Sunday, 1st of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Barachen's Camp, Somewhere in the Trollshaws
Whatever it was, I felt quite invigorated. I stretched myself out in the warmth of the noon-tide Sun then went rummaging through my pack to find a bite. Blueberry muffins in hand, I decided to explore Ost Guruth a little more than our business had thus far permitted. I found the Eglain occupied with all manner of tasks -- almost as though I were in the midst of a well-ordered city -- everything from tanning to farming, fletching to cooking.There was something different about the air and the sky today. From the moment I awoke I could sense it, though I never was able to quite put words to whatever it was I had detected. For one thing, the low clouds which had covered the Lone-lands the day before had raced away to the south leaving us with high, clear fields of blue, but it was something more than that. It was as if the wind felt clean and fresh; it was chilly (which is not unusual given the time of year), but there was something about the air which cleared the mind and relaxed the body. Wholesome might be the right word.
This last, you may recall, is something of a speciality of mine. I nosed about the ovens for some time until one of the bakers took notice of me. Her name was Deothryth, and she was a young and talkative lass. It was not long before we were both chatting about old family recipes and even each others' personal culinary secrets. Imagine my shock and horror when I learned that these rustics made their onion soup with yellow onion and not the green variety! This positively shocked me: every Shire-hobbit knows green onion goes better than yellow in soup! I took it upon myself to instruct Deothryth on the error of her ways and she promised to try my recipe the next time she was making a batch.
With that crisis averted (and having graciously agreed to sample several of Deothryth's other daily offerings), I made my way back to the campsite. I was alone when I had awoken, but now the others must have noticed my absence for they were seeking me. Slowly, we all began to congregate around the cold firepit.
"You wouldn't believe the uncouth things these people do with their victuals!" I exclaimed as Lagodir and Drodie sat down to break their fast. "Who uses yellow onion in onion soup? Only someone unschooled in the art of cooking, that's who! Fortunately, I was able to set things to rights hereabout -- I expect once they've tasted my recipe for onion soup these Eglain will never touch any other kind!"
"It's good to know our mission has met with some success then," said Lagodir with a broad smile. "I can think of no better defence against the Darkness than ensuring some gaggle of rustics living in the middle of nowhere now know the proper way to make onion soup!"
"Laugh all you like," I sniffed, "But these are the sorts of things that turn gaggles of rustics into respectable societies, if you ask me. Honestly, I've never heard of such foolishness."
"I am certain they are much improved for the encounter," said Lagodir with a slight bow, but he was still grinning at me. I was chuckling inside my head as well, but I did not let on. Drodie was taking a pull at a mug he had purloined from somewhere, but he spit out his ale and tossed the remainder away from him.
"Pah! Perhaps next you could teach this lot a thing or two about brewing?" Drodie said. "I must go in search of my water-skin to get this taste out of my mouth." He ambled off.
"As bad as the Forsaken Inn?" I asked, nodding my head after the Dwarf.
"No, it is not hardly that foul," said Lagodir with a laugh, "Still, I would not encourage you to try it -- not unless you know of some way to rid yourself of an incredibly bitter aftertaste."
"The only aftertaste I am interested in is the one we all bear from yesterday," said Gaelira from behind us. We turned and saw her standing there with an intent face. Following her gaze, we beheld Nephyn approaching and we fell silent. The huntress's outburst following the defeat of the Red-maid yesterday had unnerved everyone and we were uncertain as to her current state of mind, for she had spent the night apart from the rest of us. But her eyes were downcast as she walked. After a few moments, she stood before us.
"I... spent a long time thinking over things during the night --" she began. But, just then, Drodie returned noisily gargling water from a skin and spitting it everywhere. I cleared my throat politely to let him know he was intruding, but I was ignored. Instead, Lagodir gave the Dwarf a stiff elbow to the ribs which caused a terrific blech to erupt from those bearded lips.
"Ah, thanks for that!" he said, before noticing we were all staring at him. After a few seconds he looked up at Nephyn.
"Oh... Bad timing?" he asked. We all sighed as Drodie plopped himself down to give Nephyn his attention.
"As I was saying," the huntress continued, "I thought a lot of the events of yesterday during the night, and I realized that... I can no longer think of any of you as my friends." It was like a crater had suddenly opened up inside my stomach. My ears seemed to go deaf for a moment as if in defiance of what I had just heard. I saw the lips of Drodie and Lagodir part in disbelief. Instinctively, I shot a look at Gaelira, and even her face was one of bewilderment. None of us seemed able to speak as those words hung in the air.
"I think of you as my family," Nephyn said, finally. Time moved again. I leapt to my feet and embraced her. Her eyes became wet, but she wore an enormous smile. The others gathered round as well, clapping her on the shoulders and laughing. Drodie bowed deeply. Later, I had a hard go of it remembering when was the last time I had seen her smile.
"It's true," she went on, "We have all had our trials and disagreements, but I was allowing a bitterness to grow inside of me. Even though I eventually understood why Gaelira had concealed her real motives, I let myself hold on to those misgivings because of what I had experienced in my past. But while those failings are many and painful, they are not yours, Gaelira. I hope you can forgive me."
"There is nothing to forgive, Nephyn," said Gaelira, who bowed her head. "I am honoured that you have bestowed upon me your trust; I who have done so little to earn it these past many weeks."
"No," said Nephyn as she shook her head. "No, you have earned it many times over. All of you have, and I have been too hard -- I had become too hard -- and all the while secretly priding myself on my own lack of hardness. But last night I realized that I had not overcome my animosity; rather I was only continuing to bear it, unbeknownst to me. I, who had for years begged and wished for mercy from those around me, had none to give to one who had been forced to commit evil against her own will. Is that Mercy? Is that Justice? But for your interference, my friends, I might be standing here now with the blood of an innocent life upon my hands. That fact shook me deeply, and if I had succumbed I would have no right to name myself among you all -- among Elladan's Outriders."
"You are wise beyond your years, my young friend," said Gaelira. "It takes a humble heart to see these things and an extraordinary courage to speak them openly to others. What you have done will not go unrewarded -- of this you may be certain."
"Whether or no," Nephyn replied, "I will strive to be merciful in future. If I, who desire mercy and understanding, cannot grant it when such opportunities fall into my lap, then what hope is there that the world shall ever be made better?"
"Hear, hear!" I cried and jumped about in my happiness. "You can't say fairer than that!"
"Indeed not!" agreed Lagodir. "You have a valiant heart, Nephyn."
"Aye, and you are a formidable foe when need presses," said Drodie, ever the practicalist. "You fought like a Dwarf -- and that is no small praise coming from one who has seen his share of battle."
"The strength within all of us is formidable," said Gaelira. "It merely awaits the right opportunity to surface. I do not think the Enemy nor any of his minions have a mind to ignore us now."
"Speaking of which," I asked through a mouthful of blueberry muffin, "What's the plan for today?"
"The Wovenvales are somewhere in the Trollshaws while Goblin-town is supposed to be hidden high in the Misty Mountains," said Lagodir. "And both lie to the east of where we now stand."
"Oughtn't we to take another day of rest?" asked Drodie as he nodded at me. "The little one took a nasty crack to the head mere hours ago, don't forget."
"I feel quite myself again, actually," I said and started on another muffin.
"His appetite has clearly returned," said Lagodir with a laugh. "Hobbits seem to have an amazing ability to recover from cuts and bruises."
"I have heard this from... various sources," said Gaelira. "It interests me greatly to see it verified. More importantly, though, I think the time is ripe for us to move on from here: Khamul has clearly been in these lands, but he did not linger and I can detect no sign of his presence anywhere nearby. Since Padryc says he is well enough for it, it would be best for us to seize this opening while we can."
We prepared ourselves to depart while Lagodir consulted with the Eglain's elders regarding the whereabouts of the Wovenvales. There was little they could tell us, only that rumours had sifted across the Hoarwell of a spreading menace of spiders in places north of the road. But that seemed enough for us to go on in a pinch, so we wasted no more time. It was already the second hour after noon when we saw Ost Guruth growing smaller in the distance behind us. I looked out over the Lone-lands as we walked. The name was well-given, for the grass was brown and it was desolate and empty. A flock of crebain flew overhead and one cawed rudely at us, but we kept going.
"This would be an ideal place to open a tavern, if you ask me," I mused to the others. "Why, there's not another way-station for miles! You can't rightly count Ost Guruth as the folk there don't seem to want visitors. I reckon one could make a nice living doing that, if it weren't for all of the Orcs, goblins, Wargs, and goodness-knows-what-else roaming this land and wanting to eat all your patrons."
"But don't forget the Forsaken Inn," said Nephyn with a sly grin. "Just think: you'd have to compete with them for your customers!"
"Ha! I could serve pig-slop in a bucket and it would be better than their swill!" I said as I mimed vomiting on Nephyn's boots. We all shared a hearty laugh.
The march continued mostly in silence. The Road ran on with no perceptible changes in the landscape to the point I was beginning to wonder if we were actually moving at all. The Sun fell further and further out of the sky until finally, just at dusk, we could see a stone bridge in the distance. It had three large arches underneath and the waters of the River Hoarwell played noisily about them, but we encountered no difficulty in the crossing. As we neared the far bank, I noticed the light of a small fire ahead and to one side.
It was a pair of female Elves keeping watch on the Road. One of them, Rochwen (I fear I have forgotten the other's name), was most interested in our account of ourselves. When we mentioned that we were seeking the Wovenvales, her face became grim.
"I would have you find my comrade, Thoroniel," Rochwen said and she pointed to the north. "She had gone that way to investigate reports of increased activity from the Great Spiders in those parts, but I have heard nothing from her in days. She is a fine warrior, but has less experience with those creatures than some. And if there is one thing I know about Spiders, it is that you can never be sure how many there are until they are coming for you." I gulped audibly.
The Sun had already set when we turned off the Road and began picking our slow way north in search of Thoroniel and the Wovenvales. The paths of the Trollshaws were rocky but not hilly, and the forest had become darksome with the ending of the day. Our movements seemed loud and intrusive while I imagined unfriendly eyes peering at us from every angle. More than once I saw the black silhouette of some long-fallen tower overlooking our position from atop a hill. I supposed the Trollshaws hadn't been so named due to an overt absence of trolls beneath its eaves, a fact made all the more alarming by the swiftly vanishing light.
"I wish to goodness I hadn't insisted on leaving Ost Guruth so late in the day," I thought to myself. "Now here we are blundering about these woods in near-total darkness! I had half a mind to ask the others if we could go looking for Old Mad Baggins's three stone-trolls, for I wouldn't mind seeing whether the tales were true. But not at night!" More than once I thought I heard strange groaning or wailing sounds, but they were always so far off that I was never sure, and the others took no notice. A little further on we decided to take a rest, so I plopped myself down and leaned up against a boulder.
Suddenly the boulder moved! I yelped, leapt to my feet, and dashed away as fast as my feet would carry me!
"Troll!" shouted Lagodir from somewhere nearby. I darted behind a tree and looked back. There, hulking where I had sat just moments earlier, was a sizeable troll with thick arms and legs. It took a wide swipe at Lagodir with its arm, but the Gondorian dropped to the forest floor and rolled out of the way. I heard a snap! and another snap! It was Nephyn, whose arrows were glancing off the troll's hide as she aimed for its eyes. Drodie was slashing with his sword and banging his shield loudly to attract the monster's attention. The troll, apparently surprised at being resisted, backed up a few steps and bumped into a cliff wall as my companions closed in on it. Sensing it was cornered, it let out a roar that shook me to my toes then reached out and seized a large rock in its paw.
"Look out!" I cried. I think the others heard me, for they all threw themselves into the dirt. The troll threw the rock, but it sailed harmlessly over our heads and shattered into a million pieces with a bang! Immediately, my friends were back on the attack. It was about that time I noticed Gaelira was missing again, but I refused to let any old suspicions cloud my mind. I scanned the darkened landscape and found her: there she was, some ways up, atop the cliff behind the troll!
Now what in the blazes is she up to this time? I thought to myself. It looked to me as though she was pulling heavily on something. Suddenly, a huge boulder came loose from hill and smashed onto the troll's head! The troll stood there, dumbfounded, as the Pounding Echoes faded into the branches of the forest. It seemed as though the beast was going to come back on the offensive, but then its knees buckled. It let out a long groan and crashed to the earth. Three swords glittered in the starlight as they slashed the troll's throat out. The battle was over.
We came back together to congratulate each other on our victory. Gaelira joined us shortly, quarterstaff in hand.
"I was wondering what you were doing up there, Gaelira!" I said happily. "No Elf-magic needed this time, I see?"
"Not at all," she said with a laugh. "Just a little ingenuity in addition to a fervent hope that my rock would prove tougher than a troll's head."
"Luckily for us it did so," I said. "Once more I had nothing to do with our victory, but I'm glad it's over and well over!"
"As am I, but pray speak more softly while the Moon rides above us, Master Halfling," said Lagodir sternly but kindly. "There are certain to be more trolls about and our little ruckus may even attract them, for they are known to be curious beasts. It would be well for us to leave this place at once."
We left straightaway. I kept expecting to hear another troll come crashing through the foliage to avenge its slain comrade, but instead the Trollshaws became unnervingly quiet. Where before had been peculiar night-noises of insect and animal, tree and hill, was now nothing -- not even a solitary cricket. The only way I knew for certain I had not suddenly fallen deaf was that I could still hear our footsteps as we stumped and rustled along through the undergrowth. I kept looking side-to-side and behind me, fearing that some unknown horror was stalking us beneath the boughs.
"Try to remain calm, friend Padryc," said Nephyn to me softly. "You have the rest of us here also to detect if foes approach in the night."
"And for that I am most grateful," I whispered back, "Though I could wish I was more useful to the Company. I've lost count of the number of times I've either had to be rescued or done nothing to hinder our adversaries."
"You are too hard on yourself," came her reply, "But perhaps your fortunes will soon change? That Elf Mallacai spoke truly when he said I would learn something of forgiveness when I came to challenge the Red-maid. What was it he said to you about this adventure?"
"Bring me the fangs of the spider-queen in the Wovenvales, and you will learn your true value to the Company," I quoted. "But what do you suppose that means?"
"Haven't the foggiest," she said with a smile. "We shall just have to wait and see." I immediately began imagining all sorts of terrible trials that would befall me when we finally found the spider-queen. I tried to force myself to think about something else.
Some ways on, we saw the glow of a small campfire up ahead. It belonged to none other than Thoroniel, the companion of the Elf Rochwen who had first greeted us when we had crossed the Last Bridge into the Trollshaws. When we explained that we had come to seek out and destroy the spider-queen of the Wovenvales, she pointed us toward a pass north of her camp.
"There lie the Wovenvales, my friends, and may the stars of Elbereth guide your feet therein," she said. "I would come with you, but alas! My sword-arm was wounded when I fought the beasts earlier today. I do not know where their queen might lie hid within, but if you seek her you shall surely find her, for the spawn of these foul colonies always cluster around their matron."
"I don't fancy bedding down so close to that place," I said with a yawn. "Can't we find some other spot to camp?"
"I think you misunderstand me," Thoroniel answered, "You must seek the queen during the hours of darkness: it is during the night that they come forth to feed. During the daylight hours you will find nothing, for they retreat into their lairs and only a fool would dare to confront them there."
My heart sank. I kept hoping someone would raise an objection and spare us from this nocturnal nightmare, but no one did. Minutes later, we had crossed the threshold into the Wovenvales and began prowling around in the darkness. We lit torches, which gave me some hope, but the shadows played wickedly among the rocks and plants, always eager to excite my already frayed nerves.
I will not describe to you, Dear Reader, everything we did or encountered during the night. Nor will I delve into the fearsome details of every spooky shadow or rustling branch. It was an eternity of terror for me as we followed the trail deeper and deeper into the forest. We were attacked multiple times by large groups of spiders, but my friends always managed to beat them off. In this manner, we made our way slowly but steadily forward. The night seemed endless.
After what must have been hours, we came upon an ancient ruin. There were webs everywhere among the stones, so we reasoned we must have been getting closer and extinguished our torches. Before long we spotted a large, swollen spider sitting alone in the moonlight and worrying over the body of some dead animal. It did not seem to have noticed us, so we crouched in the shrubbery to discuss the situation.
"Are you sure that's the spider-queen?" I whispered doubtfully. "It isn't half the size of Lebrennil. Remember? From the Old Forest?"
"True, but its poison could be more deadly," Nephyn reasoned. "And there are probably many other spiders near at hand; we should take care."
Quickly, we laid our plans for the attack. Drodie would charge the queen from the front while Lagodir and Gaelira would attempt to flank. Since it was too dark for archery, Nephyn would re-light two torches and wield them as close as practical, for we considered the light might confuse and weaken our foe. My assignment was to remain in the undergrowth and keep watch for any broodlings or other enemies which might counterattack us. I hunkered myself down and prepared to do my part. Then, on a sign from Gaelira, we launched our assault.
The plan worked brilliantly. No sooner had Drodie charged the spider-queen then Lagodir and Gaelira had taken up their positions on either side of her. Nephyn kindled her torches and shouted as she waved them about. Within seconds I was called upon to fulfill my role, for two fat-bodied spiders had begun descending from the trees above on their long, sticky threads and I had no doubt others were on their way. But our tactics had been well-laid: before the other two spiders even had a chance to reach us, Lagodir had lopped off one of the spider-queen's legs while Gaelira jabbed at it with her staff. Drodie smashed his shield into the matron's eyes then stabbed into the head several times before Lagodir rushed in and drove his broadsword full into her midsection. The queen was dead by the time her protectors had landed on the forest floor, and neither of them lasted long against our combined might either.
Almost the next thing I knew we were running from the ruins as fast as we could go in the darkness. Nephyn had thrown down her torches as we fled in hopes the light would attract any pursuers and keep them away from us. Indeed, even as we scrambled away I could hear a loud rush of skittering and I knew spiders by the hundreds were probably converging on their queen's corpse even now.
We stumbled on. We were still deep within the Wovenvales and we became unsure of the way out, but we doggedly trudged on. None of us spoke, for we knew the spider colony was likely not far off and would seize upon the slightest hint of our position. I fearfully wondered whether the spiders might be intelligent enough to try and seal off the one entrance we knew about with their webs. The night drug on. After what felt like hours of being hunted by swarms of bloodthirsty monsters, I was becoming nearly frantic.
"Where in the name of wonder has the Sun got to?" I hissed. "Surely something must have swallowed it?!" I felt a hand reassuringly placed on my shoulder.
"Look to the hills, my friend," came Gaelira's voice. "Dawn is indeed in the air."
I looked and, to my great relief, I saw the faintest outline of craggy hilltops high above me. It turned out the Sun was near its rising even as we spoke, but the mountainous country in these parts had obscured the telltale signs of morning's arrival. I breathed deeply and all my limbs felt lighter.
After that we went more swiftly and it was only another hour or so before we found the exit. Thoronoiel was waiting for us and was amazed to hear the tale of how skillfully we had disposed of the spider-queen. She then directed us to an Elven waypoint a ways south of our current position which was manned by an Elf named Barachen. We bid Thoroniel farewell and started to make our way thither. With the excitement and fear of the night behind us, I began to feel quite tired, but there was still some ways to go before we could camp for the night. As we walked, I became vaguely aware that something was nagging at me, but I couldn't quite figure out what it was.
"You are awfully quiet, Padryc," came the voice of Nephyn into the midst of my thoughts. "You've not said a word since we emerged from the Wovenvales, which is most unlike your usual, jovial self. Is anything the matter?"
"No," I said. "No, well, I mean, yes, I suppose there is, actually. We handled that spider-queen rather well, wouldn't you say?" Nephyn frowned but smiled at me.
"Well, yes," she said. "I would have to say we did. But what of that?"
"Oh, I don't know," I mumbled. "It's just... I was sort of expecting, don't you know, that I was going to have a bit more to do with it, is all."
"Ah, you are thinking of Mallacai's prophecy concerning you, is that it? But you played an important role for you let us know that the other large spiders were coming. They might have caught us unawares if it hadn't been for you."
"I suppose so," I said, rather doubtfully. "Is that what you think Mallacai meant by me learning my true value to the Company? To serve as a look-out?" I kicked a branch out of my way as I walked. Nephyn looked sidelong at me.
"Well, you can't put too much stock in prophecies and foretellings," she said, obviously trying a little too hard to cheer me up. "Who knows in what other ways you might prove your true worth? Besides, as far as I'm concerned, you have nothing to prove -- and I think I can safely say that I speak for the others as well. I wouldn't worry about it if I were you."
"Yes, you're right of course," I said, but my doubt remained. I decided to forget about it and started talking about the beauty of the countryside and the curious ways of trolls. But I did it only because I did not wish Nephyn to worry about me, not because I was heeding her advice.
It was another two hours before we finally reached Barachen's camp, by which time I was nearly asleep on my feet. While the others engaged in pleasantries with the Elf, I slung my pack to the ground and decided I was going straight to bed -- even without supper -- I was that tired! Still, I managed to make my daily record in this journal before nodding off. It was at that point I suddenly became aware that today marked the first month of my adventure with Elladan's Outriders.
And yet... as proud as I felt about that fact, my disappointment with myself continued to grow, not lessen. Once again I had proven myself to be little more than a piece of baggage in the course of the Company's exploits than anything remotely resembling a heroic figure. Had I failed at my task without even realizing it?