Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 40.2

The Road to Angmar

Highday, 3rd of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Elf-refuge of Duillond, Ered Luin
A hut of the Trev Gallorg
We could have probably done with another day's rest here in Thorin's Halls, but we decided to set out as soon as we could. Time was not on our side: if Mallacai was in Angmar, then it would take us almost two weeks to arrive where we just discovered he was supposed to be the last time Malkan the eagle had seen him. I was (and am still) feeling rather daunted by the distance we will have to cover, but at the same time I think we are all somewhat buoyed by our recent successes too.

We thanked our hosts many times and departed out of Thorin's Gates shortly after the fourth hour. Lagodir was still not feeling quite himself, but he refused to hold us back, saying the easy exertion of a march would do him good. We passed Noglond and Gondamon without incident, then turned southward and followed the road to the Elf-refuge of Duillond. The sky had been cloudy most of the day, but about that time things began to break up and the Sun came out, which I found very pleasant.

We are halting here for tonight. The Elves here were happy to see us again and Gaelira told them all the tale of what we encountered in Sarnur and afterward. There was a great deal of astonishment at our exploits, let me tell you. We asked several people if they had ever heard of a place called Malenhad, but no one could tell us anything.

Sterday, 4th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Somewhere in Ered Luin

Today the weather was gorgeous -- a welcome sight after all of the dread and gloom we went through since crossing the threshold of Sarnur some days ago. Our path now leads us back through the Shire, but Gaelira tells us we should not allow our movements to be known since we are finally heading toward Angmar. I suppose this means we won't be visiting the Shire's finest taverns this time through.

We walked a good distance, but the Shire is still a ways off. We camped in a field under the shade of a few ash trees. There is nothing around us for miles.

Sunday, 5th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Rushock Bog, the Shire

Now that Lagodir is feeling much more like his old self, Gaelira pressed us to march on well after sunset. We reached the Rushock Gate, moved through Needlehole, and did not stop until we were well into the Rushock Bog. This wouldn't have been my chosen place to rest for the night, but I suppose we are trying to keep our journey a secret. A smelly bog is a decent enough place for that, I guess.

Monday, 6th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Bindbole Wood, the Shire

Lagodir has come down with a nasty cough. I'm worried this trip might be too much for him in his condition -- I wish to goodness we had stayed another day at Thorin's Halls. But there's nothing for it now: if we want to make sure our party isn't the topic of gossip throughout the Shire from now until Yuletide we are going to have to keep away from the roads and villages of my homeland.

We took it very easy today though we left the fens as quickly as we could. We reached the Bindbole Wood and continued eastward, taking care to avoid any hobbits or hobbit-holes we saw. We skirted across the road without being seen then waded across a shallow stream before setting up camp well into the darkest parts of the forest. No respectable hobbit would be poking around in here, especially after sundown. All the same, we lit no fire.

Trewsday, 7th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Bridgefields Wall, the Shire

We are not making very good progress, but at least the weather has been cooperative. Today we continued through the Bindbole Wood, skirted the Frogmoors on their northern edges (yay! more bogs!), then swung northward again in order to avoid getting caught inside of Budgeford. We were obliged to go north of the village then turn east again, keeping ourselves out of sight behind the hedge that borders the town on that side. Finally, we got ourselves in among the ruins of the Bridgefields Wall, which kept us hidden for the night. Tomorrow we should look to cross the Brandywine, although I'm not sure how we intend to do that without being seen, and I absolutely refuse to swim!

Hevensday, 8th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Brandy Wood, Bree-land

It seems swimming was not part of Gaelira's plan, but gate-breaking was. She had us wait until after dark before moving out (I think Lagodir appreciated the extra rest), and then we slipped over the Brandywine Bridge after distracting the watchman with one of my homemade meat pies. I told everyone they were gate-breaking and that I couldn't be held responsible for their actions. They asked me how they could be gate-breaking when there are no gates on the Brandywine Bridge. What a question! Anyway, once we were across we immediately turned north (through yet another marsh, if you please!) and promptly got ourselves lost in the Brandy Wood. This forest gives me the willies.

Mersday, 9th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Southern Bree-fields, Bree-land

Nephyn insisted we weren't lost, but I can tell you it was an awfully long time before we finally found ourselves not surrounded by trees. Once we had picked our way among some deep gorges and crossed a swift-moving stream we were in easier territory. We did have to avoid a bandit camp, however, which we did by passing it well to the north. In the end, we camped on the western edge of a very pretty lake that Nephyn told us was called Everclear.

Highday, 10th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Northern Bree-fields, Bree-land

Some rain-clouds must have come up during the night. Although it threatened to do so, it never rained all day -- it just made today's march feel very dismal and heavy-footed. We travelled up the Greenway, taking care to always stay a good ways off to one side. Like last time, we camped just outside of Trestlebridge's south-gate in order to avoid attention.

Sterday, 11th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Off the Greenway, Somewhere in the North Downs

We moved through Trestlebridge quickly this morning and continued our journey up the Greenway. Camp was pitched at the cross-roads of the Greenway and the east-road toward Esteldin. We did finally get a bit of rain today. It was cold and uncomfortable, but it was not a heavy wetting. From where we are now I can see the very edges of the Fields of Fornost. I'm very glad to not be going that way for a change.

Sunday, 12th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Esteldin, the North Downs

We marched hard today in order to reach the Ranger-encampment of Esteldin by nightfall, which we did. Halbarad was not there, but the Dunedain were happy to see us again. We did finally get a little bit of good news (if you can call it that), namely we learned that Malenhad is indeed a place: it is a large swamp of limestone and sulfur-rock which dominates a large part of Angmar's southern landscape. This doesn't sound to me like a very nice place at all, not least because I've about had my fill of swamps for a while.

Monday, 13th of Rethe, Year 1418, Shire-reckoning
Aughaire, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar

We set out with the dawn and followed the path which climbed eastward and up out of the Valley of Hope into the Nan Amlug Plains beyond. We passed the place where we had battled Bleakwind and continued north. The land rose and fell as the Sun climbed higher in the sky until, roughly around noon, we saw a cleft appear in the mountains. Those mountains were the Ram Duath, and they separate the North Downs from the evil land of Angmar.

Once we had passed through that cleft, the land became harder. The wind was always howling among the stones and what grasses we saw were withered and brown. There were trees, but they seemed to be growing up and away from the rest of the earth, as if they were repelled by it. Even the ground itself was barren, hard, and gravelly.

There was something of a road which led northward and we followed this path. Eventually it turned to the west, climbed for a ways, then sloped downward. At the bottom of this decline, we came upon a most peculiar sight.

It was a village of tribal Men. Their town was built over a low, watery area so that small wooden bridges were needed to traverse the spaces between buildings. These buildings were mostly tents and small huts covered with furs and hides, which gave the whole place a very barbarous look. The inhabitants themselves contribute to this impression as well, for they are a fierce and hard lot with weather-worn faces and deep-set, untrusting eyes. They call themselves the Trev Gallorg (whatever that means), and although I was not inclined to spend any time among them Gaelira insisted we had no choice for the road into Angmar passes through their village.

This place is called Aughaire, I am now told, but I'll be happy to have it behind us, whatever they name it. We spent a short audience with the tribe's leader, a Man named Crannog. He seemed a reasonable sort and spoke the Common Tongue well enough for us to have a conversation. He was willing to allow us to pass through, but we were instructed to ensure we caused no mischief while in Aughaire (of course we readily agreed to this!). And we did get some useful information out of him: namely that a small company of Elves had passed that way about three weeks ago. Crannog did not know whether anyone among them was named Mallacai, for he and his people had fled and hidden themselves at the Elves' coming. The group had not stayed to talk but had simply marched out the northern gate then turned eastward, and no one had seen them since then. We thanked Crannog greatly for this information then proceeded to make camp well to the outskirts of Aughaire, but still within its gates, for we were not yet ready to venture beyond, into the Land of Angmar.

Trewsday, 14th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Halls of Night, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar

I was up early, having not gotten much sleep, for I suspected we were under the watchful eyes of the Trev Gallorg all night. It turns out I was right, although I could only discern this once the Sun was up: we had been surrounded by the Hillmen (all armed with spears and bows), but they were keeping a respectful distance and seemed content merely to observe us. The others were not much concerned by this, but I was eager to be gone. Nephyn appeared to want to befriend them for some odd reason.

Anyway, we made haste out the north-gate of Aughaire as soon as we were able. Many of the denizens followed and stared after us, as if to ensure we were up to no mischief, but once we were well into the ashen plains of Angmar they turned around and went home. We decided to search eastward (since the Elves were reported to have gone that way), but we were met with difficult terrain. We scrambled up and down hills, slipped on broken gravel, cut our knees, and scraped our elbows many times before calling a rest. Peering back from the hill we were on, it looked as though we had only come a few miles from the gates of Aughaire.

"What a miserable land this is!" I grumbled. I had been happy to leave the Hillmen behind, but the place in which we found ourselves now was bleak and inhospitable. There was grass, but it was all either dead or dying, and there weren't even any trees to speak of, unless you could count the shrivelled stumps and twiggy branches of what might have, at one time, been trees. Now they were little more than dead and hollowed-out husks.

"Has anyone seen anything living since we left the village?" asked Nephyn. She shielded her eyes with her hand (the wind is constantly blowing small rocks and bits of gravel everywhere in Angmar, which has the most irritating habit of getting into one's eyes).

"I think I saw a mud-crawler a ways back there," Lagodir said with a chuckle. He had now fully recovered from his ordeals of two weeks ago and was in much better spirits. Still, he had already remarked multiple times how Angmar reminded him of the Morgul Vale more than anything he had seen before or since being a prisoner there. Drodie shook his beard.

"We'll never get anywhere at this rate," he said. "Why can't Mallacai just tell us where he's at and spare us all this bother?" He had no sooner spoken the words then there was a piercing bird's cry from behind us. Turning, we saw Malkan the eagle perched upon a stone some ways up the side of a rock-wall.

"Well!" I exclaimed, looking up at him. "There's our eagle-friend again! Perhaps he can tell us where we ought to be searching."

"I believe that is exactly what he is doing now," said Gaelira as she quickly made her way toward the bird. The rest of us followed eagerly. It turned out that Malkan was sitting just above the opening to a cave which none of us had noticed previously. Normally I would have been quite happy to see a clear sign of where we should be going next, but this doorway I found to be quite unsettling. It was very narrow and the lintel and door-posts, which were made of carven stone, were etched with very strange marks and symbols. I could not understand them, but for some reason they struck me as being warnings.

"Do you think he really wants us to go in there?" I asked. The wind howled mournfully among the craggy rocks. Where it was caught into the cave-opening itself, there came a wailing sort of sound. Even though I knew it was nothing more than a trick of the wind on the stones, I couldn't help but feel like there were ghosts calling out to us from that place.

"Yes, it is clear that is his intent," Gaelira said. "There is something strange about this cave, but I am not certain what it might be."

"You don't say?" I muttered sarcastically. "Well, if we must then we must. After all I've been through I'm not about to let some noisy cavern door stop me from going where I please." Drodie patted me on the shoulder at this, but said nothing.

"Let us light a torch though, at the least," Lagodir said. "If Malkan says we are to find Mallacai within, then there is no reason for us to go forth in secrecy."

This we did (with some difficulty, for the winds of Angmar continually threatened to obliterate the flames) and passed into the mouth of the cavern. Almost instantly I became aware of the relief that came from finally not having the wind driving bits of sand and gravel into every crevice of my body, and that was a welcome change. But the disquiet among us grew -- I can put it no plainer than to say we all felt there was something waiting for us inside.

We went on. Our steps were slow. I suspect everyone was feeling, as I was, that terrible danger lurked just beyond our weak and flickering torchlight. The passage was cramped and we were forced to go single-file: Drodie led the way with one torch, followed by Gaelira, Nephyn, and myself. Lagodir brought up the rear with another torch.

"Look there!" I heard Drodie whisper. We looked, and we could see that somewhere up ahead of us was the faint glow of firelight. We continued on as silently as we knew how. The feeling of impending evil kept getting stronger and stronger with every step, as if the next footfall would cause the floor to collapse and the five of us would plummet to our deaths. I could hear the raspy breathing of each member of the Company. The air seemed to throb in my ears to the point I thought I could feel everyone else's heartbeats. About this time I also thought I could detect an unusual, sweet smell on the air. It was making me a bit light-headed.

Suddenly, the rock on either side of us fell back and we found ourselves in a small burial chamber with three, square tombs in its very centre. The source of the light we had seen became evident: there were two small braziers of charcoal, one on each side of the chamber. They were lit and there was a thin column of smoke curling up from each one. The sweet smell was very strong: so strong that I was hardly aware of anything else by that time. We began to explore the place, but I was finding it harder and harder to concentrate. It was far too early for me to be tired! I slapped myself on the cheeks and shook my head to clear the cobwebs.

That's when I saw Lagodir slump to the ground. My mouth fell open for I had meant to cry out in alarm, but no sound came out. Nephyn stumbled, caught herself for a moment on the edge of a crypt, then collapsed onto the floor. Gaelira was still standing, but she was blinking heavily and looking around as if she couldn't remember where she was. Drodie was already seated against the far wall, his head lolling creepily to one side. The next thing I knew, I had sunk to my knees: I simply did not have the strength to remain standing.

"Wha...?" was all I managed to say before falling on my face. I heard Gaelira mutter something, but I could not understand it.

The next thing I knew I was standing again. This was odd because I didn't recall getting myself back up off the ground, and yet there I was. The others were also there, standing and looking around. We seemed to have somehow gotten ourselves into a different part of the cave. I tried to remember how we had gotten there, but I could not. We were definitely not in the small burial chamber with the three tombs where I thought we had just been.

"Come," I heard Nephyn's voice say, "We should explore." There was something strange about her voice, and about everything else, too. Anytime someone moved it looked as if they were swimming underwater, and I seemed to see everything multiple times, as if we were all leaving traces of ourselves stamped into the air.

This can't be right, I thought to myself. Why, it's as if each one of us had a torch lit inside of ourselves! Of course that makes no sense, nor should it, and yet that's what I'm seeing. No good can come of this now, mark my words!

"Don't worry, Padryc," I heard Drodie say, though I couldn't tell if his lips were moving. "Let's go exploring!"

I felt there was certainly something not right about how Drodie was apparently able to hear what I was thinking, but for whatever reason I did not say anything about it. The others began to move out ahead, leaving their weird, glowing light-trails behind them. I did my best to keep up, but they always seemed to be getting further and further away from me.

Wait! Wait for me! I called, but the blurry figures of my companions only streamed farther away. Soon they were out of sight completely and with them went all the light in the world.

"Why don't you keep up, Padryc?" I heard a voice that sounded like Gaelira's. "You don't want to be left behind, do you?" It was almost a snide, laughing remark, and I felt a hot blaze of anger from somewhere inside of me as I struggled to make my feet move faster.

Where are you? I called. There was no answer. I wanted to cry, but no tears would come. Then it felt as though the floor had vanished from under me. I was falling, falling, falling. I tried to scream for help, but the blackness swallowed up all sound. I waited to meet the bottom of the vile cave, which would mericfully put an end to everything.

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