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.

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