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.

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