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Thread: Ioreld's Tale

  1. #1
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    Ioreld's Tale: Into the Northerlands

    I knelt, my armor creaking, to hold Darrien’s hand, and for a few moments I could only think of what an agonizing death comes of a wound like his. In the Halls of the Gentle Hand I had seen my mother treating soldiers with an arrow lodged in the gut, and not even a tincture of maresfoot could stave off the pain. It was a slow and lingering way to die.

    Darrien noticed my hesitation. “I die for Gondor in honor and glory, sir,” he reassured me, giving my hand a little tug. “But you must not linger. The others need your leadership now.”

    He was right. “Your family in Lebennin will know of your glory; I will see to it myself when this is done,” I said to him. As I let his hand go and stood, there was a hint of surprise in his eyes, and of satisfaction. There had only been a moment to spare for the fallen; now it was time to make his sacrifice meaningful.

    In flushing out the enemy soldier at the top of this pile of rumpled ruins, Darrien had given us the best kind of advantage: the one that the enemy commander didn’t recognize. With a gesture I led the rest of the unit to a silent perch atop it. This ruin was of no use as a point from which to make an attack, which is why the enemy had guarded it so lightly. The cover below us would baffle even the best of archers -- and as it happened, the best of our archers was the man who fell to buy us this perch. But it did allow us to see, through the movement of leaves and shadows, where the enemy was. To prevent us from stopping their invasion at a chokepoint they had spread themselves all over the ruins of this fallen city, moving in stealth through it, all but ensuring that, even if we found and slew many of them, at least one of them would reach the fortress undetected. Except now we knew where every last man was. With gestures I assigned my men to turn the enemy’s surprise on itself, and one by one, they were cut down.

    * * *

    “But I only won five of the eleven sorties,” I protested.

    The master-at-arms of the garrison at Minas Tirith stared at me as if I were standing in a burning pyre, singing of faraway lands. He glanced back down at the scroll before him a moment, and then spoke as patiently as if he were lecturing a distracted child. “It is more a matter of how you won them, than how many you won, Ioreld. Those you won were amongst the most challenging, and you won those decisively and with few losses. The defense of the ruins of Bâr Húrin in particular. Sacrificing one man to capture a strategically worthless lookout point was an excellent tactic. Of the officers to conduct this exercise, scarcely one in a dozen thinks of it, and fewer still succeed at it. You did so with the loss of only one man.”

    “Perhaps, but it was my best archer. Perhaps he could have used--” I began, but the master-at-arms shook his head and interrupted me.

    “You know full well not even Darrien could have hit the enemy from there, and if he’d tried he would have given away your element of surprise. And speaking of Darrien, after the exercise, he gave you a better review than I’ve seen him give any other candidate officer.”

    I blinked and was for a moment at a loss for words. I had had no idea that the soldiers assigned to my unit would be reviewing me. All of us in officer training had been led to believe that all that mattered was how many sorties we won.

    The master-at-arms was looking at the scroll and continuing to speak. “In fact, you received high marks from nearly all the men under your command. Many of these soldiers have served under scores of officers, you know. This one speaks of how you took the time to learn about him, and then used that knowledge to advantage in a later sortie, having him approach an enemy from the right flank to attack from uphill…”

    “Well, he’d had an injury in the right leg a few years ago and could strike better from the right,” I protested as if this were patently obvious.

    “Indeed, but even in a true battle few captains would take the time to learn this, and even fewer in an exercise. And this one speaks of how you not only learned where he was from, but remembered it days later. This is the sort of leadership that builds morale and inspires men to their best. Now, we have many officers who take an interest in their men, don’t mistake me. Particularly those who have come up from the infantry. Those, like you, who come from a family of officers are less likely to do so. I recall your brother did not.”

    “Which one?” I asked.

    “You have more than one brother in the officer corps?” the master-at-arms asked, but before I could reply, he shook his head. “Well, I might expect as much from the sons of Eldethen. But I speak of Hathalon, who is now master-of-arms at your own home of Imloth Melui, is he not?” I nodded, but he was already continuing. “That took considerable work, as a lump of ore becomes a fine-edged sword. When I first was training him he didn’t even remember the names of the men under his command. And yet,” he moved down the scroll farther, “most in officer training who take an interest in their men then fail to lead them. They hesitate to send men into an honorable death, or they do not lead with decisive strength and swift action. Your record shows that you do both in equal measure; and that is the sign of a promising officer. Now, I’ll have no more argument from you.” He set the scroll down and once again held out the badge that was to be my insignia of rank. “There’s no time, for I have need of a Captain straight away, as I have an assignment. And you aren’t going to like it.”

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Aug 14 2015 at 11:20 PM. Reason: adding a subtitle

  2. #2
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    I'm going to be releasing this story bit by bit, every day or two, like an old-fashioned serial.

    Feel free to comment on the thread. Each time I post a reply to add more to the story, I will edit the previous story post to add a link to the next one, so those who just want to read the story straight through won't have to find the pieces amongst any comments.

    This story is basically me wishing I could roleplay as Ioreld, but not being able to, and thus writing the story as a way of sort of roleplaying with myself. Another player's character will be appearing in the story later, and she's had some input into the story and particularly the depiction of her character. (Also, she may one day write the same tale as seen from that character's perspective, which should be a fascinating contrast.)

    It had been my intent to set this in Tolkien's version of Middle-earth, as opposed to Turbine's version. I would incorporate Turbine creations only when I felt they absolutely fit within Tolkien's vision and theme and style; for instance, the way the Dunlendings are arrayed in clans, and the names of the clans, seem to well fit what Tolkien might have written, but the way they have large and permanent settlements seems more like a concession to gameplay than a real good fit.

    However, as that other player wants her character to end up being, in effect, a loremaster by the end of the story, and since loremasters don't really fit Tolkien's vision of the world at all (they read like a souped-up mishmash of the Istari, but as mortals), I've come up with some explanations that I hope will feel plausible even within Tolkien's depiction of the world. It's a little bit strained but I think it will turn out to work.

  3. #3
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    I was given only a few days to get used to the idea of being a Captain. I’d been given an ample purse and provisions for the assignment, but only a single day to choose three men to form my new unit and make ready. That left little time for farewells. And of course, my mother took up more than her share, since I was forced to stand idly by in the Houses of Healing waiting for a moment she wasn’t speaking before I could tell her my news, then endure a lengthy exploration concerning rumors she’d heard of the dangers of northern lands, the vagaries of the noble families, and a dozen other matters before I could continue on. My father was much more to the point. “I am sorry you had to give up your ambition to be a gardener, son. I know how much you loved the roses of Imloth Melui. But, as I told you, there rises a shadow in the East that must be met with courage and blood, and you must bear steel and represent the honor of your family. I am proud of you, Ioreld.” I wondered how much honor there might be in a mission like this, but reminded myself silently that, if this is what the Steward thought necessary, then it must be for the glory of Gondor.

    Is it a sign that a soldier thinks well of a Captain, that he would volunteer to join his unit after having previously been sent to die by that same Captain? To be sure, Darrien knew that death had been only an exercise, though he never stopped reminding me how much even a cloth-wrapped, blunted arrow-tip hurt when it struck you full-on in the stomach. (Though he always refused my offers to let him demonstrate it on me. No Captain should ever send one of his men to take an injury he would not himself take, not even in a training exercise.) But he must realize it could mean I would do the same on the field of battle, if it came to that, and still he was the first to volunteer. Elemir and Radolf I selected based on their skills, and I did not admit it aloud, but part of my decision rested on knowing that Elemir was a fine camp cook. Given the particulars of this mission, that might actually prove a life-saver.

    Thus far we had stayed at barracks and garrisons on the road through Lossarnach and all the way to the Bay of Belfalas, and the route I had planned would have us retracing these steps, then making our way around the White Mountains and through Gondor and Rohan for several weeks before we would reach more dangerous lands. But the sight of Dol Amroth was welcome, for it was a beautiful city full of cheer. Song wafted from the Harper’s Court through the paved avenues, and ever-present was the burbling of water in the many fountains, and the calling of swans. The masts of great ships creaked in the wind, and the sun on marbled colonnades was a spectacle for even the most tired of eyes. My soldiers were looking forward to having one night, though only one, where they could find a pub and… do the sorts of things soldiers did in a pub on the night before a long mission in dangerous lands. Things it was best not to think too much about, most likely.

    I had no such rest awaiting me in Dol Amroth, though. Before me waited the first task of my first assignment, and it would likely be the most challenging, and the one on which the most depended. How well I handled this would set the tone for the entire journey. On the morrow I would meet my charge. My stomach was in knots thinking of it, and a part of me longed for something simpler and less harrowing, like perhaps a charge into dozens of screaming, sword-swinging Corsairs.

    * * *

    There were those who said that the daughter of the Prince had elven blood -- and if there were those who said it, you can be sure that my mother repeated it now and then -- and she surely had the look of the elven about her. There was no such air about her father, Prince Imrahil, for though he was tall and fair, a figure of grace and authority, he came by it from the blood of long-lost Númenor, not from any distance ancestry of the Eldar. Though I had dwelled these last four years in the White City at the sixth level (a place of some prestige, earned by my mother’s position in the Houses of Healing), even I was struck dumb by the grandeur of the Great Hall of Dol Amroth, with nearly as many fountains and swans as outside in the Court of the Fount, but even more so by the Prince and his daughter. I bowed deeply as I awaited the Prince reading the orders I had been sent with.

    He read slowly, thoughtfully, and then pondered long before he spoke. “I see,” he said at last, and then more silence. I could tell that Lothíriel waited even more anxiously, as she had not yet seen the orders, but if she thought best to bide her time and wait for her father to speak, then doubly so for me. When he finally continued, it was in a low and measured voice, mellifluous and clear. “I have seen myself that the men of Umbar grow bold. Long have they envied our lands and gnawed at the hurt of their losses, wishing for a day they could strike us down and seize Gondor for their own, but always they could see their might was nowhere near a match for ours. They have made many raids in these past months, raids surprising both in their daring and in their apparent aimlessness -- sacrificing many men to capture a place they could not hold, or to sneak into a town they then abandoned. Perhaps it is as your master-at-arms says, that they have simply been gathering intelligence.”

    At this, Lothíriel could stay silent no longer. “Father, what does the scroll say?” she asked impatiently. “What brings this young Captain to our city? Do we face war?”

    “In time, daughter,” the Prince said. “Send word to your cousin Shadryn that she is to dine with us this night, and have the cooks prepare a banquet. The Captain will also be dining with us, where he will have his chance to meet the lady and tell her of her fate.” Though he spoke with certainty, he also had a smile in his eyes as he turned to me and said, “I do not envy you this charge, Captain.”

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 20 2015 at 07:01 AM.

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    The dinner was uncomfortable in every respect. The food, of course, was the finest at the command of the Prince of Dol Amroth, and even the hobbits of the distant Shire, if such a people and such a place truly existed, could not have wished for better. But I scarcely tasted it. I thought of the preparations I had set into motion, to depart only two mornings hence, and whether I and my men had thought of everything we would need for this journey. I thought of how uncomfortable a captain’s tabard, with full insignia of rank, could be, particularly when one was taking such great pains to avoid creasing it, or soiling it with the fine food I was barely tasting. But mostly, I thought of how to explain to the Lady Shadryn what was to happen next.

    She was, by all accounts, a tempestuous young woman, used to getting her own way and prone to doing as she wished regardless of what she was told. My brother, who served in the Armory, told me that she was renowned as much for her temper as for her beauty, but more than either for her mischief -- it seems she didn’t just ignore when she was told what to do or not do, she deliberately flouted orders, even from the Prince himself, and particularly when it came the proper manners of the court. She could wear a fine evening gown and dine at a dinner party if she had to, but as often as not she would skip it to go riding or be found digging in the dirt.

    As she sat across from me, having scarcely even glanced at me between moments of expressing her irritation at having been forced to dine here on such short notice, I could think of nothing but the challenges this might present in dangerous lands. One expects soldiers to be ready to act quickly, without second-guessing, when a Captain gives orders, and lives depend on that; but you could not expect that from civilians, and none more so than a spirited noblewoman with a contrary streak.

    I saw the Prince glance at me now and then, and the smile was still in his eyes, filled with an amused sympathy at my discomfort and my plight. The Princess seemed more anxious, and her eyes rested more on Lady Shadryn than me, though for her part Shadryn took no notice of any of this. She had, apparently, made plans for a ride to the beacon of Amon Lontir with a friend, and was quite cross at having instead to change into her new evening gown of resplendent, shimmering sapphire-hued silk, and have her hair put up in a delicate net of diamonds and silver, at Lothíriel’s insistence. From time to time she started to ask if she might, should she finish her supper quickly enough, be excused in time for a short ride before nightfall, but the Prince shook his head with such stern authority that she rarely even got as far as starting the question.

    But as dishes were being cleared away and sweet wine served, her impatience began to rise. I cleared my throat, and in my mind I heard the sound as the winding of a horn of battle, to raise the spirits of a newly-minted Captain about to hurl himself at a fierce troll. “My lady Shadryn, I have news of most urgency to impart to you,” I said, and my voice cracked only a hint.

    At first she didn’t quite realize I was speaking to her. Despite being seated across from one another, we had not exchanged a word since introductions, and I wondered if she even remembered my name, having paid little attention when it was given. She soon dispelled my uncertainty on that point, as she spoke with exaggerated precision. “And what might that be, Captain Ioreld of the Army of Gondor, son of Eldethen and Ioreth?” Though her words echoed the herald’s when I had been introduced, down to the tiniest hint of cadence, her intonation fairly dripped with challenge.

    The thought of what I had to say, and its import, buoyed my courage, so when I spoke it was with a clarity and certainty I had lacked but moments before. “A shadow rises, and war comes soon to Gondor. I have been given orders from the halls of the Steward himself, concerning a plot by the Corsairs of Umbar, which involves you.” Her eyes widened at this unexpected turn, for what had a young cousin of Lothíriel to do with war? I continued so as to answer the question before she could ask. “We have obtained intelligence suggesting a plot amongst the Corsairs to capture certain persons of noble birth, those who are not well-guarded or versed in the arts of war,” at this I cast a glance at the Prince, “but who might, if held for ransom, hurt, or killed, influence the actions of such persons.”

    I expected this to take some time to be understood, but Lady Shadryn’s mind was as keen as my sword’s edge, and it was scarcely two beats of my heart before she spoke. “So they mean to capture me to compel the Prince to surrender Dol Amroth in exchange for my release?”

    “That is one possibility,” I began, but I could not complete the thought, as her words were already tumbling into the next thought.

    “Then there is no need, for the Prince would never surrender an entire city and its people for the sake of one person, not even a cousin of his daughter.” She spoke this as if it dismissed the entire discussion, and indeed, was turning her head towards the Prince, perhaps to ask if she could be excused in time for a brief moonlit ride.

    “But it is only one possibility,” I continued as if she had not even interrupted, seeking to draw her back to the matter at hand. “More likely, however, they would use the threat of harm, or the actual act of harm, upon your person.” This caught her attention; her eyes turned back to me. “Should they capture you, or any of a score of other possible targets, the sight of you having suffered grievous injuries, torture and… other things too unspeakable to mention, might lead not to surrender, but instead, to poor decisions made in a moment of hurt and sadness. It is a deplorable act, but it is one that the men of Umbar often use to great effect, even upon one another, when they fall to internecine conflict.” Her eyes were darkening, so as I continued I tried to soften the blow. “Or they may ransom you, not for the surrender of the entire city, but for something lesser, such as the release of a prisoner of theirs, free passage through contested lands for their men, or something else of strategic worth. Whatever their intent might be, it has been decided that it is in Gondor’s best interest to prevent it.”

    “If you are going to be hanging about me guarding me all the time, you had best at least know how to dance, and I hope you have some finer clothes than that,” she began, with a dismissive, irritated tone, as if she thought the very possibility a joke. “But why send some Captain from Minas Tirith when our own garrison is well-manned? Is not your brother one of the officers that serves here?”

    The surprise that she even realized my family lineage, or knew that of the men in the Armory, or had connected the two, when moments ago I doubted she even knew my name, held me a moment, before I shook it off and made answer. “The orders from the Steward are not to guard you here in Dol Amroth, my Lady. We are to escort you to a remote land where you will be safe both from any kidnapping attempt and from whatever war is bound to come to Gondor. Two days hence you will leave Dol Amroth under the guard of myself and my unit, where we will journey to--”

    That was as far as I got before the expected outburst. “Leave Dol Amroth?” she called out, and by now the entire hall was silent, even the servants clearing away dishes now paused in mid-stride. “Leave Gondor? Unacceptable! Why, I have a history lesson two days hence, and Lord Relemen is hosting a garden party next week, in the garden with those most unusual trees I’ve yet to see, and…”

    As she started to trail off, I took the opportunity to cut in. “Nevertheless, my Lady, for your safety, that is the order of the Steward of Gondor. You will have tomorrow to make preparations and say your farewells. I and my men are at your disposal to help in any way we can with those preparations. Provisions are being laid for the journey, and the stable-master is readying your horse. We must perforce pack light as we will be traveling through dangerous wilderness and lands overrun with savage men before we reach our destination, so there will be no need for evening gowns and books and such finery. You must also--”

    “What is our destination?” she said, eyes whirling back to me with the intensity of a bow fully drawn, arrow nocked and quivering on the string. “Surely wherever it is, I shall need books there.”

    “We are bid to make way for Bree, which lies at the meeting of the Great East Road and the Greenway, in the lands that were once Arnor,” I explained. “It will be a journey of several months.”

    “Bree!” she cried. “That is scarcely more than an outpost! I shouldn’t wonder if they do not even have a proper library.” She turned to the Prince, her eyes changing from demanding to pleading within the space of a heartbeat. “Surely this is not necessary, my Prince,” she asked. “I can be guarded well enough here, where I am kept safe within the mighty walls of one of the strongest, nay, the very strongest of all fortifications, under the benevolent guardianship of the Prince of Dol Amroth himself, and the finest garrison of soldiers Gondor has. You may safely send this diligent young Captain to more pressing matters and attend to my safety here, surely?”

    The Prince shook his head. “If we could, it would only be at the cost of men and attention I cannot spare, dear. But it boots us nothing to discuss it. The Steward has decreed it, and thus it must be. You will make preparations and do all other things as this fine young Captain says, and you will furthermore, as you travel in his company, heed his word as strictly as do his own soldiers, for your life and safety depend upon it. In the wilds, when threatened by beasts, or men who are scarcely more than such, there is no time for argument.”

    She turned and looked at me, and I could tell I was being weighed and coming up wanting. Her voice was full of defiance and vinegar. “I am a Lady of Dol Amroth. I shall not be given orders by a puppy of a Captain, like some filthy soldier--”

    Much has been said of the Prince of Dol Amroth, but one thing that all agreed was that he was a man that men would follow, one who would brook no disrespect for the soldiers under his command. Even as these last words crossed her lips, Shadryn knew she had gone too far. She stopped herself, her eyes widening as she realized her own error, and she turned to see the Prince rising to his feet. The servants had all taken a silent step back from the table. The Prince’s voice was not of fire but of cold iron. “You will heed his words, and you will do so with gratitude towards the soldiers who will give their lives to save yours. And should you fail to do so, may the vultures take delight in your remains, for I shall shed no tears for any cousin of mine who can speak thus.” Lothíriel gasped slightly at these words, but everyone else remained silent as Imrahil turned and made his way from the hall.

    * * *
    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 21 2015 at 06:52 AM.

  5. #5
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    If you aren't already on Laurelin, you ought to join us! If you are, put it on the Laurelin Archives!
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    r4 lvl 100 - Roelen, Guardian of Lindon
    r1 leveling - Celerad, Captain of Gondor

  6. #6
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    I'm on Landroval. The choice comes down to time zone, as I'm in the USA, though apparently I don't fit that very well either since I'm on the east coast and I have a day job.

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    Would that we had had a few days in Dol Amroth. Time to enjoy the city, particularly for my men, who would not see a keg of ale or a comely barmaid for months to come. Time to go over the route, the provisions, the preparations, the plan, a few more times. But above all, time for Lady Shadryn to be made ready, and persuaded to take the journey with the appropriate gravity. I had spent so many hours talking to her about why she would not need three sets of hair combs and ten books for the journey, that I scarcely had time to say more than a few words with my brother, who I’d not seen in two years. Nor did I have any time to visit the Harper’s Court and listen to the legendary music of Dol Amroth, nor to stand atop the highest parapets and gaze out at the expanse of ocean. And how much time I had spent explaining that she must not tell anyone where she was going, and fabricating some credulous tale of escorting her to a distant family matter in Minas Tirith so she would have something to tell her friends, that I might instead have spent wandering the legendary library of Saphadzîr, reading about horticulture or history.

    They say you can tell an old soldier by the fact that he can get some sleep anywhere, at any time, with the slightest opportunity. It had only been a few years since I had set aside my gardener ambitions and joined the officer corps for training, and I was no old soldier. The night before our planned departure, I was lying in the small cell that had been given to me in the garrison -- being a Captain now, I no longer had to sleep on a cot amongst dozens of others in the barracks, and had a small room with its own bed and door -- and stared up through the small window at the stars, my mind wandering from one thing to another. The moon still hung heavy in the sky when I gave up and made my way to the fountain near the gates, leading my horse.

    The gate guards gave me a suspicious look, as nearly no one moved in the city at this time of day, but then simply nodded. Despite my best efforts, word of the Lady Shadryn’s departure had gotten around the city. Foolish, I thought; if anyone had planned to try to capture her, now they knew exactly when and where she would be. But there was nothing for it. I sat on the edge of the fountain and waited, passing the time by playing my lute. It would have to stay behind; there wouldn’t be room for such a frivolous thing, as we had only two pack horses, but as I hadn’t gotten to play it or even listen to music for some time, it seemed a good way to steady my nerves.

    I don’t know how long she was there before I noticed. Apparently, Lady Shadryn also had a hard time sleeping that night, understandably; I was only going on my first assignment, she was leaving her whole life behind, and had had less time to accept the idea. So she’d also made her way to the fountain, come upon me softly playing old folk tunes, and kept enough of a distance to keep listening, until I finally noticed her. When I did, self-consciously I stopped playing, but she immediately protested, “No, play on, Captain,” and awkwardly I at least finished out the song, while glancing over at my unexpected audience. I was glad to see she’d worn a riding outfit that, while a bit fine with golden buttons and similar adornment, was also practical for a journey; I’d half-feared I’d see her in the sapphire gown. When the song ended, she was quiet a moment, then said simply, “I had no idea you performed,” her voice and demeanor softer than ever I’d seen it. “At least I will have that while we journey.”

    “But there’s no room for it,” I answered, tapping the lute. At her stricken expression I started to explain the necessities of travel through the wilderness, the tents and cookware, the need for food and water in case of desolate places or lands too dangerous to hunt, for tools to repair armor and weapons and horseshoes; but she would have none of it. At the last, I found myself truly astonished; it meant so much to her that she offered to leave behind four of the five books that, at the last, I’d been unable to persuade her to go without, just to make room for the lute. I could only shake my head in wonder at how I might explain to the master-at-arms why I packed a lute to travel through the wildest parts of Eriador, as if I were some sort of troubadour instead of a Captain of Gondor.

    * * *

    It was well that the first few weeks of our travels took us through Gondor, with relatively little danger. My men were somewhat lackadaisical about keeping guard when we stayed the night in a public house in a Gondorian city, or at a barracks, or at the worst, in some farmer’s hayloft; but there was no sign of Corsairs there amongst the good people of Gondor, and thus, we could come to know one another before our lives might depend on discipline and organization.

    Not that we got to know one another that well. I and my men certainly took time around cook-fires and along lengthy stretches of road to talk of homes and families, hopes and fears, songs and tales, and the paths that had led us here; and by this, Lady Shadryn could learn much of us, though we learned little of her. I would come to discover that, even when she seemed disinterested and distracted, she had a keen ear and a ready mind, and by time we were passing south of Imloth Melui, she not only knew it was the place of my birth, she recalled the specifics of where I’d tended rose-bushes or planted trees, and persuaded me to allow us to go a short distance out of our way to see it. How could I resist? She’d never seen the most lovely valley in all of Gondor, and like most of its native sons, I wished to share the glory of Imloth Melui with all. Though it was too early in spring for the blooms to be at their brightest, the sight of the blossoms set my heart at ease. It was worth an afternoon to walk amongst them pointing out the loveliest secret spots to Shadryn and dining with my brother and his wife. For that day, even Lady Shadryn was pleasant and agreeable.

    For that day, at least. For the rest of our travel, she was as changeable as the summer sky. For a morning she might rail at length about how abominable it was that she was forced to sleep in a barn, be watched over by common-folk, dine on coarse bread and bitter ale, bathe in a cold stream, and have no freedom to ride as she saw fit and feel the wind in her hair. That afternoon she might be cheerful, encouraging me to play the lute while we rode so she could sing along, mostly making up words as she went and turning venerated old lays into silly bits of merriment, or threatening to dart off into the hillside to pluck some berries she’d spied from a hillock, sending all of us chasing after to be sure she remained protected on these diversions. By evening she might be sour and glum, speaking to no one and staring into the fire no matter what anyone said or did, and then overnight we might waken to find she’d tied cunning knots in our reins or hidden our cloaks in the boughs of a nearby oak.

    And ever and again, she would test me. It was hard to insist that precautions, like never going off without someone nearby, even when attending to mundane matters like bathing, be followed scrupulously while within the bounds of Gondor and in sight of garrisons and beacons. But I feared that if I allowed discipline to diminish this early into the journey, what might happen when we were in the depths of Dunland, surrounded by warring tribes of savages with no love for outsiders, and she took a fancy to wander off looking for a flower?

    Thus, I had to take a stern and commanding tone, and then had to ensure there were threats behind it I could follow through on. We had to, of course, offer the lady the deference due to her station, which only made it the more challenging. With a petulant, unruly child, one might send her to bed without supper, or take away a favorite toy for a day, but the cousin of a princess, already feeling put upon and deprived of essentials, does not take the right lesson from such things. I did make it a policy that, if she’d been difficult, that evening I would not be in a mood to play the lute, which was true enough, but also provided a small disincentive. But such tricks could only go so far. In the end, all I had to fall back on was a firm voice and a confidence in my own authority.

    Some days that would be enough; and as we traveled, little by little it made an impression. By the time we were making way through Rohan, accepting the hospitality of our Horse-Lord allies and staying as guests in their crude but warm mead halls, she might still engage in mischief or defiance almost as often as that first week, but she began to develop a habit of looking contrite when she was found out, or hiding to try to avoid me chiding her for her misdeeds. She didn’t slip off on her own less often, but she certainly seemed to treat it as something she shouldn’t have done. I wondered if that was a necessary stage towards enough discipline to survive the journey.

    * * *
    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 22 2015 at 07:00 AM.

  8. #8
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    In the town of Marton, we made camp in an unused barn from which we could see, out one window, the trailing foot of the Misty Mountains looming to the north, and out the other window, the wall of the White Mountains. Where they came together, hidden by the wall of the barn, was the Gap of Rohan, where we would ford the River Isen and leave the province of Rohan. To be sure, even beyond it, the Rohirrim maintained a few camps and forts; but by early morning we would be in lands where the savage Dunlendings might wander freely.

    As we supped on thin broth, a quiet hung in the air. We hadn’t spoken of it, but we all knew that things changed on the morrow. I broke the silence at last, starting with what we were all thinking. “When we leave this place in the morning, we cross into Dunland. The Dunlendings live in warring tribes, and they are unwelcoming to outsiders. All the precautions we have been following,” I frowned as Elemir gave a little snort at this, “will become vital on the morrow, as this is the most dangerous part of our journey. If we cross swords with the Dunlendings, even if we survive in triumph by shedding their blood, should even one hear of it, we will have the enmity of the rest of their kind, and the next fortnight will be spent fighting for every yard. We will, in this case, very likely be slain, to the last man. And woman.” I pointedly looked at Shadryn. “The only way we will survive is to cross their lands with the utmost caution, and make no hostile gesture.”

    “What do they consider a hostile gesture?” asked Radolf, sharpening his sword. It is well that swords are made from steel, for as often as Radolf felt a need to sharpen his, were it made of anything softer, he would wear one away every day.

    I let out a soft sigh, having hoped to put this question off a bit longer. “Amongst the tribes of Dunland, there is, I have read, a tradition of challenge. The head of a tribe or hunting party, on encountering another, may well open with threatening gestures. Rude and insulting words, physical intimidation, brandishing of weapons or fists, bluster and bravado. This is part of how they determine who is to be the leader, and often how they resolve conflicts, but it proves doubly dangerous for us. If they offer us such challenge, we must not rise to it.”

    “Why not? If that’s how they do such things…” Radolf asked.

    “Because we are outsiders, if we rise to it, they will feel obligated to continue, and to ultimately triumph. Which will inevitably take the form of the spilling of blood. Should two tribes clash and blood be spilled, it only adds to a long history of conflict; they will seek to avenge the slight, but it need not mean war, and the loser can retreat to his tribe’s hunting grounds to recover. But we have no such retreat. If we triumph, the tribe will hunt us, and likely, tribes that squabble one with the other over hunting grounds will come together to hunt us, and then turn back to fighting with one another only when it comes to picking over our bodies for trophies.”

    Radolf shook his head. “Then what can we do?” Clearly this seemed unacceptable to him, and understandably so.

    I felt much the same. “Even if they should slight our honor, or the honor of the Lady, or of Gondor, we must dismiss their words as the posturing of ignorant savages, and not rise to the challenge.” Shadryn stiffened slightly, but it was the soldiers who seemed about to revolt, so I took a firmer tone. “We have our orders, to deliver the Lady Shadryn safely to Bree. That is more important than convincing some flea-ridden spear-man to concede to the eminence of Gondor. We have seen the majesty of the White City, the broad expanses of the Bay of Belfalas, the gardens of Imloth Melui, the swans in the fountains of Dol Amroth. We know of our own history, our lineage tracing back to the shores of Númenor, and all the great deeds our forebears have accomplished. We hold this in our hearts, and nothing a Dunland brawler says can take anything away from that.”

    While the others were silent, Radolf still seemed dissatisfied. After a moment, he said, “What about fisticuffs?”

    I was taken aback a moment, then stopped to think. After some consideration, I said, “You may have something there, Radolf. It’s possible a debt of honor can be paid through a bare-knuckles fight, at need, without incurring any debt of blood. If it were to happen, it would have to be my fight, as a meeting of chieftains. And it’s still something to be avoided by any means available. But better that than the drawing of steel.” Radolf seemed satisfied by this, though only just.

    * * *

    It was another sleepless night. Elemir was on watch, standing in the doorway of the barn, and Darrien and Radolf both were snoring, but Lady Shadryn had been silent since supper, and now she rose from her bedroll and sat with her back to a stall door, her eyes heavy with worry. I had seen many moods cross those eyes, but not this one. I watched a moment, then rose and cautiously approached. “What troubles you, my Lady?” I asked.

    She was silent a few moments, considering her answer. “I suppose that, after what you said earlier, it all has become real.” When I tilted my head in incomprehension, she explained. “Until now, I have known,” she touched between her eyes, “that this journey was full of peril, the danger of the wild lands, the threat of the Corsairs. I have known this, but I haven’t felt it.” Here, she touched over her heart. “My feelings have been ire, at all the inconveniences and discomforts. Or I have thought of the journey as if it were already over and a story I could tell to my friends on my return, of all the frightening turns, the triumphs, the discoveries of far lands, the adventure and derring-do, the rigors of the road. It would be quite a tale, would it not? And that is how I have felt it, as if I were hearing the tale, or writing it. But when I heard you speak of the Dunlendings, of what lies ahead, tomorrow… for the first time, I’ve felt that this is real. That on the morrow, you may have to lay down your life for me, that your family may have to mourn you for me. And that, soon after, without you to protect me, I may be the next to fall. That my cousin may grow old never seeing me again, never even knowing where my bones lie. That my body may molder on some forgotten hill, picked over by vultures, the Prince laughing to himself that I deserved it.” She was trying to hold her courage in place, but I could see fearful tears forming in her eyes. “That these are all real things, even probable things. How foolish I feel to have spent days weeping for the loss of a few worthless books.”

    “There is nothing worthless in books, my lady; many of my days have been spent with them and most happily,” I said, trying to be comforting, and that did indeed elicit a smile, but a short-lived one. “I am sorry that you have had to come to this realization, but glad that you have come to it today, not tomorrow.”

    “And now I feel like a burden,” she continued. “Here are four men, good men of Gondor’s army, putting their lives at risk, enduring every discomfort I am, being away from home just as long and just as far, just to protect me. But what am I enduring it for? Who am I protecting? I cannot even protect myself.”

    I had no answer to that. I considered arguing that the Steward had sent her away to protect Gondor, that in enduring this journey she was serving her homeland, but some instinct told me this would not satisfy her. After a moment, I turned and walked back to the horses, and drew a dagger, with its sheath, from the bags, then returned to her and held it out to her. She stared at it as if I were offering her a fish covered in ants, so I explained. “A knife is no match for a warrior with a sword, but it is enough to protect yourself, and easily learned. Here, take the handle this way.”

    At first, she was reluctant to even touch the knife, but once it was in her hand, and she’d been shown the proper way to hold it and how to move her wrist, she seemed almost eager. There is something compelling about the heft of a well-balanced blade in the hand, and the effort of learning helped to distract her from her worry, without hiding from it -- instead, it made her feel she was doing something about it, taking control over it.

    “Try to stab me,” I told her, but she shook her head. “No, I mean it, my Lady, try to stab me.” She refused, too confident that she might manage it, so I had to suggest she sheath the knife and then try to stab me. It was an empty gesture; if she had somehow managed to get the point of the blade at my chest inside the sheath, it was likely the slim leather of the scabbard would offer little protection, but it appeased her. She lunged clumsily at me, and then drew up in puzzlement, finding herself with no knife and me behind her. I patiently explained what had happened and we tried again. Eventually I allowed her to make contact; I could still easily have avoided the blow, but I judged that making her feel confident was at least as important as making her capable, and probably more so, since the most effective use of a blade is always in making the enemy choose not to attack.

    For an hour, we danced with blades. I showed her how to watch a man’s midsection to see which way he was about to move before he began moving, how to duck under a blow, how to use a man’s size against him to topple him. I demonstrated, with some help from Elemir, tricks to knock a blade out of a man’s hand. I showed the spot under the edge of a shirt of maille where a small knife can be worked up and under, causing a debilitatingly painful, or even fatal, wound. But mostly I showed her, without making it clear that I was, how to hold the knife so that a man skilled in warfare would believe she knew what to do with it, so he might choose not to approach. A man threatening a woman, particularly a lovely and delicate woman, might be intending to simply overpower her to have his way with her; but if the woman were holding a knife, looking like she’s had blood on her hands before, such a man would likely seek easier prey.

    I was feeling quite pleased with her progress, and her enthusiasm, as the night slipped away. She was tending to lunge forward too hard, unbalancing herself, even though I’d explained how little force a sharp blade needed to draw blood and pain, but I’d struggled to find a way to express to her how to keep her balance better. I set up a pile of hay and then stepped behind her, putting my arms around to either side to guide her arms, and urged her to stab at the hay, and this time I pressed against her back and kept one hand on her stomach, the other on her arm, to guide her. The dagger sank into the hay, while her feet stayed firmly planted, and I exclaimed, pleased, “See how much better that worked? Let’s try it again.” But as I stepped away to get the hay back into place, I noticed something had abruptly changed. She was staring at me, and the knife, with an unreadable but clearly unhappy look on her face. I stopped, dumbfounded. “What’s wrong, my Lady?” I asked, turning the knife to offer the hilt to her.

    She took it, then curtly, her voice like an icy wind from the mountain peaks, she said, “That’s enough, Captain.” She hadn’t used that title the whole evening, or indeed, I realized, for some days, having instead fallen into the habit of calling me by name. She slipped the dagger into the scabbard, correctly and carefully, I was pleased to see, then turned back to her bedroll, and without another word, she curled up facing away from me and steadfastly ignored me, and everything else in the barn for the rest of the night.

    I stood in puzzlement for a time, and glanced questioningly at Elemir, but he only shrugged as if to say he had no idea either. After a few attempts to inquire if all was well with her, all of which were rebuffed with silence or only a grunt, I returned to my bedroll and sat in silence, trying to puzzle out the mystery. What had I done? What had changed so abruptly? It was a mystery whose lock was beyond my abilities to open, and I got little rest that night.

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 23 2015 at 06:31 AM.

  9. #9
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    There were six of them, three men and three women, their faces and bodies painted with garish stripes in earthen hues, wearing nothing but treated hides painted in the same way; and they were encircling us.

    Very nearly they had ended up surrounding Shadryn. She had caught sight of ruins and, without asking, spurred her horse off to investigate them, leaving the rest of us hurrying to catch up. While being irritated at her for this defiant and dangerous act, I was also, in a hidden place in my mind, pleased. It was a turn away from the cold mood that had lingered after the knife-play lesson, through that first day in a Dunland forest, damp, rainy, and uncomfortable. I hesitated to chide her as well as I ought, and instead focused only on getting my men back into a diamond formation around her. Which is the only reason we were in position when the savages came from behind a broken stone wall to form a circle around us.

    Even she tensed at the sight of them. Elemir’s hand moved to the hilt of his sword, despite all my lectures how we must never raise a weapon first but only be prepared to defend ourselves. Radolf, thankfully, made no move for his bow but instead held the banner of Gondor higher. I gave out a small hiss to stay Elemir’s hand, and nudged my horse forward, making clear that I was the leader of our group, then held out my hands in what I hoped was an unthreatening gesture. “Good day, friends,” I began, but a hint of an edge crept into my voice as I spoke, for I noticed at least one of the Dunlending women was taking a particular interest in Shadryn.

    “Wrach-gwirod?” one of the larger men asked, pointing at Shadryn with the tip of a crude sword. I didn’t know what to make of this question. While in Dol Amroth I hadn’t had as much time to spend in the library as I wished, and had little luck finding books about Dunland -- it seemed a few had gone missing -- but what little time I’d had reinforced all I’d learned before, that even the Dunlending savages still knew the Westron language. After all, Dunland had once been part of Gondor, in the days of Anárion and Isildur. Before I could think what to ask, he pointed the sword at me and asked, “Brenin?” Then he laughed and pointed back to Shadryn. “Gwraig?”

    Dimly I remembered something from a book in the Library of Saphadzîr. “Brenin,” I said with a nod, pointing to myself. “Ioreld Brenin.” If I remembered correctly the word meant something akin to ‘chief’, and the most important thing to convey now was that they should be treating with me.

    “That is well, and her?” the man asked in a coarse accent, unlike anything I’d heard before, but the words were clearly recognizable Westron. “Wrach-gwirod or gwraig?”

    I glanced back to Shadryn, who I was surprised to find was holding back a laugh. I narrowed my eyes and cocked my head questioningly, and she straightened herself out and took on a more serious expression. “Neither,” she said to the Wild-Man as she swung down from her horse. “Just another traveler, and gwraig to no man. Least of all this one,” she added, pointing at me.

    All of the Dunlendings set to laughing, and while I felt sure I was now on the wrong end of a joke at my expense, better that than the wrong end of a sword. The Dunlending woman took a step towards Shadryn, holding out a hand, and when Darrien stepped between them, Shadryn made a disapproving sound and guided him aside. Why he allowed her to is a mystery to me, as he had clear orders not to let anyone near her, but I also felt sure that, somehow, I would have done the same thing in his place. Even as this was happening, the larger man with the sword was saying to me, “What means this?” pointing the sword at Radolf’s banner.

    With one eye on Shadryn, who was now talking easily with the savage woman with Darrien standing anxiously nearby, I made answer to the man, still trying to keep the situation calm. “It is the banner of my people, the land of Gondor, far to the south.” I tapped the White Tree on my badge of rank, then pointed in a southerly direction, making sure not to point southeast towards Rohan. Fearing this might not be enough, I said, “Not of Rohan.” The banner of Gondor was a calculated risk; we’d prefer that any Corsair scouts, or those who might sell them information, not learn of a fellowship from Gondor passing through, but better the Dunlendings know we were from Gondor than suspect we were of their ancestral enemies, the Rohirrim.

    The man laughed. “Not forgoil. We have eyes.” He then pointed to my hair, and then to Elemir’s, which was even darker than mine. “Duvodiad not need flag for to tell this.” He slipped his sword back into a crude scabbard, little more than a hook on a belt, and asked, “Why you go this road?”

    Ah, the heart of the matter. “We pass through your lands, with respect, to go to a land far to the north,” I explained slowly, accompanying my words with grand yet unthreatening gestures. Shadryn and the woman were engaged in animated conversation, which seemed to focus on the ornamentation, a line of silver chain and beadwork, along the edge of Shadryn’s riding tunic. “We ask only passage through, and will do no harm as we pass.”

    “Then you not hunt bwach and uch. Cow and bull,” he explained the last word with his fingers curled like horns at his forehead, then did a credible imitation of the lowing of a cow. “Belong to Uch-lûth. Hunt rabbit and elk and wing-beasts. Hunt with clan, share, yes? We hunt hill,” he gestured to the rising land to our east, “you hunt with us, go to camp,” he pointed towards a distant point on the hill where I could see a thin stream of smoke rising from an unseen fire, “make feast, all.”

    I was just about to accept what I took to be his offer when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the woman talking to Shadryn starting to pull off her coarse, but practical, tunic of hide. Darrien was at a loss; we’d discussed many contingencies, but none of them included women disrobing in front of him. Shadryn intervened, though, reaching out a hand to stop the woman, then leaned in to whisper something to her. She then pointed to Darrien, then me, and the man to whom I was speaking. The Dunlending woman seemed puzzled, but then nodded and let her tunic fall back into place. Darrien and I let out the same sigh of relief, then I turned to the man, the chief, or brenin, of his clan, I would later learn, and agreed to share a hunt.

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 24 2015 at 06:30 AM.

  10. #10
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    While the men and women of Dunland were savages, they were fearsome and skilled hunters, and the women easily matched the men. When we all gathered at their camp-fire, we carried two small elk, one of which had been caught by a fleet-footed woman chasing it and leaping atop it as if she were a bobcat. While the elk were being skinned and cooked, work shared between the Dunlendings and Elemir (who took the chance to show them a few tricks of his own), Shadryn and the woman she’d been speaking with disappeared around a rock. I gestured to Darrien, who began to silently move towards the rock, trying to offer Shadryn a balance of protection and privacy, but the women emerged a few minutes later. My eyes fairly bulged out to see that they had traded clothes, and I was still staring for a few moments as Shadryn walked over to me, almost a swagger as she explored how comfortable these crudely painted hides were. Her hair was out of the net of silver and diamonds, flowing freely over her shoulders; it was longer than I’d expected, and nearly as dark as my own.

    She sat down next to me, for the first time since the knife-play lesson, and said, “I suppose you’re wondering. Wrach means… well, each clan has a chieftain, or brenin, who is often the eldest man, or at least the eldest who can still fight and hunt. And an eldest woman, the wrach, who is often a healer and always considered the wisest of the clan. They were asking whether I was the clan’s wrach because of the decorations on my tunic.”

    “And that’s why you traded it?” I asked. There were a dozen more questions bubbling about in my head, but I deemed it best to take them one at a time.

    “That’s why Jaya was willing to trade for it. She is the daughter of the clan’s wrach, and hopes to become one herself one day. For me, it was a way to make friends, and didn’t you say it was best to make friends with these people rather than fighting with them?” She smiled sweetly at me.

    “Indeed,” I agreed, gesturing to the bountiful feast of venison just starting to sizzle over the fire. This was also an excellent spot for a camp-site, something at the forefront of my thoughts, as the previous night, our first in tents, had been damp and uncomfortable even to me. “But it seems you like these hides for themselves.”

    She hesitated a moment, then nodded. “I’m not sure why. They just seem more natural. What I wear in Dol Amroth isn’t for me. It’s for my obligations as a noblewoman, for the expectations of the lords and ladies. Even my riding clothes must be bedecked with finery that serves no purpose. These,” she smoothed her hand over the tanned hide of her tunic, “are simply here to afford protection from weather. When I walk in this, I feel like I’m walking in my own skin.” I had to turn away for a moment, and she quickly picked up on my thoughts. “And yes, the Dunlendings think little of being unclothed in front of others. But you needn’t worry, I saved you and your men from the terror of seeing a woman out of her tunic,” she concluded with a wry grin.

    Eager to change the subject, I asked, “How did you know what all these strange words meant?”

    “One of the books I brought with me concerns the people of Dunland,” she explained. Which caused me to frown inwardly; now I knew why the book I’d sought at the library was missing. Shadryn must have slipped it out of the library that same day, eluding the watchful eyes of the librarian. “I have been studying since we left Dol Amroth, when I could.” She frowned in thought, her eyes slipping to the horizon. “Gwirod means spirit; for some reason I’ve not puzzled out, they thought I was the kind of wrach that speaks to spirits. Forgoil means straw-head; it’s what they call the Rohirrim. Duvodiad means stranger, or outsider, basically anyone but the Dunlendings themselves.”

    Hesitantly, I asked, not sure if I wanted to know the answer, “And gwraig?”

    She got a bit quiet, which was better than laughing at me again, and said, “Wife. They were basically asking if I was yours. The brenin and wrach are often paired.” There was something odd in her voice that I couldn’t place, and I thought it best to change the subject once more, but before I could think of something to say, she continued, “I made sure he knew I belong to no man. And do not intend to, not in the way of the Dunlendings, nor in the ways of Gondor, for some time.” The look she gave me was pointed and solemn, and I saw in them an echo of the coldness of a few days before, but it lasted but a moment, and then her relaxed smile was back. “I’m going to get some of the venison before they overcook it. Do you want some?” And before I could answer, she was off to the spit, the knife I’d given her in her hand before she arrived.

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 25 2015 at 08:04 AM.

  11. #11
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    Over the weeks we spent crossing Dunland, we met many hunters from several clans. At times our encounters were strained, and we were bid to move on as quickly as possible out of the lands a particular tribe would hunt, particularly when we met those of the Draig-lûth, who seemed unnecessarily hostile. Sometimes a tribe would offer challenge of word or deed, and more than once, I was able to offer a bare-knuckled fight that satisfied the needs of tradition, without incurring a blood-debt. I won some and lost some, and felt about equally sore after each.

    But more often the people of Dunland we met were, though wary and protective, ultimately curious and somewhat welcoming. More than once we were invited to share in a hunt, and in the following feast. Neither of our archers, Darrien and Radolf, had done much hunting; they’d studied the bow primarily as a weapon of war. But their efforts were appreciated by the Dunlendings, particularly when Darrien helped drive some wild dogs away from their cattle with a few well-placed arrows. Elemir’s skill with cooking was celebrated from time to time as well, and Shadryn’s knowledge of the words and customs of the Dunlendings proved invaluable.

    As spring turned to summer and we grew closer to Minhiriath I thought we might reach that wasteland without incident, but our fortune ran out near the northern edges of Dunland. We had but a few days left before we would leave the lands over which the clans ranged, and while we were still being cautious and kept a schedule of watches, we no longer rigorously maintained a diamond formation, and when we saw signs of hill-men, we prepared to speak to them rather than to fight. Thus it was that, as we crossed into a narrow defile and heard hints of movement on the rocks above us, we closed ranks, but we weren’t fully prepared when a half-dozen Hebog-lûth started throwing spears at us from above without a single word.

    Soldiers of Gondor are well-trained; as soon as I saw a savage rise up over the rock with a spear pointed at us, and could see from the way he was moving that he was about to throw, I called out “Strike!” We’d agreed beforehand that was the word that signaled we were engaged, that it was time for steel and blood, to avoid anyone prematurely starting a fight we’d have to finish. Almost instantly the soldiers were spurring their horses into motion, and Lady Shadryn was looking about alertly. With enemies around us, I stayed with the Lady and focused on knocking aside any spears that came towards her, trusting my men to find the attackers, wishing I had thought to bring a shield. Strangely, though, none of them were striking at her; in fact, they were pointedly avoiding her while attacking the soldiers.

    The Hebog-lûth were skilled warriors and hunters, but they did not have the discipline of Gondor’s army. When Elemir charged towards them, they jumped aside, right into the paths of Darrien’s and Radolf’s arrows. In the space of a dozen heartbeats, the hill-men were routed, four of them down and two making to run. “Catch them,” I called out. “If they warn others…” but I didn’t need to say more; Radolf and Darrien were in pursuit, while Elemir fell back to guard against any ambush.

    “Surely we should let them go?” Shadryn said in a stricken voice. It did not occur to me until later that this might well have been the first time she ever had seen a man lying in a pool of his own blood, dying. “There’s no need to kill them all, is there?”

    “Any who escape will tell others of their kind to call us an enemy. We will have several days of running from nearly constant attacks. I do not relish the idea of withholding quarter. It is not what honor demands. But I must prioritize my orders to escort you safely, and there is no way to secure parley from those who would attack without provocation or warning, particularly after several of their men and women have fallen.”

    She was not satisfied by this answer, and this was for me some relief, since I was not satisfied either. But I could see no other way, and I had wracked my brain often under the stars of Dunland imagining this situation and trying to find another solution in vain. There was naught for us to do but wait in the gorge until Darrien and Radolf returned, reporting success in their objective. I could hear in their voices that they were no more pleased by this outcome than I or the lady, and had to remind myself that the Hebog-lûth had attacked us without warning.

    The moment after a fight stands apart from those before and after it. During the fight, there is the haste, the thrumming in the blood, the eagerness and fear entwined; and afterwards, there is the return to normalcy, the compelling need to seek it out. But in between there is a moment that is neither, that is like no other. We stood in the gorge in that moment, soaking in the consequences of what had happened.

    When the moment passed, I spoke sharply. “We must make haste. Collect your arrows, so there will be as little sign as possible of who is responsible, then we will canter henceforth. The horses will be tired when we reach Minhiriath, but they will survive. Go!” I turned to Shadryn, trusting the men to take their orders, and said, “This is a hard thing, my Lady, and I am sorry that it happened. But we must move quickly. Make yourself ready.” She seemed stricken. “My Lady!”

    Her eyes snapped back into focus, and slowly, she nodded. “But why did they not attack me?” she asked, speaking mostly to herself, softly, as she set her horse into motion.

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 26 2015 at 07:24 AM.

  12. #12
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    Ensuring that none of the Hebog-lûth escaped to warn the rest of their clan about us did not, it turns out, provide us with a safe journey through the remainder of Dunland. Perhaps they had already learned of our presence and decided, for reasons we would never learn, that we were enemies or prey, thus explaining their unprovoked attack. Perhaps there had been scouts watching the fight who we did not notice. For whatever reason, as we continued on our way, we had to watch for, defend against, and when possible flee from, several more attacks by the Hebog-lûth. We ran our horses hard as we dared for several hours before we paused, only then learning that Radolf had a deep puncture in his side from one of the wild-men’s spears. We dared not linger to let him recover, so we had to make do with a field dressing that would hold him well enough to continue riding. Fortunately, the injury was not grave.

    For that harrowing, hurried ride, we stayed near but not on the Greenway, its paving-stones crumbling in disrepair; and we kept in diamond formation. Since we knew the Hebog-lûth preferred attacking without warning and from above with spears, Elemir, the only one of us to routinely use a shield, was assigned to stay with Lady Shadryn and focus on protecting her during any attack, while the rest of us met and engaged the enemy. When I gave him this order, I had a bad feeling, perhaps a premonition, perhaps just realizing this might put him in more peril than the rest of us; but it was the only tactic that made any sense. Several times, he clung close to her side, knocking spears or arrows away from her while I circled behind the Dunlendings and cut them down, and Darrien and Radolf returned fire. Several more injuries were incurred before it was done, but nothing as bad as Radolf had suffered in that first fight. We also lost one of the pack horses, and some of the supplies. Quite a few Hebog-lûth slipped away from fights, and this time we did not pursue them, even though those same might come at us again, since it was clear we could not stop word of our passing, and haste out of their lands was paramount.

    We rode through most of the nights, as we could not pause to rest without fear of being ambushed. The best we could do is huddle against a rocky outcrop, or whatever shelter we could find, so that we could be attacked only from one direction, and try to get some waking rest and food during the few darkest hours of the night when we could not make much headway. It was during one of those nights that I thought I heard voices carried on the wind, some words spoken in the Dunlending language that I did not recognize, but some in Westron, spoken in more fluid tongues with a southern accent; and I was sure I’d heard the word Gondor spoken at least once. But I didn’t dare try to get closer to hear better, as I have no talent for walking silently, and no one else had heard it. As weary as I was, I wondered if I’d imagined it.

    * * *

    As the hills began to fall away, we saw less and less sign of the Hebog-lûth, and, sore and exhausted, we eased our haste gradually. It was not until we’d gone an entire day without any sign of the Dunlendings, and the land had become level, desolate wasteland occupied only by countless birds, that I called a halt. Heavy with fatigue, we made only a crude camp and collapsed on the soft grassy ground. “This,” I said softly, “must be Minhiriath, deserted for more than a thousand years.”

    “Why deserted?” Darrien asked, looking around at the pleasant, if austere, plains. “Is there some danger?”

    I shook my head. “Well, likely there is, but only wildlife, and difficult terrain. There were many reasons why the land was abandoned, but perhaps the greatest was the Great Plague, which claimed the lives of thousands.” Darrien began to look about anxiously, eliciting a little laugh from me. “Don’t worry, that was quite some time ago, and it has long since burned out. All we’re likely to see are ruins.”

    At this word, Shadryn’s ears perked up, and though she was as exhausted as any of us, her eyes grew brighter. “But we will not have time to investigate ruins,” I insisted, trying to head off her question, “and they are likely to be inhabited by whatever predators prowl these plains.” But the words felt hollow. The empty plains seemed an unlikely place to meet bears or wolves, as there would be little for them to hunt other than flocks of small, noisy birds. Shadryn did not pursue the question, perhaps too tired even to argue, or perhaps making her own plans.

    I allowed a full day of rest, with a wary eye in case any of the Hebog-lûth might have followed us, but we saw no more sign of them, that day or any other. We never learned why they had set upon us. After the draining fear and haste of the previous days, it was a relief to traverse only bare plains, with little to see, though at another time such a landscape might have seemed dull. Days turned into weeks, and there was naught but flocks of birds. Our camps were often damp and unpleasant, but satisfyingly peaceful, and there were many starry evenings when I played my lute to brighten the tedium.

    And, now and then, we saw something that could only be called “ruins” with an excess of charity. From time to time, we might find two stones piled atop one another, or one with square enough sides, that it seemed likely to have been part of some structure long lost. And while these seemed of no import to my men and me, Shadryn halted our journey to dig in the dirt around these stones, and though she came up with little more than more dirt, much of which ended up on her face or in her hair, she seemed as pleased as a child with a new toy. From time to time she came away with some tiny stone or fragment of metal, which she carefully cleaned and wrapped in pieces of hide to secrete in her bags. As it was a simple matter to guard her while she engaged in these endeavors, I thought it best to allow it, as it seemed so much to please her, and made her more tractable to orders thereafter. But even when she was pleased over some new treasure, I could see some hint in her eyes that she also had wished for more. Nay, more than wished for; that she had expected more, that she had some idea before we arrived in this land of what she might find, and she had not found it yet.

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 27 2015 at 07:16 AM.

  13. #13
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    The Greenway, though in grave disrepair, still showed the way as we passed through the desolation of Minhiriath, though at times it was little more than a paving stone every mile and a shallow rut between them. While the road seemed to fade away more as we neared the Gwathló, its stones devoured by the increasingly sodden lands, the ruins we saw grew more prominent. We might see sections of wall, or crumbled cellars, or even an archway left standing with only a piece of the wall straddling it on either side. Shadryn’s enthusiasm for exploring these ruins was only increased as they became more substantive, and I had to set a limit on how long we waited for her digging at each one, or we might not reach Bree before winter.

    It was near nightfall when we first caught a glimpse, perhaps a half-league from the road to the west, of a ruin that comprised enough fragments of wall to suggest the shape of an entire building, and even some small pieces of roof still spanning corners in places. Shadryn’s breathing quickened and she fidgeted in the saddle, anxious to explore, but before she could gallop off towards the ruins, I held up one hand. “This one, we shall pass untouched,” I decreed.

    Though my eyes were on the ruins and I could not see her, I could hear her exasperation well enough that an image of the expression she wore rose unbidden in my thoughts. “But these are the most pristine we’ve seen yet!” she exclaimed.

    “And do you see anything moving there, hear anything?”

    “No!” she proclaimed with a hint of victory in her voice. “It’s perfectly safe.”

    “But look and listen in all other directions. What do you see and hear?”

    She swivelled impatiently in her saddle. “Nothing. Just birds.”

    “Birds everywhere except at the ruins,” I said. “They avoid the place. Why do you suppose that is?” I turned to watch her consider this question.

    “Perhaps they just don’t care for the stone,” she protested feebly, but even she could tell this was not a satisfactory answer.

    “More likely there is some predator that makes its lair in those stones. It’s too dangerous.” Her stricken look pierced me to the heart, so I added, “There will be many more, my Lady. I make it not more than two weeks before we reach the great city of Tharbad, or whatever of it has not been washed away by the Greyflood.” But she had turned her back on me angrily, and did not speak to me when we made camp. She did not even deign to listen to the songs I played before the camp-fire.

    * * *

    When Elemir awoke me for my turn at guarding, I stood, stretched, and took in the camp. Darrien was snoring loudly enough to keep bears at bay, as usual, and Elemir’s voice joined that chorus almost immediately. It was some while before I started to have the feeling that something was wrong, but a tour of the camp did not suggest what it might be.

    At least not at first. As my thoughts cleared up and I shook off the webs of slumber, I thought about the ruins. Shadryn seemed to be sleeping peacefully, with her bedroll pulled up tight around her, but as I looked at it, it gradually dawned on me that it wasn’t a cool night, and she was not the sort to feel cold at the slightest chill. I crept closer to her bedroll, and when I heard no breathing, I dared to pull back a bit of the bedroll gingerly, to find only a pile of her clothes and belongings that she had stuffed into the bedroll in the approximate shape of a woman, so she might sneak off without being noticed.

    She had slipped out from under my watchful eye dozens of times on our journey, but never in so devious, nor so thorough, a way. She might have been gone for hours. I muttered a few words that a proper Captain should not know, and began to lope towards the ruins, dimly visible in the starlight. I was nearly there when it occurred to me I ought to have wakened the others, but it was too late to turn back.

    The silent stones stood on the soggy ground as if they might topple over onto me at any moment, though I knew that, having stood for thousands of years, they would endure another night. No matter which way I faced, it seemed that there was movement from just to one side or the other, never where I could see it. The stars were miserly in their gift of light, and there was no moon to help them. It was not a place for shouts, but I dared to whisper Shadryn’s name, hoping she might hear and answer, that I might find her. Hoping nothing else would hear and find me.

    At last I heard a muffled sound. In the darkness I moved towards it, and found myself in what must have been an indoor room, facing towards a corner where two mostly-intact walls met, and an uneven triangle of stone bridged the corner, a remnant of a roof. Some of the stones beneath my feet were more of that roof, long since caved in, allowing a hint of starlight within, but there in the corner, there was nearly no light to be seen, only the faintest perception of movement, so little I doubted my eyes. Had I not chanced to see, in the boggy soil nearby, some telltale scoops of dirt, the signs of Shadryn’s excavations, I might have moved on. Instead, I moved closer to that shadow-shrouded corner.

    At last I could dimly see a shape. Shadryn, standing. No, not standing, but dangling. Her hands were above her head, and shrouded in spiderwebs which held her just a hand’s-width above the ground, leaving her no freedom to do anything but squirm and shimmy. More webbing had been wrapped around her head, a spiral of web that had made its way down to just below her neck, so that she could neither see me nor make any more than a muffled sound.

    I took a step forward to cut her free, then stopped. Whatever had been shrouding her in webs must be nearby; it had probably only stopped in its work because of my approach. As slowly and silently as I dared, I slipped my sword from its scabbard and held it at the ready, then took another step forward.

    The starlight abandoned me. Cast into sudden darkness, I raised my sword defensively, and thus, the spider, at least as large as a bear, that was leaping down from atop that fragment of roof, blocking out the light, very nearly impaled itself. It skittered aside, trailing a green ichor that seemed somehow to glow, or perhaps it simply caught the starlight in an odd way in the darkness. There was a horrific noise as it moved, plates sliding across one another, an odd sound midway between scraping and rubbing, accompanied by a warning chitter.

    Though shrouded in web, Shadryn must have sensed the movement, or perhaps the vibration as the vast creature had launched itself from the fragment of ruins from which she dangled. She began to writhe all the more vigorously, dislodging a part of the incomplete webbing that covered her eyes and face. There was fear in her eyes, and something more I could not identify. Studying her gaze for only a heartbeat, I saw where she was looking, and turned to face that way just in time to meet the spider launching itself once again out of the shadows.

    The battle felt like it lasted a day and a night, and the metronome of my heartbeat agreed with that assessment, but it could not have been more than a few moments before I fell back, ichor dripping from my armor, from the ruined pile of horrific limbs that was all that remained of the spider. The axe-like mandibles had closed around my arm at one point, digging into my armor and leaving deep bruises I could not even feel yet, but which would ache for days; but I had carefully watched for the stinger and knocked it aside every time until finally my sword plunged into the great beast’s midsection and it collapsed, twitching and finally lying still. I could not know if the spider’s venom was deadly, and thought it best not to find out.

    After a few breaths and a moment for my heart to slow, I turned back to Shadryn, who still hung there, eyes wide. I crossed the ground back to her, watching for other spiders, though I did not expect any, as one so large as this was likely to be solitary; and at last came up to right before her, reaching up to pull the webbing from her mouth.

    With a sticky handful of web in my hand, I paused. Her eyes widened again as I just stood there, leaving her in this state, so close I could feel her breathing against my cheek. I fixed my gaze on her eyes, and, still panting a bit from the exertion of the fight, my voice had the roughness of stone, but an edge of steel. “I told you not to come to these ruins.” She almost flinched, or so I thought, from these words. “Had I noticed your ruse an hour later, you would be supper for a spider now. You will,” I put enough force on this word to be clear it was not a question, “you will heed me when I forbid you from ruins in the future, yes?” But she could not answer, and I drew my hand back, leaving the web over her mouth a moment. I took a half-step back, looking her up and down, giving her a few moments for my words to sink in while she was still helpless. Then a few more moments, long enough to let her wonder if I might not leave her like this until morning, or perhaps just stay here watching her dangle.

    When I was sure her thoughts were a jumble of fears, I finally stepped forward and, with one great slice of my greatsword, cut through the webs above her hands, letting her fall. Unprepared for this, she sank to her knees in the muck, and cast a resentful glare up at me as I sheathed my sword. I stepped closer, and reached down to her; she tried to draw back, perhaps fearing I might take some liberty with her, but relaxed when she saw the knife I’d given her, which I’d just retrieved from her belt. With a few cuts I used it to free her hands from one another, then I let the knife drop point-first, sinking into the ground, and turned to walk away, leaving her to remove the rest of the webs herself.

    She was silent as we trudged back to the camp. When she didn’t object to leaving the ruins right away, despite the evident fact that the threat in them was now removed, I wondered if I’d made the proper impression. A few moments later, I saw a subtle motion from her, slipping something into her clothes, followed by a satisfied smirk, quickly suppressed when she saw me watching her, but too late. Before we even made our way back to the camp she was laughing off the incident, making it out like she’d never really even been that afraid, nor in that much peril. She even suggested she would have been able to work her own way free, somehow, and she seemed to even believe it, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I thought, at one point, I saw a little flicker of red light, but it would be several days before I knew this was more than a trick of the faint starlight.

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 31 2015 at 11:02 AM.

  14. #14
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    On the next day, we did not speak much of the events of the previous night. She did not even seem contrite in the slightest; on the contrary, as we rode, she seemed as pleased as a housecat full of cream. She laughed often, took to singing spontaneously, and kept entreating the rest of us to appreciate the beauty of the landscape. Her cheer was infectious; soon Elemir and her were singing together, her horse was nickering and prancing, and it even seemed that the birds themselves went out of their way to fly near to her, spin in the sky above her, and then wheel on their way. I felt like I should remain upset with her, or at least stern, but this mood was hard to hold while everyone around was full of laughter, and by supper I could scarcely remember the terror of staring down a horror under starlight.

    There were more ruins, and in better condition, as we traveled over the next few days, and she did indeed seek to explore some of them and dig in them, but with only a fraction as much determination as before. For my part, I made a point of allowing it any time that there was no sign of danger, so that when I forbade it, my ruling would have more weight. And she did not fight me when I did forbid, nor did she sneak off to any of those ruins, at least that I learned of. It seemed she was content with whatever she’d found in the spider’s lair.

    The riding was easy, though the weather was impetuous, with strange bursts of storm appearing out of a clear sky to pour rain and lightning for but a few moments before moving on, or sudden gusts of wind causing flocks of birds to abruptly wheel and scatter. More and more, the birds seemed to take an interest in us, particularly in Shadryn, though never threateningly; they would simply fly around us and move on. Occasionally a particularly brave starling would alight so close to Shadryn that I imagined it might perch on her outstretched hand like a trained hawk, if she but offered such a perch. These occurrences each alone seemed curious but no more, but as they continued to pile one upon the other, I started to mull over possibilities. The question would occupy my mind much over the following weeks.

    * * *

    In the days of long-lost Númenor, Minhiriath had been a vast forest, but the shipwrights of old had stripped it bare, and thousands of years later the land still showed the scars of that brutal harvest. But in some places, woods cropped up, timid growth of pines with clusters of maples and oaks at their center, or spacious canopies of beeches and poplars bending with the wind. We were nearing that part of the Greenway that ran nearest to the forest called Eryn Vorn, and though that woodland was some leagues away, patches of forest occasionally sprung up near the road, perhaps taken root from seeds that had been carried from Eryn Vorn on westerly winds from the sea.

    I was pondering the curious weather as we rode peacefully through such a copse, when a short call from Darrien caused us all to pull up short. “Men,” he hissed, “more than a dozen, in the woods around us.”

    There seemed little reason for men to be hiding there that would not be a threat. Still, as in Dunland, I hoped to avoid a battle if I could. “Hello,” I called out, and swung down from my horse, passing the reins to Radolf.

    A large man with a bushy beard and hair nearly as red as Darrien’s stepped from behind a tree on the road before us. “Well met,” he said, but there was something in his posture that suggested something other than welcome. “The great highway here is ours to keep. Travelers may pass after they pay a toll.” But as he was speaking, his eyes had found Shadryn, and his words came more slowly. “I’ve no doubt you have something of value and beauty you could use to pay,” he concluded, with a leer in his eyes that set my teeth on edge.

    With effort, I adopted a formal tone, keeping my hand from reaching for the hilt of my sword over my shoulder. “The Greenway was built thousands of years ago, by men of stature beyond that of you or me,” I said, allowing just enough of a pause after the word “you” to make it seem like I was going to end the thought there. “It was built to link the sister nations of Arnor and Gondor,” and as I spoke this name, I touched the White Tree on my badge of rank, “and though it has been long since these lands were left empty, if anyone here has a claim on its tolls, it would be a Captain of the Army of Gondor, or a Lady of the family of Prince Imrahil.” I affected a smile that had nothing of merriment in it. “But as a courtesy, we will seek no toll. Should you leave us to pass peacefully, we may all find the rest of our day is warm and without trouble.” The edge in my voice was plain, though my words allowed the man some space in which to withdraw without losing face, I hoped.

    The bushy-bearded man considered my words a moment quietly, even the birds joining him in silence. Then a loud laugh bellowed out from him, and soon his men, now drifting into view all around us, joined in the laughter. One couldn’t be sure what the laugh meant, but after only a few gales of merriment, he gestured once, and then drew and brandished a thorny club, charging towards me. All around, his men followed suit, their intent plain; what they could not extort from his, they might take from our cooling bodies just as well.

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 29 2015 at 06:43 AM.

  15. #15
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    In the maze of trees, a fight amongst so many is a muddle of chaos, with combatants constantly weaving between one another. Only a well-trained Captain could keep track of the location of everyone in such a fight, but at times, such training only afforded more reason to become frustrated. One could see when some of one’s allies became separated from others, but might not be able to do anything about it, if enemies were interposed.

    I could see, though, that Elemir was following his order to stay close to Lady Shadryn, keeping his shield in play to ward any blows against her. Having dismounted, he urged her off her horse that he might better shelter her with his shield. Radolf ran in weaving lines spraying arrows to one side and then the other, felling highwaymen with injuries ranging from painful to deadly, while Darrien stayed closer to me, switching between his bow and his knife and sword fluidly. My great sword was slower, but when it found a highwayman, it was not slowed by armor or bone, and that man did not rise again. But as I carved a path through the bandits, I could not reach Elemir and Shadryn quickly, as there was always another man between us brandishing an axe or spear. Indeed, the ebbs and tides of the battle kept carrying me away from them, no matter how hard I tried to fight it.

    Out of the corner of my eye I saw the blade coming before it bit, but I could do nothing. His shield raised high to knock an axe away from Shadryn, Elemir did not see it. So slender a blade it was that I wager he did not even feel it as it slipped between his ribs, at least until the point found his heart. His eyes widened. Later, Shadryn would tell me that he turned to her and said, “I’m sorry, my Lady, I have failed you.” Then he sank to his knees, in a moment that seemed to hang in the air and refuse to advance to the next.

    Then his shield clattered to the stone of the Greenway with a sound that seemed like it might be heard in the White City. Shadryn and the highwayman that had stabbed Elemir both stared at it a moment. I let out a bellow that stunned the combatants around me for a moment, and made to charge towards her, but the bushy-bearded man appeared in my path almost immediately, his club almost finding my gut before my sword bit into it.

    I could only watch helplessly as Shadryn took a step back, but I was pleased to see her next instinct was to slide her knife from its sheath. She wasn’t holding it correctly, though; as had been her first instinct on that night so long ago, she held it pointing downward. The highwaymen had lost his slender knife, perhaps still lodged in Elemir’s chest, but soon a short sword was in his hand, and he grinned as he advanced on Shadryn. She brought up the knife and he slapped it aside with his sword, causing it to fly through the air and be lost in the grass.

    The burly leader of the highwaymen took a blow with the flat of the blade to his stomach that knocked the wind out of him, but only for a moment, and as I tried to get past him, he whirled and brought his club against my back, causing me to tumble forward and draw up short as I slammed into the bole of a tree, my ears ringing. I watched helplessly as the man with the short sword stepped closer to Shadryn, relishing her helplessness, unhurried. She took a step back and stumbled over a root, falling backwards and staring up at him. One hand reached back, casting about blindly for the knife, but instead her fingers found and wrapped around a sturdy branch, longer than she was tall, likely knocked loose from the tree above her in one of the freak windstorms that had been dogging our steps these past few days. The highwayman was hardly more surprised than I was when that branch came up in a surprisingly swift motion, connected with his forehead with a resounding crack, and came down with its tip in the soil, allowing her to gracefully pull herself to her feet even as he was falling over backwards.

    Shadryn seemed as surprised as I was. Even Radolf paused a moment, agape, before letting loose another volley of arrows. She looked at the stick, making a contemplative sound, then lifted it and experimented with its heft. As she pivoted, another highwayman that had been coming up behind her, unnoticed, suddenly got the tip of the stick in the stomach and doubled over. She let out a little shriek, half of surprise and half fear, and spun around, her hair loose and flying around her shoulders, to make a retreat. Which brought the tail end of the stick, still trailing dirt, into the face of another highwayman, who slumped forward, toppling into her and knocking her down, landing atop her in a pain-wracked slumber.

    By this time I’d worked myself free of the tree, turned, and met the bearded man coming at me once more. I ducked beneath his blow, for the moment focusing on him instead of splitting my attention to watch Shadryn, and brought my sword up to his gut, knocking him backward. He wore crude but effective armor, and for a few moments we traded blows, earning great bruises and soreness, but nothing life-threatening, until finally he’d taken too much and collapsed, spent.

    I turned back to Shadryn, only to find her still spinning about, her branch clipping every highwayman that came near her. Some were only knocked back, dazed, to come at her again, but others were spilled to the ground, groaning. Perhaps half of these blows were clearly by her intent; though she was untrained, she had a grace, as that of a dancer, that seemed to well suit the leverage and reach of a staff. The other half were accidents; as if Eru Ilúvatar guided her branch to strike her foes even when she was simply spinning around to find one, or tumbling over in her zeal to dodge a sword. By the time three or four of the highwaymen were fleeing, the number still on the ground around her easily rivaled those bearing blows from any of the rest of us. Panting, she leaned heavily on the stick, looking in equal measure puzzled and pleased with herself.

    * * *

    In the panic of the battle, and the surprise of Shadryn’s staff-play, it had been easy to lose sight of the fact that one of the men lying motionless on the ground was of Gondor. As this came back to me I rushed to Elemir’s side. I knelt, my armor creaking, to hold his hand, and looked into his eyes. He was still dimly aware, but the light was draining swiftly from him, and he would not last but a few moments. Shadryn also knelt and helped me peel back Elemir’s armor, revealing the wound; her eyes darkened, as it was clear that there was no healing that could save him now.

    There was much to do, horses to gather, distance to put between us and the site of the battle lest the highwaymen return, wounds to be tended; but there was time to lift Elemir into my arms, letting his blood stain my armor, and softly say to him, “You fought with courage and honor, and in doing so, you saved the Lady Shadryn and fulfilled your mission. When I return to Gondor I will bring word to your father in Pelargir of your bravery and service.” Tears were in my eyes as I spoke, but I kept my voice as strong as I could.

    Elemir smiled faintly, and with no voice in his breath, whispered, “Thank you. Don’t forget, rosemary for fowl, dill for fish.” He grinned, then his eyes slipped closed, and he spoke no more.

    We traveled half a day before we stopped to find a place where we could lay his body to rest. Shadryn found, in some nearby ruins, a stone we could lay at the head of his grave, and carved into it a faint impression of the White Tree, singing an elegy that the rest of our group joined in with as we piled soil atop him. We made camp a short distance away, solemn and silent, though I couldn’t help but smile a bit as I found myself pressed into cooking our supper, seasoning a plump partridge Darrien had snared, with liberal dashes of rosemary.

    Too much, as it happened. It would take far more than a few words for any of us to come close to matching Elemir’s skill at cooking. For the remainder of our journey, every bland and dry meal was a poignant reminder of the sacrifice that Elemir had made, to fulfill his oath of service.

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 30 2015 at 07:32 AM.

  16. #16
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    As we rode silently north along the desolate Greenway, Shadryn was quiet for a few days, even taking little interest in the ruins we passed. Elemir’s absence hung heavily in the air. She guided her horse alongside mine and said, with a depth in her tone that belied her words, “I’m sorry for losing your knife.”

    “Perhaps just as well,” I answered. “The weapon did not suit you so well as that staff.” I gestured to the branch which she still carried, and had since carved into a sturdy walking stick. “With some training I expect you’ll be much more effective at defending yourself with it than with any sword, and the extra reach is a boon for a warrior of less stature.” She started to bristle at this term, so I clarified, “By that, I mean one who is not as tall.” She nodded, mollified. “Perhaps when we stop for the night, I could--” I had been about to offer to train her in how to fight with it, but my thoughts had found their way back to the night I’d offered to train her in knife-play, and how that had turned out. Hastily I changed my direction. “I could… take a close look at the staff and see how we could improve it. For instance, it might benefit from a counterweight at the cap, to give it more speed on the spins. Plus,” I added, “such an adornment would give it an air of nobility, if it were made with sufficient artistry. When we reach a city, you could even have a gem mounted in it.”

    She glanced at the staff’s tip, and nodded, her eyes brightening. “That would be a fine improvement,” she said, and then, hesitantly, as if afraid to give away a secret, she added, “I even have a gem that would suit it well.” I was about to ask if she meant back in Dol Amroth, but her hand was slipping into her tunic, and drawing out a red gemstone, flawlessly cut and shimmering with light within it that seemed to shift like a stormy sunset sky. Indeed, as I stared at it, I was sure I saw within it a jagged line of white searing light, an echo of a lightning-fall trapped inside the jewel. Before I could ask where this stone had come from, she was tucking it back into her tunic. “It’s a lucky charm for me, I’ve been carrying it for… for some time,” she said in a tone that suggested she was not ready to say more.

    When we made camp, I spoke to Radolf about it, and he rummaged about in the tools and spare parts he’d brought for repairing weapons and armor. Though he apologized that he could do more with a proper forge, within an evening he’d cunningly fashioned a simple cap, with four adorned crescents of iron rising from it, in the peaks of which the red gem was suspended; the jagged flashes of light within it were caught and reflected by the curving metal, making shimmering waves of light that seemed to dance amongst the crescents.

    Shadryn seemed entirely pleased with it, and spent some time practicing with it, swinging it about herself in elaborate dance-like whirls. Remembering what had happened at the copse, Darrien, Radolf, and I all kept our distance. We all had enough bruises from the fight to not want any more. But after she accidentally gave herself a few, she came to me and, with a hint of timidity in her voice, asked if I might show her how to fight better with it. I was just as hesitant as I agreed, and very careful while teaching her to keep a respectful distance. By the time we turned in, I felt sure that she would exceed my ability with a staff in short order. Perhaps in Bree we would be able to find someone with more experience in staff-fighting to train her.

    As I slipped into slumber I mused on how far we had come. That day, had it only been three months earlier, in Dol Amroth, sitting on the fountain playing the lute in the dark before dawn, had someone told me I would be planning where to get the Lady Shadryn training in staff combat, I would have laughed enough to wake the Prince.

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 31 2015 at 11:06 AM.

  17. #17
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    There was the moment when our attackers realized they’d bitten off more than they could chew. There were only three of them, after all. Clearly they hadn’t expected Shadryn to be capable of dealing nearly as much pain as the archers, even if some of it wasn’t entirely intentional. When they withdrew, I was not satisfied, and motioned to pursue.

    At least with the highwaymen it had been plain why, here in a desolate land, we’d met them. Those desperate men squatted in the depths of Eryn Vorn, making a meager living on hunting while staying far beyond the reach of any stewards, lords, thanes, shirriffs, or city watches. Most likely many of them would, if they were seen in Bree or Gondor, be thrown summarily into a cell for past crimes, but no such possibility existed in this remote wilderness. The occasional passerby proved a chance for a few coins, or whatever other spoils they might take by force.

    But these three men clearly did not dwell nearby. They’d set an ambush for us, though they’d underestimated us. They had traveled along this abandoned way, presumably specifically so they might set up that ambush. Normally, if you ask the question “who might want to set up an ambush for me?” there is only one answer, or none. I reflected wryly on the fact that, so had our adventures unfolded these past few months, there were far too many answers to consider.

    Of course, there might be Corsairs, men of Umbar so bent on their plan of conquest they might follow us all this way to capture Lady Shadryn. This was a puzzlement for me, and had been since first I’d received the orders. I understood, of course, why it was necessary to guide the lady safely from Gondor to a remote place, and why guards would be needed to face the dangers of the road. But I’d always found it strained credulity that my orders bade me to protect her just as closely in Bree as I had in Gondor against the Corsairs. If they simply wanted a noble-born hostage, they would hardly send men on a dangerous journey of many months just to find this particular lady, rather than seek another one closer to home, I reasoned; and yet the orders were clear.

    Then there might be friends of the highwaymen, seeking revenge. Some of them had no doubt perished of their wounds, others were injured, and all must have felt shamed by their defeat. The same might be said of the Hebog-lûth, though that answer would only revive the question of why they had attacked us in the first place.

    I could not set aside lightly that another answer might lurk in the mystery of the gemstone that Shadryn had, it seemed clear, taken from that spider-haunted ruin; who else might know of it, and know what power it contained? I had read of ancient artifacts cunningly fashioned by the Eldar, or precious stones unearthed by the dwarves in their halls, stones which shined with a power of their own; and in all such tales, the ancient talisman, whatever power it contained, also seemed to entwine fate around it, bringing ruin and despair to those caught up in its tale. One such artifact might draw to it evil creatures, another might seem to weave oddities of happenstance; but they all drew rivals, eager to seize the artifact, at the point of a sword, or worse.

    Capturing one of these men might afford an opportunity to answer this question, I hoped. One had an arrow deep in his chest, the tip lodged through a rib such that it could not be easily removed; blood trickled from the side of his mouth. The second man, as he tried to run, caught another arrow low in his back, and when he fell I knew he would not rise again. The third hurled himself atop a horse and was in the distance before we could follow; there would be no catching him. I turned to the man with the arrow in his chest. “You might yet live if this injury is treated, and I possess the means to do so. If you tell me all of what brought you to ambush us, you will walk again beneath the sun. If you will not, the best you can hope for is a mercifully swift end.”

    The man looked up at me and laughed. There was something familiar in his voice, which I could not place right away. “Is this, then, the honor of a Captain of Gondor, to torture and slay a helpless man? I would expect nothing better from robbers and thieves.”

    I bristled; there was little that punctured my composure, save slander against Gondor. I might have done something rash, had Shadryn not placed a hand on my shoulder, bringing me back to myself. “You shall have mercy that you have not earned, through your brutal attack on an innocent woman. All that remains is for you to choose which mercy you will receive: the mercy of the balm, or of the blade.”

    “We have much experience with the mercy of Gondor,” the man said, his voice dripping with bitterness. “But you threaten in vain, for there is naught I could tell you that you do not already know. The rightful king of Gondor was thrown down by insurrection and treason, at the Crossings of Erui. The time is nigh that the Heirs of Castamir will reclaim their kingdom from the vile worms, like you, who squat in its halls and soil its proud history. What mercy you give me matters not. There are movements that elude your eye, which ready to make right history. A desperate flight north to the ruins of Arnor will do naught to preserve the ruins of Gondor.”

    His words were plain enough; he was either one of the Corsair scouts, or an ally or informant for them, though his tenacity, and the fierceness of his defiance, suggested the former. While I listened, I did not dwell on his view of history, predicated on the idea that Castamir had been a rightful king and not a usurper, and further, that some of his heirs survived the campaign of Telumehtar Umbardacil, to pass that dubious claim to the throne down to this man’s kinsmen. Instead, I focused on his voice, until I recalled where I had heard it before. At the edge of Dunland, at a camp made hastily and wearily, I had heard, or thought I heard, that same voice speaking to some of the Hebog-lûth. Had those wild-men been in the service of these Corsairs? Or had they, unable to slay us for reasons of their own, offered us up to the Corsairs so they could have their vengeance through another hand? Or was some third hand behind both?

    Whatever it was, I would not learn it from this man. He’d been right that he could offer me no intelligence save what I already possessed. But I felt some need to refute his claims, even if only for the benefit of my men, lest they fall to wondering about the veracity of these claims. “The White Tree will blossom for the true king. If your so-called Heir of Castamir proves true, then let him bring forth his seedling. But if you’ve nothing to bring but hollow threats, then may they keep you warm in the storms that lash your coasts, for you shall have not the fires of Gondor to warm you.”

    I gestured to Radolf, who moved to hold the man down in case he had the intent of some reckless action, then prepared a poultice and bandage. While I had learned a modicum of the healing arts simply by seeing my mother at work, and Shadryn also knew enough to be of help, his injury was grave; when I removed the arrow, the flow of blood that started was great, more than I could staunch.

    He grinned wolfishly at the sight of the blood rising from his chest, and coughed. “Such is the mercy I expect from a squatter in the White City,” he growled with his last breaths. When he slumped down, I was still trying to stop the flow of blood, and Shadryn had to tug my hands away, insisting that I had done all I could. Even if the man had died thinking me devoid of honor, I still saw to it he had a proper grave before we continued on our way.

    * * *

    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Aug 01 2015 at 07:54 AM.

  18. #18
    Quote Originally Posted by HunterGreen View Post
    I'm going to be releasing this story bit by bit, every day or two, like an old-fashioned serial.

    Feel free to comment on the thread. Each time I post a reply to add more to the story, I will edit the previous story post to add a link to the next one, so those who just want to read the story straight through won't have to find the pieces amongst any comments.

    This story is basically me wishing I could roleplay as Ioreld, but not being able to, and thus writing the story as a way of sort of roleplaying with myself. Another player's character will be appearing in the story later, and she's had some input into the story and particularly the depiction of her character. (Also, she may one day write the same tale as seen from that character's perspective, which should be a fascinating contrast.)

    It had been my intent to set this in Tolkien's version of Middle-earth, as opposed to Turbine's version. I would incorporate Turbine creations only when I felt they absolutely fit within Tolkien's vision and theme and style; for instance, the way the Dunlendings are arrayed in clans, and the names of the clans, seem to well fit what Tolkien might have written, but the way they have large and permanent settlements seems more like a concession to gameplay than a real good fit.

    However, as that other player wants her character to end up being, in effect, a loremaster by the end of the story, and since loremasters don't really fit Tolkien's vision of the world at all (they read like a souped-up mishmash of the Istari, but as mortals), I've come up with some explanations that I hope will feel plausible even within Tolkien's depiction of the world. It's a little bit strained but I think it will turn out to work.
    So the story is about you as one character and Ioreld (your LOTRO toon) as the other main character? That's a nice idea and leaves some room for nice little subtleties, I like it I also think it takes no small amount of storytelling skills to develop a character throughout your story to become this person who's a unique concept: a Lore-Master. I don't think I could have the patience build that up, but it definitely makes for an intriguing character.

    I noticed a lot of your story takes place in Gondor, or is related to it. I wrote a little story of my own: Letter to Turchail. It's not as elaborate as yours, it's written as a letter from a Gondorian soldier to his best friend. I'd love to see some feedback or comments on it.

    I secretly think it'd be cool if one of my characters such as Malthor, Deseltor or Turchail would cross your character's paths somehow (;

  19. #19
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    The main characters of the story are my character Ioreld (it's all from his perspective), several NPCs (including Ioreld's herald and skirmish soldier), and Shadryn, who is played by someone else. That someone else has reviewed and approved of how I'm depicting her character, and contributed some ideas to the storyline. Hope that clarifies it.

    And while I'm talking OOC, I'm about to go up and revise some of the posts to retroactively change slightly the appearance of Shadryn's gem and staff, since the player has found a cosmetic staff she likes better.
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 31 2015 at 11:28 AM.

  20. #20
    Quote Originally Posted by HunterGreen View Post

    And while I'm talking OOC, I'm about to go up and revise some of the posts to retroactively change slightly the appearance of Shadryn's gem and staff, since the player has found a cosmetic staff she likes better.
    O_o really? This player must be a big inspiration to you if you go to such great lengths.

  21. #21
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    It was only a few sentences... but yeah, she is.
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Jul 31 2015 at 11:24 AM.

  22. #22
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    Incidentally, if Malthor is going to be in Gondor fighting, it's quite likely he and Ioreld would never cross paths. Ioreld has been sent north some time before these events; in fact, he leaves a few weeks earlier than Boromir follows a similar route towards Rivendell, though Boromir easily outpaces him due to not having a whiny noblewoman to escort. It's extremely likely that Ioreld will not see any of the fighting of the War of the Ring, at least not what happens in Gondor, but in any case all of that is in the future, from the perspective of this story and any roleplay or subsequent writing to follow it. But it's quite possible they would know of one another, if they're both in the Army of Gondor, or at least of each other's families (Ioreld's father is a decorated officer, and his mother is a healer who currently is in the Houses of Healing -- you can find her mentioned in the chapter of Return of the King set there, blathering on any gossip she can think of until Faramir or Éowyn or the narrator stop listening).

  23. #23
    That's true, and he now lives in Imloth Melui, which is an entirely unintended similarity. Theoretically, Nelestis and Ioreld could be related or at least acquainted. Funny how inspiring Lossarnach can be.

  24. #24
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    The mighty river Gwathló is one of the largest in Eriador, carrying rainfall from lands from as far as the High Pass that connects Eriador to the Vales of the Anduin over the Misty Mountains. One might expect its roar to be as mighty as the range it touches; the appropriately-named Loudwater is but one of its tributaries. But where the Greenway crosses it at Tharbad, there is little to hear, and indeed, almost nothing you would call a river. Once, the books say, Tharbad was a great river port, with a deep enough draught to welcome even seagoing ships. But over the countless years, after Minhiriath was stripped of trees and then left bare and forgotten, the river lost its way. For a great distance, the flow bifurcates into smaller and smaller rivulets until there is little more than a fen criss-crossed in streams, so broad that the bridges that once spanned the river at Tharbad now have both ends mired in muck. Many of the bridges, and indeed much of the city, has sunk into the hungry mud.

    We never heard the flow of water as we approached the ruins of Tharbad; instead, we just felt the ground get softer and wetter and harder to cross, until we had to dismount and lead our horses, lest they sink too far into the muck. Our progress slowed more each day, and we spent more time following weaving paths trying to find firmer ground, often reaching dead ends and having to retrace our steps. We’d spent days trekking through this bog and still hadn’t seen a hint of the ruined towers and walls of Tharbad itself, and there were few traces of the Greenway anymore, the paving stones long since sucked down into the eager muck, leading us to wonder if we hadn’t lost our way.

    As it had been throughout Minhiriath, the lands were ever and always the home of great flocks of birds. If anything, there were far more of them here in the fens. But as the ground grew wetter we started to see more, and stranger, creatures. There were great flying insects, as large as a dog; huge, strange flowers in vivid hues, with dangling blossoms like bells; turtles so large that other creatures built nests on their shells; and strangest of all, beasts that looked like they grew from tree branches and vines, but which could walk, or perhaps shamble was a better word for it, as freely as any animal of flesh and bone.

    As we made our way through the bogs, some of these creatures lurked nearby, observing us with what seemed like a clear sense of purpose, though we could not guess what that purpose might be. We came to feel like they were ready to take some action if we did something of which they disapproved, but what might such a being disapprove of, we could not guess. Shadryn found all of these unfamiliar creatures fascinating, but none so much as these ‘bog lurkers’, as she came to call them. She could not get close enough to one to study it; I would not allow it, and neither would the lurkers, as they kept their distance, striding across the fens as easily as we might cross a road of stone. But ever did she watch them from as near as she could, trying to understand them, determine what manner of beast they might be, and of what they were composed.

    Thus it was that, one evening as we were separated into pairs seeking a dry place to camp for the night, fresh water that wasn’t a stew of mud and muck, and maybe something for supper, she got her chance to see one up close. Peering at the bog for forage, Darrien happened to find one of these lurkers, a very small one, that seemed to be injured. Shadryn was not far away as the crow flies, though given the twisting paths that avoided the hungry mud, it would take her some time to reach him when he mentioned what he’d seen. Eagerly, as she told me the tale later, she started retracing steps to reach him, while he examined the creature.

    It seemed to him one of the legs was broken, and the creature was suffering. His experience with animals, especially horses, made him think it would not survive, particularly since it was so much smaller than the others we’d seen, perhaps a child. Or seedling, or whatever the right term was. Instead of the guttural clicks and humming purrs we’d heard from the lurkers before, Darrien heard sounds like the scraping of bark or broken bones, and soft, almost silent whimpers. When a horse is in such pain, and cannot recover, the mercy is to end its hurt; it is a hard thing to do, a painful thing, but a necessary and honorable one.

    But as Darrien raised his knife, Shadryn stepped between them, holding her hand up, exhorting him to stop. Her call was urgent, and carried far over the emptiness of the bogs, drawing my eye. It was from some distance I had to watch the unfolding events, unable to cross the muck to intervene. Darrien’s arm was moving swiftly, to bring the creature’s suffering to an end as painlessly as he might, when Shadryn interposed herself, and to avoid injuring her he had to twist in such a way that he fell face-first into the muck. Even from a great distance I could hear him grumbling words of frustration that should never be spoken in the presence of a lady, not even a lady herself covered almost entirely in mud.

    Taking little heed of Darrien’s discomfort, Shadryn turned toward the creature. She planted her staff in the mud so it would stand on its own, the red gem in it shimmering in a most curious manner. “It was as if the gem in that staff, and the creature, were speaking to one another,” Darrien would later recount to me in a tone of disbelief. With the ginger care of a mother tending her child, Shadryn lifted the creature from the mud and cradled it in her arms, stroking it with one hand while making soothing sounds. For my part, I watched almost dumbstruck; I had seen many sides of Shadryn’s spirit during our journey, but this was the first time I had seen this one. In the back of my mind I wondered if there wasn’t some hint of remorse still lurking in her heart for Elemir’s passing, urging her to save another life to balance the ledger.

    * * *



    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Aug 02 2015 at 08:28 AM.

  25. #25
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    Tending to the creature’s hurts required us to spend two days camped at the largest patch of dry land we could find, which could scarcely hold us and our horses, but which was at least blessedly free of danger. Other than the birds which remained curious about Shadryn and came to watch her almost constantly, the creatures of the muck left us alone, while she passed the hours fashioning curious mixtures of herbs and mud and applying them to the lurker’s broken leg. Her treatments resembled my mother’s healing arts almost not at all, and she explained, when she could spare a few moments from her ministrations, that a creature more of plant than animal needed different salves, but was capable of recovering from more grave injuries, just as a tree might recover from a blow that would fell a man.

    The delay did not please me. I was eager to find dry land once more, and to reach our destination. While I would never admit it to Lady Shadryn, I was myself eager for a warm meal and a pint of ale in a public house, and perhaps even a soft bed. Autumn would be coming soon, and I did not relish the idea of being forever damp in these fens as the nights grew colder. But there was no swaying her; Shadryn was determined to nurse this bog lurker to health. At the last, we came to a compromise; she described a sort of sling that might let her carry the beast while she hiked, and later when we rode again, and I set Radolf to crafting such a thing.

    “Then will you bring this creature with you all the way to Bree, and keep it as a pet?” I asked her in a tone almost mocking, but clearly not serious.

    “Perhaps I should,” she answered, and I wasn’t sure if she was teasing or not. “But it was not my intent. I expect it will be well enough to walk within a fortnight, perhaps sooner if my intuition about tinctures of sweet flag is correct, and then I plan to set it free to return to its home.”

    I grunted in assent, relieved, but my eye caught a glimmer of red light, dancing from the gem to the lurker, unsettling and mysterious.

    * * *
    For as much ground as we could cover in these fens, we might as well have stayed at that camp. Day followed day, and we could never be sure if we’d advanced. The mist-shrouded ruins of Tharbad emerged from the morning fog in the distance, but however we walked, they seemed to grow no nearer, and afforded surprisingly little guidance in choosing directions. Shadryn seemed unperturbed, walking with her creature hanging before her as if in swaddling clothes, or clinging to her back; but I was growing frustrated, and also worried that we had lost the path entirely. What an ignominious end, to be lost forever wandering in a maze of rivulets and mud-hillocks, after surviving so many perils.

    Though she continued to insist that it was her intent to let the bog-lurker go free when it could walk, Shadryn clearly was becoming attached to it. And to the extent that a moss-covered bole with spindly branch-legs could, the creature seemed to reciprocate, making that odd clicking purr more often when she treated its injuries or hefted it into its sling.

    While she was examining the creature for injuries, she was forever making observations about its composition. For a creature made primarily of wood, as if cobbled from the makings of trees, bushes, grasses, and moss, it was surprisingly soft, particularly on the lower part of its main body, where the gangly branch-legs emerged from the compact, rounded body. Its upper surface appeared softer at a first glance, covered as it was with a downy grass from which small cattails emerged, but beneath this was a hard layer of bark, from which rose a spindly spike of heartwood. A bird might perch comfortably on the creature’s back, and in fact, many did.

    It was while she was describing the creature’s curious composition that Shadryn brought up the idea of giving it a name, an idea which I resisted; if she named it, she might be less inclined to let it go when the time came. She took my reluctance as a challenge, though I’m not sure if she was being stubborn, or simply teasing. Sometimes these became one thing for her, and even she didn’t know where one ended and the other began. When, in exasperation, I threw my hands up and gave up trying to convince her not to give it a name, rather than accepting this victory gracefully, she continued to tease me. “I think I’ll call it Mushiebottom,” she said, “on account of it having a bottom that’s soft, all downy moss,” and as she said it, she watched me to relish my exasperation at such an undignified choice. I think she was only kidding at first, but that fey mood was still hung about her, stubborn and teasing in equal measure, and the more I wracked my brain for refined names, perhaps with a horticultural basis given the creature’s botanical nature, the more she dug her heels in and kept calling it Mushiebottom, clearly delighed at my reaction. “You always overthink these things,” she insisted, a criticism which drew me up short; I turned away, silently, and stalked off to brood over this characterization.

    * * *
    (the story continues here)
    Last edited by HunterGreen; Aug 03 2015 at 06:17 AM.

 

 
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