Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 41

An Unexpected Obstacle

Hevensday, 15th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Village of Aughaire, Angmar
The Land of Angmar
This is just the sort of luck one might look to find in Angmar. After all we had accomplished in getting here the last thing I expected was to meet with utter failure quite so quickly. You may notice from my entry heading that we are now back in the Hillman village of Aughaire which is (that's right) west of our last resting place, not east. Which, of course, means we are going entirely the wrong way. Allow me to explain how this came about.

As soon as I woke up this morning I wished that I hadn't. For one thing, I could see from where we had pitched camp not far inside the Halls of Night that it was still dark outside. For another, I was told we'd be getting an early start and if I didn't shake a leg I would miss breakfast. That got me up in a hurry (as it was no doubt designed to do), but in my rush I stubbed my toe on some rock in the cave's passageway. I arrived at breakfast muttering choice words about the accommodations.

The food was once again excellent, however, and soon all such misgivings were driven from my mind. Like most folk I don't use my ears to eat, so I was able to listen to all the morning's discussions about where to go, what to avoid, and what dangers to look out for. Mallacai again warned us to steer away from any enemy encampments we might happen upon while making our way east through the swamps of Malenhad then north toward some land called Himbar. We all expressed hope a second time that we would have the good fortune to avoid running into Wenhair or any of her allies as we passed through Malenhad. Well, when I say all, I really mean Nephyn and I: Gaelira seemed to think another encounter was inevitable while Lagodir believed the best way to deal with his erstwhile kidnappers was to eliminate them altogether. As for Drodie, I believe he was just getting antsy for a fight and would have welcomed the opportunity to engage the Lossoth sword-to-sword. Anyway, unless I am mistaken, I don't believe much was said which hadn't been said once before last night, so I paid more attention to my food than to all the strategizing. Elves thrive on long speech but a hobbit needs his vittles has been a byword even in the Shire for time out of memory -- and apparently not without reason.

Mallacai proved a capital host. Aside from his being a fount of good advice for the journey (which was considerable, as I've already said), he also insisted we fill our packs with anything and everything from the cave's larder we could possibly want. We thanked him many times for this and he brushed off our praise, but even so he hinted supplies may well begin to run scarce by the time we reach the outskirts of Carn Dum. We stocked up on every kind of food (especially the less perishable sort), then refilled our water-bottles and skins until they were nearly bursting. After all, even if we manage to achieve our goal we will still need provisions for the road back.

Finally, with all of these things done, we gathered ourselves just outside the entrance to the Halls of Night. The six of us looked out over the plains of Angmar. The Sun had finally peeped over the eastern horizon, but even as the light crept across the region I saw that country looked even more dead by day than it did in the darkness. Bare branches and dry weeds rattled in the wind, and several dust-devils appeared in various places. I had heard stories of the vast and empty deserts of Middle-earth, the Sun-swept dunes of Far Harad in the south-lands, but even they sounded more lively than this place. Here everything looked as though the soil had been poisoned for generations, or perhaps a raging fire had devastated all life. The sky was low and dark, with great billowing clouds of black flecked with amber rolling in from the north. It would be hard to imagine a less pleasant landscape if one tried. Also, there was a strange pungence on the air, though it was faint. I scratched myself nervously and began paying attention to the others' speech.

"If we shall be forced to go round-about, then the more speedily we travel the better," Lagodir was saying.

"Perhaps," Mallacai answered. "My attendants and I will do what we can to draw Carn Dum's attention to ourselves here in the south-west and so help to clear the way for you in some small degree. But do not forget that stealth is now of the utmost importance -- if the Steward of Angmar learns of your approach all your efforts may be for naught."

"Who -- or what -- is this Steward, exactly?" I asked.

"I am not certain," the Elf replied. "The Hillmen of this land call him Mordirith, but whether he is a Man or some other creature I cannot say. I suspect that, before this is over, you shall know more about his origins than I, for no doubt the palantir you seek will be very close to him at all times."

"Will we be able to defeat him, should it come to that?" asked Gaelira. I was surprised to hear her voice such a question after all this time. Mallacai did not answer right away.

"The bonds of love you have forged are very strong, and they will hold you fast, one to each other, so long as your fellowship endures," he said at last. "But I can say nothing definitive. What I am able to see of the future is very dim and confused -- many things I have glimpsed of late which puzzle me greatly -- and so I will say no more. I am certain only that this noble quest of yours shall have far-reaching implications for all of Middle-earth."

"That doesn't sound so encouraging," said Drodie with a snort.

"More assurances I cannot give, unless you would have me be proven false," came Mallacai's response. "And which is more cruel: to offer hope unwarranted or despair unfounded? Either could sway the outcome of the future, for good or ill, and so I fear to say too much. Yet you five have sworn yourselves to this cause, and all Free Folk therefore have cause to praise you. And now, go forth with the blessings of Elves, Men, Dwarves, and the Shire-folk upon you all!"

We bowed low and took our leave of the venerable Elf. The others started down a slope and I made to follow, but just then I felt Mallacai's hand upon my shoulder.

"Good Fortune, great-heart," he said with a kindly smile and an immense sadness in his deep-blue eyes which caught me rather off-guard. "To have known you and seen your growth has been the most rewarding and unexpected pleasure I have had in many long years. I am sorry it must end after so short a time. Farewell."

I looked up at him with an expression that must have conveyed the many questions running through my mind at that moment, but he merely nodded and turned away. I looked after the others to see where they had gone, and when I turned back to say goodbye one more time, Mallacai was no longer there. I only paused a moment before hustling down the hill to rejoin my companions.

"Just look at this place," Nephyn was saying as I scampered up behind them. "The land itself seems... almost warped."

"Such is the fate of any land which lingers long under the Shadow," said Lagodir grimly.

"Yet it will take more than an unpleasant view to break our resolve," said Gaelira. "Lagodir, you seem to be recovered from your recent trials."

""I am feeling in better health and spirits than I have for some years," replied the Gondorian as he stretched his arms. "The spectre of Guloth no longer haunts me."

"And how are the rest of us?" Nephyn asked. "Ready for our greatest challenge?"

"I could do with a second rasher of bacon," Drodie dead-panned. The rest of us snickered.

"For myself," I said as I laughed, "I wouldn't mind the sight of something green. What a loathsome place this is! And that smell! I had noticed it before, but it seems to have gotten stronger."

"The wind is in the east," said Nephyn. "Whatever the source may be, we are headed straight for it."

The ground was rocky and uneven, and so we made poor time at first. There was a smoother area off to our left, but Gaelira said she would rather stick to the hills in hopes of avoiding any unfriendly eyes. We scrambled up one slope and down another, the shifting land constantly obscuring our view of whatever lie ahead. All at once, we came to the end of the hilly region and a grim vista stretched out before us.

It was a great, flat wasteland and it was pocked everywhere with enormous craters, crevices, and vents. Clouds of steam or smoke were mournfully drifting upward from many of these openings, and the smell that had been bothering me all morning smacked us full in our faces.

"Ugh!" I choked as I reflexively covered my mouth and nose. "Sulfur! Mercy me, what a stink!"

"Malenhad!" Gaelira exclaimed. "A swamp made of hot springs. Our going may be treacherous here; we should take care."

Care was certainly called for. The earth was comprised of sharp gravel which constantly slipped and slid out from under us, and every so often we would come upon a cracked vent in the ground and a column of steam would suddenly shoot upward and give us all a fright. We spent the remainder of the morning steadily picking our way eastward, but our progress became slower and slower. It felt to me as if there was some invisible force resisting our movement, but I said nothing to the others. It was about the third hour from noon when all five of us simultaneously came to a halt, though none of us had said a word. With an effort of will, I raised my eyes to behold a terrifying sight.

It was a massive and grotesque statue shaped to look like a dragon, or at least it was some sort of winged, serpentine visage. I honestly can't quite remember, because the only thing I noticed at the time were the eyes: they glowed with a blood-red ferocity and seemed to hold my gaze as if they were alive. I felt unable to turn and look, but I sensed that my friends were nearby and also enthralled by the stone figures. The air seemed to become heavy and breathing was difficult.

"It is very warm," I heard Drodie say from somewhere off to my right. "Let us rest a moment."

"Nay, we should not take a rest here," Lagodir said in answer. "I like not these vile monuments -- we can rest when we have moved beyond them, perhaps."

"My breath is taken away," I heard Gaelira mutter.

"Those eyes!" came Nephyn's frantic voice. "They are the eyes from my dreams! There is no hope for us. Why did we ever come to this accursed place?"

"Back! Back!" cried Lagodir. "The Enemy will be upon us in moments! We must retreat!" The large Man began to seize each of us and forcibly drag us back the way we came. Before I realized what was happening he had hefted me up onto his shoulders while hauling Drodie in one fist and Nephyn in the other. I saw Gaelira tear her eyes from the statue and follow. Lagodir took us all a short ways before ducking behind the edges of a particularly large crater -- out of the direct line of sight of the evil things. Almost immediately I felt my head become clearer.

"What in blazes was that?" I asked while gasping for air.

"There is some witchcraft inside the stones," said Lagodir as he tried to comfort Nephyn. "They reminded me at once of the images I encountered on the road to Imlad Morgul: the ones which doomed me and my men to the soldiers of the tower. It seems these images possess a similar power to those I found in my own adventures, and perhaps these, too, would alert foes to our presence. In this way were I and my men overcome. We should not remain here long in case a patrol is sent to search for us."

It took several moments for the Company to recover after that event. Nephyn was especially affected by the things, although I was the only one who knew why without an explanation. I left it to her to describe her dreams to the others which she had intimated to me many weeks ago in the North Downs.

"Dreams are curious things, and I cannot say why you would have envisioned these statues," said Gaelira. "But it is clear we cannot pass them without aid from some outside source."

"Perhaps there is a way around them?" asked Drodie. He had taken very little time to return to himself.

We spent another hour or two searching, but it turned out there was an entire row of the horrible things blocking any advance further through Malenhad. The Sun was deep in the western sky by the time we were forced to admit defeat and turned our backs on the eastern road. I felt deeply depressed as we began the long march back to Aughaire; only Lagodir retained his positive outlook. It seemed that his previous encounters with such instruments of evil gave him faith that we would find some way to overcome this new obstacle.

The Hillmen of Aughaire were not thrilled to see us return, but they allowed us to take refuge inside the gates, for we did not dare to camp outside the protection of their meager walls in that land. We kept to ourselves, well apart from the centre of the village, and discussed how we might somehow defeat the stones and continue our quest, but none of us had any clear idea of how to accomplish this. As I lie here making notes on our activities for today I cannot help but wonder: are we thwarted already?

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