Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 40.3

The Halls of Night

Trewsday, 14th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Halls of Night, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The Halls of Night
"Padryc! Wake up!"

I was being aggressively shaken, and it was Nephyn's concerned voice that kept echoing in my ears. With an effort, I managed to open my eyes. I still felt like I was falling or spinning to the point my stomach was queasy, but I could see now I was doing neither: I was lying on the floor of the same small burial chamber I had been in before. Had I fallen asleep and dreamt the whole thing?

My friends were all near me again, although most of them looked about as bad as I felt: Nephyn was bent over me, her face full of worry, but she was pale and her eyes were red. Drodie was still seated with his back up against one of the crypts, absent-mindedly stroking his beard. Lagodir was standing, but even in the dim light of a single torch I could see his eyes were unfocused and beads of sweat were running down his forehead. Gaelira was busy stomping on something off to one side. The air felt thick -- heavy, as if we were by a fireplace with a blocked flu -- and I had a splitting headache.

"Nephyn, help me get them outside" Gaelira said urgently. "Quickly now! Everyone out into the open air."

With some difficulty, we all managed to shuffle our way up the tunnel and back into the gritty, driving winds of Angmar. Dusk had fallen and the place looked even more inhospitable than it had by daylight. At the moment, however, the only thing which interested us was breathing: the instant we stepped outside the air felt suddenly both cooler and lighter. It was almost as if we had walked out of a thick smoke-filled room and found ourselves on the peak of a snow-capped mountain. At once my senses felt revived and all of us began to breathe more easily.

"What happened?" I asked as I tried to steady my legs. "I thought you all had left me behind and that I was falling to the very centre of the world. Surely I didn't mean to take a nap in a place like that! What the devil is going on?"

 "We were overcome by the fumes coming off of those braziers," Gaelira explained. "It took me a few moments to realize what was happening, but once I knocked over the charcoal and stomped out the embers everyone began to slowly recover."

"'Tis fortunate indeed you were able to discover the source of the malady," Lagodir said while rubbing his temples. 

"Aye, I'd hate to think where we'd be otherwise," said Drodie. "Still down there with our tongues lolling out and drool running down our chins, no doubt!"

"But why would there be such a powerful drug in a place like this?" asked Nephyn as she peered suspiciously at the entrance to the cave. "Someone must have put those braziers there and ensured they were lit."

"Indeed," came a familiar voice from the direction of the doorway. "And had I known you were so near I would have arranged a more appropriate welcome for you!" From the darkness under the arch stepped the smiling figure of Mallacai.

"Welcome, my friends!" he said, his arms spread in front of him. "Brave heroes! Not in many long years have I heard of such incredible tales and exploits as yours! But come: we have much to discuss and time is of the essence. Please enter! And do not fear the fumes, for I have opened a vent inside the cave that will evacuate them -- you will be quite safe from their influence now."

I heard Drodie give a low growl beside me and only Gaelira strode forward. It seemed most of us weren't quite willing to just casually walk back into that place without some further explanation. Mallacai's smile faded and he bowed low.

"I do beg your pardon," he said. "The braziers are there for my safety: there are all sorts of beasts and worse in Angmar prowling the hillsides. Even the Trev Gallorg have been known to go poking their noses in here, and so I was forced to devise a way to keep out any unwanted visitors. There has long been a supersition surrounding this cave as being haunted by malevolent spirits -- the locals call it the Halls of Night -- so I considered there would be no harm in perpetuating such legends. It has proven effective, as you yourselves can now testify. But I was not expecting you until the day after tomorrow; you must have made your way hither at a great pace indeed!"

"We came with all haste," answered Gaelira as our Company began to follow the two Elves back inside. "In fact, we would have arrived sooner, but we were distracted by an attack in Ered Luin which caused us some delay." We proceeded to tell Mallacai about Wenhair, how we defeated Brullug the drake, and the Woman's treachery as she kidnapped Lagodir and attempted to return Guloth to the world.

"So at least some of the Lossoth still keep their loyalties to the Iron Crown?" said Mallacai with a shake of his head. "Such a pity, for those people would make valuable allies in the conflict to come. Still, we can be grateful that most of their folk remain neutral in the War. Even though they do not aid us it means they likewise do not aid our Enemy, and even such a small victory as that may prove crucial in the final analysis. The Free Peoples will need every advantage we can muster."

By the light of our torch we returned to the small burial chamber. The air was still a bit stuffy, but the smothering sweet scent which had engulfed the place earlier was gone. Mallacai led us toward the back of the room, then placed the torch into an iron sconce on the wall. He pulled downward, and there was a crack and the squeaking of metal and wheels. A section of the bricks lining the tomb swung open, forming a secret doorway in the cavern wall! 

Following the Elf within this sanctum, we found ourselves in a very similar setting as the one where we had met him in Evendim, weeks earlier. There was a large fireplace at one end and in front of this was a broad table spread with all manner of books, scrolls, maps, and curious artefacts. There were few other furnishings, but there were also low arches at either end which led into additional rooms. I looked around and jumped with fright: I had just noticed there were four Elven soldiers posted, one in each corner of the room, just as before. They were totally silent and did not acknowledge us at all; had they been wax-works transported by waggon from Tinnudir to Angmar the effect would have been the same.

After several more apologies, Mallacai provided us with refreshments, which he produced from one of the two side-rooms. There were meats and cheeses, bread, grapes, dried fruits, and a delightful drink I've never had before but would love to sample a second time, if I ever get the chance. While we ate, the Elf filled us in on what he had been doing since we last met on the island of Tinnudir. It seemed that he and his entourage had left Evendim after dealing with several dangerous threats which had been roving the countryside there, but he had left the assault upon Annuminas to the Rangers.

"Such large-scale operations are beyond the scope of my resources," he explained. "And the situation was never really beyond the abilities of the Rangers in any case -- it only seemed that way from their perspective -- but one free-man fighting to regain his home is more powerful than twenty slaves in armour. No, I was needed here much more urgently, for the time is not now long off when the Steward of Angmar will move against the Free Peoples of the North."

There followed next an extensive discussion about the positions and movements of the forces of the Enemy and those in resistance to them, but I will not bore you with such details here. In the end, it was clear there was no hope of any armed affront to Angmar's advances, but that was where we figured in.

"You did well to conceal your coming to this land," said Mallacai. "If I was taken unawares then we may safely assume the Enemy is similarly misinformed, at least for the time being. The Trev Gallorg hold no love for the Iron Crown, but it is likely that word of your arrival will eventually find its way into the ears of some servant of Carn Dum, for Southrons, as the Hillmen term us, do not idly cross the Ram Duath into Angmar."

"Then it is imperative that we use this time of indecision well," observed Gaelira.

"Quite so," Mallacai agreed. "And I shall do everything in my power to aid you. As in Evendim, I have seen many powerful champions roaming the landscape here in Amgnar. If you were to encounter one it would surely mean your doom; however, I and my assistants will engage these adversaries instead. This will serve two purposes: first, assuming we are successful, we shall have removed many dire threats from this land and rendered it considerably safer for everyone therein. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the destruction of these mighty champions will cause great concern in the mind of the Steward in Carn Dum: he shall be worrying about the loss of his servants and not watching your Company as it draws ever closer to the seat of his power."

"And under his very nose, too," Nephyn said. "We must be cautious."

"Caution is certainly advised," said Mallacai, "But I aim to do more than merely advise this time. You have braved and conquered powerful opponents, my friends, and your strength, endurance, and resolve have grown to meet those challenges. I see you have brought those things which I commanded you to retrieve for me."

"We have," said Gaelira as we unloaded our trophies onto the table before him. "However, I failed to procure the crown of the Great Goblin. Events transpired which prevented us from engaging him directly." Mallacai nodded and waved his hand.

"I have heard all there is to hear about your exploits from many sources, Elrond himself not least among them," he said. "He and I do not always agree, but I think he has come to appreciate your prowess, even if he still has reservations about our ultimate goal. But I must tell you this: I sent you to retrieve these things, brave warriors, not because they are needed to craft any special weaponry or armour (although the hide of Brullug might indeed still serve that purpose). Nay, I asked these things of you because, firstly, each of these foes needed to be removed from the world, and this you have done to the great benefit of all. Secondly, because the tales of your adventures reach the ears of friend and foe alike, both of which are to our advantage. Thirdly, and above all, because these trials served to strengthen your trust in yourselves and among yourselves. In preparing you to face the evils of Carn Dum there was no greater service I could provide, but it is you who have triumphed in the name of free folk everywhere." I can't deny I felt a swell of pride as he said these things to us.

"And so, as I say, I aim to do more than merely advise you this time around," Mallacai continued. "I have here in this cavern a small armoury containing many pieces I suspect you will find useful. I urge you to take anything you find there that you wish, with my blessing and my greatest compliments."

He led us then into the second of the two small side-rooms where we found, as he said, a decent-sized horde of gear and other implements of battle. Nephyn was able to replenish her supply of arrows with a quiver of remarkable, slender Elf-darts which had wickedly barbed heads. Lagodir's broadsword had been notched many times over the course of our travels, and so it was replaced by a shining blade of excellent make. He also accepted a new breastplate, for his had been badly damaged in our battle with Brullug the drake. Drodie seemed very reluctant to trade in any of his Dwarf-made gear, but he did grudingly accept a new shield, as his old one was looking much the worse since our adventure began more than two and a half months ago. Gaelira said she was content with her beloved staff and family sword, but she did take a beautifully stitched leather satchel and filled it with a variety of things I could not see. For myself, I was not about to go trapsing about in any kind of armour, but I did trade my little hammer in for a wonderfully crafted Elven dagger. I felt like old Mr. Bilbo must have when (as the tales tell it) he first found his little shortsword at the back of a smelly troll-cave in the woods somewhere. I also yielded to the demands of my friends by taking a small buckler, despite the fact I know nothing about how to use a shield. Drodie said he would give me some pointers but that it was mostly common sense.

Thus outfitted, we thanked Mallacai many times and decded we would take a rest and resume our journey at first light. There was much more talk all about the doings of peoples and armies away in the South-lands, but I didn't pay it much mind; I was much more concerned about where we were headed, starting tomorrow! Mallacai did give us some counsel regarding our next steps and what we could expect to find as we made our way toward Carn Dum.

"The fortress of the Enemy sits on a rocky height well to the north -- almost due north from our current location," he told us. "Unfortunately, there is only one manageable approach, and you will have to travel east before you are able to turn north and find it. There are many encampments of the Enemy's soldiery you are likely to find along the way, but I would urge you to avoid them if you can and retain the element of surprise as long as possible. That may mean crossing through the valley of Imlad Balchorth, I am afraid. It is likely the least-watched way available to you, but it contains perils in its own right. I do not advise going that way if you do not have to." What frightened him about that place he would not say.

"Once you have gone far enough to the north you should look to turn west," he continued. "The road winds much, but we must hope that your ingenuity will find a way without being spotted. Once inside of Carn Dum itself I fear the well of my knowledge runs dry: there you will be on your own."

"We understand," said Gaelira with a defiant look in her eyes. "We will recover the palantir at whatever cost."

"I hope the cost does not prove too high," Mallacai said. "Is there aught else I may do in your service? For you have earned it many times over."

"I do have one question," I chirped up. "Have you ever heard of a place called Malenhad?"

"The swamps of Malenhad?" Mallacai asked. "Certainly: you are little more than half a day's march from their outskirts even now. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, bother!" I exclaimed. "Another swamp? Just my luck! Anyway, I ask because Wenhair, that Lossoth we told you about, said she would be meeting 'Guloth' there with her mother from Forochel. I was rather hoping we might be able to avoid it."

"There is no avoiding Malenhad if you are going to Carn Dum, I fear," Mallacai answered. "But perhaps you will have the good fortune to not encounter this Wenhair along the way. From what you say of her, she must be a formidable enemy."

"She is that," said Gaelira thoughtfully. "And we shall see: perhaps our paths have crossed for the last time, yet I do not think that is so."

"What should be shall be," came Mallacai's reply. "If it is ordained that you should face her again, then you shall have the advantage of knowing her true mind. Keep your eyes open and your wits sharp! In all the long wars against the darkness has treachery ever been our mightiest adversary."

With all of this settled and done, we proceeded to rest for the remainder of the night. I counted us fortunate that we did not have to camp outside in the bitter winds of Angmar, but I figured it would not be long before we'd be obliged to do so anyway. Reflecting on my time with the Company has reminded me of everything we have been through together. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared of what would be coming next, but I also feel strong in the face of this evil, for I know my friends are beside me. And we have many allies: the Rangers of Bree-land, Esteldin, and Evendim, the Dwarves of Gondamon and Thorin's Halls, the people of Trestlebridge, Gloin, Thorgest, Elrond, Halbarad, and even Old Bombadil. Oh, and Mallacai and his Seekers of the Seven Stars, too. I know Mr. Baggins had warned me about them, but they seem a decent enough lot to me. Which reminds me: it turns out that Borganeorn, the strange Dwarf we had met back in Gondamon all those days ago, is a member of the Seekers as well. You may recall he had remembered seeing Gaelira once before? Well, apparently the two of them had indeed met at some point, but it was so far in the past no one could remember when or where. It seems the Dwarf is exceptionally long-lived, even for one of his race. So that's one more little mystery solved. Mallacai might be more than a bit peculiar, but he's certainly proven himself to be wise and helpful in the long run. And he is an Elf, after all, and all Elves are strange folk.

Speaking of which, I was sitting here on my own making record of today's events when I suddenly sensed a presence nearby. It was Mallacai himself, and he was watching me with a keen eye. I greeted him cordially, but as before i felt slightly nervous under that azure gaze.

"Well, Master Halfling," he said, a slight grin playing on his lips. "What damage have the miles wrought upon you? Are you still resolved to go forward?"

"I am," I said, a bit haltingly. It was not borne so much of indecision as it was simply an uncomfortable subject to broach. "These are not just my friends; they are my family."

"This quest has already achieved many worthy aims," Mallacai said solemnly and with a slight nod of his head. "And that is far from the least significant among them. I said twice earlier that I wish to do more than simply advise, but my advice remains an option, if you desire it. Is there something on your mind?"

"Well, yes, actually," I said, a little embarassed. "I was just thinking about how you had, sort of, well, foretold that each of us would face certain, erm, hardships as we hunted for the items you requested."

"And you are surprised that they proved true?"

"No," I replied. "Or, at least, mostly no. I mean, I am surprised that they proved true in most cases. Nephyn forgave that poor river-woman when she thought I had been killed by her, and now the Eglain and the Lone-lands are doing better than they have for a very long time, from what they told us. Drodie trusted completely in us to save his life in Sarnur. Lagodir found the limits of his strength when pursuing a vendetta. And even Gaelira found redemption for what happened in the Misty Mountains all those years ago. I just... what about me? You had said I would find my true value to the Company if I could retrieve the fangs of the spider-queen in the Trollshaws and I did that -- that is to say, we did that -- but nothing really... happened. I didn't learn anything new at all."

I had expected Mallacai to chastise me for doubting him and lecture me on how I had missed the point. Then I would feel foolish for overlooking the obvious and ask Mallacai to forgive my obtuseness, but that is not what happened. The Elf simply looked at me with those incredibly piercing blue eyes. I squirmed a bit and felt very uncomfortable.

"I... I don't mean to be rude about it," I stammered, "I suppose the main thing is we accomplished what we set out to do. Of course, I could never have done it without the others." I paused, but Mallacai only continued to stare at me. I shifted my weight again, self-conciously. 

"It's just... I was expecting to have more to do with it, you know?" I continued. "It was the rest of the Company that did pretty much everything -- I was just there. They put themselves in harm's way just because I was there, and that hardly seems fair, does it?" Mallacai still made no answer.

"I mean, it's all well and good we disposed of that beastly spider," I said. "Who knows what she and her brood might have done if we had just left her there, but what has that got to do with me and... finding my value? Was that worth four people putting themselves in danger? For me? Why, if it hadn't been for me..." I stopped just as abruptly as if I had walked into a brick wall. The Elf's eyes never wavered from mine for an instant. 

"Oh," was all I managed to say.

"Good night," said Mallacai. Then he turned away and left me to my thoughts.

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