?" Here she raised her sword, the point toward the Elf. It seemed to me then that a light flashed in her eyes and it sent chills of horror down my spine -- it was the same alarming glint I had seen in the eyes of the fanatics as we had searched for the Red-maid.
"But I'm alive, Nephyn," I said in my small voice. The others all turned.
"Padryc! You're all right!" Gaelira, Lagodir, and Drodie all cheered and ran toward me to pat me on the back and shoulders, but Nephyn was silent. I brushed the others away and took a few steps toward her. The huntress was breathing hard and had returned her sword to the Red-maid's exposed throat. The four of us stood there, watching her. Nephyn's face was a cloud of rage, relief, and confusion. My heart was wrung with fear and sorrow for my friend, for I understood now she had thought me dead at the hands of the wild woman and meant to take vengeance. But I had not been killed, and now she was on the verge of committing a terrible deed. The Red-maid, still on her knees at Nephyn's feet, began to weep.
"What has happened to my home?" she asked miserably. "Please, I only beg that you will tell me what has happened to me and my home before you slay me." The Sword of Ringdor still hovered an inch from her neck. Despite the awful things I had seen the Red-maid do, she was now defeated and helpless. I couldn't believe the sweet and gentle friend I had known could ever murder among living thing in cold blood. I looked pleadingly at her as tears welled in my eyes.
"Nephyn?" I asked, but I'm not sure if my voice had any sound. Slowly, she lowered her blade.
"I... I'm sorry, I..." Nephyn said haltingly, then quickly strode from the chamber. I moved to go after her, but I felt Drodie's hand on my shoulder.
"Let her go, lad," he said to me in the kindest voice I had ever heard come from that bearded face. "Let her be." I nodded and stood my ground.
"We truly did think you lost, little Halfling," said Lagodir quietly as he moved to take custody of the Red-maid. "I was unsure we could have won the battle but for Nephyn's ferocity. How are you feeling?"
"Well, I have a headache the size of the Southfarthing," I said as I put my hand to feel the back of my skull. "But other than that--" My voice trailed off as I brought my hand back down: it was covered in bright-red, wet, sticky blood, and it was mine. I fainted dead away.
The next thing I knew I was lying on my back again, but this time I saw staring at the starry sky of deep night. I could feel and hear a fire crackling away to my right, and I could sense that I was surrounded.
"He is awake," I heard Drodie saying. "Perhaps he will want something to eat."
"Not just now, my good Dwarf," I said with a weak smile. "Is Nephyn there?"
"Nephyn has been off by herself since we brought you back safely to Ost Guruth," I heard Gaelira say as she checked the bandages behind my head.
"O," I was all I could think say. Try as I might, I had no recollection of the battle with the Red-maid or our journey back to the Eglain stronghold.
"What happened today?" I asked no one in particular. "It seems we got caught up in something a bit above our station, if you'll pardon my saying so."
"I too have thought this," said Lagodir grimly. "I know not what sort of thing this Red-maid was, but I am glad to no longer have her as an enemy."
"Is the Red-maid... dead, then?" I asked.
"No, she is not dead," said Gaelira, "Although she may wish it so. I had begun to guess some days ago, but that which the Eglain know as the Red-maid is really an ancient river-spirit named Naruhel. They are similar in kind to Iarwain Ben-adar, that is: Tom Bombadil, as you know him. Or perhaps a better comparison would be to Goldberry, his companion. They are a strange race, and even we Elves do not know all there is to know about them."
"But this maiden had been turned," said Lagodir in a dark voice, "And she was a most formidable adversary."
"Yes, she had been turned, though I had no idea this was even possible," said Gaelira thoughtfully. "I had always believed beings of that kind could not have their nature altered so drastically, yet clearly it was done in Naruhel's case. I wonder... the Gaunt-lord Drodie and I had encountered while we searched for her sanctum may have had a hand in that."
"Aye, but don't forget that Khamul fellow," said Drodie unexpectedly. "Remember the skeleton king had said he was headed east -- right before I buried him under a few tons of stone."
"You speak the truth, my good Dwarf," said Gaelira. "That would indeed be a more probable explanation. The Gaunt-lord was likely continuing to carry out the Ringwraith's will in these parts, but we do not know where Khamul may have gone from here. We must all be cautious."
"And what did you do with Naruhel?" I asked, still lying on my back.
"Do? We did nothing with her," Gaelira responded. "Naruhel had been blinded by the guile of the Nazgul and turned into an agent of death and destruction. We came only in the nick of time, as it were, to save her from devouring all of the Lone-lands. But when we overcame her in battle she was released from whatever enthrallment Khamul had her under and she wept long and bitterly, for it will take many years for her to restore her homeland. I think she would have welcomed death after seeing what she herself had done to her beloved country, but there are also none better equipped to set it right."
"Yes, I pity her greatly and I know that we have done the right thing by sparing her," said Lagodir, though a bit doubtfully. "I am less certain what this victory has won us, however." He looked over his shoulder, assumedly in search of Nephyn.
"The young huntress was forced to confront her own evils," said Gaelira quietly but sternly. "Her life has been a hard one, fraught from the beginning with lost family, lost friends, and many betrayals. When she thought she had lost Padryc, well, it was a difficult thing to resist."
"Aye," said Drodie. "Did you notice how easily she turned her ire from the Red-maid to you, Gaelira?" The she-Elf nodded.
"Yes, but do not stand in judgment of her, my friends. For one thing I am probably deserving of her scorn in some measure, but remember too what Mallacai had said? Bring me the raiment of Naruhel, the Red-maid, and may you learn forgiveness in the process? I fear each of us may face similar trials as we continue this journey together. Who knows how we shall fare when our time comes?"
We all fell silent. I wondered what sorts of tests I might face on this adventure and how I would act under similar circumstances. I felt heartily sorry for Nephyn and thought about what it must have been like: to grow up in a place that you knew was not your home, abandoned by your own family to be raised by strangers. It was enough to make anyone bitter and jealous, but Nephyn still maintained a kind and cheerful personality. It was then I perceived that what I saw in Garth Agarwen was her pain, the cumulative pain of her lifetime, rising to the surface and lashing out at others in her suffering. Who, indeed, could stand in judgment of such a trial? And yet, in the end, she had done the right thing. She was an altogether remarkable Woman and I thought how lucky I am to have her for a companion. But I am only a hobbit and not given to ponder such deep thoughts overlong. I started to get curious about what had happened after I had been rendered unconscious.
"How did you all manage to overcome the Red-maid?" I asked as I tried to sit up a little. Gaelira reached out her hand and made me lie down again.
"You need your rest, little Shire-hobbit," she said to me. "Already the Moon climbs high, and we have our next task before us tomorrow."
"But I couldn't possibly go to sleep now without knowing what happened!" I begged. Gaelira sighed.
"Very well, but I will leave it to Lagodir to tell you that tale," she said and got up. "I wish to speak with the elders of this place and see what I can learn about the movements of Khamul, if indeed he came this way. The last thing we need now is to encounter that foul creature somewhere far from help in the middle of the Wild."
"I will tell you enough to satisfy you," said Lagodir with a smile as Gaelira strode off. "But then you must rest and ask no questions! I am still amazed that you are alive at all."
Lagodir proceeded to tell me how the same wave of blood and water which had knocked me senseless had scattered the rest of the Company except Drodie, who had managed to keep his footing. He charged Naruhel while the others recovered and came on the attack as well. But no one was able to harm the Red-maid for she would fling walls of swamp-water into the air to block them and rain torrents of it down on their heads to befuddle them. It seemed the Company was battling the swamp itself and were in danger of being overwhelmed.
"But that's when I heard a terrible cry from Nephyn," Lagodir said. "I followed her eyes and saw you lying in the water, and I thought certain you were slain. Nephyn must have thought likewise, for she became an unstoppable force, the likes of which I have rarely seen."
"Nor I!" agreed Drodie. "We Dwarves tell many tales of Uthi the Destroyer and his twin axes -- Sharok and Karkh, that is, Fear and Hate in our tongue -- which drink the souls of their victims. It was as if the Destroyer were brought to life in front of me, but it was our friend and no bed-time story that I saw."
"Her bow was useless under the circumstances, of course, but she attacked continuously with the Sword of Ringdor," Lagodir went on. "And yet she never landed a blow, for the Red-maid simply dodged this way and that, faster than a fox; the rest of us could only stand by and watch. Finally, Nephyn raised her sword high overhead and brought it down, but Naruhel caught the blade between her hands and wrenched it from her grasp. I thought Nephyn was doomed, but suddenly she reached out her arms and caught the Red-maid by the throat! She began to throttle Naruhel with a vicious and primal fury I never thought to see out of our friend. It was at some point during that struggle in which the Red-maid inexplicably went limp, as if she had given in, but Nephyn would not relent her attack. She caught up her sword even while her other hand remained on her opponent's neck and threatened to take Naruhel's head off. The rest, I think, you know already."
"Just one thing, though," I asked. "What of Naruhel's raiment? Did we ever find it?"
"O, I had forgotten about that," Lagodir said. "Yes, it is a very unusual garment which Naruhel surrendered to us after we set her free. It is rather foul, all covered with vines, twigs, and creeping things, but it is safe in Nephyn's pack. It seemed fitting that she should be the one to carry it."
The fire crackled loudly, sending up sparks into the night sky. I wondered where Nephyn was and what might be going through her mind in that hour. Lagodir leaned forward and checked the bandages behind my head.
"Good news, my friend: it appears the bleeding has finally stopped. It was not a bad cut, but it was deep and cuts to the head have a tendency to flow for long periods. You will recover, but you must rest ere the night be much older. I will go and refill our water-bottles, for we used all of the water washing the spent bandages and we will need it on the morrow."
"Are you still in the mood for tales?" asked Drodie with a leering grin after Lagodir had gone. "Because I could tell you wonderful stories of Uthi the Destroyer -- how he could split mountains with only his voice, how he swam upstream in the frigid Source of the Bruinen high in the Misty Mountains, or how he once created a river of blood from the necks of his enemies--"
"No!" I cried in revulsion. "No, I think I've had enough story-telling for one night, my friend. Just now I think I really should get some rest." Drodie shrugged, then started humming some strange Dwarf-tune to himself as he lit up his pipe.
I lay there a little while longer thinking over the events of the past few days and marvelling at the strange adventure I had somehow become a part of. I wondered what would be our next task and whether some mysterious trial awaited us when we found it. The Moon was now directly overhead, and I finally fell asleep, bathed in her silvery light.