Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 38

A Startling Twist

Trewsday, 30th of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Orodost, Ered Luin
The freezing air and snow swirling around our little campsite perfectly captures the feeling of what remains of our Company. Hearts are cold and feelings are numb after suffering such a terrible and shocking loss this day, but I will put my own grief aside in order to dutifully record what transpired for you.

When we had settled down next to our fire by the frozen waterfall, I had expected to get some decent rest, then rise and resume our hunt for Brullug the drake. This is not at all how things eventuated: it seemed that no sooner had I closed my eyes than I was jolted awake by roarings, shoutings, hurryings, and the ring of steel! Gaelira was screaming to bring us all to our senses, for she among us had kept the watch and not slept. This had always worked with excellent effect in the past, but this time our prey decided to hunt us, and it very nearly proved our ruin.

Brullug had never been as far off as we supposed, and in fact we now believe he had been stalking us throughout much of Sarnur. It was his dragon-ish thrumming we had been hearing the day before (or however many days ago it was -- one can never be sure in these sunless catacombs), but despite having the element of surprise he did not attack us straightaway, for he was a cunning old worm. He waited until we were mostly off our guard and resting before he perched himself like an enormous bat on the roof of the caverns, then descended on us from above like a thunderbolt! He caused a small earthquake when he struck the cavern floor and this had woken us all up, but he still retained the advantage, for one cannot go from a deep sleep to fighting for one's life all in an instant.

The first several moments were absolute chaos and I have little recollection of what happened. The ground was shaking, I was stumbling, Gaelira was shouting and everyone was hurrying to and fro as the towering figure of the drake snapped, clawed, and thrashed at each of us. I have no idea how I managed to avoid being stepped on or swallowed up, but when I finally had my wits about me I found myself panting like a hunted animal behind a large boulder. Summoning my courage, I peeked around the edge to find a small pool of dark liquid. Fearing the worst, I looked further and discovered it was indeed blood, and it was flowing out of an awful-looking gash in Lagodir's chest as he lay unconscious on the ground! Forgetful of the danger, I rushed to him and unslung my pack, desperate to find the balm and dressing needed for such an injury. Singularly focused as I was, I allowed myself the briefest of glances at the battle to ensure both the Gondorian and I were not in immediate danger. I had little confidence I would be able to drag the sturdy Man away behind my boulder, but I would attempt it or die trying if the need arose.

Luckily for Lagodir (and for me), Brullug was otherwise occupied. Drodie had hurled himself toward the worm along with a string of obscenities and insults that would have made even the most recalcitrant of Dwarves blanche. Meanwhile, I could see Gaelira and Nephyn cautiously taking up positions along Brullug's flanks and, away in the shadows, I discerned the dim form of Wenhair, the Lossoth adventurer with her twin blades. Hope rose within me seeing our adversary thus surrounded, but only briefly; I had underestimated the cunning of the drake.

No attack from my friends was able to penetrate Brullug's wily watchfulness: Gaelira and Nephyn were beaten back by the claws while Wenhair's attempts were thwarted by the lashing tail. Drodie, of course, was never able to get close enough to the head to accomplish anything, and the beast soon turned its attention from him entirely. I remembered how Drodie had only barely survived our last encounter with a drake in the North Downs: my blood ran cold at the thought of what would happen should someone get caught in its jaws who was not wearing Dwarf-armour! If Drodie remained unable to direct the monster's ire toward himself for very much longer...


A fierce shout rose above the din of the fighting. It was Drodie, and he had lowered his weapons. The echoes of his gallant voice slowly faded as Brullug turned his head toward the Dwarf. The whole world seemed to pause and take notice.

"Worm!" Drodie cried again. "I tire of this fight. Come! Eat me whole! Swallow me now, if you think your foul gut can manage a meal as ornery as myself!" Then he threw his sword and shield away. I felt my heart skip a beat -- what on earth was he doing?? Gaelira, Nephyn, and Wenhair also stopped their attack and watched, dumbfounded.

Brullug lowered his head and peered at the Dwarf. There was an evil, spine-tingling glint in those yellow eyes, and I felt certain the drake understood Drodie's words. I knew the beast could strike in a split second, and that's all it would take for my friend to vanish forever. Drodie spread his arms as if in welcome of his death. I stopped breathing and total silence fell. The lips and fangs of the monster seemed to curl in a hideous smirk, then the jaws slowly parted.

Suddenly, Brullug's head snapped backward and the drake emitted a stone-splitting scream of pain that shook the very walls of Sarnur and brought small rocks raining down on us from above. I threw myself to the ground and covered my ears with my hands in pain, but I was trying desperately to discover what had saved Drodie's life. The head of Brullug was thrashing around as if in agony, and that's when I saw it: a slim, brown-feathered arrow had darkened its left eye! Like a lightning-strike I realized Drodie had been play-acting as a way to get the drake to stop moving its head around just long enough for Nephyn to get one good shot with her bow, and the gamble had worked! Even then I saw our Dwarf scoop up his weapons and rush back into the battle.

Still, the battle was not yet won. My companions suffered plenty of cuts and bruises as they continued to dodge Brullug's vicious claws and avoid his tail. Gaelira was very nearly bitten in half at one point and only just escaped by deftly rolling to safety at the last second. As I watched, I could see that some of our attacks were beginning to find their mark, and then I perceived my friends were gradually taking advantage of the beast's wound. Someone would press the attack from the right, but as soon as Brullug sought to engage them that person would back away and someone else would strike from the left (on the side where he had lost an eye), and so the drake was unable to see half of the attacks coming its way.

After one such effort, I saw Brullug noticeably stumble and let out a roar of torment. Someone had managed to land a crippling blow on the monster's left forepaw and, to my surprise, I realized it was Lagodir! I had been so riveted by the battle I had not noticed the Gondorian quietly rejoin it. His broadsword bit deep into the scales and so he was revenged upon the worm for his own injury.

Then, just as Brullug lost his balance from Lagodir's strike, I saw Wenhair run nimbly up the drake's lowered shoulder and onto its back. She raised her two white blades high over her head and plunged them into the neck, just behind the head at the base of the skull. Brullug shuddered from his snout to the tip of his tail, then collapsed in total and utter ruination. My head became cloudy and all my limbs went weak as I realized the danger was finally passed and that we had survived it.

The first order of business, naturally, was to take stock of ourselves. I was the only one who had remained uninjured, so I had quite a bit of work to do now. Lagodir had suffered the most serious wound, but I had treated it well despite the raging battle and it held together admirably (if I do say so myself). Nephyn received a few light cuts that looked worse than they were. Drodie was very bruised and declared he might not be able to move in the morning for soreness (he had been battered and hurled about several times), but he was none the worse otherwise. Gaelira had a single cut along her right arm where she had dashed it against a stone as she made her last-moment dodge away from the jaws of Brullug, but that was all. Wenhair refused any attempt of ours to aid her or even to assess her injuries, saying she needed no help.

"I do not trust your Southron medicines. It is said among my tribe that they weaken the mind and body," she said a bit haughtily. "And what of your battle-tactics? How is it you surrender yourself to your enemies? This would bring the greatest dishonour among my people!"

"We call it a ruse, or a feint, if you like," I explained. "And it worked in any case: Drodie fooled the drake into stopping his movement just long enough for Nephyn to find her aim. We would never have won if not for his quick thinking." The others agreed with me and heaped praise on the Dwarf, but Wenhair only snorted and looked displeased. Drodie, meanwhile, was having difficulty accepting his accolades and kept insisting he only did what needed to be done.

"The battle -- and the kill -- goes to you before any of us," Gaelira said with a broad smile. "And to think! Was this not just the thing Mallacai had foretold all those weeks ago on the shores of Lake Nenuial? Learn to rely on others or you shall surely perish?"

"Oh, that?" Drodie asked, nonchalantly. "I had completely forgotten about that." Something about his tone of voice made me doubt this was entirely true.

"But now to our business," said Lagodir, a little weakly. "I am faint from exertion and would fain see the Sun again, and soon. What part of this wretch's hide are we to take, do you suppose?"

"Reckon this'll do," Drodie called back. He was already at work with axe and sword hacking off a portion of scales near the creature's thigh. In a short time he had dislodged a goodly amount, and we stashed it away with the rest of our trophies.

"That's five for five!" I cheered and danced a little jig in my happiness. "Now we have only to find Mallacai and we can finally put all this behind us! I don't suppose anyone knows where he is? Calenglad didn't seem to know what had become of him since he departed Tinnudir many days ago."

"I am hopeful we will know soon," came Gaelira's reply. "I sent Malkan the eagle to search for news of him after we left Rivendell but before we had crossed into the Lone-lands, though I cannot say how long it might take for him to find what he seeks."

"Well, that's something anyway," I said. "And what about Wenhair? I suppose she still needs..."

"The heart of Brullug!" she called triumphantly as she emerged from behind the carcass. Her arms were bloodied up to the elbows and she held aloft a largish bag which was dripping with gore. I put one hand over my mouth and stifled my base reflexes. "Soon my friend shall be healed!"

"I'm... very happy for you," was all I could manage to say. "Now can we please get out of here? Or I'm afraid my toes really might turn blue and fall off."

"Oh, we cannot leave just yet," Wenhair said quickly. "I still require one last ingredient."

"Really?" I said. "And what might that be?"

"A sacrifice!"

And suddenly many things happened. Wenhair produced a strange little tube which appeared to be made out of a reed and blew through one end of it. Lagodir clapped a hand to his neck and groaned as he sank to the ground. Then, the Lossoth reached into her belt, extended her palm toward us, and blew on her hand. A billow of grey smoke erupted from it, and the next thing I knew we were all choking, coughing, and wiping our stinging eyes. It was several moments before any of us could properly breathe or see again, and when we could both Wenhair and Lagodir were gone!

"Treachery!" Nephyn cried, and we all began running about searching for any sign of the two. Unfortunately, the ground there was nothing but bare rock and ice, so there were no footprints of any kind. After a short time we regrouped and tried to calmly think through the situation.

"We must regain a clear mind," said Gaelira as the four of us congregated. "We will not help our friend by becoming desperate or distracted."

"Poor Lagodir!" I lamented, heedless of Gaelira's warning. "The poor Man! First that awful wraith, now this! And after getting gashed by that brute of a drake too! Of all the -- Hullo! What's this?" I stooped and snatched up a scrap of paper that I was certain hadn't been there a few minutes earlier.

"Wenhair must have dropped it as she fled with Lagodir!" exclaimed Nephyn. "What does it say?" I could not make out the language, and so I handed it at once to Gaelira. She scrutinized it, but then she frowned and cocked her head to one side.

"I am not familiar with many of these signs," she said slowly. "The only thing I can make out for certain is that the name of Guloth is mentioned. This does not bode well, but I need more time to translate these words or find someone who can, as I do not recognize the tongue. I cannot fathom what a Lossoth would want with our companion."

"Well, I know this," Drodie said. "Whatever her purpose may be it is not likely to be fulfilled here under the earth. Let us leave this place! Every moment we delay puts the more distance between our quarry and my blade, and I'm eager to introduce the two."

And so we began our ascent out of Sarnur. We did our best to make haste through the darkness and luckily we met no resistance from animal nor Dourhand on the way out. We also kept our eyes open for any signs of where Wenhair might have gone, but we saw nothing definitive. As we climbed, we discussed our situation a bit more in hushed whispers.

"Gaelira," I said quietly, "Why do you think that wraith, Guloth, would have anything to do with this? That's impossible... isn't it?"

"I have my suspicions, but I would rather not speak of such blasphemies," the Elf replied. Her teeth were on edge; I hadn't seen this much emotion out of her since I had forced her confession at Esteldin many weeks ago.

"Why do you say blasphemies, Gaelira?" asked Nephyn from behind me. "What do you mean?"

"Sauron styles himself more than just overlord of Middle-earth," she answered. "He worshipped the Dark Enemy, his former Master, in the Elder Days and considers himself the divine ruler of mortal lands by right as his heir. The Elves spotted the perversions of the Dark Lords long ago, when they began teaching the foul arts of sorcery to their most pious adherents. These Sauron wishes to use as his priests and prophets to subdue and terrorize his subjects with their power once he has conquered all. I wonder if perhaps Wenhair's priestess is one of these as well."

"How can any Man or Woman wish to be a part of anything so vile?" Drodie asked. "You would never find a Dwarf entertaining such delusions of grandeur: the very idea makes me feel sick."

"The ways of Men have ever been a mystery to me at some level," Gaelira said. "I suppose it may have something to do with their short lives and the desire to see their own wills accomplished on earth while they still inhabit it." Nephyn was silent. "But the Lossoth have never been fully trusted by the rest of the Free Peoples," Gaelira went on. "They remember still the tyranny of Angmar and fear to cross whatever thrall of Mordor may be leading that dark kingdom. Some have been known to openly support the Iron Crown; apparently we have stumbled across one such here. What an evil fate that our paths crossed thus!"

"And Wenhair had better hope they do not cross again," said Nephyn darkly.

When we finally emerged from Sarnur, we found the Sun riding high in the heavens. Apparently it was tomorrow (er, today), and we realized we required rest and some food before we could hope to continue our search. Gaelira left us to examine the ground around the entranceway while I tended to Drodie and Nephyn's wounds. There was so much to do I very nearly forgot to make this entry in my journal. I have no idea how we intend to find Lagodir and his kidnapper, but somehow we must!

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