Monday, August 28, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 30

Turning Aside

Sterday, 7th of Solmath, Year 1418, Shire-reckoning
Hrimbarg, Somewhere in the Misty Mountains
A mammoth!
Time wore on. We all became immensely bored, but Gaelira was leaning forward into the dark tunnel as if straining to hear. After a while, she crept over to us.

"I think I begin to understand what is happening," she said in the faintest of whispers. The ruckus from the goblins further up the tunnel threatened to completely drown out her voice. "The goblin-king speaks of how his people ambushed a company of stunted folk as they were trespassing through his realm. That can only refer to the unfortunate Dwarves we encountered within these halls. But then he talks of how an alliance of Elf-filth, Dwarf-scum, Man-flesh, and even Shire-rats have invaded their kingdom -- mighty warriors who slew many of their people -- in an attempt to rescue the Dwarves."

"Such language!" I huffed. "So they believe we are here to save those Dwarves? How could anyone have possibly heard about their unhappy fate so quickly and so far up here in these forsaken mountains? Do goblins keep naught but refuse between their ears?"

"It is no laughing matter," said Gaelira gravely. "The goblins believe the Free Folk are making war upon them, and they mean to retaliate. If I hear him aright, the Great Goblin intends to lead this army to the surface and mount an assault upon Rivendell."

"Do you think they could win that battle?" asked Nephyn, wide-eyed.

"No, but that does not mean they could not cause great damage and suffering in the process," Gaelira answered. "More importantly, Lord Gloin has only a small company of Dwarves at his disposal here in the mountains: he and his folk are now in great peril."

"We must do something to warn them!" said Drodie, in an intense whisper.

"Yes, we must," Gaelira looked back to the tunnel again, as if listening some more. "It may be that the goblins will send most of their strength against Imladris. If that is so, then we may be able to tail the army as they leave and so come back to the surface behind them. From there --" she paused, "From there, I am not certain how, but we must find some way to send word to Gloin of the horde which approaches his outpost so that he may retreat to Rivendell, saving his people."

"We should also send him word of his slain kinsmen," said Lagodir quietly. "Fate has been most unkind to them."

"And to us," replied Gaelira. "For we cannot now hope to attack the Great Goblin or steal his crown. I fear we have no choice but to abandon this errand -- others are in greater need of our help at this time."

We did not have much longer to wait. After several more minutes there came the greatest riot yet from the caverns above us, mingled with the braying of horns and the beating of drums. Then we could hear the stomping and flapping of goblin-feet as they issued out to war. We quickly collected ourselves and prepared to follow the host.

It was a miserable time we spent, tracking well behind that army and always struggling to keep out of earshot. I strained both my sight and hearing for any sign of the goblins to the point that my ears and eyes pained me, for we went without light and relied chiefly on sound to keep our distance from our enemies. On and on, upward and upward we crept, stealthy as shadows, but it seemed that our hopes had been realized for the goblins left no guard at their rear, thinking themselves secure in their own home. Finally, we heard a loud thud a ways off in front of us, and the light of the night skies streamed into the tunnels ahead.

We ducked into a side-passage and waited for the host to pass outside. After this was done, we waited longer still, for we expected to meet armed resistance at the gates. It was well that we did so as they had left many sentries, but our attack caught the goblins completely by surprise and we swiftly overwhelmed them. Next, Drodie released the winch holding the gate in place, and we were free of Goblin-town!

We did not linger on that doorstep but passed quickly out into the snow. I had no idea where we were in relation to the entrance we had used the day before, but here the mountain was fairly smooth and easy to navigate, though the snow drifts were high. Fortunately for us, the goblin-army had already done the hard work of beating a path into the snow, and so our going was not difficult. Looking at the stars, I realized that, although it felt as if we had spent a week inside those tunnels, that it was in fact only the very early morning of the day after the night that we went in, and dawn was still some hours off. As we went along, I noticed the snowstorm which had driven us into the goblins' cave had abated at last, though the clouds overhead still looked heavy and there were still flakes falling on our heads.

"Well, that's one bit of luck at least, that the snow has lessened," I said. "Although it looks as though it could start back up again at any time. I hope I don't find myself wishing we were back inside Goblin-town before much longer!"

"You speak for me also," said Nephyn as she looked skyward. "But I could not tell you what this kind of weather might do, for I have no real experience with it. I suspect your homeland and mine are not much different when it comes to such things, Padryc."

"Indeed not," I answered. "I used to think it would be fun to see some snow in the Shire one time in my life, but I've already had my fill of it here."

"I wouldn't mind a light dusting, but the fierce storms that brew up in the mountains are more than I would ever wish for -- I'm used to a much warmer climate," the huntress said back. We marched on for a while in silence. Gaelira led us into a thicket of snow-covered pines in an effort to keep us hidden from sight as much as possible. I could sense that we were all tired and downcast, for our foray into the goblin-tunnels had been fruitless. I wondered what Gaelira was planning to do next or whether, perhaps, she had no clear purpose in mind.

"What about you, friend Lagodir?" came Nephyn's voice suddenly. "Does Gondor see much snow?"

"It does in some places," Lagodir replied. "I spent a winter in the Blackroot Vale once with my cousin. We hunted mountain-lions in the heights and there was snow."

"Hunted mountain-lions?" I echoed. "Is that what passes for fun in your country?"

"They sound beautiful!" said Nephyn. I harumphed my disagreement. "What do they look like? And do they make good pets?"

"I should think not!" the Gondorian replied with a chuckle, "For they are untame and savage beasts. It is said that, in the winter, the coats of the mountain-lions change to blend in with their surroundings. However, having actually caught one, I can tell you that this is only a legend. The colour and pattern on their hides makes them very difficult to spot in the snow. Still, they are a wonder to behold, for their fur is pure white except for the many dark spots which fool the eyes."

Nephyn's eyes sparkled with interest, but I thought all this talk of mountain-lions to be perfectly dreadful. We trudged on. Gaelira was leading us in a generally southerly direction, but I'm not sure she had any clear idea of where we were headed. Still, I don't think any of us fancied the idea of trying to spend the night in another cave so near to Goblin-town! Moreover, there remained the matter of somehow getting word to Lord Gloin that he and his people were in grave danger, and she had admitted she had no idea of how to accomplish this. I half-heartedly suggested that perhaps Hremm the raven could help, but of course Gaelira only pointed out that he could never reach us as the weather was far too treacherous for the bird to navigate. And so we continued on, always on the lookout for any nook or cranny to pass the night, but nothing presented itself.

Suddenly, there was a loud blast of noise from away to our right! I spun myself around, fearful that the goblin-army had somehow found us and were blowing their horns to sound the attack. Instead, I beheld an incredible and majestic sight.

It was actually called a mammoth, I later learned, and it was a magnificent and frightening creature. Apparently the mammoth is a relation of the fabled Oliphaunt, but it is much smaller and also covered in fur. According to Lagodir, Gondor's enemies in the Land of Harad, far to the South, are known to ride upon the great Oliphaunts into battle, the thought of which made me tremble for I had never really believed such animals existed. Nephyn, on the other hand, seemed quite taken with the idea.

"They ride them?!" she asked excitedly. "That sounds wondorous!"

"It sounds dangerous!" I countered.

"This is something I simply must do one day!" the huntress said as she beamed a broad smile.

"I have never heard of a Southron giving up their secret for taming the beasts," said Lagodir with a grin. "Perhaps you could have Padryc lull one to sleep with his lute then hop astride it?"

"No, thank you!" I exclaimed. "You two leave me out of your absurd fantasies!"

"That's a thought!" said Nephyn, ignoring me. "But actually I was thinking more along the lines of infiltration -- seeing as how I look very much like the Southrons."

"Somewhat," answered Lagodir in a matter-of-fact tone, "And yet you speak none of their language."

"Oh! I hadn't considered they might speak a different tongue," said Nephyn. "What is it like?"

"It sounds to me harsh and uncouth," Lagodir replied, "But beyond that I cannot tell you much; I do not speak with Haradrim, except through my sword."

"Fair point," said Nephyn.

"Hurrah! A pun!" I cheered, eager to talk about something besides war and deadly beasts. "It turns out that even Nephyn has a sense of humour."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked, sounding offended. "Am I really so full of doom and gloom?"

"Of course not!" I said. "Why, next to Lagodir or Gaelira you are a regular laugh-riot. And if Drodie ever started cracking jokes then we'd be in serious trouble."

"Or we'd be in the Pony," winked Lagodir.

"Aye, and I'd be in the beer!" said Drodie. We all shared a hearty laugh. It felt very, very good to be in lighter spirits again considering where we had only just managed to escape from, but Gaelira remained silent. Then, almost as if in answer to our rejuvenated morale, the wind and the snow kicked up with renewed force, and we lowered our heads as we struggled into the storm.

I looked around, wondering where we were going. Suddenly I saw, high up but not too far off, what looked for all the world to me to be a campfire blazing brightly! I cried out and seized Nephyn's wrist while pointing excitedly. We had no idea whether it might be friend or foe, but we immediately began to make our way toward it.

It felt like we walked much farther than we did, for we were moving into the gale, but finally we reached the place. It was a collection of ancient Dwarf-ruins, although why they were built so high up in the mountains I could not guess. We found the campfire we had seen as well as the Dwarf who was tending it and waving to us. His name was Oli and he shouted through the storm that he had the watch tonight at the outpost. He had espied us moving between the trees and lit the campfire to try and catch our attention. As we blessed him for his sharp eyesight, our guide quickly led us through a small portal, out of the weather. Oli bowed before us and swept his hood to one side, motioning for us to enter.

"Welcome to Hrimbarg," he said.

As the heavy stone door slammed shut behind me, I became aware of a fine, toothsome smell and the crackling of a fire. There were a few Dwarves about, mostly tending to business of their own. The space was cramped but it was warm, and we expressed our hearty gratitude for being permitted to take respite within their shelter. The leader of that folk was named Thorgest, a grisled old Dwarf who must have seen much conflict. He wore a glass bead in one eye-socket and there was a good deal of white amidst the red hairs of his beard while his face was covered with scars. These gave him a rather fearsome look, but he was kindly to us. He introduced himself as a servant of Gloin, and we wasted no time conveying our message that the goblins were on the march as well as the fate of the other Dwarves which had been lost in Goblin-town. At that, Thorgest scribbled something onto parchment, summoned a much younger Dwarf, and handed him the letter before slapping him on the shoulder and sending him away.

"This is most grievous news concerning our lost kinsmen. I have sent word to Lord Gloin of your tale," Thorgest said to us. "We knew already of the goblin-host, of course, for Oli spotted them not long before he saw you. I commend you for your bravery in daring to enter that foul hole of theirs. You need not fear for Lord Gloin: he will receive our warning well before the goblins can find him, for Durin's Folk go no slower than the Foul Folk when we travel beneath the stone, and our networks within these hills are long. But now tell me of yourselves! For whatever errand you may be on must wait until this storm has passed."

We were brought food, beer, and even wine as we sat by the fireplace and told Thorgest about our mission into Goblin-town. We did not provide the details of our quest for Mallacai; rather, Gaelira spun the tale so that we seemed to be a party sent to rescue Gloin's Dwarves from the goblins' ambush in the mountains, but I'm not sure Thorgest really believed her. He merely looked down, grunted, and said nothing more about the matter, so neither did we. We then asked about him and his garrison. He told us that Gloin had posted this small force there some time ago to keep a watch on the mountain-passes where they believed the goblins to be in force. Hrimbarg was an ancient fortification meant to protect the long-lost Dwarf-hold of Helegrod, but now it was used as a lookout and a way-station. I asked whether the goblins might ever attack them there and he shook his head.

"They have yet to find us, for we do much of our work below ground," he said. "And if they ever did we could hold this place long, even against many. Here we have at least as much to fear from the wolves and the worms which prowl and crawl upon the rocks, for they become maddened by hunger and desirous of the warmth which we enjoy in this place. Speaking of which, forgive me if I point out that you five have probably looked better than you do now. When was the last time you slept?"

That was all it took to make my head swim with weariness and we quickly began to prepare ourselves for much-needed sleep; none of us had had a moment's rest since the day before this last when we had first entered the mountains. Due to the close quarters we were forced to very nearly sleep on top of each other, but none of us complained. We spent a few moments in talk as we re-filled our tobacco-pouches and pondered the events of the day.

"Wolves and worms plague them, did he say?" mused Nephyn. "Wolves I can abide for I hear they make good pets, and I still say riding a mammoth would be incredible, but you can keep the worms! I never liked those slithering creatures."

"Can we take this to mean," I asked as I casually drew at my pipe, "That we have finally discovered a wild animal that Nephyn would be unwilling to try and tame?" The huntress paused as if in thought.

"I make no promises," she said with a wink. Drodie rolled his eyes, then we heard an audible growling coming from his stomach.

"Bah, I'm still hungry," he said as he rummed his midsection. "But there's nothing to be done about it: Thorgest's folk must ration their food with care in these hostile environs. I would raid our own stores, but I not know how much longer we shall be obliged to remain up here."

"It sounds like they have quite a worm-infestation on their hands," I said. "If we could just find some way to cook and eat worm then we'd all have enough provender for months." Everyone stared at me.

"What?" I asked. "I'm hungry too!"

"Well..." said Nephyn slyly, "We could always try, you know."

"I'm not that hungry!" I argued with a laugh. "Do I look like a Dwarf to you? I could imagine them trying roast worm in a pinch."

"You most certainly do not look like a Dwarf!" said Drodie.

"Yes, I know that!" I cried, still laughing. "Even if I were to shave all the hairs off my toes and glue them to my chin I wouldn't look the part." The Company rocked with laughter while Thorgest and his garrison became curious at our noise. Nephyn held her sides in pain at her mirth.

"Besides," I went on, "Just think of how long it would take for me to smell the part! I would be months on such an endeavor!" We rolled with glee while Drodie playfully tried to wrestle my jests into submission, but I kept squirming out of his arms. Thorgest's Dwarves scratched their heads and wondered what had us all in such a state. Eventually weariness got the better of us and we settled down again, though our laughter continued.

"More to the point," I said, "Why on earth would anyone want to domesticate anything they found way up here anyway? It's about as far from civilization as you could get! I don't think we'd find any butcheries or tea-shoppes out this way."

"No, but now you mention it, I'd give anything for a hot cup of tea," said Nephyn. We all agreed this was a capital idea and enjoyed some steaming from our mugs before nodding off by the fireplace.

I was able to write this account with warm hands by a bright fire, which got me to pretending I was back safe in Bree again. I also reflected on how, despite our need to abandon our mission to capture the crown of the Great Goblin, our Company remained in higher spirits than I had seen in some time. We were packed like fish in a barrel amidst a raging winter storm high up in the unforgiving mountains with a failed quest and an uncertain tomorrow looming over us. And yet I was unconcerned for I knew that, whatever tomorrow may bring, I would face it with my family beside me.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 29

Down, Down to Goblin-town

Highday, 6th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Tunnels of Goblin-town, Somewhere in the Misty Mountains
The tunnels of Goblin-town
I do not know how much writing I will be able to do this evening -- or morning, or whatever it is just now -- on account of the fact that I can barely see well enough to write anything. The day and date I've recorded at the top of this page are only my best guesses, for I've quite lost track of the hours in this damnable hole. But before I go any further, let me backtrack to when we first entered here. You will recall that, at the end of my last entry, our Company was taking some much-needed rest inside of a small cave high up in the Misty Mountains when there came a terrific noise from somewhere which took us all by surprise.

There was a screeching and a clattering of arms as a dozen goblins rushed into the cave! No sooner had I shouted the alarm than Nephyn had dropped her bow, drawn the Sword of Ringdor, spun around, and beheaded two of our attackers. Lagodir and Drodie were instantly on their feet with swords flying and Gaelira's staff was a whirlwind. Even I took a hand as I was able with my small hammer. But the press of goblins was great: we slew several and sent many more wailing back into the darkness of the cave, but more and more swarmed against us.

Suddenly, Gaelira thrust her staff longways in front of us, as if to bar us from fighting. She drew something from her belt and held it aloft. There was a spark, then she hurled the object in front of her onto the cave-floor. Flames leapt forth with a bang! and engulfed four of the goblins which were nearest us while the rest fled shrieking toward the back of the cave. We were all thrown off balance by the explosion and I lost my footing entirely. Before I even knew what had happened the cave had become both very hot and filled with smoke. The five of us beat a hasty retreat out into the snowstorm to regroup.

"More Elf-sorcery!" gasped Drodie as we all hacked and coughed the smoke from our lungs. "Nearly singed off my beard! What the devil did you do that for, Gaelira? I had the situation under control."

"Clearly," I cracked with a smile, but my coughing continued. "But at least she has bought us some time. I do believe her little display has routed the enemy for now."

"I see only the charred remains of many goblins," said Lagodir as he peered cautiously into the cave. "I think Padryc is right -- the ones that remained alive have fled back into the mountain itself."

"Have we found Goblin-town, then?" I asked with wide eyes. "You don't suppose this is the very same back-door where Bilbo and his thirteen companions were set upon do you?"

"I would think that unlikely," said Gaelira as she leaned against the cliffside. "The goblins have many entrances and exits from their lairs. Still, while this may not be the same back-door into Goblin-town of which you speak, it is clearly a door into Goblin-town, and that is the chief thing for the moment."

"Why does the fire not go out, Gaelira?" asked Drodie as he eyed the flames suspiciously. "Surely the Elves have not found some why to burn stone, have they?"

"Of course not!" laughed the Elf. "It is nothing more than a hollowed-out gourd filled with sticky tar along with a short rag fuse and a small set of flint and tinder I carry about with me. The tar is a long-burning sort, but give it time and the flames will subside."

"I hope it does not take too long," said Nephyn as she drew her cloak tightly round herself, "For this storm has only gotten worse. The cave will be a welcome place in short order for my part -- goblins or no goblins." A thin line of smoke was issuing from the roof of the cave-mouth only to be instantly dissipated by the winds whipping about the mountainside.

The flames did not take long at all to die off, and we quickly filed back into the cave. We wasted no time in locating the source of our adversaries and found it without difficulty: the back-wall of the cave was in fact some sort of ingenious contraption which ran on a pulley system. It was controlled by a winch located behind the mountain wall, so the noise we heard just as the attack had started must have been the hidden counter-weights crashing to the stone floor somewhere nearby which caused the door to open. The goblins, thankfully, had not returned, and we were able to retrieve our belongings and baggage which we were obligated to abandon briefly due to the fighting.

"I never would have thought goblins clever enough to build such machinery," said Lagodir as he examined the dirty ropes and levers which operated the doorway. "But in Gondor we seldom deal with these mean, little folk -- there are much larger and more dangerous foes with which to concern ourselves."

"He would be unwise indeed," countered Gaelira, "Who discounts the goblins on account of their size. Is it not said in Gondor as it is oft in the North that smaller hands doth the greater subtleties weave?"

"It is," answered Lagodir with a sidelong glance at me, "Although not in quite the same wording."

"The immediate question, though," said Nephyn as she poked her head into the doorway, "Is what do we do now?"

"Our task, unpleasant as it is, is to infiltrate the tunnels of Goblin-town," Gaelira replied grimly. "We must slay the Great Goblin or, at the very least, somehow steal his crown. This will not be easily done."

"Well, one thing's for certain," growled Drodie, "I'll not be caught napping for the vermin to come swooping in on me a second time! Let us go into the tunnels."

We created some makeshift torches from the remains of our campfire, collected our gear, and plunged into the darkness of Goblin-town. I felt a distinct tug at the back of my mind as I stepped over that threshold -- almost as if I would never be able to leave again.

We bore our torches aloft and cautiously made our way inside. There was no sign of any more goblins in the darkness, but there were the echoes. Our Company was being as quiet as it knew how, and all other sounds were magnified manifold within the tunnels -- we heard harsh shouts, the clash of weapons, and all manner of shrieks and wails. Some of them sounded like goblins but some of them didn't, at least to me, although it was probably just a trick of the echoing stone. Suddenly, we turned a corner a saw a blazing torch lighting the path for us. It was jammed into a crack in the rock, for of course there were no sconces in those vile passageways. We paused and Gaelira cocked her head.

"This cannot be right," she said softly and mostly to herself. "Goblins can see well enough in the dark and have no need of torches. And why was there no guard to challenge us as we entered? What is going on here?"

There was nothing for it but to continue. Our pace increased along with our apprehension as the suspense in the absence of battle cruelly frayed our nerves. Ever and anon the screams and cries of the goblins would bound off the stone walls again until I was frantically wishing I could shout at them to be silent, if only for a moment, but still we continued on. The tunnels branched and wound about in confusing fashion, but Gaelira was consistently leading us downward by whatever path she could find. We encountered more torches -- some thrust into the walls as before, others simply left burning on the cold floors -- and by their light I was able to see some of the vastness of Goblin-town.

There were high chambers followed by narrow tunnels; great open spaces with crude, wooden scaffolding climbing upward and plunging downward. There were side-passages of such number that they could not be counted, and there were rickety bridges spanning wide chasms everywhere. We were obliged to cross some of these and I held my breath as I scampered along them. Despite my being the smallest and lightest of the Company, I never felt safe. We went on and on and on; I began to wonder if we were about to emerge on the far side of the Misty Mountains or whether we were very much farther from reaching the very roots of the world itself.

Just then, in the middle of a large but longish chamber, we saw the most incredible thing. We had not come across one of the rogue torches in some time, but now there was one in front: bobbing and prancing madly -- and it was headed straight for us! A tumult had begun to arise and it boomed along the walls as it approached. We swiftly concealed ourselves behind some nearby piles of refuse. None of us spoke, but we all readied our weapons.

Suddenly, there appeared a Dwarf carrying a torch! He was fleeing in a full panic with a wild, maddened look of sheer terror on his bearded face. At his heels was a horde of goblins and even some taller, broader Orcs which brandished all manner of cruel weapons. The Dwarf carried only his torch and a broken piece of wood -- probably all that remained of whatever axe or club he once wielded. The entire cavalcade passed us by and the noise of it thundered in our ears.

"We must save him!" cried Drodie, and he made to follow. But Gaelira seized his shoulder and held him in place.

"No!" she hissed, and my stomach lurched to hear the fury in her voice.

"Unhand me, Elf!" shouted Drodie at full voice and wrenched himself free of her grasp. "I wouldn't trust you to save me either if I was trapped down here." Then Lagodir stooped and hefted the Dwarf full into the air to prevent him from running off.

"Stay your madness, friend!" I heard him whisper in Drodie's ear. "We cannot hope to overcome so many -- there is nothing we can do for him and we doom our own mission if we try."

"Yes! Listen to the Man if you will not hearken to me!" came Gaelira's furious whispers. "We cannot get sidetracked: I do not know how it has come to be that the goblins do not now oppose us, but we must seize this opportunity and make the most of it while we can."

Drodie calmed down and Lagodir returned him to his feet. He said nothing, but I could see that their pleas had appealed to his senses, although he clearly hated the idea of abandoning a fellow Dwarf to certain death. At that point, we began to understand both the presence of torches and the absence of the goblins a little better.

"It must be some of Gloin's folk," said Drodie as quietly as he could. "Did he not say his charge was to check the aggression of the goblins? But why would they venture into the very heart of their realm?"

"They could not possibly have thought to defeat them in the midst of their own lair," said Nephyn in a horrified whisper. "Perhaps this was some ill-fated attempt at a rescue? But Gloin made no mention that any of his folk were taken captive."

"Then maybe it happened recently," said Drodie, "And it was ordained that our paths crossed thus. Ah! Would that I was with them! I would have seen to it that any Dwarf caught in these accursed tunnels was rescued."

"There is no rescuing anyone from this place," said Gaelira in a cold, even voice. I held my tongue, but I was thinking of a rescue which had in fact occurred here, seventy-seven years ago.

We pressed on. The darkness became complete except for our own feebly flickering torches. The echoing din of the goblins became fainter and was to our rear at first, but soon it began to grow again, and once more it was in front of us. As we wound our way through the tunnels we also became aware of the glow of torches. Then, all at once, we came upon a terrible sight.

It was clearly a Dwarf -- or what remained of one. He had been cruelly hacked to pieces where he lay and both an arm and a leg were missing. The innards had been ripped out of him and snaked revoltingly on the floor. Half the face was gone and the remaining half was a hideous mask of pain and fear. I turned away swiftly and fought to keep my last meal inside of me. The others bowed their heads in respect, but Drodie was inconsolable. It was everything we could collectively do to keep him quiet as he wept for his slain kinsman. He wished to bury the victim, if only under some loose stones, but we could not afford the delay. After a brief but painful time, we moved on again.

Soon after, the passageway opened up into the widest and longest chamber we had yet seen. It was difficult to describe, for the whole of that place was covered -- every inch of it -- with goblins. They were chanting and bleating, bashing sword and spear upon shield, and among them were wolves and vicious Wargs of the mountains. They were all faced away from us and looking toward a high platform. There, perched on something that I suppose was meant to be a throne, sat a goblin which looked unusually large for his kind, even from that distance. The dull glint of gold gleamed off an object upon its brow.

"The Great Goblin!" I gasped, but it was only a stifled whisper.

I could hear the goblin-king shouting something to his assembled hordes, but I could not make out the words -- assuming he was, in fact, using words. Now and then the assembly would erupt into more howls and cheering, and I stuck my fingers into my ears at the riot. That's when I felt Gaelira take me by the arm.

"Come," she whispered to us all, "This way."

The she-Elf led us down a side-passage which twisted and turned many times. There were several tunnels which led off from the main one, but Gaelira ignored these and kept to the central path. It did not appear to be much used, and I wondered why that might be, considering how it was relatively close to the large gathering hall we had just left behind. Finally, we ducked just inside one of the side-passages and Gaelira permitted us to halt. She commanded that the torches be extinguished and we were not allowed any campfire.

I sat miserably munching a cold piece of cram while we waited in silence. The ruckus from the goblin-den continued in the distance, but the echoes made it seem as if it was all happening just around the last corner.

"What do you think is going on in there?" I asked as quietly as I could.

"I do not know," came Gaelira's answer, "But we cannot hope to approach the Great Goblin while his entire tribe surrounds him. We must watch and we must wait."

"And what are we watching for?" asked Drodie. "I can't see what the devil is going on from down in this dank, festering hole, and neither can you. Not unless the Elves can see through solid rock."

"Did you not notice the wolves and Wargs among their number?" Gaelira queried in response. "We cannot take the chance that they should catch our scent. Whatever is going on there will not last forever, and when they depart from the chamber we must be ready to make our move. In the meantime, here we shall sit."

Drodie fell silent. That was good enough for me, and I didn't think Gaelira was in any mood to argue. She did allow me to light one small candle so that I could make this entry, however. The goblins continued their noise from up the passage, and we remained quiet as shadows, patiently waiting for our moment to come. We all strained our ears to catch any sign that the riot was ending, but anytime the Great Goblin's croaking voice would stop the goblins would cheer loudly, and then the whole cycle would repeat itself. But the horde was quiet while their chieftain was speaking and, just one time, I could have sworn I had heard a soft swish and bubble as of water echoing up from somewhere further down the passage.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 28

The Misty Mountains

Mersday, 5th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
A campsite, Somewhere in the Misty Mountains
The Misty Mountains
The day began pleasantly enough. We said our farewells to Bilbo, Elrond, and his household in the dim light of early morning before setting off across the valley to strike the path which led up into the mountains. That morning walk was a joy and a delight: even though it was still winter-time, Rivendell remained temperate and beautiful, as I imagine it might all the year round. Perhaps this is because of its location there in the valley, which must shut out the invading winds. Whatever the cause, I thoroughly enjoyed that stage of our journey.

We talked cheerily amongst ourselves about our stay in Imladris as well as the road ahead, but there was (at that time!) no concern or worry about what was to come. We laughed about my discomfort at having to wear boots in preparation for the trek through snow and ice, but we also reminisced on our time among the Elves. If someone had offered me the chance to settle down there forever, as Bilbo seemed to have done, I would probably have taken them up on the offer and I got the impression Nephyn felt much the same way. Lagodir was his usual congenial if eternally on-edge self while Drodie appeared more than ready to depart. Gaelira was typically difficult to read, but from my talks with her I thought I could detect a complex mixture of reluctance to leave but also apprehension about where we were going.

Eventually we began the climb upward on a steadily rising slope among the rocks. The weather remained agreeable, but once we had left the valley we could feel the wind as it whipped around us. We started to walk closer together and the bigger folk attempted to shield me from it with their bodies. It was around this time I noted the masterfully embroidered emblem which had been added to Lagodir's white cloak. It was a most impressive piece of craftsmanship, and I told him so.

It was roughly another hour before I first saw the light dusting of snow on the path. This gradually thickened as we went further, but it remained no higher than my ankles at that time. Finally, we crested the rise. There before me lay an amazing sight -- well, amazing to me since I had never been in such an environment before. The snow covered everything in front of us in a nearly unbroken sheet of white. It all looked so pristine and even peaceful, but the wind continued to howl around us. It was then we noticed some stone structures off to our left, and we made our way there.

It turned out to be an old way-station which contained a small contingent of Dwarves. They were led by none other than the Gloin -- the one from the tales I'd always heard about Old Mad Baggins! He was a very well-mannered fellow, and we all (Drodie especially) had a good talk with him about his doings as well as our own. Naturally, we asked him for any information he could give us about the Goblin-tunnels. It turned out the goblins were becoming quite a problem in the higher passes through the mountains. They were getting bold and attacking those few who still dared to cross through, which was why he and his Dwarves were sent to try and deal with them. The upside to this unfortunate news was that Gloin had a decent idea of where the goblins were issuing from, and he directed us far to the northeast of our current position. He wished he or some of his Dwarves could accompany us on our quest, but his numbers were too few and his mission was to limit the spreading influence of their raiding parties, not assault their caves themselves. Besides, he told us, no one had ever mapped the interior of those caverns, which would put us at serious risk once we were inside. But I also suspected he harboured a hearty dislike of the idea, perhaps based on what he experienced there once upon a time. I thought about all the times I had heard about those dreaded tunnels and wished our road was taking us anywhere else in the world.

After a few more pleasantries, we resumed our march, but the weather began a turn for the worse. It wasn't sudden: it began only with a few soft snowflakes drifting lazily down on our heads -- I even thought it quite nice at first. During this time we made our way steadily to the northeast while the air grew colder and colder. It was probably the fourth hour after noon when we first encountered the goblins. They had established a small camp a ways north of the main path and we could see the burning of many campfires. After a brief debate, we decided to try and clear them out as much as possible, but we proceeded with caution: goblins are not themselves the most fearsome of opponents, but they tend to make up for this fact in sheer numbers.

Fortunately for us the camp was not heavily occupied. I got the impression that a sizable portion of the garrison was off on other business, for the place could have held many more of their small kind than we found there. It was obvious they were not expecting to be attacked for the encampment, which was constructed right into a mountainside, had no rear exit. Many of the goblins fled before our assault and ended up with nowhere to run, only to perish at our hands. But the exertion was considerable: by the time the Sun had begun to set we were all very weary. Our fingers and toes were numbed from the cold, Nephyn's bowstring was icing over making it nearly useless, and Lagodir had twisted his ankle after taking a bad step in a snow-drift during the fighting. To make matters worse, the snow began to thicken and the wind to blow ever more fiercely as we moved to extricate ourselves from the camp and resume our search for Goblin-town.

The next few hours were absolutely miserable. The snow continued to mount and I was obliged to ride pig-a-back on Lagodir's shoulders, for I was unable to move through the accumulated snow without practically swimming. Drodie was using his shield as a sort of plow to make a way for himself while the others were forced to step high and long to keep moving, which only served to make them all even wearier. We had entered a large, fairly flat area which featured a frozen pond. While it was briefly nice to see something other than rocks for a change, it also meant we were very exposed to the wind's redoubled assaults. We struggled on in silence for some time. At last, we came upon a primitive track, barely visible in the rising snowfall, which led northeast and even higher up into the mountains.

That path wound as it climbed, which thankfully afforded us several opportunities to rest with the mountain-wall between us and the wind, but the snow continued to swirl thicker than ever. More than once we were forced to stop and light a fire just to keep ourselves going. I wondered how much longer I was going to be able to endure this torment -- the garments I had brought from Rivendell had seemed so toasty and warm in the valley but here, in the face of the full fury of the Misty Mountains, they seemed to count for nothing. I huddled as close to the fire as I could.

Rather suddenly, the storm began to subside. We quickly picked ourselves up and forced our feet to carry us for another distance, for we hoped to reach the summit of whatever path we were on before the foul weather returned. And reach it we did, but that was when I discovered what the true wrath of the mountains looked like. The wind became a gale and the snow became like piercing darts, relentlessly stabbing at our eyes and cheeks. My own legs were unable to carry me further for we were marching into the wind, and Lagodir was once again forced to heft me up on his shoulders. The one relief was the fact that we were now travelling downhill, and so the going became a bit easier, but we were also fully exposed to the whipping and stinging anger of the snowstorm. The air became so thick with snow we could hardly see anything more than a few yards ahead or to either side. My ears, nose, and lips began to throb with pain -- which surprised me considering they had been (and still were) completely numbed by the cold. I felt like I wanted to weep for the hurt, but I was terrified of what might happen to my eyes if I did. I shut my eyelids hard and tried to think about something else.

"Gaelira!" I heard Lagodir shout over the rushing winds, "We must find shelter! We cannot continue like this!" I peeped open an eye and saw Gaelira nodding vigourously, but she did not speak.

Suddenly, as if in answer to Lagodir's plea, the dark wall of a mountain loomed up in front of us through the sheets of falling snow and ice. At any other time I would have thought it had an evil and foreboding look, but just then all any of us could think about was getting out of the cold. With a final spurt of effort, we rushed to the base of the cliff-wall and began searching for a cave or anything which could protect us from the elements.

Eventually we did find a cave. We shuffled ourselves inside and threw down our baggage. Poor Lagodir was so spent he very nearly threw me down too, but of course I didn't hold it against him. We instantly set about building a fire and, after many more ice-numbed and painful moments, we all began to thaw a little. The wind and snow continued its merciless assault on the world outside, but we were safe for the moment. I took some time to devise a makeshift splint for Lagodir's ankle, which was probably more painful than he was letting on. In any case the intense cold and trudging through snow had helped to keep the swelling to a minimum, but I told him it would be best to keep off it for a few hours if he possibly could.

Soon after, wrapped in every blanket we possessed, the Company began to take an interest in the cave itself. Caves in the mountains are seldom uninhabited, as you may know, and so we took one of the logs from the fire for use as a makeshift torch and began to explore our shelter more thoroughly. The cave did not go far back, ending rather abruptly at a rock-wall. There was nothing to see there, so we returned to Lagodir at the campfire and prepared to bed down and wait out the storm before continuing our search for the goblin-tunnels. I began cooking up as hearty a meal as I could manage from our ample supplies. With some snow melted over the fire, some onions, a bit of uncooked chicken, some peeled and sliced taters and a few herbs I had the makings of a beautiful stew (and I can't say I objected to the opportunity to stand over the fire all during the process either). Once it was ready I passed it out to the others in mugs without even waiting for it to cool.

"Ah, another of the hobbit's fine culinary works!" said Drodie, who had finally stopped grumbling and became much more pleasant at the smell of the food. "Every adventuring party should have a hobbit along with them, for the meal-times help me forget whatever misery I may have endured that day."

"Truly!" said Nephyn as she fingered her bowstring. "And we have all endured much this day -- I am glad to still have all of my fingers and toes attached to the rest of me. I hope Lagodir's ankle is not giving him too much trouble."

"I will be fine," said the Gondorian with a wince. "It is not a bad sprain, although it is more painful now that I can actually feel it again." Drodie went off to make him a compress out of a rag and some snow-pack. "Still, I suppose I could try to improve my bow-skills in the time being, should we have the need."

"I believe I have yet to see you use your bow, Lagodir," I said. I had very nearly forgotten that the Man did carry a bow and some short, gray-feathered arrows among his gear.

"It is not my best skill," he said with a wry smile. "I would much prefer to rely instead on Nephyn's dead-aim."

"Little good will it do us in this ridiculous storm," the huntress answered as she looked toward the cave's entrance. "At least my bowstring is slowly beginning to recover from its exposure -- this is a process which must be done carefully and slowly lest it suffer irreparable damage."

"I do not know how much use you will be able to make of your bow once we enter the goblin-tunnels, Nephyn," Gaelira said quietly. "It is dark as pitch, and the spaces there are tight; not well-suited to archery." I eyed her curiously, for she spoke as one who had been there before.

Nephyn stood and gently pulled at her bowstring, testing it. She made as if she was stringing an arrow and aimed out the cave-door. The firelight played off her lithe figure and faded into the darkness of the cave behind her.

"I had considered that," she said as she continued to massage the bowstring, "But it never hurts to be prepared for all eventualities. There is no telling what we might find in those caves."

"Goblins and worse than goblins," I muttered, "At least, that is the way I always heard the stories."

"Stories are often embellished," said Lagodir with a grin, "As you yourself ought to know well enough. I, for one, have no fear, for I am among great heroes!"

"Hear, hear!" shouted Drodie as he drained his mug.

"Hush!" came Gaelira's whisper. "Speak more softly!"

"Bah!" scoffed the Dwarf. "Who is going to hear us up here?" We laughed.

"Besides, we are a family," said Nephyn with a broad smile, "And family watches each others' backs." Just then there was a mighty crash which shook the walls of the cave!

"BEHIND YOU!" I screamed.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 27.4

A Welcome Pause -- Part 3

Hevensday, 4th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell
A Tale of Two Quills
I have a fascinating tale to give you, Dear Reader, but in doing so I fear I may be breaking trust with one of my friends. I do not know whether I can now allow any of my companions to read this journal in light of what I have discovered, but I feel I simply must write down what I have learned. If I do not record it then the knowledge which was gained may never again be seen by another living soul.

Here is how it happened. Dark clouds had swept down from the Misty Mountains and were threatening rain, and so I spent most of the day puttering around Elrond's Library. It is just the sort of immense repository of lore you would expect it to be, and there I found no shortage of ancient tomes containing the most incredible stories. I assumed my companions were finding their own ways of entertaining themselves, so I made no effort to find them. That afternoon, however, Gaelira called the Company together to tell us we would be departing from Rivendell on the morrow and we had best equip ourselves to face the ice and snow of the mountains.

Together we walked the length of the valley and arrived at the Marketplace of Rivendell. We were each able to find and purchase various bits of clothing and gear which would make the going in the high places more bearable. For myself I managed to locate an outfit which must have been intended for an Elf-child, but it fit me well enough and was warm. It included a padded shoulder-wrap with a hood, a fur-lined robe, and some snug boots. Thus laden, we returned to the Last Homely house, but not before Gaelira bade us all to make ourselves present in the Hall of Fire at the evening meal. I dressed myself as well as I could manage and went to the gathering. Elrond was there, as were many of his household, Mr. Baggins, and of course my own companions. I was directed to a seat near the head of the table. Then, Gaelira rose and began to speak.

"Thank you all for being present," she said. "On behalf of Elladan's Outriders, I wish to take a moment to give thanks to our host and also to say farewell, for now. We depart for the mountain passes on a dangerous but important quest, but the power and well-being this valley offers has bolstered our courage and strengthened our resolve like no other place in Middle-earth could. I have three toasts I wish to give, and so with the permission of Lord Elrond I shall begin." Elrond nodded his assent, and Gaelira took hold of her wine-glass. All the rest of the assembled company did likewise.

"First, we raise our cups to this valley, the hospitality of Lord Elrond, and the warmth availed our Company by all here present. For me, after leaving Lindon and wandering for a long time, I came to Imladris and found not only welcome, but acceptance. A toast to the Last Homely House and its people!" We cheered and drained our glasses, but many servants immediately recharged them.

"Next," she went on, "We toast Lord Elrond, his sons, and his daughter for their support of our Company. As we go forth, we carry not only the reputation of this house, but the support of Free Folk wherever we are needed. So we drink, not to merely holding back the Darkness, but to destroying the evil in our world for good." We cheered and drank again. Out of the corner of my eyes, I thought I saw, for the briefest of instants, a look of displeasure on Elrond's face. A second time our glasses were filled to the brim.

"My final toast," Gaelira continued, "Is to the Shire." I jumped slightly in surprise. "I have learned, thanks to our esteemed friend Padryc, what this War is really about. It has been his inner strength and his belief in each of us that has kept us together. With all the great schemes being hatched on both sides of this conflict, I believe it is the simple life of the Shire that will win out in the end -- may that land remain ever green!" Again we cheered and drank. The assembled company put down their cups and applauded Gaelira's speech. For my part, I was starting to feel light-headed and privately was relieved that she had only the three toasts to give. Then, Lagodir stood.

"I would like to propose a fourth toast," he said. My face fell as a fresh goblet was placed in front of me.

"To Gaelira," Lagodir said loudly. "Who, even through defeat drives others to face the evil and protect lands that are good and green!"

"Hear, hear!" the company cried, and we drained our cups yet again. The room started slowly spinning, but then the food was brought out and the farewell banquet began in earnest. It was another fabulous meal with hours of song and merriment, and by the end of it I was very tired indeed. As the Company disassembled, it became clear that Nephyn had taken more wine than was good for her, and I was obliged to assist her back to her room. Dorwinion wine, I would later learn, was an especially potent vintage and it was preferred by the Elves due to their natural ability to resist the effects of strong spirits. Nephyn was cheerful but very subdued as I helped her lay down. Within moments she was sound asleep and I made ready to retire myself. As I turned to leave, however, I caught sight of a long letter written on parchment which lay open on a small desk with quill and ink nearby. Curious, I crept closer to take a look. It was Nephyn's writing, and I was stunned by what it contained. I record now a copy of it (or as close as my memory permits), realizing the huntress may never have intended for any living person to read what she had written. I hope beyond hope my doing this does not endanger our friendship, but I feel I cannot take the chance that this story should vanish forever.

Here is what I read while Nephyn slept nearby:

At last my past has been made clear (or clearer) to me. I never dreamed that coming to Rivendell would have such an impact on my life, but at the same time I guess I should not be surprised that it did. I am not sure why I decided to write down this story. Perhaps I am trying to set it down in some kind of order so I can better make sense of what happened today. Or maybe I feel like putting it on paper makes it real... I am not sure. I am not even sure for whom I am writing this. Maybe it is myself. In any case, this is what happened.

My tale begins the morning of our second day in the valley of Imladris. Ever since we arrived I had found within myself a sense of quiet contemplation, such as I would sometimes feel alone in the woodlands of Bree. Often times in my youth I would slip away into the woods and wander by myself for hours upon hours, simply being without thought or care. Those were the times when I felt most at peace with myself and the world, and I found the same feeling as soon as I entered this valley (though the Hobbit's uncanny ability to find the edge of several cliffs did dampen the effect a bit). It is a wondrous place, full of beauty that I'm sure Padryc will detail in his report with more eloquence that I am prone to use. 

The evening we spent in the Hall of Fire was wonderful. In fact, I would count it as one of the most enjoyable times of my life so far and it was over sooner than I would have liked, but I and my companions were weary from the journey and we all eventually retired to our provided rooms for the evening. I don't know about the rest of my Company, but I slept deep and well, such as I felt like I had not done in ages. The Sun was only just slipping above the edge of the valley when I stirred from my sleep. I had a hard go of convincing myself to rise when all I wanted to do was remain as I was, possibly forever, but I was glad when I did finally rouse myself. The sky spoke of rain to come, but the cliffs and waterfalls were dyed in a myriad of soft colors from pink to yellow in the light of the morning. I found myself thinking that nothing could please me more than a morning walk about the base of the falls.

I did not want to disturb anyone, let alone any other guests that might be staying, and the race of Men are not generally known for their softness of feet (I believe only the Dwarves come behind us on that front). So I slung on my pack, slipped over the edge of the balcony when I was sure no one was nearby, and headed down the path to the base of the falls as stealthily as I could manage. I have heard about the sensitive hearing that all elves possess and I made extra-sure to step as quietly as my mentor had taught me until I reached the top of the path directly next to one of the closer falls. There I sat in silence, munching on the bits of tack I had in my bag to keep myself from having to leave for hunger or any other reason. Around noon I felt it was high time I set about seeing to provisions for our upcoming excursion into the snowy mountains. With a sigh, I reluctantly stood up and wandered out into the more populated portion of the valley where I assumed I would find craftsmen and could perhaps trade for what I needed.

I did not have any worry for my companions, but I did wonder about how their day was faring as I headed to where the locals had told me to look for a tailor. I soon came upon two Elves at work with great piles of fabric around them. They drew out thick clothing that would suit me in size and warmth for the upcoming journey. My stock of coin had been greatly diminished as of late, but I was able to barter with them for some of the skins I had been holding onto for a while, thus procuring my full outfit as well as a dress that caught my eye. I had to trade the pristine lynx hide that I'd been saving for it, but it was worth it for a dress made by elf-hands, and I couldn't wait to try it on as I made my way back to my room with my purchases. 

Noontide was well past by the time I had changed and brushed out my hair, but I thought to make my way to the Hall of Fire once more to see if perhaps there would be anything left to nibble on. If not, I could probably find either Padryc or Drodie somewhere about and they would most certainly be able to tell me where to find some victuals to tide me till supper. I was just about to enter the room when a voice said my name, and I had to use all of my hunting prowess not to jump in surprise. I turned to see none other than the master of the house approaching me. 

“Here you are at last," Elrond said to me. "I would speak with you for a while.” I didn't dare refuse, no matter how hungry I was starting to feel, and I followed him outside to the porch where he bade me sit on a bench across from him. He asked me many things about my childhood and what I knew of my background. I told him all that I knew and all that I suspected, but little could I give him in the way of facts when I knew so little myself. He did not say much but I could tell a great many things were going on behind those ancient gray eyes as he listened to my tale. Displeasure shone when I spoke of my life at the Pony but it softened when I brought up Saeradan and learning the ways of hunt from him. After my story was ended he said nothing for a while but looked intently at me, so much so that I was beginning to feel nervous, as if something in my tale had made him think me a possible enemy of the valley, though I could not fathom what part would do such a thing. Finally he spoke.

“How old are you?” 

“Twenty-six, come the Autumn,” I replied. 

“Twenty-six...” His eyes went to his folded hands as he mulled over something again, and I could feel sweat trickling down my brow. With a sudden change in his eyes he stood abruptly. 

“Come with me.” 

I followed him to the entrance of the house but he did not go in. Instead he pointed to a tall structure just a ways down the path. 

“That is the Spire of Meeting," he said to me. "Atop the steps you will find Merilos. Tell her what you have told me. She may have answers to some of your questions.” 

Answers? I hardly dared to hope as I gave a deep curtsey and took off as quickly as I could for the landmark. An elf-maiden stood atop the stairs; she did not take notice of my approach at first for her nose was buried in a rather thick book. It took a couple gentle coughs to finally wrestle her attention away from her reading. 

“May I help you?” 

“Are you Merilos?" I asked her. "Lord Elrond said you might be able to answer some questions I have about my lineage.” Her eyebrows shot upward at that as she lowered her book with a decisive thump. 

“Really?" she said. "I don't know that I have that much knowledge about mortals and their bloodlines. Particularly...” Her voice trailed off as her face seemed to almost freeze for a few moments, as if something in her brain had clicked. She drew closer to me and studied my face much the same way Lord Elrond had done. I found myself wondering if I shouldn't fetch my mask again when she finally spoke, softly and almost under her breath. 

“How old are you and where do you come from?” 

“Twenty-six, and I've lived all my life in the Bree-land.” I answered, cautiously. Merilos nodded slowly then turned back to the book she held in her hand, quickly flipping through the pages. 

“I keep a record of the happenings of this valley: important dates, distinguished visitors, and the like. Ah, here we are.” She studied a few entries. I tried to take a look at what was written, but it was in Elvish, so I wasn't able to read it anyway. As she scanned the pages her face began to change from the almost indifference I had first seen to… something else. Pity? Sorrow? What was it that she read in the pages that moved her so? Finally she looked up and I almost thought I saw tears sparkling in her dark eyes. 

“Come, walk with me," she said gently. "This will be a story quite long in the telling.”

I followed her down the steps as she began to weave a tale that began at the destruction of Dale and Erebor by the dragon Smaug. Some of the survivors of Dale had distant relations that lived in the Eastern part of Rohan, and so they made their way south over many miles, following the river until they reached their destination. They were welcomed and soon had made a quiet little community where they lived for many years in relative peace. Nearly two hundred years later, word reached their descendants that Dale and Erebor had been rebuilt, and a longing grew in their hearts to return to the land of their grandsires. 

But it was not to be. The eastern land of Rohan had never been truly peaceful and the Dunlendings had grown ever more vicious over the years, trying to take what they claimed was theirs by right. And during one such attack they sacked the community of the Dale-men. But the Dunlendings are a tribal people, and this particular tribe decided against killing the Dale-men and instead enslaved them. And so, for many years they toiled under their cruel masters. But in secret they always sought for a way of escape, for themselves and their children.

One night, by a united effort, they managed to slip a powerful sleeping draught into every single one of their masters' drinks. When the last of the Dunlendings had fallen into a deep sleep, they piled their meager belongings, stolen rations, and little ones into a boat and sailed down the river Isen to the sea in the dead of night. Their ultimate destination was Dale, but they were closer to the sea than Rohan, and they hoped to throw their pursuers off their track by heading in the opposite direction of where they would be expected to go. They made it to sea and were able to barter passage onto a seaworthy vessel heading north. The Dale-men had intended to be dropped by the mouth of the Greyflood river and make their way northward from there, but a great storm came and blew them many leagues off course, taking them instead to the mouth of the Brandywine river. The Dale descendants were all weak from seasickness, lack of sunlight, and their harsh servitude, but they all walked onto the dry land with heads held high and with renewed purpose: they were finally heading home. As they made their way north they encountered a strange little people they had never heard of save in legends: the Holbytlan. These must have been the Hobbits of Buckland, who welcomed them into their homes once they got over their suspicions. The travellers stayed there many months to recover from their hard journey. It was at this time that one of the young woman among them discovered that she was with child. Despite everything that had happened to them, the child seemed determined to live.

It was almost six months later that they reached Imladris, as rough and rugged a group of travelers as had ever been seen in that valley. They begged shelter from the Elves, who gladly gave it. Merilos was one of those appointed to tend their wounded. The young woman she was instructed to care for did not have any visible signs of injury, but Merilos could tell just by sight that something terrible had been done to her. During their time in Rivendell Merilos was able to nurse her back to health, but there was always a heavy air of grief about her which none could pierce. Then, the very day before their departure for Dale, the young woman spoke to Merilos and told her a most sorrowful tale. She knew that they would never come this way again, and she wished to tell someone her story in confidence, hoping to relieve some of the pain in her heart.”

The young woman told about how she had been pregnant throughout their journey, but it was about the time that they were settling down for the night in a place beside the road that she felt what could only be the beginning of her birthing pains. A great fear settled upon her then, for she knew that the father was not of the Rohirrim nor of the Dalemen. None of the others knew, though she feared they suspected it, and she knew not what they would do if they were to discover the parentage. In secret she took a horse and rode off into the night toward the distant lights of Bree. She was only just inside the gate when the pains began in earnest. She rode on until she came to an inn, and somehow managed to get a room. And there, all by herself, her mouth stuffed with a rag to keep from screaming, she gave birth to a little girl. Her mother's heart was turned in an instant from joy to fear at the sound of her child's wails, for the babe was as dark as night. No one would doubt her parentage now: a child of the hated Easterlings. Even in Dale they had been a feared bedtime story -- dark men that came from far Rhun and brought with them war and death. This child would face no welcome in Dale, and neither would she. 

And so, she made the toughest decision of her life. In the still morning hours, she slipped down to the empty common room and left her sleeping child before the dying embers of the hearth. It would be safe and warm until someone would come to stir the fire in a little while. Kissing her child goodbye, she stole out to the stables and hurried back to her people's camp, despite the incredible pain it caused her to move so quickly after giving birth. Her absence had not been discovered, and her people made their way through Bree quickly, but only she knew that the commotion around the local inn was not normal.

Days passed but her secret could not be kept, for a woman who is no longer pregnant is hard to miss. She told everyone that she had lost the baby in the Bree-land, but only she knew this was a half-truth. It was not lost, but left, and the devastation it would cause her was not something she had taken into account when she had left her child behind. She spoke to Merilos of her fear and regret, but it was too late for her; she was too young and inexperienced to return for her child. That fact brought her to tears daily, for she grieved for her missing child. Sometime later it was learned that the wanderers had indeed all made it safely to Dale and were beginning their new life there in peace. No word was ever heard from them since.

Merilos and I stood beside the falls now, and I did not care that tears were streaming down from my eyes as the elf-maiden finished her tale. 

“You have your mother's face and build, she was a tall woman with perhaps more Rohirric than Dale-blood in her. Your father she never mentioned, and that is a secret only she can tell." Merilos's voice was kindly and gentle, and I heard her clearly despite the constant booming of the falls. "That is all that I know of your story, child. There can be no mistake who you are.” I wiped my eyes with my hands as I tried to catch my breath. 

“What...what was my mother's name?" I asked her. "Did she ever tell you my name?” Merilos' dark eyes softened as she shook her head. 

“She did not mention the name of the child and I never heard the family name, but her name was Annahae.”

Here ends Nephyn's secret narrative of her lineage. This copy I have made from memory I will keep with my journal, but it shall be separately written down on its own paper and tucked carefully within the other pages. I hope I have not done wrong by her for I mean no harm. My only intent is to preserve a remarkable tale which might be lost to all knowledge unless it is set down in some form, for I have no idea whether Nephyn intends for any of this to become known. She is my good friend, no matter what her bloodline may be, and may she see fit to forgive me for this intrusion.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 27.3

A Welcome Pause -- Part 2

Trewsday, 3rd of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell
The courtyards of Rivendell
That same evening I enjoyed another incredible supper at Elrond's table and decided to prod into a few more corners of this extraordinary house of his. I came across Drodie in the courtyard, but he was not one for conversation: all he did was complain about the lack of meat served during the feast. I wandered up a flight of stairs and discovered a door which seemed unattended. For whatever reason, curiosity got the better of me and I poked my head through.

I was met with a gorgeous view. The door opened onto a balcony which overlooked a stunning landscape of gardens, orchards, cliffsides, waterfalls, and fountains. I stood there for a few moments admiring it all just as the Sun dipped behind the western edge of the valley. As the light softened, I began to look more closely at the balcony itself.

It was shaped like a semi-circle with a low railing of stone around the edge. Vines and other foliage intruded upon it, but the effect was one of ancientry rather than disorder. In the very centre was a stone table or altar of some sort, round and fairly plain. Evenly spaced around this table and facing it were several chairs of elaborate make. Altogether, I got the impression I was in a place of some importance, perhaps for meetings or councils of Elrond's summoning.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" came a voice from nearby. I must have jumped two feet in the air out of surprise. When I turned toward the voice, I found it belonged to Lagodir, who was seated in one of the chairs off to the side.

"You startled me!" I chided him. "But yes, it is beautiful -- and quite peaceful, like everywhere else in this valley."

"Rivendell is certainly beautiful," he said as he looked out over the gardens. "But I do not know if it is truly peaceful. I feel ill at ease here; it is calm while the rest of the world is in chaos." The tinkling of the fountains played on as if in rebuttal to the Gondorian's musings. "Through all of Eriador we have seen the works of the Enemy, even unto the doorstep of this valley," he continued. "Yet here all is quiet. It puts me on edge."

"Still, it is an opportunity for us to rest and to equip ourselves; with both supplies and knowledge," I said, wondering what was bothering my companion.

"True," Lagodir replied. There was a pause. "Elrond knows why I left Gondor, Padryc. I will not darken your day by going into specifics, but I suffered at the hands of the Enemy for three years, and it has taken its toll. I think that I will find no peace anywhere if I cannot find it here." I looked at him. Despite our leisurely repose in this perfectly safe place, Lagodir still wore his battle-worn armour, sans helm for the moment, and his sword remained near him as always.

"The life of a soldier is a hard one, or so I have always heard tell," I said, not quite certain where to take the conversation. "Your sacrifice must endear you to your people and bring you great honour within your homeland." Lagodir looked sidelong at me and I saw the faint glow of a smile creep onto his lips.

"Honour," he repeated, and his eyes became downcast. "Your words to me mirror those of Lord Elrond. He granted me audience last night, so eager was I to speak with him. He, more than any Elf I have ever seen invokes the magnificence of the Numenorean kings; sculpted from marble, he would fit well in the Court of Anarion. He, after all, shares the sire of Elros, first King of Numenor. He granted me two gifts: apparently I am the first Gondorian in many, many years to have come hither, and so he commissioned the Elf-tailor Glorielvir to make an embroider of the emblem of my rank onto my cloak; the work should be finished before we leave here."

"That was certainly well-given," I said. "And what was the second gift?"

"The second gift was far more precious: it is the dagger of Ohtar Turma, who was revered by all in my House until its destruction a thousand years ago. You are a lover of tales, are you not? Surely you must remember that Ohtar was the esquire of Isildur, son of Elendil. It was Ohtar alone who escaped the disaster of the Gladden Fields where Gondor lost its king, and he it was who delivered the shards of Narsil to Elrond. He then returned to Gondor and led the defence of Minas Ithil but, like so many others, that battle did not end well for my countrymen."

"May I see it?" I asked, for was genuinely eager to view such a relic.

"Certainly, although it is not on my person at this very moment. But I will be sure to let you handle it sometime, for I perceive you will appreciate the historical significance it bears."

"Indeed," I replied, "And I should also like very much to see the results of Glorielvir's work; the craft-lore of Rivendell has always been legendary."

"And not without cause," Lagodir said. "It is little more than a ceremonial gesture, of course, but it has ignited the flame of Numenor which rests within my soul. I am ready to face whatever trials lie ahead."

We exchanged a few more pleasant words together, but the night was already fast approaching. Soon the Hall of Fire would be filled once more with music and merriment, and I was not to be found outside of it until I could no longer hold up my own eyelids. As I wrote this account of today's events, I considered the interesting and very disparate reactions from Gaelira and Lagodir as they reposed here in the Valley of the Elves.

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 27.2

A Welcome Pause -- Part 1

Trewsday, 3rd of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell
The pine-woods of Imladris
We spent a few days in Rivendell. We all needed the rest, for the miles between Men Erain and Imladris were long and wearisome, but I also think several of us had little desire to leave. I'll count myself first among that number: no matter what you might desire, be it food, song, tales, quiet, or good cheer, you could find it in abundance in that valley. The time spent just walking and humming or thinking was invigorating and refreshing in ways I can't begin to adequately describe.

But I feel as if I'm doing you a disservice, Dear Reader, in gushing so about Rivendell when you yourself (so far as I know) have not been there. Allow me instead to inform you about a few other things of note which transpired during our stay.

It was the afternoon on the day following our arrival. I had wandered up into the hills north of the Last Homely House in search of nothing in particular save a good walk. There is a pine-wood up that way, and the scent of sap was heavy in the air despite the time of year, for of course those are evergreens. I was ambling about, wistfully going nowhere and happy to take my time getting there, when I came upon a she-Elf seated on the ground. My first instinct was to take my wanderings elsewhere for fear of disturbing whoever it was I had inadvertently discovered, but then I recognized the figure was none other than Gaelira. For no reason I can recall, I decided to make myself known. I walked up behind her and sat down on her left. The Elf made no sign she was aware of my presence, but by now I knew Gaelira too well to think I had taken her unawares. I let time pass unconcernedly, for she seemed to be meditating or deep in thought. The roar of the falls was distant and soothing while birds chirped merrily in the trees all around us.

"I'm not sure I'll find enough adjectives that'll do justice to this place when I set down to write about it in my journal," I said after several moments. I wasn't really trying to start conversation, for I was mostly speaking to myself. Gaelira stirred at the sound of my voice and smiled, though she continued to look straight ahead.

"Yes, it is a very special place," she said with an odd mixture of cheerfulness and melancholy. "I have always found here a feeling of safety which allows me to truly relax and be myself without worry. Its beauty permeates me with every moment and reminds me of the wonder of all that is Middle-earth. I find here rest with an infusion of hope -- and that hope emboldens me to action in its defence."

I did not speak. Instinctively, I knew Gaelira was unburdening onto me some issue or thought which was on her mind, and so I felt no speech from me was needed. I waited patiently. As the seconds ticked by, I remembered her seeming reluctance to come to Rivendell then tried to square that with what she had just told me.

"I held council with Elrond this morning. It was... rather a long session," she said, as though in answer to my thoughts. "Well, I call it a council, but in fact it was more like a child being scolded by her father. Lord Elrond is... special. On many levels." Here, she looked overhead and paused for a few moments. I followed her gaze and saw birds fluttering in the branches above us while the Sun sent her rays slicing through the pine-boughs in a stunning display. It was an almost otherworldly picture of radiant, breathtaking beauty, yet such visions were common in that valley. I waited.

"I didn't know what to expect as we sat in his private chambers," Gaelira went on, lowering her eyes. "He demanded to know by what authority I went about putting others in danger under false premises. For longer than I wished I was reminded of the reputation of my people and the importance of not interfering unduly in the lives of others. It was like being turned into a little girl that has been caught in a lie; all in all quite possibly the most humbling experience of my life." Still I sat and said nothing. A squirrel scampered across the ground in front of us, only pausing briefly to consider what an Elf and a hobbit might be doing alone in the woods together before hurriedly getting back to his own business.

"Do you think he is angry with you -- with all of us, then?" I asked after several more moments.

"After a long period of keeping me squirming in my seat, he actually thanked me for the outcome of our adventures and the good we have accomplished," she said. "He even went so far as to say he may have been wrong to deny my first offer, but he still thinks me foolish to attempt to use the palantir, assuming we ever manage to recover it. But he admits the value of what we are doing and has given his blessing for us to continue, if that be our will." Another pause. Somehow I sensed there was more she wished to say. Gaelira shifted her weight and I could see something was still troubling her.

"I did not mention the Seekers of the Seven Stars and neither did he," she said at last, "But I know he is aware of us. I also know he disapproves of what we do: it is the age-old question of whether the Eldar kindred should battle the growing Shadow or flee before it into the West." Here, she paused again and looked heavenward at the brilliant shafts of sunlight piercing the trees. "Yet in this, I still believe Lord Elrond has the wrong of it, for fight we must if we are to save that which is worth saving. The Seekers may cling to ancient traditions about the Seven Stars and their supposed awesome power, but it is not these things which I seek, for I do not even believe they still exist, if they ever did. I joined them long ago because they fight back -- because they resist those forces which would destroy what we value. All of this..." She paused again and looked about her. "I will not yield to those forces, Padryc. I have seen what the agents of the Enemy would do to all I hold dear if allowed the chance; I have seen it with my own eyes." Her voice trembled slightly and I looked at her. I could not be sure, but I thought there was the faintest tremor in that stern mouth. I looked away out of respect and waited patiently once more. Gaelira sighed.

"No, I do not think he is angry with us -- or me," she said. "Besides, with the first smile I saw in our meeting, he told me that the swelling of Elladan's head over pride at being our unwitting namesake has caused him great pains and great consternation with his brother. He was joking, of course, but to see those twins unbalanced would be amusing. I imagine Elrohir is now trying to find some way to outshine his brother." She laughed and I looked at her. Her face was flushed with colour and her eyes sparkled with life. Whatever chastisement she had endured and whatever grief she had seen across the ages of her long life, I saw in her no fatigue, no acquiescence. I marvelled again at the (what I found to be) strange dichotomy in Elvish personalities, for they so often seem at once both deeply sorrowful and immeasurably merry that it can be difficult to understand them without great patience and empathy. Just like before, many weeks ago at the Pony in Bree, I had a fleeting glimpse of the complex lives of the immortal folk. The idea of trying to comprehend the knowledge gained over the course of many, many of my lifetimes compounded with the need to remain in the present while simultaneously weighing the future must be an enormous burden -- one far too complicated for my simple mind to process.

"And so what is next for us, then?" I asked finally, unable to put any of these thoughts into words. "The Misty Mountains?"

"Yes, and it will be the hardest road we have taken so far, in more ways than one," she said, but her voice was tinged with defiance. "Nephyn faced her own evils in the swamps of Agamaur and proved her worth, but I fear what I will find in the High Passes. Yet I will not turn aside from this path."

"What is it you fear to find?" I asked. Mallacai's prophecy concerning Gaelira had been cryptic indeed, other than it clearly referenced some unpleasant event from her past.

"I am forced to confront my own failure," she said heavily. "But I do not yet know how deep those scars may run, so I will say nothing more about it at present. More importantly, this adventure has already taught me several valuable lessons -- some the hard way -- and I found a little of the human side of Elrond Halfelven in the process. His reputation for wisdom is well-earned."

I sat a bit longer in silence. After a while I felt it was high time for lunch and asked Gaelira if she would accompany me back to Elrond's house. She preferred to meditate a while longer, and so I left her in the peace and quiet of the woods she loved. As I walked back down into the valley I thought about the next stage of our journey and felt a thrill of fear. Yet it was not fear for myself that I felt, but rather for her.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 27.1

To Rivendell

Monday, 2nd of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell
The Valley of Imladris
It was quite dim when I opened my eyes this morning, but the soft glow of foredawn was in the sky. I rolled over and sat up, feeling very light in body and heart, while taking pleasure in the bright, crackling campfire we had made for ourselves the night before. The morning was chilly -- it would still be winter for another month and more -- but I hardly felt uncomfortable. The air was full of the twittering of birds and the buzzing of insects which I found calming and relaxing. I looked up and saw the gently swaying boughs of oak and maple trees, most bereft of their leaves, and decided that adventuring wasn't so bad after all. At least, not on days like today.

As expected, Gaelira was off speaking with Barachen, the Elf who manned the encampment. It was odd to see a couple of Dwarves here as well (I suppose I hadn't noticed them last night on account of being so tired), but they kept to themselves and would only give hints about their business which they seemed to regard as some great secret. Dwarves can be like that, you know: very protective of their knowledge and purposes, but on the whole they are a good people. I let them be, for I felt like keeping to myself today, albe it not for any particular reason. I was not upset or anything like that; in fact I felt almost serene, as if I hadn't a care in the world. I munched my breakfast in silence and solitude as I took in everything going on around me.

Nephyn was busy plotting her maps, trying (so I thought) to figure out just where in the Trollshaws we were. Drodie and Lagodir were off to one side discussing the best way to skin a bear and what kind of weather we could expect to encounter in the Misty Mountains once we had got there. It was no surprise to me that the Dwarf had been into the high places before, but it seemed the Gondorian had some experience with mountainous travel himself, and the two were clearly concerned about how to best prepare ourselves for that portion of our journey. I was vaguely worried about it as well, but just now the whole concept of trudging through ice and snow seemed too far off to bother about it yet. I let out a wide yawn, took a pull from my water-skin, and wondered what the day might bring. Shortly thereafter Gaelira called us all together.

"We are now less than a day's march from Rivendell," she told us, "But the way is still full of potential dangers and we should take nothing for granted. If we depart now, we should reach the way-point of Thorenhad by the noon-hour. That is a camp which is (or was) roughly mid-way between the Last Bridge and the Ford of Bruinen. If there are any residents of Rivendell currently at Thorenhad we should receive welcome there, and even if there are not we should still find rest and supplies. Once we cross the Ford itself we will ascend into the High Moor. That is a rough country where the going becomes more difficult. Also, the path to Imladris itself can be hard to find for most, but I will steer you right. Barring any unforeseen challenges, we should see the lights of the Last Homely House twinkling in the valley below us by dusk."

At those words I saw several reactions among the Company: Lagodir straightened himself up and his eyes sparkled with expectation. Nephyn and I seemed to share a certain wonder at walking wide-eyed into the fabled valley of the Elves, while Drodie muttered something about preferring to single-handedly wrestle an entire colony of wild cave-claws. But Gaelira was hard to read: if I didn't know better I would have thought she was reluctant to go there.

It was not much later when we had gathered our things and bid farewell to Barachen. We returned to the road by the straightest path we could find, then turned our faces eastward and resumed our march. The day was turning out to be a fine one, and we talked openly as the miles rolled beneath our feet.

"What can we expect to see in Rivendell, Gaelira?" I asked excitedly. "Do you think we will actually meet Lord Elrond himself?"

"I should think we will," she answered, though none too enthusiastically, I thought. "But I have spent many winters in the valley of Imladris, and those familiar with a place do well to not blunt the experiences of others with their own musings. Still, I shall tell you this: while I have no doubt we will meet Elrond Halfelven in his fair dwelling, I think there is another meeting which might interest you even more."

"Interest me more than meeting the famous lore-master of Rivendell?" I echoed with a laugh.

"Yes, I think so," came her reply. "Rivendell has, for no less than the last fifteen years, been home to one Bilbo Baggins."

"What?!" I cried. "Old Mad Baggins himself? You mean to say he's been living among the Elves all this time?"

"And quite comfortably, so far as I have ever seen," she said. "Stranger tales have reached my ears since he set out from the Shire in the Year 1401 as your people reckon it, but the truth is he has been living in quiet retirement among us. Some years ago (I believe you might call it long, but in truth the Eldar count them for little), he began an admirable work of translating many Elvish scripts in the great library of Rivendell by Elrond's permission. He was yet some ways from finishing when last I saw him."

"Well, what an adventure this is turning out to be!" I marvelled. "First Elrond the Halfelven and now Mad Baggins! There's a brace of meetings that'll make for some great stories in my journal!"

"No doubt they will," laughed Nephyn from behind me. "Although you should probably avoid calling him by that name!" I heartily agreed.

"Somehow I do not think the old hobbit would mind," mused Gaelira with a sly grin. "In fact, I suspect it would tickle his fancy." I wondered greatly what her remark might mean.

Time passed and the trees passed with it. We found ourselves in the midst of a deep gorge with sheer, rocky walls to either side. After a bit these also gave way to trees once more, but Gaelira began overtly searching the ground for something. Eventually, she found what she sought: a faint dirt track leading away to the north. This we followed up and down the slopes until we reached a low hill which was crowned with some ancient ruin. Gaelira informed us we had reached the way-point of Thorenhad and I quickened my pace, eager for a rest. There, amid the fallen stones and crumbled pillars, we saw a most extraordinary thing.

There were Elves there, and even a few more Dwarves who were travelling through on business of their own. But standing near a cold firepit were two Elves, absolutely identical to look at. They were tall and dark-haired with steel-grey eyes. Young they looked, yet their bodies were strong and hale with a powerful bearing of both sinew and spirit. I felt Nephyn nudge my shoulder.

"Elf-twins? Can it be..."

I did not answer for my mouth was hanging open. There was no doubt in my mind: we had just stumbled into Elladan and Elrohir, the Sons of Elrond!

Thus began a long discussion which, alas, I cannot recount for you in these pages, Dear Reader. Aside from its sheer length, the Sons of Elrond had a most peculiar way of completing each other's sentences that made following the conversation rather bewildering, at least for me. I will do my best to give you an impression of how this sounded in my writing, but I expect it will not do justice to the real experience. Gaelira was the first to approach them, and they eyed her with great interest.

"Hail, Sons of Elrond Halfelven, Master of Imladris!" she said to them with a courtesy. "I return as part of the Company called Elladan's Outriders, and may your lordships pardon our use of the name, though it was meant only in reverence and honour."

"Doubtless it was," said one of the twins (who I later learned was in fact Elladan), "Though one might ask with whose permission you use the name --"

"When we ourselves knew naught of your mission until but a fortnight ago," said Elrohir. There was an awkward silence. I worried we had inadvertently incurred the wrath of the Sons of Elrond. But suddenly they both laughed.

"Nay! You have nothing to fear from us --"

"We are greatly honoured by the name --"

"For much honour have you brought it, if half the tales be true!" I breathed much easier from that point on.

"You speak no falsehood, brother! Was it not this bedraggled band which rescued one of our folk in the Taur Gonwaith --"

"And defeated the horror beneath the Barrow-downs --"

"And bested the shadow-wraith of Fornost --"

"And drove away the drake Bleakwind on the Nan Amlug plains?" We stared at them in surprise.

"Already you seem to know much," said Gaelira, clearly baffled. "But how you do so is a mystery to me. Ever were the Sons of Elrond gifted with the talents of their father, but this would seem to surpass anything of which I have yet heard, for we have sent no word of our exploits."

"Indeed, but where you have not, others have done --"

"You forget Gildor Inglorion and his company in Meluinen --"

"Who is still on business from our father there. He took a great interest in your doings --"

"And his messages travel by swift paths of which others know nothing." (By now you must have completely lost track of which brother was speaking, just as I had done!)

"Then is Lord Elrond also aware of all this?" Gaelira asked them.

"He is, and no doubt he is eager to speak to you himself on the matter --"

"For this endeavor you have taken upon yourselves interests him greatly."

Many more words were said, but they concerned mostly the path to Rivendell or the known movements of the Enemy's servants in that land. After some time, we were reminded that it would be best for us to reach the valley by sundown and so we left the Sons of Elrond and Thorenhad behind. The Sun was well into the third hour from noon when we returned to the road and resumed our trek toward Imladris. We marvelled among ourselves over our meeting with Elladan and Elrohir while we looked eagerly forward to our arrival at their father's house.

It was another two hours or so when we came upon a placid river which was forded by the Road. That river, Gaelira told us, was the Bruinen, and we crossed it without incident. The Road then climbed steeply into the hills on the far side until it vanished altogether. The way became rocky and the path forward wound much, but the she-Elf led us with care. We took a longish rest when we finally reached the top of the High Moor, then continued on our way eastward. Dusk covered the sky as we plodded onward. Finally, just as the Sun slipped below the horizon, we turned a corner and saw it far below us: the Valley of Rivendell.

I had heard many different descriptions of the Hidden Valley of the Elves, but nothing I had heard really prepared me for what I encountered there. I saw nothing I hadn't seen elsewhere -- pathways, trees, bridges, houses, courtyards, waterfalls -- but they were all of such beauty and splendour that my breath was taken away. As we wound our way down the road, Nephyn had to catch me more than once from falling off a precipice because I was so enthralled by the view. Gaelira led us over masterfully built bridges of stone and beneath flowering trees where all sorts of exotic birds sang their lovely songs. Finally, we arrived at the largest structure in that valley: The Last Homely House East of the Sea.

It was the house of Elrond, and that house was like unto its master: ancient, yet strong; full of wisdom and beauty. We were attended by several Elves who seemed to have been expecting us. Our hurts were tended, our bellies were filled, our thirsts were slaked, and our voices were unfurled in merriment. If I had a week to attempt it I could not truly capture the wonders of Rivendell in these pages for you. Elrond himself met with us, at a long table where sat Elves of many kinds with faces fair and bright. He himself was masterful as a great king, wise as a learned lore-master, yet kindly as a summer breeze. Much of our talk with him I cannot rightly remember, for most of what was said went over my head (as the saying goes), or I was simply too entranced by everything that I saw. It was as if I had landed myself inside of a story -- I was walking among characters which had been written onto a page or sung into many songs, yet there I was with them. I do not think I should ever find the right words to describe what I experienced here.

But fear not, Dear Reader! I shall do my best, for important and noteworthy things did indeed occur during our stay at Elrond's house. Over the course of the time we spent there, I was able to meet with my friends and they told me of their own happenstances. And I myself had a singular experience which I shall relate for you now.

The very same night we arrived, following the sumptuous dinner we shared at Elrond's table, we were led into a room off the main courtyard of the house. It was a long hall with long tables in its centre and three enormous fireplaces burning at the far end. There was no other light that I could see, and everywhere about us were Elves singing, Elves reciting poetry, and Elves quietly reading tomes in their own language. Elrond told us we stood in the Hall of Fire, and that place is a place of singing, songwriting, and merrymaking where fires are kept burning all the year round. It sounded like just the sort of place where I would be quite at home, so when Elrond asked a tall Elf minstrel named Lindir to show us around, I was eager to accompany him. But, just as I was about to go with Lindir and my companions, I felt a hand upon my shoulder. It was Elrond, and with a look he commanded me to be silent. I obeyed, wondering very much what was going on. Once Lindir had led the rest of the Company out of sight, we withdrew to a very private corner of the hall where Elrond sat himself down upon a low chair and turned toward me. His eyes shone in the firelight, but his face was grave.

"I will not keep you long from your revelry, Master Hobbit, for you have certainly earned it," he said to me in a soft voice. "Would I be right to guess that the Hall of Fire is a place which suits you?"

"Yes!" I said, a bit too loudly at first. "Yes, that is, I have something of a soft spot for old tales and stories, if you take my meaning. Always was a weakness of mine."

"Hardly a weakness," he said with a slight smile. "For such is the stuff of which wisdom is made, and I deem you possess a good measure more wisdom than for which you might give yourself credit, Padryc. This adventure has tried and tested you beyond what most of your kind has ever endured. You have grown, somewhat, if what I hear is true, and that is not to be wondered at considering what you have seen since you left the quiet fields of your homeland. And yet, I am concerned for you. Why do you continue to follow this Company?"

I thought for a moment. Somehow, it almost felt like a trick question, but I couldn't detect the trick. I fumbled for a moment, but then into my mind rose images, like pictures in a storybook, of all the things I had been through with my friends beside me. Nephyn's kidnapping and rescue in the Chetwood. The vicious Warg which slew Gaelira's bear-friend. The terror of the Barrow-wights. The fear and stuffiness of the Old Forest. Merry old Tom Bombadil and Goldberry. And the Orcs, Dol Dinen, Fornost, Annuminas, Garth Agarwen, the Wovenvales... all of it right down to where I was standing now. I sighed, but I held my head high.

"How could I not?" I said at last. "After all we've been through together it... it wouldn't be right, somehow, to just up and leave them, would it? And I think Nephyn needs me. She's been abandoned one time too many if you know what I mean. And Gaelira; they might have all walked out on her if it hadn't been for me when they learned what she was trying to do. Lagodir is a tough nut, but he's one I plan on cracking eventually. And even Drodie keeps things interesting, in his own way. I guess what I'm saying is: my place is with them. I know it makes no sense and I know I'm not really doing anything but dangling along behind them and eating all their food (well, Drodie does his fair share of that too, actually), but it just feels like this is where I belong. I'm afraid I can't put it any plainer than that."

Elrond looked at me closely and was silent for what seemed like several minutes. In the end, he merely nodded his head.

"You need not try," he said gently. Then he stood and placed a hand on my shoulder.

"Come," he said and motioned to another part of the room. "There is someone I would like you to meet."

In a dim and secluded corner there sat a small figure huddled on a stool. He was wrapped in a dingy old cloak that looked rather too big for him, the colour of which was hard to discern in that light -- it might have once been a dark green. There was a loaf of bread and a mug of some liquid nearby, but they appeared almost untouched. I could hear the scratching of a quill pen on parchment and at his feet there was a small pile of books. Then I noticed the feet were unmistakably hobbit-feet. The cloaked figure looked up at me and the light of the fires fell full on his face.

"Mercy me!" I cried, heedless of my own shrill voice in that quiet hall. I was too amazed to realize the harping and singing had stopped around me. "You're Old Mad Baggins, you are!"

There was slight laughter from nearby, most of it coming from my companions. Elrond made a motion to the rest of the room that they should go about their business, then he left the two of us together. For my part, I was so surprised that I didn't even notice his departure at the time. Bilbo chuckled and pulled me close.

"Hush, lad, hush! Where the devil are your manners? Did you grow up on a farm?" he asked sternly, but there was a great amusement playing in his eyes.

"Well, yes -- as a matter of fact I did, sir," I said, making an effort to keep my voice down.

"Oh. Oh! You say you did now?" Bilbo echoed. "Which farm was that, exactly?"

"The Pemberton Farms in Southfarthing," I said excitedly but softly. "My old dad, Padferth Pemberton, he said he knew you once and all."

"Padferth? Why yes, I remember him. Stout fellow -- good bones and quite the green thumb as I recall him. Got well into the ale at my Birthday party too, if I'm not mistaken. How is he keeping himself these days?"

And so began a conversation which lasted well into the night. My friends did not disturb me -- no one did, to be honest -- and I was left alone with the Bilbo Baggins. I can't relate here everything we discussed and most of it would be of absolutely no interest to anyone save hobbits, but we talked of the doings of the Four Farthings in great detail. He was especially interested in anything I could tell him of his adopted nephew, Frodo, but sadly the well of my knowledge ran quite dry on that point. Frodo was always a solitary chap who didn't go in much for parties or gatherings, so there was precious little I could relate to him. It was very late indeed before he finally began to question me concerning Elladan's Outriders, about which he seemed to already know a great deal. I knew of no particular reason I shouldn't be forthcoming with him about our business, including our current destination in the Misty Mountains.

"So you're actually going looking for the goblin-tunnels, are you?" he asked in dismay. "I really shouldn't if I were you, you know. Not a fun place to find yourself. Nasty business." But I couldn't get him to tell me anything else about it. Instead, he turned the conversation toward our reason for going, and I found myself telling him everything about Mallacai and the Seekers of the Seven Stars. He squinted at me and lowered his voice to a whisper.

"It's none of my concern, of course," he said, "But if I were you I wouldn't go getting caught up with that lot. They've sent emissaries to Rivendell more than a few times, you know, and even that Mallacai fellow has been here more recently. Now, I can't claim to know anything definite because the talks are always very quiet-like, but I can tell you for certain that Elrond doesn't like 'em. I don't know why, but every time they leave here he falls quiet and broods for days. Now I've been around a bit, I've heard stories about these Seven Stars and I expect the Seekers are some Noldorin cult or other, set on finding the relics? Just guesses on my part, but if I'm right I can see why Elrond wants nothing to do with them -- the High Elves and their meddlings have caused more than a little grief in this world, and that on both sides of the Sundering Seas, mind you." He sighed.

"But what would I know?" he went on. "For I'm just an old hobbit. An old hobbit who missed his bedtime! My dear boy, would you be so kind as to help me back to my room? I am not usually up this late and my eyes don't work as well as they used to in these dark hours. I may be half-blind at times, but I'm certainly not and never have been 'mad.'" He gave me a wink and a broad smile.

After escorting Mr. Baggins to his room, I finally retired myself, but I found I could not sleep. The words of Bilbo, Elrond, and Mallacai continually played in my head while the Falls of Imladris roared endlessly on outside my window.