Measurements to be Measured
In his short tenure as leader of the orphanage, Tommin had managed to find a way to subsidise the autumn expedition to Ithilien. Romon and Thenchanar prepared the wagons with stakes and tools. Tommin had impressed upon them, just as Renmir had, to “keep Elder Bergil safe, no matter what.”
Also with payment arranged by Tommin, they had managed to find twelve city guardsmen, eager to moonlight for a bit of extra (easy) cash.
Travel to Ithilien was uneventful. The river barge took them swiftly across, wending its cautious way through the flooded ruins of Osgiliath and up to a mooring point on the lower Ithilduin. From there they followed the track exactly as last year, though the landscape felt somehow more hostile now. Even the wildlife seemed absent, silent, or just in hiding, waiting for the trouble to pass.
It was clear to Romon that several visitors had been to the Stone Circle in recent days. There was evidence of circular structures having been temporarily erected, and Thenchanar was quick to point out they were the same configuration and dimensions as the Talazkûn yurts. Other, less familiar tracks were also present. They would take no chances, erecting temporary stockades, and selecting watches for the night.
The moon was nearly full, and in the early hours Romon was stirred by Feanorm, one of the guardsman. A shorter fellow with angular features and a careful way of speaking; he had spotted a single figure back along the track they had followed from the north that afternoon. Romon could just make out the figure in the distance by the stream, but after a few moments whomever it was disappeared from view.
Romon took no further action, resolving to investigate in the morning.
It wasn’t hard to spot the tracks of their nighttime visitor. Its footprints were clear in the sandy bank of the stream, and it had left droppings by a small shrub. Romon managed to follow their visitor’s tracks a little further to the north; and almost missed where they branched from the track and led a short way west into a strange shallow valley.
The valley contained many grey, weathered boulders the size of small shacks. On most of the boulder’s undersides the sandstone had eroded to a yellowish colour, and much weathered detail gave the rocks an eerie look. Some had shadows that hinted faces, with grimaces, or sly smiles.
What was stranger, was the tracks of their nighttime visitor. The tracks led round and round the rocks in the valley; looping several times around groups of rocks, individual rocks, and the valley entire. It was impossible to tell which tracks were newest, but most were fresh.
Romon paused to take in the landscape. The curious boulders reminded him of a story he’d once been told. One of the hobbits keeping some trolls arguing until the sunrise turned their bodies to stone. That was an old story; and he remembered Master Gerion animatedly recanting the story – was it part of the hobbit’s tales at the War of the Ring? Or was it earlier?
Suddenly, in the corner of his vision, one of the stone troll-heads appeared to move. He was alert at once, staring at what was just a rock. Just a rock. Though it does kind of look like a troll head and shoulder somehow. And wasn’t it facing slightly more to the east? No, that’s stupid. He took a moment to regain his composure.
Of their nighttime visitor, there was no sign.
Elder Bergil cheerfully made his observations as the sun set over the Stone Clock, but that night, they would be more watchful.
To Catch a Spy
Sure enough, in the small hours, their visitor was spotted again. This time he was much closer, having come as close as the small dry brook to the north of the clock hill. It looked to Thenchanar that he was straining to see whoever was up on the hill. They sprang quickly and quietly into action; Romon and Thenchanar slipping down the side of the hill to the left, and Feanorm and other guardsman moving to the right to cut off the escape.
Romon was not much more than ten yards away when their visitor spotted him, giving a sharp yelp he sprang away; but he was not quick enough. Within a short chase it was hopeless. The visitor collapsed into a ball on the ground weeping.
He was absolutely filthy, his head and throat covered in burns, cuts, welts and sores and only the hint of a few random tufts of remaining hair. Thenchanar and the others dragged him gently back to the camp in tears, to where Elder Bergil had been woken by the noise.
In the light of their fires, recognition dawned. This was DarukH’nr, the young shaman from the Talazkûn camp near Caras Leberas that they had met during the summer. But he was a mess; after a while DarukH’nr had calmed down and they got the tale out of him. Warm soup helped, too – probably the only proper food the guy had had for weeks.
DarukH’nr would only answer to “Dar”, and when pushed for details of where his people were, he only answered “they’re not my people” and became sad and sullen. Elder Bergil dismissed the guardsmen before they got more of his story out of him.
From the viewpoint of the Talazkûn people, the visit from Carohin had ended in disaster. Dar had watched the teenagers depart across the river from a vantage point in the camp. He had seen the archer (Tommin) shoot down the raven from the moving vessel; then watched in horror as the earth shook and the river rose to flood his camp in moments.
But he had failed to protect the people. His was the connection to the world; his word directed the elements and kept the people safe. And he had failed. But his utter shame was not enough; the Matriarch AradsH’hdra has quickly ensured that Dar was ceremoniously stripped of his status; she had his hair (crow’s feathers and all) and his beard hastily hacked at then set alight. And the surviving Talazkûn took their turn striking him with his own staff. They had left him in the wilderness.
Despite the odds, he was still alive. But he was no longer Talazkûn; he was just Dar. He had been barely surviving in the area for about “half a moon”, on wilded domestic crops that he could forage from the few former Ithilien smallholdings that had not been completely erased by the floods and the reclamation by nature.
Romon and Thenchanar discussed the story. It was disturbing, but it meant many things. It confirmed that some of the Talazkûn people were still safe, though they were now probably far too petrified to ever approach the Anduin again.
“You know, Dar could be useful” mused Romon. And Thenchanar immediately speculated on how much he might be able to aid in understanding the asea abonnen herb, and other teachings. Though it was kind of clear that Dar’s reverence was down only to abject fear; and keeping Tommin away from him might be a wise move.
They decided to complete the observations and get back to Caras Fain. Dar would get cleaned up but they were sure they could find him a place with the Talazkhûn kids in Harlond.
At learning that they were staying the night, Dar became panicked. “Can’t stay here!” he hissed. “Must go to the Troll rocks! Must go back to the Troll rocks”
“Why?” Thenchanar asked.
“Because of the Orcmen”
“They come here, treading around with their sharp steel. Especially when the moon is full”
It would be, later that night.
They were more in danger than they thought. It wasnt really clear what Dar meant by Orc-“men” but it didn’t sound good.
They revised their plan. They readied themselves for whatever might come at them, and they would leave after the dawn. It was going to be a long, uneasy night.
A couple of hours before dawn, the keen-eyed Feanorm spotted firelight to the north; further away from where they had spotted Dar the first night. They watched it for a few minutes; it wasn’t coming closer. The air was still and cool; they could hear their own heartbeats in the dark.
A few minutes later, a message was relayed (via Feanorm) to them from a lookout in the trees to the south. He had heard a distant shout. There were two groups (at least) nearby this evening. It could be Dar’s “Orcmen”, or others. It could be some group of Dar’s Talazkhun people – though it would be strange for them to be moving at night; though could they be the ones camped to the north? The uncertainty was tense.
It was a little late to commit to moving the Carohin company. The southern group were approaching (they could now make out torchlight from that direction too), and even if the group to the north were friendly, they wouldn’t reach them in time. If the northern group were also hostile, it was sheer folly.
Romon remembered Tommin’s words: “keep Elder Bergil safe, no matter what.”
They crouched down.
The southern company came into view; not what Thenchanar had expected. The group was in three parts. At the front were tall figures, armed and disciplined. Following them were shorter figures; including tethered figures of what were almost certainly remnants of the Talazkûn. Indeed, Thenchanar wondered if one of the cowering female figures could not even be AradsH’hdra, the Matriarch.
Heading the rear guard of more tall figures, Thenchanar’s eye was drawn to a heavyset figure, moonlight glinting from his bald head. At this distance, Thenchanar got a slight sense of what Dar had meant by orc-“men” – this was no orc, yet no man either.
As he watched, all of sudden the warriors at the front halted. Thenchanar, mesmerised, watched the bald figure stride purposefully up to his vanguard. In moments, the soldiers reformed a longer column, placing themselves on the clock hill’s side in front of the smaller jailers and their captives.
The presence of the Carohin company was likely known to the armed group; but almost certainly outmatched. They would have had an advantage with surprise, but about all they had was slightly superior ground.
Thenchanar slipped from his prone position and back to the rest. Romon was ready to lead the charge, but listened to Thenchanar. They all hunkered down and were as silent as possible.
In the still night, they could still hear the footfalls of the orcmen and their captives. Occasionally a whimper was quickly silenced by a coarse grunt of “shut it”.
Then the footsteps stopped. A very long, tense moment stretched in the still night air.
“Righ’ then” it said, in a powerful voice far clearer than they expected. “I am addressin’ wha’ever filfth is tress-passin’ up on tha ‘ill.”
“You ain’ welcome ‘ere. This ain’ your land.”
“On the morro’ – you be’er be gone. Else you will be made gone.”
After a moment, the footsteps continued. All of the Carohin company waiting anxiously as the sounds of the group disappeared off to the north.
That was close. Sunrise wouldn’t come soon enough.
No Dream is Undreamed
Unable to sleep, Thenchanar joined Elder Bergil up at the Stone clock. He decided to talk to him about his dreams. To his surprise, Elder Bergil listened intently; only once offering a weak whimsical thought that it was so long since Bergil had remembered to dream. They talked about the origins of the dreams; it had happened to many people, in many places, and for a long time.
The dreams were echoes of part of the song, Bergil said. Some of the players had roles that played so loudly, or so much in counterpoint with the story of the world, that the echoes still reverberated through it. Always it seemed rooted in the works of Lady Galadriel, whether it was the last echoes
“But that’s only a theory,” Elder Bergil said, “and the trouble with only theories is that if you tell too many people about them, you end up having whole organisations grow up around yourself.” The sun winked into life at the corner of the marked stone; it seemed to Elder Bergil’s satisfaction.
After pausing for breath, Bergil said “I believe we must be going now, yes?”
Carohin swiftly packed up their camp, and prepared to leave. Romon hesistated. How far had their visitors actually gone? Could this be a trap? Realising that they were faster on horses (although they only had four carthorses) he volunteered himself to scout the track north.
He passed the area where he had tracked Dar two mights ago, the passing of the orcmen company left no tracks leaving the trail. He pushed all the way to the ridge above the Ithilduin valley and there was no sign of hostile parties. He rushed back to the stone clock – the caravan was ready to leave.
Approaching the Ithilduin valley, Romon again ventured ahead on horseback, He saw the road by the river ahead, and could just make out two figures, sitting – or maybe squatting – by rocks where the track joined the main Ithilduin road. He surveilled them for a while, and they did not move at all.
Instructing the carts to stay, and the guardsman to stay, Romon and Thenchanar cautiously approached the junction. As they got closer, they were more sure that the two figures were completely still. As they approached even closer, they saw the two figures were smaller, ugly orcs Both of them clearly dead.
“Well, they’ve sent us a message” Romon said. They hurried to get the carts and people on to the main road and away back towards Caras Fain.
Continuing in his role, Romon rode ahead, hoping to signal the ferryman. He was most of the way to the tops of the hillside when something spooked his horse. Failing to wrest control, the beast nipped and threw him, bolting away into the trees. He dusted himself off, and dejectedly made his way back to meet up with the caravan again.
Back with the caravan, Romon had been gone for a couple of hours; but they had made steady progress down the valley. Feanorm, with Thenchanar at the head of the company, saw the figure approaching them along the track. They recognised their friend and stopped for a moment to catch up.
All of a sudden, they could hear hoofbeats following them. Exhausted, they pulled into a defensive formation; but were surprised to see the shockingly tall figure of an Elf ride into view – on Romon’s horse! As their visitor approached they saw another figure they recognised – Renmir – slumped, unconscious over the pommel.
The Elf took no heed of any of the party gathered around and rode directly to Bergil’s cart.
“Elf?” said Romon.
As the Elf nimbly lifted Renmir from the saddle and let the horse wander, sweating to the water, they saw Renmir’s injury. The spiked stump of his left hand, wrapped in grubby rags, and seeping blood weakly despite a hastily cauterised burn.
“Elf?” said Romon again.
But all of a sudden, he felt … off. Slightly dizzy, or as though the world wasn’t truly balanced. His vision blurred slightly but he saw Elder Bergil tending to Renmir; the Elf surveying the ragtag group of mortals he had somehow found himself within once again.
Romon shook his head and asked Thenchanar, “did you feel that?” But Thenchanar, like all the guardsmen, was just watching the spectacle unfold. He turned to the Elf, not knowing any other way of addressing him, “Elf!”
“What?” the immense figure turned on him all at once, a daunting focus of intent if ever there was one.
“What. Is Going On?”
The Elf blinked once, slowly. Then told them, concisely, of the events of their mission. “The lost land is overrun once more; by yrch, and worse. We had come by the southern pass of Poros, but there was no returning hence.”
“A great mountain now stands on the plain where cursed Orodruin once stretched alone for the wretched sky. A city, and other settlements, fit for a million or more of the wretched orc-kind adorns its slope. Renmir and I made for Cirith Ungol, hoping to find a path that an Elf and his charge could tread.”
“But orcs were everywhere; we were separated, fighting and then running. But the pass belongs only ever to its one master. I was too far away, and the monster heeded not Renmir’s peel to the lady Elebereth. I was too far away.”
The Elf broke off for only an instant. “Where is Cenenbanann?”
Romon and Thenchanar exchanged a glance.
The Elf was losing patience. “Ach, Fate! The bear! Where is the bear?” Romon shrugged.
“Where is Woden? Find Woden. Find kHamed! Get Renmir back and get him to Woden. Or the others. Even Findebras can help. I must find Cenenbanann!”
And there was scarce time for further words, the elf swiftly mounted Romon’s horse again. He gestured to Bergil and Renmir, both asleep on the cart – “get them back to Carohin. And find Woden!” and he was off.