THE BLOODLINE HERO (a novel)

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THE BLOODLINE HERO (a novel)

Postby Celebrimbor32 » Thu Aug 13, 2009 12:17 pm

HISTORICAL NOTE

Denethil, son of Boradil, was a the last true king of Rhudaur before his fall from power in the year 1330 of the Third Age. He was not of the pure bloodline decended from Isuldur, but few men were in the waning years of the three sister-kingdoms. It was especially so in impoverished Rhudaur where much of the population of the original Edain had dwindled to a handful of leaves in the wind. Near constant warfare in the previous century, and even the one before it, had taken its toll on the Dunedain there and those few communities that chose to remain and endure their hardships often found themselves in want of food and housing, for they were ever on the move. As the years went by Rhudaur became more and more populated with folk of strange and unfriendly origins. Dunlendings from the south as well as the native Hillmen of the nearby mountains slowly infiltrated the lands and made there their homes, forcing the families of the Dunedain to vacate or be slain or enslaved. The folk who men in the west call the Easterlings crossed the mountains in the late thirteenth century and swelled the ranks of the newcomers, and often they found themselves in the employ of the current Dunedain king at the time, for they were prized as valuable mercenaries. But their loyalties were often shaky at best, for they were wont to switch their fealty like a man might change his shirt every day. Dunadan and Easterling, Dunlending and Hillman - not to mention the local folk who went by the title of Northman, for they proudly insisted that they belonged to a category all their own. It is true indeed that the halflings of En Egladil thrived in the southern regions, for they too had crossed the mountains into Rhudaur at that time, but they played only a very minimal part in the histories of that time and do not come into the tales of those days. Elves existed in Rhudaur, of course, but they mostly dwelt in the well-guarded and little known abode of Rivendell, home of Elrond Half-elven. They were a secret folk and wandered hither and thither as they pleased, for few had the will or might to restrain their movements. Few men ever beheld the Eldar. They kept well out of the way of the wars and fruitless affairs of men and looked upon the deeds and events in Rhudaur with cold and calous eyes. The land of Rhudaur was a mixed bag of folk to be sure, but there was little love between any of them during the reign of Denethil the Deceiver, as his detractors referred to him. Yet, alone among the sister-kingdoms, this unusual arrangement existed for many generations of men until the year 1331, when the great Warlord of Rhudaur, a ruthless Hillmen in league with the Witch-realm of Angmar in the frozen north, carried out a merciless campaign of genocide against the few remaining Dunedain and their harborers in Rhudaur. By 1332 all the folk of the Dunedain that had not been destroyed or enslaved quickly fled into neighboring Arthedain or Cardolan for sanctuary.

It was a time of mid-autumn in the year 1329, when the season's first snowflakes had already begun to fall, when King Denethil first began to read the sings of the impending doom that awaited him and his court. He was not a well-loved king of the people and he knew it well. Yet he cared not at all, for he still held supreme power in Rhudaur and his reign remained uncontested for the last eight years, after he had taken his coronation as King. His neighbors looked unkindly upon him as well. King Argeleb of Arthedain, son of Malvegil, had never trusted him or his Heir Apparent, Prince Celadorn. King Tarandil of Cardolan despised Denethil, and in the last years of his regin refused to attend the traditional Assembly of the Council of Arnor meetings upon Amon Sul, as was the custom for all the previous Kings and Queens of the three sister-realms. Denethil hated Tarandil for the slight and ere long vowed openly to punish Cardolan by shutting down all trade with Cardolan, the latter of which depended on Rhudauran timber for winter survival. Cardolan retaliated by blockading all river traffic upon the river Gwathlo, which the merchants and raftsmen of Rhudaur's southern port city of Fennas Druinen were wont to use on their way to the thriving city of Tharbad. This was little to the liking of the folk of Tharbad and they made their formal complaints to the king about the obstructionism in the river, but Tarandil turned a deaf ear upon them, for he was a stubborn man and not one to be gainsaid in his policies. Arthedain did little to placate the two rival kings, for they had as of late found themselves bogged down in the northern confines of their own realm fending off increasing raids of orcs that had issued forth from Angmar and Gundabad with reckless abandon. Thus began the final stages of Rhudaur's formal withdrawal from the ancient triple alliance of the sister-realms - just as evil things began to stir in Eriador.

Yet during the earlier years of his kingship Denethil enjoyed many victories. He was the youngest child of King Boradil, son of Orondil, who himself was known to be a righteous and courteous man - the last Rhudauran king to be connected with favorable qualities. Denethil had beheld many uprisings of the people during his reign but he did not fear them. He always put them down with great success. His own folk were strong in those days - the early years, when he had first received the crown from his father. He had successfully driven a wedge between his rival siblings. His supporters smiled gleefully then as they watched brother against brother carry out vile and murderous acts of barbarity against one another until only a small handful of folk upon either side were left alive. It was then that Denethil, youngest of the three Dunedain brothers of the royal line, and who had feigned secret support for for both men, stepped in with his folk of mixed and obscure orgins, to sweep away the scattered armies of his brothers into the tangled wilds of both north and south. The eldest brother, Celadil, was forced far northwards into the cold Ettenmoors where the winds howled bitterly amongst the rocky highlands. There he was penned in for many months until hunger drove him and his followers southwards again into the rural settlements where they sought to intermingle themselves with the local folk and steal what food they could. Yet King Denethil, who had already taken his royal seat within the lofty castle of Cameth Brin, had many spies abroad and Celedil was discovered. Ere long the cutthroats of the king tracked him down and slew him mercilessly.

Faracil, their father's second born son, had been in hiding in the southern regions of the Angle, where the lands were more hospitable. In the year 1324, when nearly two years had passed since Denethil had forced him and his brother into local exile, Faracil mustered a great force of fighting men and marched north for many days until they came upon the walls of the village of Tanoth Brin, which rested beneath the tall shadows of the jagged hill upon whose summit sat the castle of Cameth Brin, the King's Seat in Rhudaur. But Denethil had been waiting for them, for Faracil had marched openly through the lands upon their long road northwards. The king sent many sorties against his brother as they marched along their course in hopes of whiddling away at his brother's army in a war of attrition. It was a strategy that served him well, for Faracil's men were road weary ere they reached Tanoth Brin and their bagage train was in a state of ill repute. Then many of Faracil's men lost heart once they had beheld the towering summit of Cameth Brin far above their heads with its many men manning the ramparts with bows of many sorts drawn and ready. It was the first time most of them had ever set eyes upon the Craggy Hill and the sight of it with its grim castle perched upon its summit filled them with a foreboding dread. Therefore, knowing that the courage of most of his men had failed them at the last, Faracil sent messages of parley into the village announcing a cessation in all hostilities if he and his remaining army would be allowed to depart in peace with a vow never to wage war upon Cameth Brin again. But Denethil smiled when he heard these tidings and sent his heralds out to the walls to announce to Faracil's army that every man would be allowed to depart and go whither they would on condition that Faracil himself should become a prisoner of the king. To this the men of Faracil's makeshift army would have assented to but Faracil refused, knowing full well that he would be quickly executed by his brother and his body put up on display as an example to others. Many of the men from the south then threatened to lay hands upon their captain and drag him to the gates of Tanoth Brin if he refused, but Faracil and his few loyal supporters fled the scene on foot and sought to make their way to the river Hoarwell in great haste. But they were pursued and hunted down ere they could reach the riverside. There Faracil was slain with an arrow in his throat with the sound of the rushing river a stone's throw away.

With his brothers dead Denethil felt more at ease to rule the realm of Rhudaur as he pleased without the threat of rivals who might contest his kingship. The early years of his reign saw little to be remarked upon, and indeed it was not said that his rule was in any way cruel or wicked then. Yet ere four years had passed the relative peace he had enjoyed after usurping the crown faltered when quarrles erupted once again between Rhudaur and Cardolan over possession rights of the Palantir housed in Amon Sul. Denethil openly charged king Tarandil of manipulating the seeing-stone against him by use of wizardry and claimed that by doing so Cardolan had violated the formal agreement between them that none of the three kingdoms should use the stone for spying on one another. Furthermore Denethil insisted that Arthedain and Cardolan had engaged in collusive acts against Rhudaur by swelling the city of Tharbad with excessive men-at-arms from their own respective realms which Denethil constituted a threat to his own realm. To the former charge there was little truth in it, for though Tarandil was indeed accounted as a man of great wisdom and foresight, even by Arthedainian standards, he had not the skill to manipulate the great Palantir against another of the Dunedain kings. To the latter accusation Tarandil responded by saying that Tharbad did in fact lie within the proper bounds of his realm and technically belonged to Cardolan, and since it was he and not Denethil or Malvegil, the current king of Arthedain, that dwelt closest to the increasingly hostile men of Dunland to the south, Cardolan should not be restricted in the numbers of her guards stationed in the city. The claim that Cardolan was the true possessor of Tharbad seemed excessively haughty to Arthedain at the time, but Malvegil did not press Tarandil on it. Denethil, however, openly denied Tarandil's charge and as a resullt he sent many men of arms south into the Angle where they placed themselves into the soldiery at Fennas Druinen in order to guard the right of passageway of the river Gwathlo. He also sent his spies into Tharbad and made there his first covert alliances with the more secretive guildsmen that thrived in the city. There he concocted what mischief he could in Tharbad in order to complicate Tarandil's daily business there, for he knew of the king of Cardolan's growing obession over control of the city then.

By the year 1327 Denethil saw his troubles with his own people increase once again. He had successfully thwarted a plot to assassinate him by some among his own bodyguards in the early months of the year and as a result he had many of them tortured until he got the confession out of them that fired the embers of his anger into a burning rage. Knowing of Denethil's ongoing rivaly with king Tarandil of Cardolan more than one of the unfortunate wretches stretched out upon the dungeon racks of Cameth Brin blurted out the name of Tarandil in association with the assassination attempt. By their account the king of Cardolan had hired them to carry out the plot to end his life with a down-payment of Arthedainian gold mint and more to come if the plot proved a success. It was enough to convince the paranoid king of Rhudaur, though he did not openly accuse Tarandil of the attempted regicide at the time, for he had no wish to turn the eyes of Cardolan northwards into Rhudaur then. Denethil began to muster his forces in and around Cameth Brin in preparation for a great surprise assault upon Tharbad which he hoped to temporarilly seize for his own with assistance from his secret allies within the guilds therein. But just as the king was preparing his armies two remarkable events frustrated his designs. Firstly, reports quickly reached him that much of Tharbad had been as of late burned to the ground in a great conflagration, and many of the guilds inside the city with it. Secondly, many of the tribes of the Rhudauran Hillmen had withdrawn from northern Rhudaur and were said to be engaged in civil warfare amongst themselves in the foothills of the Misty Mountains. To the first account Denethil was much alarmed and he sent his spies and scouts down the river Gwathlo to learn the truth of the rumors of Tharbad. When the scouts returned and reported that sizable portions of Tharbad had indeed been burned in a great fire Denethil held a hasty council with his war captains and instead decided to take advantage of the disorder in lower Cardolan by sending a great host of warriors to Amon Sul to evict Cardolan's soldiery out of the tower. Of the account concerning the Hillmen it is said that he cared little, for the Hillmen had ever been a mistrustful ally, and indeed may have even welcomed such an internicine conflict of arms between, as he deemed them, crazed barbarians.

Thus, with impending doom that he had not freseen, Denethil found himself in dire straits and unable to fulfill his ambitions. In the spring of 1330 a new leader rose up among the tribes of the Hillmen of Rhudaur, and his name was Broggha. He was known to be a fierce and uncontested warrior who, it is said, rose to power by murdering his own father - himself a peaceful man by nature, desiring little more than reuniting the rival tribes. Broggha exploited his father's timidity and seized power from him with the aid of many men from Angmar, whom had come into Rhudaur to raise Broggha up as the new face of authority in the realm. The king was aware of Broggha but had not the men to contest this new threat at the time, for his army was stretched too thin, the bulk of them being away to the south and westwards upon Amon Sul by his own command. Yet still he did not fear that an attack upon Cameth Brin was in any way emminent, as the campaign season had formally ended with the coming of an early winter. But Broggha rallied his new army of Hillmen by way of his stout courage and fearless leadership. Furthermore, he was tireless and had the endurance and hardihood of a dwarf. In this it was later said that he received aid from the the dark arts from Angmar which made him endure far longer than most men. Broggha gave a great speech to his many followers and spoke long to them regarding their history of constant struggle against the wickedness of the Dunedain aggressors and the many unjust iniquities the true and original inhabitants of Eriador had suffered over the long ages. They had endured woe and misery long enough and their new leader urged them to follow his leadership to the very walls of Cameth Brin and demand that the king agree to vacate Cameth Brin and depart Rhudaur forever. With the hearts of the people enflamed the new army of Hillmen marched through northern Rhudaur with their allies from the north - burning, looting and pillaging as they went.

It is said that Denethil hardened his heart at the tidings he received and immediately ordered his remaining captains to muster the troops and man the castle's defenses. The barracks of the village of Tanoth Brin was emptied of all fighting men, who were ordered to form their battle formations on the eastern slope of the Craggy Hill where the grade of its inclination was more gentle, for indeed the western wall of the hill was sheer and jagged - completely unnavigable by any save birds and small beasts. But the Dunedain and their few allies, composed mainly of Easterling mercenaries along with Northmen cavalry and Dunlending infantry, began to suffer with cold, for Broggha bade his army halt in a scattered community of locals a mere three hours march east of Camth Brin. There they waited for three days until the ever-falling snow on the ground lay several inches deep. Thus began the Seige of Cameth Brin in the last month of the year, where the king of Rhudaur found himself trapped up inside the walls of his lofty abode with no way of escape. he commanded his captains to harass the enemy by way of sorties sent out against the Hillmen, but Broggha and his men always prevailed. Then the lord of the Hillmen sought to taunt Denethil by regularly bringing forth various prisoners he had captured just out of bowshot range from the walls of the ramparts. There he would call up to Denethil in his booming voice and threatened to kill two prisoners a day until the King of Rhudaur abdicated his throne and vacated the castle forever, saying, "Hail, Denethil! Former King of Rhudaur! Here at last we meet at the end. No longer shall you mercilessly hunt and subjugate our folk at your despicable pleasure. The Hillmen have suffered overlong at the hands of you and your line. The Dunedain are finished! Their reign in Rhudaur ends with you. As a trapped rat in a cage do I now have you! No one will aid you now. Yet if you come forth and surrender your castle I will at least spare the lives of the women and children you have penned up there with you. If you do not come forth things will go ill for them! They shall become playthings for the men under my command, and your Queen I alone shall have! Yet should you still doubt the word of Broggha let this execution before you serve as my testimony!" Then Broggha brought forth two of the leaders of Denethil's war sorties that he had captured and had them lay face down in the snow. There they became the first victims of Broggha's axemen, and when the deed was done Broaggha seized the two severed heads by the hand and hurled them with great strength and mockery towards the walls of the castle. These brutal acts were carried out day by day for a fortnight until Denethil began to quail with misery at the sight of so many severed heads before his gate. In desperation he had already ordered for the castle's two great beacons to be lit in hopes of attracting any who might aid him in his ill plight, but no help came.

With their food supply dwindling and having little wood left to them to light fires for warmth, the King at last read the doom that awaited him in the eyes of his foes below. The death of his only daughter by sickness and cold at last sapped the remaining strength of will out of him. Yet even then he refused to abdicate his throne. Celedorn had sought to convince his father of marshalling together what knights he still had with them and make a final grand stand against their enemies, folly though it may be. But Denethil had lost heart and was indeed growing weaker by the day. He refused his son but gave him leave to try and wreak whatever damage he could to their enemies ere the end.

Therefore Celedorn led a slender host of seventy knights upon horseback out the gates and down the eastward hill to confront Broggha's army. The lord of the Hillmen watched as one silently amused at the display before him. But the final battle was a rout. The last of Denethil's knights were thrown from their mounts and slain by the Hillmen. But Celedorn was taken alive by order of Broggha and was placed under heavy guard. Yet it was not so glorious an end for King Denethil and Halmedis, his Queen. Their lifeless bodies were later found upon their great bed in their private chamber, hand in hand. About them also lay overturned bowls of Yflwyd Juice - which was the liquidy substance obtained from crushing the pollen of the infamous Yflwyd Flower, found in the Rhudauran forest of the same name. It was known by all men of the wild to be a deadly poison when consumed. Thereafter Broggha and his retinue swarmed the castle and took possession of it, killing off the sickly and any remaining men inside it that they deemed a threat. What few women and children that still lived were either given to the captains of the Hillmen or sold off into slavery in the mountains.

Thus Broggha had at last achieved that which no other enemy of the Dunedain had done before him: the final termination of Elendil's line in Rhudaur. Only Denethil's son, Celedor, remained. For a long while Broggha knew not what to do with him and kept him locked in the dungeons of Cameth Brin. No uncorrupted men of the west remained in Rhudaur after the death of Denethil and Broggha thought it best to raise the boy in his own image, and so he did for at least a handful of years after Broggha's usurpation of the throne. But at length it was believed that the Witch King in Angmar thought it unwise allow any son of a former Dunedain king to dwell within the bounds of Rhudaur, and Celedor was sent into the north where all tidings of him ceased and his ultimate fate unknown.

Broggha quickly established a new order of things in Cameth Brin. He appointed new councilmen to serve under him and carry out his orders and a fresh team of personal bodyguards consisting of various Hillmen and men from Angmar, and they followed him wherever he went. He ordered that new construction be undertaken on a road that would connect Cameth Brin to Angmar in the far north, the length of which ran through the barren foothills of the Misty Mountains, out of view from the prying eyes of the Dunedain to the west. But the eagles of the Hithaeglir were aware of them and soon reported what they saw to the Noldorin elves, who in turn passed on the information to King Argeleb of Arthedain. Then the king would have launched an invasion of Rhudaur straightaway but his forces were then focused in the north of his realm where the orcs of Angmar fell upon the men of the marches in heavy numbers. Therefore Argeleb was forced to brood and to bide his time. Word of the fall of Denethil and the usurpation of his crown by the Hillmen was sent south into Cardolan where King Tarandil received them with indifference. He was glad indeed to see Denethil removed from power but would not send his army into Arthedain to aid in a war against an enemy that was sure to devour itself in time, for the Hillmen, he claimed, "were wont to engage in as much in-fighting amongst themselves as a pack of wild orcs, and indeed they are not too far off removed from them in their ways of wickedness and treachery. Sit, therefore, lord Argeleb, and wait and watch a while. They will soon turn to murdering their own kin and the reign of this so-called 'warlord' will be short-lived. Then Rhudaur shall trouble Arnor no more!" But Argeleb replied in turn that Tarandil was lacking in wisdom if he deemed that Angmar was not the real power behind the scenes. Furthermore, Arthedain claimed that Cardolan would surely be the next target of Angmar's wrath if the warlord of Rhudaur was allowed to remain on the throne of Rhudaur, for, as Argeleb reasoned, "Arthedain is still too strong to vie with at present, as is well known to our enemies. They shall look south ere they look west, though I forebode that ill shall come to me ere to you, lord Tarandil." Yet to this Tarandil gave no reply, for the king of Cardolan at last succumbed to an illness that had plagued him for years, and in the early months of the year 1335 the king died. So ended the long reign of Tarandil, son of Mirien the Queen, a reign which had lasted for two and forty years. Therefore it was left to his son to contend with the rising power of the north during the turbulent years that lay ahead - and it is those years in particular that our tale concerns us.

And now for our feature presentation...
Last edited by Celebrimbor32 on Fri Feb 12, 2010 3:12 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Thu Aug 13, 2009 12:49 pm

Prologue

"THE LUCK OF THE RAVEN"

(Somewhere in the Misty Mountains, T.A. 1323)



At last the group of adventurers from the wild lands of Rhovanion had set out for the legendary lands of Eriador from their homes that lay alongside the southern eaves of that immense expanse of woodland that men call Greenwood the Great. The expedition had been in the planning stages for months ere the word had finally been given that all was ready. Out of the east men with cruel hearts and deadly weapons had as of late turned their homelands into a dangerous place to dwell in, and those that remained knew well enough that they risked life and limb by choosing to remain. Thus with high hopes but sorrowful hearts, for they feared that they would never see their friends again, in the second week of the month of April well nigh a hundred men, women and children turned their feet westwards where they would travel along the eaves of the forest until it bent round to the north, where they would then bid farewell to the trees as they made their way down into the lower vales of the Anduin valley. There many of them would join up with their kindred up and down the lengths of the mighty river and take up residence among them. Yet not all were content to remain in Wilderland. Five and thirty among their ranks - mostly hardened men who were capable of enduring toilsome mountain travel - sought to press on by making their way up into the passes of the Misty Mountains where their ultimately desired to come down into Eriador. Their reasons for doing so were as varied as the very men themselves: some desired to join the ranks of the Dunedain of the three sister-kingdoms, others sought to make profits by tade, some sought employment as mercenaries, while others sought out missing relatives or simply desired to live out their lives in new lands unfamilar to them save in legends.

The company of Rhovanion mountaineers bid another fond farewell to their kin alongside the Anduin after a much needed rest and equiping themselves with all that they would need in the snowy upper regions of Middle-earth, where the winds howled frigidly and the stars shone brilliantly. Fortunately the weather had been sweet and mild, it still being a time of late spring and, apart from a small band of dwarves making their way eastwards, and a small party of halflings encamped alongside the Anduin, they had seen few travelers upon their route over Wilderland. They had sought to glean a bit of news from the party of dwarves who had just come down out of the mountains by the same pass that the Rhovanions purposed to use, but the dwarves would say little without being compensated. The men had taken with them a few bags of coins to use once they had entered Eriador but they wished not to part with any of it before then. Therefore the dwarves would only give them tidings of heavy rains on the western side of the range and a sea of fog in the eastern foothills. Thus the travelers went forward without any clear knowledge of what lay ahead in their lofty path. Yet some among the group thought the dwarves looked much haggard and wayworn - much more so than the sturdy race of Aule normally looked to be after a long march, and one dwarf among them had his arm set in a sling. Nevertheless, the men went forward without delay, for they desired to come down into the lower vales of the western mountains at the end of five day's march at the latest.

They traversed the vast expanse of the eastern foothills through the fog without much delay and no mishap, and to them it seemed that their progress had gone well. The weather did indeed turn cold once they reached the higher elevations and three of the men were stricken with the mountain sickness and required much attention by the group's leech-men. This gave them all their first delay since the crossing of the Anduin the week before. Yet they had at last gone forward again for a half day's march when they finally felt the pass beginning to descend gradually. Then many of them were glad, for they had become very weary of their road by then and especially so of the mountains despite their wondrous beauty. Yet before they had reached the end of their road for the night the travelers had come across their first sign of danger. The scouts, who had gone forward down the pass and out of sight in order to see what lay ahead ere nightfall fell upon them, came jogging back up the path, for so it had become by now, with tidings that would surely have struck fear into the heart's of many among the travelers had they been allowed to hear of them. But the leader of the group, a certain Wildaria by name, forbade the scouts to speak of it ere he himself could examine the bodies in order to ascertain the manner and circumstances of their deaths. The scouts had told him of the finding of two bodies of dead men who looked to have been wickedly slain and butchered.

Wildaria and one other, a man called Urlavia, were led thither alone with the two scouts. The caws of crows mingled with the croaks of other carrion birds plainly marked the death spot. The scene they beheld was gruesome indeed. There lay, just off of the path nigh two lone standing pine trees, the bloody corpses of two men. Three vultures were already having their way with them. Their lifeless bodies had been tied in a sitting position to the trunk of the trees, but lo! Their heads had been cruelly hewn off. The four Rhovanions did not have to go far to find them, however. Upon either side of the steep stony path two wooden stakes had been spitted in the soil. Upon either point of the stakes were the two missing heads of the dead men. By now it was well nigh impossible to detirmine the identities of the men, save that they were both lightly bearded and dark-haired. They had not been old men by any account. It was plain that their deaths had been terrible, and though the four travelers knew not who they might be their hearts still bled for them with pity.

"The mountains are a haven for lawlessness, it seems," claimed Urlavia with dismay. "Who would do such a thing as this and for what purpose?"

"Now due I rue our kindness to those cursed dwarves," exclaimed one of the scouts, a younger man by the name of Vinhilui. "We should have accosted them and stole what belongings they had for making us pay for their tidings. I suspect they are the cause of this." Wildaria shook his head in disagreement.

"Nay, Vinhilui! I do not hold them to blame for this, for such carnage is not their way. The dwarves I have known in my life, though I admit they have been few, have been decent enough folk. Yet even had they enough cause to murder these men they would not have butchered their dead bodies in the aftermath."

"It could not have been wild beasts," said Urlavia. Wildaria shook his head.

"Nay again. This is something quite different. There is hatred and cunning here. And I suspect there might have been more victims here than the two we see before us, for only a fool would travel the high passes in such thin company."

Then the four travelers conducted a brief search of the area in the hope of making some degree of sense out of the killings before returning to their companions. They found little that was helpful to them, save a few scattered weapons down a shallow embankment further down the pass. They were mostly knives and short blades, yet some of their edges were still faintly lined with dried blood - evidence that they had been used not long ago.

"These blades were almost certainly used by the men in defence against their enemies, whoever they might have been," Urlavia, showing a pair of notched short swords to his companions.

"Look at this!" exclaimed Rivular, the fourth man of the group. He had gone over to the two bodies tied to the trees to wave away the carrion birds from their feasting and in the process of doing so had stumbled across the remains of what looked to be a single severed hand laying near the two pine trees. "There is a broken hand here in the dirt. Come see!" The others joined Rivular quickly, save Wildaria, who stood motionless beside one of the two pitted stakes in the road. He crouched down with bended knees and gazed silently at the severed head upon the pole. The mouth of the head hung gaping open in a mournful crying manner. The eyes of it, which surprisingly had yet to be pecked out by the vultures, were turned upwards. Wildaria reached up and gently forced one of them downwards in order to see its former color. They were grey. The man had had grey eyes. That they were light in color suggested that he may have come from west of the mountains out of Eriador, for few folk among the Rhovanions (save for a small handful of brash or foolhardy daredevils such as the present company) ever ventured over the high passes into Eriador. But it was then that he noticed a dark marking on the forehead of the deceased. He brushed aside the long hair that hung limply down over the face and beheld an engraved marking. Just above the bridge of the nose was an emblazoned symbol of a coiled snake or serpent with its forked tongue portruding from its jaw. It was apparently a firebrand marking of some sort. Wildaria sighed and called his companions over to him.

"See here, friends! There is a marking upon the man's forehead. Alas, it seems that this unfortunate soul was branded after he died."

"There is a similar marking on this one as well," said Vinhilui, as he held the hair aside upon the opposite head for the others to see. "It looks like a snake of some kind. What could this mean?"

"I think it is a symbol of the cursed killers who did this to them," offered Rivular. Wildaria nodded in agreement.

"Aye, it is plainly that. Let me see the dismembered hand that you found, Rivular." The latter passed over the mangled hand. Wildaria looked at it in disgust as he turned it over this way and that in order to ascertain its origin. Two of its fingers were missing but the three that remained showed that the bearer of the hand was not that of a man, for the wrinkled skin that covered the bones was of a dark greyish hue and its fingernails were long and pointed. "It is as I had feared, alas," added Wildaria. "These poor men were waylaid by orcs. It all begins to make sense to me now."

"Orcs!" cried Urlavia in dismay. "Orcs, say you? I have not heard news of orcs in these passes ere now. How can you be sure?"

"There is no surety in any of this, Urlavia. Yet who else would would go to such lengths to massacre their victims so?"

"Perhaps these men were victims of some sort of revenge attack by other men, or yea! Maybe the dwarves we saw coming out from these very same passes did indeed perform this barbarous act! They may be very vicious when they have a score to settle with an enemy."

"Then how would you explain this?" asked Wildaria holding up the beastly severed hand as evidence. Urlavia hesitated, but Vinhilui spoke up on his behalf.

"Perhaps it is the claw of some four-legged beast that we have no knowledge of in the east. These mountains are strange to us. Yet I agree with Urlavia here. It would make sense if the dwarves killed these men, for they are vindictive folk as far as I know them. Do not forget the look of that band that we saw in the eastern foothills. They looked as if they were battle-weary. One of them had a broken arm as well! I wish them ill for witholding such grave tidings from us!"

"I do not claim to know all the answers," replied Wildaria wistfully, "Yet what dog or other four-legged beast has such an appendage?" Once again he gestured to the grissly hand. "And look here! This appendage even bears a thumb! Beasts posses no such thing, of course."

"I do not ever recall of hearing of the presence of orcs in these passes," argued Urlavia, detirmined not to accept Wildaria's explanation. "I have traveled this pass at least twice before, and I remember the journey to present no such dangers, tiresome though it is."

"The times have changed since then," said Wildaria again. "How long has it been since you came this way, Urlavia? Ten years? Fifteen maybe? The years darken ever more as Middle-earth wanes with age. Though you are wrong when you claim that no orcs inhabit these mountains. There exists many reliable testimonies contrary to such a claim."

"Aye, perhaps," admitted Urlavia reluctantly, "but not in recent years I would guess. Does not the Eldar and the Dunedain of Eriador guard these passes and make patrols herein regularly to keep out such hazards?" Wildaria shook his head at this.

"Nay, the Eldar do not watch the passes, for they have their own cares. The Dunedain, so tis said, are now few in number in the lands that are called Rhudaur. They would not have the strength or the means to guard them. But enough of this talk. You may surmise what you wish, but I deem this the work of such evil folk - and furthermore," he added grimly as he pointed to the two severed heads upon the poles, "I believe these heads were placed here as a warning of some kind."

"A warning to us?" asked Vinhilui.

"A warning to any that might desire to tred this pass downward." But Urlavia, who was the most insistent denier in the theory of orcs inhabiting the passes of the mountains, chimed in immediately.

"But we cannot turn back now! Surely, oh chief, you do not suggest such a thing! We are a large company and as mighty in body as we are in weaponry. Our fighting men can deal with any who may challenge us. Besides, we have come very far and by hard roads. It would make all such hardships seem in vain."

"And our deaths," quipped Rivular, tending to side with Wildaria, "might be earned should we rush forward too eagerly. Then also, would all the hardships we endured be made vain."

"But death will be the result of us all should we turn around now, for we have not the supplies to make such a return journey. Nor would our baggage ponies endure it. We can fight our way down the mountain if we must." Rivular scoffed at Urlavia's disengenuine tone.

"You speak of fighting, Urlavia? Long has it been since your blade has been notched by the iron of an enemy! You speak brashly but loath am I to put my trust in your courage!"

"I would match my courage up with yours at a moments notice, fool!" snarled Urlavia, not at all liking his abilities questioned before their captain.

"I will have peace here! And do not speak of death," interrupted Wildaria, "for it has not called upon us yet, and maybe it shall not. But it may be that we should manage the way downwards without mishap if we travel by day. Orcs shun the sunlight tis said."

"Can we make it all the way own into the western vales in one day's march, chieftain?" asked Vinhilui. Urlavia answered for him.

"With favorable weather we might just make it to the foothills at the least - or so I seem to recall it." Urlavia was not altogether convincing in his reply. The others looked at him questionably. They now began to feel a sudden weight upon their shoulders with this change of fortune, and they looked this way and that at their surroundings suspiciously as if they expected hidden foes to emerge from some dark hiding place and rush upon them with claws and sharpened blades. The shadows were now long and black about them as the sun continued its descent beneath the western rim of the world. It was if some strange and hidden menace was now spying them out with hateful eyes that thirsted for their blood.

"Well?" said Wildaria impatiently, "Can we or can we not? Which is it? This is important for us all!" Again Urlavia seemed to hesitate before answering.

"Aye. If this weather holds we can make it, though we must depart at first light if we hope to succeed."

"Then it is decided?" asked Vinhilui.

"I have not said so yet, Urlavia," answered Wildaria, "yet though I may be the chief of this expedition I would not make such a weighty decision without a general consensus among the entire group. We must return to the encampment and report our findings to them ere we decide to go this way or that." To this Urlavia suddenly seemed dismayed and sought to dissuade his chief against this, arguing that such a revelation as this would only frighten the faint of heart among the group.

"Everyone must know of the danger that may lay ahead of them, Urlavia," said Wildaria. "Would you have me conceal from them such a peril?"

"Aye, I would, chieftain! Not out of a desire to deceive them, of course, but only because I do not, begging your pardon, wholly agree with your orc theory."

"I care not what you believe, Urlavia, but I shall certainly make known to them my theory."

"Then, chief," begged Urlavia, "let us at least remove this gruesome display of death ere we come this way in the morning. The others need not see such terrible carnage - especially my young nephew. His heart is shaken sorely enough with the toilsome journey and leaving his home so far behind for the first time in his life. He misses his mother badly and I fear that he will refuse to go forward should he be witness to this terrible death scene, whatever the cost."

"Vilthavia needs to stouten his heart more," chimed in Vinhilui, refering to the man's nephew. "Why does he shield his eyes so whenever we traverse a gorge?"

"He fears heights," replied Urlavia, shrugging his shoulders. "He has no love of mountains, I think. One may hardly blame him in this, for he has lived his entire thirteen years in the plainlands of the east. Yet he is the one who begged leave to go with me on this errand, so he must endure it now."

"He thinks he shall find his father again once in Eriador?" asked Wildaria doubtfully.

"I know not what Vilthavia desires exactly, yet I have heard him suggest as much."

"Whatever his reasons for coming," said Wildaria with an air of finality in his voice, "he and the others shall know the possibilty of peril now exists if we venture forward. But let us speak no more of it now. I shall yield to your wish, Urlavia. We shall remove these ghastly heads and bodies and conceal them as quickly as possible ere we return to the group. Let us hasten now, for it will be dark very soon. We shall fend off these despicable carrion birds. Those that will not depart we shall shoot. Come! Let us begin! There is little light left for shooting."

~~

The view of the mountains from the rocks above the saddle point had been most extraordinary. Or at least that is what the two scouts had claimed after they had scaled the boulders above the stony pass to get a better look around at the group's environment while Wildaria and the others had gone forward to investigate the pass ahead. They had called down to the rest of their fellow expeditionaries that they had indeed come at last within a day's march of the upper foothill regions that marked the beginning of the end of the Misty Mountains.

"Yea!" said one of the climbers as he stood with his feet dug firmly in place upon a small rock ledge near the top of the boulder cluster he and another had climbed that stood nearly fifty feet above the pass below. "I can see the green of their hilltops through random holes in the ceiling of fog far below. I see now why these mountains are refered to as The Misties!"

"You ought to take care up there, Urlav!" hollered one of the leech-men reproachfully up to the climber. "My skill as a healer is not great enough to amend a broken skull from such a lofty fall!" Urlav dismaissed the man's anxiety with a wave of his hand and returned his eyes back out across the wide aeiry world around him. The sight filled the young man with awe. "Tis an amazing thing to behold! You shant see anything like this back home, I dare say!" Urlav, noticing his companion at last reaching the same height as himself, reached out his hand to steady his friend as the man joined him upon the ledge. "Easy there, Vinya! Watch your step. Pray, do not crowd me! The space is tight here!"

"You take up too much room," retorted Vinya. "I shall go on up there just to claim that I stood on higher ground than you!" Vinya was pointing to a high and somewhat remote outcropping of rock upon the summit of the boulder-like mountain they had climbed to pass the time while the four scouts were away. Urlav took a look at Vinya's intended destination a good fifteen feet further on up the rocks and smiled.

"You heard our leecher," he replied sarcastically. "He has no skill to heal broken heads should you fall, which, should you do so, I would beg you to kindly pass me by without taking me with you on your way down!" Yet Vinya was sure-footed and, though he was forced to do so on all fours, made the ascent without managing to crack his head open in a fall. Yet he did manage to knock and dislodge a spray of small stones and dirt down upon his companion in the process. "You did that deliberately!" snarled Urlav, brushing the dirt and debris from his hair and arms. "I shall even the score before this journey reaches its end, you may count on that!" The slightly older Vinya laughed at his friend from above as he sat himself down upon the upper-most rock of the little mountain they had just climbed and let his feet dangled over the side.

"Vilthavia!" Cried Vinya down to the boy far below him. The young nephew of Urlavia had paid no heed to the two climbers as they scrambled up the towering boulder-hill. Instead he had wandered off to the far side of the pass at sat down upon some flat rocks that lined the flanks of either side of the pass. He gazed aimlessly out across a wide and steeply degrading slope of shallow snow and ice as it eventually plunged over some unknown depth into a dark abyss. He wondered how far down the bottom lay from the top. "I say! Vilthavia!" cried Vinya again. Vilthavia turned around and looked up at the man. "Vilthavia, why don't you come up and see the view from here? The climb is not as hard as it might seem from down there!" Vilthavia ran his eyes up and down the bumpy terrain upon the boulder-hill doubtfully and simply shook his head in reply, but Vilya would not relent so easily. "It is alright, I promise you, lad! If Urlav can make it up than you surely can. I would not have you pass up this chance to see the wide world as the eagles get to see it! All you need to do is make sure you don't look down while you are climbing upwards. Just make it on your own to about that point there where that little patch of weed juts out from the rock," Vilya indicated the area he intended with the point of his finger, "and then Urlav there will assist you up to where he is now. Come on, boy! Take courage and trust me!"

"Let him be, Vilya," remarked Urlav dryly. "He does not possess the spider-legs we have for climbing. Vilthavia's heart quails when his feet are not touching the ground beneath him. Isn't that right, Vilthavia? Remember that time last year when you got stuck in that tree in the woods and we had to climb up and fetch you down again! Ha! It could not have been in excess of fifteen feet! You ought not to climb into trees, Vilthavia, if you you do not have the heart to climb back down again."

"He was hiding from us, I think," said Vilya from his high vantage point.

"Just ignore them, Vilthavia," said a kindlier voice to the boy. Vilthavia turned his head and saw that his friend Vidui had come up beside him and smiled sympatethically. "Those two louts will catch it hot if Wildaria comes back before they climb down. Look at them, will you! Risking life and limb for no reason, and shouting about as loud as an echoing cave. They have much to learn about life, I fear. Your wise heart already outshines theirs, and you are their junior by several years!"

"It isn't that, so much as it is my weak stomach," replied Vilthavia with a shrug of his shoulders. "I cannot abide heights of any kind. They know it well but enjoy taunting me about it. Yet even if my stomach was true I am not sure I would have the courage to make the climb anyway."

"You doubt yourself, Vilthavia. You always have," answered Vidui, handing over a torn chunk of bread to share with his young friend. "But courage is a virtue that all men possess - or nearly all. It may at times feel like it is dormant inside your heart, but it is there all the same, you may be sure of it. It is just that some folk need a bit of danger thrust upon them sometimes in order for it to come out. Do not accuse your heart of cowardice before you must put it to the test, my friend. Least of all should you pay any heed to a couple of ne'er-do-wells such as Urlav and Vilya."

"I don't heed them anymore," said Vilthavia, who had already faced himself back towards the steep snowy grade before him. "They have always enjoyed showing off for folk, especially when there are girls around."

"You speak the truth in that!" laughed Vidui. "But well do I recall the day when Vilya fell from his horse and into the mud when his steed's saddle slipped off with him! Ha! With all of those people looking on and all! When he finally stood up he looked like a giant raccoon with all that mud across his eyes and nose!" Vidui laughed heartily at the memory. "He never knew that it was I who loosened his saddle bit before he ever got on his horse! Needless to say, he didn't get the girls that night!" he looked over to Vilthavia for a shared reaction to the humorous incident but saw that his friend did nothing more than nod his head in agreement. Disappointed at the lack of merriment in his face Vidui gave Vilthavia a friendly tap in the shoulder, saying, "Didn't you find that incident ammusing, Vilthavia? You were there too, if I recall. Yes, I remember hearing your unmistakable laughter after it happened that day."

"Yes, I was there," said Vilthavia morosely.

"You won't tell Vilya that it was I who played the prank on him, will you?"

"Of course I won't. But I'm afraid I do not feel very merry just now. You'll forgive me, I hope." Vidui looked at his friend with concern as he brushed aside the fluttering locks of his hair that the cold mountainous wind had blown about him.

"Yes, of course. But what is it that ails you this evening? The journey has gone well thus far, has it not? We are all well enough and accounted for, save for a bit of elevation sickness in three of the men."

"I suppose so, yes," said Vilthavia, raising his eyes up to the southern sky, where high above some remote mountaintop a hawk glided effortlessly through the air as it watched for hidden prey far below.

"And you heard those two idiots up there," reasoned Vidui, gesturing with his thumb up to the top of the boulder-hill. "The western foothills are within sight at last. In two or three days time we shall all be in Eriador. I only hope it is as magnificent as they all say it is."

"Who says that?" asked Vilthavia absently. He had turned his attention out into the fading gloom beyond the cliffs towards the west.

"Just about everyone present."

"How would they know? Have any of them been across these mountains before?" Vidui shrugged his shoulders as he thought about it.

"Only your uncle Urlavia, as far as I know. Yet even that was several years ago, or so I have heard. What purpose drove him so far abroad from home back then anyway?"

"He came this way with my father," replied Vilthavia, who now seemed to be gazing fixedly at some deffinate point out in the distance. "He's a fur trader, you know. And a greedy one at that. He also trades in horses. There is little he will not do for the right price. That is why my father agreed to take him along with him on so far an errand, for there was never much love between my father and my mother's brother I fear. But my uncle knew he could make some money in Eriador so he begged my father to allow him to go along."

"Yes, I remember now," said Vidui. "Your father was of the Dunedain, correct?" Vilthavia nodded.

"Yes, though only one half Dunadan, or so he used to tell me back then."

"Which would make you one quarter Dunadan!" Again, Vilthavia nodded his head in confirmation. "I see! Well that would explain your darker hair and your grey eyes."

"Not all Dunedain men have dark hair."

"Most of the one's I have seen do, though I have not seen many. But most of them were from Gondor."

"I have seen fair-haired men and women of the Dunedain as well."

"If you say so," Vidui relented. "Didn't you say that it was your father who taught you how to play the game of 'Kings' so well?"

"I suppose," admitted Vilthavia reluctantly. "But in his homeland of Arnor they call it 'Chess'. He was a master at it. Few could beat him I am told."

"So how long has it been, then, since you last saw your father?"

"Maybe," said Vilthavia with some hesitation, "about five or six years ago. Already my memory of him begins to dim in my mind."

"And he was from the Rhudaur country? The place we are journeying to now?"

"Yes. I am hoping to find him there - or at least to hear news of him. My uncle Urlavia has promised to aid me in my search of him, though the chances are probably slim. It is a big land to search."

"Aye," said Vidui with a mouthful of bread. "They say that in Eriador there are trees that are twice as high as those in Greenwood. Can you imagine such a thing! Twice as tall!" A burst of mutual laughter could be heard up above from the two climbers. At first it seemed that they had overheard Vidui's enthusiastic remarks about Rhudaur but when the latter looked up at them they were busy with their own foolish frivolities. They were now throwing snowballs down to some of their companions back down on the ground.

"Perhaps so," replied Vilthavia rather darkly, "yet do not expect to have much liesure to adventure in the forrests while we are there. I know how fond you are of woodlands. Wildaria is in haste to get to the place called Cameth Brin, which is where the seat of the Rhudauran king resides, or so they tell me. But there have also been reports of fighting and battles between the Rhudaurans and the Hillmen of the mountains, whoever they may be. Things might not be very comfortable there right now."

"Perhaps so, but the same may also be said of Rhovanion these days as well. There has always been fighting between us northmen and the Easterlings of Rhun, and yet here you and I are - alive and well, and quite well enough to tell of it. So what difference does it make, I ask you, whether we stay at home and risk war or do the same in Eriador? If we have to see the blood of men stain the ground let it be the blood of foreigners. We have seen enough of our own spill for a good while, I say." Vilthavia was only barely listening to Vidui by now and the latter finally noticed it. "What are you looking at, Vilthavia?"

"Do you see a path down there, in that direction?" asked Vilthavia suddenly, pointing far out to a nearby but lower elevated mountain chain. Vidui strained his eyes in the direction of his friend's pointed finger for several moments but could not see any sign of a path in the mountain dusk.

"I can't see much out that way at this time of evening," answered Vidui. "It's getting too dark down that way. Did you see a path down there?" Vilthavia seemed uncertain, but his instincts told him that he did indeed see a foot path or mountain trail of some kind.

"I think I did. I wasn't sure at first glance but the longer I gazed down that way the more I was sure I saw some sort of line cutting through the rocky terrain. I wish I had noticed it before the sun went down. I shall have to look again tomorrow morning."

"Maybe you did see a path of some kind," allowed Vidui. "There are probably several passes treading this way and that through these mountains. The Misties are, afterall, the largest chain in the world."

"I don't seem to recall Urlavia mentioning anything about any paths that connected with this main pass we are on at any point this high up in the mountains. Nor did I notice such a path on the maps that he has. I made a point of examining them both before we departed Rhovanion and along the way. I have a good memory for such details, as you probably know well enough by now." Vilthavia said this last comment with a wink and a slim smile to his friend - the first smile he had cracked in a long while. Vidui returned the smile.

"I know it well! I believe that is why you excel in your Chess!" said Vidui. "Yet as for this pass you must remember that it is not so much an actual trail or footpath as you are accustomed to tredding back east in the Greenwood, but rather a non-descript accessway without any real borders or road markers on either side of it to prevent the unwary from straying off their desired course. To get lost in these high altitudes could spell disaster. That is why it is crucial to have a dependable guide who knows the way. Yet we are fortunate not to have run into any significant snowfall thus far. In a stowstorm the mountains can be a deathtrap."

Their conversation was quickly interrupted by the return of Wildaria and the scouts. Wildaria, as Vidui had anticipated, was furious with the two foolish climbers who had risked life and limb to climb the rocky structure for no good reason and, more importantly, were shouting loud enough at their companions upon the ground so that the echoes of their voices could be heard down the pass where the scouts had just finished hiding the butchered remains of the two slain men they had come across. Wildaria, who was not a man to provoke under any circumstances, immediately barked out his reprimand to them as they looked with surprise at their chieftain.

"You stupid fools! We can hear your idiot voices all the way down the pass! You are loud enough to bring all the wolves of the Misties upon us! Who said you could climb this hill? You wait until my back is turned and then do as you please, is that it?"

"We thought we could be of some use up here," explained Urlav desperately from above. "We were keeping watch until you came back. We thought you would be pleased, chief Wildaria!" Wildaria's face reddened with rage as he pulled off his woolen hat and threw it upon the ground in disgust.

"You were playing with snowballs, like the two tom-fools that you are!"

"I tried to tell them that it was unwise to climb so high," said the leech to his chieftain, "but they would not listen to me. They attempted to coerce young Vilthavia to climb up and join them but the lad wisely refused them."

"Shut your mouth, Winlav," retorted Vilya who overheard the older man's remark. "But why do you rage at us so, Wildaria?" asked Vilya, unable to mask his annoyance at their leader's reaction to what he deemed nothing more than innocent climb by himself and Urlav to pass the time. "We are in little danger of falling, for we are both skilled climbers."

"Ha!" smirked Wildaria bitterly. "Maybe it would suit all our needs the better if you both fell on your heads, for perhaps a bit of much needed wisdom might seep in and the stupidity leak out! Now what are you doing?"

"We are coming down now," quipped Urlav sourly, as he and Vilya looked about to retrace their steps back down the hill. But Wildaria checked them.

"No you are not! Do not come down! You both shall stay up there and do what you have claimed to be doing during our absence. You shall spend the night up there and keep a watch, since you both seem to prefer perching like birds among the stones."

"It is getting cold up here, chief!" objected Vilya obstinately.

"You should have thought of that before," answered Wildaria vengefully. "Food and blankets shall be sent up to you by rope soon enough. Enjoy the view!"

Most of the men of the party regretted the foolishness of Urlav and Vilya, but they were shocked at their chieftain's harsh reaction and sentence to the pair's unauthorized climb, and a few of the travelers shook their heads in disagreement with their leader when his back was turned to them. Where at first some of them dissapproved of the foolish venture, they now pittied them their punishment. But the murder victims that he had discovered had turned Wildaria's heart cold and his temper short. The relative ease and safety the company had enjoeyed thus far was gone now and the hidden threat of a menacing peril now loomed large as life before them. Vidui turned back to Vilthavia after their chieftains tongue-lashing of the two climbers and breathed a sigh of relief as he looked at Vilthavia.

"Tis a good thing that you refused the climb, my friend! You might be spending the night up on that cold rocky perch with those two fools if you did."

"The Chieftain looks worried," replied Vilthavia as he studied Wildaria's face as their leader quickly went about organizing the setting up of the camp for the night. "Just look at him, Vidui - and the scouts that went with him. What humor they possessed earlier is certainly gone now. Something has happened while they were away. Or perhaps they discovered something that has unsettled them."

Vilthavia's observation was quite correct, of course, and he did not have to wait long to find out why. By the time it was completely dark the tents had been raised and the bagage ponies tended to for the night. Many among the host wished to strike up their torches for light but only one single torch would Wildaria allow to be lit this night for fear of drawing unfriendly eyes their way. It would have been desirable for them to press ahead in order to find more suitable shelter but Wildaria insisted they make camp directly on the path, for if they might be assaulted during the night he wanted to be directly on the pass so that they might make an immediate retreat back the way they had come since it was already familar to them now. The night promised to be a cold one, but with the dying of the sun the breeze had whithered down next to nothing as whispy clouds settled overhead and acted as a blanket to keep out the nighttime frost.

After all was ready for the overnight hours the Cheif gathered the men around him in a circle as he stood forth in the middle with the flaming brand in his hand. There he explained to them all what he and the others had found further down the path. After the story had been told many of the men shook their heads in astonishment and began to murmur next to their neighbor. Others sat quietly and hardened their faces in anger, immediately laying blame for the atrocities on the doorstep of the dwarven party they had passed on the eastern side of the mountains. Yet there were also a select few, mostly younger men - and of these Vilthavia was certainly one - who looked aghast and horrified at the grim tidings that the cheitain had spoken of, and when the latter had spoken of the possibilty of orcs and wolves having committed the crimes some of them spoke openly of turning back. But of this Wildaria was not yet ready to relent to, reminding them that he had as of yet no proof of the existance of orcs nearby, "for," he said to them, "it is only a theory with no proofs. Other explanations for the murders of the men might also be devised." Then Urlavia, uncle of Vilthavia, rose up from the circle and spoke sternly against turning back from their road now, saying, "You all must remember that I alone among this company have traveled this high pass before and know what to expect. Dangers there are to be sure along the way - of steep cliffs, rock slides and hidden cravasses and the like. Yet all tall mountain chains in the world contain these hazards. But we are now reaching the final length of our long journey into Eriador. Tomorrow ere nightfall we shall all see greenery beneath our feet once again as the snow recedes for good. The murders of the two men are a terrible deed to be sure, but I have never known orcs to establish dwellings in the Misty Mountains this far south, for the men and elves of Eriador have long since cleaned them out of this region." Then one of the leech-men spoke up, asking him, "Then why have we not seen any other travelers since we entered the eastern foothills? I was led to believe that this was a well-trodden pass used by many folk on both sides of the mountains?" "Yea!" said another. "The Chieftain's orc theory gains ground if one takes the absence of other travelers upon this road into consideration. Perhaps all folk have been driven away by raiding orcs over the years!"

"Then how would you explain the presence of the dwarves we saw only a few days ago, Vidugar?" retorted Urlavia.

"You saw their haggard-looking appearance as well as the rest of us, Urlavia!" answered the man. "They looked as if they were sorely fatigued with recent battle. Maybe they fought against orcs somewhere up here and only just escaped with their lives!" Urlavia dismissed this notion with a wave of his hand.

"The remains of the victims we found were men - not dwarves."

"That does not mean that orcs do not exist up here! The Misties are very vast, Urlavia."

"Why are you so eager to press on, Urlavia" asked another man among the circle, "after seeing with your own eyes what was quite obviously a deliberate warning by some vengeful entity? What need drives you so? We all know you are keen to do business with the Eriadorans, but would you risk our lives and yours just to make a profit? Answer me that!" Then some of the less eager men to go on began to look askance at Urlavia and question his motives and accuse him of greed, but Wildaria hushed them down, saying, "Urlavia is not the only man among us that has business to conduct in Eriador, my fellow Northmen. I, for one, am obligated to be at Fennas Druinen in two weeks time from now and would like to continue forward if possible. Yet let it not be said that Wildaria, son of Vudaria, is an unreasonable man. We shall take a vote now among the entire group, for this a matter that concerns all of our fates. Yet let all present now close their eyes and look downwards to their feet as they cast their votes so that none may judge their neighbors harshly if our future course goes astray."

Then every man present closed their eyes and bowed their heads, including Urlav and Vilya who had now been commanded to come down in order to participate in the voting. When the choices of going forward or turning back were presented to them accordingly by the voice of their chieftain, each person rose their hand according to their vote. Vilthavia and Vidui both voted for turning back, though neither was aware of the others vote at the time. In his heart Vidui desired to go forward, for he was eager to come into Eriador and seek service with the Arnorian Kings. Yet, out of compasion for the young Vilthavia, who was only three and ten years old and certainly no warrior by any standards, he voted to turn back and return to the vales of the Anduin until news of the region could be gleamed from folk who resided in the eastern mountains vales. Among the entire group of adventures that numbered five and twenty men, only five others besides the two companions voted to turn back. Vidui and Vilthavia both expected to lose the vote, but not by such a wide margin. All others desired to risk the perils of wolves and orcs by going forward into Eriador. Both Vilthavia and Vidui then looked at each other with apprehension in their eyes at the outcome of the vote, and straightway each knew how the other had voted without speaking...
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Celebrimbor32
Ranger of the North
 
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Fri Aug 21, 2009 9:49 pm

Dawn broke over the mountainous horizon slowly and dimly. The travelers awoke and looked up to the sky to see a vast field of grey. There would be no sunshine this day, for the clouds had thickened in the night and quenched what little warmth there might otherwise be with the rising of the morning sun. Vilthavia had slept little that night. He had shared his tent with Vidui in hopes of sharing mutual body warmth but it did not avail them much. They awoke cold and hungry and had hoped to see the cook, such as they had on such a long expedition, striking up the cooking fire and boiling the water for tea but they were disappointed. By order of Wildaria no fires would be lit until they had at last passed through the lowest elevations of the western foothills on the following day. They had to content themselves with dried rations instead, which did nothing to improve Vilthavia's darkening mood, and as the company slowly passed the area of the pass where the murders had occured they could see a few small winged carrion feeders a fair distance off the path to their left. There was a bend in the rocky terrain that way and many guessed that their leader had the two victims buried or concealed in that direction. Their suspicions were soon confirmed as the faint scent of blood could still be smelled in the air. There was no sign of the two pitted spikes on the sides of the road, for Wildaria had removed them. Yet they all knew that they were now more than likely entering the domain of some hostile and forbidding presence. They pressed on with bowed heads and little speech amongst themselves.

By late afternoon, and after having seen no sign of enemies upon the road thus far that day, the company began to see the signs of green beneath their feet once more, and the men were glad of it. Trees of various sorts began to fill up both sides of the horizon the further they went on. They had entered the western foothills at last. But with these hopeful signs also came an ever increasing foggy mist that hampered their sight at more than a few dozen yards away. Wildaria slowed the company's pace the heavier the fog became, for they were still high up above the lower vales and the terrain still hazardous in places.

"Alas!" said Wildaria as he called the group to what would be their last brief respit of the day's march. "The mist grows heavier the further down we go, so therefore we must rest a while and see what the weather does while we wait. I doubt any of us desire to take a tumble down an unnoticed cliff or embankment in this fog. Yet take heart, fellow Rhovanions! By this time tomorrow, should all go well, you will feel the tall grasses of Eriador beneath your weary feet."

After an hour of loitering about in a thin and sloping cluster of tall pines it became obvious that the fog was not about to relent so Wildaria announced, to the displeasure of the men, that they must encamp for the remainder of the afternoon and overnight hours among the trees and attempt to navigate the foggy pass at the morrow's dawn. But before the tents were set up one of the scouts came hastening back to report that an old house had been spotted about a half mile to their left, or southwards. It was just about large enough to accomodate all five and thirty men and their bagage ponies. The man had said that it looked to be unoccupied, which seemed a good thing to many of the men for they could take refuge there without the need of begging it from the home's occupants. But when the men came thither it seemed plain that the wooden house had been abandoned for a good while, for it had already begun to fall into a state of decreptitude. Wildaria and two others approached the house from the front and back. Both doorways showed signs of breakage and forced entry at some point in the past as the doors were hung open ajar with broken and splintered hinges. When they returned to theif companions outside they delivered some good news and possibly some not as good.

"There is no one presently living here, I think," stated Wildaria thoughtfully. "Nor has anyone anytime in the recent past, I think. It is but sparsely furnished inside, there being only one room for living and two others for sleeping quarters. A dining area is there as well. Some of the furniture such as it is has been overturned and broken, as you will see soon enough."

"Is the house safe enough for us to quarter there, think you?" asked one of the men.

"I believe it is safer than sleeping out in the open," replied the chief.

"Might this house have belonged to the dead men we saw farther up the pass, chieftain?" asked Vinhilui, one of the scouts.

"It is certainly possible. But there is no way to ascertain that now. Whomever this house belongs to we shall use it this night. Let the horses and ponies be tethered nearby as we enter and settle ourselves in. There shall be three men on watch at all times outside the house and by the pass back yonder. Let the passwords be announced and the horses watered. Come! Let us go in."

The house had not been used in at least several weeks, of that all were in agreement. Yet it did not take long before they descovered signs of some violent action that had taken place inside, for a half dozen broken arrows were found laying upon the floor in one of the sleeping chambers as well as two more that remained in tact embedded in one of the walls of another room. Upon closer examination old dried up blood stains were present upon one of the floors. There had almost certainly been a battle here at one time. This seemed to unnerve a select few of the men, but their fellows sought to comfort them, saying, "Aye, blood was shed here once, that is plain, yet fear not overmuch, for there are a number of explanations that might be offered to provide an excuse for whatever happened here. But remember that we are of line of the valiant Northmen of Rhovanion and there are many skilled fighters among this company that shall protect us and see us through to our journey's end, which is near now. Our feet are turned westward, as were the feet of our kindred of old many ages ago. Therefore take heart and look toward the future, for Eriador shall prove bountiful for us all!"

Vilthavia was not comforted by these words. He wanted only to reach their journey's end and put the Misty Mountains behind him for good. Mountaineering was not in his blood and he wondered how, if ever necessity called for it, he would ever be able to make such a long journey as this one in the future. He supposed he must at some undisclosed time in the future. It depended much on his father. His father indeed! It had been a long time since Vilthavia had heard tidings of him. Where might he be after all this time? The last he had heard of him was several years ago, when messengers out of Eriador had told his mother that Halathor, Vilthavia's father, had desired them to announce that he had purposed to settle in the town of Fennas Druinen, which lay in the southern most point in the Angle, which was in lower Rhudaur, the latter being the land of his father's birth. He had desired for his son to join him there in residence, for at the time many of the Rhovanions in the eastern eaves of Greenwood the Great had suffered ever increasing assaults by the Easterlings from Rhun. Halathor had deemed Eriador to be more hospitable and certainly more condusive to the lifestyle he wished his young son to grow up in. Yet Vasilya, the mother of Vilthavia, would not permit her son to make such a long and dangerous journey at his tender age, nor indeed did Vilthavia desire to leave his mother whom he loved more dearly. Vasilya was not of the Dunedain but rather of the race of the folk of Rhovanion and had no desire to leave her homeland. Furthermore, Halathor and Vasilya had never been betrothed in matrimony, which required Vilthavia to be categorily labeled 'illegitimate' by the laws of the Dunedain - a prospect that his mother wished to avoid. Yet now Vilthavia was by all rights a young man and capable, as he saw it, of making the long journey over the mountains at last. Vasilya was greatly distressed by this but she did not hinder her son from going so long as Urlavia, her older brother and Vilthavia's uncle, was willing to take her son with him and watch over him, for Urlavia had made the journey more than once before and knew the way. But Vilthavia departed with a heavy heart and he promised his beloved mother he would return to her in Rhovanion within five year's time, should fortune permit him. Now here he was - traveling with his mysterious uncle in the company of men that he barely knew into a land that was little more than a legend to him. And what was his reason, he asked himself? To seek out his ever absent father and dwell with him in a foreign country while his dear mother must endure a deteriorating household in no more company than her two servants and the dogs. He wished he was back there now and not stuck in this foggy mountainous maze of snow and rock so far away from home. He felt a surge of guilt flood over him as he sat there in the delapidated house watching the men sort out their belongings and bicker back and forth in regards to the sleeping arrangements.

The stale odor inside the house was unpleasant and the discovery of some past skirmish therein did nothing to ease his troubled mind. His spirits were lower than ever now. Having no desire to lounge aorund indoors he took his leave of Vidui, his friend, and went out back behind the house to look at his surroundings. This was something that he had always done, having been once told by his father that one of the keys to prevailing in Chess and other strategic ventures was to always take in every square inch of your environment before deciding upon your chosen course of action. He walked slowly and with decided caution as he turned his head this way and that. Behind the house was a rich and lush grove of thick pine and spruce that stood atop a thick undergrowth of green which sloped downwards into some random valley. To his left, the way they had come down, was a lofty and ascending cliff of rocks and trees. To his right was the lower foothills that were still shrouded in a whispy fog. He wished they were further down that way now instead of up here in the upper valleys. The sound of running water could faintly be heard farther ahead and Vilthavia meandered through the trees as he went forward to investigate. He soon came across a bubbling stream of water that rushed down from the higher elevations and splashed its way over rocks and tree roots only to plummet over the edge of the wooded cliff that he now traversed. The edge of it was only a few dozen yards ahead of him. It had been hard to see amid the thick tree trunks and hanging mist. He suddenly went very still as his heart thumped heavily. "Heavens alive!" he thought to himself in a panic. "I might have gone forward and plunged to my death in all of this fog! It sounds like it is a very long drop. The mountains are indeed treacherous! I should not have come on this quest. I belong in open fields or in timid woodlands, not dark and forbidding mountainous regions such as this. No good or decent folk live in such places."

Vilthavia made to turn and go back but checked himself. He then remembered the uncertain vision he had had the previous night back up the pass of what he thought might be a new pathway down in this direction. Surely, they must now be near by now. He plucked up his courage and decided to face up to his fear of heights and step closer to the cliffs edge in order to see things more clearly. He did so and looked out across some unknown valley. He gripped the branches of the nearest tree tightly for security as he let his eyes roam this way and that. For several minutes he could see little but drifting fog, but before he was about to turn back a hole opened up in the greyness and he was rewarded with a brief but clear view of what lay in the distance. A carpet of green and brown trees was the prevailing sight, yet that was not all. He did indeed see at last what was clearly beyond doubt a pathway below the company's present elevation. It looked to wind through the exposed side of a valley wall in a northerly and southerly route. Perhaps it might even intersect with the current pass they had been following. But the view was taken away from him then by more clouds. He allowed himself to exhale before turning back. As he made to do just that he suddenly became aware that he was not alone. He felt the hairs on his back raise up as he beheld what seemed to be the shadowed figure of a man back the way he had come. The figure was only a stone's throw away from him but the man did not move. He seemed to stand motionless as he observed the lad from a near distance. Vilthavia immediately reached for his sword belt but was surprised to see that his blade was not there. Then he recalled laying it aside after he had entered the abandoned house. He had forgotten to take it up again before he had left. He suddenly felt desperate and alarmed. The man then broke the silence.

"Nephew! Is that you?" sounded the familiar voice. Again Vilthavia sighed in relief.

"Uncle Urlavia?"

"Aye! What are you doing out here so far away from the camp? It is unwise to wander off in unfamiliar surroundings. The mist of the mountains can be treacherous to those who are not accustomed to it."

"I wanted to view our surroundings - nothing more."

"Let the scouts do that. It is their job, not yours. Did you forget your blade again, Vilthavia?" The answer was obvious as Urlavia stepped forward and held up the misplaced sword as evidence. He let a soft but just barely audible curse escape from his lips as he tossed the blade before the boy's feet. Vilthavia stooped and seized it before returning it to his empty scabbard. He cared nothing at all for swords, daggers, shields, armor or anything else that had to do with fighting, regardless if their fine workmanship. He hated all bloodshed and martial displays of war. The only sort of battle he enjoyed to partake in existed upon a squared black and white checkerboard. "You must learn to appreciate such a fine weapon as that," went on Urlavia, gesturing at the blade. "That was made by a smith of Arthedain many years ago. It was a gift from your father ere he last departed for Rhudaur, is it not?" Vilthavia nodded stoically in reply. He did not doubt that it was a fine blade and probably of some worth if traded in. But he had decided to keep it yet for a while - at least until times were tough. "There are many among the company that would be proud to be the owner of that weapon. So may you keep it better hereafter!"

"What do you want, uncle?" asked Vilthavia quickly. There was no great love between uncle and nephew - indeed, there never had been.

"I came to deliver you your sword, of course - and to keep you from harm. Wildaria desires everyone, save the scouts, to refrain from leaving the immediate vicinity of the house until tomorrow morning. You must return with me at once."

"I have seen another mountain path from here," said Vilthavia dubiously. "It lies over yonder, down near another wooded valley. Why did you not mention it before, I wonder?" Urlavia looked out to where his nephew pointed with his outstretched finger. At first he saw nothing but the heavy mist rolling across the valley but within a few more seconds he too saw the path. He shrugged his shoulders indifferently.

"Yes, I see it. What of it? There are many numerous paths and trails in these mountains. You are likely to see others as well before we leave them tomorrow."

"I seem to recall you saying that no other pathways disected the main way on this side of the Misties."

"Did I, now?" said the uncle, raising his left eyebrow with mock confusion.

"You did indeed, uncle. I have a keen memory."

"I know it well enough by now, Vilthavia, thank you. But I make no claim to vie with you or anyone else in the power of recollection. I see the pathway over there that you have indicated and take no interest in it."

"Did you not come this way more than once before?"

"What a fellow you are!" retorted Urlavia testily. "Indeed I did, and so I have. Yet I cannot be expected to recall every detail of my previous excursions now. I shall inform Wildaria of the path, if that is what you are driving at. I have performed my errand and shall turn to go now. You may do as you wish now, though I advise you to return very soon." He turned and stalked off back to the house in a hurry. Vilthavia, nervous and edgy as he was, stood his ground for several moments in thought as he craned his neck backwards to stare up into the treetops above him. A sudden hurried commotion amid the leaves and branches of a lofty elm tree had caught his attention. Two grey crows were squabbling with one another over what looked to be small fruit-like berries that each desired to posses for their afternoon snack. The larger of the two birds, having plucked the little fruit out of the other's mouth, triumphed in the contest after a few brief seconds and quickly swallowed his prize before departing in a feathered frenzy. Vilthavia silently labeled the fleeing crow a nasty thief as he watched the action take place. Yet as the winning crow took flight Vilthavia noticed a dirty whitish colonic discharge quickly fall from the bird's back side as he made his getaway. Unable to get out of the way of the plummeting slime in time, he felt and heard a liquidy plop strike him full on his head, soiling his long dark locks with a dirty whitish mess. Vilthavia grimmaced with disgust and felt the desire to hurl a stone at the bird out of revenge but quickly remembered that such a rare occurance was considered an augury that portended good luck to come. He turned away and strode over to the mountain stream where he washed out his hair before racing back to the house.

"Where did you go off to, Vilthavia?" asked Vidui after his friend had returned to the old house to rejoin his companions. "I was about to go and look for you, but Wildaria has just announced that none shall leave the area unless by his leave. He was not pleased that you had left the group."

"I am fine," replied Vilthavia. "I wanted to be alone for a while, that is all. Do you know, I was right all along about that path I thought I saw last night. While I was away just now I got a closer glimpse of it. It does indeed exist. It looks as if it should merge into the pass that we are traversing presently at some point further down."

"So you were right. I suppose we shall see it tomorrow, but I suspect it is of little importance."

"I cannot help but wonder why my uncle has not spoken of it, for he had already claimed that there were no other paths that connected with the main way. He has come this way twice before and should already be aware of its existence."

"Who can say?" said Vidui. "He probably has forgotten about it by now. But never mind it, Vilthavia. We'll likely as not see it tomorrow anyway. You had better go and report to the chieftain now. He was looking for you just now and sent your uncle out to find you. Why is your hair all wet? You look as if you just came out of a bath with yout clothes on!"

"I got shat on," replied Vilthavia laconically, "so I had to wash up in a stream." Vidui shot him a nonsensical look.

"I don't understand you."

"I was the victim of a bird-dropping just now," explained Vilthavia, gesturing to his moppish hair. "I think it was a crow of some kind - up in the trees, though it was not black as are all other crows I have seen but rather grey. It dropped its load on me before it flew away. I am supposed to have good luck now, if the theory has any credence to it." Vidui smiled at this.

"It is more of an old superstition rather than a thoery, but I have heard of such a thing. I hope that good luck will find you soon, my friend. But you had better go and see Wildaria. He is dolling out our responsibilties before we settle in."

Wildaria was ill-pleased with Urlavia'a young nephew for wandering off without notice and told him so. As a reward for his unauthorized sight-seeing in the woods he was given the first watch that night as well as having to get up early in the morning before dawn in order to assist the cook in the morning meal preparations. He would have to enter Eriador for the first time the following evening with blury and blooshot eyes for want of sleep. Fortunately Vidui, who had rapidly become a fast friend of Vilthavia's, was willing to take his place for him in the morning. In this Vilthavia thanked him most kindly, but Vidui shrugged it off, saying, "You shall need your sleep as it is. I will do it. Yet if you really want to thank me you can keep watch for me now."

"You shall go to sleep right now?" asked Vilthavia. "It is still early."

"No, not to sleep. I have yet to tell you," here Vidui lowered his voice, "while you were out I found a hidden basement underneath the house. There is a cleverly concealed trapdoor just outside the house round back. It lays neatly packed between two tall trunks of two evergreens. The trapdoor is disguised with ordinary grassy undergrowth that no one would even suspect was out of place if they were not actually looking for it. Anyway, I desire to go down into it again, for I have already gone down the stairs therein once already, and take a drink while I am out of sight. The chief has warned us not to drink any liquor while we are still in the mountains but just a little sip or two of wine shall not fog up my head too much. It shall help me sleep this night anyway."

"What did you see down there? Why did you not tell the others of your find?"

"One other man knows besides me, for Rivular happened to be with me at the time. We agreed to keep it secret tonight so we can both take turns sneaking down into it to drink. But there is almost nothing down in the little room below. Believe me, I looked. It is more of a hidden closet than a room, actually. It might have been put there in case of emergencies and the like by the owner of this old house, whoever they might have been. Perhaps as a sanctuary from rockslides or avalanches and the like."

The two of them claimed their little area of one of the back rooms to sleep in that night and finished unrolling their bedding before Vidui informed the guards that he would step out for 'a moment or two' in order to keep watch over his young friend while the latter relieved his bladder outside. The guard was reluctant to let both companions go outside together but relented when Vidui claimed responsibility for Vilthavia. Once they had made it out to the hidden entrance between the two trees Vidui pushed aside the grass and debris that hid the trap door, looked twice in both directions to make sure he was not being watched, and raised up the earthen lid. Dusk was fast apporaching now and the light to see by was growing dimmer, which prevented Vilthavia from seeing little more than a few rough-hewn stone steps leading downwards. Vidui quickly disappeared down these and was gone for what seemed to Vilthavia as far more than the previously agreed upon 'three minutes' that his companion had asked for from him. Vilthavia was getting anxious about the guards coming out to fetch them both back again when Vidui finally reappeared. They hastily concealed the entrance once more before making their way back to the house.

"What delayed you?" whispered Vilthavia to his friend once they were both back safely indoors. "We were very nearly found out!"

"My apologies, Vilthavia." replied Vidui, rolling into his blankets. "I think I may have discovered another tunnel down in that hideout. But there was not enough light to be sure."

"How do you know that?"

"Because while I sat against the far inner wall I thought I felt the surface of the wall give way a little to my weight. I pushed on it twice but could not budge it. If I had had more time and a bit of light I could have ascertained what it was. But tomorrow we shall act as if we have only just discovered the hidden entrance and then perhaps we shall know more. Forget it for now, my friend - and thank you for your service." A heavy yawn forced him to pause in his speech before going on again, "It is still early, but I believe I shall try and sleep now since I am to relieve you before dawn tomorrow. I suggest that you try and do the same. We have a long march tomorrow down into the western foothills. Take heart Vilthavia, son of Halathor of Rhudaur! We are very nearly clear of these mountains that you seem to dislike so much, though I do not know why you should. In two day's time you and I shall be in Eriador at last! Good night!"
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Celebrimbor32
Ranger of the North
 
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Tue Sep 15, 2009 8:53 pm

...The closed eyelids of Vilthavia saw himself riding at breakneck speed upon the back of a black stallion through tall fields of swaying wheat under a storm-ridden sky. The rain was pouring down in heavy windy waves all around him but he seemed not to take any notice. Indeed, he and his dark mount seemed to be completely dry as they rode headlong across the tall grasslands as if the heavens above were powerless to drench them. Vilthavia marveled at this, wondering how it may be so, but only knew that the world around him and his horse was fastly becoming a soggy mess. He reached out an extended palm to see if the raindrops would at last come into contact with his open hand but it remained dry. He heard the thunder crack above him and saw the flashes of lightning in the distance but his sprintng stallion took no heed of it. The beast was determined as ever to deliver its rider to his intended destination regardless of any impending worldly perils. Vilthavia suddenly became of many voices shouting at him from a nearby hilltop. Turning his head in that direction he beheld many men and women standing in the blowing rain, shouting words of encouragement to him, saying, "Ride on, oh good Rhovanian soldier! Speed you fast to your prize!" Others seemed to call, "Ride like the wind, lad! Your doom awaits you! Do not turn back! May it give you joy and sorrow!" The words made little sense to Vilthavia, as it seemed to him in his dreamland, but he paid them little heed, wanting only to reach him appointed destination. Just as his horse began to grow weary Vilthavia saw before him the figures of two people that stood directly in his path. One was the tall figure of a man and the other that of a woman. They were walking in the same direction as he was with their backs towards them, quite unaware of their danger of being ridden down. The woman, who Vilthavia seemed to know well, though he could not recall her name, seemed eager to be out of the storm and urged her tall companion to walk faster, but the man, whom Vilthavia seemed to hold in some degree of contempt, spoke words of reassurance to her, suggesting that they lay close together to share bodily warmth while they wait for the storm to pass. Vilthavia saw the man put his arm around the dark-haried woman and kiss her brow as they went forward. Vilthavia urged his horse forward with ever more speed, intending to reach down with his arm and quickly seize the woman in his grasp as he rode up next to her. He would pluck her away from this intruder who had unrighteously stolen her away from him. They were now within a few dozen yards away and his task nearly accomplished when suddenly his stallion slowed to a walk and finally halted but a few feet away from the two walkers before him. He ordered his horse to go forward but the horse seemed to neigh and shake its head in refusal. Vilthavia cursed the beast for its obstinancy, but the horse reared up on its hind legs and threw Vilthavia from its saddle. Vilthavia, now quite hurt as he lay moaning in the grass, suddenly became aware that he was now soaking wet as the rain fell heavily upon him. He sat up rubbing his legs as he looked at the man and the woman before him. They took no notice of him or the neighing horse, but simply walked on forward until they slowly faded from view. Vilthavia felt a wave of sadness flood over him as the woman's form receded away in the distance. He could not reach her now, for his leg was broken. He continued to grow ever more wet until his clothes were soaked through and through. He suddenly felt sleepy. The urge to lay back in the wet grass was so strong that he no longer could resist the temptation. He yielded at last and lay down to close his eyes. He was very tired. He heard the voices off in the distance lamenting his failure to catch the woman and the man up. Some of the voices seemed to be shouting at him urgently to get up. "Get you back on your feet, Vilthavia! Wake up now! Hasten you away ere it is too late!"

With a great effort of bodily will, Vilthavia shook himself awake - or so it seemed. He knew his eyes were open now, though the world still seemed more dreamlike than real. He could still hear the voices in his head crying out to him to get up and make haste.

"For heaven's sake, Vilthavia," said a voice behind him. "Get up and prepare yourself if you don't want to die where you lay! Quickly now!" It was Vidui, his friend. At last Vilthavia knew he was no longer dreaming. The voices he had heard at the end of the dream were indeed real. Vilthavia sat up in a hurry as he heard the hushed but urgent voices of his companions in the old abandoned house that they had all taken as their nightly sanctuary while they encamped in the Misty Mountains. Some men were up and hastily gathering their belongings together while others had chosen to strap on what bodily armor they had - which was largely rigid leather greaves for the arms and legs, though a few possessed chain shirts and shields. Vilthavia rubbed his hands over his face to shake out the nightly cobwebs.

"What is happening, Vidui?" he asked hurriedly. "Why are the warriors arming themselves so late at night?" Vidui had just set about lighting up his small lantern when one of the men shouted at him, calling him a fool and to, "Turn that off! You want to bring more spies on us?" Vidui quickly complied and the room plunged back into darkness. The only light that could be seen, and even that was dim by all accounts, came from the main room where a small lantern burned with its hood pulled nearly closed, but not quite all the way.

"We have trouble outside," said Vidui, trying to enlighten his young friend without alraming him overly much. "It seems there are foes about us, out somewhere in the woods. We can see the light of their torches through the windows now." Vilthavia looked up into his friend's face. It was too dark to make him out too clearly, but it seemed plain that Vidui was trying to make light of what was most likely a serious situation.

"What kind of foes? Who is outside?" Vilthavia suddenly felt himself seized by the pit of both his underarms from behind. He felt his heart leap in a panic as he was hurled up onto his feet by the agressor.

"On your feet, Vilthavia!" It was his uncle Urlavia. "We are about to be attacked in the dead of night and here you are laying comfortably in your snug blankets like a hedgehog! You want to be left behind? Move it!" Vilthavia turned to see his uncle already dressed and armed with his sword upon his belt. Even in the shadowy darkness he could see the worry on his uncle's long and bearded face. "Where is your sword? Lost it again, I suppose?"

"I have it here with me, you stupid fool!" Vilthavia wrested himself free of his uncle's grasp with a sudden fury that surprised himself. His uncle had nagged and nitpicked his nephew ever since they had crossed the Anduin river the week before and Vilthavia, spurred on by this new and fearful clamity he had found himself thrust into out of a dead sleep, was at last unable to control his temper. As a result of his harsh words he was rewarded by his uncle with a sharp slap across the face that made his head turn sideways, the sound of which could be heard across the room. Vilthavia looked back at his uncle in time to see that he was about to receive more of the same and instinctively raised up his hand to shield himself from the blow. But Urlavia's arm was checked by the hand of Vidui.

"Stay your hand, Urlavia!" retorted Vidui in a harsh whisper very near the man's ear. "Turn your wrath to the enemy that is near at hand. Vilthavia shall have need of all his strength in the task that is ahead! Leave him be, I say!" Urlavia turned his angry gaze to Vidui momentarily before lowering his hand. But Vidui, who was easily Urlavia's equal in strength, did not release him, and it seemed to Vidui that the hand of Urlavia trembled fearfully. Shaking off the latter's grasp, he looked back at Vilthavia.

"You are an ungrateful little fool! You take after your father that way. But since you scorn my help I shall leave you to your own designs. Let Vidui guide you now and watch your back!" With a last look at Vidui, and a quick glimpse out the window at the menacing lights that flickered in the overhanging shadows of the trees, Urlavia strode past them and left the house to join the others. Vilthavia had little time to reflect what had just happened. Vidui stepped over to the window where two others were already gazing wide-eyed out into the gloom.

"They are coming closer now!" said one man nervously. "I can see the light from their torches! How did they come so close without the guards noticing them?"

"So be it," said the man's neighbor as he fastened his sword belt upon his waist. "Let them come! Are there not valiant men among this company? We shall deal with these intruders whoever they may be."

"Who are they?" asked Vilthavia, who was surprised to hear himself speak up so suddenly. He immediately remembered the two slain men up in the higher elevations they had been told about by the scouts and the supposed warning that their dead remains portended to trespassers. He also recalled the words of Wildaria regarding the purpetrators of the crime. "Are they orcs?" But no one answered him. All of the men were hastily fleeing the house to line up with the chief, who could now be heard outside issuing orders to his men.

"Come, Vilthavia!" said Vidui urgently. "We cannot remain inside. We must aid our fellows in the resistance! Do you have your sword at the ready?" Vilthavia looked confused and scared. He absently looked about his feet in the dark for his sword, though it already hung at his waist.

"Yes, there it is!" he said to Vilthavia, gesturing with his pointed finger at his belt. "You already fastened it to your belt. You must wake up now, my friend! Do not give in to fear! It will be your undoing in battle. Come with me now! Leave everything else here." Vilthavia said nothing in reply but merely nodded fearfully in agreement. He quickly followed his friend into the connecting room before exiting the house by the front door. Once outside Vilthavia beheld the men of his company joining one another in pairs by order of Wildaria, who himself was standing with his long sword drawn and at the ready, its sharp steely blade begining to reflect the orange glow of the enemy's torches who now advanced toward them from the cover of the trees. He had instructed every man to take a partner and spread out either to the left or right of the enemy in order to assault them from both sides when he shouted out the order to do so. He then noticed Vilthavia standing still as stone as he looked out into wooded darkness where the creeping enemy lay.

"I am sorry you must endure this unfortunate encounter, my lad," said Wildaria earnestly. He laid a hand on Vilthavia's shoulder in an attempt to soothe his fears. "I fear that my theory was correct. These are indeed orcs that have come upon us, alas! I must ask you to become a man tonight despite your tender age. But take heart! There are many stout-hearted warriors here that shall teach this foul brood to shun the horsemen of Rhovanion and their deadly spears! But draw forth your sword, lad, and let it not be sheathed again until we have beaten this new enemy into their own dust. Where is Urlavia? You should stay close to your uncle when the fighting begins." Vilthavia shrugged his shoulders and shook his head to show that he had knowledge of his uncle's wherabouts. "Then you must stay with Vidui here." He then turned to Vidui, saying, "I command you to stay with Vilthavia and guard him as long as you can! Remain in the rear guard as long as you are able unless I give the command to charge the enemy. Then you must engage whatever foe you come to with your blades at the ready! Yet if things go badly for us you must turn and flee back up the path, for it seems that our way downwards is blocked for now. Do not try and hide away inside this house and allow yourselves to become trapped, for you cannot trust to any mercy from these cruel creatures if you become captured."

Wildaria had barely given the orders when every man present heard the horses that had been tethered further out from the house begin to neigh loudly in great fear. Vilthavia could see them in the firelight stamping their feet and pulling wildly on the ropes. Some of their neighs turned sourly to painful whelps and cries which were terrible to hear. Dark figures of what he assumed must be orcs of some kind could plainly be seen running amid the wild beasts and shouting at them in a circle. These vile aggressors bore pointed spears and blades that shone dully in the flickering orange light, which they then quickly proceeded to use in a concerted malevolence against the horses and ponies of the Rhovanions. They were cutting them down and spilling their blood as they cried out triumphantly, dolling out the beast's death knells.

"The horses! Our beloved horses!" cried some of the Rhovanions as they witnessed the slaughter of their loyal four-legged friends. "They are slaughtering them as they stand! Vengence calls us to arms! Make haste!"

The sight of neighing horses and ponies succumbing to the spears and blades of the orcs seemed to fill the men of Rhovanion with a maddened rage that also brought with it a heightened sense of disorganization in their attack. Many of the men rushed forward wantonly without bothering to pair up with a comrade for the sake of safety, so hot was their rage. Vilthavia saw them raise up their shields and shout out their war cry as they plunged forward into the enemy line, which was little more than a dark blur from his distance. The orcs could be heard shouting out at each other and their new foes in a volley of unintelligle curses and challenges. It was Vilthavia's first experience with orcs of any kind, for though he had dwelt in the open lands about the forest of Greenwood for his entire life, and indeed orcs were known to live and thrive in many areas in the vast wood, he had never had cause to encounter one in the few excursions he had made into the forest. He was glad of this fact and had hoped he would never have cause to do battle with one - at least not until he had entered his years of manhood when his bodily strength would be capable of dealing with such a creature. Yet here he was now, stuck on a terrible wooded mountainside on the far side of the world as he knew it, preparing himself to match up with - not one, or even two - but against what might be a several dozens all at once! What a terrible misfortune it all was! He quickly found himself thinking of his beloved mother back home and how she would miss him and mourn for him after his death - and he for her. She had practically begged him not to go on this errand so far away from home, yet he had politely insisted on doing so. Alas that he had not heeded her advice! Vilthavia felt his knees begin to quake with fear at the sight of the marauding orcs ahead of him. Yet he also felt shame at his timidity and he began to fear himself a coward. It shall not be so, he thought angrily to himself. His eyes turned downwards to the short sword in his hand. It was a lovely blade, no doubt. Its pommel and grip were studded with gems of saphire and ruby, whereas the steel of the blade was inlaid with intricate designs. Surely he ought to be able to shed some blood with it tonight - if his fear did not get the better of him.

"You must ready yourself now, Vilthavia!" said Vidui quickly to his friend, whose face looked to have gone a shade whiter than it had been only a short time ago. "You must banish your fear if you wish to survive this night! You are stronger and more able than you think. Have confidence in yourself and in your blade! Steady your hand, my friend!" Vilthavia looked anything but certain about how he might perform during this unlooked for battle.

"I don't know what to do, Vidui," complained Vilthavia, his voice little more than a horse whisper. "I have never fought an orc before!"

"You have fought in mock contests of arms back home at the least! There is no difference when fighting foes such as these. There is no time to instruct you now! Already we are the last to hold back as such. We must aid our companions and make a brave stand! Come with me, Vilthavia! When we reach the backs of our fellows shout out our war cry so as to announce your presence to our men! Let us hasten! Come! To battle and bloodshed!"

"How do we know if we are winning or not?" Vilthavia did not receive an answer to his nonsensical question, for Vidui was already five or six paces ahead of him at a full sprint. Before he was fully aware of it he found his feet in full pursuit behind his friend. Shadowy trees went by them all too quickly as they ran them by, their lower-hanging branches slapping them randomly in their faces despite their raised shield arms that sought to fend them off. Vilthavia could now easily see the blazing torches of the enemy a short way ahead. The glow of the flickering lights cast insideous shadows on the cruel and hard faces of the orc warriors. Despite the hectic frenzy of the battle Vilthavia took a keen notice of the orc's facial features as he approached them. He had always pictured them as resembling something more like that of a twisted frog-like creature that stood upright like men; that sported web-like hands with claws several inches long. Indeed, more like a beast than a man. Yet the creatures that stood before him looked very different than his preconceived notions had shown them to him in his mind. Though they were undoubtedly beyond ugly in every sense of the word, they were also more mannish than he had believed them to be, though far shorter in stature. Their faces were indeed twisted and contorted, and their skin looked grotesquely greyish and were pocked with marks and scars. Wrinkles and warts were in abundance upon their necks and faces and many had teeth that were as sharp as the fangs of a snake. Their eyes were the most vehemently demonic feature about them, however. Most had smaller eyes with dark and red pupils, and where a normal man's whiteness would be these orc's eyes were either red or yellow. It was the eyes that contained the pure evil and hatred that was inbred with their foul race. In short, orcs were the most hideous creatures Vilthavia had ever come across - thus far.

The impending peril and confusion of battle quickly called him back to his senses as he saw Vidui leap over a bundle of holly bushes and land square upon the back of an orc who stood at unawares next to the carcass of a dead horse. The orc had been puncturing the belly of the dead beast in rapid succession while two of his hideous comrades stood alongside him in an apparent attempt to convince the wrathful orc that his efforts would be better spent elsewhere. The orc with the plunging spear dropped the weapon and fell in a crumpled heap as he unexpectedly felt the sudden weight of Vidui upon him from behind. Immediately Vidui lept to his feet an let loose his voluminous war cry towards the two orcs that remained on their feet. The two foes quickly overcame their surprise at this new assault and started towards the tall warrior who had just toppled their companion with swords drawn and ready, but stopped short. They had only then noticed that Vidui was not alone and that one of the man's companions had also arrived. They beheld Vilthavia. The latter had just come up to the very eaves of the scene of the melee and stood standing atop a fallen tree trunk that lay randomly concealed in the tangles of the undergrowth, looking down with wide eyes and mouth agape at the scene before him. Yet to the orcs, who did not know that Vilthavia was in truth standing upon a wooden log and was actually a youthful novice who was not very much taller than themselves, this newcomer seemed like a tall shadowy menace that stood above them with the intent to kill. The pair of unsightly brutes quickly thought the better of the situation and darted off to join the closest afray. The orc that had fallen had recovered from the blow he had received quite quickly and was about to rise again when Vidui gave the creature a sudden swift and powerful kick in the teeth. The orc groaned in pain and tumbled over again.

"Vilthavia!" cried Vidui urgently. "Get down here! Make haste!" Vilthavia quickly complied by leaping over the bushes and standing alongside the wounded orc. He stared down with amazement at it. Vidui pointed at the creature.

"Kill him, Vilthavia! I want you to do it! You must kill him quickly! More are coming!" Vilthavia looked down with sword in hand at the vile orc that had just used one of their noble horses as a pin-cushion with his spear. Horse-blood oozed round the slain beast in a shallow reddened pool. "Vilthavia!" he shouted again. Vilthavia knew that this contemptible thing that lay on the ground before him was the enemy of all men and deserved to die. But death was not a thing that he was accustomed to and he felt himself an unsuitable vehicle for it. But another quick glance at the bloody horse at last convinced him that he must carry out this execution himself if he was ever to face his fellow Rhovanions again - assuming that he ever lived to see the dawn. He had just made up his mind to run his sword through it when the orc, who had been given just enough time to recover his wits, seized a handful of dirt and flung it upwards into his eyes with the speed of a striking serpent. The sudden blow of dust and debris blinded Vilthavia and caused him to step backwards as he urgently passed a hand over his eyes to clear away the flying obstruction from his face. Yet before he could regain his sight he heard a terrible death cry before him, and his immediate fear was that he had hesitated too long and the orc had slain Vidui. But it was not Vidui who issued the cry. Vilthavia looked down at last to see the dead body of the orc. Vidui had killed it before the creature had had the opportunity to attack Vilthavia with its knife, that had been hidden on his belt. Vidui had saved his life.

"Never hesitate when in battle, Vilthavia," said Vidui in a strangely calm voice. "It will be the death of you. But come! We cannot linger here. Already we are beget in a wide ring of foes!" They both swung round and saw that the torchlight and cries of the orcs, that had before been only in front of them, now seemed to surround them from all sides. The sound of furious battle could be heard from all sides, though not always in plain sight. The snap of drawstrings slapping against wood was plain to hear as the arrows of both the orcs and the men were released towards their targets. Cries of pain and anger was the immediate result of the missles as the victims began to fall to the ground. It began to dawn on them that there were far more orcs than there there were of them. "Stay closer to me now, Vilthavia! We might have to cut our way out, for it is plain that they seek to encompass all of us before making their final assault."

Vilthavia nodded shortly and followed Vidui off to the right, where more battle presented itself upon a sloping tree-studded hill. This time they found an enemy aware of their presence. The advantage of surprise was impossible with this chaotic scene. Two other men of their company were being worsted by a gang of six grey-skinned brutes who looked to have their opponents pinned up against an uneven rock wall that stood as the natural support for the rooted base of two lofty oak trees. Vilthavia saw that the two men must have fought valiantly before becoming outnumbered, for four slain orcs lay upon the grassy undergrowth with several limbs missing. Blood was everywhere, giving the area a hellish appearance in the glow of the torchlight. Small patches of grass had caught fire when one of the orcs had let fall his torch into the undergrowth. The wooded hillside had quickly become a field of mayhem. Melees erupted everywhere. Vilthavia was aware of many sounds filling the early morning air in a eerie cacophony of death music as shrill sounding horns and tubular whistles went off randomly an echoed among the trees. He thought he heard small drums being beaten wildly by the orcs. His blood coursed through him frantically as men and orc engaged one another in battles to the death.

"Rhovanion!" screamed Vidui, sword and round shield in hand as he lept into the fray. Vilthavia forced himself to follow his brave friend, though his feet felt the heavier for it. He could think of nothing better to shout other than, "Death to horse-killers! Death to all orcs!" He saw Vidui's sword clang loudly as it crashed into the parrying blade of the tallest orc in the present skirmish. He suddenly caught more movement out of the corner of his eye and he instonctively turned to face it. He immediately flinched when he beheld yet another ghastly orc with an arrow drawn and at the ready. It was aimed directly at him. Vilthavia knew even before the dart was released that the orc's aim was true and to the mark. The arrow would surely kill him. Before he knew it he found himself hastily raising up his shield-arm in a desperate defence. A heartbeat later he felt a powerful force slam directly into his shield on its outer rim. The impact of the arrow was far stronger than he had anticipated and he could not help but drop the shield to the ground. He felt fortunate that he was still on his feet. Seeing the beastly figure surging out of the thickets and leaping towards him, Vilthavia cried aloud for help. Not waiting for aid to come, he quickly backed off with his eyes full of terror. It proved a costly mistake. Tripping upon a fallen orc that had just been felled by Vidui, Vilthavia felt his feet go out from under him and he went down over the body, twisting an ankle in the process. he had only just enough wit to remember to hold on tightly to his sword as he hit the ground. He knew he had little time to react before feeling the biting blade of this new enemy tear through his back. Once again he felt that death was near. Vilthavia rolled over to see Vidui standing directly over him. The young man's sword swung in a wide arc and tore through the thick grey hide of the orc-archer, who had been intercepted from killing Vilthavia at the last possible second. The orcs fell back with barely so much as a murmur as his throat was slashed open wide by Vidui's blade.

"Get up, Vilthavia!" cried Vidui with a pleading urgency in his voice. "You must fight now! Stand up or die!" Vilthavia leaped to his feet with his unstained sword still in hand. He craned his head back and forth in a hurried manner. To his right one of the two men that Vidui had attempted to rescue was pinned to one of the thick gnarling tree roots of the oaks behind him with an orc's spear in his belly. Vilthavia recognized the man immediately. His name was Rigorn, a blonde haired northmen out of the Anduin vales that had joined the group in hopes of visiting Cardolan and the wide lumpy lands of Minhiriath. He would never see those lands, nor his home ever again. Off to the far right he saw another smaller orc that seemed to take no more notice of the fighting, for his hair was on fire and he rolled and screamed in agony upon the grassy turf. One of the orcs facing off with the surviving man that they had rescued was fending off a larger orc in desperation, as one of the orc's hideous companions had at last found a spare moment to notch another arrow to his bow-staff and was about to aim the dart directly at the wounded man at point blank range. Vilthavia knew the man would perish quickly if he did not receive any aid, for Vidui had drifted several feet away by now and was quite busy beating down his hairy red-eyed opponent and could not see the action behind him.

"Death to all orc-kind!" Vilthavia was almost amazed to hear himself cry such a challenge. He charged forward over to the uneven embankment that bore the weight of the oak trees with his sword extended outward with the intent to skewer the foul brute to death. He wished that he had not announced himself as he did, for the orc with the short bow turned to face him. Yet fate was with him that moment, as the orc's arrow that had just been loosed at him flew wide and missed its target - but only by the breadth of a twig. Vilthavia reached his enemy a moment later and saw the orc try and fend off the blow with his orc-bow. The trick very nearly worked, for though the blade of Vilthavia connected with the creature's torso, it was not a fatal blow as it surely would have been if the wooden bow-stave had not partially deflected it. The orc was wearing only a light leather jerkin for protection and Vilthavia's steely blade ripped through the flimsy garment and slashed open his foe's ribcage. Black-colored blood quickly mingled in with the blood of the slain man next to him. The orc screamed what must have been both a curse and a warning as he fell to his knees. Vilthavia made to finish him off if he could, but stopped short. The larger orc that had very nearly had the opportunity to kill the man that he had standing up with his back against the wall turned to Vilthavia, who was almost directly behind him now. He shouted something unintelligible at him with his croaking voice before sweeping his spear blade through the air in a direct path to his opponent's throat. The orc was aiming to decapitate him with one great swoop and be done with him. Vilthavia knew in a flash that he could not get out of the way in time, so he did the only thing he could: he parried the blow with his short sword. The maneuver worked well enough to save his life. But the strength of the hateful blow was enough to knock loose Vilthavia's grip upon his weapon, and before he could breathe another breath he saw his blade fly through the air and land with a thud into the bushes. He now found himself quite unarmed amid the battle. Rightfully fearing that the orc would take another swing at him, Vilthavia quickly seized a dormant orc shield that lay upon the ground beside a bloody corpse and took it up to use while he may. Two orcs were left in their small circle of battle. Of his own kind he saw only Vidui and the surviving man whom they had first seen in need of assistance. Vidui tore his sword through the back side of the orc who had nearly ended Vilthavia's life just as the man against the wall had neared exhaustion and was about to give up hope. Vilthavia did not notice until now that he was Vinya, one of the two men that had tried to entice Vilthavia to climb the steep rock cluster in order to admire the view only the day before. He was a sorry sight to behold, for he was sorely wounded. Blood seeped through a deep gash in his arm made by the orc's spear. He had orc blood splattered here and there across his chest and neck, the blackness of which made him seem like he was covered in an inky slime.

"We are outnumbered four to one!" he said with great difficulty. "We must move on or perish where we stand! Why does not Wildaria sound the retreat?" Vinya did not wait to hear a reply from his two companions. He looked about as scared as Vilthavia by now, and turned to flee uphill and towards where he guessed the main pass must lay, saying at the last, "Follow me! We must get to the high pass if there is to be any chance of escape!"

"No!" cried Vidui, "Not yet, Vinya! The way is guarded! They have cut off our escape route in that direction! Vinya!" Vinya paid no heed to him in his urgent need to reach the pass, and darted off in that direction with his spear in hand, though the butt of it dragged along in the dirt. It was then that Vilthavia and Vidui saw a row of orc archers hastily line up with their missle weapons ready off to their right, which was farther up the wooded slope. They cried out their warnings to Vinya as he labored on with his wounded arm but the man could not hear them. Just as the archers had bent back their drawstrings Vidui flung himself to the ground, dragging Vilthavia with him. They heard the slapping of bowstring against wood once more, followed immediately by the unmistakable swish of air that signaled the flight of the arrows. Vilthavia heard them fly close overhead into the grass while others thudded into tree trunks. He looked up to assess the situation before getting up to his feet to continue with their futile escape. He saw Vinya standing with his back against a tree that he had quickly used for shelter against the arrows. As soon as he deemed the volley over with he turned and again continued on his way, but lo! An orc-arrow that had been deliberately loosed late found its mark, and Vinya's head flew sideways as the bolt slammed into his temple, killing him outright. Vilthavia and Vidui saw his body tumble as it ran and fall over like some great sycamore that fell prey to the huntsman's axe.

"You must follow me, Vilthavia," commanded Vidui to his terrified companion. "What little chance we have to escape depends on us breaking through that line of archers!" Vilthavia grunted pathetically to signify that he had heard him. His heart seemed to be hammering away inside his chest in his panic-stricken state. Everything seemed to happened so very quickly as he saw and heard his companions dropping dead one after the other. Vidui spoke again as he readied himself, saying, "Do not shout aloud as we approach them, for they might not be aware that we still live. Can you run alright?"

"I am sorry, Vidui," said Vilthavia in reply. "I am no good as a fighter, alas. I am so sorry!"

"Can you still run?" demanded Vidui again, ignoring his friend's woeful apology. Vilthavia nodded in answer. "Good," said Vidui again. "Time to kill again! You must perform now, Vilthavia! Kill or be killed! Follow me close! We shall swing out over there," he pointed further out to their right, where all seemed dark at the moment, "and attempt to come up behind them."

"How many of them are there?" asked Vilthavia, trying to sound braver than he really was.

"At least six or seven, I think. But if we gain the advantage of surprise we might slay half of them quickly, which shall even out our odds. There is no more time to discuss the matter! Use your sword bravely, my friend! Let us go!"

Vilthavia followed along Vidui as closely as he could, his breathing heavily labored as he went. After only a few brief moments of treading through darkness and bumping into trees they came up behind their enemy. The orcs were excitedly pointing out to where the dead body of Vinya lay as they congratulated one another in their shooting when Vidui stalked up the slight incline with his sword in hand. It was then that Vilthavia's blood ran chill and his heart skipped a beat. He did not have his sword! He quickly reached down to his empty scabbard and was horrified to realize that he was still unarmed. In the confusion of the previous melee he had forgotten to retrieve it. The thought that he had never really had enough time to do so did not enter his mind then. He was truly sure that they would both die now because of his inexperience and cowardice. A flood of emotions threatened to overwhelm him that moment. He felt himself completely worthless and deserving of death. To make such a pathetic error as such was about as low as one could get. Only a buffoon would make such a mistake. A momentary urge to quietly slink off shamefully into the shadows to hide and weep presented itself to his mind, and he very nearly acted upon it, much to his shame. But his feet kept on moving behind Vidui.

One of the orcs turned and saw the two of them approaching from behind and tried to warn his comrades, but was too late. He was forever silenced by the cold steel of Vidui. The lifeless body fell head-long to the ground, his bow-stave and arrow falling before the feet of Vilthavia, who took the risk of bending down to retrieve them for his own use. He had used a bow before, back in his homeland when some of his elders among the community taught himself and the other boys how to shoot with hunting bows. He had always enjoyed using such a weapon, for hunting purposes only, back then and had always meant to become better acquainted with it but never found the time. He quickly stooped down and seized the small bow and arrow and fitted them out in his hand while Vidui went to work again.

Having quickly dispatched the latter orc, Vidui swung round to face off with two others who had dropped their bows and took up a pair of curved blades. These smaller archers would have been no match at all for Vidui if he had had the luxury of contending with each one seperately, but three or for at once was quite different, for his foes were encouraged by their greater numbers. Two strokes of the sword felled the closest archer before Vidui stepped upon the slain body to use for an height advantage against the orc's fellow. He swung his long sword down overhead as an axeman of the forest might swing his great axe upon high to clove a tree stump. He would clove his enemy's helm asunder like a log. The orc raised his sword up over his head with a shriek to ward off the blow but to little avail. The effort achieved little more than prolonging the moment of his death. Vidui's sword nearly chopped through the creature's wrist as his sword struck the blade of the orc with a clang and slid down to slash his hand open to the bone. The orc's weapon fell to the ground and Vidui finished the poor wretch off with one one clean sweep of the sword.

Vilthavia, having successfully knocked his feathered shaft in its proper place upon stave, looked for a target. He did not have to look long. He picked out one of the orcs furthest to his left who had taken a brief moment to wind his nasal-like horn as a warning to others of his kind that they were in need of assistance. Vilthavia took aim at his selected foe just as the orc had noticed that he would be fired upon by this young man who appeared out of the shadows to threaten him. Whereas Vilthavia was but a novice with a bow, the orc archer was an experienced shooter and was frighteningly quick to reload his bow. Within a heartbeat he had his arrow at the ready and he pulled the drawstring back and would release his deadly dart directly at this young fool with a shaky hand who had dared to fire upon him. Yet luck had not deserted Vilthavia, for he had the advantage of surprise with him. For a moment or two only hatred overcame his fear and he clinched his teeth in anger as he let loose his shaft at the orc archer who purposed to do the same to him. Vilthavia felt the tension in the wood and string release like a flash as his shaft sped forth and struck the orc in the chest. Vilthavia saw the blood and heard the scream for an instant only, and would have felt greatly encouraged by his first orc-kill had he been given a moment to revel in the victory, but it was not so. From the corner of his right eye he saw, or rather felt, a new presence coming up on him with the intent of death, and indeed his life might have been cut short yet again had not Vidui cried out at the last to warn him. His instinct told him that there was no time to turn and analyze who or what it was, but only time enough to parry this new attack quickly with his bow staff. He turned slightly and raised the pointed end of the bow towards his opponent in a frantic motion. The maneuver worked well enough to save his life, and the orc's spear was turned aside by it, but not until the sharp point of the weapon had been forced upwards towards his face, the momentum of which forced the spear to slash Vilthavia's cheek up to the right ear. he heard himself cry out in shock and pain, for he knew he had been wounded at last, but he had no time to examine himself. Again his fear was put into check by his rage, and he sought to use his wooden bow stave as a weapon by jabbing the edge of it into the orc's stomach and groin. He managed to knock the spear out of the orc's hand at last and he immediately sought to gain the advantage by reaching down to seize the weapon for himself. But it was a mistake, for the orc was not so easily put off as such. The brute guessed his enemy's intent and reached out a hand to accomplish the same task. Vilthavia suddenly found himself grappling with his foe over the fallen spear, hand upon hand. Though Vilthavia had a height advantage over the orc he did not have as much in strength - a fact that Vilthavia marveled at despite the desperation of the melee.

Vilthavia heard his name being called out urgently by Vidui but he knew that if he turned his attention away from the ensuing contest of strength the orc would quickly wrest the spear away from him and kill him a moment or two later. Why Vidui had not come to his aid by now he could not understand. It was a rather selfish though, but he had no time to reflect upon it. He did not know that Vidui was occupied with three new orcs that had heard the horn call from the slain archer. He began to taste the salty blood from his torn cheek trickle into his mouth, and he feared for himself at this, for he had never taken such an injurious wound to himself. He would have liked to touch his face to feel the gash for inspection, but he knew it would have to wait.

At last, to his amazement, Vilthavia gained the mastery of the contest and he wrenched the spear free of the orc's grasp. He felt a great momentary burst of joy at this feat and he hastily repositioned himself for the killing thrust. Little did he guess that the orc had, suspecting his opponent an underaged novice unaccustomed to warfare, deliberately relented in the contest for the spear in order to manhandle him with his claws.

The orc quickly hurled what must have been an insult of some kind in his own foul tongue before diving at his enemy's legs. The move surprised Vilthavia and he had no time to react to it. With his legs entangled, and also due to the inclination of the raised slice of terrain the orc archers had originally taken their position upon, he felt hiself topple over and begin to tumble down the wooded embankment with the orc biting at his ankles. Everything happened so quickly that it seemed almost like a dream to him. Alas, it was not. With the spear and the bow stave having fallen away Vilthavia was again without weapon when the two rolling enemy wrestlers at last found themselves against a tall tree at the bottom of the grassy elevation. Vilthavia then realized his ankle was in pain and he raised up his other foot and landed a powerful kick to the orc's head. He hastily landed another kick, followed by another one and three more, the orc had released his bite, but still he kicked on until he felt his foe slide away from him. Was he dead? Had he actually killed him? It would be impossible to tell unless he took the time and plucked up the courage to find out. But he did not. Everything was in darkness now that they were away from the main bulk of the fighting. Or was it? Despite the urgency of his plight he looked up to see a faded greyish light beginning to glow upon the world. Dawn was fastly approaching. In less than half an hour it would be light enough to at least operate efficiently enough in.

He knew the orc was still with him, and could only just make out his shadowy form as he rose to his feet. He tried to fight off the dizziness from the rolling fall from which he had just descended and began to make his way back up the little wooded hill. He took no more notice of the orc he had grappled with as he went upwards, for he again heard his name being called out by Vidui. He made it up to the top of the embankment and stood leaning against a tree as he looked out to where he and Vidui had first assaulted the orc archers. The archers were either dead or had departed, and he saw Vidui standing there looking at him in great weariness with a relieved look on his bloody face. Yet behind him and coming fast were again more orcs approaching.

"I am glad to see you are alive!" said Vidui painfully. Speech was not easy for them by now. "The dawn is not far off now, and the orcs will surely disperse if they can. But it will not be enough for us, alas. Most of our folk are dead, Vilthavia. We shall not hear the signal for retreat now, I fear! We must look after ourselves. But quickly now, lad! Little time is left to us. Let us at least make an attempt at flight rather than stand here and become overwhelmed in the swords and spears of the orcs!"
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Celebrimbor32
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Sat Oct 03, 2009 7:01 am

"Vidui! I struggled with the orc..." Vilthavia had wanted to tell his friend about what had just happened but Vidui checked him.

"The tale must wait for now, and perhaps be left untold if we fail in our endeavor. Follow me!" Vidui gestured further back behind where Vilthavia and the orc had wrestled one another. There was scant attention being given to that area at present, though it wouldn't last long after the orcs completed their slaughter. It was in that direction that Vidui had desired to flee, perhaps taking refuge in a tree or alongside the cliff that Vilthavia had discovered the night before. Their options were few and the outcome decidedly grim. Vilthavia's cheek burned like fire and his ankle throbbed with an unabated sharp pain. He feared he had taken on a limp now and would fall behind his friend as they began to criss-cross the thick trunks of the trees in the misty darkness. Vilthavia looked frequently up to the sky which peeped through the treetops in hopes of descrying a shaft of sunlight that was yet to come.

"Vidui," Vilthavia began in a horse whisper. "Beware of that orc in the darkness. I fought with him but did not..."

"Peace, Vilthavia!" hushed Vidui urgently. He beckoned with a wave of his hand that Vilthavaia was to follow him and the latter obeyed. The noisome sound of drums suddenly filled the air of the woods back where the battle had mostly occured accompanied by a throng of shrill-pitched orc cries. It was plain to the two lone survivors, as it seemed to them, for they surely must be the only two left alive by now, that the enemy was shouting their victory cires, signaling that the battle was over and they had achieved their goal. They had slain the Rhovanions to a man and now danced triumphantly in the mire of their blood. The fighting had lasted barely a quarter of an hour but had seemed much longer to Vilthavia, who trudged along slowly behind the brave Vidui, who had already saved his life twice this night. How on earth, thought Vilthavia, would he ever be able to show him his gratitude after it was all over? How would they escape this place now with so many orcs prowling around? He might not ever be given the opportunity to thank Vidui properly if either one of them is killed. They must hide themselves away for another half an hour, Vilthavia told himself as he went behind his valiant friend in the shadowy gloom of the trees. Dawn shall present herself in that much time and force the orcs, who have no love for the daylight, to disperse and leave him and Vidui alone. Then they must fend for themselves and find a way out of the mountains as quickly as possible. The orcs would almost certainly appear again and hunt them down the following night. It then occured to him that they might just as easily perish together in the wilderness of Eriador despite having successfully navigating the western foothills alone and unaided. Neither of them had even been across the mountains before and knew not the way to either to Cameth Brin or Fennas Druinen. His thoughts were suddenly interupted by the sound of a hurried comotion ahead of them in the darkness. It was followed immediately by footsteps in flight. He quickly pushed aside an outreaching cluster of thin branches that hid his view and saw Vidui on his knees and seemingly in pain. The footsteps receded back the way they had first come.

"Vidui?" asked Vilthavia, coming up to him in a hurry. "Vidui, what is it? What has happened?" Vidui made an attempt to rise silently to his feet but something seemed to hinder him. He had nearly risen but fell back upon his knees before laying himself down upon his back. A new an unlooked for terror overwhelmed the young Vilthavia at that moment, and he froze in his tracks as his eyes roamed back and forth among the darkened woods in fear of hidden orcs that they had not heard. Then he thought of his friend that lay breathing heavily and painfully in the grass before him, and he went to him, stooping down to raise Vidui up in a sitting position. Vidui let a moan of pain escape through his clenched teeth.

"Give me a moment, Vilthavia, then help me up again."

"What has happened, Vidui? Was that an orc that ran away? I thought that I had killed him! But you are hurt! How came you so, for I did not hear any sounds of combat?" Vidui did not answer him, and instead managed to get up to his feet again, though the act of doing do seemed to be very difficult.

"I hear running water nearby," he whispered through clenched teeth. "Come! Let us go that way quickly, for that must be the stream that runs away from the house. We have not gone far, despite all our running here and there amid the chaos." Then Vidui turned and handed Vilthavia his long sword, saying to him, "You must take this for me, Vilthavia, for I need both my hands free now as we stumble along in the dark. You must lead now. Make for the stream and follow it towards the slope. We must go that way now, I fear."

"It is not a mere slope, Vidui, but a steep cliff!" replied Vilthavia nervously, his dread of heigh places coming back to him in a hurry.

"Than it is a cliff! Let it be what it is, yet we must go that way or else perish. Lead on!"

Vilthavia found the water easily enough and they quickly waded into the middle of it's shallow depths. The water rose only up to their knees at most but it was quite cold. Yet needs must force them to endure such an inconvenience, for they knew that the orcs could not scent them through water, and though the course of the stream went towards the cliff at length, it would at least provide the assumption that the two fugitives might follow the waterway upwards into the mountains rather than to a dead end by a steep overhang. Yet as they waded forward a thought quickly occured to Vilthavia and he acted on it at once. He paused to announce his idea to Vidui but saw that his friend had fallen behind. He quickly waded back to lend Vidui a hand when he at last noticed how badly hurt he really was. Even in the dark gloom of the wood Vilthavia caught a glimpse of Vidui's blood-drenched hand that he frequently held tight against his abdomen. Vilthavia gasped aloud at the sight.

"You are injured greatly, Vidui!" Vidui warded off the helping hand of his friend and motioned that they ought to continue forward.

"Aye," he said painfully, "I have been wounded. It was indeed an orc that you heard running away in a fright, but there is no time to reflect upon it now."

"You and I must hide in the hidden basement of the house, Vidui," said Vilthavia, his voice not without panic.

"Nay! We might become trapped inside in the end and shall have no where to flee if it is stormed by the orcs. There we will die in such a woeful circumstance."

"We shall die if we wander around in the forest going this way and that in hopes of throwing off our scent!" reasoned Vilthavia. "The orcs might not
yet have found the place. At least we might stay down there until daybreak and I can look after your wounds! Come, Vidui! There is no time to
debate it. You are sorely hurt!"

Vidui relented in the end and ere long they again came to the area where the two tall oaks stood together that marked the spot of the hidden trap door. Vilthavia went to work by raising the concealed door up on its hinges in order for them to descend the little stone stairs that led down into darkness. They looked back towards the house where they could see moving points of light inside that revealed where the orcs were searching the place for any more signs of men in hiding. There might easily be other orcs scenting through the woods nearby that might hear their voices if they spoke so the two surviving members of the Rhovanion mountaineering expedition went down the steps without uttering a sound. Vidui went first breathing laboriously, for Vilthavia was required to remain behind in order to pull down the trap door behind them, for Vidui had become ever more weak as he lost blood. Closing the door caused everything to fall under a deep spell of darkness down in the basement way, but it could not be helped now. They had both been down here once before, if only for a brief few moments, and could still recall the little room well enough.
Vilthavia had only just reached the bottom stone steps when he heard the noise of something being toppled over in the room in the unknowing darkness. He held his breath as he fearfully readied the long sword that Vidui had given him. His first thought was that the orcs must have discovered the hidden underground hide out and were lurking down in the darkness. Would the horrors of this night ever come to an end, he thought to himself. There was no time to ponder upon it now, and Vilthavia feared the worst. He immediately heard the sound of shuffling footsteps out before him that lasted but a moment only - then came the cry of pain. It was a terrible sound that nearly burst his eardrums in the pitch-darkness of the hidden basement. The cry of agony that echoed against the walls belonged to Vidui, his friend. Vilthavia heard the cry quickly trail off before he sensed, rather than heard, his companion fall to the floor. Another short gasp of agonizing pain pierced the silence before it was followed by several gurgling coughs from Vidui. Vilthavia abandoned caution now and cried out to his invisible friend who must surely be dying. His call was answered - but not by Vidui. It was another voice that spoke to him in the darkness; a voice that was laced with fear.

"Who is that, there, in the darkness? Identify yourself or I shall smite you!"

"Uncle Urlavia?" asked Vilthavia in wonder and confusion. "Uncle, is that you?"

"Nephew!" said his uncle in a state of shock. "Aye, lad, it is Urlavia your uncle! What has happened? How do you fare? Are you alright? Who is with you down here?" Vilthavia ignored the questions, wanting only to come to Vidui and aid him as quickly as he might, for he knew by that hideous cry that his friend was in need.

"Light! Uncle, I need light and quickly! Vidui is in need! Uncle!" This last utterance was filled with both desperation and growing anger.

"I have no light source with me at present, you little fool!" Suspecting an accusitory tone in Vilthavia's tone, Urlavia took up a countenance of anger, as if in self-defence. "Why did you not announce yourselves ere you came down the steps? Are you alone?"

"Vidui!" said Vilthavia, once again ignoring his uncle's untimely questions. He began to feel his way along the wall to his left so that he might come up to his ailing friend, who could only just barely be heard moving upon the floor by now. "Vidui! I am coming for you, my dear Vidui! Stay close!"
After a few brief moments of groping in darkness, Vilthavia stumbled across the laying figure of his friend. He hastily bent down close to him, removing his own outer woolen jacket to serve as an outer wound dressing for Vidui's injuries - though how he would find the wounds and dress them in this utter dark was beyond him at the moment.

"Nephew! I asked you a question and I should like a reply! Are you alone? What is happening outside? Quickly now!"

"Aye," replied the nephew in a low voice as he labored away. "We are alone."

"Where is Wildaria? Does he live?"

"I would give all that I have ever owned for a bit of light!" bemoaned Vilthavia loudly. "I feel a great deal of blood upon my fingers and hands! Vidui! Do not leave me here!" He was quickly hushed down by his uncle, which prompted an angry response from the newphew.

"I care not about the orcs anymore! What have you done, uncle?" Vilthavia heard Urlavia move closer to them now.

"How dare you accuse me, boy! Whatever has happened here has occured by accident! Speak of it to no one. Keep your voice down! You shall alert the orcs with your cries! Then shall we both be captured or even slain!"

"Better to die now rather than later," said Vilthavia, his voice at last begining to betray the sobbs that were welling up inside him. "We shall surely die anyway without Vidui to guide us."

"We shall surely die if you go on talking aloud as you do! Pray, lament Vidui's death in silence, I entreat you, nephew!"

"He is not dead yet!" cried Vilthavia angrily. "Speak not of death unless it be your own, uncle!" Urlavia stooped down to where he estimated Vilthavia had been crouching alongside the dying Vidui.

"I curse the day I agreed to take you with us on this quest, Vilthavia! I told your mother you were not apt for such a journey as this and I was right. You have been little more than a skulking nuisance since we left Greenwood!" Their bitter exchange was suddenly put to a stop when they heard the sound of orc voices outside. They were as yet faint and far away - but not far enough for their liking. They listened intently for several moments in the silence of the dark until Vidui broke the silence with another long and painful moan. Vilthavia had tried to wrap his discarded jacket around Vidui's waist, where most of the blood seemed to be flowing from, though it was impossibe to ascertain that for certain without light to see by.

"What are you doing now?" asked Urlavia, hearing Vilthavia's shuffling movements in the dark. Vilthavia did not answer at once, for again Vidui cried aloud with a sudden pain. Vilthavia had positioned himself so that he could cradle Vidui's head in his lap, but the pain of doing so was too much for the mortally wounded man.

"Quiet, I say!" snarled Urlavia in a panic.

"Leave us in peace, uncle! You can go and hide over in the corner if you desire it, but not I!" Urlavia flinched at this, for he had just heard what sounded feet disturbing nettled leaves and undergowth outside the trap door above them. It sounded as if someone was very close by where the concealed door lay hidden. It dawned on Urlavia that they would now surely be discovered if total silence could not be attained very quickly. A thought entered into his mind then and there, and though it was not an attractive notion to entertain, he deemed there to be no other option anymore. Once more Vidui's ejaculations of pain could plainly be heard in the darkness of the basement, despite Vilthavia's attempt at comforting him.

"I am truly sorry about what has happened, Vilthavia," he said in a more sincere manner, though at a mere whisper. "I regret this more than you can ever know. I blame you not for your wrathful words. Yet how can I help now? I will stay with Vidui while you creep up the steps and listen at the door for any sounds or signs of orcs outside."

"You do it," replied Vilthavia flatly.

"You are smaller and may move more stealthily than I, my nephew. I will stay with Vidui and comfort him. It is the least I can do for him. Hurry now!"

Vilthavia saw no reason why he should not assent to this reasonable suggestion and, after a delay, agreed to do so. As Urlavia replaced his nephew as Vidui's nurse-hand by feeling his way blindly, the patient moaned aloud again, though much fainter now. The fear of discovery was always present now as they waited impatiently in the utter dark of the cellar. Urlavia gently whispered soothing words close into the ear of Vidui as he slowly drew out his knife from his belt while he felt for Vidui's throat with his free hand. That being easily accomplished he then moved the same hand over his mouth to stifle any sudden cries when the steel of Urlavia's blade slid into the throat of the poor dying swordsman from the plainlands of Rhovanion and ended his life. It was all over very quickly. Vidui's body went limp and he expired quietly in the dark in the tender arms of his murderer. Urlavia exhaled anxiously as he listened to the orc voices outside. They were much closer now. Neither he nor Vilthavia could understand the speech of the orcs, though it seemed plain that the tone of their voices sounded both serious and exaltant at the same time. Vilthavia gripped the hilt-handle of Vidui's long sword tightly as he sat upon one of the upper stone steps that led up to the exit door. He wondered what he would do if the orcs discovered the hidden door. How could he fight them in the darkness and in such a tight space? Could he rely on his untrustworthy uncle to rush up and aid him in the event of combat? He supposed he would have no choice but to fight in the end. Just what, exactly, was his uncle doing down here by himself in the dark anyway? He had forgotten to ask him. Doubtless he had fled down here to hide just as he and Vidui had done, but how long had he been down here? Vilthavia knew that his uncle Urlavia was no great warrior by any account, but neither was he - yet he had forced himself to remain outside and do battle with the orcs despite his fear and inexperience in battle. He could not recall seeing his uncle anywhere in the vicinity of the woods as the orcs came upon them so suddenly. He suspected his uncle guilty of cowardice - a coward who had just mortally wounded his dear friend, whether it be accident or no. Despite the peril of the prowling orcs outside Vilthavia suddenly felt overcome by an intense animosity for his mother's older brother.

"How long have you been down here, uncle?" he asked him as he began to feel his way back down the steps in the dark. Urlavia hissed at him to remain silent but Vilthavia reported that the orcs had seemingly departed, for their was no sound of them now.

"They might be outside listening for any signs of us in silence!"

"Perhaps I should just let them in now," suggested Vilthavia wryly. "Better to die sooner rather than later, as I said before, for die we must. We are trapped down here now, alas! O alas! Where is Vidui in this cursed darkness? Have you moved him somewhere?"

"Nay, little nephew! He is still here - and I resent the tone in your voice. But alas! Vidui is dead now. He stirs no more and is lifeless. He sleeps in peace now. May the gods grant him rest!"

"I do not believe you," lamented Vilthavia bitterly. "It cannot be! Vidui! Where are you in this black pit? I have lost my way!"

"He cannot hear you I said," answered Urlavia, "though the orcs above are liable to if you carry on as such! Ah! There you are, nephew! Take my hand." Vilthavia felt his uncle grab hold of his wrist and pull him towards himself, though much too strongly, for Vilthavia toppled forward across the body of Vidui as he fell.

"Get out of my way now," exclaimed Urlavia as he strode past the two and walked cautiously up the stone steps to listen at the door. He pressed his ear up to the cold stone underside of the trap door. Several moments passed. There was no longer any sign of the enemy outside, though he dare not venture outside to look for himself as of yet.

"It seems they are gone for the present," said Urlavia with a little more ease, "though I thought I heard some comotion back up towards the house. What can they be doing up there?" There was no reply from Vilthavia, nor could he hear the sounds of his continual sobbing. All seemed eerily still down in the blackness of the basement.

"What are you doing down there, Vilthavia?" Still there was no answer from below. Urlavia began to turn his attention away from the door and back down the steps to where he assumed his nephew and the body of Vidui lay. "Vilthavia, I say!" He began to grow angry when he did not receive a response. He hesitated as reached the bottom two steps. He then realized that he had left his sword somewhere in the empty darkness of the room and began to wish that he had not. "Vilthavia, curse you! Stop this infernal skulking and answer me! It will be daylight outside very soon and we must think of a way to escape the mountains before nightfall arrives again. The orcs may be back again. They shall find this hidden room ere long, you may be sure! Vilthavia!" Despite his pleading his nephew gave no reply. No sound of him could be heard. Urlavia went tense as a wire as he began to entertain an irrational thought that his nephew had somehow found his sword in the darkness and might be about to turn it against him out of revenge for killing Vidui. At any moment he might suddenly feel his death pang stab him through the heart in the blind darkness! He was unarmed and would not be able to fight back until it was too late. A frenzied confusion seemed to overtake him as he stood leaning against the wall of the narrow stairwell, pondering desperately what to do. He could let his anger fead him the courage he needed to begin an immediate search for Vilthavia in the dark and hope to come on him at unawares. If he could do so he would give the young knave a brutal thrashing for disobeying him. He would make sure to report to Vilthavia's mother back home - or indeed his father, if he could be found - of what a coward their son had become and how poorly he performed during the expedition. His other option would be to abandon Vilthavia to his own fate and depart from this place and brave the terrain and the possibility of orcs and other creatures of the wild on his own. If he could manage to get down to the lowest elevations of the foothills he would surely escape, for he knew the way from here well enough due to his previous experiences in these regions. He might even come across friends he had made in the past and they could provide him with food and shelter while he regained his strength.

After another moment or two he decided upon the latter option, and he abandoned his nephew, so strong was his increasing dislike of the boy. He knew all too well that he lacked his sword, but what good would it be now anyway if he stumbled into another army of orcs? He would be as good as dead, sword or no. He silently cursed Vilthavia as he made his way back up the steps until he reached the trapdoor. He listened again for a moment only - for he feared to hear the running footfalls of his wrathful nephew armed with his naked blade coming up behind him - he pushed the door up, saw the sky fading from black to a whispy grey, and left the basement. He paused as he felt the cool morning air on his face, swinging his head in all directions like a gopher emerging quickly from its underground lair in order to scane for potential hunters. There was none. Yet something did catch his attention and made him gasp at the sight. A terrific conflagration had begun where the old house had stood. The orcs had set it ablaze to serve as a marking for their wrath. Many trees were also beginning to catch fire nearby, and Urlavia suddenly felt glad that he had made the decision to leave the underground room. There seemed a deffinate possibilty that the flames would spread through the underbrush and reach the trapdoor. He briefly thought about turning back to go look for Vilthavia again now that there was light to see by outside, for he knew that if the boy remained downstairs in the dark for very long he would be trapped and even risked death by smoke and by flame. Yet bitterness and pride prevented him from doing so. There was also the possibilty of trouble later on if Vilthavia was at last able to return back hom in his company, where he would be free to level charges of murder at him before the village leaders back in Rhovanion. It was a slight risk, perhaps, but not one that he wished to worry about. Vilthavia had been given the chance to escape with him but had chosen not to reply to his calls, and therefore must look after himself now. There was no more time to consider it. With a final glance back at the trap door in the grass, which he had already closed up again, he turned his feet back past the burning house and tread his way carefully through the burning trees until he at last struck the main pass out of the mountains and was gone.
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Celebrimbor32
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Sat Oct 03, 2009 7:01 am

"Vidui! I struggled with the orc..." Vilthavia had wanted to tell his friend about what had just happened but Vidui checked him.

"The tale must wait for now, and perhaps be left untold if we fail in our endeavor. Follow me!" Vidui gestured further back behind where Vilthavia and the orc had wrestled one another. There was scant attention being given to that area at present, though it wouldn't last long after the orcs completed their slaughter. It was in that direction that Vidui had desired to flee, perhaps taking refuge in a tree or alongside the cliff that Vilthavia had discovered the night before. Their options were few and the outcome decidedly grim. Vilthavia's cheek burned like fire and his ankle throbbed with an unabated sharp pain. He feared he had taken on a limp now and would fall behind his friend as they began to criss-cross the thick trunks of the trees in the misty darkness. Vilthavia looked frequently up to the sky which peeped through the treetops in hopes of descrying a shaft of sunlight that was yet to come.

"Vidui," Vilthavia began in a horse whisper. "Beware of that orc in the darkness. I fought with him but did not..."

"Peace, Vilthavia!" hushed Vidui urgently. He beckoned with a wave of his hand that Vilthavaia was to follow him and the latter obeyed. The noisome sound of drums suddenly filled the air of the woods back where the battle had mostly occured accompanied by a throng of shrill-pitched orc cries. It was plain to the two lone survivors, as it seemed to them, for they surely must be the only two left alive by now, that the enemy was shouting their victory cires, signaling that the battle was over and they had achieved their goal. They had slain the Rhovanions to a man and now danced triumphantly in the mire of their blood. The fighting had lasted barely a quarter of an hour but had seemed much longer to Vilthavia, who trudged along slowly behind the brave Vidui, who had already saved his life twice this night. How on earth, thought Vilthavia, would he ever be able to show him his gratitude after it was all over? How would they escape this place now with so many orcs prowling around? He might not ever be given the opportunity to thank Vidui properly if either one of them is killed. They must hide themselves away for another half an hour, Vilthavia told himself as he went behind his valiant friend in the shadowy gloom of the trees. Dawn shall present herself in that much time and force the orcs, who have no love for the daylight, to disperse and leave him and Vidui alone. Then they must fend for themselves and find a way out of the mountains as quickly as possible. The orcs would almost certainly appear again and hunt them down the following night. It then occured to him that they might just as easily perish together in the wilderness of Eriador despite having successfully navigating the western foothills alone and unaided. Neither of them had even been across the mountains before and knew not the way to either to Cameth Brin or Fennas Druinen. His thoughts were suddenly interupted by the sound of a hurried comotion ahead of them in the darkness. It was followed immediately by footsteps in flight. He quickly pushed aside an outreaching cluster of thin branches that hid his view and saw Vidui on his knees and seemingly in pain. The footsteps receded back the way they had first come.

"Vidui?" asked Vilthavia, coming up to him in a hurry. "Vidui, what is it? What has happened?" Vidui made an attempt to rise silently to his feet but something seemed to hinder him. He had nearly risen but fell back upon his knees before laying himself down upon his back. A new an unlooked for terror overwhelmed the young Vilthavia at that moment, and he froze in his tracks as his eyes roamed back and forth among the darkened woods in fear of hidden orcs that they had not heard. Then he thought of his friend that lay breathing heavily and painfully in the grass before him, and he went to him, stooping down to raise Vidui up in a sitting position. Vidui let a moan of pain escape through his clenched teeth.

"Give me a moment, Vilthavia, then help me up again."

"What has happened, Vidui? Was that an orc that ran away? I thought that I had killed him! But you are hurt! How came you so, for I did not hear any sounds of combat?" Vidui did not answer him, and instead managed to get up to his feet again, though the act of doing do seemed to be very difficult.

"I hear running water nearby," he whispered through clenched teeth. "Come! Let us go that way quickly, for that must be the stream that runs away from the house. We have not gone far, despite all our running here and there amid the chaos." Then Vidui turned and handed Vilthavia his long sword, saying to him, "You must take this for me, Vilthavia, for I need both my hands free now as we stumble along in the dark. You must lead now. Make for the stream and follow it towards the slope. We must go that way now, I fear."

"It is not a mere slope, Vidui, but a steep cliff!" replied Vilthavia nervously, his dread of heigh places coming back to him in a hurry.

"Than it is a cliff! Let it be what it is, yet we must go that way or else perish. Lead on!"

Vilthavia found the water easily enough and they quickly waded into the middle of it's shallow depths. The water rose only up to their knees at most but it was quite cold. Yet needs must force them to endure such an inconvenience, for they knew that the orcs could not scent them through water, and though the course of the stream went towards the cliff at length, it would at least provide the assumption that the two fugitives might follow the waterway upwards into the mountains rather than to a dead end by a steep overhang. Yet as they waded forward a thought quickly occured to Vilthavia and he acted on it at once. He paused to announce his idea to Vidui but saw that his friend had fallen behind. He quickly waded back to lend Vidui a hand when he at last noticed how badly hurt he really was. Even in the dark gloom of the wood Vilthavia caught a glimpse of Vidui's blood-drenched hand that he frequently held tight against his abdomen. Vilthavia gasped aloud at the sight.

"You are injured greatly, Vidui!" Vidui warded off the helping hand of his friend and motioned that they ought to continue forward.

"Aye," he said painfully, "I have been wounded. It was indeed an orc that you heard running away in a fright, but there is no time to reflect upon it now."

"You and I must hide in the hidden basement of the house, Vidui," said Vilthavia, his voice not without panic.

"Nay! We might become trapped inside in the end and shall have no where to flee if it is stormed by the orcs. There we will die in such a woeful circumstance."

"We shall die if we wander around in the forest going this way and that in hopes of throwing off our scent!" reasoned Vilthavia. "The orcs might not
yet have found the place. At least we might stay down there until daybreak and I can look after your wounds! Come, Vidui! There is no time to
debate it. You are sorely hurt!"

Vidui relented in the end and ere long they again came to the area where the two tall oaks stood together that marked the spot of the hidden trap door. Vilthavia went to work by raising the concealed door up on its hinges in order for them to descend the little stone stairs that led down into darkness. They looked back towards the house where they could see moving points of light inside that revealed where the orcs were searching the place for any more signs of men in hiding. There might easily be other orcs scenting through the woods nearby that might hear their voices if they spoke so the two surviving members of the Rhovanion mountaineering expedition went down the steps without uttering a sound. Vidui went first breathing laboriously, for Vilthavia was required to remain behind in order to pull down the trap door behind them, for Vidui had become ever more weak as he lost blood. Closing the door caused everything to fall under a deep spell of darkness down in the basement way, but it could not be helped now. They had both been down here once before, if only for a brief few moments, and could still recall the little room well enough.

Vilthavia had only just reached the bottom stone steps when he heard the noise of something being toppled over in the room in the unknowing darkness. He held his breath as he fearfully readied the long sword that Vidui had given him. His first thought was that the orcs must have discovered the hidden underground hide out and were lurking down in the darkness. Would the horrors of this night ever come to an end, he thought to himself. There was no time to ponder upon it now, and Vilthavia feared the worst. He immediately heard the sound of shuffling footsteps out before him that lasted but a moment only - then came the cry of pain. It was a terrible sound that nearly burst his eardrums in the pitch-darkness of the hidden basement. The cry of agony that echoed against the walls belonged to Vidui, his friend. Vilthavia heard the cry quickly trail off before he sensed, rather than heard, his companion fall to the floor. Another short gasp of agonizing pain pierced the silence before it was followed by several gurgling coughs from Vidui. Vilthavia abandoned caution now and cried out to his invisible friend who must surely be dying. His call was answered - but not by Vidui. It was another voice that spoke to him in the darkness; a voice that was laced with fear.

"Who is that, there, in the darkness? Identify yourself or I shall smite you!"

"Uncle Urlavia?" asked Vilthavia in wonder and confusion. "Uncle, is that you?"

"Nephew!" said his uncle in a state of shock. "Aye, lad, it is Urlavia your uncle! What has happened? How do you fare? Are you alright? Who is with you down here?" Vilthavia ignored the questions, wanting only to come to Vidui and aid him as quickly as he might, for he knew by that hideous cry that his friend was in need.

"Light! Uncle, I need light and quickly! Vidui is in need! Uncle!" This last utterance was filled with both desperation and growing anger.

"I have no light source with me at present, you little fool!" Suspecting an accusitory tone in Vilthavia's tone, Urlavia took up a countenance of anger, as if in self-defence. "Why did you not announce yourselves ere you came down the steps? Are you alone?"

"Vidui!" said Vilthavia, once again ignoring his uncle's untimely questions. He began to feel his way along the wall to his left so that he might come up to his ailing friend, who could only just barely be heard moving upon the floor by now. "Vidui! I am coming for you, my dear Vidui! Stay close!"
After a few brief moments of groping in darkness, Vilthavia stumbled across the laying figure of his friend. He hastily bent down close to him, removing his own outer woolen jacket to serve as an outer wound dressing for Vidui's injuries - though how he would find the wounds and dress them in this utter dark was beyond him at the moment.

"Nephew! I asked you a question and I should like a reply! Are you alone? What is happening outside? Quickly now!"

"Aye," replied the nephew in a low voice as he labored away. "We are alone."

"Where is Wildaria? Does he live?"

"I would give all that I have ever owned for a bit of light!" bemoaned Vilthavia loudly. "I feel a great deal of blood upon my fingers and hands! Vidui! Do not leave me here!" He was quickly hushed down by his uncle, which prompted an angry response from the newphew.

"I care not about the orcs anymore! What have you done, uncle?" Vilthavia heard Urlavia move closer to them now.

"How dare you accuse me, boy! Whatever has happened here has occured by accident! Speak of it to no one. Keep your voice down! You shall alert the orcs with your cries! Then shall we both be captured or even slain!"

"Better to die now rather than later," said Vilthavia, his voice at last begining to betray the sobbs that were welling up inside him. "We shall surely die anyway without Vidui to guide us."

"We shall surely die if you go on talking aloud as you do! Pray, lament Vidui's death in silence, I entreat you, nephew!"

"He is not dead yet!" cried Vilthavia angrily. "Speak not of death unless it be your own, uncle!" Urlavia stooped down to where he estimated Vilthavia had been crouching alongside the dying Vidui.

"I curse the day I agreed to take you with us on this quest, Vilthavia! I told your mother you were not apt for such a journey as this and I was right. You have been little more than a skulking nuisance since we left Greenwood!" Their bitter exchange was suddenly put to a stop when they heard the sound of orc voices outside. They were as yet faint and far away - but not far enough for their liking. They listened intently for several moments in the silence of the dark until Vidui broke the silence with another long and painful moan. Vilthavia had tried to wrap his discarded jacket around Vidui's waist, where most of the blood seemed to be flowing from, though it was impossibe to ascertain that for certain without light to see by.

"What are you doing now?" asked Urlavia, hearing Vilthavia's shuffling movements in the dark. Vilthavia did not answer at once, for again Vidui cried aloud with a sudden pain. Vilthavia had positioned himself so that he could cradle Vidui's head in his lap, but the pain of doing so was too much for the mortally wounded man.

"Quiet, I say!" snarled Urlavia in a panic.

"Leave us in peace, uncle! You can go and hide over in the corner if you desire it, but not I!" Urlavia flinched at this, for he had just heard what sounded feet disturbing nettled leaves and undergowth outside the trap door above them. It sounded as if someone was very close by where the concealed door lay hidden. It dawned on Urlavia that they would now surely be discovered if total silence could not be attained very quickly. A thought entered into his mind then and there, and though it was not an attractive notion to entertain, he deemed there to be no other option anymore. Once more Vidui's ejaculations of pain could plainly be heard in the darkness of the basement, despite Vilthavia's attempt at comforting him.

"I am truly sorry about what has happened, Vilthavia," he said in a more sincere manner, though at a mere whisper. "I regret this more than you can ever know. I blame you not for your wrathful words. Yet how can I help now? I will stay with Vidui while you creep up the steps and listen at the door for any sounds or signs of orcs outside."

"You do it," replied Vilthavia flatly.

"You are smaller and may move more stealthily than I, my nephew. I will stay with Vidui and comfort him. It is the least I can do for him. Hurry now!"

Vilthavia saw no reason why he should not assent to this reasonable suggestion and, after a delay, agreed to do so. As Urlavia replaced his nephew as Vidui's nurse-hand by feeling his way blindly, the patient moaned aloud again, though much fainter now. The fear of discovery was always present now as they waited impatiently in the utter dark of the cellar. Urlavia gently whispered soothing words close into the ear of Vidui as he slowly drew out his knife from his belt while he felt for Vidui's throat with his free hand. That being easily accomplished he then moved the same hand over his mouth to stifle any sudden cries when the steel of Urlavia's blade slid into the throat of the poor dying swordsman from the plainlands of Rhovanion and ended his life. It was all over very quickly. Vidui's body went limp and he expired quietly in the dark in the tender arms of his murderer. Urlavia exhaled anxiously as he listened to the orc voices outside. They were much closer now. Neither he nor Vilthavia could understand the speech of the orcs, though it seemed plain that the tone of their voices sounded both serious and exaltant at the same time. Vilthavia gripped the hilt-handle of Vidui's long sword tightly as he sat upon one of the upper stone steps that led up to the exit door. He wondered what he would do if the orcs discovered the hidden door. How could he fight them in the darkness and in such a tight space? Could he rely on his untrustworthy uncle to rush up and aid him in the event of combat? He supposed he would have no choice but to fight in the end. Just what, exactly, was his uncle doing down here by himself in the dark anyway? He had forgotten to ask him. Doubtless he had fled down here to hide just as he and Vidui had done, but how long had he been down here? Vilthavia knew that his uncle Urlavia was no great warrior by any account, but neither was he - yet he had forced himself to remain outside and do battle with the orcs despite his fear and inexperience in battle. He could not recall seeing his uncle anywhere in the vicinity of the woods as the orcs came upon them so suddenly. He suspected his uncle guilty of cowardice - a coward who had just mortally wounded his dear friend, whether it be accident or no. Despite the peril of the prowling orcs outside Vilthavia suddenly felt overcome by an intense animosity for his mother's older brother.

"How long have you been down here, uncle?" he asked him as he began to feel his way back down the steps in the dark. Urlavia hissed at him to remain silent but Vilthavia reported that the orcs had seemingly departed, for their was no sound of them now.

"They might be outside listening for any signs of us in silence!"

"Perhaps I should just let them in now," suggested Vilthavia wryly. "Better to die sooner rather than later, as I said before, for die we must. We are trapped down here now, alas! O alas! Where is Vidui in this cursed darkness? Have you moved him somewhere?"

"Nay, little nephew! He is still here - and I resent the tone in your voice. But alas! Vidui is dead now. He stirs no more and is lifeless. He sleeps in peace now. May the gods grant him rest!"

"I do not believe you," lamented Vilthavia bitterly. "It cannot be! Vidui! Where are you in this black pit? I have lost my way!"

"He cannot hear you I said," answered Urlavia, "though the orcs above are liable to if you carry on as such! Ah! There you are, nephew! Take my hand." Vilthavia felt his uncle grab hold of his wrist and pull him towards himself, though much too strongly, for Vilthavia toppled forward across the body of Vidui as he fell.

"Get out of my way now," exclaimed Urlavia as he strode past the two and walked cautiously up the stone steps to listen at the door. He pressed his ear up to the cold stone underside of the trap door. Several moments passed. There was no longer any sign of the enemy outside, though he dare not venture outside to look for himself as of yet.

"It seems they are gone for the present," said Urlavia with a little more ease, "though I thought I heard some comotion back up towards the house. What can they be doing up there?" There was no reply from Vilthavia, nor could he hear the sounds of his continual sobbing. All seemed eerily still down in the blackness of the basement.

"What are you doing down there, Vilthavia?" Still there was no answer from below. Urlavia began to turn his attention away from the door and back down the steps to where he assumed his nephew and the body of Vidui lay. "Vilthavia, I say!" He began to grow angry when he did not receive a response. He hesitated as reached the bottom two steps. He then realized that he had left his sword somewhere in the empty darkness of the room and began to wish that he had not. "Vilthavia, curse you! Stop this infernal skulking and answer me! It will be daylight outside very soon and we must think of a way to escape the mountains before nightfall arrives again. The orcs may be back again. They shall find this hidden room ere long, you may be sure! Vilthavia!" Despite his pleading his nephew gave no reply. No sound of him could be heard. Urlavia went tense as a wire as he began to entertain an irrational thought that his nephew had somehow found his sword in the darkness and might be about to turn it against him out of revenge for killing Vidui. At any moment he might suddenly feel his death pang stab him through the heart in the blind darkness! He was unarmed and would not be able to fight back until it was too late. A frenzied confusion seemed to overtake him as he stood leaning against the wall of the narrow stairwell, pondering desperately what to do. He could let his anger fead him the courage he needed to begin an immediate search for Vilthavia in the dark and hope to come on him at unawares. If he could do so he would give the young knave a brutal thrashing for disobeying him. He would make sure to report to Vilthavia's mother back home - or indeed his father, if he could be found - of what a coward their son had become and how poorly he performed during the expedition. His other option would be to abandon Vilthavia to his own fate and depart from this place and brave the terrain and the possibility of orcs and other creatures of the wild on his own. If he could manage to get down to the lowest elevations of the foothills he would surely escape, for he knew the way from here well enough due to his previous experiences in these regions. He might even come across friends he had made in the past and they could provide him with food and shelter while he regained his strength.

After another moment or two he decided upon the latter option, and he abandoned his nephew, so strong was his increasing dislike of the boy. He knew all too well that he lacked his sword, but what good would it be now anyway if he stumbled into another army of orcs? He would be as good as dead, sword or no. He silently cursed Vilthavia as he made his way back up the steps until he reached the trapdoor. He listened again for a moment only - for he feared to hear the running footfalls of his wrathful nephew armed with his naked blade coming up behind him - he pushed the door up, saw the sky fading from black to a whispy grey, and left the basement. He paused as he felt the cool morning air on his face, swinging his head in all directions like a gopher emerging quickly from its underground lair in order to scane for potential hunters. There was none. Yet something did catch his attention and made him gasp at the sight. A terrific conflagration had begun where the old house had stood. The orcs had set it ablaze to serve as a marking for their wrath. Many trees were also beginning to catch fire nearby, and Urlavia suddenly felt glad that he had made the decision to leave the underground room. There seemed a deffinate possibilty that the flames would spread through the underbrush and reach the trapdoor. He briefly thought about turning back to go look for Vilthavia again now that there was light to see by outside, for he knew that if the boy remained downstairs in the dark for very long he would be trapped and even risked death by smoke and by flame. Yet bitterness and pride prevented him from doing so. There was also the possibilty of trouble later on if Vilthavia was at last able to return back hom in his company, where he would be free to level charges of murder at him before the village leaders back in Rhovanion. It was a slight risk, perhaps, but not one that he wished to worry about. Vilthavia had been given the chance to escape with him but had chosen not to reply to his calls, and therefore must look after himself now. There was no more time to consider it. With a final glance back at the trap door in the grass, which he had already closed up again, he turned his feet back past the burning house and tread his way carefully through the burning trees until he at last struck the main pass out of the mountains and was gone...
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Celebrimbor32
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Fri Oct 16, 2009 1:45 pm

...Vilthavia had heard his uncle's cries, of course, but no longer cared for him or the possibilty of escape. His main concern was Vidui, who was now dead. He lay next to the body of his late friend and sobbed again until a black despair came on him. He fell into a deep swoon of sorrow and regret and soon was asleep - if sleep it could be called. He at once began to have several short and terrible dreams that orc tribes in great multitudes began to assail Vidui in the forest and one by one Vidui slew them with his sword. But he began to grow weary at last and he called aloud for Vilthavia to aid him ere his strength failed him. Yet Vilthavia was unable to conquer his fear and he cowered down behind a tree stump for concealment while Vidui struggled on. At last he heard the same horrible death cry from his friend that he had heard in the darkness of the basement, and he knew that Vidui had fallen in battle unaided. He saw himself as a coward indeed; a pitiful thing to behold. He was worthless.

When Vilthavia at last stirred himself awake and opened his eyes he could see nothing. Pitch black darkness and nothing else. For a moment he thought he had died or been slain as he slept and was now in those halls where the dead go beyond the sea - the halls of the Vala that his father had told him about once before: the Halls of Mandos. Was he waiting now for the time of judgement? He dreaded what the pronouncement would be. He could hear the sound of a deep roaring somewhere out and beyond his confinement - like the sound of a great fire consuming the world. Was he too about to be consumed in the flames of Mandos? He suposed he must surely deserve such a sentence.

Yet after he had sat up and rubbed the salty tears out of his tired eyes the realization of his predicament slowly came back to him. No - he was not dead, though he almost wished he was. He remembered now what had happened the night before. He recalled the haunting visions of the battle with the orcs, the attempted flight of he and Vidui, and ultimately his confinement along with his uncle in the secret hiding place beneath the ground. Yet most of all he recalled the scream of Vidui as he was cut down in the dark by his letcherous uncle. He hastily groped in the dark until his hand rubbed up against the body of Vidui, who was now dead. But what was that sound he had heard in the dream? He heard it it again now, while fully awake. He was filled with a new fear and curiosity, and before he knew it he was feeling his way back over to the stone steps leading upwards to the trap door. He placed his hands upon the handle and was about to push it upwards so as to exit the underground lair but stopped short when he felt a strong heat upon it. He could hear the sound of a dull roar outside and knew immediately that a forest fire was blazing away outside unabated.

He knew he was in a terrible way. He was certainly trapped like a rat in a hole with nowhere to go. He feared to even open the door to look around for fear of a sudden rush of flame and smoke that might suddenly jet its way inside and fill the basement with smoke. He would surely perish in such an event when the noxious fumes would at last over come him. It would almost be a fitting end to his existence in any case, for so harsh had his own self-judgement become now. But he could not bring himself to do even that. He would have to wait it out in the darkness of the hideout until the fire had whithered enough for him to depart. But how long might that take? He had heard of forest fires lasting for many days on end back home. He was already growing thirsty and would be hungry soon. Again he began to despair and he went back down the steps and made his way back to the body of Vidui, where he lay himself down on his back and let the tears roll down his cheek. Fate had him in its grasp and would not let go of him until he had suffered enough torment to make amends for his cowardice in battle. But then he thought suddenly of his uncle. He had nearly forgotten him in the urgency of his predicament. Where was he? He called out Urlavia's name a couple of times but received no reply. He knew then that his uncle had somehow left the basement - leaving him to fend for his own in the wilderness of the Misty Mountains. He had been abandoned by him; abandoned by his mother's brother. A great anger as hot as the conflagration outside filled his heart at the thought of his uncle leaving him to rot alone in the dark as he himself fled to save himself. Vilthavia cursed aloud as he lay in the darkness next to a dead man.

~~

It was impossible to know just how long he had lain low in hiding by the time he had at last decided he must leave the sanctity of the cellar and attempt to find a way out of the mountains for good. He had had more than enough of mountain travel to suit him for the rest of his life. Even before the orc attack Vilthavia had decided that he had no liking for such high places as this. Now he knew that his initial dislike had turned to a loathing and black hatred for mountain life. Even back home, where he dwelt nigh the forest of Greenwood the Great, he had heard tales of evil things dwelling in the high places of the mountains that lay somewhere in the midst of the forest. There could be few folk of any worth that called the mountains their home. The dwarves certainly had not earned any respectability with him either, for the band that they had met upon the road might have warned them of the peril that they surely must know lay ahead in the passes but refused to tell them so unless well paid. Let the whole lot of those foul dwarves we met fall into evil upon whatever path they purposed, he thought wrathfuly to himself. They deserve nothing better! In his gloom and anger he hoped to come across one, if not all of those dwarves someday in order to exact his vengeance upon them. In his mind he allowed himself to toy with imaginary scenarios that fortune might unfold before him in the future where he would be able to deal appropriately with both the dwarves and his uncle Urlavia. Their penalties would be severe to be sure.

"Enough of this idle speculation," Vilthavia said aloud to himself as he sat against a corner in the dark basement. He sighed heavily. "I was forgetting that I am a weak and timid boy of ten and three years. Cowardice runs through my veins and I do not know how to extract it! My vengeance is but a small thing when compared to the might of armed dwarves. I shall have to live with the memory of it and that is all." He had tried to estimate the passing of hours and even days while he had been hidden in the dark but the best calculation he could come up with was somewhere between one and three days. The only thing he knew was that he was hungry and extremely thirsty. He thanked the Valar that he had decided to take his water flask with him the night of the battle. He might have died of thirst by now in the dark had he not done so. The deceased body of Vidui still lay in the room with him and Vilthavia was already noticing the first signs of putrification by now. He had to depart as soon as possible regardless of the danger. He had not heard any sign of orcs or other folk for a long time now. The fire that had raged on unchecked before was almost certainly quenched by now.

Summoning up his courage - for he knew well that the journey down the mountainside alone was rife with many perils - Vilthavia gathered himself up, strapped on the sword belt of Vidui and sheathed his friend's mighty blade in the scabbard. He had decided to take the long sword with him, as he knew that his friend would not want it to lay idle in a dark and abandoned cellar in the middle of the wilderness. Vidui would have desired that Vilthavia take it and perhaps even learn to wield it to glory when his stature grew accordingly through the years. Besides, he had lost his father's blade somewhere out among the trees of the woods during the battle with the orcs. Therefore, after he had prepared himself and said his final farewells to Vidui amid tears renewed, Vilthavia crept up the dark stairwell and raised up the trap door lid. A sudden flood of light entered into the narrow hallway and Vilthavia had to shield his eyes, which had grown so accustomed to the dark by now. It was several moments before he could open them wide enough to look around and examine his surroundings. He made his exit at last and fixed his eyes upon the landscape before him. The sight filled him with both dread and sadness. Trees kindled down to their barest brown and black possessions lay hither and thither upon the mountainous slope like a graveyard of haunted timber. A fair number of trees had escaped the conflagration, but many more had not. Some still stood tall and erect like charred matchsticks, while others lay toppled over upon each other as if they were tumbled dominoes.

Turning his eyes toward the old house, Vilthavia could see that it had indeed been razed to the ground. Almost nothing of it remained standing. Yet it was not the ruined woods or the burned house that filled him with such horror. It was that which stood beyond it that caused his heart to quail. If he had had the slightest hope that others among his company had survived the overnight assault by the orcs before emerging from his black hiding place he had none at all now. Almost unwillingly he staggered forward with his eyes transfixed upon the burned remains of the slaughter and carnage of the contest against the orcs. Rows of spitted wooden pikes stood jutting up from the ground where the heads of the victims hung upon the ends of the stakes. There were very many of them, alas. Vilthavia felt himself tremble with a renewed sense of trepidated fear as he slowly passed them by. They were concentrated in an area several yards away from where the house had stood, but the flames and fire had found its way to them and most of the heads were now roasted down to their skulls - but not all of them. He coulld see that a small handful of them, perhaps three of four, had escaped the wrath of the outdoor inferno and the flesh of them still remained, their facial features still visible. He did not want to look at them and intended to pass them by - but he found it impossible to resist taking a reluctant glance at them. Two of the heads he recognized at once, though they were badly disfigured by now. He knew one that was once that of Rivular, one of the senior scouts among the company. He had been a very amiable young man who was known to be fond of 'horsing', as his people back home referred to the sport of horse racing (those that partook in the sport were called 'horsers'), and Dorwinion wine. Vilthavia had thought him a decent and kind man and had spoken to him more often than some of the others along the long road into the west. The other head that still retained enough features upon its face to be recognizable was that of a man whose name escaped him at the moment. He had joined the expedtion late, when they had stopped to refresh themselves in the lands of the Northmen in the Anduin vales. He had born some of the fairest and most golden hair that he had ever seen upon a man before. He had been one of the 'talkers', as he and Vidui had labeled the men among the company who could not refrain from talking as they marched. They talked about anything and everything that came into and passed through their heads with whomever would listen. During the journey Vilthavia had found him generally a bit overworn and annoying. The only time ha had spoken to him was whenhe had heard that the young Vilthavia was, as one man had told him, "A pretty good hand at 'Kings'." The man found it ammusing that such a young rascal like him would be any good at such a strategic game and had even offered to play him for stakes, if he, "proved to be as good as his reputation made him out to be," once they arrived in Eriador. Alas that he would never have such an opportunity to find out!

Vilthavia stopped for a moment amid the haunted and unspeakable carnage of human remains and ran his fingers through his long dark, and now quite dirty, hair and thought to himself. Surely he must say some sort of prayer to the Valar for the dead men that languished and suffered so much here in the wild woodlands of the mountains - but he could think of none under such duress. His mind was in emotional turmoil. He felt such a miserable agony - such a sense of grief and lament for these poor souls that he knew he should shed tears for them now in empathy. Yet no more tears would come now. His eyes seemed to be dried up after so much weeping over the last - how long had it been since the night of the battle? He knew not. Yet he knew full well that there was nothing at all he could do for them now. He could not even take the time to give them a decent burial as they deserved. No - he had neither the time nor the strength to do so. He grimmaced despondantly and rubbed his face with his hands - and then felt the pain again. He had almost forgotten the painful gash he had suffered to his cheek by the spear of that orc he had fought with. He felt dried and smeared blood below his left ear and cheekbone. It hurt once again. Then he also remembered his throbbing ankle where the very same orc had tried to take a bite out of him. It was not as painful as the open cut upon his face and, thankfully, he could walk upon it fairly well.

Vilthavia looked up to the sky that peeped in through the assorted treetops. It was getting close to midday now. He knew that he must hurry onwards and follow the main pass down the mountain if he were to ever have any real hope of surviving this ordeal. It seemed to him that he was the only one left alive among the company, save his accursed uncle, wherever he may be now. Perhaps, he thought as he turned his back upon the smoldering remains of the death scene behind him, he might even get lucky and come upon his uncle out in the wild. Then he would sneak up on him and - and do what? Kill him? Mortally wound him out of revenge? Then he too could rightfully be labeled as a murderer. No, that would not do at all and he knew it well deep in his heart. Urlavia was, after all, his mother's brother. He was family, whatever Vilthavia thought of him. He doubted that his luck would be strong enough to lead him to his uncle ever again after what had happened. Indeed, he would be fortunate enough just to make it down the mountain and into the lands of Eriador before dropping dead of exhaustion, starvation or predatory beasts. But luck had saved him thus far it seemed. The augery of the raven that had dropped its filthy discharge upon him as he contemplated the surrounding woods had come true: he was still alive! Yet one thing he felt sure of at that moment - he swore to himself that if he ever found a way down and into Eriador alive he would never seek such a road as the way he had just come. Never again, if he could in any way help it, would he tread the passes of the Misty Mountains again.

~~

The sun's morning rays would keep the orcs out of sight for a while. This much at least Vilthavia knew well enough. He knew very little about such foul creatures and their insidious ways, but he knew they shunned the sunlight. Yet what of it? He was alone now - completely and utterly alone in the wild vastness of the Misty Mountains. As far as he knew all of his companions, save his uncle, were dead now. There was no one at all to guide him and keep him safe anymore. He would have to trust to the luck of the raven. If it failed him then he would die. He would perish alone in the wilderness and his body would serve as food for beasts and birds - or orcs and wolves. If he had not been so exhausted he might have shuddered at the thought. Images of himself laying upon his back with his lifeless eyes staring blankly up at the grey sky with carrion birds perched upon his body as they busily pecked at his eyes filled his head as the young Rhovanion staggered wearily down the mountain. How he would dearly miss his beloved mother so! "Mother!" he cried faintly aloud to himself in misery. "Mother, I am sorry! Why did I leave you? Forgive your only son, dearest mother!"

After much time had passed since leaving the gruesome death scene where his dead companions lay butchered - he had no idea how long it had been by now - Vilthavia became aware that he was no longer treading a downhill path. He stopped near a cluster of rocks and pine trees and looked round him. The sun was riding high by now. There was little if any patches of snow at all upon the ground now. Had he reached the bottom of the foothills already? It would be almost too good to be true. The way forward was obscured from his sight by thick patches of leafy maple trees that lay directly in the center of the path he had been attempting to follow downwards. He directed his blurry gaze downward to see where the path might lead now. But there was no path. It was gone! He was standing in wild country without even the simplest luxery of a trodden path to follow. "Where is it?" Vilthavia cried aloud. "Where has it gone? I've lost it! I have lost myself!" In a new born panic that rose up in his throat and nearly choked him, Vilthavia looked around him in all directions. The way forward lead into a cluttered mass of green trees, whereas the way to his left led up a green and rocky slope, as did the way behind him. Off to his right the terrain seemed to slope gently downward and was cluttered only sparsely by coniferous trees.

Not knowing what else to do, and noting that the way seemed to promise a gradual decent down the mountain, Vilthavia darted off on this direction in great haste. He suddenly felt very afraid. At least with a path to follow underfoot he felt a timid sense of some higher power leading him purposely to some unknown appointed destination. Yet now he felt that he would never be able to live long enough out in the wild by himself long enough to find the path again. In short he was finished. The luck of the raven must surely have exhausted itself out by now. His luck seemed to have failed him in the end.

On and on he went, all the while weeping in sadness as he passed by many a tree, bush and rock as he went. After an unknown duration he felt his legs give out from under him and he toppled to the ground and rolled uncontrolably down a gentle slope. It was not a steep drop but enough to propel him downwards most speedily. He felt his elbow strike something hard as stone as he sought to grapple anything that would halt his fall. The pain of the blow shot through him as he at last reached the bottom of the slope. There he lay moaing in pain for some time before he dared to sit up and look about him. His head ached as the pain of his wounded left cheek returned to him again. Nursing his wounded elbow he saw that he now sat near the bottom of a ravine that streched away at a great distance before him. He could not be sure but he believed that it led northwards. He was now so far off his bearings that all sense of direction was hazy to him now. The sound of running water could be heard nearby. It immediately reminded him of how terribly thirsty he was by now. Knowing that his plight was beyond helpless by now, Vilthavia briefly thought of refusing what must surely be a divine gift from the Valar. He felt himself unworthy of the gift and considered laying himself back down in the grass and going to sleep where some wild thing might come across him in the night and put him out of his misery. But he could not resist the temptation of water so near at hand. His tongue was beginning to swell and he was parched.

He managed to stand up and take a few steps forward. There, just beyond a gentle dip in the terrain and further downward, he saw a mountain stream. It was not a wide stream by any means, but just right for the quenching of a weary man's thirst. Vilthavia began to traverse his way carefully down the slope but felt his legs shaking beneath him again. So he opted to merely roll down in the grass again until he reached the bottm, which was not far off. Once this had been achieved he began to crawl forward on all fours like a beast until he reached the water's edge. The water was very cold but clean. He cupped his hands together and drank greedily, rarely coming up for air. When he felt temporarilly satisfied he lay down again upon his back and covered his eyes and sought to block out the world for a while as he revelled in self-pity.

He awoke to the sound of a voice. He had not meant to sleep at all. Or had he? Or perhaps he had laid himself down to die. Or maybe he was beyond caring. But the voice he had heard was not imagined. It was very real and near at hand. It was difficult for Vilthavia to make out his surroundings by now, as the sun had already dipped far below the western horizon signifying that dusk was well under way by now. Another voice, deep and sonorous could also be heard. In any other time and place Vilthavia might have leaped up in alarm and sought to identify the voices that seemed to draw near him - but not now. He was thirsty again - very much so. He remembered the stream and straightaway crawled back to the edge of it again and began to drink. The sound of footsteps could be heard approaching him. The voices were not those of orcs but rather of men. Vilthavia knew that they were calling out to him, probably in a gesture of warning, but he did not care. He drank his fill again as he ignored the intruders and at last lay down again and stared up at the cloudy sky. The dark shapes of two men stood over him with spears pointed at his throat. They did not speak as they scrutinized him carefully. Vilthavia could not make out their features in the approaching darkness. "Now comes the end," he muttered softly to himself. "Kill me if you must," he said loudly enough so that the two men could hear him. "Do it swiftly, I beg you." ~
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Celebrimbor32
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Sat Oct 31, 2009 12:04 pm

PART ONE

THE HERO'S REDEMPTION


CHAPTER ONE
"The Horde of Baranor"

Three horsemen garbed in black hoods and cloaks led their black-coated steeds across the rolling downlands of Tyrn Gorthad in the dead of night. It was an unusual hour to be out riding upon horseback to be sure, particularly beneath such turbulent storm-ridden skies that loomed above their rain-soaked heads. But their errand was an urgent one that also demanded the utmost degree of secrecy. Their intent was known to no one save themselves and, assuming their midnight quest should prove to be a successful one, the three of them swore an oath to never speak of it to again to anyone, even under the threat of torture and death. These they would almost certainly receive without trial should any evidence of their nocturnal crimes be divulged to the king. Clandestinity was absolutely imperitive this night, for their lives depended on it. To the best of their knowledge no one in the history of the Dunedain of Cardolan had ever succeeded in locating what our three riders in black eagerly sought on this stormy mid-summer night in the year One-thousand, Three-hundred and Twenty-eight of the Third Age. They were looking for an untracable gravesite - a barrow-tomb no less! Of these there were an uncounted multitude laying scattered far and wide across the legendary Barrow-downs, many of them clearly marked with vertically erected standing stones of varrying heights. But such was not the case with the barrow that the three riders coveted so highly. This particular grave-site was rumored to be entirely unmarked by stones of any kind, for that is just the way its deceased occupant had ordered it to be constructed before he died so many long years ago. The tomb for which our three anonymous riders sought was that of a certain Baranor, a famous Cardolani knight who fought and served under Thorondocil, Cardolan's first true king during the second half of the ninth century - just after the sorrowful events that led to that ultimate calamity that men now call the Sundering of the North Kingdom.

Baranor was said to be a highly skilled warrior who never lost a battle under the standard of his king. But by all accounts he was a cruel man by nature and was known far and wide as a war captain who rarely granted his foes the right of full quarter when captured. Many an Arthedainian or Rhudauran soldier lost their lives cruelly under the white flag of surrender that they waved frantically upon the battlefield before the faces of Baranor's fighters. Only when the lord Baranor deemed that the captured warrior was of royal, or at least half-royal by blood, would he agree to spare the life of a defeated adversary. But it was not out of pity or compassion that he spared their lives, but rather out of greed for hefty ransoms paid him by the poor wretch's family. By the time Baranor had entered the twilight of his years he was widely considered to be one of the wealthiest men in all of Cardolan by way of these immoral ransoms. But his cruelty upon the battlefield and his ill behavior afterwards cost him the respect of many of his peers, and when King Thorondocil died in battle after only two and ten years as king, Baranor lost his royal patron and protector. The hearts of many men turned against him as he aged and his strength waned over the proceeding years. Not even the new king, Boradil II, son of Thorondocil, would provide him with the necessary means by which to protect himself. Baranor became desperate and even took to employing a heavy company of bodyguards to keep him safe from would-be assassins. Tidings of his ammased fortune gradually spread throughout the three sister-kingdoms and as a result Baranor slept uneasily in his bed year after year. He seemed to wane quickly in both body and mind as he grew old and his paranoia consumed him. He trusted no one and soon lost all delight in life itself.

When at last he reached his one-hundredth year he secretly petitioned the king for permission to end his days, "in the company of the mighty and royal that now forever sleep". This the king assented to, though it was rumored that a heavy bribe of gold was required for it. Then Baranor purchased the services of anonymous stone masons from Arthedain to construct an underground tomb for himself so that he may lay himself down and die peacefully therein. There all of his life's treasure, or all that he had left of it, was piled up in chests of stone inside so that none of it might fall into the hands of his enemies. Yet the Valar had not slept during the years of his life, and when at last he made to lay down upon his stone sarcophugus for his eternal sleep his right of a postumous passage of peace to the halls of Mandos it was denied him out of punishment for his past deeds and the blood of his kin that he spilled unrighteously. Therefore, in despair, Baranor ordered his servants to prepare a noxious elixir for him so that he might drink it and be rid of the world once and for all. And so it was done. Only his two servants that were with him when he died knew of where his tomb lay, for the masons who constructed the barrow weres never heard of again. They had simply "vanished". The names of Baranor's two retainers have since faded into obscurity, but not their line. The two men were of the same family and served their master loyaly for many years. Yet despite this loyalty they could not resist drawing up a private map to the where the unmarked grave of their dead master lay. The pair might have indeed helped themselves to some of the treasures that lay at the feet of the deceased Baranor, but that too is undocumented. The map was hidden before they too perished and all knowledge of it and the barrow-tomb that lay described in detail upon the mysterious parchment eventually vanished without a trace - until now.

Among our three horsemen in question was a man called Huscar, a thick-limbed and shortish fellow who took delight in old lore and maps. He was a man who insisted that he was a descendant of the two loyal assistants of old Baranor, over five-hundred years previous. He was known as a churlish and greedy man who was nonetheless a loyal servant of Derufin, Prince of Tyrn Gorthad and lord of Dol Andrath. Indeed, his lord was also among the three riders this night that sought urgently for the unmarked tomb in question. Huscar had recently found himself in possession of the 'Hidden Map' of Baranor and even now, under a rain-soaked sky, held it shakily in his clammy hands as he sought in vain to shield it from the inclement weather that was drenching the lands of upper Cardolan.

The third and only remaining horseman, a hulky large-framed and golden-haired man who would have easily towered over Huscar if the pair of them might stand alongside one another, tugged on the reins of his large steed and urged it forward. He had been following the lead of Huscar but came up along next to the latter in order to shine the light of his small hooded lantern upon the wrinkled pages of the map. Huscar immediately recoiled from the intrusion of the third rider and sought to shield his private map from the man's eyes.

"Step away from me, Rathmir," snarled Huscar impatiently, his voice growing raspy in the cool and wet weather. "I have not given you permission to look at it!" He coughed and sought to shy away from Rathmir, but the latter kept up with him despite this.

"Where did you come by that map, Huscar?" asked the man in his deep voice. "The legends have said that such a map that you claim to possess has been forever lost. Indeed, some have whispered that it never existed to begin with." Huscar scoffed at Rathmir's words.

"Such rumors are false, of course. I have it here in my hands and it shall lead us to what we seek. Be content with that and be silent while I read it."

"Where did you acquire it?"

"I am not obligated to reveal anything to you," quipped Huscar irritably. "It is rightfully mine, for it once belonged to my ancestors - the assistants and helpers of lord Baranor the Great. It has been held from me unrighteously for all my life but I have it now and shall show it to none save my lord here." With this Huscar gestured over his shoulder where the Prince Derufin rode slowly behind the two men in silence. His head was invisible underneath his hooded cloak as he slumped forward in his saddle in a lazy attempt to keep out the rain. The only movement he made at Huscar's words was to raise up his wine-filled flask to his lips for another draught. He had not wanted to venture forth this night on this secret quest of theirs and in an attempt to reconcile his unlawful deed to his good conscience he intended to get himself drunk.

"What were the names of Baranor's two assistants then?" asked Rathmir, hoping to trip Huscar up.

"Who?" asked Huscar, his tone marked noticably with annoyance.

"Your two relatives who drew up this map of yours five-hundred years ago"

"I'll never tell you, so pray do not ask me again. You distract me now, Rathmir!" Rathmir shook his head with a look of mockery that Huscar could not see.

"I do not believe you are telling the truth, Huscar, yet that is not a strange thing for you. You're not anymore descended from those two men than am I. I think you stole the map - that much seems plain, but I marvel as to how you achieved the theft, for if the map is genuine then surely it must have been kept under lock and key for the last five centuries."

Huscar checked his horse's progress and turned to face Rathmir as one who is insulted.

"Bedamned you and your haughty tone, sir! I call you 'sir' now and not 'lord', for you are not my master and shall never be, and at that I am glad. Yet my lord, the good Prince here can vouch for my word, not that you deserve any such verification. Will you not confirm my account, lord? I speak truly!" The question was put to Derufin, who had fallen behind again. He sat silently on his horse, wiping his nose in the dark as a faint rumble of thunder sounded off in the distance. He could barely be seen in the deep darkness of the wet night.

"Lord!" said Huscar slowly directing his mare back to where his lord and master sat silently in his saddle nearly thirty yards back. "I had not known that you strayed behind! In this foul wet darkness we must stay close. Are you in need of assistance?"

"No," replied Derufin plainly, the weariness in his voice easily apparent. "Lead on." Huscar hesistated and did not obey at once. He eyed his master up and down with great concern as the rain splashed in soggy puddles upon the grass.

"Lord, perhaps we should consider turning back? There is still a way to go before we reach the designated spot. I suspect that you are falling ill." Derufin shook his head at this.

"No, I say! We shall not turn back now. I am not ill, Huscar, just drunk - and that is my intent. Now lead on and prey do not lose us out here!"

"I cannot guess what it is that drives you on so, lord. I beg you shall forgive me if I say that it might be wise if you postpone this task for another day when you have had more time to consider the risks and consequences of what we do this night."

"A Prince is not answerable to his subjects or servants, Huscar - regardless," added Derufin in a more conciliatory tone, "of how much that servant is valued and even loved." The latter word seemed to please the servant, who offered his lord a slender smile of appreciation.

"But lord," at this Huscar lowered his voice so that his words would not be overheard by Rathmir, who was slowly coming up behind on his own horse, "shall you put your trust in this - villainous scamp? He has lied to you before! You know this to be true!" Derufin began to lose his patience now.

"I will not have my judgement questioned, Huscar! I repeat my command to you: lead on!"

"We are already soaked to the skin, lord!"

"Then the sooner you bring us to the barrow-tomb the less wet we shall be!"

Huscar wrinkled his lips at this before turning around and resuming the lead, albeit reluctantly. Of the three of them Huscar was the least eager to find what his master sought this night. He deemed his lord, who was, afterall, a prince of royal blood in Cardolan, to be far above such lowly crimes such as tomb raiding. He feared the consequences not only for his master but also for himself should rumor of the night's events reach the ears of king Tarandil in Dol Calantir. Yet what could he do now? He had privately sought to dissuade his lord from the undertaking the previous night but failed to convince him. He claimed to be under a previously agreed obligation to lead Rathmir to the unmarked tomb in order to pay off a heavy debt he owed his bodyguard of three years. What sort of debt it might be and by what means his lord had acquired such a burden Derufin would not say. It seemed to be some sort of privy wager he had made some time ago with Rathmir, the latter having prevailed in the end. Why did his prince feel obligated to honor such a debt to one of his retinue, who certainly was not of noble blood - indeed, not even a member of the lesser gentry of Cardolan. Rathmir was a low-born foreign rogue; an untrustworthy villain who had been cast out of Arthedain years ago for a bloody insurrection he had instigated against one of the latter realm's lesser princes upon the the wide and windy plains of the east. As to why his lord would be constrained to lead such a rascal on such an illegal errand as this Huscar could not even guess. But before Rathmir's reputation and true character had showed themselves he had risen high in the service of prince Derufin of Dol Andrath, eventually becoming the prince's chief bodyguard. He was also one of the captains of the prince's standing army of the north region, and before Derufin had realized it Rathmir had won a sizeable following among the warriors there. What Huscar was not privy to was that Rathmir had only recently threatened to quit the service of Derufin for good and take most of the castle's garrison with him unless the prince would honor the debt owed him. It was because of this shameless blackmail that Derufin saw no other reasonable alternative but to lead Rathmir to the hidden tomb of Baranor. In return for this Rathmir had agreed to split whatever treasure they might discover inside the barrow. The pact between the two men was even sealed in blood.

Another hour of miserable riding came and went as the three horsemen from Dol Andrath began to reach hillier terrain. The ever-present rain coupled with the stifling darkness of deep night had done nothing to lift Huscar's spirits. By now Derufin had drained his wine skin dry and was now fully intoxicated, as was his desire. Rathmir alone among them seemed uneffected by the inclement weather. He trailed Huscar in line as they went and began to watch him closely. He had no love for this pudgy, mischievous man and did not trust him. It was an outrage that he had even been invited on this quest, for it was not in the original deal that he had made alone with prince Derufin. Only himself and and the prince were to have known of it. Derufin had brought along his nosey servant without consulting Rathmir before hand, and this angered Rathmir, for it showed a lack of trust by the prince. Huscar was known by many among the household of Dol Andrath as 'the prince's little mouse' - an epithet he had earned due to his spying.

They had gone far westwards upon the Barrow-downs as the dark skies above refused to relent in their down-pour. It was now well after midnight by the time Huscar halted them at the foot of a rectangular-shaped hill that seemed to stretch away to the north before bending westwards. The extended hill was not overtly high, indeed few hills were in the Barrow-downs, but lofty enough to require a dismount. Therefore the three riders, led by Huscar, who now held the quivering lantern in his left hand while his right hand grasped tightly the treasured map, began to lead their horses up the pathless hillside - Rathmir taking the reins of both his own mare and that of Huscar's so that the prince's servant could read his map, which was by now becoming soaked.

The way up the hillside was not easy for them. Trees of no great height grew along the hill's sloping sides which slowed their progress. Before they had reached the summit the rain which had begun to trail away suddenly fell in heavy torrents as thunder sounded its hammer-blow nearby. Huscar groaned in frustration at this and checked his progress by taking shelter beneath a thicket of alder trees. He called back down the hill to his master so as to alert him to the shelter of the trees, crying out over the noise of the rain, "Come this way, lord! Shelter with me under the trees while we await the passage of this storm cloud!" Huscar wrapped his cloak tightly about him as a fit of coughing took him momentarilly. A moment later his master came and joined him under the bows of the alders, followed shortly thereafter by Rathmir, who had just tethered the horses.

"Stay close to me, lord," said Huscar, "I shall shield you against the wind and rain as I may!" Pulling his black hood further down over his face Derufin complied rather meekly, as if he were the servant and Huscar the master. He faced away from Huscar as he placed his back up against that of his servant's to protect himself from the wind. Rathmir stood silently as he watched the rain fall down out in the blackness beyond the hillside. A moment or two later he strode over nect to Derufin, who did not bother to acknowledge him. He looked the prince up and down and sighed, wiping his forehead clear of raindrops. "He has become little more than a common drunkard these days," thought Rathmir to himself. He cast back his dark hood and bent over. In the slender light of the lantern Huscar watched him as he shook his golden hair about him attempting to shake off the excess wetness, much as a wet dog might do coming in from the rain. Rathmir stood up to his full height again and pushed back his long soggy lanks behind his head. A double flash of lightning followed a distant rumble of thunder again. He looked down at Huscar with the faintest trace of a crooked smile, saying ponderously, "Tis a good night for such a caper as ours - would you not agree?" Huscar gave him a nonsensical look before turning away. He pressed his back closer against that of his masters for warmth. He wiped his nose as Rathmir went on, "Who shall spy upon us on a night such as this?"

"The Valar!" responded the prince faintly from the shadows beneath his draped hood. He had maeant to say this to himself only but Rathmir heard him.

"Aye," admitted Rathmir with a shrug. "They might, my lord. The Valar, in their ever-so benign wisdom," his voice weas sarcastic now, "might actually turn their aged eyes thither and descry us - we three insignificant travelers such as we are. Yet what of it? Would they frown upon us as trespassers and lowly tomb looters or - would they smile upon us as harbingers of belated justice?" No one spoke for several heartbeats as the rain continued its assault upon the downlands of Cardolan. At length Huscar spoke up.

"What are you mumbling on about, Rathmir?"

"Old Baranor was reputed to be a ruthless killer who extorted heavy ransoms from the families of his prisoners, was he not?" Rathmir turned his eyes upon Huscar. The prince's servant detected a gleem in the tall horseman's eye as he spoke. Huscar did not offer a reply. Rathmir went further, adding, "In my view it seems that we are providing the lords of the west with belated justice to the deceased. Baranor stole and blackmailed unrighteously from his fellow Dunedain so we shall set the matter straight - we shall steal it back from him while he sleeps. Is that not justice? Does such a villain deserve to sleep at ease on a bed of gold or one of cold and barren stone?" Then looking to Derufin Rathmir added, "May your conscience find ease and comfort in such a justification, lord! We are doing a belated service to the victims of Baranor's past malice!" Derufin stood still and made no gesture to show that he accepted Rathmir's consolation.

"Yet what shall you steal and what might you do with it later?" interjected Huscar quickly, as if he had just scored a rhetorical point against Rathmir. "That is a better question to ask, I would think. Will you donate your share of the loot to the needy folk of Cardolan? Or shall you simply horde it away until the need to spend it strikes you?" The question was laced with more sarcasm. Huscar did not expect a reply.

Rathmir ignored Huscar in silence for a moment as he squinted his eyes while he scrutinized the outstretched horizon that lay under darkness. An occassional flash or two of lightning permitted him to see far enough to the west to just make out some sort of dark wall of trees just within the edge of sight. He seemed startled by this and exhaled loudly.

"We have come within sight of the Old Forest! It lies off in the distance. That is ill! I had no idea we had come so far tonight. All trees fail from this point westwards if my knowledge is correct."

"Yonder lies the naked hills that mark the scattered barrow-tombs that some call the "Field of Lords and Kings," explained Derufin, breaking his silence. Another brief flare of remote lightning revealed a momentary glimpse of a nearby standing stone atop one of the closest barrows, which was well within a hundred yards of their present location.

"And the tomb of Baranor lies within?" asked Rathmir astonished. Huscar scoffed at the man's ignorance.

"Of course not! Only kings and those of royal blood - or others who found favor with the lords of the past - are permitted to sleep therein. Did you learn nothing in your boyhood up in Arthedain?" As usual Rathmir paid little heed to him.

"We are far from Dol Andrath!" said Rathmir. "The defile cannot be reached again before the dawn at this rate. We do not want the Prince to be missed when the entire household rises for the morning. Come now! Rain or no we must away at once and find the tomb! Lead on Huscar! Or you shall not receive your share."

Braving the rain, which had eased somewhat but not nearly enough for the likes of Huscar and the prince. Rathmir paid it small heed, so eager was he to find Baranor's burial mound. He did not have to wait long. With Huscar taking periodic glances at his map of soggy parchment while his lord stood over him with their hooded lantern, the three travelers meandered through the trees that stood upon the crest of the oblong hill. They could not be sure but a rough estimate put them well-nigh one-hundred feet up from the ground by now. Just before they reached what they guessed was the end of the hill's crown before it descended steeply downhill again into more trees and thick undergrowth, they came to the edge of a rounded depression in the thick grass beneath their feet. It was not large - say little more than ten to twelve feet in diameter - but they could not ascertain how deep it was, for it had now become a pool due to the heavy rains the lands had seen as of late. The trees upon the hilltop seemed to give away around the pool so that what was ordinarily an empty ditch or depression was open to the sky above. The rainwater in the little pool splashed noisily as the rain thudded into it. Huscar studied the water for a moment before reexamining his map for confirmation. At last he finally shrugged his shoulders.

"Is this it?" asked Rathmir puzzled. "Where is the tomb?"

"If you say that you have lost us after coming this far," said the prince darkly, "I shall cut your monthly stipend in half, Huscar."

"The map indicates that the entrance to the tomb is here," replied Huscar shortly, gesturing at the pond. "We are not lost, but if the map errs or is misleading then it is of no fault of mine."

"What does the map tell you about the entrance to the tomb?"

"It says nothing about it, lord. There is a rough sketch of a wooded hill and that is where the trail ends. There are no other markings or indications." They were all silent for several moments as each became absorbed with his thoughts on the matter at hand. The prince pulled his hood down further over his face as he scrutinized the trees that lined the small sunken pond in the slender light of the lantern. He was looking for some clue that might aid them but found none. All the while the rain continued to fall.

"Where would one place a secret entrance to a tomb upon such a hill as this if the owner desired it to remain hidden? That is the question we must ask ourselves," reasoned Rathmir.

"There might also be more than one entrance," added Derufin. "Never put anything past the builders and masons of the old days." Rathmir nodded at this.

"No doubt there is more than one way into the tomb. Yet the hour is late and the weather unfavorable. We cannot spend too much time here if we hope to make it back to Dol Andrath by dawn, which seems unlikely now." A gust of wind blew across the hilltop and almost toppled their hooded lantern over from a nearby rock where Huscar had placed it. Rathmir chided him for it, "Huscar! Mind that lantern! We shall linger in darkness out here if you lose our little light!" Huscar quickly seized the lantern and made to raise it up again before he checked himself. Something had caught his eye. Holding the light source closer to the moss-covered boulder he noticed strange-looking runes that had been etched harshly upon the surface of the stone. It certainly was not a natural phenomenon. Someone had been here before and had used some other hard object to carve their rune upon the stone.

"There is something here, lord," exclaimed Huscar to his master, deliberately looking past Rathmir, whom he had never liked anyway. "Come and see this!"

Rathmir came first and seized the lantern out of the hands of the smaller man, who had to try hard to bite his tongue so as not to curse at the bodyguard. Rathmir shone the light down upon the surface of the rock as he brushed away the moss, which he suspected had been placed upon the rock by the hands of men so as to conceal the writings etched there. He gazed fixedly at the strange runes upon the stone before him. Derufin quickly came up behind him. Both men belonged to the race of the Dunedain and were at least somewhat familiar with the runes that the men of old Arnor had often used as a matter of course in order to leave messages to others of their kind.

"They are Dunedain in origin," assured the prince, "that much seems plain. Others have been here recently."

"Why?" asked Huscar. Rathmir offered him a reply.

"Perhaps others are seeking what we also seek! Maybe that map of yours is not so secret after all!"

"Enough!" interrupted Derufin briskly. "I will have peace here."

"What do the runes say, lord?" asked Huscar eagerly. "Do they tell you where the entrance lies?"

"Of what concern is it to you, Huscar?" asked Rathmir snidely. "I thought you had little interest in tomb raiding? I think your tongue belies a festering greed in your heart. You see - you are no different than us! You seek riches just as we do."

"A plague upon you, Rathmir! I only want this miserable errand to end and my lord tucked away safe back home. As for you, I care not." Rathmir let an audible chuckle escape his lips at Huscar's words and continued to stare at the runes.

"It has been a while since I had cause to read such runes as these," explained Derufin, "but I think these runes are an indication of something here. Whoever left these runes did so for the benefit of another. We are not the first ones to have visited this so-called 'insignificant' hilltop. Let us hope as well that others have not found the hidden entrance to the tomb before us!"

"Indeed not!" exclaimed Rathmir. Then he added, casting a suspicious eye towards Huscar, "Yet one must also wonder as to how other folk would have the means necessary to ascertain the location of old Baranor's hidden barrow-tomb after so many long years have passed. I was led to believe that only one single map was known to exist! Is that not so, Huscar?" Huscar narrowed his brow with growing anger towards Rathmir with these accusing words.

"Aye! The map I hold here is the only map created by Baranor's two servants long ago! I have it here, Rathmir! No other man has set eyes upon it in recent years, save one alone - and she has been dead for five years now. So cast your empty accusations elsewhere!"

"'She?'" asked Derufin suddenly, as if hearing the revelation for the first time. "What woman do you speak of, Huscar? What woman would possess such a valuable map as this?"

"Lord, forgive me, but I am pledged to secrecy on the matter. I have given my word of honor not to reveal her name. Indeed! Already I have spoken too much."

"What honor do you refer to, Huscar?" laughed Rathmir pointedly. "You think you possess 'honor'? There is little honor among thieves such as we three." Huscar raised his brows in shock as he looked to his lord for support.

"Lord! Do you hear that? He has cast you as one absent of honor! A lowly thief he has called you! You are a Prince of Cardolan! Surely you shall not tolerate such insubordination!" Showing the first signs of liveliness, the prince actually laughed aloud at Huscar's words.

"How can I rebuke him, Huscar, when he speaks so near the truth? I have sunk lower than the depths of this pool before us by what I do this night. The moment we open the doors of Baranor's tomb I shall stand in violation of my sacred oath to the king. Then truly will I earn the name of 'thief'."

"Bah!" spat Huscar in disgust. "The king is a lame and corrupt brigand! We all know that to be true. You owe him no sacred oath after all this time, lord! What of his oaths to you in the past? He has reneged on many a promise to the Prince of Tyrn Gorthad over the years." Derufin stood up to his full height and looked out across the hills where darkness lay heavy as a wet blanket.

"Tarandil is indeed little more than a royal thief, I admit," said Derufin ponderously. "Yet what of it? He is still the king - and will be until he sicken and die. But I am too weary and too drunk now to speak of such things. Let fate bring us what it may."

"Enough of this idle chatter!" barked Rathmir harshly. He no longer feared any reprimand from their inebriated prince tonight. "We must find the hidden entrance this night! We will not depart here until we succeed, and that is the way of it!" He then turned his dark gaze towards his prince and employer, adding, "Isn't that right, oh lord?" Derufin did not look at Rathmir but merely nodded quietly, as if he privately knew he had little choice in the matter. He passed a hand across his brow beneath his hood to wipe away the rain.

~~

Rathmir seemed to take charge of the situation at hand now. His eyes seemed to burn with an inner fire, for he knew that he was very close to what they had been searching for on this soggy mid-September night. He would not give up on their quest now. Holding the light in his hand he surpised his two companions by suddenly wading out into the dark and weed-scattered pool. He held the light close to the surface of the water as he sought to scan its invisible depths for some clue that might aid them in their search. The sunken pool was deeper than it looked. By the time Rathmir had reached the middle of it the slimy water had reached his tall waist-line. The water was cold but not so much that it might freeze one's feet.

"Just what, exactly, are you looking for, Rathmir?" asked Huscar impatiently. Rathmir did not answer him and went on wading to and fro amidst the small and rippling pond. The rain had now nearly subsided completely and for that they were glad.

"At least you have finally found an excuse to bathe!" snipped Huscar comically. No one laughed, though. Rathmir had halted at one end of the pool and was kicking repeatedly at something down in the delths of the inky water. His eyes narrowed with suspicion as he sought to shine his light down into the dark recesses of the water. Even the drunken prince began to show a renewed sense of energy as he watched his bodyguard busy himself with his investigation of the pond.

"There is something amiss here," said Rathmir aloud. "There is something down here that feels like some kind of obstruction. No wait! Nay, it is some sort of hole in the ground. Yes, there is no doubt about it. I can feel my boot sink downwards here!" Rathmir was now kicking at the floor of the pond with a new sense of urgency.

"Probably just a burrow for some crayfish or other aquatic dweller," rebutted Huscar dismissively.

"Nay!" retorted Rathmir without looking up. "The inner rim of the hole feels smoothe and worn. Get over here and hold this light for me, Huscar."

"What for?" snapped Huscar. He did not like being ordered about by such an ingratious thug. "You going to try and catch a fish in there?" Rathmir shot the little fool a furious glare - the first visible sign of anger he had displayed so far.

"Do it!"

"Do as he says, Huscar," added Derufin rather faintly. "We must utilize every possible clue we can. I deem we are nearing our journey's end now."

Huscar let out a heavy sigh before stepping up to the water's edge and taking the hooded lantern from Rathmir, who immediately crouched down so that the water came up to his chin. He then reached down to where he estimated the hole in the ground might be and groped. In a moment he decided that he had been right. There was indeed a clearly defined hole that lay near the bottom of the pit. He traced his fingers round the inside of it for a better idea of its make. It felt like stone. It certainly was not natural, of that he felt sure. There was much silt and mud obstructing the opening but Rathmir quickly cleared it away with his fingers.

"Ah! It is as I suspected! There is a man-made structure down there. The opening feels of stone and is too perfectly round to be anything made by the elements. Indeed! The further I reach down the more I am convinced of it. The hole is the opening of some sort of stone column or miniature tunnel that leads down and away from the pond." Rathmir stood up again and let the water drip off of his long-sleeved tunic. He was now soaked to the skin - if he wasn't already from the incessant rain.

"This is an important discovery," said Rathmir to the prince in an almost triumphant manner. "We are getting close now! I feel it! This stone shaft was put there for a reason, wouldn't you agree?" The prince was now standing next to his servant, whom he quickly leaned on to prevent himself from stumbling forward. He did not answer Rathmir but merely stared at him with anticipation.

"Your heavy burden of debt may be at an end shortly if my assumption proves to be correct!" explained Rathmir with a shadowy smirk as he wiped his eyes with his hands. Despite his drunkeness the prince's anxious countenance turned into a subdued scowl at Rathmir's words. Huscar looked at his lord in confusement, then back again at the tall bodyguard standing waist deep in the pond.

"Debt? Burden? What are you talking about, Rathmir? The Prince of Tyrn Gorthad owes you nothing! Rather, it is you who owes your lord. You owe him your thanks for not dismissing you entirely! Your constant haughtiness and insolence over the years have earned you at least as much."

Rathmir stared venomously at Huscar, whom he had grown to despise since his coming into the service of the prince five years ago. He looked back to Derufin who in turn said nothing. Rathmir spoke to him now in the Sindarin tongue so that Huscar would not understand their words.

"You have not spoken of it yet to him? I had assumed that you must have told him why we have come so far afield on a night such as this. Yet it seems I am mistaken. I crave your pardon, lord."

"He is a loyal servant to me, Rathmir," replied Derufin in the same tongue. "He would follow me into an orc encampment alone if I asked him." Rathmir grinned as an audible chuckle escaped from his lips.

"Then you see him with other eyes than mine," scoffed Rathmir. "I suspect he would wet himself in such a case! But never mind it now. If you trust him well then it is enough for me. I shall be content!" He smiled at these words as if to reassure the prince, but Derufin knew he was lying.

"Loyalty is a concept strange to you, is it not, Rathmir?"

"Not 'loyalty'," replied Rathmir, "but rather 'blind obediance'. Only fools, weaklings and the slow-witted commit themselves whole-heartedly to blind trust, as your servant, here, does." This earned Rathmir a weary frown and a slight shake of the head from the prince. Huscar looked back and forth helplessly between them as he listened to the exchange of dialogue, though he could not understand their speech. "Lord? What does he say?" he asked his prince, who did not answer him, but instead confronted Rathmir.

"Your words explain much to me about your behavior over the last year and a half," said Derufin. "Only one master owns the loyalty and trust of 'Rathmir the Ruthless'! And that master is you and you alone, am I not correct? Had I known you were a man of low character I might have reconsidered plucking you out of that dung-hole of-a-house that you dwelt in down in Tharbad five and some odd months ago. I now see a good deal of wisdom in the choice of the lords of Arthedain when they opted to evict you from their realm." Rathmir returned his lord's consternate stare by looking him directly in the eye as one who might immediately exchange a pleasant demeanor for a deeply offended one. He smirked again before replying.

"I admit there is some truth in your observation - 'lord'," he deliberately emphasized the title with sarcasm, "I prefer to serve my own master these days, for there exists few others in your fiefdom worthy of any trust. Yet who may blame me in this when those that I once deemed friends betrayed my trust to my own detriment?"

This was a veiled reference to an incident two years previous when the prince had found himself with the difficult choice of believing the testimony of a neighboring nobleman who had openly accused Rathmir of leading a nocturnal horse-thieving raid upon his estate, or instead believing the words of his chief bodyguard, who had sworn before the eyes and ears of Manwe that he had not participated in the crime and was completely innocent of the charge. In truth Rathmir had lied through his teeth before Derufin and the said Vala, for one of his men who had joined him in the raid had secretly confessed to Huscar that Rathmir had not only participated in the scheme but had even planned the entire operation. Rumor was that the man who had leeked the information was paid handsomely directly out of the pocket of none other than Huscar himself, so great was the latter's contempt for Rathmir, whom he feared had been usurping his master's love and trust away from himself. But the rumor had eventually reached the ears of Rathmir, who then swore to himself that he would one day even the score with his lord's puny and vile servant. But in the end the prince had sided with the nobleman and not only relieved Rathmir from his titles of 'Chief Bodyguard to the Prince of Tyrn Gorthad' and 'Captain of the Prince's Fyrd', but had also sentenced him to three months of solitary confinement within the the four walls of his own quarters. Therefore what was once, in the beginning, a genuinely warm and friendly relationship between Derufin and Rathmir - for the latter, despite his shortcomings, had always been a skilled and well-trained warrior and horseman- had slowly dissintegrated into little more than a mutual acquaintance without love.

"I will not discuss the past with you here, Rathmir. You have become little more than a common criminal and thug," commented the prince, nearly slurring his words in the process. The wine he had consumed was not without effect. "An Arnorian castaway who shall become homeless once again if he does not cease his course of dialogue very quickly!"

"Becoming words from a prince of Cardolan, indeed!" retorted Rathmir, his temper beginning to flare. "If I were a thoughtless man who spoke without thinking I might be tempted to say that you, in turn, have become little more than a common drunkard. A drunkard who had better consider paying his debts soon if he wants to avoid the suspicious eye of the king! Nay, do not rebuke me, lord! I advise you well on this, and you know it. Yet," Rathmir checked himself at this. He calmed his tongue and now referred to himself in the first-person, saying, "I will not say those things to you, for Rathmir does not forget those who have generously aided him in the past. But nor does Rathmir easily forget those who have wronged him." Rathmir cast a shadowy glance up at Huscar as he still stood waist deep in the pond. "But I have not come all this way in such abominable weather to bicker with you, lord, for do we not share a common goal tonight? It is a goal that is, if I am not mistaken, nearly achieved!"

"Even if the tomb lies here," said the prince, reverting back into the common speech for the benefit of his servant, "we do not know how to enter it yet! Perhaps we shall never learn either." Rathmir shook his head.

"I shall learn the way, lord. I - nay, 'we' shall not leave here until we succeed in our endeavor! Come! It is time for us to become rich men! Hoy there, Huscar!" Rathmir, who still stood amidst the water of the shadowy pool, cast a reassuring look at the man, "perhaps even you may become wealthy tonight, though it was not in our original agreement, I admit. Yet if you wish to share my profits you must also share in my discomfort!" With that Rathmir, seeing that Derufin now held the shaky lantern, reached forth his long arms and suddenly seized Huscar by his coat and pulled him forcibly into the dark and murky water. Huscar made a brief effort to resist Rathmir but the latter was far stronger than he. Huscar fell forward into the pond with his arms flailing about, his body splashing noisily in the process. The prince's servant and household spy rose to his feet in a great wrath as he cursed at Rathmir.

"Now you and I have both bathed tonight!" He smiled to himself and strode eagerly out of the pool...
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Celebrimbor32
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Sat Nov 14, 2009 9:12 am

Rathmir knew he had been right about the hidden entrance all along. As soon as they had discovered the little pond up on the wooded hilltop in the midst of the downlands he simply felt that the tomb must be very near, and when he had discovered the narrow rounded drain column in the floor of the pond any shred of doubt that may have lingered in his mind quickly vanished. The excitement and joy of the moment had nearly gotten the better of him as he took charge of the situation and barked out orders not only to the lowly Huscar but also the prince himself who, in his innebriated condition, slowly began to recognize the potential repercussions of age-old riches that might suddenly fall into his hands before the night's end. For once, and for one occasion only, he happily submitted to the direction of the man that many now called Rathmir the Ruthless. The intensity of the moment even effected Huscar, for he had been the only one of the three of them that had no initial interest in the original proposal when his master had first clandestinely approached his loyal servant about the venture. Indeed, he had sought earnestly to dissuade his lord from the ill-conceived and highly dangerous quest. But when Rathmir had at last located what had at first looked to be little more than a well-concealed animal burrow along the outer rim of the hill at its lowest point near the grass of the downlands Huscar dropped all his inhibitions about their mutual errand and even assisted Rathmir in digging away the mud, grass and leaves from the opening with thier bare hands. Many small rocks lay tucked deeply inside the column behind the outer debris. Beyond any doubt it was a man-made drain that stopped up the water of the pool on top of the hill.

"Why construct such a device on such a random an ordinary hilltop out in the middle of nowhere if not to drain the water out of the pond on top of the hill?" asked Rathmir aloud as he and Huscar busied themselves with releasing the stones from their wedge-place in the dirty drain. "And why might one wish to drain such a pond? I shall tell you why - because the pond was put here by the hands of the masons hired by none other than old Baranor himself over five-hundred years ago! That is why! And why bother to undertake such a monotanous labor? To conceal something that he wished to remain hidden! Ah! Look here, lord prince!" Rathmir called the blurry-eyed Derufin over to his side to watch what was now a steady stream of water bubbling out of the drain and losing itself in the tall grasses of the shadowy downs around them. Rathmir laughed aloud. He was boiling over with excitement now. "Take comfort, lord! I suspect your debt to me shall be paid in full ere the coming of the dawn. See there! The drain is less clogged up now!"

The prince looked at Rathmir with a queer eye in the light of the lantern. He supposed he must feel a sense of relief at their discovery but he did not. Instead he felt only rage. A sudden surge of sheer hatred for this man whom he had once entrusted with his very life as his chief bodyguard engulfed his senses. He felt that Rathmir was a man that could never be trusted again with anything or with anyone. He regretted that he had ever promoted him to a rank of leadership among his guards and small army that he maintained at Dol Andrath. Even more so he feared that this uncouth villain had usurped the loyalty of the hearts of many of his men-at-arms. Rathmir had threatened to quit the service of the lord of Dol Andrath and take half of the prince's fighting force with him if the latter refused to lead him to the infamous barrow-tomb of Baranor. "Why did I confide in him with such sensitive matters?" He asked himself this very question many times since their original wager had been made. In truth it was the culmination of numerous petty wagers between them that had stretched back for over a year. But ultimately it was Derufin that had lost and found himself most vulnerable. Would Rathmir keep his promise not to steal away his best fighting men of the castle? Or indeed would he honor his oath to keep silent about their present nocturnal raid? Or worse - would this man attempt to blackmail him by threatening to go to the king himself? Derufin bit his lip in doubt and thought gloomily to himself as he stood silently by and watched his two thieving companions begin to discuss what they might do once they found the way inside the tomb. "Honor? What honor? This man has no honor. He never has. He will betray me in the end, I know it! Alas the day that I employed him into my service!"

The stone drain had taken less than half an hour to empty the pond dry. Once that had been achieved the three men gathered what they might need out of the saddlebags of their tethered horses for their entrance into the tomb before returning to the hilltop. Thankfully the rain had stopped completely by then, leaving the northern lands of Cardolan soaked and drenched under a cloud-covered night sky. Rathmir abandoned all precautions of concealment by ordering all three of their lanterns to be lit up. He doubted any other folk were out and about in the middle of the Barrow-downs on such a wet night. He wanted as much light as possible once they found their way into the tomb, for, as he stated, "such places as this may be precarious and unforgiving to the unwary!"

The floor of the murky pond was certainly a soggy mess. But beneath the slime and weeds lay a stone bottom. This was not all that unusual in so far as the lands about them, mainly to their east the way they had come, sported many stones, boulders and rocky outrcroppings along the sides of low-laying hills. Yet the lands they had entered now were mainly grassy hillands with tree-studded hills. Very little stone could be found this far westwards, away from the defile of the Andrath. But the floor of the pool was certainly of stone - flat stone!

"It looks as if it is as smooth as a table-top!" exclaimed Huscar in wonder. Rathmir nodded in agreement.

"Aye! I suspect we are standing on top of Baranor's tomb at present. Come! Both of you! Help me in clearing away some of this grime from the stone! Make haste, for the night withers away!"

Huscar was now so eager to find a way inside the tomb that he no longer remaked on his lord's disrespectable treatment by Rathmir. Greed began to work on him as well as on Rathmir. Not so for Derurin, Prince of Tyrn Gorthad. All desire for treasure and riches had left him now. He was breaking illegally into sacred territory - territory entrusted to him for protection from looting and thieving by Tarandil, King of Cardolan. True, he despised the king, but he still feared him. He especially feared detection from the king's vast quantity of spies he employed into his service. His life would be forfeit if the king were to discover evidence of what was soon to transpire once the entrance to the tomb were penetrated. The tomb of old Baranor was supposed to be a secret matter among the nobility and wise men of Cardolan, but few doubted that the whereabouts to the tomb was entirely unknown to Tarandil. But to Derufin's mind it all seemed to hinge upon one man. He had few doubts about Huscar, for he knew him to be his most trustworthy servant. He would be nothing but a poor peasant without the employment of the lord of Dol Andrath. He would never reveal anything whatsoever about their experience. Yet Rathmir had become ungovernable and was now the prince's greatest threat, whatever the outcome of their treasure hunt. He was a perilous hound to let off the leash and at some point in the future - let it be sooner rather than later, thought Derufin to himself - this hungry hound must be tamed once and for all.

It was only a few hours before dawn when Rathmir had at last claimed to have discovered the outline of what looked to be the straight edge of a horizontal door upon the surface of the stone. It was not easy to discover and they spent nearly three quarters of an hour clearing and scraping away the grime from the pond floor with their hands and kicking it away with their boots. During this time the rain once again began to fall as another midnight squall passed over them. Huscar cursed at the sky and the uncomfortable conditions they labored in.

"I am chilled to the bone," bemoaned the servant as he raised his hood over him again. He swore at Rathmir in anger and weariness. "I shall catch my death of cold out here because of you! My clothes are drenched, my stomach is empty and the darkness of the downs is overwhelming! How I hate this place!"

"I know it, Huscar. I acted in haste and without thinking when I pulled you into the pool. I apologize for it," replied Rathmir smoothly, making every attempt at a temporary reconciliation to the man, whom he knew he needed now in order to enter the tomb. The prince was in no condition to render much aid tonight, and he would need every spare hand that he could get in order to fetch as much as much treasure out of the tomb as possible. "Yet if we manage to infiltrate Baranor's tomb then you shall be more than compensated for your pains, I promise you! Mind those lanterns, lord," said Rathmir to Derufin suddenly. "If the wicks become wet they will be of no use to us tonight, and we need every bit of light that we can muster now!"

Derufin had set the two lanterns he had been charged with upon the grass and stared dumbly at the two men laboring away in the dry but mud-soaked pond. He made no motion to act accordingly to Rathmir's politely worded order to look after their lanterns but instead just continiued to stare down at the stone flooring of the pond. In a short while now they would no doubt find the entrance into the barrow-tomb and in turn make history as the first men in over five-hundred years or more to discover and illegally infiltrate the renowned secret barrow of Baranor the Old. The inexorablity of fate could not be held in check at this point. The only way to prevent the deed from reaching its fruition now would be to somehow restrain Rathmir. He could kill him right now, he thought to himself. He could silently draw his sword from his scabbard while the big man labored away in the pit and come up behind him and cut him down would solve the dilemma for sure. Or he could wait until they opened the trap door - for surely a trap door it must be - and then quickly shove Rathmir down into the dark tomb before hastily closing the tomb up again. Then he would be sealed away inside forever and left to rot away in the darkness. Then he and Huscar could replug the stone drain and let the empty pit fill back up with rain water. They would never have to be troubled by the scoundrel ever again. It would be murder, of course, but would it not be just? How many men had Rathmir killed unjustly in his lifetime anyway? Quite a few, no doubt. That was, after all, the primary cause of his banishment from Arthedain in the first place. He broke away from his scheming thoughts when he suddenly noticed that the labor in the pit had ceased and all was quiet. Rathmir, who had been squatting down as he examined the flat stone, was now standing and gazing fixedly at Derufin in silence. Perhaps he had been reading the prince's mind and anticipating some sort of mischief from him. Derufin finally stired awake from his drunked contemplations of murder and drew his hood down over his face as the rain began to fall again.

"What ails you, lord?" asked Rathmir calmly, after a long pause. A little grin, almost too insignificant to notice, was visible upon his face as he returned the prince's stare. "Are you alright?" Derufin shuffled his feet slightly and cleared his throat before forcing himself to cough aloud.

"I am very weary, Rathmir. I am cold and weary - and a little drunk. That is all." All thoughts of murder and violence quickly vanished from his mind now. The risk of failure in such an attempt would be great. In such a case Rathmir would, no doubt, resist him and retaliate in kind. He was a formidable warrior and beyond the reach of himself when it came to combat. Rathmir was reknowned among the folk of the northern regions as the foremost expert when it came to concussion weaponry. He could wield a blade as deftly as most men, but his weapon of choice was the morning star. In his hands a morning star, or even a mace, would spell certain destruction for his opponents. Nay, if the attempt on his life were to result in failure then both the prince and Huscar were as good as dead.

"I told you not to bring the wine with you, did I not?" he replied after another pause. "Why do you indulge in liquor as you do? You drink too much, I fear, lord."

"I know it well enough without the likes of men like you telling me so, Rathmir. Yet am I not the Prince of Tyrn Gorthad, lord of Dol Andrath? My cares and responsibilties are very great these days and a man of my standing earns the right to enjoy fine drink when he has a mind to. So never mind it!"

Rathmir shrugged indifferently at this, saying only in return, "Very well, lord. You know best, no doubt. Why don't you go down at fetch our horses up here? Do you feel well enough to perform such a labor?"

"For what purpose would that serve?"

"We shall need the strength of horses to raise up the hidden door here upon the stone floor," Rathmir gestured down by his feet. After much digging, scraping and poking around he had at last discovered what they had sought: two holes for grasping and a pair of hinges upon the opposite length of the door! They had found the way into the tomb. Now seemingly all that was required was the necessary man-power to pull open what was undoubtedly a very heavy stone trap door.

"You found it?" exclaimed Huscar in wonder as he looked down to where Rathmir was indicating. "You found the door?"

"Of course!" said Rathmir. "The way inside lies before us now. It was not easy to discover, I admit. Even in the midst of the dry season when this pond is most likely dry such a door would be extremely difficult to locate, and without a proper map, next to impossible. It seems your map was genuine after all, Huscar! My apologies for doubting you!" Rathmir actually smiled at the man whom he had for so long despised. In truth his feelings had not changed, but he veiled his true thoughts for now. But Huscar seemed unmoved by Rathmir's apology.

"I care nothing for your aplogies, Rathmir. You are still a scoundrel as far as I am concerned and will probably always be so."

"So be it," sighed Rathmir as he wiped his muddy hands in the grass. "So be it. I tried. Lord! How about those horses now? Shall Huscar here assist you?"

Huscar and the prince brought up the three horses and aligned them side by side just beyond the rim of the empty pond. Three ropes of medium build were then fastened securely around the beast's trunk below their necks but above their front legs. The other ends were tightly tied to the two holes, which were not dug out completely through the stone but only a few inches downwards to prevent the tomb from being flooded. The ends of the ropes were looped into one hole and pulled out of the other before being tied steadfastly in hard knots. There was no sure way of knowing how thick the stone door might be, and judging by the modest thickness of the ropes that they had brought Rathmir wondered if they would be able to last long enough to open the door. If they snapped under the weight of the burden all hope of getting inside might be lost for good!

Once everything was set and in place Rathmir and Huscar directed the horses to begin pulling on their weight. The three beasts were edgy and nervous up on the hill, especially when the sky rumbled loudly above them. Their hooves would occassionally slip and stumble in the slippery wetness of the grass but after a few moments Derufin, who had remained down inside the pit to observe the tention on the ropes, called up to them that the stone door had begun to budge! The ropes were taught and wet but they were holding so far. The prince could hear the old stone hinges upon the far length of the door creak and moan as they were being forced to perform their fuction for the first time in hundreds of years.

"Lord!" called Rathmir aloud from above. He had to shout over the noise of the rain and thunder. "How goes it? Do the ropes hold? Is the door open yet?"

Derufin was upon his knees now as he watched the old secret door just beginning to clear the surface of the stone floor of the pool. He held his breath in anticipation as he stared at the ropes straining under the weight of their burden. The door was now several inches above its original resting place. The prince then caught his first glimpse of the utter darkness of the undergound tomb and he felt a shudder run through him. Throughout his royal tenure of acting as the king's formal overlord of the sacred tombs of the Barrow-downs he had never had cause to open up the tombs of the dead before this unfortunate night. His heart trembled at the thought of what was soon to come.

"Lord! What is happening! Speak!" It was Rathmir again. He could not hide the excitement in his voice by now. He began slapping the three beasts upon their rumps so that they would pull harder. And pull they certainly did. Between the three beasts the weight of the old stone door was not overly much but there appeared to be little room left upon the edge of the hilltop for the horses to navigate and find extra footing. With the noise of the thunder overhead coupled with the slippery grass beneath their hooves one of the horses went too far and found itself beginning to slide down the edge of the hill's summit in a panic. Huscar, who had been charged with directing the beast in its labor, called out to Rathmir to alert him to the impending danger of the horse's fall. But there was nothing he could do by then. It was too late. The horse began to flail its legs wildly in a desperate attempt to regain its footing. The beast whinnied loudly as it toppled over upon its side and plumetted downwards through the wet darkness in the tall grass and mud for nearly thirty feet before a pair of sturdy poplars broke its fall. Huscar cried out in alarm as he ran forward to the edge of the summit and shone the beam of his lantern downwards to where the beast lay neighing and looking about. Rathmir was hard pressed just to restrain the remaining two horses from panicing and crossing back in forth in front of one another, which would entangle the ropes connected to the stone trapdoor below.

Their attention upon the horses was suddenly and horribly distracted when they heard the scream from down in the empty pool where the prince had remained to observe the progress of the ropes upon the door. Unbeknownst to Rathmir and Huscar, the sudden slackening of the tension upon the rope fastnened to the fallen horse caused the weight of the heavy stone door to suddenly shift to one side, which in turn quickly snapped off one of the stone hinges that held one side of the door in its place. As a result of the weight change, and also that of the erratic tugging upon the other ropes by the two remaining panic-stricken beasts, the stone door toppled sideways and slipped in the muddy bottom of the drained pond before falling upon the foot of the prince. In fact, the prince was lucky, for if there had not still been a good deal of tension upon the two lone ropes bearing the weight of the stone the entire weight of the trapdoor would have pinned Derufin's enitire lower leg beneath it, and would certainly have crushed many of the bones as a result. The door did indeed land square upon his foot but the prince had only just enough wits left in his drunken head to hastily pull his foot out from underneath the deadly weight. He immediately cried out in great pain as he threw himself upon the ground and flailed about this way and that as he sought to remove his wet footwear.

"My lord!" cired a distraught Huscar, as he quickly abandoned the two horses to Rathmir and leaped down into the pit. Rathmir cursed loudly at Huscar as he sought to regain control of the two horses still above the pit before tethering them again. Huscar paid small heed to him as he rushed over to his master's side.

"My lord! What happened? You are sorely hurt! Pray, stop thrashing about so I can remove your boots for you!" Huscar attempted to restrain the prince but Derufin pushed him angrily away as he finally suceeded in removing his boot from his right foot. Huscar reached over and seized the fallen lantern and used the light of it to observe the damage. What he saw made him gasp aloud. A good deal of blood dripped out of the boot once the foot was removed. The foot itself was intact but brutally injured. Yet it was the prince's toes that commanded the most medical attention now. The bones in three of the middle appendages looked to be broken and smashed throughout. They would be useless to him now.

"Your steed is useless now, Huscar!" cried Rathmir, leaping down with a loud thud into the empty pond. "I fear that his leg is broken. He is lame. You shall have to walk home." Then he noticed the prince upon the ground and in great pain as he held his foot. "What has happened here?" He looked concernedly at his lord, who had quite obviously broken his foot, then, seeing that the stone door was laying next to the prostrated prince, he directed his gaze immediately to the gaping black hole in the stone floor of the pool. He could plainly see that the trapdoor had come off of its hinges, and also that the hinges themselves were probably useless now. There would be little chance of recovering the open hole after they finished looting the tomb below and therefore no chance at all of hiding what they had done from prying eyes in the future. As if to reinforce the fact, when the hinges had been torn away from their sockets a chunk of the masonry had come out with them, leaving a larger exposed area of the floor of the pool then was before hand. In short, there would be no way at all of preventing the old barrow-tomb from becoming completely flooded in heavy rainfalls. The tomb would fill up first and then, consequentially, the pond above it. But in the dry seasons no doubt the tomb would forever be exposed to the elements and whatever animals or wandering travelers that might stray upon it. The infamous Tomb of Baranor had remained hidden for over five-hundred years until now. No longer would old Baranor's sleep remain undisturbed.

"I am cursed!" exclaimed the prince as he grimmaced at the sight of his broken foot. "If this blasted rain was not enough, I now have a broken foot for my troubles!"

"We must abort this misguided errand immediately, lord," said Huscar. "We must get you back at once to Dol Andrath where we can have your leeches tend to your injury! Old Adlor the White can mend your foot, no doubt, but we must return to the castle at once!"

"We cannot leave now!" commanded Rathmir authoritatively. "We will not abandon our quest after coming this far! Lord, I regret your injury to be sure but you shall surely not die from it! At least allow yourself some recompense for your pain! Let us finish the job at hand. If what we have believed to be true about this tomb is correct then we shall all leave here as rich men!" Derufin groaned again and lay back in the muck of the slimy pond floor, no longer caring about his attire. Huscar still held out, though.

"Stop up your ears to his council, lord! He thinks only for himself, as is his wont! You need healing right away! I fear your foot will never heal properly again if we do not get you to the leeches!" The prince winced again before shaking his head at this. He coughed loudly before suddenly turning his head to vomit in a small puddle of rainwater.

"No Huscar," he said in a sickly voice. Then he looked again at Rathmir who was gazing fixedly at him with narrow eyes before replying slowly through clenched teeth, "Very well, Rathmir! Do what you have come to do! I care not anymore. Yet I will not enter the tomb myself."

"Yet I cannot remove the treasure without any assistance!" insisted Rathmir, redirecting his icy gaze to the man whom many termed the 'Mouse-man'.

"Huscar here shall lend you his aid such as he can." Rathmir nodded silently before running up to the horses to retrieve the ropes. Huscar looked aghast at his lord.

"But lord!" he cried despondantly. "I cannot take part in this crime! It was never stated before that I would be included in entering the tomb. My part was to keep an eye upon that villain so that he would not try to do you any harm. Besides, I cannot bear the tombs of the dead! Such places are not for men such as myself! Lord, please sit up. You will drown yourself lying down like that." Huscar reached over and forced his master to sit upright once again. The prince was by now in truth miserable to behold, both physically and emotionally. The rain had soaked all three of them to the skin by now yet Derufin's condition was the worst, for he could also add to his misery a state of drunken wits and the knowledge that he might easily be hung for his part in such a lowly crime. There would be no concealing this deed of theirs. They could only hope that fate would not desert them and that any trespassers that happened to chance along this hilltop might assume the theft was comitted by some other grave-robbers skilled in such matters.

"Huscar, I shall sit here by the opening and watch the two of you from on far. Do not fear the dead, for they cannot harm you while I am here!" Then seeing the confusion on his servant's face he added wearily with a painful effort, "The servants of darkness cannot tread upon the spirits of the living while the rightful guardian and steward of Tyrn-Gorthad is before them. It is a fact derived from the kings of the old days." In truth Derufin had never really believed in the old wive's tale that he had just dished out and served to his servant but he knew that Huscar was not a learned man by most accounts and was prone to believing the old superstitions.

At length Rathmir returned from the horses bearing three ropes and three grey sacks made from hemp which the Dunedain prized for their durability. It was these that they intended to carry home the bulk of Baranor's horde. He then instructed a nervous Huscar to shine the light down into the opening. Rathmir stooped down and stared eagerly down into the depths of the pit. A quiver ran up his spine as he realized that he was the first among mortal men to look into the forbidden barrow-tomb. He could see little from his place outside the trapdoor, save a stone and damp floor well over ten feet below.

"Throw down the ropes, Huscar," said Rathmir without looking at the man. "I have already fastened the other end of them to the trees above."

Huscar meekly complied with his instructions before offering his assessment of the proceedings. Rathmir busied himself with testing the strengths of the knots of the ropes.

"Let it be perfectly clear ere we begin our descent into the tomb, Rathmir. The Prince of Tyrn Gorthad is the king's steward over all the tombs and barrows in these lands. regardless of the illegality of what we now endeavor to do, the lord Derufin gets fifty percent of all coinage that might be discovered in the tomb as well as first pick of any artifacts that might be found - indeed, the prince retains the right to refuse the removal of anything that might be self-incriminating in regards to the item's..." Huscar stumbled over his tongue for a moment in the search for the right terminology, "...er, 'politicial sensitivity' with those down south." With this he meant the king and his court at Dol Calantir. "Do you understand?" Rathmir said nothing in reply to this and barely even so much as glanced at the 'Mouse-man' before sat himself down and swung his legs over the edge of the wet opening to what was apparently a ceiling trapdoor to the tomb below. He secured one of the three lanterns to his belt and grasped the rope tightly before beginning his descent down into the darkness below. Yet before he did so Huscar grabbed the folds of the big man's cloak to prevent him from leaving.

"Did you not hear me, Rathmir?" asked Huscar sternly. "The lord Derufin is quite serious in his conditions! You must abide by them or face the consequences!" Rathmir looked into the eyes of Huscar and then down to the grubby hands that had dared to lay hands on him in anger. Few had ever done so before now. The stoic glare that Huscar received from Rathmir quickly unsettled the Mouse-man and he immediately released Rathmir from his grasp. As a reward for doing so the latter actually offered the prince's servant a closed mouth smile before adding simply, "It is time to become wealthy men at last." With that Rathmir carefully shimmied down the length of the rope and into Baranor's tomb...
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Sat Nov 28, 2009 8:34 am

Rathmir stood alone in the underground barrow-tomb directly upon a rectangular box of ancient limestone. The sarcophugus could hardly be avoided as it lay directly in the middle of the chamber and beneath the now-broken trapdoor in the ceiling. He stood sqaure upon the carven image of what appeared to be a sleeping warrior garbed in full chain mail. The body itself was raised up from the surface of the stone lid to make it look extraordinarily lifelike. Directing the light from his lantern downwards he saw that the chissled face of the deceased man looked immensely peaceful. The sculptors of the stone depiction must have been highly skilled in their art, for the facial features were exact and carefully calculated to make the man look so very real even in death. Undoubtedly this was the carven image of none other than Baranor himself. Low-browed and clean-faced, the sculptors depicted Baranor with a wide forehead that sat sternly above a longish nose whose end looked to have been broken off. The eyes sat in deep sockets and even without the pupils etched in were forceful and commanding. Yet even these had been victim to desecration at some time in the past, for both had extensive scratches and gouges in them that had been delivered by way of some sharp edged tool - perhaps a sculptor's chisel or spike. Baranor's lips had been long and full once but the corners of each side had been tampered with in a like manner as the eyes. Even the designated area where his genitals would have been beneath his mail had been chipped away. Ironically, a slender leaking stream of rainwater from the opening in the ceiling cascaded noisily down onto the face of the sarcophagus and slapped into the hole in Baranor's groin before it ran down the side of the leg to make it seem like he had wet himself. Old Baranor had been defaced. Rathmir felt a stab of anger at the debasement of a man who was still reckoned among the initial defenders of a new and emerging Cardolan in the years of the realm's infancy. True, the old knight had practiced cruelty and extortion in his day, but what was that to Rathmir, for men who live and swear by such methodology are blind to its benign wickedness by nature. The deeds of Baranor would not have been very unlike from that which Rathmir would have practiced if he had been in his place all those years ago. Yet one thing was now clear to him: Rathmir's dreamlike asspirations of being the first man in Middle-earth to have been inside the infamous tomb of Baranor were hopelessly dashed. Indeed, how many others had been here before him? Only the ghost of Baranor may know.

He was shocked and dissappointed at what he saw once inside the tomb. In a word it was destruction. Rathmir stood ominously silent as he gazed about him, ignoring the horse whispering plea from Huscar up above to relate what he saw. All about him upon the floor lay many small and large personal items as well as those of a household nature that were scattered about the floor of the dark tomb: from books, tomes, maps and clothing to broken crockery, wine bottles, two old leather saddles and several broken mirrors. Rathmir also beheld scattered weaponry strewn about the limestone floor. He counted five swords, both long and short bladed with broken or notched blades, one pommel-edged dagger and two round shields - one of which looked to have been crushed. It looked as if a bloody fight had occured here once before. This was evidenced by dark red - almost blackish - splashes of what surely must have been blood once upon a time that stained spots upon the the weapon blades.

Rathmir breathed in deep the moist and stinking air of the tomb before exhaling. He carefully stepped down off of Baranor's stone coffin and began to make his way through the tomb, holding his light aloft before him. Again, Huscar called down to him but Rathmir would say nothing as of yet, save, "Wait." The size and shape of the room was vaulted in a circular dome of stone, studded in regular intervals with carefully carved and chissled decorations of wild beasts of various sorts that used to roam the open lands of Cardolan. Somehow the tomb itself seemed larger than they all assumed it would be. The stone masons from the time of Baranor constructed it in an oval shape which had two small squared off alcoves on either side of the chamber that were perhaps three feet deep into the wall. Two of these alcoves were well nigh empty, save for two tall iron poles that were studded with rungs upon their lengths. Rathmir knew instinctively that these were used to display suits of armor, but where old Baranor's famous sets of plate had gone to was a mystery. Probably stolen by whomever had infiltrated the tomb in the past, no doubt. Yet in the two remaining alcoves were two old and large trunks whose wood they were made of looked to have nearly rotted away over the years. They were lined with iron but that too looked old and tarnished. Their heavy lids were closed and whatever contents they housed, if any, were invisible as of yet. Rathmir caught the glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye and he instinctively turned round in haste as he drew his sword.

It was a rat, or rather, two of them. They scampered away from him fearfully and darted off into some dark corner. Then two more showed themselves and even looked quizically at him and the sudden light source that had invaded their world before darting off to the same corner of the tomb. It was there that Rathmir decided that the foul stench originated. Something in that shadowy corner was of interest to the rats. But what might it be? Rathmir decided the mystery could wait. What did he care anyway? But what did interest him was in the fact that the rats existed here at all. How did they get in in the first place? Surely it was not from the trapdoor in the ceiling. He turned away and walked carefully to the opposite corner of the tomb - and immediately solved his own riddle. It was a doorway. There in the radius of his lantern light Rathmir saw an arched doorway with a lone solitary door of stone. It was closed tightly, but part of the masonry along the bottom length of it had been broken apart by the hands of men. They had suceeded in only removing a small section of the stonework - perhaps six inches or so - but it would be enough to allow the entry of the rats and other small varmints of the wild. He wondered why anyone would attempt such a thing unless they might perhaps have found themselves trapped inside. If they were trapped how did they become so? It seemed plain that this lone doorway had once been the main way in and out of the barrow-tomb when it had been first constructed long ago but the exit had been sealed off subsequently. Rathmir merely shrugged his shoulders at the thought and examined the door more closely. There was no knob or other handhold purchase that might allow one to open the door from within. Holding the light upwards he then beheld what looked to be written words carefully etched into the face of the door.

"Rathmir!" It was the harsh voice of the Mouse-man again. "What is happening down there?"

Rathmir ignored him again as he concentrated on the epigraphic inscription upon the old door. He recognized the tongue as an old even archaic form of what the Dunedain refer to as Adunaic, the private language once spoken by the men of Westernesse in the legendary land of Numenor and later afterwards by some of the folk who survived the downfall of that revered isle when they began to establish their abodes in old Arnor and down in the south lands. There were even some among the Dunedain in the three sister-kingdoms that used the tongue today, but only when intermingling with themselves; primarily in Arthedain. No doubt king Tarandil was fluent in the tongue, as were his two sons, Vorondil and Calimendil. Rathmir was no fool as was wise in many things, but he had little interest in old lore and tongues and could make out little of the epigraph, despite his partial Dunedainian background.

"Hold your light this way, Rathmir," called Huscar down to him from outside the opening abobe. Rathmir did not comply, however. "Very well, then. If you will not relay to us what it is you see down there then I shall come down there and see for myself."

With that the prince's servant began to slowly and rather clumsily make his way down the length of the ropes. He stumbled over the sculpted lid of the sarcophagus as he neared the bottom, his legs flailing as he sought to find something to steady himself as he let go his grasp of the rope. He gasped at the sight of the likeness of old Baranor sleeping peacefully and nearly tumbled headlong to the floor, though he managed to steady himself with his arms.

"What a dreadful place to be in!" remarked Huscar as he shone his light forward to mark his gloomy surroundings. "It looks as if a battle took place down here at some time!" He beheld many of the same things that Rathmir had taken in, but he cried aloud in alarm at the sound of the rats behind him. He stared fixedly in the shadowy direction of the noises as he placed his hand upon the hilt of his knife. "May the Gods beyond the heavens forgive us for this trespass! What is the name of the Vala who cares for the dead?" he asked Rathmir without turning round to face him. He was reluctant to turn his back on the gnawing rats. Hearing no reply from the big man he asked again, only more sharply. "Rathmir! Did you not hear me?"

"Mandos," answered Rathmir after another silent pause. His deep voice sounded strangely sinister down here in eerie darkness of the tomb. "Do you have an interest in rodents, Huscar? I assumed you must since have scarcely looked at anything else since you set foot down here. Perhaps you feel a kinship with them since you and they often perform similar tasks in the dark, though I suspect that their motives for spying about are more chaste and virtuous than are yours back home."

Huscar felt a surge of anger come over him but could not think of an appropriate insult to hurl back at the big rogue-of-a-man and so instead opted to ignore him. At last he tore himself away from the rats in the invisible corner and flashed his light source to the alcoves, where he immediately saw the two closed wooden chests. He noticed that Rathmir had yet to investigate them and so, without a word to his surly companion, went over to the alcoves where they sat amongst the cobwebs to get a closer look at them. Huscar seized one of the broken swords upon the floor and used the broken tip of it to test the weight of the closest chest to see if it was empty or not. Judging from the chaotic dispersement of the broken items in the tomb he half expected the chest to be empty. But the chest did not yield to the shove of the weapon. Reluctant to touch anything with his bare hands, Huscar tried again with a bit more force. Still the chest did not yield to the shove, but a scurry of smaller mice darted out from somewhere deep in the alcove at the disturbance. There might have been more than a dozen of the scavengers this time. Huscar stepped quickly back.

"Why did you not investigate these alcoves, Rathmir? The chests are not empty! They will not yield to a shove." Rathmir turned around to face him for the first time after studying the inscription on the door for some time. He noted the fear in Huscar's voice touched with a tinge of excitement. Holding his lantern abreast Rathmir walked over to where Huscar had been standing. He ordered Huscar to hold his lantern as well so that his hands would be free to peform whatever labor he decided would be needed. Ignoring the cobwebs that hung over them Rathmir laid his hands upon the closest chest and dragged it out from the dank alcove and into the light of the lanterns. The chest was heavy, and this excited him. Even Huscar could not hide his anticipation now. Rathmir immediately dragged the second chest forward and it too felt cumbersome.

"Perhaps there is still a chance to salvage something of this miserable quest of ours," commented Rathmir wryly. He felt incredibly discouraged by what he had seen thus far, for clearly there was little down here in Baranor's tomb that was of much value anymore. The famous legendary Horde of Baranor was either no more or else never had been. Perhaps the old rumors of legendary wealth buried inside the tomb of Baranor had been a concoction of old fools and tricksters, or perhaps the rumors had been circulated at the behest of the old king's of Cardolan's past - a secret ploy to see who might dare to attempt an infiltration of the sacred barrow-tombs that were strictly forbidden to any save the king alone. If caught in the act or by way of later evidence the king would surely know who was his enemy. Of course, it may be possible as well that the tomb was raided long ago and all of it's wealth removed. Maybe Baranor's two 'loyal' servants who aided him in his final years by way of stashing their master's horde inside his final resting place were not so loyal after all. It would never be known, he decided to himself. All Rathmir knew now at this moment was that there had better be some sort of loot stashed away in these two chests or else all of their efforts this rain-soaked night would be in vain. They would still be criminals for their trespasses but would be criminals without any reward.

"Do it, Rathmir," said Huscar impatiently. "They appear to be unlocked. Even one of the lids seems to be slightly crooked."

"Shut up!" snarled Rathmir without bothering to look at the Mouse-man behind him. Huscar meekly obeyed. All was quite down in the tomb, save the sound of the stream of rainwater that tumbled down from the trap door above and smacked noisily upon the stone lid of the coffin in the center of the chamber. Rathmir stooped down and carefully began to open the lid of the first wooden chest. It raised upwards fairly easily to their surpise. Huscar grimmaced at what he saw inside. Rathmir stood up again quickly as the lid fell open.

Bones, mice and more bones. That was what primarily consisted of its contents. There were also scraps of torn clothing as well. The bones were plainly those of a man, for the skull looked to have been placed inside the chest carefully. Even the bones of the body had been lain inside the chest with scrutiny. There was nothing more.

"Who would place a dead man's bones as such in an old wooden chest?" Huscar had meant to ask the question silently but found himself whispering them aloud. He then noticed a foul odor emanating from the second chest, and was about to ask his companion what it might be but Rathmir felt no need to speculate on the mystery and instead quickly thrust the lid of the second chest wide open in apparent frustration. He immediately wished he hadn't, for the source of the stinking rot was then revealed to them. By the light of their slender lanterns they saw a multitude of smaller mice feasting away on the dead carcass of a large rat. They were everywhere among more scattered bones of some annonymous dead man. It also contained a skull head and several mice darted into the eye sockets for cover against this new intrusion of unwelcome light from the outer world. Yet some of the mice must have been angry as well as afraid, for one of them managed to clamp its sharp teeth into Rathmir's exposed hand before he could remove it from harm's way. In pain, Rathmir cursed loudly as he jerked his arm backwards in haste.

Wrath then overcame Rathmir and as such he cursed the deceased Baranor loudly. He gave the two wooden chests two very swift and sure-footed kicks that sent them sliding several feet away with broken timbers. They overtuened themselves and straightway the bones and mice scattered across the dark and damp floor, the latter creatures seeking somewhere dark and hidden in order to escape the wrath of the giant. Huscar recoiled at Rathmir's rageful behavior and sought to calm him with feeble words of condolences and reassurance. But it was of no avail. Rathmir ordered him to keep silent with scornful words. Noticing Rathmir's cry and the sound of the sudden commotion from down inside the tomb Derufin leaned over the opening of the trap door and urgently inquired as to what had caused the disturbance.

"The Horde of Baranor is a fraud!" exclaimed Rathmir, looking up at the prince in anger. "All of our efforts tonight are in vain! We shall return home empty-handed and with little to show for our pains save a broken foot and a rat-bitten hand! Yet I fear the burden of debt shall not elude you tonight, O Prince! The burden of payment shall still lay before you! You shall have to find another way to pay me! I shall not be gainsaid in this matter!" Rathmir's words were insolent and laced with misplaced pride, and the prince quickly became angry himself, despite the pain he felt in his broken foot and his sorry state of intoxication.

"Peace Rathmir! You shall not address me in such a matter ever again! Do you understand me? You are besotted with greed tonight as I am with drink and you had better consider your next choice of words carefully ere you wag your warthful tongue at me again!" Derufin glared down at Rathmir as one who has emerged from a drunken stupor at last. His teeth were clenched and his face was stern and authoritative and he did not flinch at Rathmir's demeanor.

Rathmir stared up at the prince without speaking as he breathed heavily and nursed his bitten hand. He had been chastised but his anger and frustration were not quenched. He turned his angry brow at Huscar now.

"You miserable whelp! You are a misbegotten fool to believe that Baranor's two 'loyal servants'," these two words were spoken with extreme sarcasm, "aided their master by storing his lifelong treasure safely away after his death. They stole it out from under his eyes, no doubt! Yet a greater fool am I to have ever given creedence to your tale. If those two men long ago really were in truth your kin then at last I understand too well your mischievous ways. Yet so be it! At least I shall hold Baranor himself responsible for the woes of this night!"

Before Huscar could lodge any sort of rhetorical protest to the words spewed out from Rathmir's mouth, the latter turned his anger upon the very sarcophagus of old Baranor himself. He quickly seized a sturdy chunk of stone masonry that had fallen from the section of the roof that had crumbled away when the heavy stone trap door had fallen apart when the ropes gave way. Rathmir strode up to end of the sealed limestone coffin where the likeness of Baranor's head had been sculpted. With the broken masonry in hand Rathmir held it up high above his head with both hands as if readying himself to strike down with it upon the stone face of the sleeping Baranor. Huscar looked aghast at what Rathmir was about to do.

"Aiy! What are you doing, Rathmir?" he cried despondantly. "You ignorant fool! I beseach you! Drop that stone! You shall bring the wrath of the Baranor's ghost down on us for sure! Rathmir!"

Rathmir paid the Mouse-man no heed. With a loud grunt he slammed the broken masonry down mightily upon the nose of the stone image of Baranor. The noise of it echoed loudly in the vaulted chamber as what remained of the sculpted nose broken asunder from the blow. Rathmir seized the stone again with his muscled arms and repeated the violent act, only this time the broken masonry fell heavily upon Baranor's forehead. A voluminous 'boom' again echoed through the chamber as part of the stone forehead chipped away, the shards of it flying through the air to the floor.

"Rathmir!" cried the prince as he looked down in wonder at the madman wielding the chunk of stone against a limestone coffin. "I command you to decist this desecration at once! Rathmir! You are wasting your time! Our time here is over now!"

"In the name of all that is sacred, you fool!" shouted Huscar, backing away from Rathmir and the sarcophagus. "Stop this insanity! You shall be the bane of us all tonight!"

"Awake, Baranor!" cried Rathmir aloud to the coffin beneath him. "Show yourself! It is high time that you awoke from sleep and face the might of Rathmir the Ruthless, for I am your match!"

Being somewhat pleased with the degree of destruction he had wrought thus far against the sculpted lid of the coffin, Rathmir once more raised the heavy piece of stone above his head for an even more powerful blow. Ignoring the pleas from his two companions that he should halt his actions immediately, he aimed his next strike carefully to land evenly down upon the heart of old Baranor with all the force he could muster. He yelled aloud and slammed the stone home upon Baranor's left breast, expecting to see more flying shards of stone go spinning off into the shadows. Such was indeed the result, but lo! He was also rewarded with a distinctly hollow sound where Baranor's heart would surely be if the sculpture had been a real man. Rathmir paused a moment, breathing heavily as he narrowed his brow in surprise at the sound he heard from the breast of the sculpture.

"Did you hear that?" he asked Huscar pointedly. "There is something amiss here."

"Everything about tonight is amiss," retorted Huscar angrily. "You, above all things, are amiss! Did you not hear the prince? He has commanded you to cease this madness. We did not come all the way out here to desecrate the body of one of the old lords from the past!"

"Huscar!" called the prince down to his servant, who still stood back from the stone sarcophagus. "I am in great pain, I fear! My foot is sorely hurt, I fear. Come up here at once! We must ready ourselves to depart this unpleasant place. I need the attention of the healers back at the castle. First you must check on your horse that fell down the hillside." Huscar made to comply with the order but Rathmir held up his hand in check.

"Wait but a moment longer, I insist!" ordered Rathmir urgently. "The heart of the Baranor image is hollow! Can you not hear for yourself?" Rathmir took the hilt of his dagger and banged it carefully upon the heart of Baranor. There seemed little doubt about it. The area in question was certainly hallowed out by the sculptor who designed the ornate lid to the coffin many years ago. But to what purpose? Was something hidden there? There seemed only one way to find out.

"I was right! Let us see why it was designed as such!"
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Sat Dec 12, 2009 1:14 pm

"Let it be, Rathmir!" exclaimed Huscar in one last vain attempt to dissuade the big man from his intended desecration of the coffin lid. Seeing that Rathmir had no intention of stopping his destructive actions, Huscar strode over to the dangling rope that hung down from the trap door above and began to try and find his footing on length of the rope. He was not a skilled climber, however, and he began to panic as his first few attempts were unsucessful. He wished that he had not come down in the first place.

With a weary grunt, Rathmir once again raised up high the chunk of masonry and slammed it down hard upon the heart. Instantly the stone around Baranor's left breast shattered asunder under the weight of the blow - as did the chunk of stone Rathmir had used as his tool of destruction. It broke into three or four irregular pieces and was now quite useless as a makeshift hammer. Rathmir let the broken chunks fall to the floor as he stared down at where he had caused the hollow area of the heart to crack open. Inside, where the heart of the sculpture would have been, was a small but ordinary piece of rectangular iron. It was no longer than a grown man's hand in length and about two fingers wide. It's thickness was little more than that of a tongue of a large dog. No doubt it had been hidden within the stone sculpture for a specific reason, and when Rathmir picked it up and examined it more colsely he felt he knew the answer.

"It is a key of some kind," he said flatly. "It must be - look at the long end of it! It is irregular in its smoothness!" Rathmir turned to look at Huscar as he pointed to the edge of the rectangular piece of dark iron. "This has to be some sort of key to Baranor's sarcophagus! Aye! It must be! What else could it be?"

Rathmir's mood had changed as suddenly as the winter winds that blow across the plains of the north. He was excited now, all his former anger and rage now absent. The night's pains and labors may not be in vain after all. Huscar abandoned his attempts at climbing the rope and came up next to Rathmir as he gazed at the innocent-looking piece of slender iron that Rathmir held up to the light.

"It might be a key," admitted Huscar cautiously, "but even if it is - what do you propose we do with it? Surely you do not suggest..." He left his sentence incomplete, as he stepped aside for Rathmir, who ushered the smaller man aside with his arm as the big man seized one of the lanterns from the floor. He hastily began to search up and down the four lengths of sarcophagus, holding his light in one hand and the small piece of iron that he had proclaimed as a key in the other. Several minutes went by in this manner as Rathmir ignored all questions from his two companions. Huscar again warned Rathmir of the ill omens that always proceeded the unrighteous infiltration of the sacred sarcophagi of the dead. But Rathmir scoffed again at the Mouse-man's belief in such superstitions.

"You speak with the voices of the ignorant fools who infest the poor countrysides to the east," said Rathmir, never once taking his eyes away from his investigation of the stone coffin. "The tombs of the Barrow-downs are not haunted by ghosts or wraiths or any other such creatures! They never have been and most likely never will be. It is a calculated lie spread about by the imaginations of Cardolan's monarchs to discourage thieves and looters from attempting what we have done tonight!"

"At least you finally acknowledge that we are lowly thieves," said Huscar morosely. "Or at least you and I are - especially you."

"I acknowledge no such thing," insisted Rathmir, who had now halted his encircling of the coffin. Somthing had caught his eye up by one of the shorter ends of the sarcophagus. He stooped down and stared at the stone before him, adding to Huscar, "We are the torchbearers of belated justice! At last Baranor may hide no longer from it! Tonight he shall at last be answered for his past heinous crimes against his own people!" Huscar frowned at this, not giving voice to his private thought that it was pathetically ironic for a villain such as Rathmir to be accusing Baranor of wickedness when he himself was guilty of similar crimes.

"Rathmir!" called Derufin down to his bodyguard. "Come up here at once, I beseech you - I am in pain and it is beginning to rain again. The dawn is not far off by now and we have many miles to traverse ere we reach the safety of Dol Andrath. Eh? What was that sound?"

The sound of a faint click could be heard as Rathmir, paying his lord no mind - for his insatiable greed had been rekindled again with the unexpected discovery of the mysterious piece of iron inside the sculpture - had discovered a proper hollow slot upon just beneath a decorative overhanging lip of the coffin's lid. It was located up around Baranor's head. In actuality there were many similar open slots in equal increments in pattern all around the diameter of the stone lid, and Rathmir had attempted to slide the narrow iron device into many of these but had nearly abandoned the thought of it when nothing happened in consequence. Yet before he gave up at last he had, seemingly, come across the true empty slot, for when he slide the flat iron key into it there was no stone barrier within to halt the lever's progress - only a slight impedement that gave way with a slight push of the fingers. Then an audible click sounded out from somewhere inside the lid. It was loud enough for Derufin to have heard it up from above the trap door opening.

"It was indeed a key, it seems," remarked Rathmir in a strangely calm manner as he gazed at the lid with his mouth slightly agape. "I do believe that I have successfully infiltrated Baranor's final resting place! The sarcophagus is unbarred!" With this he slowly broke into a smile which was followed by a short laugh that betrayed a sense of relief more than of humor.

"I shall have nothing more to do with this immoral exercise of yours, Rathmir," proclaimed Huscar pointedly. "Do not ask anything more of me!"

"Leave the dead to sleep in peace, Rathmir," said Derufin, trying to block out his physical pain. The bodyguard glanced up at his lord and then over to Huscar, but said nothing.

Rathmir stood up again and leaned over the head of the Baranor sculpture. He absent-mindedly held up his outstretched hand to let the slender little waterfall of rainwater that leaked down from the opening in the ceiling splash on his opened palm. His grin faded away as he tried to assess the weight of the stone lid and how best to go about removing it. He saw no hinges of any sort so that meant that it must slide off somehow. No doubt it would be extremely heavy and cumbersome, especially if he must undertake the labor alone - as indeed it appeared he must by now. Yet no matter, he thought to himself. He would not be turned back at this point in their quest.

"What is it that the wise oft have said about the concept of justice, oh lord?" Rathmir posed the question to the prince, who still stared down him from above. Derufin looked irritated by the question as he squinted with the pain in his foot. He offered no reply, so Rathmir went on.

"I refer, of course, to the wise among the more learned men from our ancient past; the High Men of Numenor, not the bogus charlatans down at Dol Calantir or even Fornost Erain who pass themselves off as learned men of lore." Again, Rathmir received only a distant rumble of thunder somewhere off in the distance for his answer. "Rely only in the might of Men to answer the wickedness of Men, for the Valar love them little'." Huscar bristled at the unfamilar idiom.

"There is no such saying," he replied brusquely. "You lie, as is your wont, Rathmir."

"No Huscar," interrupted the prince, "alas, he does not lie, for I have heard the phrase before. But the true author of the quote was not uttered not by the wise and honorable men but rather from Pharazon, the last King, which in turn originated from the poison invective of Sauron, whom we all know as the true corrupter of Numenor."

"It matters not!" said Rathmir. "There is truth in the phrase! The Valar, despite their supposed wisdom, tarry in the deliverance of reward and punishment. Therefore, since it seems that the Valar, who watch all things in Middle-earth," these last few words were voiced with sarcasm once again, "have not thwarted our attempts this night, let it be us three who at last deliver to Baranor the reward he truly deserves for his immoral bloodlettings of the past!" He looked over at Huscar and then up at the prince, neither of whom showed any inclination of lending Rathmir the aid he sought for his undertaking. Rathmir looked back at the Mouse-man with mockery before shrugging his shoulders.

"Very well then. Let it be Rathmir alone!" he said finally after another silent pause. "Yet I shall claim any and all treasure of Baranor that may lay herein unto myself." Huscar opened his mouth to object to this, but stopped short when he saw the foreboding look on Rathmir's face.

Rathmir turned his attention back to the sarcophagus before him after he had set the two lanterns upon either side of the coffin. The only sound in the tomb was of the falling water that slapped into the lid from above. Even the rats seemed to keep silent as the big bodyguard began to test the weight of the stone lid. It was heavy and would take a hearty effort of bodily strength in order to budge it, but he was confidant that he could perform the labor alone. He began searching and probing with his fingers for the best handholds upon the corners and upon the chissled torso of the sleeping image of Baranor. At last he decided that too much effort would be required to lift it and instead opted to jar it loose from its current position - which likely hadn't been altered since it had been placed there over five-hindred years previous - by rocking it back and forth. The sound of grinding stone filled the stuffy air as the surface of the lid ground against that of the rim of the sarcophagus. Rathmir grunted with his labor as he quickened his pace, seeing that he was beginning to achieve some success. The first few inches of inner blackness on either side of the moving lid could now be seen as Rathmir closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, fully utilizing his great strength. His long fair hair fell over his forehead and eyes and was now wet with perspiration as he let out one long final grunt.

At length the great limestone lid that had rested undisturbed upon the resting place of old Baranor for so long finally cleared the side of the coffin. It teetered momentarily before falling over and collapsing upon the floor of the raised platform with a tremendous thump that echoed through the chamber. Huscar covered his ears as he stared from several feet away at the gaping casket of Baranor. He was astonished that he was even present at such a proceeding and wished he was somewhere far away. The prince looked down from above with abject disbelief at what he saw. You contemptible villain, he thought as he looked at Rathmir in foul wonder. I curse the day I met you! But Rathmir would not have known if either one of them were now a hundred miles away now, for he panted heavily and wearily as he stooped down to raise up one of the lanterns to gaze down into what lay inside the Sarcophagus of Baranor.

~~

The corpse of Baranor, the brutal knight of King Thorondocil, still lay asleep in his final resting place. The stench of the body stank of ancient death and quickly filled the dank air of the tomb. Both Rathmir and Huscar recoiled visibly from the foul odor. Whether it was due to the ever-present humidity that lingered inside the dark tomb or perhaps to some mysterious burial technique for the preservation of dead flesh that the wise men of the Dunedain in the old days had practiced upon the deceased, the body of old Baranor had never fully decayed in full. His flesh still covered large swaths of his bones, though it had taken on a dusty greyish hue over the last five centuries. He lay not on his back, but upon his right side, as if he had been carelessly, even recklessly tossed inside his coffin after death. He looked to have been fully garbed in leg breeches and some kind of old linen shirt, both of which lay beneath the old knight's silken robe of silver and white, which was now riddled with holes and looked to be badly moth-bitten. Upon every bony finger of his two hands were rings of gold and silver. He had no footwear whatsoever, nor did he wear anything upon his head, though oddly enough most of his long grey hair remained intact. A long and rusty long sword lay next to old Baranor as did what appeared to be an old flask made of tin-coated copper. Most noteworthy of all, and what seemed to catch Rathmir's greedy glance more so than anything else, was the golden gem-encrested necklace that the old knight still wore about his now shrunken neck. Rathmir reached slowly down and pushed aside the folds of Baranor's whispy shirt collar to get a better look at the curious piece of jewelry. He immediately knew that he desired it, for even a fool could tell by its look that it was a thing very old and probably very valuable.

"What are you doing?" asked Huscar in dismay, seeing Rathmir reaching down into the tomb to begin his looting of the body. "Nay, leave it be! Do not disturb the dead, I pray you, Rathmir! It is an ill omen not just for you but for any who may be present and not bother to prevent such a theft!"

"Then pray to your gods for forgiveness, Huscar," replied the bodyguard callously.

Rathmir reached down with both hands now to remove the necklace from Baranor's neckline. At first the necklace would not yield to his touch so he decided to employ more force. The ornate necklace came loose after three more tugs at it by Rathmir, who was surprised at the stubborness of the necklace to come free of its longtime owner, as if it were glued to Baranor's decrepit neck. Rathmir gained the necklace and raised it up to the light. Multi-colored points of light sparkled as he let it dangle from his fingertips.

"Throw me that sack there, Huscar," requested Rathmir authoritively to the servant. When Huscar merely stood there with his mouth open Rathmir repeated the demand loudly. Huscar shook his head as a reply. Rathmir quickly left the side of the open sarcophagus to seize the sack that lay upon the cold floor of the chamber before returning at once to continue his thieving. He shot Huscar another evil look.

"A black cloud looms ever over you and your deeds, Rathmir," said Huscar. "Your final doom will be an unpleasant one because of this - mark my words!" Rathmir madee a dismissive airily gesture at this.

"Bother me not with empty auguries, Huscar."

Rathmir began to carefully place the necklace into the brown hemp sack he had brought with him to carry the treaure away with him but stopped short. He stared at the gold interlocking links upon the length of it and decided he had already earned the right to wear it by now. He pushed his long fair hair back behind his head before slowly pulling the necklace down over his head and onto his neck. He drew his dagger from his belt and used the clean steel blade of it as a mirror to gazeat his reflection while wearing the adornment. It seemed a perfect fit, though he would have sworn it looked a bit too small and anticipated it being tight around his throat. It suited him very well, he thought contentedly to himself.

He then went about stripping the ten rings away from Baranor's skeletal fingers and tossing them deep down into his sack. He had no intention of departing without the blade of Baranor, despite the old sword's rusty condition. He reached down into the coffin and fetched the sword out next, then the old tin and copper flask. Why had such a simple item been placed inside the sarcophagus along with the body of the old knght? He held it up to the light and shrugged before turning to exhibit it to the quivering Huscar, who continued to stare blankly at Rathmir as he performed his theft of the tomb. Despite his horor at the proceedings he also felt a kind of gloomy, even morbid curiosity at what was taking place.

"Looks about as useless as a candlestick without a flame, doesn't it?" Rathmir quipped with a faint smile, looking again at Huscar. "But it isn't. No indeed! I'll warrant you that this is the very vessel that Baranor used to poison himself with! I do believe I shall keep it. I'll wager that the bones of those two poor wretches in those old chests over there are his two loyal servants - or, as you insist that they are, your former kin of old: the makers of the secret map that you possess. The deceitful Baranor probably slew them ere he killed himself to prevent them from looting his grave after he was gone. How do you like that for gratitude? Yet I can't say that I would blame him for that, though. Common men such as yourself should not be trusted to keep secrets."

He tossed the flask into his sack before looking back into the coffin, searching all the shadows and corners for any missed items. He found nothing else, so, as a final gesture, he seized the folds of Baranor's silken robes - or what was left of them - and began to strip it away from the rotting corpse of the deceased. He paused a moment as he looked into the lifeless holes of Baranor's eye sockets. The man had died seemingly in great pain, for his mouth had remained open in a silent scream and the skin that remained around his cheeks was tightly drawn and wrinkled. Most if his teeth had fallen out but most of the inside of his mouth had not decayed yet. A sort of blackish brown insect crawled out of it and Rathmir quickly raised himself upright again. He finished removing the robe from Baranor and decided that he had had enough, as the stench of the coffin was beginning to turn his stomach.

"We're finished here now, Huscar. Let us depart. I am sure you are more than ready." Rathmir turned to look at the Mouse-man with a slim smile but quickly noticed that the servant was not there. He had managed to scramble back up the rope and had left the tomb. Rathmir had been so consumed with the undertaking of his thieving that he had not even noticed that Huscar had gone. With one final discerning look at the ancient sarcophagus Rathmir gathered his goods together and climbed easily back up the rope and through the trap door.

So ended the mystery of the legendary secret tomb of Baranor, knight of Thorondocil. The hidden opening that had lain for so long beneath the silent pool upon the hilltop was left broken and gaping - an open invitation for prospective bandits or wayward wanderers to enter down therein into the chamber below. This troubled the prince greatly, and he lost many a night's sleep because of it, but in the end it simply could not be helped. As for the final resting place of Baranor, Rathmir the Ruthless left it desecrated and defiled as a belated punishment, as he reasoned it to himself, for the evil deeds Baranor had committed against his own people in the wake of the Sundering of Arnor. Thus the three nocturnal bandits of Dol Calantir departed the barrow-tomb upon the insignificant hill in the midst of the open country of Tyrn Gorthad as quietly as they had arrived. As three wandering wolves in the summer darkness they were while they hastily retraced their long and muddy path back to the castle of Prince Derufin, who was forced to ride with his servant upon one steed. They did not make it back to the safety of the castle upon the upper lip of the Andrath until well after the grey dawn had settled down upon the lands.

The absence of the prince had been marked by only a few among his private retinue. But when their lord returned from 'ordinary business up north', as he said evasively, with a broken foot many questions were asked as to how he had managed to acquire such a grim injury. "My horse was spooked by the storm, on our way back from Bree," he explained lamely, "and the damned thing fell over on me! I was avenged for my fall, however, as the horse in question broke its own leg in the process."

As the days passed as routinely as they ever did in the northern regions of upper Cardolan Rathmir caught wind of a rumor regarding himself and the prince. Some were asking questions amongst themselves as to why their lord would have need to travel abroad in the western regions of Tyrn Gorthad in the middle of the night during a tempest. Ere long Rathmir soon learned that his own name was being linked with the prince's nocturnal travels, and that their lord's chief bodyguard had begun to act in a 'queer' and aggressive manner since that night and now carried a new blade instead of his customary morning star. Rathmir said nothing of this, however, to the prince himself - the latter being consumed with nursing his wounds and carrying out his own lordly business again. Yet on the following night, before Huscar had retired to his private quarters for a peaceful night's sleep, Rathmir had made his way to the latter's chamber and quietly bribed one of the guards with heavy silver in a prearranged meeting between the two men. In exchange for the coinage Rathmir was allowed secret entry into Huscar's room where he quickly hid himself away and awaited the return of the prince's favorite household spy.

The wide lands outside the castle lay humbly still beneath a misty fog that night as the lord of Dol Andrath enjoyed his first peaceful and dreamless sleep in many days. But in the adjacent hallway down a flight of stairs evil lurked in the night. Prince Derufin never heard the silent scream of Huscar. It was suddenly cut abruptly short when a tall menacing shadow emerged from the closet to wrap its steely hands around his throat and savagely choke the life from his body.
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Celebrimbor32
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Tue Dec 29, 2009 3:59 pm

CHAPTER TWO
"Demons of the Past"

For the fourth year running the port-town of Fennas Druinen had seen a reduction not only in the population of its town folk but also that of the four-legged variety. In the year 1328 of the Third Age a deadly disease of mysterious origins had struck the rural livestock of large swaths of En Egladil, rendering much of the swine that people depended on for meat unsafe for slaughter. Even the dogs, which had always run rampant and free among the city's dirty streets, had grown scarce as they began to fall prey to the butcher's knives for want of consumable meat. Folk had been fleeing the port-town of Fennas Druinen for a good while now but never in such numbers. The reason's for their departure depended much upon wealth and status. Farmers and ranchers were the first to leave. Most turned their feet northwards and sought a new beginning in the upper regions of the Angle or crossed the two raging rivers into parts of eastern Arthedain or Cardolan. Following them close behind were foreign traders and mercenaries, who no longer were able to maintain their former profit margins. Local peasants and commoners, providing they could find the money and means to do so, left more slowly than the others. Many of them had called Fennas Druinen their home for many generations and were loath to begin a new life elsewhere. Last to desert the port-town in any sizable numbers were the gentry and noblemen and women. Of these only the barest handful of them could rightfully claim themselves to the Dunedain race of men. Indeed, by the last two years of the 'twenties' only Arfanhil, a Rhudauran prince in relation to King Denethil of Rhudaur, and five other folk could rightfully lay claim to the title of Dunedan. This small group of men and women refused to leave the small city, insisting that Fennas Druinen would whether this latest calamity to befall them.

The only folk that continued to enjoy continued wealth by way of career were the boatmen and fishermen. Prince Arfanhil, in defiance of the king and also having received little aid from him, announced his official revokation of a royal ban upon selling fish and livestock to the merchants of Tharbad, who were ever in need of crab, catfish and other varieties of freshwater fish due to overfishing in their own waters. This act helped stem the tide of depopulation in the city but not by much. As a result of the town's abandonment by many of its inhabitants the city garrison was left with precious few men to defend the city in the event of any furture attacks or raids by hostile neighbors - especially from the mountains to the east. The conscription age for recruits was lowered from seventeen to fifteen, which met with little approval from boys that were soon to enter into their early manhood.

This latter fact was, at least in part, the reason two young gentlemen from the town in question - the dark-haired Ithilmo of the far away eastlands and his burly yet comical companion Skylan, who hailed from the rolling woodlands of southern En Egladil, or the Angle, as men call it in the common tongue of Eriador, had chosen to leave Fennas Druinen for a fortnight and make their way south along the river Gwathlo to the great river-city known to all folk as Tharbad. This town, which sat strategically located in southern most Rhudaur, or rather, the Angle, had once enjoyed a reputation as a prosperous financial burough where wandering merchants and traders would pass through on their way north or south. Many settled down there and established permanent residences over the years, which slowly swelled the town's population. In the years following the Sundering of Arnor Fennas Druinen earned itself a respectable reputation as an attractive and relatively uncorrupt place to practice mercantilism and trade; that is to say, in contrast to the somewhat foul and unsavory nature of the larger Tharbad to the south. The city itself sat upon the confluence of the two mighty rivers of that land - the Swift Bruinen and the wide but tamer Metheithel. Folk from neighboring Cardolan were welcomed there in those sunnier days, and to prove the fact a bridge was constructed to span the width of the river so as to allow freer passage for folk to pass back and forth from Cardolan and Rhudaur.

But the years ever darkened with the passage of time much like the thoughts and opinions of passing lords and kings. With the ever-souring of relations between the two realms more and more restrictions were put into place and enforced upon Fennas Druinen by the ruling kings up in Cameth Brin to the north, for they became suspicious of the liberties taken by the magistrates in the southern trading post and suspected the city was host to increasing numbers of spys and armed men in league with Cardolan. Before long the king of Rhudaur ordered that the bridge be thrown down and tighter restrictions enforced upon folk from abroad. As a result the prosperity the city had enjoyed for ashort time slowly burned itself out and folk began to leave Fennas Druinen for Tharbad or other smaller venues that lay scattered across the Angle. The city never recovered from the blow, but it refused to die. But the folk adapted to the changes over the years and those who wished to live there or conduct business therein learned to use boats and river vessels to travel to and fro and before long the people resumed their lives, far removed from the meddlesome soldiers of the Rhudauran king.

Such was the case with Ithilmo and Skylan. The two had met two years previous in Fennas Druinen. Skylan had found it necessary to flee his native village away to the north for a while in order to escape the tedious quarells than often erupted when his father's two brothers would visit him and his family and argue incessantly over complicated matters regarding the often shaky underworld of Rhudauran politics, a subject that both he and his mother had little interest in. So they would let the three brothers fight it out at home while mother and son would hire a coach to drive them south to Fennas Druinen for the night. It was at a random inn that they had chosen to stay in, the Green and Blue Inn (so named after the color of the waters of the two rivers of that land), that Skylan had become acquainted with a youthful cook, then only recently employed at the inn, who went by the name of Ithilmo. Skylan had found the smoked river mackerel with wine sauce quite superb and felt inspired to meet the person responsible for the delicious delicacy, and as a result a new friendship was born. The two men quickly discovered that they had much in common: they both hailed from lands other than Rhudaur, with Skylan originally coming from upper Cardolan, while Ithilmo claimed to come from the eastlands on the other side of the 'Great Fence', which was the adopted surname of the Misty Mountains among the people of the Angle. Furthermore, both of them shared a predilection for hiking, archery, hunting and horses. Skylan was particularly skilled at horseback riding and commonly referred to himself, quite unabashedly, as the best young farrier in all the Angle. He insisted he could shoe a horse faster then most men could hobble a horse's legs together. They also shared a general dislike for dwarves and Hillmen, the latter of whom had treated both men cruelly in their youth. Further still, neither of them had any appetite for the political intrigues of court life nor of the uncleanliness of city living.

If both Ithilmo and Skylan bore a natural fondness for wide open spaces they were also drawn equally as much to the tall woodlands that lay clustered about the lands of Rhudaur. Ithilmo claimed that many of the trees in the northern regions of Rhudaur were far larger than those of distant trees of Mirkwood, nigh his homeland. Of this Skylan had no knowledge, for he had never traveled in northern Rhudaur and marveled that the young Ithilmo had cause to do so, for rumors of violence and civil unrest between the Hillmen and the followers of what now remained of the Dunedain at Cameth Brin had made the upper regions dangerous areas for folk to travel in. But Ithilmo was reluctant to discuss the days of his youth and would say little of his earlier travels, save that he had not gone that way by choice, but rather by force. When he had first heard of this Skylan was tempted to proclaim that his friend was stretching the truth just a bit, but Ithilmo would not rise to the bait and maintained his silence on the matter - for now.

The two friends departed Fennas Druinen on an unseasonably warm autumn morning to begin a joint excursion to Tharbad, which lay a good four and a half day's walk to the south. They hired a ferry to take them across the river Hoarwell where they then hiked their way along a well trodden footpath that ran parallel with the river Gwathlo, which was ever to their left. As expected their way was soon impeded by a small palisaded village that stood directly upon the path they desired to use. The village served the purpose of monitoring all the folk who desired to cross into Cardolan proper, where suspicions among the people there had risen sharply over the last several years in regards to the intentions of outsiders in their lands. Having convinced the guards that their only intent was to travel to the city of Tharbad in order to purchase textiles, weaves and other yarns to be used and even sold back at the Blue and Green Inn, the two walkers were permitted to proceed on their way. In truth, Skylan had little interest in dry goods. His real reason for visiting Tharbad, besides keeping his friend company along the way, was to see the young lady who had captured his restless heart. Elwena was her name. She was the daughter of a man who called himself Claborn, an herbalist by trade who also happened to own a popular tea house on the southern end of Tharbad, where folk, mostly men, would congregate around the noon hours and after their bellies were full from their evening meals. Skylan had become enamored of Elwena when he had passed through the city four months ago on his way back to Fennas Druinen.

Their first meeting, if it may be called as much, was an awkward one, for it occured during the most unfortunate of circumstances. Elwena, who worked for her father at the tea house on occassion, had gone outside to the back alley behind the said establishment after dark to empty cans of trash when a hooded man suddenly dashed out from his hiding place among the shadows to accost her and attempt to run off with her apron, which she still wore. At the end of a night's work the pockets of many a barmaid in Tharbad were wont to be stuffed with coins that were given them out of gratuity from paying customers. The assailant tore away Elwena's apron and had begun to make his getaway when Skylan, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, lept into the narrow alley to barr the theif's progress. Elwena cried out in alarm as the two men tangled in what looked to be a short but violent tangle of flailing arms and fists. The next thing Elwena knew was that her would-be rescuer was laying flat on his back nursing a black eye while the dark hooded thief had fled off into the night with her money-stuffed apron. Before long Skylan had found himself laying comfortably on a couch inside the inn with a cool honey-scented towel across his wounded eye. Elwena administered the healing herself out of her genuine gratitude for, as she openly claimed, "saving my life!"

Skylan again related the tale of his first chance meeting with Elwena to Ithilmo as the pair walked along the uneven pathway that led them southward across the wide featureless lands of lower Cardolan that stretched out far to their right. It was a windy October afternoon as they went forward and the sound of the wide river could plainly be heard to their left as small choppy white-capped waves cut across the length of the water and crashed into the embankment a little ways below them. There were two small sailing vessels slowly making their way northwards out in the middle of the river that Ithilmo lazily watched as they walked together. The two boats were making equally slow progress in the stiff breeze and the sound of voices shouting angrily at one another could just faintly be heard from ashore. Probably fishermen quarreling over their right to fish a particularly lucky spot, thought Ithilmo to himself. The men who fished the rivers were intensely jealous of their unwritten rules of thumb in regards to privacy upon the Gwathlo. An argument was plainly erupting between the two vessels now. Ithilmo continued to crane his neck towards the river while Skylan walked beside him and told him again of 'my darling girl', as he had already begun to refer to her as.

"Her hair is as sweet and fragrant as the morning dew upon the Hills of Twilight, my friend!" exclaimed Skylan as he gazed out far afield where patches of wild yellow and orange wild flowers were growing. "I do believe it was her lovely cascading hair of redish gold that brought me back from my state of delirium that night and not her father's medicinal wrap!"

"Your tale continues to evolve with each recitation," replied Ithilmo, glancing back over at his companion. "Every time you relate it something new seems to occur. So now you were delirious, were you?"

"I should say I was delirious with joy rather than actual pain," replied Skylan with a grin, "though the smack in the eye that the assailant delivered upon me did sting like a thunderbolt in the dark, the miserable knave!"

"Funny thing - that you should have been lurking around that very spot that night just as the attempted robbery upon Elwena took place, is it not?" asked Ithilmo in mock seriousness. "A back alley seems a strange place to hang about in the dark unless one is either a alley cat scrounging about for food or a drunkard who has lost his way and seeks the temporary solace of solitude while he sleeps off his inebriation."

Skylan shot a confused look over at his friend.

"What are you implying, my good man?"

"I merely point out that, as a would-be suitor for the lady's hand, you certainly have a knack for showing up at the most oportune moments in regards to her safety. This is not the first time you have performed a rescue on the girl of your dreams, you know. I am reminded of the time last year when you were infatuated with that little barmaid back in Fennas Druinen. Didn't you claim that you saved her from drowning in the Gwathlo?"

"Aye indeed!" Skylan confirmed emphatically. "The poor lass was not at all a proper swimmer, and when our little row boat began to fill with water as I ferried her across the river she went into a panic. She stood up so suddenly that the wretched little vessel turned itself over! You cannot blame me for that! Of course I saved her. What else was I to do?"

"Aye, of course indeed. Yet of all the boats on hand at your disposal I always found it odd that you chose the oldest and leakiest boat among the dockyard."

Skylan was wont to spend temporary bouts in the town working as a ferryman, where he would supplement his meager income that he earned as an undercover poacher in the northern expanses of the Angle. He knew the work was dangerous and he kept it secret from his irrasible father for an entire year until one day the latter discovered where his son had been hiding a stash of dead blue-finned carp that Skylan had poached from the river and had intended to sell for profit. After a sound and smart belt-thrashing from his father, Skylan finally abandoned poaching which left him only with the little money he could earn by working as a sort of river taximan.

"The boat leaked?" asked Skylan in pretend wonder. "How knew you this, Ithilmo, and why did you not tell me before hand! To think how many times I used the thing at the risk of my customers and all!" Ithilmo chuckled as he shook his head.

"You devious rogue," teased Ithilmo, "you always knew the boat to be plagued with holes and such. I think it is high time that you come clean with me. You deliberately chose the oldest and most rickety vessel on hand to ferry that poor girl across the river so that you could rescue her in case the boat foundered in the river."

"Are you accusing me of putting that poor lass in danger on purpose to further my own intentions toward her?"

"I am indeed," replied Ithilmo stiffly - almost comically.

"'I am indeed'," Skylan mocked Ithilmo's tart answer while mimicking his friend's foreign accent. Knowing that he had been found out by now Skylan slowly offered his companion a sly grin. "Oh very well. But let me tell you something, my friend. One should always entertain a strategy in the arts of love. Never leave anything to chance. The maidens of our fair land are deceivingly complex in their wiles. They are wont to toy with us when it comes to the heart. It is all a game to them, alas."

There was a pause here as Skylan waited for Ithilmo to take in what he was saying. Skylan was senior by two whole years to his friend, he being twenty-one years of age and Ithilmo nineteen. This fact alone gave Skylan, as he believed it, a legitimate claim to profer advice to Ithilmo in the ways of the world. Finally Ithilmo offered Skylan a sarcastic reply.

"Do go on, oh wise one! These long field trips you and I take together are a boon for wise council."

"As I said," continued Skylan, "strategy is everything when a man enters the hunt for the suitable lady. Do you need me to explain to you what strategy means?"

"Me?" asked Ithilmo, raising an eyebrow. "Aye, I do believe I have heard of the word and its meaning ere now. Nor do I need a tutor in how best to employ it, thank you."

"Yes, I have no doubt you use it well when you partake in your Chess, but what of that? You are still single and alone, despite Chess. I see no fair ladies on your arm. Will Chess keep you warm at night in your bed? Does a Chessboard provide you with stimulating conversation? Can Chess cook up the nourishment a man needs in his stomach?"

"I cook all of my own meals. You know it well."

"You take my meaning, Ithy," Skylan alone had, by now, earned the right to call his friend by such a shorthand nickname. Yet he did so out of genuine affection, as Ithilmo knew well enough. "If your strategy excels on the Chessboard I would say your strategy for other matters in life is less so."

It may be stated that Skylan was not the most qualified man alive to make such an observation, for he too was no stranger to personal turmoil, but there was truth enough in his statement. Ithilmo was indeed, as Skylan marked upon, a superb Chess player, him having been taught the game at an early age by his wandering Dunedan father. He had also become a highly skilled cook in his maturity and was even handy with a bow and arrow. But when it came to making good personal choices with his own life it might be said that a bit of guidance would have suited young Ithilmo quite well. He certainly had not had much of it from his ever absent father, whom Ithilmo had traversed many miles in Wilderland and had dared the high passes of the Misty Mountains in order to enter into Eriador - all for the sake of locating him. Six years had passed since then without success: six long and lonely years away from his beloved mother and childhood memories of which he cherished and clung to in his miserable wayward loneliness. He was not overly fond of Eriador in general, and bore an intense dislike for the northern regions of Rhudaur, where he was forced to spend some of the most wretched days of his short life. But he found the Angle quite tolerable in comparison for it reminded him of home with its wide open lands and milder weather.

Fennas Druinen had become his home by default over the last four years and it was in this town where he had learned the art of cooking. He liked the town well enough but felt its rural population more and more apathetic towards strangers and foreigners as the years went by. Ithilmo had begun to feel constrained in the litle port city and longed for a more hospitable venue to grow and mature in his skills as a cook. Tharbad, he supposed, was where he ought to go next in order to practice his new profession and earn a respectable living. It was also where he hoped his father, if he yet still lived, would turn up one day, for he had ever been wont to visit the place in the past. Skylan, too, desired to try his luck in Tharbad and together the two companions had desired to visit the city in order to get a general idea of how the place works and feels.

"I have managed to survive well enough up to now, I think," replied Ithilmo defensively to his friend's blunt observation. He looked back again out across the Gwathlo where the two fishing boats had drawn alongside one another where the men aboard both vessels could exchange insults more easily in the stiff breeze. It was impossible to make out the words between the men at such a distance but it was plain enough that the rhetoric was anything but friendly.

"I do not need a woman right now, you see," continued Ithilmo. "What do I have to offer them, anyway? I am not wealthy, nor am I 'charming company', as the saying goes. Further still, I am a foreigner, which often seems to be a blemish on one's personal character these days in Arnor."

"These things you name are but trifles, Ithilmo. I think you underestimate the folk around here; or at least in the Angle. It is true that times are hard nowadays, but one thing never changes - the desire for love! We all want it and we all need it - even you, my friend, do not deny it."

"I make no attempt to deny it."

"Indeed! I think your past weighs too heavily upon you, Ithy. You could use a good woman at night! Or by day! Or both!" He laughed.

Ithilmo ignored Skylan's bawdy jest.

"In one thing, at least, you are correct, Skylan. A man's past is his own and he must deal with it as he may. Let it be so with me as well! Few men twice my age have endured what I have though he may be more stalwart in heart."

"Aye," replied Skylan more seriously, "so you have often said, yet little of your past will you reveal to me, though we be friends. I know you have said that you were born in the far away country of the eastlands beyond the Misties, though well nigh nothing of your adventure hither have you revealed."

"I have hidden nothing from you," answered Ithilmo in a stately manner. "All that I can recall of my travels is that our company of one-hundred or so set out from Rhovanion upon horses and wagons and traveled for many days westwards until we reached the western eaves of Mirkwood. Then we went north along the Great River for many more days until we reached more settlements of horsemen, some of whom joined our company as we began to travel up into the mountains. I remember us coming across a company of dwarves in the foothills, but after that everything becomes hazy."

"Tis strange indeed," said Skylan. "Perhaps there is something that occurred to you in the mountains that you choose to forget?"

"Like what?"

"Who can say? Perhaps you suffered a fall and hit your head. That would explain that scar on your cheek, would it not?"

This was a reference to a two inch scar on Ithilmo's left cheek that ran close up to his ear. He had always been self-conscious about it and hoped to locate a healer in Tharbad that might be able to conceal it properly by way of herb or ointment.

"It might explain it," admitted Ithilmo, "but somehow I doubt it."

"Then maybe you fell into storm upon your way and were seperated from the rest of your company? You never learned where the other members of your company went to?"

Ithilmo shook his head after a moment of thought.

"I believe that they must have gotten seperated from you in the mountain passes then," suggested Skylan helpfully. "It is the best possible explanation, I think."

"Perhaps," said Ithilmo evasively. "I have often surmised as much. Yet why then did no one come in search of me, or at the least call out my name? It would have been the least they could have done."

"True enough! Shame on them for their negligence! Reasonable explanations for all of this can be offered needless to say, but the story of your subsequent thralldom is mightily queer!"

"'Queer' is a most inappropriate word to describe the state of one's thralldom, Skylan! I would rebuke you for your choice of that desription. Much of my time as a slave I have also forgotten, but not all of it, and what I do recall is anything but 'queer'!"

Having been suitably chastised for his insensitivity, Skylan nodded humbly but said nothing. Ithilmo went on.

"Bone-chilling numbness and fear; not to mention irrepressible weariness of body and mind. Those are the things I remember all too well of the Ettenmoors. The Hillmen were both my saviors and my tormenters, Skylan. They plucked me out of the obscureness of the mountains - or at least I have dreamt as much before - yet they also rejoiced in my pain and discomforture. Did I ever tell you how they would make me, and the other thralls as well, stand upon one leg in the snow while holding blocks of ice in our bare hands? They would line us up and make wagers between themselves as to which of us would fall or drop the ice first? I shan't go into the descriptions of what the loser's fate was."

"Aye, aye," said Skylan quickly, hoping to derail his friend's grissly momories of his thralldom. "You have told me of it before." He knew that Ithilmo had always been wary about discussing those dark times and would rarely do so, save in times of emotional depression, which were not uncommon to him, alas. Yet once he entered willingly into the subject it was often difficult to lure him away from the topic. Skylan decided to make mention of a wagon being pulled by two horses coming their way up the road ahead, but Ithilmo was not ready to let the subject drop yet.

"Do you know that I even saw the Rhudauran king when they brought me before his court to be sold to him?"

Skylan stopped walking at this and looked at Ithilmo in confusion.

"You did what?" he asked him in wonder. "I don't remember you telling me this before!"

Ithilmo also halted his progress and looked absently down at his feet as if he was surprised to hear himself say such a thing. At length he shrugged his shoulders.

"Yes, that's right," he affirmed slowly. It was if a distant and nearly forgotten memory was being jogged awake after a long slumber. He felt confused. "Yes, I seem to remember it now. I recall being made to grovel before his very feet along with a few other of my fellow prisoners. I think we were required to swear our fealty to him. Or perhaps it was his son, the prince. I cannot tell now."

"So you are saying that you have been at Cameth Brin, the very court of King Denethil, and even swore fealty to him in his halls?"

"Yes," replied Ithilmo after a thoughtful pause. "I believe so. Or maybe it was his son. Yet what other choice did we have, really? It was either that or - who knows?"

"So the Dunedan king of Rhudaur still lives, eh?" wondered Skylan aloud. There had been rumors that had run rampant that Denethil, the King of Rhudaur, had died; either by illness or, as some had said, by a ruthless usurpation by his enemies.

"Yes, he still lived back then at least," answered Ithilmo, "but all of this was over six years ago, of course. But I remember Cameth Brin, or at least parts of it, and how dark and sinister it felt. Very high and lofty it sits - upon a tall hill like some bird of prey upon its stoop. I am sure it was built to inspire awe - or at least fear. But we spent much of our time in the garrison town below the dizzying heights of the Naked Hill, either locked away in sparsely furnished rooms with a lone barred window with little to eat and nothing to do or else enduring long and teadious training exercises in weaponry and combat. I recall hating those sessions in the snowy winters, but..." Ithilmo paused a moment as if trying to remember more, "...after a while even these painful exercises ceased. Then we spent days on end locked away in our rooms without interruption - sometimes without food. I was always hungry back then - always!"

"This is really incredible, Ithilmo!" remarked Skylan in amazement. "What happened after that? Did you escape?"

Ithilmo thought for a moment as he stared out across the rolling pastureland to the west. After struggling with his fleeting memories of his tormented past for several silent moments he gave up.

"I don't know. I cannot seem to recall how I came to depart that awful place. I mostly remember the cold and hunger, not to mention the lonliness of it all. I truly thought that I would die there, Skylan. I cursed the day - and often still do - that I ever left my homeland and my dear mother in search for an absent father whom I barely knew. I was a young fool - still am, really."

"Have you heard nothing then from your mother in all these years?"

"Yes," said Ithilmo. "But only once, alas. Two years have come and gone since the messengers have returned from the east. The last I heard is that she lives well enough and is healthy. No word from my father has she heard nor of any others from the company that set out with me six odd years ago. But that in itself is not strange, as most of them were traveling to Eriador to dwell in permanently. But she bade me return thither as soon as may be and by whatever route I can contrive. Indeed, that is part of the reason I wish to go to Tharbad now, for messengers from abroad often go there first to make their deliveries or conduct whatever business they need to after returning to these lands from abroad. I am eager to hear what tidings they bring from Rhovanion."

"And also to learn what you may about your father," added Skylan. Ithilmo nodded in agreement.

"Aye, that too, though that seems less hopeful to me - and less urgent."

"Do you still wish to leave the Angle for Rhovanion?" asked Skylan.

"Indeed so! But I cannot imagine how I would get back home again now."

"Oh, as for that - there are always men willing enough to tread the passes of the mountains for the right price."

"And what money would I give them, Skylan? I barely make enough to support myself in Fennas Druinen! Where would I raise such a hefty sum for such a journey? I am fortunate enough just to be able to afford this trip to Tharbad with you right now - and surely would not be able to do even this without the free room and shelter your precious Elwena and her father have promised us."

"You would not necessarily have to hire an escort," explained Skylan as he took a draught from his water skin. "I am sure there are many travelling men who would welcome such a skillful cook as you in their company. You might be able to get off scott free if you agreed to prepare all of their meals along the way."

Ithilmo thought for a moment but then shook his head.

"No, I don't think that would work very well for me. Traversing the wooded hills of En Egladil is one thing, but climbing the Misty Mountains is quite another. I would never make it all the way through."

"One of these days, Ithilmo, you are going to have to conquer your fear of high places," reasoned Skylan. He knew quite well of Ithilmo's secret weakness and pittied him for it. "If you truly want to return to your homeland one day then fear there is only one way for you to go: up and over the Misties by way of the high passes."

"One might journey south and go around," replied Ithilmo lamely. "I am well acquainted with the various maps I have seen of the south. There is a sizable gap where the mountains fail altogether in that direction."

Skylan looked at his friend in ammusement before chuckling aloud at the foolish notion.

"Yes, Ithy, you do that, my fine fellow! I shall strike a deal with you: You make your way southwards to the Great Gap while I cross the Misties by the passes. I'll go and make my way to your mum's place and tell her that you shall be arriving safe and sound in another two years or so! That is, of course, assuming that you go unmolested when traveling through Dunland on the way."

"Have you been through Dunland before?" asked Ithilmo. Skylan looked at him like he must be mad to ask such a question.

"Of course not! They do not look kindly on us Dunedain these days. One must be a fool to go traveling down that way unless fully armed and with a sizable escort."

In truth, Skylan possessed barely two drops of Dunedan blood in his veins but liked to pretend that he did. Ithilmo thought briefly of calling him out on his claim but let it go instead. Skylan came mostly from common stock, such as mixed Northerner and Eriadoran. Ithilmo, on the other hand, could rightfully boast of being over a quarter-part Dunedan by blood, descended through his father's line, though he often lacked the requisite proof of such a claim, for his darker hair and larger nose, not to mention his well-tanned complexion suggested a eastern lineage. But Ithilmo's eyes were of the deepest grey and their almond-shape belied a piercing keeness to his countenance. He was clever, wise and wary, and few folk were able to outwit him.

"Well then," continued Ithilmo, not really believing what he was about to say next, "there is always the dwarven kingdom under the mountain. Perhaps they might escort me through for the right price."

"Ah!" exclaimed Skylan brightly and with humor. "Now why didn't I think of that? There's a clever idea! Perhaps if we sawed off half of your legs and arms below the elbows, and then you let your beard grow for two years on end - then we might be able to sneak you past their gates. But unless you are willing to submit to such a bloody procedure - or unless you happen to be on good personal terms with king Tarandil himself - I think there is little chance of such a plan succeeding. No, I am afraid it must me the high passes or nothing, Ithilmo."

Ithilmo shrugged his shoulders in indifference and walked onwards. He glanced back out across the river again. He was surprised to see that the quarrel between the two boats of fishermen had not ceased yet, apparently neither craft willing to give up ground (or water) to the other. One man was acutely gesticulating towards a designated spot along the bank with his knife, which he now had in hand. The voice of Skylan interupted his thoughts again.

"I will tell you something, Ithilmo," he said in a more serious air. "If we ever manage to scrape up enough coinage to afford a passage over the mountains I will gladly go with you one day."

Ithilmo looked at his friend earnestly. Skylan was being genuinely sincere in this offer. It was a big promise for him to make, but he knew Skylan would live up to it if the situation ever allowed them to make such a long journey. Ithilmo offered him a slight grin in return.

"You would do that? You would be willing to leave the land that you love, not to mention your family up north, just to accompany me over the Great Fence?"

"I would indeed!" replied Skylan confidently. "I have always wanted to know what the world was like over there," he gestured with his hand away towards the east. "I might even be able to persuade my two burly cousins to go with us, though my brother would never be interested in such a venture, I am sure."

"What would your father say when you told him?"

"Him? Ah! I think he would welcome the idea - so long as I returned home bearing gifts - and perhaps a bit of wisdom, which he always says I need more of."

"I am genuinely touched, my friend," said Ithilmo warmly. "Then I accept your offer. One day we shall turn our feet eastwards together and brave the heights of the mountains! Yet first let us see if we can make it safely to Tharbad without mishap."

"Aye, I have little desire for adventure on this trip," agreed Skylan. "It is especially important that I arrive in Tharbad without delay. I need to find my former business partner there again, as he still owes me money!"

"Business partner?" inquired Ithilmo dubiously. A mischievious grin appeared on Skylan's face.

"Yes, as I can think of no other term to refer to him as."

"Who are you talking about?"

"You do not know him I think. His name is Borlaf, or at least that is the name he goes by. He is a carpenter by trade, though he is usually without proper work or employment. He is a guildmember in the city."

"Well," said Ithilmo, "what of him?"

"He lent me his aid in my predicament with Elwena the night of the robbery I told you about. He was the man who performed the actual mugging."

Ithilmo wrinkled his brow in confusion at this new revelation by his friend, which in turn caused Skylan to laugh aloud at his companion's reaction.

"Aye, you heard me correctly," said Skylan, still smiling. Ithilmo did not return the smile. "Borlaf was the man I hired to perform the mugging while I waited around the corner just at the moment Elwena cried out in alarm."

"So the entire incident was prearranged then?" asked Ithilmo in shock.

"I'm afraid it was, but I do not offer any apologies! Nay, pray do not interrupt me, Ithy!" The two travelers stopped in the road again. "The burglury was indeed scripted in advance, but you must believe me that Elwena was in no danger at all. I gave Borlaf specific instructions not to harm her under any circumstances, even if that meant not obtaining her purse in the end. Indeed, the only person at all injured in any way was me! In his zeal to escape the scene the bully Borlaf delivered an inadvertant elbow to my eye!'

"You risked much in undertaking such a crooked misadventure, Skylan!" rebuked, Ithilmo, though not overly harshly. Indeed, he felt mildly ammused by it all. "What if something went wrong, such as your lady, as you now call her, getting hurt, or your partner getting apprehended. How would you have delt with that, I should like to know."

"We discussed all of that before hand! In the event of capture, which was very unlikely, I promised him that I would notify his carpenter guild immediately so that they could gather the money needed for his release from jail by the following morning. The headmaster of the guild is friends with a man in the city magistrate it seems. But none of this was necessary in the end, thankfully."

"So you collaborated in a scheme with this accomplice of yours," reiterated Ithilmo in a business-like manner, "to rob and mug this Elwena, the woman of your dreams, just so that you could perform her rescue in the nick of time? Then she would be much indebted to you afterwards. Is all of that right?"

"Just so! I know well enough how strange it must sound, but much must be risked in love!"

"It is all madness!" offered Ithilmo shaking his head in disbelief. He couldn't help but smile in the end, however. "So what happened to her purse? Did your accomplice-thief take it from her?"

"Of course!" stated Skylan unabashedly. "We split the money later, though I gave him more than half for the risk he took for me. I suppose it was all a bit of a close call - but well worth it. As a result of my plan the fair lady Elwena invited me to sup with her and her father the next evening, after I had recovered from my bruises."

"A blackened and bruised eye is the least you deserved for such a devious act! Yet what did you do with Elwena's money that you stole from her?"

"I used it to buy her a golden necklace with a locket!" He paused as Ithilmo looked credulously at him for a moment then laughed aloud. Skylan joined his laughter.

"Don't laugh!" said Skylan. "Elwena loved my gift!"

"Of course! She paid for it herself!" Ithilmo laughed again. It was good to hear himself laugh, and it felt good. He was not an overly jocular person by nature, but when something genuinely ammused him he abandoned himself to his mirth without restraint. Skylan, on the other hand, was frequently prone to bouts of humor and witticism. He was not above practical jokes as a method of procuring laughter from others. In this he complimented the darker Ithilmo quite well, for the latter took delight rather in practical thinking and fine food and the art of its preparation. His dark past, much of which he could not recall, weighed frequently on his spirits, and more often than not the only person capable of raising Ithilmo out of his gloom was Skylan.

"At any rate," explained Skylan, "Elwena seems already under my spell of endearment! She pursuaded her father to send me this invitation here," he patted his pant pocket where he kept the letter, "to visit them again at his tea house in the city before the next new moon, which will be in four day's time, if my calculations are not amiss."

"They are not," agreed Ithilmo. "Yet I shall be glad if we reach Tharbad in less than a week at this rate. Here comes the horse-wagon up the road. Perhaps we should hire them to take us to Tharbad. My feet will ache soon enough and we are not even half way there yet!"
Last edited by Celebrimbor32 on Fri Feb 12, 2010 2:56 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Sun Jan 10, 2010 1:43 pm

They went forward and hailed the folk coming up towards them on the dirt road. It was a large wagon normally used to transport hay and small livestock. It was being pulled by two hagard-looking horses that had square blinders fastened to their bridles in order to prevent them from going astray. Two men sat upon a makeshift bench behind the horse's rumps where they held onto the reins. One was a young man with a plump face and sun-burned cheeks. Next to him sat an older fellow with a scraggly grey beard who was busily gnawing away at some sort of dried meat. The younger man returned Skylan's greeting with a slight gesture of his hand, though somewhat reluctanctly it seemed. Ithilmo noticed that the man possessed what appeared to be a small crossbow that sat perched upon the empty space of the bench beside his lap. The weapon was fully cocked and loaded with its bolt in place so that, if need be, the man could raise the weapon and fire it without delay. Behind the two men in the wagon was a young full-figured old woman sitting next to a dark-haired girl who looked to be barely out of her teen years. The latter had been petting a long-haired white dog but was now forced to hold onto its collar forcefully to prevent it from leaping out of the wagon at these two strangers on foot. The dog began to bark at them but the old woman tried to speak comforting words to it in reassurance. They looked warily at Skylan and Ithilmo and did not return their nod of polite greeting.

"Greetings, fine folk!" said Ithilmo unenthusiastically, and would have said more if not for Skylan, who deliberately stepped on his foot in token of silence. He glanced at Ithilmo to make sure the gesture was understood. It was.

"A good day to you," called out Skylan blandly. "It appears we are heading to where you have already been. We would be pleased to exchange tidings with you, if you please."

"A good day, say you?" asked the bearded older man in a tone that smacked of sarcasm. He finished his morsel of dried meat and wiped his mouth on the collar of his shirt. "I suppose you are entitled to your own opnion in regards to this day. Perhaps it is good wherever you come from. Yet if you continue in the direction you are going things might seem less so. That is of course unless you are a supporter of corruption and anarchy - like our miserable king. But perhaps you like lord Tarandil?"

The question was asked with a touch of suspicion in his voice. Ithilmo said nothing but Skylan shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, adding that he had never met the man before. This did not seem to satisfy the older man, and he decided to try again.

"Now, now," he said coyly, "if you do then that is your business. We shall not judge you on that."

"Say rather," interrupted the the younger man as he brought the wagon to a halt, "that I shall not judge them on their answer, for I care not. But you, father," he elbowed him gently, "seek to deceive them. Leave these two travelers alone. Yet if you two seek tidings I will tell you what we know, which is little - save wild rumors. Yet what do you wish to hear? I, for one, would like to know how how things go in the Angle; particularly Fennas Druinen. We have never been so far abroad as that town, which lies upon the eastern bank of the Gwathlo."

"In Rhudaur!" barked the grey-haired father with disdain, before spitting. He shook his head as he ran his fingers through his hair. This earned him a reproachful look from his rosy-cheeked son.

"Nay, the Angle, rather" corrected the son. "It is different." The father scoffed again before replying.

"Which in turn is part of Rhudaur - or at least they lay claim to it."

"What of it, father? We have already discussed this, so prey let the matter rest! There is nowhere else for us to go, save the wilds in the south, where law and order do not exist."

"We might have tried up north, nigh the South Downs, or further eastwards and north, closer to the territory that is governed by Mardahil. Now there is a Prince of the Line that bears little love for Tarandil's way of thinking. Yea! He and Vorondil share similar ideas and viewpoints that coincide with ours. We would be more comfortable there!"

"Not me!" added the young woman in the back of the wagon.

"Nor me," said the old man's son, supporting, as Ithilmo guessed, his young wife. "I do not necessarily agree with Tarandil's eldest son and his reckless ideals. Nay, do not interrupt me," he said quickly, holding up his hand to ward off his father's objections, "Yet that is another matter, which I do not care to discuss here - nor, I suspect, do these two men desire to witness such a debate between us now. There is no future for us up in Mardahil's little fiefdom. There is more to gain for us, I think, in Fennas Druinen."

"We have just come from Fennas Druinen," said Skylan, eager to steer the subject away from this family's internal disputes. "It lies about a half-day up-river from here. Yet it does not really lay upon the eastern bank of the river. Say rather that the town lies at the confluence of the Hoarwell and Loudwater; just as they merge together to form the Gwathlo."

"Then you are both Rhudauran?" asked the old man again.

"I was born in Cardolan - in the very region that is governed by Mardahil," informed Skylan briskly. This statement wasn't quite true, as Skylan spent the first three years of his life just south of that region. Yet he thought that such an answer would please the old suspicious man. It seemed to work. The father offered him a slight crooked smile accompanied by a nod.

"Good, lad. Good! Cardolan is the land of the true-hearted Edain of old. I ask you - where did our forefathers choose to spend their eternity in postumous splendor? Where did they build the revered mounds of the fallen heroes of old? Where did the Numenoreans choose to fell the very trees that supplied the timber for their mighty fleets in the ages that are now gone? The answer to all of those questions is Cardolan, lad. Cardolan! Not Arthedain, and certainly not Rhudaur." He spat the latter name once again in disgust. "And what about your friend here? He has not spoken yet. Somehow he does not look to be from around here."

"You guess correctly, sir," said Ithilmo hurriedly so that Skylan would not have time to answer for him. "I am a foreigner. I feel no shame in revealing that."

Skylan did not look at Ithilmo after he had spoken, nor did he look angry. Yet he knew that if trouble did arise with these strangers he and Ithilmo would be at a serious disadvantage, and as such Skylan looked pointedly at the chubby rosy-cheeked fellow to see if he would react by way of reaching for his loaded crossbow that sat next to him. But Skylan's fear was needless, as the man did not react at all.

"A foreigner!" repeated the older man. "Another foreigner to clutter up the mayhem that is Cardolan these days! There are too many foreigners there as it is. Well, stranger you can have it, as far as I am concerned. I am finsihed with it, alas! Yet you might find Cardolan a most welcome place for you now. Foreigners will be running things here for a long time in the coming years. Yes, man, you might like it here. Tarandil is selling his kingdom out to the blasted Shadow-heads to the north piece by piece. Fool-of-a-king!"

"'Shadow-heads'?" asked Ithilmo looking at Skylan for clarification of the unfamiliar terminology. Skylan looked clueless as well. The younger man answered their confusion.

"He means the Rangers of Arthedain. They are wont to wear heavy cloaks with hoods that shroud their eyes in shadow to protect their identities."

"Naturally!" added the father again. "All spies seek to hide their identities, do they not?"

"We have our own 'Shadow-heads' here in Cardolan too, father," offered the son in return. "They are not spies, nor are the Rangers of Arthedain, necessarily. I think a true spy would choose a better disguise than that of a mere cloak and hood."

"Perhaps, but what of Tarandil's younger boy? I cannot imagine a man more suited for spying for Arthedain than him. He is always abroad, he is! Always spending his time in Fornost - rubbing elbows with Malvegil and courting his niece - making friends and allies for the future, no doubt. Now look what is going to happen!" He looked directly down from his carriage seat upon the wagon at the two young men standing rather dumbly before him.

"I have no idea what you are talking about, sir," replied Skylan after an expectant pause in the old man's rantings.

"Then you had best learn something of this land if you wish to travel freely here, lad! He has proposed marriage to the woman, for pity's sake!"

"Who do you refer to, sir?" asked Ithilmo. The old man wrinkled his nose with impatience.

"Calimendil! Tarandil's younger son, of course! He's marrying the little tramp and bringing her here! Right here in our own back yard!" He finished his protestations by waving his arm out across the western landscape, as if to demonstrate to a child that he was referring to the lands about them.

It was the first time that Ithilmo had heard of Calimendil. The name meant nothing to him as of yet. He knew little of Cardolan and its history, other than the fact that it had been openly at war with Rhudaur barely ten years ago over possession rights of some obscure fortress upon a tall hill to the north called Amon Sul. The outcome of the conflict had never fully been settled and tensions over it still ran high. He knew Cardolan was presently ruled by king Tarandil and that he was noted by some as an admirer of Arthedain - a fact that rankled with Tarandil's political opponents at court. He knew also that the king had two sons but knew little else about the realm - besides the fact that Tharbad lay within its official territory.

"Who is Calimendil to wed with?" asked Skylan. The old man sighed at what he obviously considered a ridiculous question.

"Daft as lights, you two are! Don't you hear anything about us over in Rhudaur? I just told you, sir. Calimendil is to marry Amariel, niece to the king of Arthedain! But perhaps such ill tidings might please a foreigner out of the east."

"Sir, your tone and manner is offensive," quipped Ithilmo with a straight face. "There is no need to speek to us as such. We have already told you that we are not from here and know little of what goes on in Cardolan. We only hailed you so as to exchange tidings, but seeing as we two foreigners seem to irk you so we shall bid you good day."

The old man frowned at Ithilmo before spitting in derision again.

"The devil take you then, foreigner! Let us be gone, Baldin!" he spoke this last to his son. "Speak no more to these two rogues. They deserve no such news from us. Let them go on their road and discover what they will by their own luck."

He trailed of with an inaudible muttering of what was surely a mouthful of insults. He raised up the reins of the horse before him and motioned to his son that he should do the same, but the latter checked him and bade him wait. He leaned forward upon the wagon's bench toward Ithilmo and Skylan as he rested his elbows upon his knees.

"My father must be forgiven for his discourtesy, I'm afraid. We cannot linger here long but I will tell you now in brief what you both seem to be unaware of."

The young man, much to the chagrin of his father, then went on to tell the two travelers from Fennas Druinen about the lastest big news out of Tharbad. The King himself was coming to the city. Rumor had it that he and his retinue would arrive the day after tomorrow in order to make known to the people there that his youngest son would indeed wed with the lady Amariel of Arthedain in a fortnight's time and would subsequently come to Tharbad to show themselves off to the residents and travelers there. This was, most likely, for two reasons: Primarily the king wanted to send a veiled message to many of his detractors of the city, especially to the handful of the merchant guilds therein who had been known to foster antagonism against the king and his policies. Cardolan and Arthedain were growing closer together now by way of their mutual commitment in stemming the tide of evil that seemd to be growing more and more hostile towards the two kingdoms as of late. Cardolan and Arthedain were allies when it came down to it and the marriage of Calimendil and Amariel was further proof of this. Also, however, Tarandil wanted his son to become better acquainted with Tharbad, for after his brother Vorondil succeeded one day to the kingship, Tarandil hoped that Calimendil might take up residence there and perhaps become the city's first ruling Prince. Up until now Tharbad had always had its own semi-independant mayor who governed the city on his own accord - but only in the name of the King. But it was a poorly kept secret in Cardolan that Tarandil bore little liking for the city and mistrusted the magistrates there.

"That is why the king is coming to the city," explained Baldin. "To show off his favorite son and his new bride to the people there in order to show them what is in store for them down the road."

"Perhaps it is not such a bad thing, really," said Ithilmo bluntly. This earned him another reproachful look from the old man, who said nothing. "I believe the days are indeed darkening under some new threat from the east."

"That is the only thing you have assumed correctly thus far, foreigner," jabbed the father shortly. "People like you are the new threat. You come from the east, do you not?"

Ithilmo ignored him. Baldin sighed before speaking again.

"At any rate, many folk are leaving the city now. If you continue forward on this old road you will undoubtedly come across others like us who are fleeing. Some are merely leaving the city for the duration of the king's visit while others, like us, are leaving Tharbad for good."

"We were thinking that we might hire you to drive us to Tharbad in your wagon," said Skylan without conviction. "Yet I suspect you wish not to return there now."

"I do!" spoke the young woman in the back of the wagon. "I never wished to leave in the first place."

"Nor I, my dear. Nor did I." This was uttered sadly by the little old woman who sat next to the lady who still held the dog in her lap. "Tis madness to leave a great city such as Tharbad for a slum like Fennas Druinen."

The old man turned angrilly about to rebuke the two foolish ladies. His son tried to intervene but quickly gave up when his father waved him off. Baldin turned back to the to travelers instead, speaking more loudly in order to make himself heard over the bickering between his father and the old woman.

"Nay, we cannot turn back. We shall go forward to whatever awaits us. You must do the same, however I do not think it probable that you will admitted inside the city gates by the time you arrive there. The guards will be under strict orders not to let anyone in or out when the king and his son arrives. You would do better anyway to return to Fennas Druinen. In this case I would gladly take you there in my wagon here."

Skylan looked at Ithilmo in dismay. Ithilmo frowned at the news but said nothing.

"That is ill news indeed!" replied Skylan. "I fear I must find a way into Tharbad, as my woman awaits me and anticipates my arrival. She will fret anxiously if I do not show up."

"I do not see how you will get in at this point, but who knows? If you have money enough you might bribe the guards at the north gate, yet you do not look to be wealthy enough by the looks of you."

"Nay, we are not wealthy men," replied Skylan with a sigh. "What about the south gate? It is there that I purposed to enter the city anyway."

"The guards are more suspicious down that way," said Baldin. "They have to be, as the road in that direction leads away south into the queer lands where folk can be dangerous. I would not risk offering them a bribe. They might very well arrest you and toss you into the stocks."

"But there has to be a way to get in! I must get in somehow." argued Skylan. His despondant tone evoked a scoffing giggle from the old man.

"Don't listen to my son. Try to bribe them," answered the old man, yet in a false tone. "You'll be alright. It is the only way to get inside the city until after the king goes home again. Come, Baldin! Away we must go!"

"I bid you good luck and farewell, fellow travelers," said Baldin. Then he acquiesced to his father's wishes and snapped the horse's reings loudly in the air, urging them forward once more. Ithilmo and Skylan stood aside and watched them go for several moments without speaking until their wagon disappeared on the far side of a rise in the terrain.

"What now?" asked Ithilmo gloomily. "Shall we turn back? If we decide to give up we must do so now before we progress any further."

"No, of course not!" replied Skylan anxiously. "Elwena will be expecting us. We must try and get into Tharbad somehow. At the least we might be able to hire someone to deliver a message to her."

"Maybe so. Yet if we fail in this we will have to reprovision ourselves before we turn back north again, as our food supply will run out before we make it back."

"I'm not too worried about it."

"That is because your belly is full right now."

"Then we will forage for food like a four-legged scavenger! We shan't perish out here, Ithilmo. You're always thinking about food! I marvel that you are not fat!"

"How many poor people do you know that are wide around the belly, Skylan? One must have money in order to get fat."

Skylan scarsely heard him. His bright cheerfulness had dimmed now. He missed Elwena and desperately wanted to see her again. He felt that there was little he would not do in order to get them onside the city walls of Tharbad. He would have to come up with some sort of plan over the next two days as they continued on to the southwest along the riverside. The thought of seeing many more disgruntled travelers leaving Cardolan was not very comforting now. They seemed to have run across a small stroke of luck with this family. Despite the discourteous old man they were content to pass them by in peace. But what about the next group of travelers they came across? Would they pass them by in peace once they discovered that they were from Rhudaur? Or would they rob them blind? Or even accost them physically? It seemed a risk they must take if they wished to continue. Ithilmo seemed to read his mind.

"What do you make of all this business about Tarandil's son marrying the Arthedainian woman?" he asked Skylan, who was shielding his eyes against a sudden gust of wind off of the wide river. He shrugged indifferently.

"Who cares? What is all of that to us, anyway?"

"Would an alliance between Arthedain and Cardolan be welcome where we come from?"

"Of course not."

"I thought not," said Ithilmo. "It might even be cause for a war. What a strange lot you Eriadorans are. You are ready to stain the soil red with each other's blood over petty feuds and possession rights over hills and towers and such."

Skylan looked back over at his friend sharply.

"Are you going to stand there and claim that you Rhovanions do not harbor feuds and squabbles among one another? I don't believe that for a minute."

"Aye, of course there are internal dissputes among our scattered folk. Rhovanion is vast and complex, Skylan. Yet it is seldom that blood is spilled over who gets to dwell on a particular hilltop. We argue and bicker sometimes, but it rarely comes down to spears and pikes. Yet here in Eriador men slay one another over matters of little consequence. Remember the merchant in Fennas Druinen last year who was found dead upon his front door step? Neighbors claim that he was murdered by a man they say quarreled with him the day before over the merchant's refusal to sell him a box of nails or something."

"Yes, I recall that. But I heard that it was because the merchant had made unwanted advances upon the man's wife the night before. Or was it his daughter? I forget now."

"That may be true or not," replied Ithilmo. "Yet even if it were so there is no justification of killing the man. A Rhovanion would at least challenge the offender openly to appeal his case before a man of proper authority among the tribe. If such a terrible crime like that were to happen back home the killer would be pursued relentlessly until caught and apprehended."

"Then they would kill him," Skylan offered aerilly.

"No," said Ithilmo flatly. "They would drag him back to be judged properly by the tribe's man of authority. If deemed to be guilty they would probably then set him in bonds - or else set him to work of some kind. Folk here always seem to be ready to quarrel over anything. It is especially bad for someone like me, since I am obviously from abroad. Few would even care that I am one quarter Dunedan. I am , in actuality, 'purer of blood' - as men here claim bigotedly - than they are themselves. The fact that I am not from Eriador immediately casts me into the realm of suspicion in their minds."

"Alas," said Skylan, "that all to often seems to be the case. But there is nothing to be done about it now, Ithy. The times are darkening and we are caught up in it. Yet I know little of such matters. It is not my business, I'm afraid. I am more interested in the business of love, if you take my meaning. Yet I will be quite out of the business of love soon if I do not get into Tharbad to see my Elwena."

Another gusty torrent from overland swept over them as they stood alone out in open lands of grass and shrubbery. Ithilmo grumbled as dust and debris got into his eyes. Though the air was far from being cold the increasing winds promised that the night ahead would be uncomfortably chill. Skylan suggested that they venture forwards for another short march and then seek cover down by the riverside at dusk. The escarpment that led down to the water's edge had grown increasingly shallow the further south they went along the river and both of them judged it safe enough now to scramble down its rocky slope. This they did just before calling it quits for the evening. Once down the embankment the two companions walked along the noisy river and breathed in the fresh air that swept out from the depths of the water. They found a sandy area that afforded them more room than any other area and sat down upon the rocks and waited for the evening tide to swell and ebb before judging it safe enough to strike what meager camp they could out in the wilds of lower Cardolan.

They discovered that they liked it better down by the water. Not only was the air very fresh and heartening but the breeze off the water kept the flying insects at bay. At their backs was a high embankment that offered them shelter from prying eyes and far across the width of the river, which seemed to grow ever wider the further south they went, they could see that the bank was greener than the western bank. There were a few springy bushes and cottonwood trees here along the bank, their cottony seedlings drifting wildly about the air in the wind. Ithilmo could smell their mild sweetness even from his distant vantage point. He breathed in deep and savored the air as he stood there and watched the water of the river raging along its southwestern course. He realized then that he was enjoying himself and he looked forward to the rest of the trip. It had been too long since he had taken a leave of absence from the dirty streets and alleys of Fennas Druinen.

They busied themselves with striking up a small campfire while Ithilmo prepared the fishing net that they had brought with them. Finding an outcropping of scattered boulders and rocks that led out into the river they clambered out as far as they dared and sat and waited for the nets to suddenly go taught. This they did for several minutes without success until Skylan began to grow impatient, suggesting that they forget about eating fish and instead rely on their dry rations for the evening. Ithilmo declined, adding that he had already had a taste for it in his mouth and did not wish to dissappoint his stomach with bland bread and cheese. Skylan left him and returned to the campfire before deciding to patrol the riverbank downstream beyond a bend in the river. He hoped to find a boat of some kind that might be left unguarded by its owner. If it were guarded for some reason he thought to try and pay the owner for its use.

Ithilmo possesed a high degree of patience. Few others were as well-endowed with the virtue as the young Rhovanion was, and he knew it. Skylan had frequently remarked on it as well. An hour had come and gone since he had first cast his net into the waters of the bubbling Gwathlo and he had nothing as of yet to show for it. Skylan still had not come back yet and the light was growing dimmer with each passing minute. Ithilmo gazed down-river along the bank where his friend had gone but the river-course bended back to the west which prevented him from seeing far. He decided not to worry about Skylan and concentrate instead on the task at hand: catching fish.

Ithilmo stared again at the swirling river as it flowed forward noisily. A shadow from overhead moved across the stones to his left and then on across the water quickly. Ithilmo looked up to see a large white heron gliding through the sky. It came to a halt as it landed itself upon the opposite bank of the river. Ithilmo watched it for several moments as the bird stood silent and still as it scanned the shallow waters for prey. Several moments went by without the creature moving so much as an inch. It was followed by several more minutes. Ithilmo smiled to himself, thinking that if he were a bird he would probably be just such a kind as that white heron.

The river itself almost reminded him of the mighty Anduin river that he had crossed once when he was still a boy. As he sat upon the rocks and waited for the net to catch hold of something he thought of his long journey with the caravan team from his homeland when he was still a boy. It was a fond memory - though he frequently wondered in frustration why he could not remember much of the mountain travel that he and his friends had made, and still less what had happened to him after he had become separated from the group. How many times since then over the years had he racked his brain with every effort to recall something of those events? So many he no longer counted them. Eventually he had decided to give up on it, telling himself that if the memories returned to him one day then he would deal with it when the time came - but not until then. Every once in a while brief scraps of mental images would come to him in short bursts, such as they did only a few hours ago. But such occurances were rare.

It was beginning to grow dark when Ithilmo finally began to resign himself that his stomach would have settle for dried rations again tonight. He patted his belly in sympathy and began to stand up again. But then a strange sensation came over him. His head suddenly felt light and his vision decidedly blurred. He quickly sat down again, thinking that he had risen to his feet too quickly after spending so long in a seated position. He rubbed his eyes in an attempt to remedy the queer feeling but instead of lessening the dizziness it instead hightened it. Then a sudden rush of a distant memory flashed across his sight again. It was a vision that was thrust upon him quickly - a mental image that penetrated his mind so suddenly and distinctly that is was as if a wall inside his head had at last been thrown down by some great force of detirmination. It was a recollection of his boyhood days after he had crossed the big mountains to the east, when most of his known memories were mostly of pain and misery while in his state of thralldom.

He saw himself laying prostrate on his stomach in the back of some sort of wagon as it rolled along a bumpy old road in a rainstorm. He recalled that there were numerous bags containing all sorts of grain and wheat that lay on top of him beneath a spread out tarp of canvas that was used to keep the merchandice dry in the rain. In short, he was hiding. He knew that he had been hiding and that his very life depended on his concealment. He knew that he had been terrified and also that whomever was driving the wagon had possessed full knowledge of his secret presence. The driver was taking him somewhere - to some destination that offered a chance of escape from his miserable and lonely predicament. Then Ithilmo knew that it had to be Rhudaur. Yes, he seemed to recall being released from his small chilly cell while in the old village of Tanoth Brin, which lay directly beneath the tall hillside where stood Cameth Brin, the seat of Denethil, King of Rhudaur. He had been deliberately set free - but by whom and for what reason? He could not recall being told that he was being released, nor could he quite remember who had opened his door. Yet someone certainly had unlocked it, that much seemed obvious. Ithilmo thought for a short moment before realizing that a man of considerable girth was heard outside his cell before the door was unlocked. He thought he remembered that the man spoke to him, but what had he said? He knew the voice was not menacing, nor did there seem to be any threat of deceit or wickedness in the man's actions. It was almost kindly.

Ithilmo blinked several times before rubbing his eyes. Then fate played a cruel trick on him. Just as the hopeful memory was slowly unravelling in his mind the fishing net he had set out just beyond the rocks upon which he now stood suddenly sprang to life. Ithilmo instinctively looked out at the net and saw at least two wild long-nosed carp thrashing about in a vain attempt to free themselves from their ensnarement. He paused for a moment as he watched the noisy scene. He felt confused and light-headed. It might have been because of this that Ithilmo was sure that had at least two or three more feet of solid rock beneath his feet that would support his weight. Not wanting his catch to escape from him, Ithilmo stepped forward and made to reach down to seize hold of the rope that would haul back on the net.

He immediately fell headlong into the rushing water, knocking his brow solidly against the side of a stone as he fell. A heavy dull pain throbbed in his head as he flailed his arms in a desperate attempt to regain control and grab hold of a rock or other handhold that would prevent him from being swept away into the center of the river. He quickly took in a mouthful of water as he tried to cry out for help and immediately began to cough. Before he knew it the rocky outcropping of boulders where his fishing net had been was a stone's throw away from him. His efforts were failing as he felt a stab of panic run through him. It was not that he could't swim, for he had always been a moderately skilled swimmer, nor was the water excessively chill, it still being late summer. But the Gwathlo still ran at a swift pace just south of the Angle, especially with the recent rains they had had in the region. The current was strong and Ithilmo had taken a blow to the head in his fall. He looked eagerly back over to the western bank where he had been. It was now far away and he knew that he would have to regain his composure immediately if he did not wish to drown...
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Celebrimbor32
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Sat Jan 30, 2010 3:17 pm

The sudden panic that had he had felt nearly overwhelm him upon plunging into the river was quickly in full retreat as Ithilmo realized he had better begin to move his arms and legs in order to stay above water. This he did without further delay and tried as best he could to regain the former shoreline. But the current had him firmly in its grip by now and subsequently he found himself drifting wildly into the middle of the river. He managed to scream twice for help before swallowing more water in a fit of coughing.

His legs and arms now pumped fervorishly as he attempted to swim. He had no idea for sure how deep the upper waters of the Gwathlo were, but he knew that it was at least the height of two or three men; likely deeper than that. Again he managed to cry for assistance, throwing in Skylan's name for added emphasis. He heard no reply. He managed to steal a glance over to the former bank again but could se no sign of his friend. By now he had begun to turn the corner where the river bent away towards the west. Already he was growing tired. His arms were beginning to ache. A few years ago he might have been able to stave off such physical weariness so soon, when he constantly found himself walking long distances from one town to the next. Often he would run agreat stretches, for the exercise gave him pleasure. But over the last two years he had settled in Fennas Druinen and had found himself a steady position as a cook and barhand at an inn there. His lengthy jaunts through the countryside and wilderness few and far between nowadays, as his job kept him busy. He had lost much of his bodily stamina since then through want of exercise.

Ithilmo tried to roll over on his back so that he could float more easily, which he deemed would at least give him a few moments respite from the constant paddling. But the river was too swift and turbulent for such casual drifiting and instead Ithilmo found himself sliding beneath the little waves. He heard himself cursing aloud as fear slowly gave way to anger and frustration. Where was Skylan? Why had he wandered off so far from the original place of their encampment? These questions passed brisky through his mind as he rolled over and resumed his meager attempts at swimming the Gwathlo.

He had no clear idea how long he had been at this aquatic misery as he continued to tumble downstream. It was very rapidly growing dark by now, as he could plainly see from the sky above him. Even if Skylan were ahead of him on the former riverbank he might very well not even see Ithilmo float by him all the way out in the middle of the river. He could not understand why it was so terribly hard to swim in the direction he desired to go. He now felt that his body was becomming dangerously cold as he remained submerged in the river. He began to think of his homeland and his mother - the very same mother he had not seen now in over six years. He suddenly felt immensely guilty for not making a greater attempt to crossing the Misty Mountains in order to go home and see her again. He had neglected her. Would he die here in the river this evening? Would he eventually grow too tired to continue swimming and instead just close his eyes and let himself sink to the bottom of the riverbed? What an inglorious way to perish, he thought. How loathsome an end it would be.

"No!" he cried aloud suddenly. "I shall not drown! I will not die tonight!"

Ithilmo felt a renewed sense of vigor flow into him suddenly. He immediately resumed his efforts to regain the shore again. Then he saw something in the gloom appear off to his right - towards the former shoreline. It was a cluster of rocks with a large dead piece of fallen timber wedged in between the boulders. Without giving it a second thought Ithilmo began pumping his arms and legs in a furious motion in the water. He would reach that little haven amidst the river or die in the attempt, he thought.

On and on he swam. Just as he feared he could not keep it up a moment longer he felt his had slap against cold wet stone. He had made it. He had reached the rocks. He grasped hurredly for a stable purchase as he sought to raise himself out of the water. Having successfully achieved this Ithilmo crawled out onto the large broken timber and threw his arms about its girth for support. There he lay upon his stomach, coughing and panting like a hunted dog. He felt himself shivering with cold now. But at least he was out of the river. He could take a few moments to rest in relative safety now.

It was not long before he heard the sound of distant voices. They were coming from downriver. It sounded like they were slowly coming closer. Ithilmo's first reaction was to call immediately for help. Though he was safe for the moment he could just see in the half-light of late dusk that he was still a good distance from the shore. He would much rather have someone rescue him by boat than to have to resume swimming again and risk being swept out into the river again. If the voices belonged to folk that were hostile than he would be putting himself into more jeopardy, admittedly. yet he felt he had little choice in the matter so he sat himself up upon the large broken tree limb and hailed the voices.

He immediately saw two points of light coming toward him from downriver. It was obviously a boat with a hooded lantern on its prow and its stern. The vessel began to look familiar as it drew closer to his position amid the rocky sanctuary. It looked to be a fifteen foot drifter of some kind; the type of small single-sail river vessel that the fisherman of Fennas Druinen or many of the other smaller river communities up river were wont to employ to fish for herring. Ithilmo then realized that this approaching boat was one of the two vessels that he and Skylan had seen from the path earlier in the afternoon. He recognized it by the unusually long bowsprit that extended out from the prow. He knew not who these folk could be or where they might be from - whether from Rhudaur or Cardolan, or perhaps some other locale. But he needed assistance and would try and befriend whomever it might be.

"Hail there!" cried a loud crisp voice in the Common tongue of the west from the front deck. "Who are you and what might you be doing out here in the river without a boat?"

Ithilmo detected a note of alarm in the man's voice, as if he were anticipating trouble. Ithilmo made his reply sound desperate, which was not a difficult thing to do in his predicament.

"Please help me! I am in need of assistance!"

"Were you trying to swim the river?" asked another voice.

"Yes! I fell in and was swept away by the current. I am quite stranded where I am! Will you help me regain the shore?"

The man called out that he would be drawing nearer very soon and asked Ithilmo who he was and where he was from. Ithilmo thought he detected a foreign accent on the man's speech, but could not ascertain what kind. Yet when the second voice called out that a small rowing boat would come out to him Ithilmo quickly recognized that familiar Angle-draw on his consonants; sort of a rolling movement of the tongue that gave uneeded stress to them. One of the men asked Ithilmo to identify himself. When he complied he suddenly heard a familiar voice answer him.

"You have chosen a queer time and place indeed to practice your backstroke, Ithy! You're lucky you didn't drown yourself out here!"

Ithilmo instinctively felt wrathful at Skylan for turning up out of the dark in this manner and so suddenly. He would have rebuked him instantly for it had he not detected something strange in his friend's tone - a trace of haste mingled with alarm.

"What happened?" asked Skylan, his shadowy face just now coming into view by way of the lantern light.

"I fell," retorted Ithilmo smartly. "I fell in and hit my head trying to catch your dinner! Get me out of here!"

For the first time Ithilmo quickly remember the blow he took to his head. He reached up to his temple and felt the bruise. There was no blood, or at least there seemed not to be, but he could already feel it swelling up at the spot of impact. His head ached and he was cold.

Ithilmo then heard the men aboard the vessel asking Skylan questions - in regard to himself, no doubt. They must have been satisfied with his asnwers since the drifter was now only a stone's throw away. Due to the danger of hidden rocks in the shallower waters where Ithilmo sat stranded amidst the river the vessel would not come any closer. But Skylan and another man began rowing a small rowboat out to fetch him in the dark. Once they drew within arm's length Ithilmo slowly placed himself back into the river where his friend quickly hoisted him over the side and into the rescue craft.

"What do you have to say for yourself, Skylan?" asked Ithilmo irritably as he sat miserably upon one of the plank-seats, soaking wet and dripping with water. Skylan handed him a a large cloth to dry himself with.

"I went to look for a boat, as I told you. What else? And here I have found one. But how did you fall into the river? I have never known you to possess feet that fumble. Nor were the rocks upon where you fished lofty of elevation! What happened?"

This latter comment was a deliberate jab at Ithilmo's fear of high places, and the young Rhovanion took offense to it.

"Do not jest with me, Skylan. I am in no mood for it."

"Nor am I, Ithilmo," replied Skylan without smiling, "nor was I making jest of you. I am glad indeed to see that you are alright, despite your bruised head. Yet we have somewhat of a grim situation upon our hands at present, I'm afraid."

Ithilmo looked at him in silence, blinking rapidly as water seaped down into his eyes from his long dank hair. He was about to speak again but the man who had accompanied Skylan spoke first.

"Where are you from?" The question was asked pointedly and was laced with suspicion. "You speak like a foreign man. Are you from Cardolan?" This last designation of place was uttered with disdain. The man himself, however, was unremarkable. He was rather young and of modest of stature and height, or else he looked to be in the growing darkness of the river. He wore a tight fitting grey skull-cap upon his head, which in turn only partially concealed a full head of dark hair beneath it. He was long-nosed and thin-limbed, and spoke out of the side of his mouth, which might have been almost comical in another time and place.

"Yes, I am a foreign man," replied Ithilmo, looking directly into the man's eyes in challenge. This question was already beginning to annoy him by now. The man waited for Ithilmo to reveal where he was from, but when no answer was forthcoming and in the face of Ithilmo's penetratin gaze the man smirked and looked back out at the water. The man spoke again, but without meeting Ithilmo's eyes.

"From what realm do you hail from, mister? Me and my mates aboard have a right to know if we are going to take you down to Tharbad as agreed. Are you Cardolani?"

"I might be," replied Ithilmo woodenly and with defiance. Skylan quickly intervened.

"No, he is not from Cardolan, nor am I, as I told you before. I am from Rhudaur, as is my friend here. We both come from Fennas Druinen."

"What business do you have down in Tharbad?" the man asked.

"I told you already," replied Skylan, who had already made mention of his intentions to see Elwena and her father.

"I was asking your friend, here." He looked back at Ithilmo in the gloom as he rowed. "Do you also have a woman you intend to see in the city? Think you're going to get lucky, do you? Perhaps you will, in a place like Tharbad. Or perhaps you seek work there - like most of the outsiders coming into town."

"I have private business there, if you must know - personal matters to attend to." Ithilmo replied without taking his gaze away from the young fellow, who he thought was trying to be tougher than he really was. The man smiwked at him.

"You might as well tell me, as once you are aboard our boat the skipper will insist on knowing what sort of folk he has now taken aboard his drifter."

"I go to learn tidings of my mother, who is back home and unable to travel so far abroad. Does that satisfy you?"

The man cocked his head sideways and spat out over the narrow railing and into the water. He shruigged his shoulders again.

"Don't mean anything to me, stranger," he said indifferently. "You sure you two aren't poachers or anything like that? If you are you had better start swimming right now. The skipper hates poachers and will thrash you senseless if he thinks that you are lying to him."

The man seemed unconvinced about Ithilmo, though he said nothing more about it. Skylan and the stranger both rowed the little boat back out to the mother vessel amid the encroaching darkness. As they went Ithilmo questioned Skylan as to what he meant by his refernce to their 'unfortunate situation'.

"There is a badly injured man aboard their ship."

"So," remarked Ithilmo, deliberately injecting icy indifference in his voice. "What of it?"

"I told them we could render him assistance if we can get to Tharbad," said Skylan as he went on rowing.

"Don't they know of anyone themselves that may help him?"

"They probably do," said Skylan, "but they can't go to them now; it is a long story. I am sure they will tell you something of it once they get us on board.

"Just how do you propose that we will be able to help them?"

"Elwena's father, of course!" said Skylan as a matter of fact. "He is a skilled herbalist and owns his own apothecary! How many times do I have to remind you, Ith?"

Another one of Skylan's lies, thought Ithilmo to himself silently as he quickly figured out by the sharp glance that his friend shot him as soon as he had spoken. Ithilmo already knew, or at least knew by what Skylan had told him when they were alone, that Elwena's father was indeed an herbalist, but owned a tea house and not an apothecary. He knew Skylan well enough by now that he would goad these men into believing whatever story he concocted in order to further his own ends. As usual, Ithilmo went along with it.

"So what happened to their man?" asked Ithilmo as he wrapped the heavy cloth around himself.

"He fell and hit his head," the stranger said hastily. "Slipped and fell smack in the river - striking his forehead on the rafters in the process."

"Just as I did a short while ago!" retorted Ithilmo, feeling his bruised and swollen temple with his hand. "What sort of help shall I receive?"

"They will get you fixed up too, Ithilmo," replied Skylan. "But their man is worse off, I am afraid. He is only barely conscious as it is."

"Your friend here says that you and he know a proper healer down in Tharbad. In return for us ferrying you down river you will take our friend to your contact immediately upon reaching the docks. That is the deal. Do your friends inside the city know that you are coming?"

"Indeed so!" answered Skylan. "They contacted me by way of written message and invited me and my friend here to come and stay with them. They said for us to hurry down river so we would be there in time to see the king and all! Though I doubt not that Tarandil will keep himself tucked away pretty safely and out of sight from commoners such as us."

Ithilmo sighed to himself after his friend had finished speaking. Why did Skylan always insist on rambling on so much with strangers? He felt that there was no reason why this uncouth man should be privy to their private business. He especially should not go around making remarks of any kind about the King of Cardolan when tensions between the three sister-kingdoms were so obviously strained as they were now. He thought he saw the young sailor shoot Skylan a barely noticable queer glance at his friend's words, but in the gathering darkness he could not be sure. Ithilmo rolled his eyes in annoyance as he looked at Skylan, who kept looking out towards the drifter as he rowed. He obviously had no idea that he was wont to put his foot in his mouth. Ithilmo volunteered no more small talk as they went, and fortunately neither did Skylan or the young stranger.

Both Skylan and the young fisherman relaxed their oars as they drew alongside the drifter. The light emanating from the lantern that was perched upon the bow of the vessel shone down into the little rowboat and into Ithilmo's eyes, forcing him to squint and shield his brow with his hand in order to see. He could tell that two men were there looking down at him and Skylan with curiosity, though their faces were still invisible due to the excessive light shining down. A rope ladder was tossed down to them from above. Once the three of them were on board the deck of the drifter and the lifeboat was restored to its proper place Ithilmo and Skylan were asked (or ordered, rather) to take a seat upon a long wooden bench that had been fastened to a length of the small forecastle, which looked to be used mainly as a small storage area where the fishermen kept various poles and nets and such. The thin man who had rowed the boat gave the pair of them one more glance before he and another fellow, whose face was partially obscured by a black paper mask that covered his nose and mouth, left them in the care of their skipper. This man, who after finally dragging up the anchor-chain by way of a small pulley, exhaled loudly and stood a few feet away from the two newcomers who sat together upon the bench. He was not a large man by most standards, though his belly protruded somewhat over his belt. He, too, wore a grey skullcap over his thinning tufts of greying hair which stuck out from beneath the cap along the man's ears. He was heavily bearded, brown-eyed and thick-nosed. What he lacked in height he seemed to make up for with his strong arms, which were bare all the way up to his shoulders. Skylan guessed he must be out of Dunland in the south - those folk whom most men referred to as Dunlendings. Skylan had never bore any love to the people of that country. Ithilmo felt nothing in particular towards the man himself, though the alarmed look on his face made the skipper smile ammusedly. When the man spoke he had a way of flinching his left eye nervously and, most likely, uncontrolably.

"Your friend here," said the skipper to Ithilmo, "says that you and he know of a good leech in Tharbad that can help our old friend."

The man paused so that Ithilmo could respond. But Ithilmo had no way of knowing what Skylan had already told them and what other lies he had concocted, so instead of replying Ithilmo merely shrugged his shoulders and gave the man a faint nod before using a corner of his towel to wipe at his wet nose.

"Have you not been informed of our plight? I thought that he would have told you about it as you rowed over to us."

"Indeed, so," spoke up Skylan. "Yes, your mate informed us as to the unfortunate events that occured to you recently. We are sorry to hear of it!"

The skipper looked back at Ithilmo as if expecting him to voice his support to Skylan's sympethetic words, but Ithilmo still held out. Skylan spoke again instead.

"We do indeed know of just the man who can render your companion the healing that he will need in his recovery. But we must get to Tharbad..."

Here the skipper held up his hand in gesture of silence.

"Let your friend speak! What is your name, sir, and how did you get yourself lost in the river without a boat?"

Ithilmo began to speak, then stopped short to clear his throat.

"I hit my head upon some rocks as I was reaching for my fishing net. Then I fell into the river and was swept away. We must return up the river to where we were preparing to camp for the night. All of our gear and my cooking pans are still back where we left them. Can we not turn around so that we may quickly fetch them? It shan't take but a moment or two."

"Of course not!" said the Dunlending coarsely. "I haven't a care in the world for your cooking pots, sir. How dare you ask such a ridiculous question of me! Do you think I risked our own life and limbs out here merely to take the time to pluck you out of your predicament and ferry you around in this river just so you can collect your leavings? They are lost to you now! Other needs press us tonight. Earlier we were assaulted by rival fishermen unlawfully and must hasten away at once. We successfully fended them off the first time, but should not be so lucky if we encounter them again out here so far north. They outnumber us and will almost certainly pursue us down river. If they catch us again they will try to kill us all without delay, and you two as well! I believe I asked you your name?"

Ithilmo felt chilled with his wetness and his head still ached. He had no desire to banter words with this man so he complied meekly.

"I am called Ithilmo. And since you are sure to ask, I will tell you now that, yes, I am a foreigner. I have been dwelling In Fennas Druinen for a while but I was born in the far country in the east, across the mountains."

"'Ithilmo', eh?" said the skipper, his eye twitching again. "Sounds like a northern name to me. You certainly look like a northerner - well sort of, I suppose. Yet that isn't your real name, is it? You changed it after you settled down here, I'll wager. Most foreigners do, especially if they are in some kind of trouble back home. They flee their homes and come down here to bother us decent folk. Cardolan is a haven for maggots, alas. Now tell me your proper name. Whatever it is I shan't hold it against you."

Ithilmo squinted up at the man who stood over them authoritatively. He suddenly felt a chill run down his spine at the question. He felt that this thuggish man could not be trusted very far, and ordinarilly Ithilmo might have given him an alias name but Skylan had already blurted out his true name and it would be no use making one up now, whatever assurances this skipper might give them.

"I have no other name to offer you, sir," replied Ithilmo calmly. "'Ithilmo I was called by my mother as a babe and 'Ithilmo' I remain to this day."

The Dunlending stared at him blankly for a few seconds until the thin man who had rescued him by row boat came up next to the skipper and whispered something into his ear so that neither Ithilmo nor Skylan could hear them. The man then tossed Ithilmo a dry towel that he had gone to fetch for him before walking away again.

"So be it, then - "Ithilmo'," he said seriously. "I shall move on quickly, as we have little time available to hold a parley out here. I wish to know why you and Skylan desire to meet the king of Cardolan. I am told that you have claimed to be from Rhudaur..."

Skylan immediately jumped in here.

"We did not wish to come to Tharbad merely to see the king! Your man has erred in telling you this. We only desire to come to Tharbad so that I may visit my woman and my friend here wishes to learn tidings of his dear mother back home. The fact that the king of Cardolan will be visiting the city at this time is nothing more than coincidence."

"Yet you have already stated that your invitation to come thither urged you to make haste so that you may see the king ere he departs from the city. Is that not true?"

"Perhaps so," argued Skylan, "but the words in the said letter were not written by me. I cannot be expected to have any power over the opinions or thoughts of others in such documents that are penned by others! Yet what of it, anyway? What if I had indeed expressed a desire to see the king? Many people have such desires to see him."

"Few Rhudaurans, or least those that are true of heart to their own kingdom, express an eagerness to see the king of Cardolan. Why should they want to see such a loathsome rascal anyway? Unless they are spies or even worse."

"Worse, say you?" said Skylan again. "Do you mean 'assassins'? Do the two of us look to be in any condition to be assassins? A ridiculous notion!"

Ithilmo thought it best if he intervened again before Skylan talked himself into a new web of lies.

"Lord, I assure you that my friend here and I are nothing more than young and, perhaps, naive travelers out of Fennas Druinen who wish nothing more than to visit Tharbad on personal business of our own. We really haven't, as you say, a 'care in the world' whether or not the king of Cardolan is there or not. We would ask that you allow us to accompany you down river at least to the outskirts of the city, if not beyond. Yet if you think it better that you and your men not be seen ferrying us thither than perhaps you had better row us back to the shore so Skylan and I can get on with our long walk."

The Dunnish skipper of the vessel stared at Ithilmo for a moment until the thin-faced young man again returned to his side. He had a stern look of consternation upon his face, as if some new and unexpected turn of events had occured recently. He again whispered something inaudible into his skipper's ear. The man then shot the two strangers a suspicious glance before being ordered away by the skipper to take to the rudder after tacking the sail to larboard in order to adjust to the shifting breeze, which had already died down considerably by now. Ithilmo looked up and behind him as he heard the heavy beam of the square sail swing over from one side of the boat to the other. He immediately felt the craft shift in it's wayward course, its speed gradually increasing accordingly. The skipper stepped over to the sternrail and steadied the lightpost that held the lantern steady. He directed its light out upon the rolling waters behind them as if he was looking for enemy pursuit. Ithilmo wondered who the man feared might be following them. He ventured to inquire who it might be to the skipper, but the brutish man ignored him. Presently, the Dunlending addressed them again as he again stood before them on the bench.

"Who are the people that you know in Tharbad and what are their names? Hurry now, as I have other matters to attend to!"

"Elwena is the name of my woman," answered Skylan with a sigh of irritation. He was beginning to weary of this man's line of questioning by now. "She works for her father, whose name is Bernan. He is an herbalist, as I have already mentioned. He runs his own tea house in the city and is a respected resident there. How long do you think it shall be before we at last reach the outer limits of Tharbad? Will we make it by dawn? I am prone to sea sickness at night when it gets this dark."

The bearded Dunlending scratched his hairy chin at these words, as if pondering over some riddle. His eye twitched nervously again as he thought. Skylan thought to himself how justified the general prejudiced notion held by the Dunedain was of the stupidity of the men out of Dunland. He had known of one other Dunlending back home who also narrowed his brow and scratched his chin when trying to think about any random perplexity that happened to enter his mind. That man too, he recalled, had about as much wit as a drunkard who might attempt to pay a liquor bill while inebriated.

"So this man, 'Bernan', you say," continued the skipper, "owns his own tea house as well as an apothecary? He must be wealthy indeed!"

This threw Skylan off his guard. He knew right away that he had fumbled his fabricated storyline but tried to gloss over the apparent discrepency.

"Apothecary?" he asked the question as if he were confused. "Oh heavens no! He owns a tea house, yes, but not the apothecary. However he does, as a matter of fact, own a share of his mate's store, but he is not the sole proprietor of it. I believe your man has mixed my words again. Twice in one night! Are you sure that man is qualified to crew a vessel like this with you? His tongue must be as faulty as his ears, as I am sure I did not misspeak when I spoke to him. He must be Cardolani at heart! What a rogue!"

The sarcastic question angered the burly Dunlending, and as a result of it the skipper reached out and seized Skylan by his collar and forcibly raised him up from his seated position upon the bench next to Ithilmo. This surprised and alarmed Skylan conciderably, and he was even more startled when the man dragged him over to the very brink of the siderailing, where the skipper held Skylan in check with his strong hands upon the back of his neck. He forced Skylan to lean overboard in a show of forceful intimidation. Ithilmo quickly stood up but refrained from rushing to his friend's aid when a third man, who still wore a black mask over his mouth, came up beside him with a short bladed sword in hand and held it menacingly towards him.

"You must remain seated until the skipper says you are to be released! Sit down!" Ithilmo immediately complied with the order. He could see in the lantern light that the man was bare-headed and was balding rapidly, despite his relatively younger age. He too sported an unkept beard, which poked around the edges of his mask. He was taller than his skipper but more lithe of frame. Ithilmo took him for another Dunlending, but wasn't altogether sure. His complexion was what chiefly struck Ithilmo as odd, as even in the dim lighting he could see that the man was almost deathly white in appearance, particularly around the eyes and cheeks. Overall, he made a most unwholesome subject to behold. No doubt, thought Ithilmo, he was afflicted with some sort of ailment or sickness, which would also explain the need for a mask. Ithilmo had begun to fear that he and Skylan had fallen in with a group of villainous thieves or pirates. He also suddenly recalled where he had seen this vessel before. He remembered the bluish coloring of the bowsprit as one of the two vessels he and Skylan had witnessed quarreling with one another back up river earlier in the day. His thoughts were interupted by the deep voice of the angry skipper.

"Do you think I need to be wasting my time with lowly beach-combers such as you two?" the man said harsly to Skylan, as the latter was close enough to the water of the river to smell it.

"I could easily bind you up and toss you overboard to be rid of you if I wished it! Your friend here would be made to watch perforce while you sank to the bottom of the Gwathlo like a stone. You Rhudauran swine! You had better watch your insolent mouth from here on out or that indeed will be your fate!"

Skylan, who was now amazed and horrified by such sudden rage and vehemence that spewed out from this Dunlending brute, felt the force by which he was held in check by the man's hands, tighten up upon the back of his neck. In desperation, Skylan hastily softened his tone and dared to pose a question to his violent interrogator.

"Forgive me, lord! How do I offend?"

"Stop calling me your 'lord'," the man snarled. "I am the lord of no man! We leave such indignant and self-righteous titles to the nobiltiy. I am a humble fisherman! Yet I know the difference between an honorable man and one who embraces deception and lies! You have been caught lying through your teeth to us. I might have expected as much from a Rhudauran! You're just like that miserable upstart of a king of yours! Your forked tongues will be your undoing once Vorondil takes the crown from his father one day!"

"Aye indeed!" remarked the thin-faced man in enthusiastic agreement. He had now come up next to his masked companion, who still held Ithilmo in check by way of naked steel. "May that day come none to soon! Down with Denethil!"

The skipper then hoisted Skylan up and back over the railing before shoving him back in his seat upon the bench next to Ithilmo. Ithilmo looked askance to his friend and asked him if he was alright. Skylan nodded but said nothing. He looked utterly confused by this strange turn of events. He had looked so hopeful when Ithilmo had rejoined him in the row boat after being rescued. It seemed that their journey looked to suddenly become much simpler after the luxury of the boat sighting. But now it was obvious that they had taken up with an undesirable lot. They had little time to ponder over their predicament, however, for both of them quickly found themselves bound tightly by leather coils around their wrists, which were placed behind their backs to further their imobility. They then found themselves forced down a short and narrow flight of steps that led beneath the main deck. They were quickly stowed inside one of two small cabins (for their were only two fitted with the small craft). They sat upon the floor next to a long oblong crate of wood that had a straw matress atop its length. Before the two henchmen left them Skylan decided he had nothing to lose by asking questions.

"So all of you are from Cardolan, I assume?"

"Not all of us," replied the thin-faced lad. "I am a Cardolanian, but not the skipper. Nor was old Gruffyd, our injured companion whom you saw earlier. But he is dead now, so the aid for him that you promised us is no longer of any use to us. Both of you have suddenly become expendable."

He left the words hanging in mid-air just to see if the two prisoners would react accordingly. Ithilmo sat motionless against the wall and merely turned away from the two men. But Skylan now began to fear for their very lives and could not hide his look of genuine concern for their situation. The thin-faced man scoffed at him.

"Had you both fooled, didn't we?" he said with a slim grin. "Thought we were Rhudauran scum like yourselves, eh? I would have chucked both of you into the river if I had had my way, you know," he remarked without much emotion. "I think you and every other whelp that comes out of Rhudaur these days are little better than maggots that need to be squashed. You people are detroying what is left of the old days, when the men from all corners of Arnor were decent and respectable. Well, things will be set to rights soon enough. Tarandil won't live forever, and when he passes his son will restore Cardolan to the dignity it had known before his rise."

"I fail to see why either one of us should pose any threat to you or your skipper," said Skylan from his seated position on the floor. "We certainly bear no ill-will towards Cardolan. Quite the opposite, actually. We truly only desire to visit Tharbad on personal business. I care nothing for the politics between the two kingdoms."

"Save your breath!" retorted the man, who now strode over to the door to make his exit. "Yet you needn't fear for your lives at present. Yet after you are turned over to the Guard of the Prince who can say? Often times they hang spies and illegal infiltrators and such. All I know is that we shall unburden ourselves of you in the city and collect our fee before going our own way again. You two are not the first Rhudauran dogs we have caught trying to steal your way into the city, you know. Last week we rounded up a group of four thieves from your Fennas Druinen. Now we have two more of you to add to our collection. Perhaps we should appreciate you dogs up there for providing us with the necessary means to make a living. Tis good money, I assure you!"

"Enough idle banter!" said the man wearing the mask. "We must prepare Gruffyd's body for the river burial at once. Come, Cynan!"

With that the man with the mask left the room. His companion made to exit the room as well, but Skylan spoke once more.

"One more thing, I pray you, Cynan!" he said aloud. The thin-faced man sighed with irritation before halting again. He turned to look at Skylan.

"Do not call me by my name again! I have not given you permission to do so!"

"I was only about to ask why your companion wears a mask. That is all!"

"He is ill, if you must know. Has a deadly disease, he does! It is quite contagious, too. Just being in close proximity with him puts one at risk. And now both of you risk infection."

"As do you," quipped Ithilmo, speaking for the first time. Cynan looked darkly down at him for a moment before stepping back into the room. He came up before Ithilmo and squatted down closer to him as an act of intimidation.

"My body already plays host to the sickness, fool. Of what use is such a mask to me now? I will grow ill, no doubt, but I do not fear it."

"Does the disease also befuddle the mind as well as the body? I certainly deemed it must be so judging by your dull and insipid speech."

The insult was taken by the man directly as a personal insult, which was obviously the way Ithilmo had intended it to be taken. Skylan looked over at Ithilmo in surprise and alram at his words but said nothing. Cynan's eye grew darker as a flash of wrath pulsed through him. Ithilmo saw that one of the man's veins upon his forehead throbbed slightly in his anger. He was surprised to hear himself utter such provacative words to this ruffian in his own unfavorable predicament. Ordinarily he would have remained compliant and, admittedly, somewhat timid in the face of his present danger and most likely would have remained silent. But he, too, felt a tide of anger swell up inside himself at these men. further still, Ithilmo somehow guessed that this wirey thug possessed more bark than actual bite. Cynan seemed unsure of what to say in reply to Ithilmo for a moment, but eventually opted for verbal threats.

"If you speak but once more I shall cut out your Rhudauran tongue and use it as bait for the fish. Do your ears hear me now, foreigner?"

"I am not Rhudauran!" snarled Ithilmo unwisely, his anger getting the better of him by now. "Cannot your Cardolanian ears hear my words well enough by now?"

The thin-faced thug grew more wrathful at this and he slapped Ithilmo across the face, forcing the latter to flinch as he swiveled his neck sideways. Then Cynan reached down to his belt and drew out a knife and held it up before Ithilmo's neck. With this Skylan became despondant, and cried aloud for Cynan to pause and take mercy on his companion's foolish mouth, and to forgive his friend, who had never done any harm to anyone before. His words must have had at least a marginal effect on him, or else the man had been merelty bluffing, as Ithilmo guessed. Cynan resheathed his dagger and gazed at Ithilmo in silence for a moment. His glance was one of total disgust. Then he spat in Ithilmo's face before standing up again, seizing the only lantern in the room that provided light. He made his exit, slamming the door shut after him. The two prisoners were now in darkness, for it had since become quite dark outside. Skylan relaxed himself and exhaled in relief. Ithilmo tried to rub his slimy cheek up against the wall of the cabin to clean himself free of it. Again it was Skylan who broke the uncomfortable silence in the dark.

"That was a close call! Looks like you owe me one, Ith. I'm shocked at you and your ill choice of insults at such a moment. Do you wish to get us both killed?"

"If you have nothing more intelligent to say than that you had best remain silent, Skylan! All of this is your fault anyway. Why did you have to hail these foul people in the first place? You should have kept yourself hidden. We could have easily have walked to Tharbad."

"Oh, stop it, Ithilmo. You would have done the same in my place. There was no way of knowing that they were false! They befriended me and offered to help us on our way. There was nothing untoward about them at first."

"You might have at least untangled your cache of lies before you opened your mouth," rebutted Ithilmo. "Why do you do that so much? Why are you so prone to untruths?"

"I only do so when I feel that I must," answered Skylan defiantly. "And when I do my false truths are benign enough so that no one shall get hurt. They are harmless enough unless the recipient of them overreacts."

Though he knew that Ithilmo could not see him he forced a meager smile upon his face but Ithilmo was not about to reconcile.

"Tis a senseless answer, Skylan. You indeed are often senseless man." There was a pause as both men contemplated their plight. After a moment longer Skylan offered his old friend his apologies.

"Never mind, Skylan," replied Ithilmo as he struggled to find a comfortable position with his hands tied behind his back. He yawned. He suddenly felt very tired - tired and hungry.

They had never gotten around to eating any of their rations from their packs before they had run into mishap. Who knew when they would get their next meal? One thing seemed certain, however; they would indeed soon be in Tharbad, but not as free men as they would have expected. They were now in the grasp of a group of unpredictable ruffians who seemed intent of handing them both over to the authorites in Tharbad as spies. Yet who were these authorities that the wirey man made reference to? The Guard of the Prince? What Guard could that be? They assumed that he meant the guard of Prince Vorondil, but nothing could be certain. Skylan felt the need to express his disappointment at the way things had turned out for them so early on in their cross-country excursion.

"Perhaps we should have taken that rosy-cheeked fellow's advice and returned to Fennas Druinen with him and his family. Then we might have returned to Tharbad with him in the safety of greater numbers."

"Perhaps," admitted Ithilmo stoically in the dark. More silence ensued as the two travelers sat upon the floor of the cabin in their bonds, leaning up against the makeshift bed. They could feel the gentle swaying of the boat back and forth as the vessel slid down the waters of the Gwathlo toward its seaward destination, far away and many miles to the south and west. Occasionally they could hear the muffled voices of the three remaining crew members up on deck, but their voices were too distant to make out the words.

"How is your head?" asked Skylan, desiring to break the silence. Ithilmo's reply was soft and cheerless.

"It hurts. It still throbs painfully."

"You need something cold on it to bring down any swelling. Something to eat would help you, too. I wonder if they will bother to feed us soon?

"I would not count on it," said Ithilmo. "Tharbad can't be more than a few hours distant by ship, so they will probably wait for our future jailers to feed us - or our executioners."

"Stop that ugly course of talk, Ithilmo. We shall not be executed, whatever they decide to do with us. We have not done anything wrongful to deserve it!"

"Do you think that will prevent them from hanging us, Skylan? If these men belong to Vorondil's troupe than I should not expect too much mercy from them. I
know little of the King's Heir, but what I have heard is not flattering. Folk say that he is possessed by his desires for conquest, and despises the king of Rhudaur."

"Aye, so the rumors say," admitted Skylan. "I am sure that he will make things as unpleasant as possible for Rhudaur one day after he succeeds his father. But we have no control over such things so I would rather not skulk over them now. Yet I do not fear death by hanging anytime soon. I do not think that our destiny lies at the end of a rope."

"I only know," said Ithilmo wearily, "is that our immediate fate is likely to grow darker the closer we get to Tharbad. Once again I am fated to dwell in a stone cell, seemingly."

"You persist in forecasting the worst, it seems, so I shall not attempt to gainsay you now."

"You should try and sleep, Skylan. Sleep while you can. You may lay down on this bed if you wish."

"What about you?"

"I am not sleepy," lied Ithilmo. Even as the words were spoken he yawned again. Skylan sighed at his friend's stubborness but did not refuse the bed. He stood up and lay down on it.

"Ithilmo, I would also ask that you try not to succumb to despair at this point. Giving in to melancholy now will avail us little. You must know that things will be alright for us. There is always a light that shines at the end of every tunnel, however dark it may seem."

Ithilmo said nothing at first, preferring instead to sit and think. He tried to make sense of what was happening to them, but lacked the necessary knowledge and insight to do so effectively, so he gave up. Instead he again turned his thoughts to the strange recollection he had begun to recall just before he fell into the river and hit his head.

"Skylan? Are you still awake?" he asked quietly.

"Barely so."

"I did not get to tell you," he paused again. "I had a strange vision just before I plunged into the river and hit my head. I think it was a vision of my past - when I was a boy lurking miserably in the Rhudauran cell in Cameth Brin."

"Cameth Brin?" asked Skylan curiously as he sought to ward off sleep for just a while monger in order to listen to his old friend. "How do you know?"

"It had to be Cameth Brin. There is nothing else it could be. I seem to remember being left alone in the cell for a long time without even the usual unfriendly visit from the guards. I was simply left completely alone - perhaps for days - without food or anything to drink. It was very cold. I think I grew weak, for there was nothing i could do save try and sleep and wait for death to come."

Here he paused for a while. At length Skylan sleepily asked him if he recalled anything more.

"I remember waking from a dark dream in the cell when suddenly the lock on the door was loosed and the door slowly opened. I looked up as I shivered and saw a tall man looking down on me. I don't know who he was. But he beckoned me to make haste and flee with him. I think I was too weak to comply, for he came towards me and raised me up under my arms and carried me away."

Again Ithilmo paused in the dark as he pondered and tried to remember more. The sound of the skipper barking some sort of sudden order out to his two mates could suddenly be heard up on deck, but Ithilmo was too deep in thought to heed them. Presently he spoke again to his friend.

"The only other thing I seem able to recall right now is waking up face down in the back of some sort of transport wagon with many sacks of grain and old cloths piled over me. I could not tell where I was going, nor exactly who was driving the horse-led wagon. Yet I seemed to feel confident that the driver was a friend and that my horrible ordeal was at last coming to an end. I might have even remembered who the man was if I had not fallen into the river and hit my head on the rocks. What do you make of that?"

There was no reply save the sound of the rigging of the sail above slapping gently against the lone wooden mast of the drifter. He called Skylan's name once, but again there was no reply. He had fallen asleep. Ithilmo began to let out another sigh but it quickly turned into a ear-splitting yawn. He let himself lay prostrate upon the floor next to the narrow bed where Skylan now slept. The last thing he was aware of before he fell asleep was the gentle sound of little waves slapping into the hull of the boat which seemed to resemble the sound of many small hands beating rhythmically upon one large and somber drum of sleep.
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Thu Feb 11, 2010 2:55 pm

CHAPTER THREE
"The Living Ghost of Baranor"

On the evening of the eighteenth of September in the year One-thousand, Three-hundred and Twenty-nine of our present Age of Middle-earth fate had turned its back upon Eledhil, lord of Eitheldun, Prince of Arthedain. He turned his eyes upwards to the dim sky with the faint hope of seeing some sort of heavenly sign written in the stars of Varda for a clue as to what he should do to save himself and his companions from the deadly grips of this new and unknown enemy that surrounded them on horseback beyond the nearby hill line. But no sign from the revered Vala could he descry now, despite his silent plea for aid. He could only see the distant constellation that many men refered to as the 'Bright-blade' so, called due to the outlined shape of a knife blade studded with a cluster of bright gem-stars upon what men referred to as its 'hilt'. There it was, already shining bright in the dim glow of evening dusk. It seemeed to beckon him on to lead a sudden charge and break free through the ring of foes with a fast and furious counter-offensive. But the loss of life might be heavy. He looked away from the stars above him and shook his head in silence, as if to politely decline the council of the stars.

Eledhil stood upon the northern eaves of the Midgewater Marshes and gazed southwards at the gnarled and tumble-stricken grove of dead and rotting timber and bare tree stumps that he knew made up a small section of the northern boundaries to the notorius marshes. He had not wanted to believe it when his small team of scouts had returned to him an hour before dusk on a soggy summer evening to report to their lord that there was little hope of a successful retreat back within the safety of their stone palisade outside their castle. Eitheldun was not far, this much was plain, but the prince's path was now cut off by an unknown enemy. The scouts had reported to their lord that no less than seventeen darkly cloaked men upon horseback had been spotted strung out, not only across the wide dirt path that meandered back and forth through the wilderness until it ended at the doors of Eitheldun, but also they now watched the tree-scattered countryside around it, save only to the south, where the hateful marshes lay.

The great north and south road that men called the Greenway lay several leagues off to the west from where they now stood. If they could make a sudden charge, as indeed many of them desired, some of them at least would surely break free of their foe's net and win the passage back to the road where they could ride for help. But Eledhil forbade it. He deemed it too risky. More blood would certainly be spilt in the execution of such a plan. The marshes lay close by to the south from their present location, and it was in those accursed fens and bogs that Eledhil had thought to make his escape. Many of the fighting men in his small hunting party openly voiced their preference for combat with the horsemen that surrounded them, but the prince was known for his excessive caution in battle. Yet his chief desire was to return to his castle of Eitheldun as quickly as possible, for now that he knew that enemies were abroad he feared the threat of having his abode usurped by violators during his absence. Further still, his neice, Aileneth, daughter of Prince Alagond of Fornost, was presently residing there with her uncle for the summer, and he feared for safety should he not return thither himself. Therefore, the decision was made to attempt the passage of the marshes without delay where they hoped to elude the mysterious and unknown horsemen that now hunted them.

The obvious question that they all asked one another was 'why'? For what cause had there been for such a deadly ambush? Four worthy men of Eledhil's retinue had already been slain or taken by the shadowy nemaces upon horseback so far, much to the anger and distress of the prince. The first man had been killed in the initial ambush less than an hour ago. It all seemed so confusing. Eledhil and two of his bodyguards had spotted the wild boar that they had been tracking lurking silently in a thicket near a vale and pursued it quickly and silently while the remainder of the company held back and watched, wanting to give their lord the final honor of the kill. But then the air where the prince and his two companions had been hiding was suddenly filled with feathered shafts that sped from hidden bowstrings at at Eledhil and his bodyguards. One of them was killed outright with an arrow to the temple. The second man was struck in the back as he instinctively sought to protect his lord.

After staring for a moment as men dumbfounded by a sudden danger, the remainder of Eledhil's company sped into action and made to gather up the prince and protect him from harm. Before anyone knew it masked horsemen garbed in black emerged from a tall thicket of trees and pursued the hunting company out of Eitheldun, urging them on at great speed further to the south. But this new enemy did not take up the chase for long, and after a brief pursuit they slowed their mounts and went this way and that in different directions with the intent to execute a surrounding ring about their prey to prevent them from escape.

That was the unenviable predicament that the prince, and his men that yet still lived, now found themselves in - fight or flight. Eledhil insisted upon the latter for the moment, saying to his men who were outraged by the unlooked for attack, "Do not let your wrath get the better of you. Blades that are drawn from the scabbard in the haste of anger are oft to lead to the demise of their wielders. We shall attempt the paths of Midgewater and shake our enemy off of our trail within its vastness. I have dwelt in these lands for many years now and know something of these fens, as does Ciradhan, my squire here. Leave your mounts and any unnecessary burdens behind you, for they shall avail you little in the confines of the marshes. Take only what you must!"

Seven men were all that the prince had left to him after the death of three others; six men against at least twice as many enemy riders, though where most of them were now could only be guessed at. The tree-scattered wilds of the northern Greenway regions were becoming increasingly difficult to descry with the slow encroachment of the night sky. At least there were few clouds about this evening to hinder the waning moon from shining its white night-light down upon the lands. It would be a welcome boon to the desperate Dunedain who desired to utilize the nocturnal glow of the moon for the execution of the trying task before them now. Few of these men were hardened warriors by nature. Many of them were simply casual hunters who had come over from Fornost for a week's sojourn to join Eledhil on one of his reknowned hunting excursions. At week's end they were to escort the prince's niece back to the abode of her father and mother at the court of king Malvegil. They fancied the bow and arrow rather than the sword of spear. Yet, apart from Ciradhan, Eledhil's knight-in-training, two others only remained among the fleeing company that were deft with sword and shield. They would not let their lord become taken or slain without putting up a fight - this much they swore quietly to one another ere they followed the prince inside the mazes of Midgewater.

Eledhil and Ciradhan quickly found their way forward through the initial undergrowth of the wetlands harder than they anticipated. Though the skies of the last three days had been fair and warm this had only been achieved after two preceeding days of near constant rainfall, which made the marshes more treacherous to any who dared its passage. Their felt their booted feet slide down smoothly into watery holes and divots as they proceeded through the fens in single file. Only one light source was permitted to be in use by the prince, it being a partially hooded lantern that was carried by one of the hunters of Fornost. To many of them, especially those from abroad and who were more accustomed to the soft luxuries of Malvegil's court rather than the unwholesome wildness of Midgewater, it seemed like they had been transported into some sort of mysterious and arcane world where only wandering outcasts and brigands would willingly dwell in. All about them as they went it seemed that queer shadows of odd lengths and shapes hung over them as the prince and his esquire led them away from the northern eaves and further into the heart of the marshes.

The further they progressed the worse it seemed to become for them. Much of the mud and muck that they experienced after plunging into the marshes slowly gave way to deeper water. They soon found themselves trudging through water that came up to their wastelines. The water was not very cold but that was of little comfort to them, for who knew what sort of hidden nemaces lurked beneath the surface? Most of them found that they no longer had any real sense of direction by now and would be helplessly lost if they were left alone to their own devices.

Flying insects buzzed about their eyes and ears as they went on and the men often would halt involuntarily as they tried wrathfully to wave the winged pests away in the gloom. Occasionally some of men heard themselves crying out whenever they suddenly felt a sharp sting or bite upon their exposed skin. If the insects were not enough of a challenge for them they also found that sometimes their way forward was obscured by fallen trees, low-hanging limbs and enormous spiderwebs that gleamed like hundreds of tiny threads of silver in the lantern light. Into watery bogs they went again and again, only to find that the marshes seemed to go on and on without end.

Naturally, all of this gave way to grumbling from the men as they found that their earlier fears of peril gradually diminished when no sound of pursuit could be heard from behind. They began to weary after a while and openly questioned their lord's decision to not to fight their mysterious enemy in open battle. Where was there a path? How long until they struck higher ground? How long would the passage take ere they emerged on the other side of the marshes? Where were their enemies by now? These were all questions that the men in the prince's hunting party demanded answers to. Two of them insisted on resting before going on. They all desired more light before they felt they could go any further. That much was certain.

They felt the wildlife teeming noisily around them in the heavy gloom as they halted to catch their breath. The sounds of crickets, toads and the occassional rapid chirping of marsh wrens and distant waterfowl were the most typical. All of these creatures as well as countless others called Midgewater their natural home. For the most sturdy and enduring would-be hunter, these marshes would be a welcome hunting ground. But the hunting party that had set out with their lord this afternoon from Eitheldun no longer entertained any such thoughts. Their only priority this unfortunate summer's evening was to shake off their enemy from behind and, with luck and assistance from the Valar, make it through the confines of Midgewater without further mishap.

Two wooden torches were fetched from the men's packs. The packs themselves were rapidly becoming soggy with all of the aquatic hiking they had been forced to endure thus far. But like many wandering Dundain of that time, they possessed torches whose ends were made of sulfur and lime, which meant that they could remain ablaze for a while even when exposed to water. While the men busied themselves with ther task of striking up a flame from flint and tinder Ciradhan, who had the keenest eyesight among them, retraced their steps from whence they had just come in order to look and listen for sounds of pursuit from behind. Ere five minutes had passed the young esquire was sure that he had heard an unnatural noise far off to his right somewhere out in the annonymous darkness of the swamp. He studied the solid blackness in hope of descrying any sign of light coming from that direction, which would certainly indicate the presence of a man rather than some random nocturnal animal.

He waited. None of his companions who sat huddled together at the resting spot had heard the noise yet. After one more minute had passed Ciradhan saw what he had hoped he would not: a small point of light in the distance. It could be seen far off to his right now. The enemy was coming their way. Most likely they had seen their own lantern light from afar and had decided to approach, though in full force or but only a few of them could only be guessed at. Ciradhan suspected that the enemy host had divided their forces and had entered the marshes at different points with the hopes that at least one of their groups would spot them wandering around in the darkness as they fled. His earlier fear of the riders now gave way to a burning hostility. He had been fond of his lord's two bodyguards that now lay slain back out at the site of the ambush. They had been cousins and had always been kind to him. They had even shown an interest in his knight's tutorage by training him in their free time in the art of sword combat back at Eitheldun. Despite his tender age of ten and four years he found himself yearning for a chance to use his sword against these dispicable villains and return the favor of their sudden ambush on his lord and friends.

"Wait! Not yet," cried Ciradhan in a hoarse whisper as he ran back to his companions. Two of the men had succeeded in lighting up one of the stubborn firebrands they had been attempting to light for the last several minutes. After many unsucessful attempts the flint had finally caught spark before growing into a small flickering flame. The men had just applied the flame within the tinder box to the wrapped end of the torch as Ciradhan approached them again. The group looked at him in alarm. Eledhil sprang to his feet again.

"What is it, Ciradhan?" he asked his squire urgently.

"They are coming! I saw their light. Extinguish that torch immediately, I beg you! They will see it from afar!"

"But it was so hard to light up!" objected one of the men. "We may not get another chance to do so again if what you say is true!"

"Yea!" said another. "We cannot stumble around in the dark in these confounded wetlands without light!"

"Let them come, then," said a third. "We are ready for them this time!"

Ciradhan looked to his lord for answers as he waved away the flies that buzzed about him. Eledhil looked out at where Ciradhan had indicated and saw nothing save the impenertable darkness of Midgewater at night. Looking back at his esquire he asked him if he had been sure that he had seen the light. Ciradhan replied that he felt absolutely sure that he had seen the light of the enemy in the indicated direction.

"I believe there is a footpath in that direction," added Ciradhan, who knew this area of the marshes very well, having spent a good deal of his life at Eitheldun and the surrounding area. "At least one of them must be familar with these marshes in order for them to stumble across that path, for it does not lead all the way out of the swamp but comes to a gradual end ere it reaches the eaves."

"I believe you, son," replied Eledhil gravely, "but we must have more light now. If things become ill for us we might get seperated in a fight. In such a case we must be able to see where we are going. Furthermore, if the need for swords and spears is unavoidable then the darkness will avail us little. One of us might cut down a friend thinking him a foe. I have known it to happen before. Yet let us hasten away from this spot at once, for the eyes and ears of my loyal esquire seldom prove false!"

Without further delay the prince and his men gathered themselves up and followed their lord and Ciradhan on in towards the heart of Midgewater. They had barely progressed more than a dozen yards before they all plainly heard the low call of a horn behind them. But the low-pitched blast did not resemble the typical horns used by many of the hunters in this part of Eriador. It sounded more like the deep-winded horn that the fisherman upon the barges used down on the waters of the Gwathlo nigh the old city of Tharbad, save at the tail end of the call the deep pitch raised dramatically high for one last instant before it disappeared. The sound of it made Eledhil shudder. There seemed something familar about that call, though as to where and when he had last heard it he could not recall in such an unenviable position that he now found himself in. Only one thing was sure - it was a signal that they had been spotted.

"The call of the enemy!" said one of the men in a panic. "We have been seen!"

"They saw your torches, no doubt," retorted Ciradhan. "I begged you to extinguish them! Now we must stand and fight!"

"Soon, Ciradhan," replied the prince, "but not quite yet. There is no room here in this gnarled thicket. Come! All of you! Follow me! I will lead you to open ground where we may take up a more suitable defensive position and wait for our enemies to walk into our ambush."

"But sire," interjected Ciradhan hastily. He guessed well enough the strip of open land that his lord purposed to take them. "The area you have in mind lies at least many hundreds of yards away from where we now stand, if I guess correctly! Should we not instead..."

"No! Absolutely not, Ciradhan!" snarled Eledhil. The young squire could see his lord's face in the dancing orange light of his neighbor's torch. The prince's face looked a terrible sight. It was flecked generously with dirt and mud mingled with dripping sweat. A small red cut could be seen across one of his cheeks where some random thorn or unkindly tree branch had scraped him as he fled through the fens in the dark. But it was the look of pure worry and trepidation upon the prince's face that made his young squire stare at him in wonder. His lord seemed doubly frightened now, as if some new fear suddenly presented itself that Ciradhan could not comprehend. Eledhil shook his head again.

"Nay, lad, we cannot do battle here. We must flee to better and more solid ground ere it is too late! Let us hasten!"

Nothing could be done about it. The prince had had his say in the matter and the decision was made to again take up their flight. Ciradhan exhaled wearily as he followed at his lord's heals through the grime and thickets. He knew his lord was no coward, and he also knew the lord Eledhil to be skilled with a blade when he must. Yet the prince of Eitheldun had always been one for caution and delay. How long had it been since his lord had been in a sizable battle? Ciradhan could not remember the last time. Most likely not within the last ten years. He had heard tales of many a bloody skirmish between the men of Arthedain and Rhudaur which took place before he himself was even born. But that was long ago. An unsettling state of peace had arrisen between the two realms that still held true, though the signs of strain were felt by all nowadays. Complacency had settled in with many of the lords and ladies of Arthedain as of late, seeing as their were few foes to engage. But the times were changing quickly and the days becoming ever more dark with each passing year. Ciradhan, not yet come to his full manhood, was already wise and was quite aware of this and felt the pressing need for the folk of his beloved kingdom to prepare themselves and brace for the evil times that surely lay ahead of them all. Indeed, these villainous horsemen that now hunted them mercilessly through this accursed marsh was clear testimony to such a fact. Ciradhan wanted to spill their blood but could not, and indeed would not, gainsay his lord, of whom he was so fond. So he went on.

They plodded they way through occassional small bogs and irregular mud flats for several more minutes until their wavering lights showed that the ground had finally become too wet and wide to hope for a quick escape in the direction they had chosen. A few of the men looked at the prince and then, more darkly, at his esquire in confusion. Had they come to a dead end? Could their guides have erred thus in their estimation? Now what should they do? Again, these were the questions that spewed out of their mouths in their urgent and frightful need.

"Where is the bridge, Ciradhan?" asked Eledhil quickly and with labored breathing. He was not a young man anymore, even by the standards of the long-lived Dunedain.

"I think," Ciradhan began haltingly before craning his head in both directions. "I believe it is off to our right. No! Wait a moment. To our left! Aye, I think I have it. We must go this way," he pointed to the left of where they now stood. Before them lay a watery fen of considerable width that sported numerous cypress trees that jutted straight out from underneath the waterline. A few of them had failed in the test of time and weather, however, their once mighty timbers now laying tumbled over and sprawling amongst one another. The piercing sounds of the famous neeker-breekers filled the air the further the company progressed in this direction. A sudden splash off to their right made them all reach for their weapons as one of the men shone his torch that way. They were relieved to see the vanishing furry tail of a pair of otters rushing away from them in a panic.

"Are you sure, lad?" asked the prince, who seemed to have no memory of this area. Ciradhan reaffirmed his previous answer and immediately led them all along a highly irregular shoreline that circumvented the dark and swampy pond. At one point he felt his footing slip out from under him and he went forward with his arms outstretched and plunged into the watery muck with a curse. This was unfortunate, for as the temporary guide he was at present he had taken up the only lantern in the company. In his effort to break his fall he let go of the light and it fell beneath the surface of the water, its light quickly becoming extinguished. One of his companions assisted him back to his feet. Ciradhan began to stoop down to retrieve the lantern but was checked by one of the men.

"Nay, leave it now, boy," he said gruffly. "Of what use will it prove now? Listen to that! That is the sound of men's voices. They are onto us!"

"How swiftly they pursue us!" exclaimed another. "Curse them, the villains!"

"Lead on, Ciradhan," commanded the prince. "We must cross this fen at all costs! Where is that bridge?"

"It is up ahead, sire. Nearly there now!"

Ciradhan staggered forward at a reduced pace, not only for fear of slipping again in the mud and darkness but also out of fatigue, which he felt encroaching upon him now. He too now heard the voices back the way they had come, though he could not make out their speech. A quick glance in that direction showed two, perhaps three points of light. They were a good way off at the moment, but they would surely follow them.

At last they could see the bridge that Ciradhan and their lord had been expecting. At first it was nothing more than a slightly elevated gang plank of wood that stretched out and over the water towards the interior of the bog. But at length it led to an old wooden bridge that continued to span the water just below it.

Ciradhan waited no longer. He swatted away the mosquitoes that buzzed around his sweaty head and began to traverse the old bridge with the man carrying one of the torches just behind him. Eledhil and the others followed him in haste. No sooner had they reached the far end of the bridge when they again heard the sound of a horn call - only this time it came from a different direction, and much further off. It was answered by the former deep-pitched blast from the men behind them.

Ciradhan sprang forward with a renewed sense of vigor at the sound of the answering horn call. His blood seemed to boil with anger as he went on down what was a barely recognizable footpath. It wound around various trees and sudden dips in the terrain for several minutes until it finally, and thankfully, led out into a large clearing. Ciradhan and the others halted as they quickly surveyed the gloomy landscape before them. They could see little beyond the glowing range of their torches, but it was evident that they had struck a swath of higher ground with the finding of the clearing amidst the marshes of Midgewater, of which they were now very deeply submerged...
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Postby Celebrimbor32 » Fri Feb 26, 2010 3:51 pm

...Ciradhan did not wait to enter out into the clearing amid the woods, so eager was he to mark the whereabouts of the enemy on higher ground. Without a word to his lord he strode out through the high grass and began to approach the center of the ring, which was no more than a hundred paces from one end to the other. Eledhil hissed and commanded him to return but his esquire pretended not to hear him. He knew that he had the keenest sight among what was now left of the prince's hunting party and he purposed to climb up upon the limbs of a tall ash tree, it being the only thing apart from the tall grass and long-leafed shrubbery that grew in the clearing. Why it had been spared the axe in the past was unknown. There were various old tree stumps that littered the area - the only remnants of other trees that had once grown here - and at first Ciradhan had thought to stand on top of one of these to get a better look around them. But it was too dark now for these to be of any use to him so he hailed the one of the torch bearers to come up to him so that he could make use of the light as he began to climb up the lonely tree.

It was Eledhil who approached his esquire with the light. He offered Ciradhan a swift rebuke for his hastiness but the young man merely nodded in acknowledement as he continued his ascent up the tree. He reasoned that only the height of the tree would afford them the necessary view of their foes. His climb would not have been difficult in the light of day but in such darkness as it was his going was slow and cautious. A fall from his present location might not kill him outright but he would certainly risk a severe injury

He navigated the bare branches easily enough until he reached an accomodating area where he could perch himself and rest for as moment while he looked about them. Turning his eyes towards the way that they had come he could see the light from their enemy's torches. It was impossible to ascertain how many men were there precisely, though Ciradhan figured that at least four or five of them were still in pursuit on foot. In a short while they would reach the pool that sported the old wooden bridge. He gazed about the lands of Midgewater through the dark airy night for several more moments in silence. He was just about to resign himself to making his way back down the tree (no easy task itself) when at last he descried another point of light off to the east of their location in the clearing. He had not seen it at first because of the thick vegetation down the hill in that direction. One more torch could be seen coming in their direction now. There was more than one man coming from that way without a doubt, and they seemed to be moving rather quickly as if by way of a clearly defined path. Any hope that they might have entertained of escape to the east was now cut off. They must now either make their way to the west, where Ciradhan knew of no immediate trails to follow, or else push on to the south further into the heart of the marshlands. This latter choice was probably what their enemies assumed they would take, for it offered them the best chance of concealment in the deep darkness of night. Ciradhan relayed this new information down to his companions before making his downward climb.

The others had not been idle while the young esquire was up in the tree. The men armed with bows had readied their weapons for combat while the other pair of hunters had hidden their spears upon the ground amid the tall grass of the clearing or propped up against the back side of trees just off in the thickets close by. They had decided to cease their flight and make a stand here in the clearing. The three archers that remained to them would hide in the tangled trees and vegetation just outside the open ring while the two others would wait in plain sight out in the center of the clearing. They would presrnt themselves openly for the enemy to approach them and feign to surrender themselves while the archers lay in wait for their foes to act as living targets for their feathered shafts. They would tak no prisoners tonight. All had agreed to slay their enemies quickly and without questions asked. The prince, they had told Ciradhan after his slow descent from the tree branches, would immediately continue his flight to the south and lay in wait in the relative safety of the wilds of the marsh until the return of the ambush party, or the coming of dawn - whichever opportunity presented itself first.

"Aye," agreed Ciradhan wearily. "It is time for us to turn and give these foul brutes a taste of Dunedain steel in its wrath, or a taste of our arrows," he added looking over at the three archers amid the faint glow of the torchlight. "May the Valar guide your shafts well! I, for one, shall await the approach of the enemy from the shadows upon the opposite side with my blade at the ready. Too long has it been since it was free from its leather casing! Yet, my lord," he said turning to the prince, "I think it unwise to expose yourself to the perils of the marshes alone and in the dead of night at that! Pray you, wait here in concealment while we deal with these villains..."

One of the men, a certain Radigorn, waved his hand impatiently before Ciradhan as if to cut his words off short in mid sentence.

"Nay, boy," he said in a commanding tone, "who said anything about you remaining with us? You are young and this fight is beyond you tonight. These men that pursue us do not soften their blood sport just to spare a young novice such as yourself. Whomever these murderers may be and whatever their motives they are unlikely to take any prisoners. Besides, you are needed to escort the prince away from here at once! You alone among us know these marshes well enough to lead the lord of Eitheldun to safety."

"This is my fight as well it is yours!" argued Ciradhan forcefully. "These men have slain my friends unrighteously and I deserve a chance to wreak my vengeance upon them just as any of you do, surely! Lord?"

Ciradhan turned to look at Eledhil for support, who was bent kneeward to strengthen the tied laces upon his boots. The prince slowly stood up and gazed outward towards their approaching enemy, whome he could not see at present.

"No, Ciradhan," he replied gravely, "I need you to come with me now and be my guide while there is still time. Another chance may yet fall upon you ere long to sow your seeds of vengeance upon these killers - and long may you live, my loyal squire, to reap such a rightful harvest. Alas that our expedition has led to such ills this night! Yet no time is there now for sorrow and grief. We must away at once, I am afraid. Ready yourself, lad!"

Ciradhan's heart sunk at the words of his lord, and he thought about extending his protest, but checked himself when he saw the stern and hardened look of the prince, who had guessed that the boy would seek to dissuade him from his decision.

Eledhil extended his hands outwards to the six loyal men that remained to him now and thanked them. One by one they came up to him and clasped his hands as a token of friendship and farewell, for they had no sure way of knowing how things would turn for all of them in the next few hours. For better or for worse the hunters from the court of king Malvegil of Fornost Erain, whom they all proudly served, would take their chances against an anonymous enemy that doubled their own number in an unfamiliar land pitted with perilous bogs and fens to trap and ensnare them.

"We will meet again, lord," said another of the men. "We shall first teach these foreign killers that they have picked a fight with the wrong men this night! Farewell for now, O prince! Get you back to Eitheldun as quickly and safely as you might! The lady Aileneth shall need your protection, no doubt!"

Before he was scarcely aware of what he was doing Ciradhan found himself with a lone torch in one hand and a walking stick in his other as he carefully led his lord down the southward trail that led away from the clearing upon the wooded hill. He had been this way at least twice before, though it had been several years previous. Yet he remembered that the pathway wound its way further down the side of the lush hillside until it struck level ground most abruptly. There he expected it to give to a shallow stream that served as a natural obstacle to the random hiker. Ciradhan knew that the path continued on after crossing the shallow water course but he had no intention of following it any further. He thought the trail too obvious a mark for their enemies in case they were still pursued. Therefore, he purposed to lead his lord down the very course of the stream for about as far as a man could hurl a stone in open ground. Then, if his reckoning was correct, they would see a new footpath open up suddenly before them to their right, seemingly out of nowhere. It was this pathway that Ciradhan would take and make for the very heart of Midgewater, though what they might do once there was beyond his guess.

The prince followed close behind his squire down the length the wooded descent. The feeble light from their torch was hardly sufficient enough to make their going much easier. More than once Eledhil felt his feet stumble over some unseen vine across the path or felt his head bump into a low hanging tree limb. Before they had reached the bottom of the hill the prince nearly collided with Ciradhan who had halted suddenly before him. When he whispered out to his esquire to ask what was the matter the latter replied that he had run through a large and sticky spider's web. Setting his walking stick aside, he made a soft grummbling sound of irritation as he slapped at his eyes and nose with his hand as he attempted to pull the webs, which were quire fresh, off of his face. He started nervously when he felt a mild but determined slap against his upper back. Turning round quickly he looked back at the lord Eledhil.

"You are unharmed, I assure you. Twas only a spider." remarked Eledhil, who had noticed a sizable shadow of roundish shape, about the size of a small apple, upon Ciradhan's back. Without hesitation the prince swatted it away from his squire and watched it fall to the ground. Ciradhan looked down towards the floor of the well-trampled undergrowth with his torch in hand. He winced to the see how large the spider was as it sat upon the ground, frozen - as it seemed - with fear and caution. Ciradhan, who had no love for spiders of any kind, instinctively raised up his foot to stomp upon the little hairy creature in anger but Eledhil checked him swiftly.

"Why would you do such a thing, Ciradhan?" asked the prince in a surprisingly stern voice. "Does your lust for vengeance require you to stomp out the life of all living things that threaten you?"

Ciradhan looked up at his lord and then back down to the spider on the ground, who had still yet to move out of harm's way.

"It is only a spider, lord."

"It's physical and material worth is not in question. You miss the point, my boy. The spider represents an object of innocence. It has not harmed you but you desire its destruction nonetheless. Only pure hatred is capable of provoking such a thoughtless deed - to strike without need. Such actions are unbefitting of a Dunedan. Let not the living example of Angmar invade your young spirit, Ciradhan."

"I am not, nor ever will be influenced by anything out of Angmar!" objected Ciradhan.

"No," replied Eledhil, "not willingly, or indeed consciously would you, of that I have no doubt. It is the unharnessed wrath inside you that I question here. I often fear that it eats away at you from inside. I have known you for too many years now, lad, and know you to act according to what your raw emotions tell you rather than heeding the wisdom that I and others more wise have taught you: namely to pause and take time for reflection and good council ere evil deeds are ultimately done that cannot be undone later. History has testified to the truth in these words many times over throughout the long ages of the world."

Ciradhan gazed fixedly at his lord as he spoke. He did not interrupt him, as he might have done in the past, but instead looked away from the prince with a sigh as he turned his back on the spider and held up his torch before him to get a clearer view of the narrow pathway before them. he was eager to press on, and motioned to his lord to follow him, adding that they must be careful once they reach the course of the stream, as the footing was unstable in the darkness. But Eledhil did not follow him at first. Deeming that Ciradhan might have taken his warning too lightly he remained standing where he had been and instead called out to his squire in a demeanor that could only show that his earnest concern was exquisitely sincere.

"Ciradhan!" he said more loudly now. Ciradhan halted and turned around. "Heed my council now, my boy. No matter what fate befalls us here tonight or the next day, regardless if I, myself, survive or perish at the hands of these evil villains I pray you will not give in to the reckless pursuit of thoughtless vengeance without caution and good council first - indeed, if even then. I am old by now, even by the standards of our own people. Yet I would have perished long ago if I had not learned to master my wrath and trust in the wisdom of my teachers."

"You assume that you shall perish here in these accursed marshes and I will survive," answered Ciradhan, "yet that also is a thing beyond our sight. It may very well be that such an evil happenstance might be reversed, and it will be you who shall live on to see the light of the golden sun on the morrow and not I."

The lord Eledhil smiled grimly at this, shaking his head slowly and determinately, as if he were presently taken up with some sort of personal foreshadowing inside himself.

"Nay, Ciradhan. I deem that you shall outlive me ere the end, whether tonight or some later day - and that is, after all, how it should be."

Suddenly something in the hazy countenance of his lord's face and demeanor seemed changed somehow. Ciradhan could not put his finger on it nor could he guess as to the reason for it, but whatever had come over his lord now he found it somewhat disturbing and unsettling. He could not think of an appropriate reply under such queer and pressing circumstances, so rather than even bother to attempt one Ciradhan asked his lord to again follow him closely while he led them both down to the bottom of the tree-covered hill.

~~

Through the random openings in the ceiling of the woods Ciradhan could see that the moon had already peaked at its crest in the night sky and by now was conintuing its heavenly path to the west. He was thankful for the fair weather tha lay upon the lands, for the light of the moon was still clear and bright enough to use for a source of navigational aid in case the flame from their torch withered away and left them both in complete darkness. This would happen soon enough by now, he reckoned to himself. He and his lord had now put a great distance between themselves and their companions who had chosen to remain behind back in the clearing upon the hill in order to execute an ambush assault upon their enemy pursuers.

As Ciradhan, torch in one hand and his walking stick in the other, made his way along a slender wooded path that meandered this way and that in order to avoid the occassional watery bog that littered the area, he wondered to himself how his hunting companions had fared by now in their assault. The sound of the enemy's horn's had been heard only once since he and his lord had left them behind. Were their friends successful? Had they slain their pursuers? If so, how many? Did they suffer any casualties? Or perhaps the enemy changed course and avoided the clearing altogether, suspecting a trap laying in wait before them? No answers did he have to these questions, nor could he hope to discover the fate of those brave Dunedain fighters unless both of them were to retrace their steps and seek some answers. Doubtless his lord had been asking himself these very same questions. Ciradhan briefly considered suggesting that they both turn around and seek revenge in arms against their aggressors rather than coninue this seemingly pointless flight deeper and deeper into the Midgewater Marshes. Yet he knew that his lord would insist upon going forward - especially in light of the speech he had given him earlier about the deceits and snares of wreckless revenge. He sighed heavily to himself and went on, waving his stick before his face to push aside outreaching vines, leaves and spiderwebs - all of which were a constant nuisance to them now.

They pressed onwards through the deep night. They both lost track of time by now, though Ciradhan was sure they had been at it now for the better part of three hours since they left their companions behind. Despite the late hour of night the air about them was still warm and muggy. By now their brows were dripping with perspiration as their pace began to slow and slacken the further into the tangled marshlands they went. The path that Ciradhan had been following gradually widened as the trees and undergrowth around them became more and more thin. The ground beneath their feet again became ever more wet and muddy once again, making it difficult to thread a clear trail forward. Open sky above their heads was more abundant then the green vegeation by now, and it seemed obvious to them that they were coming into another open stretch of land once again.

Ciradhan halted. He looked about them in all directions as he wiped the sweat from his eyes. With the moonlight still shining it would be easier to see out in the open, that was plain enough. Further still, they longed for the feel of even the slightest of breezes upon their faces, which open land might provide for them. But it would also mean exposing themselves to their foes, wherever they might be by now. Ciradhan began to wonder how they had escaped them with such relative ease. Seeing as how they acted with such ferocity in their sudden assault upon them all in the beginning it seemed a thing very odd indeed that the enemy had been unable to follow them. Perhaps their fellow companions had succeeded in their ambush upon the enemy back up on the clearing, now far behind? It seemed too much to hope for. Could their foes have been slain or driven off? Ciradhan could not help but feel his senses uplifted at the thought. He turned and quietly voiced his thoughts to Eledhil, who was sitting wearily upon a dead and fallen tree.

"I would not hope for as much, Ciradhan," replied the prince. "They shan't give up so easily. No, I think that they will scour the corners of these marshes from one end to the other for a good while yet ere they withdraw. Alas, I fear that you and I might be forced to endure this foul swamp for another day - maybe two - ere we can hope to make our exit safley enough."

"Two days?" exclaimed Ciradhan in shock. The prince quickly held up a finger to his lips to silence his squire.

"Speak more softly, Ciradhan, I beseech you! Aye, if need be we shall hide out here for a while."

"Here?" asked Ciradhan with a gesture to their immediate surroundings.

"Of course not. Where are your wits, boy? I meant not right here, necessarily. Yet we shall have to find some other place that might afford us with cover for a while; somewhere out of plain sight. Give me a moment, my lad, then lead on again."

After a short pause Ciradhan led the way forward again. They did not have to go far when they realized that the path that they had been following was no more. It simply seemed to wither away the more they went on in the same direction. At this Ciradhan seemed puzzled, for he had felt reasonably sure that the pathway should have taken a turn to their left (which he thought would take them eastwards) before leading them to another clearing. The latter was certainly present now, for most of the trees overhead had thinned out to where there was nore open sly above their heads then greenery, but the path did not curve or turn. It dissappeared until both men were standing ankle deep in mud and water. By the light of the moon and their dwindling torch they could make out an even larger open space before them, not more than a stone's throw ahead. They looked to have run dead into a small lake-like area that sported small islets and muddy sandbars within the center of a dark pool. Yet this was not what had attracted their sight. Rather, it was the uncounted multitude of tiny yellow pinpoints of flashing lights that seemed to sparkle in mid-air all about the surface of the water and across the reeds and weeds of the embankments.

Ciradhan knew that they were witnessing that rare species of lightning bugs which were native to the Midgewater Marshes alone, according to the old lore of the northern Dunedain. Most men referred to them simply as 'Swamp Flashers', or alternatively, 'Bright-biters', this latter name being given to them because of their aggressive tendency to bite at exposed skin of passers-by whenever they felt threatened by intruders. If left alone they were mostly harmless to men - a mere source of curiosity and even entertainment to all that go about on two legs. Rumor had it that the Eldar alone had managed to find a way to capture the light from these flying insects and use it as a source of light without killing them in the process.

The prince and his esquire stood for several seconds in wonder at the flying spectacle before them. Had they known it they had happened to come across these flashing fly-by insects in full mating season. The thousands of bright pinpoints of light flashed again and again all about the wide pond. On and off, on and off the lights went - their number quite impossible to guess at. The sound of croaking toads and those all-so-annoying neeker-breekers filled the air with their night music. In any other circumstance Ciradhan would have been willing to sit and watch the spectacle at long lengths, but not now. Not while the risk of pursuit was still present.

Eledhil called them both back to their senses.

"Where are we, Ciradhan? Did you intend on bringing us to this spot?"

"No, my lord," he replied mekely, still gazing at the brilliant night spectacle before them. "I admit that I did not. I might have sworn an oath that I believed the path should have swerved off to the east by now. I fear that we might have missed an adjoining trail a ways back."

At first Eledhil said nothing. Ciradhan was aware of this and turned to face his master, whom he assumed to be wroth with him for such an error. But his worry was for nothing. The prince was again sitting down upon a dry tree stump in the gloom, apparently out of weariness. When Ciradhan inquired as to his lord's present state of weariness Eledhil simply waved an errant hand in the air, replying, "I am fine, lad. Just tired - tired and footsore."

"We might as well rest here for the night, my lord," said Ciradhan, resigning himself to the idea of spending the night out here on this murky wilderness. "We are both too weary to continue tonight."

"I would feel more comfortable if we found somewhere less visible than this open water-hole," answered Eledhil. "Confounded nuisance, these mosquitoes!" This was uttered as the prince slapped at the flying pests that bit at his neck. Ciradhan, also beleagured by the biting creatures that buzzed about him agreed what the decision, adding that the mosquitoes would not be as bad the further from the water they went.

They plucked themselves up and tiredly began to attempt a muddy navigation around the circumfrence of the pond but soon found it impossible to go far. At one point Ciradhan nearly dropped their only torch, slender flickering thing that it now was, into the water again as his feet sank quickly and oozed into an unseen bog of mud and inky water. He had sank in nearly up to his waist and he let out an involuntary curse of frustration as he sought to keep his grasp upon the torch he held in his faltering hand. Eledhil quickly came up behind him and took the flaming brand from his squire before assisting him out of the hole.

"There is no way around this pool, Ciradhan," said the prince once he was sure his squire was out of danger. "We must either swim this water or else turn around."

Ciradhan, still panting from the effort of raising himself from the bog, sat upon a dry patch of ground at the pool's edge at thought for a moment. He briefly suggested that they both attempt the swim and continue onwards on the opposite side of the pool but that would also mean bidding their only source of light farewell. Yet to turn around now and look blindly for the path that he had intended on following seemed just as hopeless. Might as well look for a beetle in the darkness of a dungeon, thought Ciradhan to himself.

Reluctantly, they decided it better to swim the water and go forward in the direction they had purposed before encountering the pond. At least, as they rationalized it to themselves, there were various islets across the pond where they could rest in the labor of their swim. There was still enough moonlight to make the attempt, at any rate. Neither one of them relished the thought of submerging themselves in the water of an unknown body of water in the middle of the Midgewater Marshes, but it seemed like their best bet for now.

Ciradhan insisted on going first. The closest little sanbar he could see out amid the water was no more than two or three deer-leaps away. Then after that, there would be a wider gulf to bridge before a larger islet could be reached. Then there would be two or three smaller opportunities to rest before they reached the opposite side. As the young squire began to walk out into the reed-filled water he could feel the bottom of the pond give way beneath the weight of his feet. He had not gone more than a dozen yards or so before he felt a strange sensation upon his left leg below the knee. It was just the sort of thing he had dreaded - some mysterious and unseen thing below the waterline trying to get to him as he began his swim. He forced himself to hurry on and ignore the thought of his leg being assaulted under water. He splashed and kicked his way through the water, which would have felt refreshing in any other place, until he felt his feet touch ground upon the grassy islet.

"I have been bitten! Lord, something is in my boot! You should wait there!" cried Ciradhan loudly, forgetting the peril of shouting and alerting other to their wherabouts with his cries. He sat there upon the little shore of the islet in the dark, soaking and dripping wet. He made to immediately remove his footwear to inspect his lower leg, which he felt sure was under attack by some strange aquatic creeping thing, but stopped short. Before he could do any of this he was aware of a swarm of 'Swamp-flashers' buzzing about his face and eyes. The lights of the flying insects seemed to dazzle and temporarily blind him to anything else at present, and he instinctively rolled over and covered his head to protect his eyes. His senses seemed to reel now with this new and unlooked for sense of danger.

Seeing his faithful servant and guide being worsted by the multitude of these strange and bizarre lightning bugs, the lord Eledhil wasted no time. He laid the flickering torch upon an old stump and plunged into the water to render his young squire the aid he now needed.

~~~
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