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...

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