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Late afternoon fell as the sun of the Fourth Age stretched across the vast blue sky. The vale of Bænde-hullow rested as day waned. A hunting falcon, seeking quarry for the evening, soared high above the countryside. It glided in slow circles, then, startled, it veered steeply downward. A shrill cry suddenly echoed through the valley. The falcon checked its descent and sped away, disappearing against the sky. The wind changed course as a cold black shadow passed swiftly over the sun. As quickly as it came, the dark form vanished over the horizon.
Shapes in the distance enveloped the sunlight and splayed sooty fingers over the valley. The sky darkened as far-away lightening crackled. A mist of rain fell in the distance, like an inky blanket covering the valley as the storm unfurled. The late summer thunderstorm was gathering its dark forces over the edge of the usually sunny dale.
Carelessly through the valley under the storm over hillock and through the meadows a once well-traveled roadway wound. A few yards from both sides of this passage ran two short walls of moss-covered stacked rock, crumbling and in disarray. On the road, patches of green grass pushed through cracked stones and worn gravel to welcome the spell of rain.
Years had passed since men had walked the stones of that ancient road. Greater and nobler men than now had laid it stone by stone in long lost times. It was once a proud way traveled by mighty men, Dwarves, even Elves, during the Lem-Noran, the Days of Light, in the years that followed the destruction of the One Ring and the ruin of the foul servant of Morgoth. The High King of Nùmenor, his great-grandsons now long passed and his dictates near forgotten, had once graced its seamless cobbleways. The roadway now lay lonely through the lush valley, a silent reminder of a grander age of grander men.
And now its course was quiet. Rarely did any save bird or beast walk upon it. But today, as greyness swallowed the suns warmth, a lone figure trudged over its stones.
He walked hurriedly as he moved southward on the road. He was garbed in a dull brown cloak, stained dark and tattered in places, and his hair was coal black in the shaded sun. He held a short bow in his left hand, and a quiver of arrows hung across his back. He wore black riding boots to his knees, and worn leather breeches. A long knife was strapped to his leg. As he walked, three times he stopped in mid-step, crouched to the ground, and peered this way and that, surveying the road.
To the north another shrill cry sounded, this time closer. The traveler drew himself to full height in the middle of the roadway. He turned his head to the left, listening intently. Then quickly he leapt to the roadside and darted behind the rock wall. He unsheathed his long knife, then hastily drew the hood of his cloak over his head, lay flat upon the ground, and disappeared amidst the tall grass.
Thunder rumbled. Far away, on the horizon behind the traveler, dark shapes appeared on the road. To the south down the road in the direction the traveler walked, a faint howling rang out across the valley.
Thunder boomed again, and the light mist mingled with heavy drops falling from the darkening sky. The shadows on the road to the north took shape as hooves pounded the roadway. North of the makeshift hideaway, several horsemen were galloping full speed down the passage. Five wore patterned green cloaks, which flapped behind them in the wind, exposing leather jerkins with mail coverlinks. Each carried a halberd or spear in one hand. Shields were strapped to their saddles. Their horses were tall, seventeen hands each; their coats were ginger, speckled with dirty-white. These were armored well; heavy leather covered their flanks. The steeds were wide-eyed as in fear, and sweat dimmed their sides as if they had spent leagues in full gallop.
Another rider, on a horse black as ebony, ran fifty yards in front of the group of five. The rider donned a cap helm atop silvery-white hair. He wore black chain mail, and no cloak covered his armor. His sloe buckler hung on his saddlebag, a blood-red hand, palm outward, emblazoned on its front. A long sword was sheathed below the saddle. He hunched forward, gripping the reigns tightly as he gazed up and down the road and across the valley. About a furlong from the travelers hiding, he checked his horse, stood up in the stirrups and raised his gauntleted hand to slow the others.
The tall stallion whinnied and shook its head as the leader pulled the reigns back. "Whoa, Shaele," commanded the old man with a low gruff voice. Shaele slowed to a walk, stopped abruptly, and shook his mane wildly. He stood a stones throw from the hiding traveler.
The old rider scanned the ground before him. Then, as quick as a cat, he dismounted the horse. The reigns hung loosely to the ground as he espied the road and crumbling wall. Bending over, he brushed a clump of grass growing through the stones.
"Haes been here, ndoubt," the man muttered. An angry sneer crossed his face, then faded into lines of worry mixed with pity. He furrowed his brow and viewed the road to the south.
The other riders approached. One of them, young with piercing blue eyes, dismounted and walked toward Shaele and the old man.
He spoke halteringly, through quick breaths. "Confound it, Caedron! We ayre no gonna find em now. Gone fayr good, says I." He eyed the first rider. "And we canna go fayrther." He turned to the other riders, all breathing heavily and leaning against the necks of their horses. "We ayre to the aends of the Wlaker, and te men ayre fayered."
Caedron ignored these pleas, and continued his inspection of the road and surrounding area. He lifted his hand to his forehead and scanned the horizon to the east.
Lightening shot through the south sky. Rain was now drizzling steadily. Caedron had once wandered into this land, but that was in a different time, when he was young and craved adventure. His knees ached more now, and though he loved his long-held post as Tracker Guard for the Vlarid Dundar, as these men from the northlands called themselves, he had far less love now for wandering. Bænde-hullow was indeed on the edge of the Wlaker Vurl, the Lands of Sorrow, and few had roamed its many rolling hills and deep caverns and returned to his home in right mind.
Caedron turned slowly to the others. He was raised a huntsman, it was in his blood, and he prided himself as the best in the land. He would not tarry on this trail. "We must goe fayrward, Dalenor." His eyes squinted as he looked at the young man. "We canna bring ayrselves back wid naught to show. His bootsve waelked hayre, see?" Caedron pointed to an impression in a weedy clump on the road.
Dalenor stepped closer to look at the signage. The wind whipped his cloak about as he crouched down. Rain fell harder as he wiped the ground, searching for a hint of bootstep. He could see nothing.
"Ahhrg," he grunted. "Thaers naught haer. Yer eyes be gettn dim." Dalenor stood up and tapped his chest. "I faer one says we gback to Lettleton. We can pick up is trail thaer, I reckon."
"By Brees ale, ya would nae know aelfan mark f ye saw it in full light! Hae walked tis road not an hour agae. Less n that, Ill wayger." Caedron scratched the bristle on his chin as he glared at Dalenor.
The wind swept the drizzly showers in circles round the company. The other men atop their mounts glanced back and forth at each other. They had ridden for leagues, with only four brief stops. Their journey began three days ago a mission quest from the Vlarid council in the town of Celderin, forty leagues northeast as the crow flies. They knew little, except they sought an elusive thief. None save Caedron knew the deeper purposes of their quest.
They had set out from Lettleton at dawn this morning, on word from a pubster that the one they hunted had eaten at the local inn two nights ago. "He dinna spake," the rotund innkeeper had said. "Seated msaelf at the corner table n ate me mutton. Left haer quick as he come." They had followed the road from Lettleton with nothing but this innkeepers words (and Caedrons quick eye) to guide them.
The miserable weather had begun as soon as they entered this vale, as had the strange cries in the distance. The men now wet, cold, and travel-worn yearned to leave this queer place. Old grandmother yarns of the Baend-hullow Cairns and the Barrow-wights of the south valleys, foolish enough in Celderin under sunny skies, now seemed all too real in this dark hollow.
Dalenor stepped toward his horse and grabbed the reigns, preparing to hoist himself back atop the tired steed. He would ride no further. As far as he knew, the thief lay hidden in a cairns hole now. With one boot in the stirrup, he reached for his saddle. His horse snorted and stamped the ground nervously.
"Easae, Brille!" Dalenor stroked his horses neck and side as he attempted to mount. The usually calm mare continued stamping, and lowered its head anxiously. "Whoae girl!" The horse had shifted its weight and now sidestepped to the edge of the road. Unexpectedly, it reared back on its hind legs, eyes wide with terror. Dalenor, whose foot was still stirruped, crashed to the ground and yelled in pain. He gripped his ankle and writhed on the roadside.
The other mens horses panicked and swaggered uneasily. Caedron first gripped Shaeles bridle and calmed him, then ran to Dalenors side as Brille the mare leaped over the rock wall and dashed westward. "To the wind; Jaele, Brinton!" Caedron shouted. "After er quick!"
Two of the riders fought to control their steeds and set off after the ginger mare. Shaele stood, snorting and watching the mare disappear westward. Caedron tended to Dalenor as the other two men laboured to dismount their anxious horses.
Muddy water was running hard down the gullies on the roadside. Dalenor again shouted as Caedron lifted his boot from the ground. He glowered and gritted his teeth in agony. "Ae fine mess now," Dalenor spoke through his teeth. "Waeve lost her fer good."
"Yeve got ae right nasty break," said Caedron, "but tis clean." He pulled out a short blade to cut the breeches around Dalenors ankle. "Men, keep yer mounts still!"
The horses would not calm, as the two men struggled to control them. They neighed and snorted and turned around wildly.
To the west, in the direction Brille had run, a deep curdling howl sounded. It chilled the air. Caedron suddenly stopped nursing Dalenors wound, and stood up quickly. He turned to look toward the sound, his eyes filled with dread.
Other howls, closer and to the north, answered the first.
Caedron stood frozen on the roadside. Then suddenly, as if awakening from a dream, he cried, "Ride, men! Back to Lettleton while ye can! Wargs be upon us!"
The two men on their horses bolted, each in a different direction. Caedron lifted Dalenor to his feet. "Wae must get ye on Shaele! Ye must ride!"
Dalenor, pale with fright and pain, shook his head and grimaced. "Lift mae, I canna pull maeself upon him!" Caedron heaved the man and helped him as he frantically grabbed Shaeles mane and saddle. He pulled himself to lay sideways on the stallions back, and then righted himself. He clutched the reigns.
Caedron still held Shaeles bridle tightly. He drew his long sword from the sheath strapped below the saddle. Then he whispered in Shaeles ear, "Run, lad. Speede away with yer fastest gallop to whence ye were sired." He then slapped the horse on its backside and shouted, "Make haste to Celderin. Away wid ye both!" Shaele sprang to gallop and Dalenors frightened pleas were carried away by the wind.
Caedron stood in the road, gripping his long sword firmly, listening and waiting. He braced himself for the worst as the rain fell in sheets.
Copyright 1999, Stephen N. Barnes, Jr., Esq., All Rights Reserved