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.

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