Highday, 22nd of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ranger-camp of Esteldin, Somewhere in the North Downs
"Why this way?" she asked, sounding genuinely curious. "Why alone?"
"Because I have no idea if any of the others have been playing along with whatever scheme of yours this is," I answered. "Also, I can see Luean held you in high regard, and it seemed he would have afforded you the opportunity to explain yourself without ruining your reputation, if possible. I decided to extend you that courtesy."
"The others know nothing," she said, but her head drooped and her proud eyes were downcast. "I suppose you want answers from me?"
"That would do nicely, for a start," I said as I crossed my arms.
"Very well. You have all earned an explanation, and perhaps you most of all. I am not proud of what I have done, but I will tell you what I know and leave it to you to decide what should happen next."
"It is true that neither Elrond nor either of his sons knew anything about my mission," she began. "I invented that premise in the hopes it would inspire others to join me, since it would be impossible for me to accomplish what I intended on my own. After convincing Luean to join me, I headed to Bree, met you all, and formed the Company."
"You're not telling me anything I don't already know," I cut in.
"Yes, I will tell you about my mission," she said. "My goal is to infiltrate Carn Dum, the Witch-king's ancient fortress in the wastes of Angmar, and recover... well, an artifact from there."
"What sort of artifact?" I probed. Gaelira paused for a moment.
"It is the palantir of Amon Sul," she said quietly. "An orb of crystal which can be used to see things far away. It is a very precious relic made by the Elves and gifted to certain Men in ages past, but in the right hands it could turn the tide of the coming war with Mordor. I am privy to certain sources of information which have determined that Angmar has captured this palantir and that it is being held within the fastness of Carn Dum."
"And why not simply tell us this? Why the deception?"
"If you understood the power of the palantiri you would not need to ask that question," she replied. "Knowledge means great power, and the knowledge granted by the seeing-stones represents immense power. Think of what the Free Peoples could do with such power if it were used against our foes? But now it sits in the hands of great evil, and that power is not lying idle."
"And is this seeing-stone the manner by which the Enemy learned of you and this Company?" I asked.
"And how do you know that?"
"Because I am the reason the Enemy knows about us," she said. I gasped.
"It is not what you are thinking, however," she continued. I tried to relax and hear her out. Gaelira continued.
"I belong to an organization called the Seekers of the Seven Stars. Our objective, in part, is to resist the Enemy in any way we can, and capturing this palantir would be a major blow in our favour. But who would join a lone Elf on a mad quest to invade Angmar and steal something right out from under the nose of the Dark Lord's steward?"
"Who, indeed?" I proffered. "But what why not simply enlist others from this organization of yours?"
"I could find no one willing to join me," came her answer. "Even our leader, a wise Elf named Mallacai, would not endorse my plan, although he did see the immense value if such a gambit could somehow be accomplished. It was for that reason I dictated a message to my contact in Rivendell upon leaving there advising Mallacai that my plan was in motion. It was that message we intercepted in the Chetwood."
"Half a moment," I cried in disbelief. "Are you telling me that message, the one written in the Black Speech that I pinched off those brigands that night, was from you?"
"To the leader of my organization, yes," Gaelira said. "I had given it to my contact in Imladris by word of mouth and he sent it on in written form from there."
"So the two brigands in the Chetwood carrying the message were known to you?"
"Of course not: I do not personally know every letter-carrier and courier between Rivendell and Bree! When we encountered them I assumed they were Blackwold ruffians just as we all did. It wasn't until later when you showed the message to Saerdan that I realized what had happened."
"But the message was written in the Black Speech!" I said. "So you lied about that too? About being able to read it?"
"Yes," she answered with remorse in her eyes. "I had hoped we would not chance to encounter anyone who could translate those words. It is not uncommon for the Seekers of the Seven Stars to use the Black Speech when transmitting important messages for few folk can read that abominable tongue and it confuses even those who can, as you yourself have seen. Our organization is an ancient one and our knowledge of many secrets runs very deep. I myself am not the eldest of its members, though I am not the least wise among them."
"Hm. I may not be as wise as all that," I said with a frown, "But Handsome is as handsome does, as we say in the Shire. It would seem to me you could do with a bit less wisdom and a bit more honesty. What sort of folk are these Seekers, then, that they are willing to go around deceiving people while calling them comrades to their faces? And how am I supposed to know you're not simply making all this up to placate me, or throw me onto another false trail?"
"I have certainly earned your distrust, and for that I am heartily sorry," she said. "I have known that this moment or something like it was inevitable, and I have been dreading it for weeks. I am willing to bring you to the leader of the Seekers of the Seven Stars and let you -- and the others -- judge for yourselves. Only this can I claim in my defence: the Enemy has laid traps for me before now. It was important for my safety and the safety of my quest that I test you before I could come to fully trust you, but that time is now past. The Company has proven itself beyond any doubt in my mind, both in trust and in skill-at-arms. I am willing to lay bare to you every secret I hold in order to earn your trust in return."
"Wait, wait," I said again. "I still do not understand some things. How did we arrive in the Bree-land before the message you sent out ahead of yourself?"
"The Wild is a dangerous place," Gaelira said with a shrug. "Any number of things could have delayed the couriers."
"And what did you mean when you said that you were the reason the Enemy's forces knew about us?"
"You might remember that when we intercepted the letter-carriers in the Chetwood Drodie slew one, but the other I merely rendered unconscious. It stands to reason that this second courier, who beheld us that night, was later captured by the forces of Angmar. I have no doubt he was tortured until he told all that he knew. They would have learned of his errand and the contents of the message he bore, as well as about us: our name, our number, and the type of each of us."
"And that's where Hremm eventually figured in?" I asked, finally fitting her raven-friend into the picture.
"Correct. After the disaster with the message, I resorted to a much more secure manner of keeping my superiors informed of our progress." Her use of that word ignited a spark in my memory.
"Superiors?" I echoed. "You know Umarth -- the Elf we encountered in the Fornost keep -- don't you?" I recalled the way the strange Elf had kept his eyes on Gaelira when we first met him and now I perceived that Umarth was testing through Gaelira's expression how much or how little to tell us about why he was really there.
"Yes. He is also a member of the Seekers of the Seven Stars. As many of us do, he was scouring ancient ruins in search of relics which might be of use to our cause."
"At least he told us as much. That makes him more trustworthy than you then, I suppose," I said accusatorily, but my anger with the she-Elf was actually beginning to subside. It seemed I had somehow become entangled in a very mysterious errand -- one much more secretive and important than I had originally understood. I really wanted to trust Gaelira and to believe that this quest of ours truly was of immense value, but trust, once lost, is very difficult to regain.
"You have every right to be angry with me," Gaelira said. "I swear to you I did this only out of concern for the secrecy of my mission as well as my own safety. I am ready to reveal all of this to the others as well. If they choose to turn aside from this quest then they are free to do so. But I sincerely hope you -- all of you -- will think on your decisions long and carefully. Consider what we have accomplished in service to the Free Peoples of the North ere even the first month of our fellowship has passed! If we succeed -- if we somehow manage to capture the palantir -- we will have truly made a difference in this Age of the world; we would be the stuff of legends."
"I don't care for all that," I said, dismissively, "And I'm not sure I understand all this about seeing-stones and secret societies. But if you are prepared to lay it all out for the Company to hear and decide on together, as ought to have been the case from the start, then I will go where it goes. I've stuck to this Company through thick and thin and I'll continue to stick to it. I'm not sure there's any path for me which leads back to my old life now in any case."
"I cannot tell you how much that means to me," the Elf said, and I thought I caught a hint of tenderness in her voice. "I believe now I understand what Luean meant in the Comb and Wattle Inn when he agreed with you to go on the hunt after some of our companions turned up missing. It is not enough, sometimes, to merely be fellow travellers; even when there is a common purpose. For a mission as terrible and dangerous as what I have in mind something more is required, and that thing is love."
I looked at her. Tall and strong she towered over me and appeared to the eye as resolute and imposing as ever she was since I first came to know her. And yet now, through some method of perception other than sight, I sensed that she had changed. For an instant I tried to form these jumbled thoughts into a coherent statement, but it was all too complicated for me. Instead, I just sighed and shrugged my shoulders.
"Well, that bit's settled then," I said in plain hobbit-fashion. "We can hold council with the others in the morning, assuming Lagodir and Drodie are fit for it. But what happens next?"
"Although our fellowship's cohesion and skill have advanced wonderfully, our equipment has not," she said. "We will decide our next course of action together, but I will recommend that we seek some way to gain access to more advanced gear."
"That makes sense to me, although I'm not entirely certain how that might be accomplished," I said. The Company was not wealthy and all of the bounties, gifts of gratitude, and spoils of battle we had thus far collected amounted to precious little.
"Mallacai, my leader, may be able to direct us with regards to that," Gaelira said. "While I have been keeping him apprised of our efforts through Hremm the raven, I've learned that he is encamped fairly nearby. If we can reach him, I have no doubt his wisdom would be of great value to us."
"And it would serve to resolve any suspicions that the rest of the Company might have as to your intentions," I said, finishing her thought for her. "Seems logical enough. Though I don't mind saying I'll have my eye on you until then." I gave her a wink and a broad grin. I really didn't doubt Gaelira's story now that I had heard it from her own lips. It sounded plausible enough (despite its extraordinary nature), but I was concerned how the others might take it.
"Fair enough," Gaelira said with a laugh. The tension between us was melting faster than an April snow in the Southfarthing. "Again, I cannot blame you for harbouring some doubt after everything that has happened. I swear to you I will not steer you wrong. Soon, we will stand before the leader of the Seekers of the Seven Stars, and many strange and wondrous things will be revealed to you."
"Far too strange and wondrous for my little head, I'll warrant," I said. "Which reminds me of one other thing I don't understand: your message to this Mallacai chap said you would be leading a company called The Outriders of Elladan. How could you have known that when I'm the one who came up with the name Elladan's Outriders many days later?"
"Because I had thought up that same name for the Company before I ever left Rivendell," Gaelira said with a smile. "It was pure coincidence. Even in these days of darkness and doubt, sometimes things really are nothing more than what they first appear to be."
"Well, thank goodness for that!" I chuckled. "It's nice to know there aren't shadows and intrigue lurking behind every little thing I've encountered with this bunch."
We left Halbarad's quarters together. Seeing that everything was in order, the captain of the Rangers bade us goodnight and retired. Gaelira and I returned to our little campsite where we saw Nephyn had not budged an inch -- she was deep in much-needed slumber. A wave of sleepiness crashed over me like a tide from the deeps of the Sea. I wondered what time of the night (or morning?) it must now be. I flopped down, contemplating how I was going to stay awake, but Gaelira seemed to read my mind.
"Go to sleep, Padryc," she said in a gentle voice. "I promise you have nothing to fear from me."
"I was hoping you'd say that," I said as I let out an enormous yawn. "This has been a night as long as years -- all of that scrambling up and down hills and clawing among stones has quite worn me out; to say nothing of my terror of you." If the Elf had any ill-intentions, I was simply going to have to trust to chance this night, for my eyelids would not keep themselves open. Gaelira looked at me with a strange mixture of wonder and admiration.
"You are to be commended for putting yourself in such danger by meeting with me alone the way you did," she said. "Once again the courage of your small kind and your consideration for the feelings of others continues to surprise me. Not so much in that you possess these qualities, but rather in how they manifest themselves. May the Shire live forever unwithered!"
"Oh, well, it seemed the right thing to do, you know," I said, eager to stop talking about me and (especially) to get some shut-eye. "And, not to seem rude about it, but just now the right thing for me to do is to rest. It sounds like the five of us will have a great deal to discuss in the morning. Good night!"
"Good night," said Gaelira as she sat down across from me. It didn't take more than a few moments for me to drop off, but in those moments I could see the she-Elf sitting there in the glow of our little campfire. All I saw was her back since she was facing the other way, but I got the distinct impression that she was on guard, watching protectively over Nephyn and me.