Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 45

Gaining Entry

Tuesday, 21st of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Refuge of Gath Forthnir
The Refuge of Gath Forthnir
"Wake up, Padryc!"

"Can't we wait until the Sun is up before we start marching at least once?" I moaned in response to Nephyn's voice. Even without opening my eyes I could tell it was dark all around me.

"It seems our Halfling has taken a liking to tomb-crawling after all," came Lagodir's voice.

I was so tired I had forgotten just where we were! I bolted upright and threw my blankets off. As the dank chill of the early-morning air smote me, full memory of the night before came flooding back: the rain had driven us into this shelter as a last resort, and none of us were happy about camping inside of a barrow. It turned out that it wasn't actually a tomb, for the walls were lined with shelves and shelves of books and scrolls. This had drawn the interest of the others, but I was content to let the musty old things lie. Now that I was awake, I was eager to get out of there as fast as possible!

"Dawn is not far off," said Gaelira, "We should be able to find our way in the light, and I suspect none of us wants to spend any more time in Imlad Balchorth than we must. Let us prepare ourselves and depart quickly."

"Hear, hear!" I said. "I'm glad to see you have no desire to stick around and poke through some of these nasty, old books," I fished through my pack for something to nibble on. It was more out of habit than hunger, for being inside a barrow tends to dampen one's appetite, as I'm sure you can imagine.

"I made no such claim," came Gaelira's reply, accompanied by a sly smile. "The purpose of this place eludes me at present, but I have retained a few scrolls for later study. I have no doubt Lord Elrond would wish to see them, if we should happen to pass through Rivendell again someday."

"May that day be not long delayed," I countered. "For both our sakes: you can sift through your moldy tomes together and I can take up permanent residence there."

"Surely you don't mean that?" asked Nephyn, pretending to be hurt by my words.

"Who's Shirley?" I asked with a laugh. "And yes! Especially if the nightly accommodations don't improve with all due haste. When do I get breakfast in bed?" I demanded, hands on my hips in mock indignation. "Seriously, though, when do we move out? I'm only too happy to put this place behind us, and the sooner the better."

"We are all ready to leave," said Drodie as he tucked the haft of his new axe into his belt. "Let us go and see what the morning stars have to show us."

We made our way outside in the darkness. Dawn was indeed still some time off, but thankfully the rain had stopped and the clouds had departed. Even now in the faintest light of foredawn, the landscape of Imlad Balchorth was becoming clearer to us.

What we saw was very disquieting. The land in which we had lost ourselves was bleak and barren, even by Angmar-standards. It was quite hilly and exceedingly rocky, so that anyone attempting to make their way through that place would find themselves in a veritable maze of stone shortly upon entering it. Apparently that is what had happened to us, for it was now evident that we had somehow wound our way well up into those hills and much further to the west than we had ever suspected in the dark of night. Looking out over that valley now, we saw stony barrows falling away from us toward the east (our desired direction) and more climbing up behind us.

"How in blazes did we even manage to get up here in the first place?" I wondered. At first glance there appeared to be no clear path leading to our current location, but Lagodir pointed to the left. I saw a stone stairway, half of which had crumbled away eons ago. Anyone who missed their footing would have plummeted a hundred feet to their certain death on the rocks below.

"Good heavens!" I exclaimed. "We are fortunate none of us fell down there and smashed our heads open!"

"Yes, it was providential that the right-hand bannister had crumbled away while the left-hand bannister survived," said Gaelira. "In the dark of night, we all used the left-hand bannister as a guide, and so we were unknowingly steered clear of that part of the stair which had failed. We must take care as we retrace our steps."

We decided Lagodir should go first, since he and Drodie weighed more than any of the rest of us. The Gondorian reasoned that, if the stair had supported us last night it would do so again. He stepped out onto it and proceeded to descend.

Suddenly there was a crack and a huge section of the stairs gave way! Lagodir cried out, turned toward us, and tried to leap back onto solid ground, but then he vanished from our sight! We all gasped and rushed to the edge of the gaping hole with hearts pounding audibly.

But Lagodir had just managed to grasp the remaining bit of stairway with both hands. His eyes were wide but he remained as calm as anyone could under the circumstances.

"I could use a hand," he grunted as he tried to pull himself up. We four immediately grabbed his wrists and began to haul him back. Gaelira and Drodie got his left hand while Nephyn grabbed his right and I did my part by pulling on Nephyn's cloak from behind (though I believe I accomplished little aside from choking poor Nephyn). Finally, Lagodir was returned to safe ground once more.

"Well!" he said as he gasped for breath. "More the fool am I for not recognizing that the rains might had loosened the stones. It is well we did not all attempt it at once! But what now?"

"I think there is a way further up the hill behind us," I said as I squinted in the new light. "Of course, that's going west, the opposite direction we want to go, but it's better than nothing."

"And perhaps we will be able to see another way down, if we get ourselves into a better position higher up in the hills," suggested Nephyn.

The path further up was difficult to follow at first, but after a while it became broader and more well-defined. Eventually, I got the impression we might have been on a sort of ancient road or thoroughfare -- it became paved with small grey stones in places and on at least one occasion it crossed over a flat, wooden bridge. The cliffs surrounding us were pocked with barrows every thirty feet or so, which gave the place a spooky and unnerving feel, even in the growing light of day. After another half hour or so of steadily heading higher, we found a good vantage point and looked out over the valley.

"Look!" said Drodie as he pointed to our right. "Can you see that faint path over there which falls back toward the east? I should think we would be on the right track were we to take that road."

"I agree, " said Gaelira, "But I cannot see from here how we might reach it."

In the end, we had to continue our climb. The path wound through deep clefts in the hills and went up even more sets of stone stairways (which we climbed with the greatest of care when we encountered them) before we finally came to a large meeting of four ways. To the left there were yet more stairs while ahead of us the road began to descend. To our right, however, we saw a strange thing.

It was a Man, or so it appeared from behind, for his back was to us. He was kneeling in front of a large stone monument of evil-looking shape. It was made of black and glossy-edged stone and shaped like an enormous, jagged knife-blade pointing toward the sky. I could hear the faint murmurings of the Man's voice as he recited some sort of prayer or incantation.

"Sorcery of Sauron!" hissed Gaelira with a curl of her lips. She quickly drew her sword and the rest of us prepared for battle as well. We did not rush in straightaway, for we did not know whether there might be other foes hidden in the crags nearby. Quietly as we could manage, we crept up behind the robed figure. My heart began to beat rapidly as we drew nearer and nearer. When we were within about ten feet of his back, the chanting stopped. I gripped the hilt of my little Elf-dagger and held my breath.

Suddenly, the robed figure grabbed a staff which lay on the ground before him and spun around to face us. His eyes were wild with hatred and his teeth were bared in a vicious snarl. He raised his hand and uttered a shout in some language I've never heard before. There was a rush of air, and I felt a force strike me in the midsection which hurled me backward along with the rest of my friends. I crashed to the ground into the midst of a shallow puddle with the wind knocked out of me.

As I struggled to regain my breath, I managed to raise myself up on my elbows. I saw the others recover and charge back toward the Man. Nephyn fired a shot which pierced his left arm, causing him to drop his staff with a cry of pain. A moment later, Lagodir had run his sword through his midsection just before Drodie's axe swept his head from the shoulders. As the decapitated body slumped to the earth, I heard a strange noise like the moan of many voices. Then there was a great gust of wind which seemed to emanate from out of the monument. I shielded my eyes from flying bits of debris and rolled over onto my side as the force rushed over me. Then came a wave of frigid air, and finally everything returned to normal. Having regained my breath, I tried to get my wobbly knees to force the rest of me back into a standing position.

"Padryc, are you alright?" Nephyn asked as she jogged over to me.

"Just had the wind knocked out of me," I nodded. I was still taking deep and strangled breaths, but I looked to be in worse shape than I really was. "I will be fine in a moment. But what just happened?"

"I believe we may have had the good fortune to interrupt a most vile practice," said Gaelira as she examined the monument and the fallen body of the Angmarim. "I have heard of the perverse rituals by which fell spirits are infused into the rotting corpses of the dead, but never have I actually seen one before now. This is the same process -- or one very much like it -- that was used to create the Barrow-wights many long years ago."

"And what was that strange rush of air I felt once he was slain?" Drodie asked as he unceremoniously cleaned his axe-blade on the robes of our defeated opponent. I shivered slightly at the memory.

"I should guess the collective life-force of any number of spirits the sorcerer sought to command," the Elf replied as she glanced at the monument in disgust. "Whatever purpose our Enemy may have had for them has been thwarted; at least temporarily."

"Well, hooray for that," I said as I wrung some insipid water out of my cloak. "Although I can't understand how you lot manage to do all this fighting and running around -- I'm dead tired on my feet, myself."

"Not as 'dead' tired as those fell spirits," said Lagodir with a smirk.

"Oh!" I laughed, "Mr. Gloomy Man has jokes today! Now I know he's lacking for sleep."

"I guess I am feeling a little out of 'spirits' today," the Gondorian deadpanned. Everyone groaned.

"Punny! Very punny," I said with a roll of my eyes. "Now, can we please get out of here? I don't fancy spending a second night in this wretched place. Oughtn't we to take one of the two roads here? This way goes nowhere and that there is the way we came in... should we be going higher up or lower down, do you think?"

"Lower down for me," said Nephyn. "I've had enough of these stairs."

"You speak for me also," said Gaelira. "I believe it is time we sought a descending path."

And so we took the road to our right. The trail fell steeply downward to the point we had to be cautious to not lose our footing. The descent was so rapid we soon found ourselves back among the mists still lingering in the valley, for the morning was not yet gone. We were hopeful, but the cliffs on either side of us rose so high that we couldn't make out where we were or where we were headed until, quite abruptly, we found ourselves looking out over a wide, flat space which was dotted with tents and campfires.

"Another orc-camp!" said Nephyn in dismay. "This is what now, the fourth we have encountered in Angmar?"

"No, it is only the third," I said, looking hard. "Because it is one we have already seen before! I say! This is the camp we passed on our left as we made our way north from Gabilshathur, only now we are looking down on it from the north. Dear me, but we have gone well out of our way by getting lost among those barrows! What a jolly waste of time this has been."

None of us were eager to get entangled in an orc-camp (actually Drodie might have been the exception there), so we cautiously left the hillside and crept our way stealthily along the edge to avoid being detected. It was tedious and time-consuming work, but in the end we managed to slip past the Orcs and return to the road -- the very same road we had been walking on the day before, prior to getting ensnared by the Valley of Imlad Balchorth.

We allowed ourselves a brief rest, for we had not stopped since before dawn, then resumed our journey once more. This time we never took a single step without searching assiduously for the stone archway that was supposed to mark the entrance to the valley we had finally managed to escape. And we found it: just beyond the long wooden bridge, there it was, plain as plain. How in the world all five of us had managed to miss it -- even when accounting for the fog -- on the previous day was a mystery and a wonder. And yet, even in the full light of day we didn't at first locate the northeasterly path which had been recommended to us by Gisur the day before.

As you may have guessed we did locate it at last, but it was not easy to find: it was little more than a slight discoloration of the bare rock which hopped over a ridge then fell away into a labyrinth of dells, dips, gullies, chasms, crags, crevices, and crevasses. We tried to pick our way among the trenches, but going was so slow it gave me more than enough time to think up tons of alliterative synonyms for the word dell. Anyway, the long and the short of it is we eventually climbed out of it all as the Sun was entering the fourth hour from noon.

We found ourselves in a dusty and wind-swept region full of hard stone, blasted earth, and bleached gravel. The wind howled mournfully among the rocks as we continued to make our way northward. A while later, the faint path we were following suddenly ended at the edge of a fetid pool. It looked to me like a large crater, like the pit made by a stone cast from some giant among giants, that over time had filled with rain-water. We five stood there scratching our heads.

"Don't tell me we came the wrong way again?" I asked. We looked around for any sign of where we ought to go.

"Wait -- what is that over there?" said Nephyn as she shaded her eyes with her hand. We all squinted and just managed to make out the shadowy line of a trail on the far side of the pool which appeared to climb up into the hills. We circumvented the water and picked up the track without difficulty. It climbed at a steep rate, and we were soon quite high above the ashen wastes. I peeked over the edge of a cliff and instantly drew back: there was a sheer drop of some fifty ells just below us which made my poor head turn all giddy. To make matters worse, a cold wind had begun to blow in from the northeast with enough force to scoop my little self right over the precipice, if it had a mind. I scurried back to my companions and continued the march with them. Suddenly, the path turned hard to the left, and after another climb we came upon a broken rock wall which featured a weather-beaten door, cunningly hidden.

"Who would make a home here?" I wondered aloud as I eyed the doorway. "I can't imagine it was for the view."

"Nay, 'twas for its lack of view," came a voice from behind us which made me jump. "Or, rather, the fact that it is in a place which makes it hard to be viewed. Which raises the question: who are you and why do you seek Gath Forthnir?" A tall Man with sea-grey eyes seemed to emerge from the rocky mountain-side itself. His dark raiment all but obscured him from view as he kept vigil over the road.

"I don't know who Mr. Forthnir is, but I'm sure it will be a pleasure to meet anyone with manners in this inhospitable land," I said as I rubbed my hands together from the cold. "You can see we are not Orcs or anything like that -- don't you think introductions are in order? For that matter, aren't you going to invite us inside out of this dreadful chill? I'll catch my death of cold from this weather." The Man smiled kindly at me, but only for an instant.

"It is not within my power to grant you entry to Gath Forthnir," he said. "Which is through that door yonder, Master Halfling: it is not a person. But as to your other question, my name is Areneth, and I am the doorward of Gath Forthnir. I can see you are no Orcs nor other thralls of Angmar, and for that reason alone you live still." I gulped. Looking closer, I saw he was armed with a longbow of yew-wood with a full quiver at his back. A white knife and an axe were at his belt as well. "We Rangers are not used to receiving guests of a respectable sort."

"Ah, so you are one of Golodir's contingent," said Gaelira, "I surmised as much, for your eyes and your bearing reveal your noble heritage. We are allies: the Company of Elladan's Outriders, come from many adventures throughout Eriador, and we are here to join the growing war against the would-be tyrant of Carn Dum."

"Then you have my most sincere welcome," said Areneth with a quick bow of his head. "Allies are sorely needed, whether they be names of renown or otherwise. The battle goes ill for us and only through maintaining the secrecy of our encampment here are we able to continue the fight, so you will forgive my reluctance to permit you entry. I have not heard of your Company before now, but wait here while I consult with my captain -- mayhap he has heard somewhat of your band, for he has many ways of gathering news. I shall return." And with that he disappeared through the creaking wooden door.

I sighed audibly in annoyance at the delay, but it was not long at all before the Ranger returned to us. He begged our pardon and asked that we follow him within immediately to meet with his leader, who had, seemingly, heard of us and our doings. I rushed past the others, relieved to finally be out of the biting northerly winds.

Once inside, it took my eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness, for at first there was no light. I could tell from the echoes of our footsteps that we were in a tunnel, and we wound about a few times before reaching a broader chamber. I looked around and caught my breath.

There was a large pool of water which dominated the center of the cavern that was fed by a small waterfall which cascaded down from some unknown height above us. I saw more than a few people coming and going, passing into and out of this main area from smaller tunnels and openings which branched out from it on all sides. Most of these were Men and Women, but I saw a few Dwarves and even an Elf or two. The Men were mainly Rangers, but there were some Hillmen present as well. Areneth told us these were representatives of the tribes which stood in opposition to the power coming out from Carn Dum, for their people still remembered the cruelty with which they were treated as subjects of the Witch-king in years long past.

There were few torches and only a single bonfire in that main chamber. Despite it being dim and poorly lit, the effect was more one of mystique rather than oppression -- we had entered the secret coven of a hardened band of resistance-fighters; a people who would defend the freedom of their people even at the risk of their own deaths. We all took in the scene with silent admiration as Areneth led us into one of the side-passages.

"This is a place of great natural beauty," I admit I was surprised to hear Drodie speaking such words. "I should like nothing more than to transform this hovel into a cavern of wonders! The entrance could be fortified while this central chamber might be made into a garden of shimmering waters and flowering stone. I see others of my kind here: perhaps I could convince them to begin such a work? Any Dwarf would leap at the chance, and it would only benefit those who wish to strengthen their position here, so near to the Shadows of Angmar."

"Such a work would indeed be welcome, and in fact your kinsmen have suggested it more than once," came Areneth's smiling reply. "Yet Maerchiniath, captain of the Rangers and master of Gath Forthnir, has refused their offer each time it is made. He deems the noise and business required by such an effort would only serve to betray our position, and in this I must regretfully concede he is right in his judgment. Mayhap a time will come one day when your wish may be granted. But you shall have the chance to petition the captain yourself, if you like, for you will find him just beyond this door. As for me, I must return to my post. I bid you welcome once more. Farewell for now, friends."

As Areneth left us, we pushed open the heavy wooden door which led into the sanctum of Maerchiniath. It was a sparsely furnished little room, clearly the small and personal space of a captain at war. There was a collection of arms and armour in one corner and a crude bed of thatch in another, piled with a few books and scrolls. Maps were spread on top of hides which lay on the dirt floor, and a Man was pouring over these as we entered. He raised his head at our approach and stood to greet us. Despite his kind demeanor, I could see at once this Maerchiniath was tired -- pitifully so. His eyes were watery and bloodshot, his beard was unkempt and his shoulders sagged with weariness. Here was a Man whose last glimmer of hope was swiftly ebbing, but for all that he did not look to me like a Man defeated. Not quite yet.

"Welcome, renowned travellers, to Gath Forthnir," he said. His voice was cracked and wispy, as though he had spent weeks shouting at the top of his lungs. "Your coming may be just the light we have yearned for. Word of your exploits has reached even my ears in this forsaken land. I am honoured that you have chosen to lend your considerable abilities to our cause, but I know not what blow you can hope to land against the might of Carn Dum without an army behind you."

"We will do whatever is within our power to do," answered Gaelira. "Yet we have travelled far and became lost among the barrows of Imlad Balchorth on the way: we must first rest. Afterward, we would be grateful for any knowledge of the Enemy's positions or movements you might be able to offer."

"It shall be as you ask," Maerchiniath said. "The one thing Gath Forthnir has to offer is that we are well-provisioned. My Men will see to it that you are tended and taught the passwords which will enable you to come and go at your pleasure, save if you are marked by some adversary. But what is it you seek to accomplish here? Four warriors, no matter how tried and valorous they may be, can only do so much against the foes we face to the north and west."

"Our quest is one of strategy and stealth," Gaelira answered before any of the rest of us could speak. "We seek a deeper understanding of the Enemy's strength as well as the kind and numbers of the thralls which make up his hordes. In this way, we hope to arm Free Folk everywhere with a greater knowledge of the threat they face and thereby win new allies in this fight. For these reasons, it would be best if our mission is spoken of to none, save those in whom you place the utmost trust."

"You speak wisdom," agreed the Ranger-captain, "There are none here I do not trust, of course, for who would willingly endure the hardships such as those we face in this damned region but out of love for freedom? Still, were a Man to be made captive, there is no knowing for certain what he might divulge when placed under torture, and so I grant you your boon. I cannot tell you how much your arrival means to me and to everyone who abides herein -- it gives us great hope to hear of your adventures and, more importantly, to know that Halflings, Dwarves, other Men, and even Elves see the urgency of our cause. I did not know the Eldar cared any more for the Mortal Lands, yet my scouts tell me there is a company of Fair Folk at work even here in Angmar. They have been sighted battling some of the mightiest champions of Carn Dum which range hither and yon across the wastes. Many of my people have been lost to these roving threats."

"Yes, those Elves are known to us also, and they are more powerful allies than even you may realize," said Gaelira, "Many of my people have indeed taken the western road, but many more fight on. In these latter days, all folk who live east of the Sea shall suffer a shared fate." Maerchiniath nodded slowly.

"Come," he said after a brief pause. "I will show you what lodgings we have to spare. There are more empty beds than there once were in Gath Forthnir, I am sad to say, for our clashes with the minions of Carn Dum have been sharp and desperate, particularly of late."

Maerchiniath led us down more winding tunnels to show us those places within the caverns that passed as a mess hall, a training hall, and a barracks. We were housed in a confined area well apart from the main living spaces so as to better conceal our presence from the other inhabitants, as well as to obscure our comings and goings. I myself was quite happy with the arrangements since I am used to tight spaces and find them more comfortable than cramped, but the others were less happy with the accommodations.

After some jostling and grumbling, we finally managed to settle down. We spoke among ourselves briefly in hushed voices about what we would do next, but first we needed more information about our position, the location of the Enemy's forces, and our desired avenue of entry into the strongholds of Carn Dum. After a rest and a bite, we five went to consult further with Maerchiniath and his closest lieutenants to learn what we could of these things. I shuddered at all the talk: it was hard to believe I was poised on the edge of a war-zone and that we would soon be marching straight into its heart -- perhaps as soon as tomorrow morning!

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 44

The Northern Road Vanishes

Monday, 20th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Imlad Balchorth, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The Barrows of Imlad Balchorth
There haven't been too many times over the course of my adventures with this Company that I recall feeling quite so wretched as right now: here I am, soaked to the marrow and afraid of every little noise or flitting shadow I see! Not too many people can say they have spent the night in an evil graveyard, and I hope I live to tell the tale myself. There is no possibility of me getting any sleep tonight, so I will try to occupy my thoughts by telling you, Dear Reader, what transpired today and how we ended up in this hideous place.

Like any good band of adventurers, we were up with the Sun this morning. Actually, if we were up with the Sun I probably would have welcomed it. To be more exact, we were once again up well before the Sun; a practice which is really beginning to work on my nerves.

"Must we always be up so blasted early?" I moaned as Nephyn tried to roll me out of my blankets. With one eye I could see the others were all gathered around me and breakfasting, but even the sight of food (there was no smell for the meal was to be yet another cold one) wasn't enough to rouse me today. Despite my drowsiness, I could see that Guard-captain Gisur, leader of the Dwarves of Gabilshathur, was also nearby.

"Mustn't sleep forever," said Gaelira shortly as she strode past to converse with Gisur.

"I didn't say anything about forever," I called after her, "Just longer. Someone make sure Drodie doesn't eat my share of the muffins."

"The early bird gets the worm," said Drodie with a smile as he triumphantly hoisted a bilberry muffin from out of my pack. But I was too fast for him: quick as a thought I had rolled over, rose to my knees, and snapped the muffin out of his hands just as his teeth clamped down on nothing. The Dwarf stared at his empty fingers in confusion.

"Mine!" I laughed. "Like as not you've already had more than your share. And what manner of odd, Dwarvish proverb is this about worms? You won't find hobbits eating worms, no matter how short we might be on provender."

"Maybe, and maybe not," Drodie replied with a wink as he rummaged through my pack for another morsel. "Personally, I wouldn't put it beyond a hobbit to try... if the supplies ran low enough."

"In any case, I think it's fair to say you hobbits do eat like birds," Nephyn said with a smirk.

"What nonsense!" I cried through a mouthful of muffin. "Hobbits eating worms and flies and things out of holes? The very idea!"

"I believe it is an expression not meant to be taken literally," said Lagodir from off to one side where he was examining the edge of his new longsword.

"Well, that's just... wait..." I paused. "Do you mean about me being a bird or that bit about getting the worm?"

"I thought he meant what I said about hobbits eating like birds," suggested Nephyn.

"Actually, it applies to all three," answered Lagodir. I threw up my arms in exasperation.

"Oh, hang it all!" I cried. "Quit trying to confuse me before I've had breakfast. Marching and fighting are quite taxing enough without all of this mental exertion. Leave me in peace!" The others laughed and let me get my fill of muffins and dried fruit.

I wasn't afforded much time to do this, but I used those few moments to examine my surroundings a bit further in the dim light of foredawn. Life around the Dwarf-colony of Gabilshathur had returned to normal since our Company had managed to resolve the mystery of the garrison's missing gemstones yesterday: I heard bellows hissing, forges working, hammers clanking, and all manner of coming and going. But even with all of this activity the sounds were muted, as if everyone wished to keep from being heard and discovered. Considering the proximity of the nearby orc-camp my friends and I already had to avoid twice in two days, this was no doubt a sound policy (Pun intended!).

To make a long story short, Gaelira was insisting that we get an early start to make up for the time we had lost dealing with the cave-claws yesterday. Gisur and his Dwarves did, of course, beg our pardons many times for the delay and gave us anything and everything from their stores that we could possibly bear on our backs. I also noticed Drodie was sporting a new set of Dwarf-armour and a stout, one-handed axe which his kinsmen had bestowed upon him. The armour was a combination of both steel plate and ringmail while the axe was a thing of beauty: the blade was wide and gleaming with a single large ruby set into the cheek just forward of the shoulder, while the eye was tipped with a wicked-looking spike.

I don't think I ever mentioned it in this journal before, but the truth is I had wondered more than once why it was Drodie had always carried a sword (so long as I had known him, at least) when his kind is famous for their preference of the axe. Today I learned that many (albeit hardly most) Dwarves do actually prefer the sword, although this was not true of Drodie himself. He does indeed prefer the axe, but apparently a Dwarf can and will be judged by his peers based on the quality of axe he wields, and since Drodie had no access to such a weapon nor a smith of appropriate skill until today, he would not carry an axe at all but instead bore a sword. I'm always fascinated to learn these little curiosities about Dwarven culture, but the important thing is to know that we departed Gabilshathur very well provisioned indeed. This proved fortuitous for us, for reasons you shall soon see.

In the meantime, Gisur was not able to help guide our road any more than a furlong or two northward, for he and his Dwarves had never gone so far themselves due to the presence of two more orc-camps in addition to the one we had already seen to the east. One lay to the northeast while the other was a bit further north and a tad to the west, and so our road appeared to lie between them both.

"You should be able to pass betwixt their bivouacs," Gisur told us as we made our way to the edge of his garrison. "If you are cautious. But the greater danger may lie beyond the Orcs: my Dwarves have reported that the road passes over a bridge of wooden planks and then forks, with one path heading northeast and the other northwest. Whatever you do, avoid the northwesterly path! Bear right, if you possibly can."

"What lies on the left-hand way?" asked Nephyn.

"I am not certain," came Gisur's answer in a low voice, so as not to be overheard by the other Dwarves near at hand. "But a mining party of my folk once beheld that road: it plunges down into a dark valley through a cold arch of stone and a deadly fear flows up from it like a vapour, they said. One of that team, Arngrim was his name, succumbed to some evil fit, claiming great treasure could be found down that way. The others tried to stop him but he would not listen -- he passed through the accursed gate and never returned."

We agreed to take the more easterly road when we reached that place. After a few more exchanges with both Gisur and Braigiar the Ranger, we departed Gabilshathur and returned to the inhospitable swamp of Malenhad. Distant rays of orange glow were only just beginning to reveal themselves against the sharp-peaked mountains to the east of us (on our right) as we moved northward. It wasn't long before I became bored of avoiding crags, dodging steam vents, and bypassing sulfur pools. Besides, what little conversation there was amongst us was usually regarding that Wenhair Woman and whatever vile allies she might be dredging out from her homeland, and I was in no mood to be stuck thinking about that as we picked our way through Malenhad.

"The sooner we're out of this filthy bog the happier I'll be," I grumbled. "Come on you lot: we've heard funny stories from me and Lagodir (well, as funny as Lagodir was able to manage, anyway). And we know Drodie only allows himself a handful of words per day which isn't enough for story-telling. What about you, Nephyn?"

"What about me?" the huntress asked with a smile. "What would you like to hear?"

"Something entertaining!" I replied. "Anything to get our minds off this dull trek we're on now."

"Hm," she said and stared ahead for a short time. "Entertaining? How about this, then: when I was a little girl of about nine summers, I suddenly developed a bit of a stubborn streak."

"You don't say?" I cut in sarcastically. The others snickered.

"Now who's interrupting?" asked Nephyn with a chuckle. "Anyway, I had been Saerdan's pupil for just over a year at that time, and I'm not too proud to say that I overreached somewhat. I thought I was ready for bigger and more noteworthy game than my mentor was allowing me to hunt, whether on my own or with him. I expressed my wishes to accept a greater challenge, but Saerdan would not hear of it. And so, one day I filled my pack with as many supplies as I could fit inside it and set out before dawn without telling anyone. I headed to the northeast, as there had been rumours swirling about the Pony for a while that some great beast was stalking the farms and forests up that way."

"Oh my!" I exclaimed.

"I spent almost two days wandering, searching the ground, and tracking my foe, but finally I found it right on the border of the Bree-lands. It looked like a huge monster to me, but of course you must remember I was only nine at the time. I know now it was nothing more than a common worm, and not even a very large one at that."

"A worm in the Bree-land?" I asked. "Dear me! I've never heard of such a thing."

"Nor had I -- neither before nor since," Nephyn went on. "Yet there it was, and there I was with my little bow of ash-wood and my tiny hunting-knife. I won't deny I was more than a bit scared."

"Goodness gracious!" I interjected.

"Had I been wiser I would have turned around and gone home, but I was determined to prove my worth to Seardan," Nephyn went on. "I was able to get above it by quietly climbing a tree while the worm basked itself in the afternoon Sun. Hardly daring to breathe, I strung an arrow and let fly! The beast was rudely awakened by the loss of an eye."

"Oh!" I cried. "How gruesome!"

"Stop interrupting!" Gaelira, Drodie, and Lagodir all chastised me at once.

"Sorry!" I whispered.

"Well, the worm found me and threw itself against the tree with all of its weight, which knocked me to the ground. Before I knew what was happening the animal was astride me, tearing at my face with claws and teeth! I squirmed and tried to defend myself with my knife, but I knew in my heart I was going to die that day."

"What happened?" asked Gaelira, interrupting in her own turn. I wore a smug expression of triumph for a moment.

"The worm suddenly reared back with a roar of pain. Saerdan had found me and sent a shaft into the beast's ribs. I had the presence of mind to stab its heart out with my little knife, and so I was saved. I was a bloody mess by then and of course I was crying. Saerdan carried me home and tended my wounds. I was terrified he was going to disown me, but he never mentioned that day again. Once I had recovered, we did eventually start hunting larger game together. There! That's my story of why I hate worms and also from whence I got my lovely scar."

"Scar?" I asked. I had never noticed it before but, upon close inspection, I could see there was a faint scar running from just above her right ear down to the top of the right cheek."Well! We learn something new about our dear huntress. You're lucky to have received that when you were still so young."

"Yes, it is mostly faded by now, thankfully," she said. "Still, it serves as a good reminder to never think too highly of myself. Was my story entertaining enough for you?"

"It wasn't exactly the kind of thing I had in mind, but I won't deny I was entertained," I replied. "Surely I can't be the only person in this Company with a trove of tales which involve nothing more dangerous than birthday presents and liberal excesses of beer?"

"Ha! I do have a few stories of that sort, having grown up in a pub," Nephyn laughed. "Next time I will try to think of something more light-hearted for you."

"I will hold you to that, Nephyn," I said. "And now for you, Gaelira! Tell us a story about when you were an Elfling." Gaelira was intently watching the landscape (for we were drawing nearer to those two orc-camps I had told you about earlier) and she didn't seem much interested in story-telling at that moment. And yet, after the briefest of pauses, she proceeded to speak while still keeping her eyes trained on the space before her.

"Nephyn's account of herself brings this tale to mind," she began, "It was quite some time ago: I was working at the Grey Havens on a vessel alongside Cirdan the Shipwright. I trust you all know the name?" We were all familiar with Cirdan, even me. If you are not, then I will have to direct you to someone who knows more than I and has some time on their hands -- Cirdan is a name with a long and fascinating history behind it.

"I was tasked with setting the lines and sails. In my youth, I greatly desired to show my elders that I knew the craft," she continued. "I believe I was about thirteen at the time and I thought I knew what I was doing,"

"Thirteen years old?" I queried. "That must have been a very long time ago indeed!"

"No, thirteen hundred," the she-Elf corrected me. "But still so long ago I couldn't tell you what Year of the Sun that it was. In any case, I was going about my business, quite proud of myself, but I became over-confident and careless. When I pulled a halyard to set the lower sails, a rope caught Cirdan's ankle and whisked him overboard."

"Good heavens!" I cried.

"Hush!" Gaelira admonished me. "We are now near enough to the Orcs that such outbursts might be heard." I clammed up straightaway.

"Of course, I dove in after him immediately," she went on after a brief silence, her eyes still fixed on the horizon. "Cirdan did not need my help, naturally, for there is no finer mariner this side of the Great Sea. I wasn't permitted to set lines for some time after that, so I busied myself in the study of lore instead. I think Cirdan probably laughed about the whole episode, although never to me."

I pondered for a moment whether Gaelira had always intended to be a sailor instead of what she was now, but at that point the rest of us could plainly see the two orc-camps for ourselves, and all idle chatter ceased. We passed one amidst the rocks on our right (to the east) while the second loomed over us atop a ridge just ahead and a bit to our left. It was suspenseful work, but we managed to slink our way from one large steam vent or crater to the next and avoid being spotted by any sentries. Once beyond the two camps we hugged the cliffs to the east closely as we searched for the road which would mark the next stage of our journey.

Not long after this we came upon a broad wooden bridge which spanned a deep gorge. Although it was only the early afternoon, none of us could see the bottom, for dark clouds were beginning to gather overhead. We all became concerned that a sizeable storm was assembling and none of us wanted to be caught in it. The beams thunked ominously as we quickly traversed the bridge, and I wondered how far the sound might carry, but no one hindered our crossing. As soon as we were on the far side we began trying to find the fork in the road which Gisur had told us about, for we were determined to take the rightmost path as he had urged us to do. None of us said anything, but we remembered that Mallacai had also warned us about the place called Imlad Balchorth, and we all feared that it was now quite close.

Our progress slowed. The light became dimmer and dimmer from the storm-clouds despite it being only the third hour from noon. Thunder began to peal in great, tremulous roils and then a slow rain started to fall. To make matters even worse, a thick fog began to descend on us, probably from the cold rain mixing with the hot vapours of Malenhad. I jammed my hat down on my head in an attempt to keep the water from trickling into my ears, but of course it didn't work.

"Bother this infernal weather!" I griped, "Where is that blasted fork in the road? Surely we ought to have found it by now?"

"Should we double back and check to be sure we didn't miss it?" asked Nephyn doubtfully.

"We are still headed northward," came Lagodir's voice from behind me. "If we had come upon it we would have been forced to go one way or the other, but we have seen no crossing of paths as yet."

"Yes," agreed Gaelira from ahead. "Let us continue forward while we search the ground."

We went on. The fog grew thicker and swirled around our feet to the point I could no longer even see mine, and my toes became numb with the cold. Looking about me, I could see steep cliffs rising on either side, but their heights were lost in the mists overhead, and by now the darkness was becoming very black indeed -- as though night had fallen -- despite the fact there had been no sunset. Suddenly, with a shock, I realized the path we were on was on a steady downward slope. My heart pounded. I looked everywhere, expecting to see the massive stone gate Gisur had described which led into the valley of fear, but there was no sign of it.

What we all saw instead was the wall. It appeared in front of us out of the fog so suddenly it was as if it had been placed there by a giant's hand. It was a huge, stone cliff: utterly final and impassable. The five of us stopped dead in our tracks and looked around, but the mists defeated even Gaelira's Elf-eyes.

"Now what?" I asked miserably. "I don't recall anyone saying anything about there being a massive cliff in the way. Do you suppose we managed to take the wrong path after all?"

"I do not see how," came Gaelira's answer, but she was clearly troubled and frowned at the sheer stone face directly in front of her.

"How could we have missed it?" asked Drodie. "We were all looking for a more easterly way and none of us saw one. Nor has there been any sign of the stone-gate Gisur mentioned."

"Should we go around?" asked Lagodir. We peered into the gloom, but none of us were able to see the edges of the cliff or which direction might be shortest.

"Whatever we do, we must not get separated," said Gaelira. "Drodie, since we find ourselves amidst the bones of the earth, I would have you choose: shall we try to pass this wall on the left or the right?"

Drodie chose the right, since that was the direction we had been instructed to take. However, after only a short distance we found that way was hopeless, for the ground ran quickly up into sheer hills that could not be climbed. We were forced to turn around, keeping the smooth stone wall on our right hand, and try to find a way forward by going to the west. It wasn't much longer after that when the light began to fail in earnest as the Sun left the sky.

I started hearing mournful howls and faint rushing sounds from somewhere out there in the blackness. It was nearly pitch dark, and in fact the only thing my eyes could tell me was that we were in a valley, for the sky overhead, choked as it was with dark and boiling rainclouds, was still a shade or two lighter than the mountains and cliffsides which surrounded us. If we had been underground it could have scarcely been any darker, and any hope of finding the path backward and out of that valley quickly vanished. Nor could we light any torches, for the rain continued unabated.

Some time later the wall which had stopped our advance finally yielded to our right. We tried to follow its track with our hands, but we began to come upon fetid pools of disgusting and slimy water of an unknown depth, and it seemed we were forced constantly to circumvent them on their western edges. Before long we had lost any sense of where the wall lay, and we found ourselves in what seemed to be a desolate plain full of sickly pools. We kept trying to head north and east whenever we could, but it was a wretched and fearful business in the dark. Every now and then we started to encounter barrows, their hideous maws opening up right across our path. I was reminded at once of the Barrow-downs in Bree-land, except here it was so dark it felt like we were inside a barrow even as we walked outdoors under the sky. We turned away from these places and pressed forward in any other direction we could find. More than once we came upon stone stairs and we would ascend them, eager for anything resembling a clear road, on the hopes it might lead out of that hellish place, but the night wore on and on. And on.

Finally, we came to a halt. The rain was still beating on our heads and shoulders and every one of us was drenched through to the skin. Lagodir shook his cloak and turned to Gaelira.

"We should find shelter," he said. "There is no telling where we have gotten ourselves by now and no hope of doing so until this storm clears and the Sun returns to light our way."

"You are right," the Elf agreed. "We should take cover in the next viable opening we can find."

"You don't mean to hunker down in one of these barrows?" I asked, horrified.

"Only at the absolute end of need," she replied grimly. "But perhaps we might find a cave or at least an overhang first. Something."

"What about this?" It was Drodie, and he was a little ways ahead peering into an open archway.

"We said no barrows!" said Nephyn. "If you want to bed down in a crypt then that is your own business, but I'd sooner spend the night in the mud with the rain as my blanket than pass ten minutes inside one of these graves."

"I do not think this is a gravesite, Nephyn," said Gaelira, who was closely inspecting the archway. "See these hinges? This was once a doorway covered by a wooden door, not a tomb enclosed with stone as a barrow would be. And these markings over the lintel: they are too faded now for me to read them, but they are much more elaborate than the others we have seen thus far."

"Oh, very well," I said. "I'm willing to take the chance: let's go inside."

Once we passed within, we were forced to explore our surroundings entirely by feel for there was absolutely no light. The rain had gotten into all of our stores and caused no end of damage, including to the torches, which would be worthless until they had dried out. We were just about to give up and head back outside into the rain when Gaelira reluctantly told us to wait. We all stopped where we were and listened. There was a short pause, a spark, and then a boom! and the whole place was bathed in firelight. Apparently, Gaelira had found a large empty brazier by touch and used one of her prized fire-bombs to create a short-lived flame. We quickly dried and fed our torches using this fire and then discovered a few more ancient torches were still hanging unlit in stone sconces here and there. At once we began learning more about our campsite.

The space was not enormous, but it was not small either, and it was clearly not a tomb. We discovered multiple chambers and, where I had expected to see skeletons or rotting bodies of the long-dead, we found instead...

"Books?" asked Nephyn in surprise as she passed her torch along a row of shelves which was packed with yellowed and crumbling tomes. "Books and scrolls? Did we just stumble into some kind of library?"

"So it would seem," said Gaelira thoughtfully as she surveyed another set nearby. "But why would anyone store such a collection of knowledge in a place like this?"

"I'm sure I don't know," I said as I gazed darkly about me, "But you won't find me here looking to borrow any recipes for perch fillet, I can tell you that!"

"Still, it is dry and it appears to be free of enemies," said Lagodir cautiously as he prodded into every corner he could find. "It should suit our purposes for the remainder of the night."

"Yes, you should all try to get some rest," said Gaelira, still eyeing the ancient volumes with great interest. "As usual, I will be glad to keep the watch."

We all quietly prepared ourselves to sleep. Supper was cold, for we had no desire to light a proper campfire in that place and only a single torch was kept burning. We spread out our wet things on the stone floor in hopes they would dry overnight, but there was little chance of that since we had no fire. I wrapped myself in my blanket and tried to pretend I was somewhere -- anywhere -- else. After a short while I finally realized I had never made today's journal entry, and so here I sit, huddled in this cold corner, eagerly awaiting the Sun's return. I don't know what it is that has me so frightened as we've not encountered any enemies since entering this valley. But I would feel a lot safer if Gaelira would do her job and watch the entryway instead of constantly casting her eyes back to those strange bookshelves.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 43

Cave-claw Wrangling

Sunday, 19th of Rethe, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
Gabilshathur, Somewhere in the Land of Angmar
The gem-horde of Gabilshathur
It seems our progress toward the heart of Angmar is fated to always be side-tracked and slow. Ah, but perhaps that is just me being pessimistic -- I cannot deny that something good did come of today's little digression. Here's how it happened.

I was shaken into wakefulness this morning, but it wasn't any person doing the shaking. Apparently the swamp of Malenhad, which was still all too near for my liking, has a habit of periodically spewing large plumes of gas high into the air. These eruptions are usually accompanied by a rumbling and a shaking in the earth, which I am here to tell you is most alarming. The rest of the inhabitants of this strange camp paid it no mind -- probably from being used to the phenomenon.

In any case, once I had gotten over my fright at the miniature earthquake which had disturbed my much-needed repose, I found another earthquake of a very different sort was brewing right here in the Dwarf-colony of Gabilshathur. Where just yesterday we had been welcomed heartily by the Dwarves and the Rangers alike, this morning things were completely different. There were sidelong glances, suspicious stares, and snarling lips from every Dwarf in sight. At first I thought these were directed only at me, but soon I realized they were giving the rest of our Company the same treatment. I hustled off to find my friends and learn what might be going on.

What I learned was not encouraging. The rest of Elladan's Outriders were clustered tightly around a small contingent of Rangers well out of the way and to the back of Gabilshathur. I could see Gaelira and the others were deep in serious conversation.

"What nonsense!" I heard Gaelira saying as I approached. "They actually believe we would travel all the way into the wastes of Angmar just to rob them? The very idea is absurd, and our errand cannot afford any further delays."

"I am afraid Guard-captain Gisur will let no one enter or leave this place," a tall Ranger replied. "It is clear you will not be permitted to continue your quest while this mystery remains unsolved."

"Well, whatever happened to the lot, it couldn't have just gotten up and walked off on its own," Drodie said. "Oughtn't we help them clear up the misunderstanding?"

"I do not know if they would trust you with that task, since you yourselves are the chief suspects," the Ranger (who I later learned was named Braigiar) answered. "Unless some appropriate compromise can be made?"

"It seems to me the best thing to do would be to examine the scene of the crime," said Lagodir thoughtfully. "Mayhap we shall learn something that will guide our next steps."

"That, I think, could be arranged," Braigiar said. "I shall go and request this boon of Gisur. Wait here." The tall Man walked briskly off and left us to talk among ourselves for a few moments.

"I say," I chirped as the others turned to greet me. "What exactly is going on? I haven't gotten so many hostile looks since the last time I was spotted talking to an Elf outside of Woodhall. Is everything alright?"

"I wouldn't say so," said Nephyn with a sigh. "Apparently we (and you) are all suspected of stealing a crate of precious gemstones from somewhere within this encampment during the night."

"What?!" I cried. "That's ridiculous! I suppose it explains the glares, but what a load of rot! As if we had nothing better to do than meander into this blasted, forsaken hole just to pinch a few rocks. The nerve!"

"That fairly well sums up my feelings on the matter too," said Gaelira sourly. "Still, we are at the Dwarves' mercy: they will not let us leave until the situation is resolved. I can see how it would be rather suspicious for their property to go missing just hours after we showed up here. That said, I do not think I will ever understand Dwarves and their love for such baubles."

"You did not risk life and limb seeking or mining them," said Drodie in an uncharacteristically even-toned voice. Thankfully, Braigiar returned at that moment.

"I have managed to convince Guard-captain Gisur that you should be shown the store-house from whence the gems were stolen," he said. "Please follow me. Quietly."

We suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a troop of very grim and ill-tempered Dwarves. If you've never been in a similar situation yourself, I can tell you it is not recommended. We were marched to an obscure corner of Gabilshathur and ushered into a small building. It was very cramped and dark, but when the guards lit a few torches (for there were no windows, so it was black as pitch even though it was morning outside), I could see the room was larger than it felt, for it was packed tightly with all manner of boxes, crates, chests, sacks, and other such containers. Everyone's attention was directed to one spot near the back of the room: there I saw a smallish wooden chest with metal bracings which had been broken into and emptied.

"There!" said a battled-scarred Dwarf as he pointed at the chest. "Explain that, thieves! How is it you appear in our camp by evening, and in the morning our most valuable treasures are gone?"

"How did the thief enter the store-room?" asked Lagodir. "Was the door forced open?"

"No," replied another Dwarf (it was Guard-captain Gisur). "The door was locked, for Olmoth, our provisioner, had unlocked it this morning as he prepared to cook breakfast for the garrison."

"If the door was locked, then how could we have gotten in?" Nephyn inquired heatedly.

"You must have stolen the keys off of Olmoth while he slept, taken the gems, re-locked the door, then replaced the keys after the deed was done," came Gisur's response. "Olmoth is getting on in years, after all."

"If they had managed that feat," asked Braigiar calmly, "Then why would they remain here to be discovered?"

"Because they thought themselves too clever to be found out!" said the first Dwarf with a sneer. "But you see we Dwarves are not so easily fooled."

"Oh, poo!" I said, not bothering to contain myself any longer. "If you honestly think we would troop all the way out here only to -- Hullo! What's this?"

Everyone looked as I scrutinized something on the floor. I had noticed that one of the stone tiles a bit off to one side (and partly concealed under a sack of potatoes) was out of alignment with the others. With an effort, I lifted it up and found a earthen tunnel, out of which came a pungent smell.

"Whoo!" I exclaimed as I covered my nose. "What in blazes is that stink?"

"Cave-claws!" cried Gisur. "I should have known! We have encountered large colonies of the vermin near here. There are hardly any decent folk in this land to keep their populations in check. The little beasts can sniff out valuable metals and gemstones from miles off, 'tis said. No doubt they would have been attracted to such a collection as what we had here."

"Well then!" I said as I put the floor tile back down and placed my hands on my hips. "I suppose an apology is in order?" But Gisur only stroked his beard.

"Perhaps this is only a bluff from you lot to distract us," he said, but he winked and I could see he was just teasing. "Personally, I do not believe so, but you must understand there will be no contentment in this camp until the gems are back in our possession. You see, those stones were unearthed only after two of my Dwarves were slain by wild beasts of Angmar, and the loss of the gems is an insult to their memories. Were I to let you go there would almost certainly be a mutiny in Gabilshathur and I am duty-bound to ensure that does not happen. I am not sure how we resolve this dilemma to everyone's satisfaction."

"I've an idea," said Nephyn after a moment. "It so happens we encountered a very large colony of cave-claws a ways east of here before we were forced to turn back and chanced to discover this encampment. The tunnel clearly leads eastward, and it seems likely enough your gem-horde now lies with those animals. If you will allow it, we would gladly recover them for you and your people."

"Your offer is valiant and I do not doubt your intentions," Gisur said slowly, "But there again you speak of me permitting you leave Gabilshathur with your heads intact, and that will not go over well with the garrison. What is to be done?"

"Let us do this," said Lagodir. "Two Dwarves were lost for the sake of the treasure, so two of us will pledge ourselves as weregild in their places. Nephyn and I will remain here as your prisoners while Gaelira, Drodie, and Padryc search for the gems. If they do not return with them in two days' time, you shall do with us what you will -- even if it means our lives must be forfeit." I gulped. Gisur pondered this for a long minute.

"In this way the memories of our fallen comrades would not be dishonoured," he said at last. "I believe I can keep the garrison under control using this arrangement. However, if you three should fail in your task, I hate to think what I will be required to do."

"We will not fail," said Drodie before anyone else had a chance to speak. I couldn't keep myself from sighing (quietly). How could we possibly guarantee that we would find the gems in time?

But there was nothing else for it: Gisur brought us before the other Dwarves and explained his decision. Nephyn and Lagodir surrendered themselves and were led away to be detained. Gaelira, Drodie, and I were escorted to the edge of Gabilshathur and permitted to depart -- much to the disapproval of the inhabitants. Soon we three found ourselves back in the unforgiving landscape of Angmar. We set out at once to try and locate the nest of cave-claws we had discovered the day before.

"Drodie, what makes you so sure we can find those gems in less than forty-eight hours?" I asked, somewhat rudely. "Do you have any idea where to begin looking?"

"Of course I have," he answered as we walked. "We have already said: the cave-claws from the colony we found yesterday are all but certain to be the culprits for they are nearby and to the east, which is the direction in which that tunnel leads. As for the gems themselves, you clearly do not know much about cave-claws, friend Padryc. Cave-claws may be (and are) pernicious and destructive creatures, but they are also quite organized and meticulous -- more like ants than locusts, if you understand me. When they have their talons on a batch of gems, they will store them in one spot (along with any other valuable items they may have collected), and not one piece will be out of place. The entire hive goes absolutely berserk if a single coin or glass bead goes missing, let me tell you."

"Sounds like a good way to describe Dwarves under similar circumstances," said Gaelira. Her words sounded harsh, but her voice seemed to be more contemplative than accusatory. I worried that Drodie would take offence, but he did not.

"One could well say that," he said. "In fact, it has long been a byword among my people that a Dwarf who has lost something precious is Angry as a nest of deprived cave-claws. Well, it sounds better in Khuzdul; that is only a very rough translation. Anyway, it is this natural tendency that some Dwarves have exploited by training select cave-claws as treasure-hunters. They aren't the cuddliest of companions, but if you're looking to unearth anything valuable you can ask for no better accomplices."

I pondered these odd revelations about Dwarven culture as we journeyed eastward. The Sun had already passed the noon hour by the time we spotted that orc-camp from the day before. Once again we were obliged to skirt around its northern edge to reach the burned-up pine-woods beyond. It was another hour or so when we located the path we had followed previously, but once we did it was clear we were on the right track. The path plunged down into a deep rut which was muddy and slimy at the bottom. The dirt-banks to our side were pocked with hundreds of burrows out of which came the same musky stench which had invaded our nostrils back in the Gabilshathur store-room. Drodie signalled us to proceed quiety, but suddenly dozens of cave-claws began to swarm out of the holes and attack us! We were hard-pressed at first, but once we got our footing we began to drive the vermin off.

"Now I am certain these are our thieves," laughed Drodie. "They are gathering to protect their horde and we did not see them react this way when we had passed through here less than twenty-four hours earlier. This could only be due to their theft of the gemstones. Now we need only proceed to the heart of this nest and we will have our prize."

This took a bit more effort as the path wound about confusedly, but soon it became clear our objective would be located wherever the concentration of the cave-claws was greatest. Following this logic, we eventually located a shallow cave which featured several odd earthen lumps in the ground. Once we had chased off the sentries we found these lumps had a rough consistency like hardened clay. Upon breaking them open, we discovered a marvellous collection of gold, jewels, and gemstones which -- while not extensive -- was nonetheless obviously of great value. We also found a good number of rough, uncut gemstones that we surmised must be the ones stolen from the Dwarves of Gabilshathur. We gathered up everything we could find and immediately began the journey back.

Our self-extraction from the nest was a messy business which involved tramping through loose mud and fighting off frenzied cave-claws, but in the end we emerged. It was a tiresome trek back to Gabilshathur and we arrived there just after sunset. The Dwarves were, of course, very apologetic and at once released Lagodir and Nephyn to us while begging our pardons over and over. Our friends had been treated well, and so there was no longer any cause for animus. In fact, since we had brought the Dwarves both their own stolen collection of uncut gems in addition to several other valuables the cave-claws had somehow acquired, we found ourselves being hailed as heroes. It seems the affections of Dwarves can be rather fickle in that regard, but they are also loyal to a fault once you have gained their trust.

Anyway, I am glad to report that this little detour of ours is finally resolved, much to everyone's relief. We were treated to an excellent meal (as much as a remote camp of war like Gabilshathur can offer, at least) and even to the Dwarves' best ale, so I hereby declare them capital fellows; good friends and true! It would be nice if every day in Angmar might end so satisfactorily, but something tells me that won't be the case.