Hevensday, 1st of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Vale of Thrain, Ered Luin
|Borganeorn, Sage of Rhudaur|
"We must move at once," she said. "A light snow has been falling for some time now -- there is no hope of finding any prints in the snow, and every minute we are not in pursuit of our quarry wastes precious moments."
Without any talk we collected ourselves and set out again. I thought for a moment about how we had very little in the way of food and sleep for the past day and a half, but the stakes were too high: Lagodir had been captured and spirited off by some mysterious foreigner. We were the only ones who could hope to save him and yet we had no idea where to begin our search. It was all rather depressing, and the swirling snow (though it was light and not a major obstacle to us) did not help anything.
"Do you know what this situation calls for?" I asked the others suddenly.
"A bloodhound?" Nephyn posited. I thought for a moment.
"Well, yes," I admitted, "At least, that would certainly come in handy about now. But seeing as we haven't got one, I was thinking that what this situation calls for is some plain hobbit-sense." The others gave me their attention while we marched.
"Any sense, hobbit or otherwise, which can shed some light on this predicament is welcomed by me," said Gaelira.
"Well then," I began after clearing my throat. "Wenhair apparently drugged Lagodir using that little blow-gun of hers, which means she wants him alive. That means we hopefully still have some time before she does anything terrible to him, but I can't say just how long we have. In any case, she has taken him someplace she thinks secret and safe. We, of course, need to find out where that is and quickly. Well, when one is leaving Orodost, as she must have done and as we are doing now, there are really only two directions one can go: north, toward Thorin's Hall, or eastward."
"Go on," said Nephyn.
"She wouldn't go north, I don't think, since the Longbeards have a large presence up that way and (as I mentioned before) she isn't looking to attract attention to whatever it is she has planned. Therefore, it seems fairly likely she went east, which would lead her past Gondamon."
"Ah, and Gondamon commands an outstanding view of the surrounding country," Drodie put in. "And there are always sentries on guard these days -- remember what the Elves of Duillond told us about the goblins becoming a problem again? Ten-to-one odds are that someone saw something: a lone Woman carrying a large Man over her shoulders might not warrant a sortie by the Dwarves, but the sentries would certainly have taken notice of so unusual a thing."
And so it was settled: we doubled our effort and made straight for the Dwarf-fortress of Gondamon. We arrived there at roughly the second hour after noon. Although it was not a terribly long distance, we were nonetheless all quite road-weary due to our quickened pace. Without even pausing for a moment we began questioning everyone we could find as to whether a Woman carrying a Man had been seen passing that way. Unfortunately, no one seemed to have seen anything of the sort, and it appeared my hobbit-sense had failed me. I was just about ready to admit to my friends that I may have been wrong when the strangest sound reached my ears.
Someone was singing, but it was a nonsensical ditty that I could only partly understand. I've tried to record a few snippets here, as best I can remember it.
Yes, come and play,
With me atop the world!
We'll dance and sing,
It's just the thing,
For banners are unfurled!
I will not go,
You'll never see me move!
Except to dance,
There's ne'er a chance,
I'll leave the land I love!
The darkness comes,
Hark to the trump of war!
The Dwarves shall fight,
Clear through til night,
For glory, evermore!
Come sing with me,
A song of mirth and cheer!
For swords are drawn,
And, ere the dawn,
We'll drown ourselves in beer!
I looked and looked, but I couldn't find the source of the balderdash. Finally, Nephyn prodded my shoulder and pointed upward. Following her gaze, I saw a white-haired Dwarf dancing a most curious little jig high up on the ramparts of the fortress. Gaelira and Drodie joined us and we four together stared at this ridiculous sight.
"What a precarious spot to be dancing," remarked Nephyn. That was, needless to say, among the more benign thoughts which were circulating through my own head at that moment. Still, there might have been a chance this odd character had seen some signs of Wenhair from his dancing-perch, and so I decided to get his attention.
"You there!" I called up to him in my shrill little hobbit-voice. "I say! You, up there! I say!" I jumped and waved my arms at him.
After a few seconds of this he appeared to take notice: he suddenly ceased his revelry and began to descend. Eager with anticipation, the four of us made our way over to him. Once he reached the ground he brushed himself off and I was able to get a proper look. He was dressed in a very lavish but exotic-looking set of robes, all covered with enigmatic symbols and runes. His hair, as I have mentioned already, was very white, but up close it could be seen that it was also quite unkempt and straggled. His eyebrows looked like they had not been trimmed in at least a century as their hairs snaked in every direction like a garden gone wild, but his eyes were very bright and full of awareness as he looked at us with great interest.
"Was someone here saying I say?" he asked. His head was thrust forward as though he were incredibly near-sighted.
"Um... yes, it was I saying I say," I said, a bit guardedly.
"And? If you are going to say I say, then you jolly well ought to have something to say! Preferrably something worth hearing, let alone saying. So, what is it you say?"
"Well, it so happens I do have something to say, and it is very much worth both saying and hearing," I said. "And what I say is --"
"I SAY!" the Dwarf interrupted while squinting hard at Gaelira. "I say! Don't I know you?"
"I... don't believe I've had the honour," Gaelira replied as politely as she could manage.
"So you say!" the Dwarf replied. "But I would say I've seen you before now."
"Yes, yes," I said, trying to cut back in. "But as I was saying..."
"You were saying?" the Dwarf asked as he turned back to me. "I've yet to hear what you were saying. It makes one wonder whether what you have to say is worth saying at all. Wait... what were you saying?"
"But that's just it," I sighed, "I've not had the chance to say anything yet."
"Well, spit it out, lad!" he cried. "If you're going to say I say, then say what you have to say! Don't say you have something to say then lolly-gag about and not say it! What nerve!"
"I say!" I exclaimed indignantly. Everyone groaned.
"Oh, to the darkness with this!" Nephyn burst in. "We haven't the time! Master Dwarf, did you see a Woman carrying a Man pass by here?"
"I am called Borganeorn, lady," the Dwarf replied with a quick bow. "And no, I've seen no such thing, but I certainly hope to someday, for it would amuse me greatly. When you've been on this earth as long as I have, sometimes you wish to see peculiar things like what you describe. I do hope I didn't miss it?"
"Oh, never mind," said Drodie. Despite our being in a Dwarf-hold, he was just as depressed as the rest of us for our search appeared to have been in vain. "We've no idea where the treacherous wench has gone with Lagodir, and we've no clues to follow either. We have failed him."
"No clues except that paper Wenhair dropped as she fled from Sarnur," I said, "Which has proved to be of no use: if Gaelira cannot read it we've no hope of finding anyone who can. Unless we want to march all the way back to Rivendell and ask Lord Elrond to have a go."
"I have tried, but I can make nothing more of these letters," Gaelira said grimly as she drew the paper out from her pocket. "It must be an ancient and obscure tongue indeed."
"Oh yes?" Borganeorn's eyes twinkled with delight. "Ancient and obscure, is it? Well then! Perhaps I can help you after all! Give that here, Elf." He rudely snatched the paper from Gaelira's hand without so much as a please or thank you and proceeded to bury his (sizeable) nose into it.
"Hmmmmmm, yes!" he said as he read the parchment. "I don't know about ancient (not by my standards, anyway), but obscure is the word, all right! Why, this is written in Old Rhudaurian! I've not worked with this language in many a long year. How exciting!"
"You mean you can read it?" I asked. "What does it say?"
"A good deal more than you do," Borganeorn answered with a chortle. "At least it doesn't go around saying I say and then have nothing to say!"
"But what is written on it?" asked Nephyn, exasperated. "Can you tell us what the words mean?"
"Oh, certainly I could do that," came the response. "I have spent the greater part of my much-longer-than-average life learning the various tongues of Middle-earth, after all! But it might take me several hours."
"Hours??" I echoed.
"Yes, indeed. And I could very well be dead by then, you know. And so could you, now I think about it."
"Dead?!" I asked.
"Why, of course: I can't possibly fight off an army of Dourhands by myself, now can I?"
"Yes, army!" Borganeorn huffed. "The Dourhands of Sarnur are attacking Gondamon -- they should be here any minute. Didn't you know?"
"KNOW?!?!" I was at my wits end and spun around, expecting to see a rampaging horde of angry Dwarves storming the keep at that very moment.
"You know, these other two seem alright, but if I were you I'd have an eye on that one," Borganeorn whispered to Drodie, meaning me. "Might not be quite right in the head." Drodie tried to stifle a laugh, but failed.
"All the same, this is ill news," Gaelira said. "We cannot afford any delay and now we find ourselves in the middle of a siege! We should never have come this way."
"Nonsense!" Borganeorn guffawed. "Why, there might not be another person around for miles and miles who could read this delightful missive, and you'll need me to do that if you want any hope of tracking down this person you seek. And I can't translate this stuff all in a moment -- I need time! And, preferably, time not in the midst of a battle. You lot go do something about those Dourhands and I will spend my time with this delicious bit of entertaining parchment. Off you go now!" And with that the Dwarf bounded up a set of stairs and shut himself behind a door of iron. The four of us stared after him in disbelief.
"I say --" I began before catching myself.
"Please don't," Nephyn groaned.
"Yes, let us go and find whoever commands the guards here and see what aid we can lend them," said Drodie. "If Borganeorn is right and there really is an army of Dourhands about to besiege us, I'd prefer to be ready for them."
Unfortunately, there was an army of Dourhands ready to besiege us. They had swarmed out from Sarnur in wrath, thinking the Longbeards had dared to assault their strongest citadel (in reality it was our Company), and they came with their allies, the Blue-crag goblins, and many howling wolves and cruel-eyed hendrevail in their train. Describing everything that happened in that battle would be an exercise in futility, for I didn't see most of what transpired myself. The enemy surged repeatedly against the west, north, and south gates of the fortress, but the valour of the Dwarves and the determination of my friends held them at bay as the day drew to a close. Finally, as dusk filled the sky, our foes withdrew from the field and quiet descended upon Gondamon.
The damage was extensive, but the stone-work of the citadel had held its own. We were told that an errant shaft from the walls had struck and slain the Dourhand general and that the chain of command had proceeded to break down among their forces until, ultimately, there was no single commander directing the siege. Squabbles had broken out between the various evil factions arrayed against the Longbeards and, finally, the attack faltered and was beaten back. There were many losses among the Free Peoples, however, as dozens of Dwarves and many Elves (who had come to the aid of Gondamon when they had learned of the impending Dourhand assault) lay slain within the keep. Fires had to be quenched and wounds had to be tended, and Elladan's Outriders were kept very busy for a while.
I was doing what I could to ease the hurts of many a valiant warrior when I realized my companions were nearby and they had brought Borganeorn the Dwarf with them. I got the sinking feeling our Company was not going to get any rest, even after such a terrific battle.
"Well, you have all done a fine deed here, to be sure," the aged Dwarf said to us. "And I have done my part too! I will read for you the words written in that most interesting exhibit you permitted me to handle." I was eager with anticipation to hear what might be contained in that mysterious letter.
"It is a missive to someone named Wenhair from someone named... Mother," he said. "A very peculiar name, that. Can't say I've ever heard of anyone having a name like it before. Anyway, here is how it reads:
Long have I been in exile, but the time has come for us to take our place at our master's side. Word has reached my ears from the South-lands of dire news: Skullyg has told me of the defeat of Guloth to the blade of a Gondorian! Some band of would-be 'heroes' marched into Annuminas and broke our master's body in the raid which lost Angmar control of the city.
But fear not, my child. The darkness has whispered its secrets to me upon an icy wind and a way to return Guloth has been revealed to me. Many ingredients are needed for the ritual.
"It goes on to list several unusual items. I will spare you the tedium of reading them to you, but the last two items caught my attention:
The heart of a powerful drake and, finally, we shall require a vessel for our master. The Gondorian shall serve this purpose, Wenhair, for no other has ever done such harm to Guloth. By using him as the host, we will remove the greatest threat to our master and accomplish two great feats as one. You must procure him by any means necessary.
"How horrid!" I exclaimed.
"Necromancy!" said Gaelira. "I shall ensure Lord Elrond is made aware of this once Malkan returns to us from his errand to locate Mallacai."
"Here is the last part of the letter," Borganeorn went on.
When you have collected all of these things, bring them to the house in the Vale of Thrain I have prepared and we shall perform the ritual there. Let none stand in your way. Once Guloth is returned to us, we shall gather our strength in the swamps of Malenhad. No longer will the False King stand in place of the Witch-lord of the far South.
I expect your prompt return.
"There is nothing further," Borganeorn ended. "Whatever sort of perversion this may be, I certainly hope you four are able to stop it."
"As do we," Gaelira agreed, "And yet we have lost precious hours by coming here. The Vale of Thrain is back the way we came and northward, toward Thorin's Gate."
We lost no more time. We took our leave of Mathi, the garrison commander of Gondamon, and charged west with a renewed vigour. We had no idea where the house was that had been mentioned in the letter, but now we had a rough idea of where to begin our search, for the Vale of Thrain is a rocky and uneven area which spans between Thorin's Halls in the north down to Orodost and Noglond. There are many crags and gullies in that region, and plenty of places for secret things to lie hidden, but we had to try. The Sun sank behind the Blue Mountains as we jogged and we finally reached the Vale some time later.
The search for this house was not easy, but I will spare you the details. In the end, we decided to climb a height called Hunter's Notch to get a look at the land (as well as we could in the deepening gloom). This proved providential for, in the nearly extinguished light, we were barely able to discern something which looked very much like a house a ways off upon a hill, nestled well up on the side of a mountain. We managed to make our way there, but I felt a sense of foreboding with every step that took us closer to that place, and there was a chill on the air that did not seem to be the cold of a simple wintery night in the mountains.
We scaled a steep slope in the snow toward the isolated house. It was a very strange building: for one thing it appeared to be of Dwarf-make (judging from the architecture), but it was out in the middle of nowhere. Drodie said it might be an old sentry-post or perhaps a storage warehouse for errand-riders on assignment from the Lord of Thorin's Halls, but even he had never been aware of it before.
Whatever it was, it did not look deserted that night! There were torches lit in a circle in front of the building and an eerie pale light seemed to blanket the area. We saw no one, but we advanced with great caution, knowing we were tracking a cunning and dangerous adversary. As we drew nearer, I thought I could see a bundle of oddments lying on the ground in the middle of the torches. Eventually I could tell it was not a bundle but a person, all dressed in bizarre garments of crimson red. There was a disquieting chanting coming from somewhere, but it felt like it was all around us and thrumming in our very ears. The whole situation had an unwholesome feeling about it and I began to be sick to my stomach.
The four of us huddled behind a thicket of snowy pines and tried to see what was going on and whether there was any danger ahead but, despite the presence of the torches, the darkness was too heavy for our eyes to penetrate. We were forced to move even closer. There was no movement from anywhere around the house, but the chanting and the humming continued. Each step toward that place was a struggle for me, for I wanted nothing more than to run in terror and hide myself from whatever evil presence inhabited it. I forced myself to remember that, somewhere, Lagodir needed us, and I was determined to not let him down.
Many agonizing moments later, we had drawn very near to where the body lay motionless on the ground. I could hear the soft flickering of the torches as they gave off their dim and sickly light. The building itself loomed like a hunkering beast nearby; all the windows in it were dark, but still I feared it for reasons I could not tell. I wondered what sort of disgusting act might be plotted there, for the feeling of unease had grown to the point my limbs were shaking uncontrollably. We all looked down at the body in loathing. A pair of glassy eyes stared back at us and the face was illuminated in the glow of those hideous torches.
"No! It's Lagodir!" Nephyn cried, heedless of the danger in her distress. The torches suddenly went out, and total darkness fell. Even the stars in the sky seemed to go out as the night moved in to smother us.
"Welcome, my guests," came an evil, sneering voice from somewhere in the direction of the house.
"My master shall reward me greatly when I present him with your still-beating hearts. Prepare to die."