Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 34

Striking a Bargain

Hevensday, 24th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Ost Forod, Parth Aduial, Evendim
Enro Smuin
Calenglad's recommendation was the only real option available to us, so we lost no time. Despite the fact that night had only recently descended upon Tinnudir we immediately took our leave and began the journey to Ost Forod. There, according to the Ranger-captain's description, we should find the merchant called Enro Smuin from whom we could hopefully obtain some athelas and cure our ailing companion. Calenglad graciously lent us a horse, so we helped Lagodir onto it and set out at once.

The going was slow, for we did not wish to disturb Lagodir any more than necessary and it was dull work in the dark under a faint moon in any case. The Gondorian's chills seemed to be getting worse and he would occasionally mutter in his dreaming, but none of us could catch the words. At one point Nephyn suggested I sing a song to lighten all of our hearts and I did so, but I did not want to sing too loudly for fear of attracting preying beasts or prowling tomb-robbers in those parts, so I'm not sure it did much good.

Once we reached the crossroads of the standing king we took the northern track and the road began to climb steadily upwards. It also became rocky, which slowed our progress even further. Finally, we saw ahead and above us a looming shape and we knew we had reached our destination.

Ost Forod turned out to be little more than a tumbled ruin which sheltered a motley collection of rather unsavory folk. Some of them greeted us with kind words, but for the most part all we got were hard stares, curled lips, and untrusting eyes. If it weren't for the word of Calenglad himself, I would have thought we had just wandered into a den of thieves and highwaymen. My hand gripped the shaft of my little hammer and I held my head high in defiance.

It occurred to me suddenly that we had no idea how to identify this Smuin character since Calenglad had never described him, other than to say he is a merchant of some note. We spent a short time poking around the place, but it was not long before we heard a loud Pssst! coming from our left. There, just outside a low building with a great iron door was a gathering of Men, and none of them looked the respectable sort. One Man was seated amidst several others, and he waved us over. I tried to get a look at him in the dimness: he was less than average height with a sharp nose, a thin black beard, and small, watery eyes. I did not like the look of him one bit.

"You are newcomers here, yes?" he asked us in an unpleasant and nasal voice. "What are you doing in Ost Forod?"

"We are upon an urgent errand," Nephyn replied for us. "Our friend here is very ill and we require some measure of the athelas plant to treat him."

"Athelas, you say?" the Man said with raised eyebrows. "Ah, then you have come to the right place! I had you pegged all along as folk who might wish to transact some business. Allow me to introduce myself: Enro Smuin, marketeer and... local collector of revenues." The gang of Men behind him snickered at this last remark.

"A pleasure," Gaelira replied, but it was merely a polite nothing. "We have heard that you may have some of the plant for sale. We will pay you handsomely."

"Hm, yes, I do have a small stock," Smuin said in answer, "Though I shall require something of you besides mere coin."

"What, then, is your price?" asked Drodie.

"There are certain... competitors in this region that I wish to have removed," Smuin explained. "It seems they got the silly notion that they have a right to move in on my territory, and I would like for you to teach them otherwise. This would be of much more value to me than just your money."

"Why not handle them yourself?" Nephyn asked as she eyed Smuin's entourage. "You look like a gallant band of well-trained warriors." The huntress made little effort to conceal her sarcasm.

"Because I am a businessman, not a charity," came Smuin's reply, along with a grin that revealed many crooked and discolored teeth. "These Men cost me money, so I'd prefer not to waste them in a turf war. You, on the other hand, cost me nothing. And when I see an opportunity, I take it. You have my offer: bring me signs that you have disposed of my adversaries and I shall give you what you need to heal your friend."

There was nothing for it, so we agreed to his terms. Smuin provided us with the last known locations of his targets then withdrew into his home and left us to our own devices. Among ourselves, we decided that I would remain behind with Lagodir to do what I could for him while the others went on the hunt. We felt that every minute which passed was drawing Lagodir closer and closer to the end of his life. It was just around midnight when they left me with the ailing Man and set about their tasks. I saw Gaelira and Nephyn both head north while Drodie strode quickly in a southeasterly direction.

I decided it would be best for me to try and keep Lagodir warm, so I helped him down off his horse, covered him in blankets, and got a fire going. It was difficult work for I myself was shivering with the cold, but Lagodir was faring far worse: his body was being wracked by violent chills that broke my heart to watch. I forced myself to think about how to help him so as not to get distracted; I even set about making him some soup, but he was not able to eat it. The night crawled on with no change, except that every now and then Lagodir would mumble something incoherent. After this happened a few times I tried talking to him, although I don't know what I expected to accomplish. Perhaps I felt it might take his mind off his own torments.

"You were really quite brave back there in Annuminas, you know," I said to him, trying to sound cheerful and unconcerned. "I'm sure I've never seen such swordsmanship in my life as when you fought that awful wraith."

Probably best to not talk about that, you fool, I thought to myself. I clammed up for a while and stared into the fire as it crackled nearby.

"I've been carrying everything needed to make a campfire about with me for a long time," I said for no real reason. "Every since Combe, now I think of it! I haven't had much use for them since then, though, as Drodie and Nephyn are so handy at making a fire in the Wild. I'm glad to be proving useful for a change: more often than not I feel like I've been little more than an extra set of baggage on this journey." There was, of course, no answer to my ramblings, but for whatever reason I decided to keep talking.

"You know," I went on, "I was wondering about you for a long time. In fact, at the first I thought you might be some lunatic vagabond who would slit all our throats in the middle of the night! I know it sounds silly to say so now, but you did look a sight when we first met, you can't deny that -- especially lugging that huge axe around the way you were. Still, that's all in the past, isn't it? How things have changed! And we've all grow so much more fond of each other too, although that's not to be wondered at what with everything we've been through together. And so don't you worry yourself -- the others will be back soon and then we'll have you right as rain by sunrise, you'll see; you just have to hold on for a little while longer, hear?"

Lagodir shifted his weight a little. As I looked at him, I thought I saw him crack open an eye at me, but it was too dark to be sure. I leaned forward a little to try and get a better look at his face. The skin seemed drawn too tight to be natural and there was sweat beading on his forehead, yet his body still shook violently from his chills.

"Tell me... about... the Shire," I heard him whisper to me.

My heart leapt into my mouth, but I tried to put a brave face on my excitement.

"Oh, the Shire?" I said in a nonchalant manner. "Well, it's frightfully dull, don't you know. Or, rather, it's not nearly as exciting as most other places, like Gondor, must be. We're mostly farmland, after all, but we do have our regular festivals throughout the year. And we're very fond of birthdays; why, nearly every day is someone's birthday in the Shire, so the odds are there's always a party going on nearby. Not exactly what you might call high-living: no armies or palaces or kings or any of that. Just ordinary folk trying to make a plain, down-home, honest living. Not the sort of place you'd be interested in, I fancy."

"It sounds... wonderful," the Gondorian managed to say.

I went on to tell him all about the Farmers' Faire, Harvestmath, and Yule Festivals in the Shire, since those were my favourites. Then I told him everything I knew about the Spring Festival -- since that would be coming up in another month or two -- and went on to tell him the outlandish story of Mr. Bilbo Baggins and his infamous disappearance at his own birthday party some seventeen years ago. I myself had been there (which is not saying much since the entire Shire was invited to attend), but of course I had no unique knowledge about the oddities of that strange evening since I had been head-first in a vat of beer at the time everything peculiar had happened. My talk went on and on to the point I was hoarse and dying for a drink, but I kept right on talking as if Lagodir's life depended on my continually finding something to say.

Eventually I began to notice the light was growing in the sky. In the quiet hour before dawn, my companions began to return. Gaelira was first, then Drodie and, shortly after, Nephyn appeared. They all looked weary -- even the Dwarf's shoulders were sagging -- but after checking briefly with me they went straight to Enro Smuin's door and pounded forcefully upon it. Smuin emerged, yawning hugely and asking why business could not be left to a more appropriate hour. One by one my friends threw objects at his feet: Gaelira dropped a small thing which glinted golden in the rising Sun. Smuin reached down to examine it.

"Ah! The ring of Harry Hinchcliffe!" His beady little eyes gleamed with excitement. Next, Drodie tossed down a broadsword and a dagger.

"The sword of Bill Tripper and the knife of Andy Idden!" said Smuin, even more pleased. Finally, Nephyn unwrapped an object she had been carrying inside of a bag and flung it at the merchant. Smuin cried out as he caught it and let it fall to the ground. There was a thunk as blood flew up and spattered all over him: it was the head of a large Warg, its face still caught in a vicious snarl.

"And the... the head of Thauk, the Warg," Smuin ended in a weak voice. Warg-blood dripped softly off him and onto the gravel around his feet.

"You should probably wash that off," said Nephyn menacingly, "Somehow it makes even you smell the worse for it." Smuin looked himself over and found no words to say.

"What of our fee, Enro?" asked Gaelira. The robber looked up at the three of them and his eyes darted fearfully. Then he reached into his belt, drew forth a small dirty looking pouch, and dropped it on the ground before retreating behind his door. We seized the pouch and found within it a few leaves. Right away we could tell it was athelas by its scent, though the leaves were small and rather dried out.

"Hm, not the freshest crop, is it?" I said grimly. "I hope they will do."

"They had better," said Nephyn with a dark glance at Smuin's door, "Or one more head will roll tonight."

Nonetheless, we quickly set about preparing its use: Drodie stoked the fire while I scampered off to fill a pot of water at the nearest well. When I returned we brought the water to a boil, then Gaelira crushed the leaves in her fingers and cast them into the cauldron. Almost instantly I could sense a change in the air around me, although it's a hard thing to describe. If you can imagine air that shimmers the way a calm lake does when the Sun is shining on a clear day; that's about as close as I can manage.

Anyway, Gaelira got a rag, dipped it into the water, let it cool a bit, then began to lave Lagodir's forehead while softly speaking to him. The rest of us watched, hardly daring to breathe. After some time, we saw the Man open his eyes a little and mumbled something. Nephyn leaned down to embrace him.

"Don't ever scare me like that again!" she said joyfully. "I forbid you."

"And when... have I ever... followed your orders?" Lagodir replied with a weak smile. We all sighed, then began laughing, cheering, and clapping each other on the back and shoulders. Lagodir did not feel immediately better, of course, but it was obvious he was rapidly improving. We all drew up around him and settled down to a much-needed meal, for none of us had eaten since the morning of the day before -- prior to the attack on Tyl Annun.

As everyone rested and Lagodir continued to breathe in the vapors of the weed, we fell to talking about our great accomplishments over the past few weeks. With the defeat of the three Angmarim champions within Annuminas, we were only one victory away from completing Mallacai's tasks and finally proceeding into Angmar itself. Our final target was something named Brullug located in a place called Sarnur. From Drodie we learned that Sarnur was an extensive network of caverns under the Blue Mountains, far to the west of the Shire, but none of us knew what manner of Man or beast Brullug was supposed to be. At this point, however, we felt confident that we would succeed once we reached the place. All of us were finally able to relax now that it was clear Lagodir was going to recover.

Even though the Sun was now fully into the morning sky, I started to feel the need for sleep overcoming me. I had just enough strength left to make my journal entry and marvel at what we have done so far. More than anything, I was excited at the prospect of starting the next stage of our journey, for the path to the Blue Mountains would take us straight through the Shire! Perhaps I could talk the Company into stopping by the Golden Perch along the way...

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 33.3

The Siege of Annuminas

Trewsday, 23rd of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Island of Tinnudir, Evendim
The Sword of Guloth
I cannot sleep for worry. Have all our adventures -- our challenges and our triumphs -- all come down to this utter failure? I will never forgive myself if our good friend dies as a result of my own carelessness!

Anyone reading this would have no idea what I'm talking about, I suppose. So much happened today that I'm still not sure if it was only one day, for it feels like a week has passed since the day dawned, red and fierce, in the East this morning. Let me go back and try to tell this woeful tale in its proper order.

I awoke shivering from the chill breeze blowing in off of Lake Evendim. I tried pulling my blankets tighter around me, but soon became aware that there was much movement and bustle going on nearby, so trying to find sleep again was useless. I got up and squinted to see what all the to-do was over, but it was not easy because the dawn was still some hours off.

After a short time I managed to locate my companions by the half-light of a few campfires and was informed that the Rangers were preparing to move a sizable number of Men by boat down into Annuminas. Their intent was to reinforce someone already there named Daerdan who, it sounded to me, was the leader of the resistance in the ruined city. I thought this was certainly fine information to have, but then I was told our Company would be going with them and I had best sort myself out in a hurry or risk being left behind!

In what seemed like no time at all I found myself stuffed into one of about a dozen small rowboats which were all bobbing their way across the surface of the lake in a southerly direction. Everyone was as silent as the grave while the water lapped against the sides of our water-craft. I was starting to feel seasick (hobbits and boats generally don't mix well) and was just wondering to myself what the deuce was the point of getting us up well before dawn when the answer suddenly presented itself: a white fog began to roll over the surface of Lake Evendim. So this early start was to take advantage of the morning fog, which would serve as a veil to obscure us from the eyes of our enemies! It drew up slowly at first, but before long we were positively smothered by a mist so thick that you could have used it to butter your toast. Our hair hung lank and dripping on our foreheads and everyone soon began to shiver. It was so quiet I could hear peoples' teeth chattering from the dank, when my own teeth weren't chattering themselves and making a noise, that is. The journey went on and on to the point my fingers and toes all went numb from the cold. I would have wrapped myself in warmer things but I was told to bring only what I would need in a fight, so most of my belongings were back on the island of Tinnudir (I had brought as many of my medicinal supplies as I could shoulder, of course). Finally, just as the first rays of light were starting to peep above the eastern horizon, we put in at a sort of stone jetty. We then moved quickly and quietly through many dark and crumbled streets until we turned a corner and came upon a mass of tents, banners, and much gear of war. There, we were greeted by many more Rangers.

We had arrived in the midst of Annuminas at the war-camp of Captain-General Daerdan, but I felt less safe there than when we were thumping along in our boats. The talk was all of fighting and retreating, advancing and dying -- really not my sort of thing! Gaelira, Lagodir, and the others were all in the very middle of these discussions, but I was content to stay off to the side and let them bother about it. No one ever asked a hobbit for advice on military matters, and rightly so! I would have been better suited to asking the warriors whether they'd prefer that I make them bacon or sausage rashers when they returned from the battle. I busied myself by looking round and trying to learn what I could about these Men, but it was still quite dim in those foredawn hours.

Suddenly, there was a tremendous blowing of horns! Swords clashed on shields and I saw many Rangers rush away to my left.

"To arms! To arms!" I heard the captain-general shouting. "Ware! The Enemy is upon us!"

I moved myself out of the way to avoid being trampled by tall Men with bright swords as they swept toward the east. Cries of war went up and there was a loud booming sound, as if boulders were falling from the sky and smashing into the earth. I heard arrows whistling through the air and wondered whether any of them might be from Nephyn's bow. Then I overcame my fear a little and tried to see what was going on, but my sight was obscured by all of the tents, people, and ruined walls surrounding me. It appeared the fighting was happening perhaps three stones' throws away, but all I could make out was a cloud of dust rising from that direction. Then came a terrible roar, as from some enormous beast in its fury. There was a great crash, and the sounds of battle began to recede.

About a half an hour later it was truly morning and my friends returned with Daerdan, the Rangers' captain-general. It seemed the Enemy had launched an attack against the encampment, but that the danger was past for now.

"This is not the the first time we have had to deal with these gethryg, these hill-trolls out of the Northlands," Daerdan was saying, "And this one lasted less long than most, for we have grown skilled in slaying the things with bow and pike. Yet our victory rings hollow, for 'tis likely not a tithe of the force which my scouts tell me Balhest has amassed within the city. His purpose is likely to draw us further into Annuminas where he thinks to deal with us piecemeal (Balhest, I would later learn, was the leader of the Men from Carn Dum which was directing the occupation of the Rangers' ancient capital)."

"We should cut the head from this snake," I could hear Gaelira respond. "Am I right in guessing he has set himself up in Tyl Annun? Rarely do these servants of evil miss an opportunity to mock their victims and defile their most revered monuments."

"You speak as one who knows our adversary well," Daerdan answered, "For he has indeed done that very thing. Yet, in this, he has perhaps made his most serious error: Tyl Annun was never designed to be a citadel in time of war. There was no war in these parts when the Kingdom of Arnor was founded and the city of Annuminas was raised. It was many hundreds of years later when the Witch-king first led his armies out of Angmar to begin the slow suffocation of our land that my kinfolk knew strife. Nay, Balhest has unwittingly placed himself into our hands -- if only we can penetrate into the city and cut the bridge which leads to the island upon which Tyl Annun sits, then we will have him like a serpent in a snare. It was in hope of executing this very stratagem that I begged Calenglad to send every Man he could spare across Lake Nenuial. And yet, now that our full strength is gathered, it may be that we cannot launch this attack after all."

"And why not?" asked Lagodir with a sudden heat that made me prick up my ears.

"The Doorward of Balhest," said Daerdan, and he lowered his voice to the point I was forced to creep nearer to continue listening to their conversation. "He is some great captain or commander which goes about with Balhest, and my Men will not challenge him but flee before his countenance. They say that at his coming every Man sees in his mind's eye his worst fears and nightmares come true. I would call it coward's talk, except I know my Men and there be not a dastard among them -- this I swear to you upon my very life."

"Guloth," said Lagodir grimly.

"You know of this apparition?" Daerdan asked him.

"It can be no other," came the Gondorian's reply, and I could hear the fury building in his voice. "Yet Fate is with you, my friend: it is for this very purpose which we are come."

"Actually, we are here to see the remaining two champions of Angmar defeated," Gaelira cut in. "Agarochir and Unagh evaded us during our previous visit to Annuminas."

"I will destroy Guloth and clear the way for your Men to Balhest," said Lagodir, giving no sign he had heard Gaelira's remark. "With my own hands and the weapon of my ancestors I shall do this." Daerdan eyed him cautiously.

"I see you are strongly resolved," he said after a short time. "So be it: together we shall move in force until, if it be the will of the Valar, we have reached Tyl Annun. Then, you and your companions shall enter Ost Elendil to confront this Guloth. Once that deed is done, I and my Men shall take care of the rest."

After that there was a great deal of movement all throughout the camp as the Rangers of Evendim prepared to assault the army of Angmar which had occupied the city. Before the morning was much older our plans were laid, our ranks were formed, and we began our march into Annuminas.

I cannot possibly recount here everything which happened during that assault, Dear Reader. I myself kept well out of the way of the fighting and served mainly to aid those who fell wounded by blade or by shaft. And there were many who suffered hurt that day, but never near so many as our foes, for the Wardens of Annuminas were dour-handed and veteran warriors who were fighting to regain their ancient homeland. I should tell you that we (with the Rangers) slew both Agarochir and Unagh during the attack, and I saw Lagodir secure bits of their armour as well -- the vambrace of one and the pauldron of the other -- and so the penultimate task set to us by Mallacai had finally been achieved. Yet even this great accomplishment was driven from my mind by what happened at dusk.

The sky was a terrible and fiery orange while the Sun set in the west as we finally reached the doors of Ost Elendil, the centre-most tower in all that majestic and ruined place. Dozens were wounded and all were tired, for the battle had raged for many hours all through the streets of Annuminas. There, we said our farewells to Daerdan and his troops before plunging into the dim tower. As we did so, I couldn't help noticing that a great number of the Rangers, who had just fought valiantly through to the very heart of Angmar's greatest army in the North of Middle-earth, looked doubtfully and (dare I say it) even fearfully after us. The huge doors boomed shut, and we were within Ost Elendil.

I won't go into the fear I felt as we silently crept our way through that place, for I think the shadows were playing tricks with my mind. No matter what I thought I saw or heard, I just kept plodding forward behind Lagodir. He was upright and tense like I'd never seen him before. Finally, we reached a large metal grate, before which stood a dreadful sight. It was a tall figure, all swathed in a great, black robe or cloak. I could see no face, yet a voice came to us from beneath that cowl. It was a harsh, cruel voice which brought to mind the sound of animals in torment. Just to hear it speaking was enough to make you want to run and hide.

"Welcome, my old friend," it said, and we knew it spoke to Lagodir. "Long have I awaited thee, knowing thou wouldst seek me out in thy foolishness."

"There is only one fool here, thrall of the Abhorred," said Lagodir in response, "And his life shall end by my hand ere this day be spent." The wraith laughed, a horrible sound that was like being plunged into a lake of icy water.

"Thy valour is but ignorance, suckling of the downfallen West," it replied. "Your usefulness to me is ended. Thy puny life I shall crush at last and then Balhest shall subdue these lands in the name of my glorious Master."

"As I live and breathe it shall not be so!" said Lagodir as he raised his sword. "I did not escape thy dungeons and torments only to find thee and fail at the last. I shall have vengeance!!"

"Escape?" said the wraith, its voice hideous with mockery. "Escape? Thinkst thou still, all these years later, that thy wit alone allowed thee to flee my hospitality?" It laughed again and I wretched where I stood. "Thy wit were insufficient for any such thing. I it was who allowed thee to escape, imbecile, after I had learned from thee what my Master wished to know."

"Liar!" Lagodir shouted, but I could see doubt behind his eyes. "You learned nothing from me! Not an ounce of truth did I give you. I am no traitor."

"Nothing?" The voice was quieter, but somehow that only made it more unbearable, not less. "Nothing at all? Nothing about, say, the location of the great vaults of Denethor which lie deep beneath Mindolluin and that graveyard thou callest a city?" There was a silence.

"I never spoke to you about that," Lagodir said, but his face had gone deathly white.

"To me, nay," came the wraith's reply. "But thou spokest of it in great detail to what thou thought wert the ghosts and spirits of thy ancestors, didst thou not? It seems thou and thy simple people know very little of the methods my Lord hath developed for acquiring what we wish from our guests."

There was another silence. Lagodir's sword was still at the ready, but I could see his hands were shaking. His voice became cracked and hoarse.

"You would gain nothing from such knowledge," he said. "The passwords --" The wraith's laughter cut him off.

"Ha! What need hath the Dark Lord of such things?" it cried. "When thy city lies in ashes and thy stupid folk are slaughtered what shall remain to stand in his way? All that thy masters hath stolen from my Lord's kingdom of old shall be returned to him, and thou shalt die a traitor's death, steeped full in the knowledge that thy weakness of mind made it so. Or perhaps thou might prefer the honour of housing with me once more beneath Minas Morgul -- and there shall be room for thy friends as well!"

"NO!" Lagodir shrieked, and he rushed at Guloth with his sword flashing and flying. The rest of us were so dumbfounded by what we had just heard that it took a moment for us to come to his aid. The fighting was fierce, for Guloth wielded a massive, serrated broadsword with incredible skill. As the battle raged, every now and then I would see one of my friends drop their weapons or sink to their knees with a far-away look in their eyes, as though they saw things in their minds which I could not. When this happened, I would rush over and shake or slap them until they responded to me, for I perceived it was Guloth's terrible power which was eating away at our Company's will to resist him. I kept waiting for the evil fit to come upon me, yet it never did.

Finally, with the most powerful blow I had ever seen a mortal Man deliver, Lagodir knocked Guloth's sword from his hand with a great clang! He seized the wraith's cowl in his left hand then dropped his sword and drew the Dagger of Ohtar Turma with his right.

"Minion!" he roared as a fire leapt into his bloodshot eyes, "Thy foul lips I silence at last!" And he drove the dagger into the blackness under the cowl. There was a high-pitched cry and several of the glass windows which remained on either side of the hall were shattered as if by a great wind. Then I saw nothing more than a pile of black robes on the ground at Lagodir's feet. The Gondorian was upon his knees, tears streaming down his haggard face. We four looked at him, unsure of what to do next. The dagger of Ohtar Turma writhed and smoked on the stone floor before bursting into flames and vanishing forever.

Suddenly, there came from behind us a boom and a great shout. Daerdan and his forces had thrown open the doors of the tower and were rushing past us toward the gate. In a few moments they were through it and searching for Balhest. I later heard they overpowered him and his advisors in a brief battle; none of the enemy were spared for they had all fought to the death rather than be taken prisoner.

But my companions and I had eyes only for Lagodir. His breath was coming in huge gasps, as though he was weeping from the depths of his soul. We managed to get him up and helped him out of Ost Elendil. With the fighting over and the leader of the Angmarim army slain, the Rangers escorted us back to Daerdan's camp where there was food and medicine in plenty, but nothing would calm Lagodir's condition, and we began to fear for him. Daerdan suggested we take him at once by boat back to Tinnudir where Calenglad's leeches would surely know how to treat our friend.

The trip back wasn't nearly as bad as the earlier ride, for I was focused entirely on Lagodir's face: it had almost a jaundiced look and he never opened his eyes at all. When we landed at the island it was well into the night hours. We bundled him off, lay him down by a campfire, and covered him with every blanket we could find, for his flesh was rapidly going cold. I finally realized that he was reacting in much the same way Nephyn had after striking the fearsome wraith we had encountered in the heart of Fornost some weeks ago, only this time the situation seemed much more dire.

"What about the funny things that strange Elf did for Nephyn in Fornost?" I asked Gaelira in a hushed voice. "Can't you do something for him?"

"Perhaps I could if we had any athelas with us," came the Elf's reply. I reproached myself sternly for never having had the presence of mind to keep an eye open for any of the stuff during our travels. Gaelira proceeded to administer what healing arts she knew, yet nothing seemed to lessen the Gondorian's fit.

Calenglad joined us by the fire and regretfully informed us that his healers had no athelas left to use, for the fighting in Annuminas had been great over the past two weeks and they had depleted the stores in the discharge of their duties.Yet he did offer a glimmer of hope.

"You should go with all speed to Ost Forod, the rough settlement in the hills northeast of here," he told us. "There is a Man there, Enro Smuin by name, who knows the virtues of the athelas-plant and usually has some on-hand for sale. It is the nearest and the fastest way I can think of to saving your friend besides wandering off into the forests to sniff it out for yourselves in the darkness."

And so here I sit by Lagodir's side, my journal in my lap and my tears falling periodically on the pages. The others are still debating what is to be done, but I will let them sort that out: whatever is needed I will do, even if it means leaping into a dragon's den -- if only I can somehow save this brave and sorrowful Man.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 33.2

Return to Evendim

Sterday, 14th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Thorenhad, Bruinen Gorges, the Trollshaws
The Northern Bree-fields
We were awoken in the early hours by a drenching downpour and had to seek what shelter we could under a rocky outcropping among the boulders of the High Moor. This did little good thanks to the great wind which drove the rain right into us so that, although the tempest eventually passed to the southwest, we were all soaked and miserable. Worse still, the Sun never came out to warm our stiff bodies but stayed hidden behind those beastly clouds which had descended on us yesterday morning. I hope I do not develop a cold from all of this maltreatment.

We crossed the Bruinen river around noon then tried to make up for the time we had lost from cowering under a rock all morning. My cold legs seemed to drag like lead, but we managed to reach the Elf-camp of Thorenhad just after sunset. The evening was chilly and cheerless as the place was uninhabited and a biting north-wind refused to let us sleep. There is no sign of Elladan or Elrohir.

Sunday, 15th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Barachen's Camp, Somewhere in the Trollshaws

The sneezing woke me today: my own sneezing. True to my usual luck, I have come down with a head-cold thanks to walking all of yesterday in wet clothing under the loving caress of a winter breeze. Nephyn wanted to make me some hot soup for breakfast, but both Gaelira and Lagodir insisted we had lost precious hours yesterday and could not afford the delay.

We followed the Road west through the gorges and into the woods. Nothing of note happened except we had to continually call Lagodir back or catch him up: the Man keeps getting ahead of us as if he's being driven by a whip. No doubt he's just anxious to get back to Tinnudir where his kinsmen are struggling to hold back the lackeys of Angmar, but we can only go so fast. My aching body won't let me go much faster than a weary stroll.

We're camping at the outpost kept by the Elf Barachen tonight. He gave me some herbs for my tea which cleared my head well enough that I feel I can get to sleep. I normally have no hope of dropping off if I can't breathe through my nose properly.

Monday, 16th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Ost Guruth, the Lone-lands

I felt no better today than I did yesterday, despite Barachen's herbal tea. Apparently the Elves can cure all manner of sorcerous hexes and wraith-spells that freeze the body and enslave the soul, but no one can cure a stuffy nose. Typical.

Anyway, we crossed the Last Bridge within a couple of hours after setting out from Barachen's Camp. It was a long, boring march from there to Ost Guruth and I have as little to say about the westward journey as I did when we had passed eastward by the same road many days ago. The only good news was my head began to clear a little and the Eglain (as the folk who live in the Lone-lands call themselves, you may remember) welcomed us back with open arms. Apparently things had improved in those parts substantially since our escapades with Narhuel way back when, and they were most grateful toward us for it. I was plied with various medicines and given all of the hot onion soup I could eat. And yes, since I know you are wondering, Dear Reader, the onion soup was indeed made with green onions, just as I said it would be! Even Lagodir cracked a smile when I told him this. It might have been the first time I've seen him mirthful since before we left Rivendell.

Trewsday, 17th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in the Lone-lands

I haven't the foggiest idea where we are other than knowing we are headed in the right direction. Ever since we left Ost Guruth at dawn we've been trudging westward. While the land has been slowly marching by it seems as if we're going nowhere: everything looks just as bleak and bare as it did twelve hours ago! The only bit of good news is my cold has pretty much cleared up, so I should sleep well tonight. Lagodir wanted to continue walking well into the night hours, but the rest of us out-voted him on the matter.

Hevensday, 18th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Forsaken Inn, the Lone-lands

Does this place never change? I would swear the exact same people are still here in this rickety old building as when we last passed this way which, according to my journal, was exactly three weeks ago! There was no room for us so we slept out-of-doors, but honestly I didn't mind: I'd rather not think what sorts of vermin might be infesting the bed-rooms of this establishment.

Before you ask: No, there were no drinking-contests between any members of the Company.

Highday, 19th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Southern Bree-fields, Bree-land

It was good to see Bree-town again, even if it was only briefly and mostly from without. Gaelira would not stand with us putting up at the Inn for an evening out of fear that our movement back toward Evendim might be noticed and reported, so we made camp instead. We still had to go into town to obtain supplies, but we left that to Lagodir and Drodie, who would stand much less chance of being recognized by anyone. I did my best to imagine myself reclining at ease in the Pony, which was easier than usual since the weather was quite pleasant today.

Sterday, 20th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Northern Bree-fields, Bree-land

The weather continued to co-operate today, although I'm beginning to think whatever battles may be going on at Annuminas might be well over by the time we ever get back there. Once again we were not allowed to rest within the walls of the town (Trestlebridge) so as to keep our position a secret. I have a new pouch-full of tobacco thanks to Drodie's trip to the Bree-market yesterday, so I am content. Lagodir is becoming noticeably irritable and keeps urging us to make speed. He should try being three-and-a-half feet tall and on a cross-country march sometime, especially when everyone else is nearly twice your size.

Sunday, 21st of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Torogethir's Camp, at the Edges of Evendim

We passed swiftly and silently through Trestlebridge in the early hours of the morning today so as not to make a stir. From there it was several hours of steady marching north up the Greenway then into the Fields of Fornost. That place was still dire and sickly, but it was also quiet and did not seem so threatening. We passed through unhindered, although I felt we were being watched the whole way.

We reached Torogethir's campsite well after sundown, for Lagodir is constantly pressing us to move farther and faster. Tempers have been flaring a bit today as all of us are becoming more than a little road-weary. I'm glad to be finally going to sleep.

Monday, 22nd of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Island of Tinnudir, Evendim

It was a long trek from Torogethir's camp to Tinnudir, but under Lagodir's Lash (as Nephyn and I have begun calling the Gondorian's incessant demands to hurry) we covered the entire distance in a single day. When we finally reached the Rangers' camp at dusk we found it in a very different state than when we were last here: everyone was grim and quiet. Calenglad, their leader, greeted us with kind words, but nary a smile ever crossed his lips during the entire exchange. The situation in Annuminas was apparently quite bad, and we resolved to go to the front lines first thing in the morning. Gaelira also asked whether she might still find Mallacai on the island, but Calenglad shook his head.

"The Elves left some time ago," he said. "They proved very capable warriors when they joined us in forays against the Angmarim, I'll not deny it, but there were not enough of them. Also, frankly, I suspect they had other business of their own here about which they would not speak to me."

We quickly prepared for sleep. I don't quite understand everything being discussed, but it sounds for all the world to me as if tomorrow we will be charging headlong into a live battlefield! I will try to stick close to the others and do what I can, whatever happens.

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 33.1

The Gondorian's Tale

Mersday, 12th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell
The Dagger of Ohtar Turma
It has been three days now since we returned triumphant from the bitter heights of the Misty Mountains. Our welcome was quite an event, let me tell you, for our Company played a significant part in the thwarting of the goblins' attack on the Valley of the Elves as well as the rescue of two long-lost members of Elrond's household. I've since discovered it is now the evening of the third day (one tends to lose track of time when reposing here), and I am sad to report that we will be setting out in the morning -- leaving Rivendell again and, this time, perhaps never to return.

The past three days were mostly spent resting, eating, drinking, singing, and (when I could not avoid it in favor of more pleasant things) preparing for the next phase of our journey. From the others I got the vague notion we were to head back west, but I must admit I wasn't paying too much attention to all their talk of marching, camping, and questing. If someone had told me then and there that I could never leave that house again for the rest of my life I probably would have danced for joy.

Instead of that, what I got was a long tale of dread and sadness. This morning the Company assembled just beyond the doors of the Last Homely House, across a swift stream and upward on a small lawn where there are a few stone benches. We were all in a merry mood -- all except Lagodir. There was something about his demeanor which made me guess (rightly) that we had been gathered to hear what Elrond had to say to him shortly after our return to the valley from our adventures in Goblin-town three days earlier. After sharing greetings and some of our usual banter, we turned our attention to the Man, who sat with downcast eyes.

"No doubt you are all wondering why Elrond called me to him so quickly once we had come back down from the mountains," he began. "A letter had arrived from Calenglad, the Ranger-captain on the island of Tinnudir. It was addressed to Aragorn, who I understand is the leader of these Northmen, but Elrond has taken it upon himself to share its contents with me."

"Some great need must have driven Calenglad to trust to a written message," said Gaelira with raised eyebrows. "I would hate to think what might have happened if it had fallen into the wrong hands."

"You perceive aright the great need of Calenglad and his folk, for things have taken a bad turn in Annuminas," said Lagodir. "It seems the occupation of that place has been doubled since our little foray there many days ago, and now the Dunedain are in danger of losing their foothold within the city. The leader of Angmar's thralls is named Balhest, who is thought to be one of the Black Numenoreans out of Carn Dum, but chief among his captains is a foul wraith of Mordor."

"I know this wraith, this Guloth," Lagodir said as his eyes became piercing and hard. "Many years ago, I led an expedition into the Morgul Vale. My Lord Denethor had become desperate for tidings of our Enemy and his doings away in the Black Land, for the rumours were that he had returned to his Dark Tower. We began to fear he was gathering strength and meant to make war upon us, and so small parties of spies were sent to scout various points on the edges of his realm. It was my lot to lead the group which would cast its unwilling eyes upon Minas Ithil of old, now twisted and perverse under the influence of the servants of the Nameless." Lagodir paused; his eyes seemed to see things far away from us and his fingers worked. We all waited patiently.

"We encountered no resistance until we neared the gates of that accursed tower," he continued in a hushed voice. "But as we went to cross the bridge which spans the Morgulduin, we became ensnared by some dark sorcery. To me, it seemed to emanate from two statues of hideous design which stood like sentries on either side of that bridge. A fell cry went up and before we knew what was happening we were surrounded. A blackness fell upon my company then and we were slaughtered like sheep -- all save myself. I was taken prisoner and brought to the lowest dungeons under that hellish City. For three years I anguished beneath that Tower; the very place where my forebears had fought and died for Elendil, but now was become a pit of utter despair and torment. I do not think any living thing, fair or foul, resides there except against its own will. Any living thing, say I, for there are other things which haunt the passes of Morgul Vale, yet I deem they live not. One such was Guloth: my host and chief torturer. Many long hours did I spend in his company."

He paused in his tale. The rest of us were quiet and tense. The Sun itself seemed to have dimmed as we five walked the vile passageways on the Tower of the Black Wraiths in our collective minds.

"Guloth," said Lagodir again. "He flayed my flesh and withered my mind and soul. I felt I was nearing the end of my life, but then a strange thing happened: I saw -- not dreamed, but saw -- in shadowy form the ghosts of my ancestors, the spirits of the House of Turma, long dead. They spoke to me of the doom of Gondor and the ruination of all lands, but my will hardened and I would not be cowed. Then, one day, I discovered a tunnel which led out of my cell through the walls and beneath the earth. It must have been a secret way made by the city's original architects before it fell to the Enemy more than a thousand years ago. I followed it, and found myself outside of the Morgul Vale, free at last. After much hunger and wandering, I was rescued by two Rangers of Ithilien who recognized me by my uniform, tattered and dishevelled as it was. I was returned to Minas Tirith and slowly nursed back to health, but I had not the strength to wield blade again. The Lord Denethor questioned me relentlessly for two days on what I had learned during my captivity. Finally, satisfied that I had told him everything, I was dismissed from the army and permitted to go where I would. It was some time later when I decided to make my journey to the North and our paths crossed. And now I see clearly the path I must follow next: I will return to Annuminas. I will find Guloth. And I will destroy him forever. I do not ask any of you to come with me."

There was a silence. The roar of the Falls went on and on, unbroken by any of our voices for many minutes. Finally, Gaelira spoke.

"You have a great claim on my companionship after everything that has passed between us since we first met," she said quietly. "I shall accompany you. But how do you propose to defeat this terrible servant of evil?"

Here, the Gondorian drew forth a dagger with a cleverly carven handle and a long, bright blade.

"Now at last I keep my promise to you, Padryc," he said to me with a smile, "For here is the dagger of Ohtar Turma, which Elrond gifted to me upon our arrival to Rivendell some days ago. It is the work of Westernesse, but older far even than the Sword of Ringdor which you bear, Nephyn. This blade, unassuming though it may be in appearance, shall be the end of the wraith Guloth. And I shall be the one to strike that blow. Whether or not you choose to journey with me I must go. I shall be grateful for your friendship, Gaelira, but I lay no claim upon any of you."

"For my part," I said thoughtfully, "It seems clear that our earlier excursion into Annuminas has put those Ranger chaps in a rather bad spot. So it's only fitting that we should do our part to help them out of it. You can count me in." I hoped I sounded braver than I felt.

"And I am with the Company," said Nephyn with a smile. "Whether you will it or not."

"As for me," said Drodie with a shrug, "I am up for a good battle and it sounds like Annuminas is just the place to find one. Besides, by my count we still owe two of Angmar's champions there a good thumping."

The rest of the day was spent in preparation for our early departure on the morrow. I had the opportunity to say farewell to Mr. Bilbo. He told me to bring him back some descriptions of Annuminas and advised me to stay clear of the Seekers of the Seven Stars (apparently forgetting that he had already done so), but wished us all the very best. I spent another long time alongside him in the Hall of Fire earlier this evening, and afterward I found the Company loitering about the main courtyard of the house. They were all crowded around something I could not see, so after helping Mr. Baggins reach his room I hurried back to see what all the excitement was about.

It turned out to be none other than Thorgest the Dwarf. He was down on leave from his watchpost high up in the Misty Mountains, and he also brought us a bit of news. The goblins had all retreated back to Goblin-town where it appeared the Great Goblin was desperately trying to hold onto his throne, for the sounds of battle under the earth could be heard at most times of the day and night. He also mentioned Gloin's regrets that he was called away on his errand to King Dain with such urgency, but the venerable Dwarf had left us his undying thanks for our services along with a not unsubstantial sum of money. This proved providential, for our Company had been running dreadfully short on coin for some days and we had all been concerned about where we might pick up more for the purchasing of necessities: a life on the move, I have discovered, is not a cheap enterprise to maintain. Of course we expressed our supreme thanks to Thorgest and, after many bows and sweeping of hats or hoods, we all retired for the night.

Even now that I have written down all of today's events I am having trouble getting to sleep. I'd be happy to never leave this peaceful valley ever again, but at the same time I know that I must. I feel certain the Company still has an important part to play in these times, even if I still can't see clearly my own part in it all. Also, something about Lagodir and his account of the Morgul Vale has me feeling a bit on edge. I think I shall mention it, quiet-like, to Gaelira whenever I should happen to get the chance.

Highday, 13th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The High Moor, Somewhere in the Trollshaws

This morning was a solemn affair. Elrond and select members of his household bid us farewell on the steps of the Last Homely House under the pall of a cloudy sky. There was no particular reason for me to feel so gloomy after our recent successes, I suppose, and yet I could not help it in light of our departure from that happy valley. I reclined against a tree some ways off from the rest of the Company where I was unable to overhear the conversation between the master of Rivendell and my companions; I was in no mood for whatever ominous warnings and dark prophecies were probably being thrown around at that hour.

Instead, I cast my mind over the contents of my pack, now newly replenished with equipment suitable for a life on the Road. Best that at least one of us keep a clear head about such things, I thought to myself. Far more practical than giving a mind to all of this gloomy talk about wraiths, armies, and the rest of it. Imagine listening to such nonsense at your age! I had stocked up on balms and medicines, trail food, tea leaves, cram, and of course pipe-weed (But not enough to last us more than a fortnight, I shouldn't wonder). My desire for adventure was at its lowest ebb since our journey began.

Once the traditional exchange of courtesies had been made and we had thanked Elrond many, many times for his hospitality, we did finally leave Rivendell in earnest. The long, dull climb out of the valley began as we headed southward. Our intent was to return to the High Moor, taking it fairly easy, and make camp somewhere near to the Ford of Bruinen, which we would cross first thing on the morrow. As we trudged up the winding path which led away from Imladris, I cast my eye about me. It was still winter, of course, but at that time and in that valley you would scarcely have known it if it weren't for the depressing cloud cover on that particular morning. The pine-trees were swaying in the breeze, insects were buzzing about their business, and even the grass was full and fragrant. Then, looking skyward, I saw a large bird circling directly above us. I tugged at Gaelira's sleeve, as she was nearest to me.

"See that?" I asked as I pointed. "That must be the first bird of prey I've seen in all the days we've spent in Rivendell. Odd that I never noticed it before."

"Not at all odd," Gaelira answered, not even bothering to look up at the object of my attention. "The wind currents down in this narrow valley are too treacherous for most large birds to navigate safely, and there is game aplenty roaming the High Moor in any case. No, that bird has a particular interest in us." I looked at her.

"Oh?" I asked, genuinely intrigued. "And what might that be? Is Drodie walking around with raw meat in his satchel again?" The Elf chuckled.

"No, at least not that I know of," she said. "But I see you did not hear our counsels before we departed this morning, so I shall enlighten you. You should know that Hremm, our trusty raven-friend, will no longer be accompanying us on our journey. He followed us all the way here, but now he has found a mate and will not leave again. However, it seems word of our exploits against the goblins of the Misty Mountains have reached the ears of Gwaihir the Windlord, the Lord of all Eagles, and he has pledged one of his people to our service. The feud between the Eagles and the goblins is a bitter one, and so we have earned ourselves another valuable ally."

"You don't say!" I exclaimed as I tried to get a better look at our new companion. "What, will he fight for us and claw at the eyes of our enemies then?"

"Perhaps, if the need is very great," came Gaelira's reply. "But the way of the Eagles typically is to interfere as little as may be in the activities of those that go on two legs. Also, this is not one of the enormous Great Eagles: he is of a lesser strain, though still somewhat larger than your average preying bird, so we won't be riding him anywhere like your good Mr. Baggins did once, long ago. His name is Malkan, and he is a rather quiet sort, but he is brave and absolutely loyal to his liege-lord Gwaihir. More importantly --" and here Gaelira did finally look to the sky and shielded her eyes with her long, white hand, "I suspect his company is also a mutually agreed-upon arrangement between Gwaihir and the Lord Elrond." I pondered this last for a moment.

"You mean, so he can keep an eye on us?"

"On me, more likely," she said with a mischievous grin. I smiled in response, but then I realized that, in our talk, the two of us had lagged somewhat behind the others. Now was the perfect moment for me to ask Gaelira about something which had been on my mind without the others overhearing.

"I was wondering, you know," I began a bit clumsily, for it was an uncomfortable subject to broach, "About Lagodir. Or, well, about what he told us yesterday." I could hear Gaelira take a deep breath, almost a sigh, and then I went on. "Does anything seem at all, erm, odd to you about his story? I mean, I wouldn't dream of saying he's being untruthful --"

"No, I do not think so either," Gaelira said, cutting me off (for which I was grateful). "But your insight serves you well -- the idea that someone, anyone, could so easily fly from Imlad Morgul on their own is not possible. The only conclusion, therefore, is that he was permitted to leave. I certainly believe that Lagodir believes he managed his own escape, but I know too well the wiles of the Enemy and his delight in destroying the minds and wills of his prisoners to think his version of events is the full truth. The real question is: why did the Enemy release him?"

"You don't think... you don't suppose he would betray us, do you?" I asked in a quavering voice.

"I think we need not fear treachery," Gaelira answered in little more than a whisper. "There are some things even the sorceries of the Enemy cannot break, though he can sow doubt, mistrust, and loathing in others. I doubt not that our friend is wholly loyal to us and harbours no thoughts of evil intent, but if the long lives of the Eldar has taught us anything it is that even good intent can turn to evil when the fire of passion is not cooled by rational thought." We walked for a few moments in silence.

"Lagodir must have been a mighty champion among his people indeed, if he is now only a shadow of his former strength as he says," I observed. "I shudder to think what he could do if really roused to anger."

"As do I," the she-Elf said. "What might a Man do to regain what he sees as his lost honour? And what also for vengeance? I am no Man, so I cannot say, but it shall be our duty, I think, to care for our friend and intercede for him if events go ill. Yet I know not what form such a thing may take, if it comes, so I beg you to say naught of what we have discussed -- neither to Lagodir nor even to the others. We know nothing for certain and have seen before what even the appearance of mistrust can do among the Company. But come, Padryc, the others are getting far ahead of us."

This seemed like sound counsel to me, so I agreed to it. We two quickened our pace to catch up to our friends, then joined Drodie and Nephyn's ongoing conversation about the merits of coffee versus tea when on a journey. But it was also then I noticed for the first time today that Lagodir was walking at a very brisk pace and had gotten well ahead of the rest of us.

Once we reached the plateau of the High Moor we struck westward, picking our way among the trees, bushes, and boulders of the forest floor toward the Ford of Bruinen. We encountered no difficulty all day and eventually settled down to a campsite which was within a stone's throw of the river. As night fell over the Trollshaws and I lay writing in this journal by the light of a small fire, I can see the Gondorian seated some distance away and with his back to us, staring out into the West. I thought about his long captivity and torment at the hands of the Dark Lord's minions and wondered what sort of toll that must have taken on him. I also remember how, when we had first encountered him, he had refused to say why he had left Gondor and was seeking out Elrond of Rivendell, greatest lore-master and healer still alive in the World today. But I suspect I can now guess the reason.

I'm pretty sure I just heard thunder coming up from behind us. I certainly hope our first full day out of Rivendell is not going to be a wet one.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 32

Return to Rivendell

Monday, 9th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell
The Falls of Imladris
No matter how many times I wake up in this valley I can never quite believe all of the things I see when I am here. Each passing day seems to bring more wonder than the one before it rather than the familiarity you would expect. Interestingly, the same might be said of relationships, whether among Elf or Dwarf, Man or Hobbit. Curious things happen to people in Rivendell.

Today had been uneventful and I very nearly did not make an entry into this journal. Well, "uneventful" is a relative term, especially in this place. I only mean there were none of the travels, trials, battles, quarrels, or other tiresome things which might make an otherwise "uneventful" day "eventful," but that doesn't mean significant things did not occur. Allow me to record one such here for you.

I rose very late in the morning. Perhaps I was still recovering from our time in (and under) the mountains. Or perhaps it was the sumptuous feast to which we were treated last night. Or perhaps it was the excellent feather-bed in which I was laid. Most likely it was all of these. In any case, the daylight was already broad when I finally stepped out of my chambers. First I went on the hunt for food and then, quite contented, I went on the hunt for my friends. I did not find any of them about the Last Homely House itself and it was far too fine a day to be caught indoors, so I wandered outside to continue my search. I padded aimlessly around, going nowhere in particular, but I found my feet were steadily taking me across one of the rivers which rushed out from the Misty Mountains and down a gentle slope. That way, I knew, lay the Spire of Meeting, and for whatever reason I thought I might head that direction.

What I found there was Gaelira. She was seated near the base of the Spire, as if deep in thought. I waved to her and she waved back (the roar of the Falls of Imladris, while not overpowering, was still loud enough in this place to where one cannot be heard at more than a dozen paces or so), so I trotted over to join her. We exchanged pleasantries and she seemed to be in good spirits, although there was a tinge of sadness about her as well. I didn't voice my observation, for Elves usually prefer to reveal what is on their mind in their own good time and it is no use trying to pry things out of them (for they are, as a rule, a very patient people). I bided my time, and it turned out I did not have to wait very long at all.

Within a few minutes, the rest of the Company had begun to assemble. At first I took no notice of this, but then it struck me that this was a pre-arranged meeting of some sort and I began to be curious. When we were all present and everyone had said their hellos, I noticed that Gaelira had walked up a step or two onto the stairs of the Spire. It became clear an address was forthcoming, so we all gave her our attention. It was at this point I noticed that she wore an elegant sword at her belt. I thought it curious I had never seen her bearing any weapon before save her staff.

"My friends," she began as she looked us over, "Thank you for meeting me here as I asked. And I must apologize for not extending the invitation to our good halfling, whose esteemed repose I deemed it unnecessary to disturb after his harsh trials in the mountains." I smiled, for I recognized this as polite-talk meant to imply I had slept later than perhaps I ought to have done. 

"I have something to say and I hope you will bear with me," Gaelira continued. "That I have harbored a dark secret has been obvious to you for some time. Well, our recent excursion into Goblin-town brings it to light. You have already heard me call it not one of my best moments. You will see just what an understatement that is, for here is my story.

"Some years ago, Lord Elrond had charged me with escorting a group of Elves to Lothlorien for a council with the Lord and Lady of that land. With my knowledge of the terrain and my bear companion, we were to scout ahead and protect the travellers on their journey. The goblins of the Misty Mountains have a healthy respect for bears (for reasons I need not explain just now), and so I was confident the trip would be easy. Moreover, I was enjoying the company for many of the sojourners were friends whom I had known for generations.

"Our travels were unimpeded until we came down into the Vale of Nanduhirion, where there is a sunken path, heavily forested on either side. It looked to be the perfect spot for an ambush, and so I took my companion on and scouted a short distance ahead. I was very confident and maybe a little proud to be entrusted as the only protection for our small party, not that the others weren't able fighters in their own right. Still, goblins are known to be cunning and creative devils at times. So it proved on this occasion.

"As I searched the ground ahead of us, my bear-friend suddenly reared up, roaring. I ordered him to attack whatever enemy he had sniffed out, and so he ran at a full gait into a mass of goblins which were awaiting us on the far side of a small ridge. These goblins did not run as I expected them to, but stood their ground. I ran to help with sword and with flame. It was an intense fight with roars, the cries of goblins, and my own curses mixed in. The Foul Folk fought as if possessed, but we bettered them in the end.

"And yet the battle was not over. Once it was quiet I could hear the sounds of fighting a short distance behind me. The company was in trouble! I ran as fast as the forest allowed and, jumping from the edge of the trees onto the sunken path, I found myself surrounded by a hideous wreck of bodies. My friends and charges lay there among dozens of goblin corpses. I perceived then that I had been lured into the most simple of traps designed to split our company and slay us all once our strength was divided. I had failed in the worst way.

"It seemed clear to me that I must have help, for if the goblins were allowed to reach their lairs in the deep places under the mountains, and I had no hope of pursuing them and exacting my vengeance. I brought word of the disaster to Haldir, a captain and march-warden of the Golden Wood, but I did not tarry long in that fair land, for my duty was to return to Rivendell and face whatever fate awaited me there. The journey back over the mountain-pass was a wretched and miserable one for I was haunted the whole of the way by every small breath of wind and crack of broken stone. 

When I finally reached Imladris, I was immediately directed to Lord Elrond's study. There, the Master of Rivendell stood straight and grim, but spoke no word to me for an agonizingly long spell. The protocol has always been that the lord will begin any conversation, and so I waited. I do not recommend to any of you being under Elrond's gaze for any length of time. I don't remember what I was going to say to him, for my mind was still hot with the desire for revenge, and yet my legs trembled beneath me as that awful silence drew on.

"'Tell me what happened,' Elrond said suddenly, and I jumped at his words. I explained everything in detail, and readily admitted my failure. 

"'Gaelira, why did you not help the two taken by the goblins?' he asked. My stomach tied itself in knots and I was stunned into silence. Elrond raised his eyebrows at me.

"'You say that you saw all of your company cut down and destroyed. Did you not make a count of the bodies?' I admitted I had not. Elrond proceeded to tell me that Haldir had sent word of his exploits regarding the goblins and that his message had reached Rivendell ahead of me. The Elf-captain's hunting-party had espied the goblins from a far distance and gave them chase. They discerned two captive Elves among their number, but the Foul Folk were moving too swiftly even for the soldiers of Lorien to overtake them. The horror of what I had done smote me: they were prisoners. They would be killed while in agony, for such is the goblins' hatred of my people.

"'You held my charge for the well-being of that company,' Elrond said gravely. I felt I was shrinking by the minute. 

"'Things will happen that cannot be controlled; it is unfortunate the company was attacked. But you were drawn off by a simple ruse, such as only an elfling would fall for. Worst of all, you allowed your emotions to defeat you, for your hatred clouded your mind and prevented you from counting the bodies of the slain. Had you done so, your duty to the remaining two would have been clear. Now, they will surely suffer a terrible fate -- a fate which you might have prevented had you not been so bent on vengeance.'

"'You bear the sword of your family and I know its history as well as you. You wear it to all of our councils, gatherings, and festivals to represent your lineage. I will not see that long and honorable lineage dishonoured. In the name of those who lost their lives from your carelessness, I say that you will surrender that sword to me, and I shall withhold it for so long as I deem it good to maintain this doom over you. Now remove yourself from my sight.'

"So, my friends, you see how I have lived in dishonour since that day, knowing that I failed my friends and companions. It was partly to right this great wrong of mine that I joined the Seekers of the Seven Stars, for they are often abroad in action against the enemies of the Free Peoples. Seeing Aeglas and Glorwen alive very nearly broke my soul for joy, and yet the terrible scars of their years as slaves and captives grieves me deeply, I who knew them in the strength of their bodies before it were cruelly taken from them by my own shortcomings. I thank the Valar they are alive, though it was through no deed of mine."

"No deed of yours?" I echoed. "How can you say that when it was we five who freed them from prison? And how would any of us have met were it not for you bringing us together?" The rest of Elladan's Outriders heartily agreed with me. Gaelira smiled slightly and nodded.

"I suppose that much is true," she said. "I don't feel deserving of it, but Aeglas and Glorwen have said they hold no ill will toward me. And perhaps I have regained some measure of my honour, for Lord Elrond has returned to me my family sword. I wear it now at my belt and will continue to do so as long as I fight on behalf of free folk anywhere." She breathed deeply and smiled at us.

"And so that is my dark secret. For an Elf with many companions of nature, I fear I’m not always the best companion to you all. And I thank Drodie for his knowledge on the matters of honour, for he helped me to understand and to be able to tell you this sordid tale -- he said you would all understand. I can only guess what you must think of me now, but I pray that you might forgive a flawed Elf."

Of course Gaelira was talking nonsense and we all told her so. There was much shoulder-slapping and think-nothing-of-its thrown around, but eventually I wisely pointed out that it was about time for lunch and we had best make a move toward Elrond's house if we wished to partake of his table. As we walked back up the hill I asked Gaelira what she planned to do with her quarterstaff now that she had her sword once again. She thought for a moment, then said:

"I am not sure. I think I will keep the staff a while yet -- I have grown rather attached to it after everything we have been through together."

Lunch and, later, dinner were both outstanding and were followed by long spells in the Hall of Fire. I sit here now in my rooms with a rather tight waistline and drowse in my eyes as an owl keeps trying to hoot me to sleep. I do not think the Company means to spend much time here before we set off to complete Mallacai's two remaining tasks, but I intend to enjoy myself as much as I can in the meantime.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 31

A Timely Rescue

Sunday, 8th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Thorgest's Haven - Hrimbarg, Somewhere in the Misty Mountains
Thorgest the Dwarf
Today was fairly uneventful. The snow kicked up again something fierce in the early morning, so we were forced to hunker down and spend another day among Thorgest and his Dwarves. Normally I would object in the strongest terms to such arrangements -- Dwarves tend to be a rather malodorous lot -- but with everything we've been through since Afteryule I suppose I'm becoming a bit less respectable than I once was. Whether or no, that doesn't mean I still don't find Dwarven table-manners to be nothing short of appalling.

Since there was little else to do while the storm raged outside, we rested. It was time well-spent, I can tell you, for all of us needed the reprieve: I slept right through to the afternoon and felt much better for it. The weather did finally subside later in the day, so our Company decided to make ourselves useful and see what we could do to repay our hosts for their kindness.

To this end, we hunted down and destroyed a good number of the wolves and worms which plagued the mountainside in that area. The wolves were not the malevolent Wargs and so, after we defeated a couple of their foraging packs, the rest retreated and left us in peace. The worms were a different matter: they slithered themselves into the most impossible hiding-places, making it very hard to find them and, once confronted, they would fight with an unbridled ferocity. Nephyn's arrows were useless against their scaly armour, so much of our efforts were fulfilled by sword-work. For my part, I proved rather talented at spotting the devilish brutes and would watch to ensure no uninvited beasts might interrupt our methodical exterminations.

Once a good number of the things had been dealt with we returned to Hrimbarg. We spent another pleasant evening -- cramped though it was -- piled in front of the little fireplace exchanging tales until we all dropped off. Everyone was very anxious for any word from anywhere about the goblin-king and whether his host had reached Rivendell, but the close of the day brought us no news.

Monday, 9th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Last Homely House, Rivendell

Yes, you read that right: we are back in Rivendell! And following a most incredible adventure, too! Allow me to tell you all about it.

We were breaking our fast in Thorgest's Haven when a Dwarf we had not seen before barged into the shelter in a great state of excitement. He and Thorgest immediately stepped aside for what looked to me like a very rushed and very urgent conversation. Shortly thereafter, the newcomer went about his business, but Thorgest returned to us stroking his beard. He looked us over for a moment, then spoke these words:

"Friends, I have received very good news from my Lord Gloin. I am told that, thanks to our watchfulness and your resourcefulness, the goblins of the mountains have been defeated and their intended attack upon Rivendell was brought to nothing.

"Lord Gloin withdrew his meager numbers but, working together with the Elves of Rivendell, they were able to ambush the goblin-king's horde in a narrow pass. Such conflict never completely spares the soldiers of either side, but I am happy to tell you that very few of the Free Folk were wounded and none that we know of were slain.

"Many goblins were destroyed, but most fled the battle at once and are now hiding themselves deep in caves and crannies all throughout the mountains. No doubt it will only be a matter of time before they can re-assemble themselves, but even once they do they will think twice before mounting another assault upon us. This concludes my tidings of the battle in which we all have played our part to help win.

"However, that was not the end of my lord's message. He says that he knows nothing of any band of wandering Dwarves in these parts and was astonished to hear your report that some had been found within the tunnels of Goblin-town. He is deeply concerned, for these were certainly not of his folk and wonders what brought them hither, as only great need would drive any but the most foolish into the high places these days.

"Could it be they were an emissary from Erebor or the Iron Hills bearing some secret message of import to Lord Gloin, or perhaps to Elrond in Rivendell? We must know! Therefore my lord begs you, upon your honour and our great friendship, that you would brave once more the pits of Goblin-town to learn what can be learned of those Dwarves.

"Lord Gloin does not ask this lightly, but his own folk are weary from battle and few in number. Also it may be that, with the greater strength of the goblins currently scattered, your endeavors there will not be as black or as dangerous as they might have otherwise been. Do this, and my lord will surely bestow upon your Company whatever mighty gifts are within his power to give."

We did not debate our next course of action long for it seemed clear what we were meant to do. A very short time later we had assembled ourselves and prepared to make our second foray into Goblin-town. We wished Thorgest and his troop well after thanking them many times for their kindness and hospitality, but we needed to get off quickly to take advantage of the lull in the mountain-storms to say nothing of the goblins themselves. We hoped they would not have had a chance to regroup and that Goblin-town would remain relatively unguarded for a short time.

Our march back to the mountain was a sombre one. It was still quite cold, of course, but now that the wind had died down it was not miserable and biting as it had been before. We found the entrance (or an entrance at any rate, for they all looked alike to me) and once more we lit some torches and crossed the threshold into the goblins' lair.

But this time it was quite different: there were no screams or howls. There were also no solitary torches lighting our way, though we did encounter a few spent torches here and there. Instead it was eerily quiet with only the occasional clatter or thump somewhere off in the blackness. We tried to pick our way as close as we could guess to the path we had taken the last time, but it was not long before it became clear we had not done so for the tunnels were winding, climbing, and falling in a manner I did not recall. Eventually the passages began to fall downward, and at that time our spirits lifted since we had previously followed a descending track. But there were wails and cries echoing up from below us and my nerves began to fray.

Suddenly the walls fell away from either side and, holding our torches aloft, we saw a vast area below us. It was poorly lit by nothing more than a few braziers of charcoal, and it was clearly the source of the cries and screams.

"Is... is this a prison?" I asked in a whisper. The others may not have been able to hear me over the racket for no one answered. Instead we began to creep very carefully down, down, down. I'm sure we were all thinking the same thing: perhaps here we might find one of the captured Dwarves and then we could get out of this dreadful pit.

We soon encountered goblins. They were not many and they were of the small, mean variety so they offered no serious resistance to our skill-at-arms. I wondered how much longer we might have before the larger soldiers began to return from their failed attack on Rivendell. It would not go well for us if we were discovered when they came home! But in short order we reached a series of crude cells, complete with iron bars and locked doors, and behind them we found not Dwarves, but Elves! Two of them!

"Praise to the Elder King!" whispered one in a hoarse voice. He had a terrible, bedraggled look and I wondered just how long the goblins had kept him here. He later told us his name was Aeglas.

"But wait," came the voice of a female Elf in another cell nearby who was called Glorwen. "Gaelira? It cannot be! Have you come back for us after all these years?"

We could all tell there was a story behind these three, but there was no time to hear it just then. We began devising a strategy to help them escape at once. It was Aeglas who had the idea of creating a diversion to keep the goblin guards busy while we would extract ourselves from Goblin-town. First, we obtained a sharp stake of a good size. It was not difficult to find for these types of things were lying around in plenty. Next, we prowled through the tunnels for a bit and slew the largest orc we could find, beheaded it, and placed the head on the stake. Finally, we secretly entered a large chamber and placed the stake in its midst.

As Aeglas had suspected, the other goblins began to get positively furious when they saw it. The message was clear to them: that some upstart goblin was making a move to usurp the Great Goblin's throne in the wake of his crippling loss to the Free Folk, and this gruesome display was meant to cow any resistance. Before long there was a full-blown riot brewing in the tunnels above the prisons, but it was well away from our intended path of escape. We stole back to the Elves and prepared to make a run for it.

Lagodir used his sword to pry apart the locks. While strong enough to resist an unarmed person, they were no match for Gondorian steel and gave way easily. We made a quick check of the other cells, but we found no additional prisoners and we dared not trust our luck any further. We raced up the tunnels, chose the passageways which led more or less in the direction of the way we had come in, and continued on in a swift but silent line of padding feet. We met few goblins on our way and those we did see were quickly dealt with. Either Gaelira's sense of direction was suddenly improved or else Fate guided our footsteps for it seemed that in no time at all we were suddenly outside the mountain! The din from the goblins was growing, not lessening, from behind us even though we were getting further and further away. Such was the fury of those creatures where issues of primacy and control are at stake, but we left them to their bickering as we put as much distance between them and ourselves as we could manage. We then wrapped the two Elves in every spare garment we had and began the trip back to Hrimbarg.

Thorgest was surprised to see us return with two Elves in tow, but he was as hospitable and generous as ever. We thanked him again many times and pledged whatever aid we might give was his for the asking, but he merely shrugged and laughed. The Elves were given some soup and warmed themselves by the fireplace as we discussed our next move, but it was clear everyone wished to return as soon as may be to Rivendell, for we all had much to relay to both Gloin and Elrond.

Glorwen and Aeglas were surprisingly hearty considering their long imprisonment and we were able to start our journey back to Imladris rather sooner than I had expected. But the weather was co-operating (for once) and also the Elves were quite talkative, so their story had me forgetting about the harsh climate. It was a long and sorrowful tale, but here I will shorten it for you and lay it out in straight order as best I can remember it.

It turned out that Glorwen and Aeglas were the only two remaining members of a party of Elves which was travelling over the Misty Mountains toward Rivendell many years ago. Gaelira was part of the escort for that company, and they were ambushed by the goblins in the high passes one stormy night. Everyone was slain or captured, although somehow Gaelira managed to survive and escape. But she did not dare to venture back into those caverns alone and besides she thought herself to be the only survivor. I can just imagine her shock when she discovered those two Elves in the depths of Goblin-town all these years later!

In any event, there were many words, both joyful and painful, exchanged among Gaelira, Glorwen, and Aeglas, but I will not record them here out of respect for those whose tale this is. I finally gathered that this was the past failure of Gaelira's to which Mallacai had referred many days ago when we had met him in Evendim -- something she still quietly refers to only as "not my best moment." I suppose we all have those times in our own lives, too.

But on to other business. As we travelled back to Rivendell, Aeglas revealed to us that the cell next to hers had been populated with a captive Dwarf a few days back. This Dwarf would not speak of his party's purpose (Dwarves can be very secretive like that, if you didn't already know), but he did mention that he was a loyal subject of Dain Ironfoot, King under the Mountain in Erebor, far to the East, and that they were on an important mission to Elrond of Rivendell. Unfortunately, that Dwarf was later taken by the goblins and never seen again, but whatever their quest it must have been important to travel all that distance.

Once our Company had safely returned to Rivendell we received a welcome fit for heroes. Lord Elrond had ordered a feast and music and dancing under the stars to follow, but we lost no time relaying what we had learned about the poor Dwarves to Gloin. He was quite worried and did not long delay before taking some of his people with him and departing for the Lonely Mountain in order to inform King Dain that his embassy to Elrond had never reached its destination. I should point out that, the night before Gloin set out for Erebor, I noticed Nephyn slipping him an envelope and speaking with him in a quiet voice. Considering the city of Dale lies nearly at the gates of the Lonely Mountain, I think I can guess what that was about.

There was at least two days full of food, rest, and merriment -- although it may have been more, I'm not really sure. I can tell you that it gets difficult to keep track of time in Rivendell, if you've never been there. Each of us found ways to recover from our trials. Nephyn could often be seen in the library pouring over books dealing with the tongues of foreigners, especially the Haradrim and the Men of the East. Lagodir was summoned by Elrond at one point for reasons no one seems to know, and the Gondorian has not yet been forthcoming about what was discussed. And I have spent more time walking, breathing, eating, listening, and sitting with Mr. Baggins, which is no more or less than what I could have ever hoped to do and been content. But what has surprised me lately has been Gaelira and Drodie: our Elf and Dwarf have been unusually close the past day or two. Personally, I think it has something to do with the rather nasty thing Drodie had said to Gaelira during our first trip into Goblin-town and perhaps he is feeling guilty about it. Or perhaps he really meant it at the time but now he no longer feels that way? It's hard to know with a Dwarf and Elves are... well, let's just say they can be difficult to read from a distance.

As I write this I am seated on a low bench outside near the Falls of Imladris. There are bees humming in the air and birds chirping all around me while the cool, fresh wind off the mountains stirs the leaves of the trees nearby. I really think I could settle down here in quiet retirement just like old Mr. Bilbo, but I doubt the others have any such ideas. After all, we still have Mallacai's two remaining tasks ahead of us: the other two Angmarim champions back in the ruins of Annuminas and some beast or other in that place called Sarnur (wherever that may be, exactly). I suppose we didn't quite get ahold of the Great Goblin's crown -- we were told he was among the first to flee once battle was joined -- but the destruction of his army and the rescue of Glorwen and Aeglas must count for something. I get the feeling we shall have to be off again and soon, but I hope to make the most of the time we do have here.