Disclaimer: See Chapter 1.
Chapter 32: An Unpleasant Surprise
The next morning the travellers left their camp, since the snowfall had lessened to a tolerable level, yet would still conceal their traces. They burned the branches they had used for their shelters, cooking their breakfast on the merrily blazing fire. After eating they carefully removed all marks of their presence and set off. Eglamir took the lead, choosing an east-southeastern direction that would take the company back to the road by the evening of the following day if nothing special happened.
Eglamir's plan was sound enough: They encountered no one save a few curious squirrels and foxes while they trudged through the snow-covered woods. The sun was just touching the horizon on the day after their departure when they finally hit the Road again. Being too tired to even think of further travel, the company made their camp and were soon fast asleep.
The following two days were almost equally uneventful. Tired and hindered with snow, the quartet could go less than twenty miles a day. The terrain continued as wild as before. It was only on the second day when they came to an inhabited region. At first they encountered only a few abandoned farms. The buildings of one had been burned to ground and even the stone well in the middle of the courtyard had been broken, the stones scattered around. Some pieces of furniture lay on the ground too, covered by snow. Still, when the wind lazily wiped them bare, one could see traces of an axe in the splintered wood. All in all, it was evident that the place had been attacked. Belhast looked at the scene with a depressed and anxious mood. He hoped that the inhabitants had managed to escape.
Eglamir, for his part, stopped for a moment to look at the sad sight, with an impenetrable expression. He appeared calm on the surface as always but the others could see him slowly clenching his hands into tight fists and quietly muttering a few angry-sounding words.
The dúnadan then checked himself and abruptly turned away. He strode away with a brisk pace that compelled the others to follow him half running. He only slowed down when the others had twice called to him to do that. He offered no explanation for his apparent agitation and his companions weren't keen to ask either after seeing his gloomy look.
Eglamir's mood, however, visibly lifted again when the quartet reached a village of some twenty houses, where they stopped to buy feed for the horses. There was a high wooden palisade surrounding the northern side of the village and the houses were big and sturdy. For the first time in Rhudaur the travellers now saw painted buildings and people who were not care-worn or stricken with terror. Instead, the villagers seemed to be in good spirits and excellent health when they hurried from one task to another. They talked gladly with the travellers, eagerly asking for news from afar lands. Their own speech was of more homely things like the prospects of the next harvest or the health of the cows and pigs. It was very familiar talk to Belhast and Finrosc from their childhood and they listened to the villagers with relish, enjoying the trust for the future their every word testified of. Whatever was wrong in the kingdom of Rhudaur, in this village there was no trouble, no paralysing fear that seemed to taint the rest of the land.
The quartet soon managed to find a farmer willing to sell hay and barley. After doing business they chatted a little with the friendly peasant.
"Why have you the palisade? Against wolves?" asked Belhast.
"Them, and bandits," was the reply. "Come spring we'll complete the circle around the village."
The farmer then proudly pointed towards north, over fields that lay there.
"You see the brink of the forest there? We have traps there, pits and upright spikes. I daresay no wolf, on four legs or two, will reach our homes from that direction."
"You really seem to have paid attention on your security," said Finrosc politely.
"We have. Every man here has a bow and a hunting spear, also. Whoever tries to rob us will get his wages. The King has his troops but they can't be everywhere. If a man has not even the protection of his King he must be his own guardian."
"Wisely said, my good man," said now Eglamir with an approving nod. "But now we must take our leave, if you please. Good bye and all good to you!"
They left the village and walked for nearly a mile in silence. But then, contrary to his custom, Eglamir smiled broadly and spoke to Belhast without being addressed first:
"What makes you mope so? Was that place not wonderful?"
Belhast, who had showed a long face for half an hour, sourly replied:
"Wonderful? I don't know about that but at least they have a wonderful sense for money! I daresay our horses eat now more expensively than us."
"Ah, but that is just how it should be! The people in the village yonder know their own good. If only all folk in these kingdoms were like them, so bold and so confident of the strength in their arms! Then the accursed North would not be the black cloud over our days and the terror of our nights. No, but instead the marauders from the icy wastes would tremble with the fear of our swords!"
His eyes shone now with a fire the others had never before seen. He was like another man, so much more lively and enthusiastic he was than usually. Laying his hand on the hilt of the sword on his side and raising his gaze to the sky he continued in a vehement voice:
"Oh, a prosperous, brave people under a strong and wise king – my dream and my hope!"
"Why yours?" Gutrune asked hesitantly, somewhat taken aback by the dúnadan's burst of enthusiasm. "You are but a common soldier, after all."
Eglamir started a little and lowered his eyes to look at his companions again. The flame that had burned in them slowly dimmed and was replaced by their usual wary, watchful glint.
"That is the dream of every decent man and woman in these days and in these lands," Eglamir said slowly, with a thoughtful air. "You three, born in foreign and happier lands, cannot understand what it means to see the land of your birth slowly wither and die. You cannot grasp how it feels to see despair and selfishness reigning everywhere when courage and steadfastness are the only salvation. You cannot– "
He was getting heated again but stopped short, rubbing his forehead with his hand. Then he went on more calmly:
"Ah, what is the use in all these words? It is strong hands and minds that are needed. Until these three kingdoms have enough of them, until the land has awakened from its nightmare of fear, all I have said is only idle talk. Only talk– "
His voice trailed away, so that the last word was only barely heard:
Gutrune looked embarrassed and said:
"I'm sorry if I offended you. I was not aware you feel so strongly about this."
"'Tis naught," Eglamir said with a small smile. "I come from a people with long lives and long memories. Sometimes I think of the days of gone splendour, not five generations of the dúnedain away, and then the present times seem to be evil and heavy to bear. But the feeling has passed for now. Let us continue our journey."
The others had no objection and they resumed walking. Gutrune tried to start a light conversation with Belhast, but gave up soon when the man absent-mindedly replied in monosyllables. His mind was occupied by Eglamir's outburst. He could not make anything sensible of the dúnadan's surprising passion.
His train of thought was interrupted by a small poke to his side. He looked at his left and saw Finrosc winking his eye at him. The bard whispered:
"Keep your eyes open. He's an odd fish to be sure."
"Yes, he is. Still, whatever he's up to it can't be about us."
"How do you know?"
"I feel it. Still, there's something queer about him. But what?"
"Who knows? Let's be careful. But hush now!"
Finrosc touched his lips lightly with his forefinger as Gutrune neared them.
"What are you fellows so serious about?"
"Nothing much," replied Finrosc. "I only told Hasty that I'll eat my lute if the weather doesn't get colder soon. See how the sky is clearing? That means frost."
"Hm," Gutrune said, apparently losing her interest. "Maybe."
Finrosc again gave Belhast's side a little shove meant to look playful, then strode forward and engaged Eglamir in a lively but rather one-sided talk, leaving Belhast and Gutrune walking behind.
"So, what was your conference really about?" Gutrune asked nonchalantly, while patting Dummy's neck with an ostensibly careless air.
"He told you already. The weather," Belhast said curtly.
"I see. A bit strange it is, however, when there are more interesting subjects."
Gutrune nodded her head slightly towards Eglamir.
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe him, for instance."
Belhast formed his face in the best expression of surprise he could manage.
"Playing stupid is the game of the day, isn't it?"
She shook her head and changed the subject:
"Speaking of other people, what is the tie between you and Finrosc, if I may ask?"
Belhast frowned at her.
"How is that your business?"
"Please, don't be so cranky! You seem to think that every word carries a trap with it. But I ask only because I am curious. The way you speak and act with each other isn't what I'd expect from mere friends. Yet, it is equally clear you aren't– " She blushed. "Never mind."
It took Belhast some moments to grasp Gutrune's meaning but then he got it. He laughed long and heartily.
"Aren't something unnatural, you mean? Oh no! If you have to know, we are brothers."
"But you don't even look at all alike!" Gutrune exclaimed with surprise.
Belhast pondered rapidly if he should bother to clarify. Then he decided to go for it. It was a harmless piece of information anyway.
"Foster-brothers, I should have said. We've grown together since we were two years old."
"I see," Gutrune replied, evidently wanting to hear more. Belhast chuckled at her eager expression.
"If I am playing stupid then you are doing a good job impersonating a cat, or a squirrel! Just as curious."
"I can't help it," said Gutrune, smiling. "I love digging to the bottom of anything that interests me, even if I burn my paws."
"No risk of that with my life story," Belhast laughed. "On the contrary, you'd be bored to death to hear it all."
Their talk then drifted to other channels while the weary miles passed away.
That day, and the morning of the next, they travelled through the belt of villages and farms. A few of the farms were abandoned and in most of the villages there were at least some houses with smokeless chimneys and with no light peering through the shutters. When asked, the peasants spoke of many people moving either to the central areas of Rhudaur east of the Hoarwell and near Cameth Brin or, increasingly, to Arthedain and Cardolan.
But during the afternoon the Road again plunged into the endless woods, dotted only by a collier's hut here and there, or far-smelling tar kilns. When the evening fell the travellers again had to make their mirthless camp in the shade of great trees.
The night passed peacefully and the quartet started again an hour before the sunrise. For three hours they walked on without encountering anything remotely interesting or unusual. But some time before the noon Finrosc suddenly pointed to their left.
"Look! There's a mark on the oak there!"
He strode over to the tree and looked more closely. In the crudely-made picture three wavy lines crossed a small circle, with a small arrow pointing to the woods.
"A spring!" Finrosc said with apparent satisfaction. "Now that came just at the right time. We can water the horses and cook our lunch with half the time and fuss."
"And I can fill my waterskin," remarked Gutrune, starting to untie the said object from her belt.
Finrosc took the bucket from Dummy's back and leaped over the ditch on the northern side of the road. He took a few steps in the snow before realizing that Belhast was not following him. He called to him, somewhat irritably:
"Take the pans and come, if you please! What's taking you so long?"
Belhast, who had been studying the mark, slowly replied:
"Strange! This looks like it was made just this morning. The cuts are still fresh and sharp."
"And what of it?" said Finrosc, starting to wade through the snow, followed by Gutrune.
"Just that we have seen no footprints going east before us. Nor are there any traces of anyone coming from west to here. So, who carved this?"
"A fairy for all I care," replied Finrosc who was now half covered with bushes. "I'm not going to sit for hours watching some bloody lump of snow melting! I will get that water, fresh cuts or no."
Suddenly Eglamir, who had been silent and thoughtful, raised his hand.
"Wait! Come back, you two, and fast! We must get away! I fear this is a–"
His sentence was cut short by a bellowing sound of a horn from the southern side of the Road. That was followed by an answering yell from many throats from the northern side. Eglamir instantly drew his sword, but the others froze to their place. Before they could react, about ten men sprang up from the bushes a few yards away from Finrosc and Gutrune. Two more leapt on the road over the southern ditch, bellowing a war cry. They, as well as most of the others, wore furs and leather armour covered by white, linen cloaks or coats.
"Run for it!" Eglamir shouted, but it was too late. The attackers had already seized Finrosc and Gutrune, pummelling them to the ground with punches from their gloved fists. The two captives were still struggling fiercely, but it was only a matter of time before they would be overpowered.
Belhast looked on with horror, having barely the presence of mind to grasp the hilt of his sword and draw the blade. He wheeled around when clash of metal and a cry of pain behind his back alerted him. He saw Eglamir standing over a man lying on the ground. The dúnadan stepped back, giving the bandit's head a hard kick and wheeling to face the other one.
Belhast could force himself to move only when the second man on the road rushed at Eglamir. For half a second he cast a glance at the struggle in the midst of the bushes, but seeing it would be hopeless to try anything alone, he sprang forwards to help Eglamir.
The bandit and Eglamir were already engaged in a fierce combat, striking and parrying with their swords, when Belhast reached them. In two leaps he got behind the bandit and stabbed blindly at him. The short sword sunk halfway to the lower back of the massive bandit, tearing a cry of anguish out of him. The man did not fall but staggered, giving Eglamir a perfect opening. The dúnadan swung his sword in a flashing arc. The blade hit the bandit's neck squarely, almost severing his head. Blood flying in every direction, the man thudded heavily onto the ground.
Belhast did not have time even to wipe the red stains from his face, since Eglamir was in instant at his side and gripped his collar.
"To the horses! We must flee!"
"But, but the others–?" Belhast stammered, still scared and bewildered.
"Cannot be helped now!" Eglamir replied, dragging and pushing the unresisting Gondorian towards the horses.
In an instant they reached their steeds, and when Belhast hesitated Eglamir unceremoniously grasped him by the collar and belt. An upwards jerk accompanied by a grunt, and in a second the fortune-teller found himself in the saddle, still convulsively grasping his sword. Eglamir mounted Alagos in a single leap and took Dummy's reins in his left hand, exclaiming:
"Hold tight, man!"
Without more ado Eglamir spurred the warhorse and it leaped forwards. Belhast almost fell from the saddle when Dummy followed with a jerk. Somehow, he managed to stay mounted and to grasp Dummy's mane with his left hand as the horses galloped wildly away from the scene of the battle.
It was none too soon that they managed to escape. From the corner of his eye Belhast could catch a glimpse of Gutrune lying on the ground, kicking and straining against bounds, and of Finrosc with his back against a tree, futilely trying to strike at the bandits with the wooden bucket he still held. Seeing the two would-be victims escaping, the bandits gave a furious cry. Three of them ran towards the road, trying to cut the escape route. But they were too late. All they could do was to leap aside to avoid to be ridden over.
The following minute was a chaos of shouts, the clatter of the hooves and the heavy footsteps of running bandits. But then the two fugitives were clear of their pursuers. Looking over his shoulder, Belhast saw the bandits giving up the chase and dashing to the woods on both sides of the road. It was only a glimpse, though, since in an instant the horses were around a bend of the road and all he could see was the whirl of passing trees and bushes as they galloped towards the east.
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