Candaith was the first to recover his breath and finally speak.
“Well done, both of you. There were a good many more in that war-band than I had suspected,” he said.
“We are fortunate to have escaped with our lives,” said Deverell, still trembling from all that was involved in the battle.
Candaith looked to her. “Fortunate? Very much so, yet fortune was not all that stood here with us this past night.”
He looked around the weathered summit, at those lying on the ground who had met their end, before continuing, “While I wish I could say that we had met under a better circumstance, Lady Deverell, the truth is that meeting would never have been, save for your presence here this day. Scout Kaleigh and I, we owe you our lives.”
I turned to smile at Deverell and witness her flustering, both with such praise and the fatigue that wore upon us all.
“Thank you, my lord,” she managed.
I squeezed her hand. “He is right, you know. We would be lost without you here with us.”
Candaith then turned to me. “Saeradan would be proud, Scout Kaleigh. You took to your lessons well.
I smiled at him…
…yet the grip upon my heart remained…
“Come, let us see to the horses, and if they have been spared.”
Once Deverell had treated our more pressing wounds, we began our descent down from Weathertop and toward Candaith’s camp.
“Where now will you go, Candaith?” I asked. “Perhaps the three of us should share the same path for a time.”
He shook his head. “I fear that time has ended, for the Enemy has seen the same opportunity that Halbarad envisioned, and has acted upon it. We have been forced to move more quickly that we would have liked.”
“The others Halbarad sent, you mean. The others sent with you?” I asked.
“Yes. We were to make for western lands and sweep eastward, looking for opportunities to hinder enemy efforts and spoil their plans. But word has reached us that the Enemy is already on the move, and that we are needed in southern lands. I am likely the last of us in these parts, save for those in the haven. And I, too, must now make for distant lands.
We silently made our way toward camp for some minutes before he spoke again.
“If you mean to continue on this path, you would act more as obstacles to the enemy rather than the quiet knife striking from the shadows. And neither Halbarad, nor I, nor any other amongst us would ask you to act as such.”
I was still considering this new course, and how different the path might be for us, when Deverell said, “We made a good showing of it today, at least.”
“That we did.” I nodded and looked to Candaith.
Candaith grinned wearily, “I should have known better than to expect those who had henpecked me into resting upon arriving at my camp to give up so easily.”
Deverell and I put our arms around each others’ shoulders and made a show of mock defiance, before the effort became too much to bear.
We had survived, to see another day, and we celebrated life and the bonds we had forged through blood and sacrifice…
Candaith looked westward and said, “In the Ered Luin, the Dourhand have a stronghold. Do you know of it?”
I reached for the map in my pack. “Sarnur, it is called, yes?” I asked.
He nodded. “It is believed that they lie in wait, growing stronger as each season passes. On my way through the mountains, I witnessed signs that the time they will be unleashed grows near. But I did not have time to be sure.”
I looked to Deverell and, when she nodded, I said, “We will journey there and see.”
Candaith nodded, “Good. You may find yourselves following our path, finding signs we have overlooked and seeing to troubles that have sprung up in the time since my brothers and I had first passed through.”
“We will begin the journey tomorrow, once we have each taken rest and treated our ailments,” I said.
We reached Candaith’s camp and found the horses safe. We brought them to water and a better place to graze.
We each took turns at watch, allowing the others much needed rest, and Deverell’s poultices and remedies worked well to ease the wounds we carried away from battle. We rested through the remainder of the day and the night that followed.
The next morning we gathered ourselves for the long road ahead, bidding one another a safe journey. until the fortunate day when we might meet again.
We had mounted up and begun easing Dandi and Dancer southward, when we heard Candaith call out.
“Scout Kaleigh, a word.”
Deverell and I looked to each other a moment. She then urged Dancer to keep walking, while I turned Dandi back toward the camp.
“Your friend, Deverell, is very brave,” Candaith said, once I had returned.
I smiled. “I had no idea how much before this, but you speak truly.”
Candaith raised an eyebrow, “Never in battle before this?”
“Only during a fight or two we had in the Weather Hills on the way here, at least to my knowledge,” I replied.
He said no more for some time, and I was just about ready to turn Dandi about and rejoin Deverell, when he spoke once more.
“The road you both are undertaking has become much more perilous than the one you meant to take,” he said.
I sighed and nodded. “I know, but we will take care while traversing it, I promise.”
“See that you do,” he replied. “Remember that the Enemy is now actively working toward their plan, and you are likely to come upon obstacles too great for the two of you to tear down. Your friend, being new to battle, will not be able to advise you in this, so you will be your greatest counsel. When in doubt, find a way to circumvent challenges too great for the two of you, and move on to other things you can manage.”
“We will,” I assured him.
He looked at me sternly for a few moments before finally nodding.
I nodded and waved my farewell to him before turning Dandi back toward the south and walking her away.
From over my shoulder I heard Candaith say, “I am most grateful you both found me here.”
I sighed and smiled, while keeping to the southward path.
As am I, my friend…
I trotted Dandi to catch up to Deverell on the hills leading southward, toward the Great East Road. Weathertop loomed over our shoulder, a monument to the narrow victory we had won there.
We spied some goblin camps in the valley below and decided to skirt them by going westward, letting the peaks of the hills we traversed give us cover.
Deverell brought Dancer to a halt and waited, so that we could ride together for a bit.
“So what did Candaith wish to tell you that was not meant for my ears to hear?” she asked, with a smile.
I looked away, toward the road we were nearing.
“He said you look pretty when you are flustered,” I replied, with all the solemnity I could muster.
She smacked me on the shoulder that the skeleton has raked with its decaying nails, and I winced.
“You do not want to have to treat this again, do you?” I smiled at her while rubbing my shoulder.
“Out with it, then! Unless, it really was meant to be private…” she trailed off.
“It was nothing like that, I promise you. He said much the same as Lord Gildor, really. And how lucky I was, to have you with me.”
She lowered her hand, and her expression eased a bit. “That is all? Not the part about being flustered?”
I lay my hand on her arm. “Had he said that, I would have been forced to correct him by saying you look that way all of the time. Save for when you are smacking me, that is.”
We both laughed, and our laughter helped to chase away the horror of that terrible night…
We reached the Great East Road and turned onto it, heading westward.
Our road would be a long one, I knew, and we were still recovering from the ordeal just past.
“There is an inn not far off down the road, where we can take some rest,” I said. “It lies near the border of Bree-land.”
“A rest would be welcome,” Deverell said.
We reached the Forsaken Inn in the late afternoon and stopped, deciding that more rest now would leave us stronger for what might come in the days ahead.
“Tomorrow is a new day, girl. We will be off when daylight breaks,” I whispered to Dandi.
I had not had reason to come this way for some time, but the Inn was still quite a sight, though a welcome one for the weary.
“Let us hope that it does not rain this night,” said Deverell.
“Oh, not to fear.” I smiled. “Rain is quite rare in these parts.”
We went inside, and I made to fetch us a room while Deverell saw to our things. There was a man standing at the bar, so I waited patiently for a few moments.
When he saw me, he said, “I am just waiting for more swill, lass. Go on ahead.”
I smiled at him. “Thank you, sir.”
I then turned to the innkeep and said, “I would like a room, with a roof, please?”
Both Deverell and I were most grateful for that discretion later, as a storm began to bluster in the early morning and was still at it when we meant to leave the next day.
The two of us stared glumly into the clouded and darkened sky.
“We really should cover some ground today,” I said.
“I suppose we should,” Deverell sighed.
When I saw her gaze move back to the door of the inn, however, I took hold of her wrist and pulled her toward the stables.
“Come on,” I said. “It is not like we will get any more wet now.”
We made for the stables, though we dreaded the reception we would receive from the horses regarding what promised to be a rain-filled day of travel.
I stroked Dancer behind her ears. “I am sorry, girl, but we dearly need to take to the road today.”
She cast a baleful look my way as I whistled for Dandi, who was braving the rain to graze a bit on the sparse grasses near the stables.
I hugged her about her neck. “I am so sorry, girl. I will make it up to you, someday. I promise.”
She pawed at the ground and nodded her head in agreement, as if to make sure I would remember that last bit. Most everything she did found its way to my heart.
We set off into the rain and the wind, heading westward and into Bree-land.
Our journey together seemed already to be a long one, but the true storm was only just beginning, I knew…
…yet I looked forward, with hope for the opportunity to make my atonement, and to shed the burden that I have carried, for good…
The only opportunity the storm afforded us at the moment, however, was a means to catch our death.
I beckoned toward Deverell and pointed down the road leading toward the homesteads, south and east of Bree-town.
When she had caught up to me, I said, “There is no use fighting this storm any more today. We can take rest at my home and gather things for the coming journey.”
“That sounds like a wonderful plan to me!” cried Deverell, as she swept some of the rainwater from her face and flicked it at me.
We turned southward, onto the homestead road, and made for shelter.
We gained the rise that overlooked the Graventry district, to which my home belonged. I turned to look back at Deverell and smiled.
“We are nearly there. You can see my home from here.”
Once we had reached my home, we brought the horses to the stables and brushed them dry.
Having gotten them settled in for the night, we brought our packs back to the house, to set by the hearth so they might dry out overnight.
“You have a lovely home, Kaleigh. I can tell even through all the rain,” Deverell said. “You should have had me over long ago.”
“I know, and I am sorry for that,” I said, looking back to smile at her. “I do not often have people over, I suppose. But, for now, let us get out of the rain.”
I began walking toward the house.
“Why is that?” I could hear her ask over my shoulder, but I continued on, wanting to get inside and out of the cold.
After I had opened the door and let Deverell in, I stepped back for a moment, for another look…
…would this be the last time I would see my home?
Once we had gotten out of our wet things and set everything near the hearth to dry, I let Deverell have free rein over my wardrobe, to be prepared for any climes into which our journey might bring us.
As I worked on some letters, an idea began to come to me…
I let my mind wander, over the roads and paths that we had taken together, and what we had seen and had done…
…then, my mind went back to darker times and darker roads, and I felt a chill come over me. Icy tendrils woven and clinging…
I jumped, startled by Deverell’s voice and her presence before me.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Oh, I had an idea is all, to make a record of our journey.”
I took up the map lying before me on my writing desk and one of my quills, and I began to make notations upon it.
“This is an art that my dear friend, Madaelin, taught to me. It is something she learned while on her journeys into southern lands while visiting family,” I said, with a smile.
“If only you had arrived a day early when we met in Bree-town,” I chided her. “You could have met her, and many others. She was there for the ‘revelry’, as you term it.”
When I reached for another quill lying in a phial of differently colored ink, I noticed Deverell edging around my writing desk.
“No, no, no! Not before it is ready!” I laughed, swatting at the air before her, to keep her away.
She laughed and went back to the other side of the desk, before beginning to wander about the drawing room, looking over my things. I went back to work on my map, while keeping a watchful eye out for any more mischief.
“You really do have a lovely home,” Deverell said, after a time. “You should let others visit and see it more often.”
“Thank you,” I said softly, as I looked up to reach for another quill.
“Oh, my dress!”
Deverell stopped, looking alarmed. “Do you mind? It is so lovely, I could not help…”
I smiled at her. “I did not mean it that way at all, truly. What I meant to say was that you wear it so well, and far better than I. And that I should just gift it to you, which I think I will, as the small payment toward the very large debt that I owe you for joining me on this endeavor.”
“Kaleigh, you needn’t feel that you owe a debt to me,” she said.
“But I do, and I will atone for it,” I replied.
She looked at me for a moment, before she smiled once again. “Fine. This dress then, and nothing else!”
“We shall see,” I said, smiling at her.
After a few more minutes, I beckoned Deverell over to me.
“I think it is done. What you you think?” I asked, holding the map for her to view.
[Remember, all renderings can be pressed to be viewed in more detail!]
“I wonder where our road might eventually lead, and where you will mark the ways we will have taken,” she mused, tracing our path thus far upon the map with her finger.
“I guess we will find out beginning tomorrow,” I said. “But enough of this for now. Let us go to the sitting room and take our ease for the night.”
I set the map down on the desk and took Deverell by the hand, leading her to the sitting room.
We chatted into the late evening about other things, setting aside all that was involved with our endeavor for the night. We knew that our road must move inevitably forward on the morrow but, for the remainder of the evening, we dwelled in the past, under the light of more pleasant moments and memories…
When sleep began to finally claim us, I led Deverell to my bedroom.
“You can sleep in here. I will rest by the hearth,” I told her.
She began to protest. “Kaleigh…”
“Here,” I said, firmly, before breaking into a smile. “Do not make me turn you out into the cold.”
I had my way, of course, and finally went to sleep in the sitting room by the fire.
I slept soundly and did not wake until the morning.
We awoke the next day and went outside to find that the storm had finally passed, while an early Autumn morning was waiting to greet us. We took hold of each others’ hand, while also taking in the morning’s beauty for a moment.
Deverell squeezed my hand. “It looks to be quite a day,” she said with a smile.
I hugged her to me for a moment before setting off for the stables.
“We best make for the road, before the temptation to leave it for another day grows too strong,” I laughed.
We fetched the horses, settled our packs upon them, and made ready for the road. As we began to set off, I turned to take one last look at my home, before turning Dandi onto the road leading away from the homesteads.
We soon joined up with the Great East Road and turned westward upon it, making for Bree-town.
We approached the southern gate of Bree-town mid-morning. “We can stop for some supplies for the road while here and check the post,” I offered.
“Very well,” said Deverell.
“But no delaying our journey like the last time we were here,” I smiled at her. “That will not fly today!”
I rode off into town before she could respond.
We stopped by the town vault, where I found that a parcel awaited me. I brought it outside, into the sunlight, and began to open it as Deverell looked on.
“What is it? What is inside?” she asked, pretending to be nosy and a bother, all on purpose.
“Never you mind,” I laughed, while peeking inside so that she could not see. “Oh!”
“What? What is it?” she persisted, as I withdrew a piece of parchment from the box and read it.
“How very nice,” I mused loudly once I was done, smiling at her and folding the parchment before tucking it into my pocket to Deverell’s dismay. I put the parcel into the pack I had brought with me.
“What was in it?” she asked once again, teasing me.
“Never you mind! A surprise for later, perhaps, if you behave better,” I grinned. “We should go to the market and fetch what we need for the road ahead.”
“Of course,” she nodded.
As I turned and began to head toward the market square, I felt someone open my pack and begin rummaging through it…
I twirled and smacked Deverell’s hand away while laughing. “Enough! To the market now with you!”
At the market we fetched some rations for the road and other supplies for the journey.
It was mid-day when we left Bree-town behind us and took to the road again. We left by the Western gate, going westward on the Great East Road.
We came upon Adso’s camp in the late afternoon and decided to remain there, having earned our rest for the day.
“Greetings, lasses!” called out one of the workers, as we approached a small stable.
“Good day, sir!” I said. “Might we leave our horses with you for the evening?”
“Most certainly!” he replied. “I will take care of them for you, do not worry.”
I brought Dandi over and dismounted from her, handing some coin over to the stable hand. “For both of ours, please,” I said, gesturing toward Deverell and Dancer as well.
“Of course,” he smiled, taking the coin.
“We will be off early in the morning on the morrow.” I said.
After the stable hand had walked the horses off to water, Deverell asked me, “What is this place? I have never been this far west of Bree-town.”
“Oh, this is a merchant and traveling camp, run by one of the Shire,” I said. “Unless it has changed hands by now, but I do not think so.”
I looked around for any I might recognize, while Deverell watched quietly.
“Yes, there is Master Adso,” I said, gesturing toward a hobbit who had spied us and beckoned us over. I waved back to him and nodded.
“I did some Scouting for him, a long while ago. Come, let us go give him our regards,” I smiled.
“Master Adso, it is wonderful to see you once again!” I greeted him, as we approached.
“Good day, Kaleigh!” he said, “And good day to you, too… Miss…”
“Deverell,” both Deverell and I said at once, causing the three of us to break into a laughing spell.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Master Adso,” Deverell finally said when she was able.
“How are things,” I asked Adso, while looking about. “Business seems to be going well for you all here.”
“Not bad. Not bad at all!” he smiled. He then looked to me with a bit of eagerness and said, “Still, there may be some work for you both here, if you still have an interest in such things?”
I looked at Deverell quickly and then said, “Oh, I am sorry, but our days are accounted for now, at least for a good while. We are traveling westward, and into the Shire, in fact.”
“Mmm… the Shire. I wish I had the time to go back more often, but obstacles have a way of rising up and getting into the way.” he mused, more to himself than to us.
Deverell and I looked on quietly until he came to notice us once again. “Oh, no matter then, but I thought I might ask, just in case,” he smiled.
“Perhaps upon our return,” I offered, wishing I had more to offer in the moment.
He held up his hand and said, “Think no more of it. The run of the camp is yours, and know you both are welcome here, anytime.”
We offered him our thanks and parted, heading back toward the stable.
I fetched the pack into which I had secreted the parcel from the post in Bree, while Deverell looked on.
“It is time, then, I think,” I smiled at Deverell.
“Time for what?” she asked.
“For a little something to celebrate how far we have come thus far on our journey,” I replied. “Follow me.”
I led us away from the camp, to a place more quiet and hidden.
Once we had found a place somewhat secluded, I went about gathering kindling for a fire.
“All right, then,” I smiled, as I stood before the fire I had created. “I am going to turn my back and get some things ready. No peeking now!”
“Oh, very well,” laughed Deverell, though I could tell she was eager to see what I was cooking up for her.
I turned around and fetched my pack, settling down with my back toward the fire.
From my pack, I took the plates, forks, and knives I had secreted there from Adso’s camp while no one was looking. I also brought out the pie that Gennyrose had gifted me from the Chief while back in Bree-town and cut a slice for each us.
Lastly, I fetched two of the six bottles of Honeybrew that Master Dannigan had gifted me, from the parcel I found in Bree that morning, all while keeping an eye out for Deverell trying to sneak a peek at what I was doing.
Finally, I stood and brought her a plate and a bottle of Honeybrew. She took it in hand silently, while looking to me as I went back to the other side of the fire and sat down opposite of her.
“We can set these near the fire to warm them up a little,” I said, setting my plate with a slice of pie near to the fire. “It is not much, I know, but I just wanted to show how grateful I am to you by gifting you some of what has been gifted to me.”
Deverell smiled at me from across the fire. “Kaleigh, there is not a greater gift that you could give in this moment that would have more meaning for me. Thank you.”
Soon after the smell of warming pie overcame us, and we gave ourselves over to our supper. Neither of us wanted to take even a moment for anything else.
Deverell was the first to finally speak. “Kaleigh, this has to be the most delicious pie I have ever had. And the honeybrew goes with it wonderfully.”
I finished my last bite before responding, “The Chief and Dannigan are both masters of their respective crafts, to be sure. There will be more opportunities for us to have meals such as this once we reach the Shire, but they may not quite reach this level.”
She laughed. “A bit lesser I could still handle, I daresay.”
We ate in silence for a while afterward, each of us taking another slice of pie and bottle of Honeybrew.
“Your mother was a wonderful cook, as I recall,” Deverell said, as she was finishing her most recent slice of pie.
I nodded, finishing my current bite before laughing. “She was, yes. It was one of the things in her that did not take, sadly.”
“It might have, had you not lost her so early,” Deverell said softly. “But so many things have. She was always so kind to me, I remember.”
I smiled at her and said, “I remember. She used to hold you up as an example to me as to how I should behave.”
We were quiet for a moment. Memories of the terror of a child I once was came to me, and I shook my head at the sight of those visions, as if I might somehow shrug myself free of them…
I opened my eyes and looked at Deverell. “She was right, of course. She always was, though I oftentimes did not realize it until it was too late.”
“She would be so proud, so very proud, were she to see you now,” Deverell said softly.
“Were she to see me now,” I repeated, “had I not run her ragged and worn her out with my silliness, so that the Fever might not have claimed her as easily as it did.”
Deverell set her fork down on her plate and looked at me. “Kaleigh, there were many who were lost to us that summer due to the Fever, not just your mother.”
I sighed. “I know. It is just that I want to do right by her, you know?”
She came over to sit with me and embraced me. “I doubt that there is a woman in all these lands who would not be proud to have you as her daughter. You know it is true.”
“No,” I replied, “but it is nice to hear, nonetheless.”
We had finished supper and were gathering up our things, when Deverell noticed there was one slice of pie left.
“What should we do with this last piece, do you think?” she asked me.
“Oh, I think we should gift it to Master Adso, and give him a little slice of the Shire he is missing, don’t you?” I asked.
We put out the fire and gathered up our things. Master Adso was very pleased with our gift, and the giving meant as much to the two of us as the supper we had shared together.
We took our rest beside one of the campfires and slept through the night.
We awoke the next morning and made ready to resume our journey. The stable hand went to fetch Dandi and Dancer for us.
“Here they are, ready and raring to go!” he said with a laugh.
“Thank you kindly!” I said, offering him some more coins.
“Thank you, miss! Safe travels to you both.”
We returned to the Great East Road, turning westward, heading toward the Brandywine and the Shire.
The road wound back and forth, but always onward.
I slowed Dandi to allow Deverell and Dancer to catch up to us, and we rose alongside each other for a spell.
“So, you have never seen the Shire before, yes?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “No, but I have heard nice things about it.”
I smiled at her, “Every time I return, it happens to me all over again. You will know what I mean when we get there.”
“Do not build it up so much that it cannot live up to the expectations you are creating!” she exclaimed with a laugh.
I lay my hand on her arm as we rode down the path. “Trust me, that could never happen.”
Her eyes widened, but she said no more.
“Oh, one last thing,” I mentioned. “The Bounders patrol the Shire and keep the peace. They can be a bit wary of strangers in their lands, and rightly so, I am afraid. You will understand better when we arrive. Just be honest and forthcoming with them, and all will be well.”
“That will be easy enough,” she said. “We have nothing to hide, do we?”
“Not a thing in the world,” I smiled.
We passed by the Old Forest and Buckland along their northern boundaries. Not long after, the Brandywine Bridge came into view, spanning the river and leading into the Shire.
A Bounder was stationed at the Bree-land side of the bridge and waved us over to him.
“Good day to you both!” he exclaimed. “A lovely day, isn’t it?”
“Greetings, Master Bounder!” I replied. “It is a gorgeous day, indeed. My name is Kaleigh, and this is my friend, Deverell.”
“Good day to you!” said Deverell to the Bounder, favoring him with a smile.
“Passing over into the Shire today? What brings you this way, if I may ask?” inquired the Bounder.
“Oh, we are just passing through on our way into the mountains further west,” I said. “We mean to travel to the elven settlements, near the river Lune.
He seemed rather pleased with that answer.
“Good, good.” he replied. “Just be on your Shire-like behavior while here, if you would, please.”
He gestured for us to come closer, and we did.
He looked around, to be sure no one else was listening, before he made a show of saying, “We don’t care much for that patty-caking and lookie-loos that go on in Bree-land places, like the Prancing Pony.” And then he gave us a wink.
He reminded me so much of someone, someone very dear to me. And, in a way, I was home again…
“You can count on our discretion, Master Bounder. I can assure you of it.” I said with a smile.
“Have you both been to the Shire before?” he asked.
“I have, many times,” I said.
“This will be my first time, but I can already see from here how lovely it promises to be,” replied Deverell.
“Oh, let me have a quick word with you about things here, my dear,” he said, gesturing for Deverell to dismount and go to speak with him.
When she did, I took hold of Dancer’s reins and made a face at her before leading Dancer and Dandi away.
We waited, as patiently as we could bear it, while the Bounder laid down the law of the Shire for Deverell. I wanted us to be on our way, however, and Dandi did as well, I could tell.
Finally, the Bounder waved us onward, and Deverell came over to fetch Dancer.
“What did he have to tell you?” I asked her, as she mounted up.
“Oh, inns to stay at on the road, and which ales and pies to choose at the various taverns,” she said, with a laugh. “But it came from the heart, I could tell. I see what you mean by this being a special place.”
“It is long past time for you to find that out first-hand,” I replied, with a smile.
With a final wave to the Bounder, we guided the horses onto the Brandywine Bridge and began to cross the river.
The slow cadence of the horses’ hooves upon the stone, and the gentle, flowing sound of the Brandywine winding its way past lulled me into a state of wistful solemnity. We had only just arrived, but I knew our time here was fleeting…
…this land, and its people, have ever been as a balm to my spirit, from the time I first came to find myself here…
…and a light shines upon these lands…
…like no other that I have ever known…
We found our pace slowing soon after we crossed into the Shire, but neither of us made mention of it.
Though our pathway was cobbled and smooth, the journey that our senses took was over slower ground, yet far more lovely to travel.
I looked back more than once to see that Deverell and Dancer had come to stop in the middle of the road, having become lost upon other pathways, ones that neither foot nor hoof could travel, at least for that day.
We traveled the Great East Road, going westward into the Eastfarthing of the Shire.
The beauty of the land we traveled formed an obstacle to haste and urgency that we could not go around.
It is the way things were meant to be in this place.
Oftentimes, Deverell would ride beside me, and I would point out landmarks that others had shown me in past times. It was getting late in the day as we were nearing Bywater, and I pointed out the Three Farthing Stone to her.
“There are the four farthings of the Shire, you know. North, South, East and West. And this stone is said to sit upon the meeting place of three of them. All save the Northfarthing meet right up here.”
I watched Deverell look about, wondering if I shared the same look of wonder during my first visit to these lands.
“Where does the Northfarthing begin?” she asked.
“Well, north of here, of course.” I said. I pretended to ignore the face she made at me and continued, “Up near Bindbole Wood and the Greenfields.”
“These lands must have some wonderful stories to tell,” she said softly, as she looked around.
I laughed, “The curator of the Bounder Museum of Antiquities would be very happy to get a hold of your ear for a few hours and fill it with such tales. Perhaps, one day, we will return and can spend more time exploring.”
“I would like that,” she replied.
We stopped in Bywater for the night and enjoyed the company of those who shared the evening at the Green Dragon with us.
The next morning we continued our journey westward. The new day promised to be as glorious as the one before.
I had my hands full with keeping Dandi from bolting down the road, into the sunshine and the early autumn breeze that graced us that day…
…while keeping the others from coming to rest in the middle of the road and continuing onward.
We stopped to rest under the shade of a Great Shire Oak at mid-day and had a bit to eat before pressing on.
The merchants of Waymeet beckoned to us, and the temptation to stop and browse their wares and visit was nearly too much to overcome.
But we pressed onward, toward Michel Delving, where we planned to take our rest for the day.
I laughed as I spied Deverell and Dancer stopped in the road again.
“Come along!” I beckoned. “We are nearly there, and then we can look around as much as you like!”
Deverell waved and slowly urged Dancer forward.
“This must be what it is like for fishes swimming upstream,” I mused with a sigh.
We finally arrived in Michel Delving late in the day, where we were greeted by the sound of hammer and saw, and the sight of a good many around the Founders’ statue, just south of Town Hole.
I waited for Deverell to come up alongside me.
“I wonder what they are up to,” I whispered.
“Why not stop and ask?” replied Deverell.
“The Bird is just down the road. We can stay there for the evening, but why not have a look at what they are doing with the statue first, if you would like?” I asked her.
She laughed. “No need to ask me twice to stop for a look around here.”
We brought the horses to the fence that bounded the Founders’ Square.
“We will just be a moment, Dandi,” I said to her, scratching her behind her ears before making for the statue.
We walked up to the rise upon which the statue lay…
…and we beheld the renewing of a symbol, a rededication to a way of life and the principles upon which this precious land was founded, long ago…
…it was a boon, not only to Shire-folk, but to all willing to rededicate themselves to pursuits right and noble…
“It is quite a marvel you all are working here,” I said to the workers nearest us.
A few of them looked up from their work to smile and wave to us.
The nearest one said, “Thank you, miss! It should be ready before the winter, so come by then and see it finished!”
“We certainly will!” said Deverell, and I nodded my agreement. I noticed a donation cup nearby, and I fished out some coins from my purse to put inside.
“A round for you all at the Bird this evening, and the rest for building!” I said, to which Deverell quickly followed suit. A cheer went up.
“Thank you, tall lasses!” cried the worker. “Bounders’ Luck to you both!”
We found that the importance of our endeavor had been reframed for us…
I turned to Deverell.
“Tomorrow, we began anew.”
But haste does not suit those of the Shire, and we found obstacles lying in the way of our progress in that regard…
…obstacles of all manner and type…
…but, in these lands like no other…
…such things are welcome…
…and there is quite a chance that what one finds lying in the way of what they might first have desired to be even more to their liking…
I waved to Deverell from across the stream and laughed.
“Hurry, before the day gets away from us!”
We wound our way down the hills to Rushock Bog, skirting it toward the west as we could, when a familiar sight gave me the chance to tease my dear friend…
“Deverell, look!” I cried, pointing in the distance.
“More rocks!” I laughed.
“Enough!” she grouched, smacking me across the shoulder before she laughed as well.
“These rocks only like certain climates and being near waters, so we many not see many more for a while,” I said.
She sighed and shook her head at me before urging Dancer forward.
We pressed on northward, skirting the bog, until Needlehole came into view.
As we gained the bridge leading into the settlement, many cast wary eyes upon us. Most outsiders came from the western side of town, I surmised: the elves, and the dwarves, and those that dwelled in the mountains beyond.
Most of the hobbit-children here had not likely seen many big-folk and were curious about us, though their parents keep them safely nearby.
I could see that they liked Dandi, however, and she was more than willing to put on a show for everyone. The children laughed and returned our wave of greeting.
And, maybe, a small obstacle was felled that day.
The next morning, we crossed the bridges leading into Falathorn and to the Ered Luin beyond.
The sight of the hedgewall, and the gate bounding the Shire, was not an easy one to bear, but I took comfort knowing that the elven lands beyond were possessed of great beauty as well, though of a different sort.
We left the Shire behind, heading north and west, where we would cross the river Lune and hopefully reach Duillond by end of day.
Deverell marveled at the sight of the elven lands.
“Oh, Kaleigh…” she trailed off.
“Mmm… a bit like going from the kettle into the fire, is it not?” I said, smiling at her.
We wove our way across Falathorn that day…
…reaching the high, Eastern bank of the river late in the afternoon.
A chill wind, one seemingly too early for the start of the Autumn, flowed eastward against us, over the river.
It could not take way from the feeling of being near to our destination, however, nor the beauty of the lands that it sped through.
Deverell and I got the horses settled and then hurried across the settlement, toward its Western edge.
We arrived just in time…
“Haste sometimes come in handy, at least outside of the Shire,” said Deverell, as we watched the remainder of the sunset together.
“We best keep that between us, though,” I smiled.
The chill of the mountain air rushing downward upon us the next morning was even stronger that the day before, and we begrudgingly packed away our lighter garments for warmer fare.
We ventured north from Duillond, having resumed our path upon the Great East Road, leading toward the Vale of Thrain.
I set a good pace, hoping that we might reach Gondamon by light’s end that day.
The road carved through hill and stone, meandering like a dry riverbed.
We passed by Thrasi’s Lodge, still determined to make it to Gondamon that day.
Not long after, the road forked to the west and east. We took the westward path, upward into the mountains, away from the river.
A light snow began to fall as we ascended further into the highlands. There was a shadowy tinge upon the air, and a smell, both familiar yet elusive, was carried past us briskly by the mountain breeze.
I halted in the path, letting Deverell ride up alongside me.
“Do you smell that?” I asked.
She took in a breath of the air, wincing with the cold.
“I cannot really say. Something faint, like a cooking fire, perhaps,” she finally said.
We reached the final rise before the descent into the Vale. The smell of burning was now stronger upon the air, and its murkiness persisted.
“We best be ready for trouble,” I said to Deverell. She nodded her agreement and made ready her staff.
We eased up the rise, fearing what we might see.
Once we had gained the rise, we were able to see campfires strewn all throughout the Vale and around the walls of Gondamon. Many beings were milling about outsides its walls.
We backed down the rise to avoid being seen.
“I fear the signs Candaith spoke of were true,” I said to Deverell sorrowfully.
“The Dourhand?” she asked.
“Yes, and whatever minions they have lured to their side,” I said with distaste. “We had best make sure, though. We can circle about and scout the rest of the southern and eastern walls, at least. Follow me.”
We took cover in the Low Lands and rode eastward at intervals, riding up to the ridge now and then for another look before continuing on…
After a time, we had traveled as far eastward as we were able…
…still finding Dourhand at every spot we scouted along the southern wall…
We then rode northward, only to find the same…
…Dourhand surrounding not only the eastern wall but the northern as well, as far across as our eyes could see…
There was no cover to the west, nor to the north for us to scout further, but we knew what lie in wait there just the same…
Gondamon was under siege…
“What can we do to aid them?” Deverell asked. “Could we bring word of this someplace else and ask for aid?”
“Sarnur lies higher in the mountains,” I replied, gesturing toward the West. “I am sure Gondamon’s Scouts saw the Dourhand coming and have already sent word to any they think might lend aid.”
We were silent for a spell, while trying to form some sort of plan to bring aid to those within the settlement.
I heard Deverell whisper, “There is nothing to be done, is there?”
I looked to her and shook my head, before glancing down into the vale once again…
Within my mind, I tried to envision both the whole of the settlement, and the pathways that gave access to it…
Wide roads from the North, the West, and the South led into the central courtyard. Those gates would be difficult to defend, requiring a good many on foot, and archers above on the higher levels and ramparts. They would also make for a quick escape from the walls, but those would tried risked being swarmed and surrounded by the enemy on either side of each road…
They surely meant to attack from each of those sides, to spread out and separate Gondamon’s defenders. Most of the Dourhand forces must lie near those pathways, I surmised…
…and then my mind’s eye came to the southeastern corner of the settlement, where a steep and narrow path led up the rise upon which Gondamon was built. From there, a narrow stair gave access to the second tier of the settlement…
I knew the stair could be held by just a few soldiers, and archers would rain death upon any foe who tried to climb the rise and met with resistance. It was the most easily defended position of the settlement, without question… yet it could offer no escape. Not only would the narrow stair slow any sizable number who made for safety, but once free of the walls and into the open, any who fled that way would find themselves surrounded, swarmed from either side by the Dourhand that lay in wait…
Still, most of the Dourhand force would be on the other three walls. Even if it was not to be a way out, might it still be a way in, I mused…
“I have an idea, but it is a risky one,” I said.
Deverell looked at me, “One of those, is it? What is your idea?”
“We make camp in the Low Lands, keeping cover so as not to be seen,” I replied. “Then, at the dawn tomorrow, we storm through the eastern line of the Dourhand and into the settlement.”
She laughed, thinking I spoke in jest for a moment. When I did not respond, she said, “You are serious. That is your plan?”
“The morning sun will be at our backs, making us difficult to make out for those looking into it. They may mistake us for many more than we are,” I said.
I looked out at the force surrounding Gondamon for a moment before turning back to her. “Deverell, I cannot think of anything else we can do, can you? We either do this or we watch and hope for the best.”
She took in a deep breath. “Kaleigh, we are only two. And this is an obstacle beyond our means…”
“Amon Sul was held by only three, and you and I made up two of that number,” I said softly.
She nodded. “Yes, but…”
I smiled, “And we two are too many for most anyone.”
“Most everyone as well, I hope, if we are to do this,” she replied, with a faint smile of her own.
“There is not much else we can do today,” I said. “We can make camp and sleep on it, and decide then.”
We found a dry place, above the snow blanketing the Low Lands, where the rise leading to the Vale would give us cover. We made camp and discussed our plans before taking rest.
At the dawn of the next morning, we gathered our things and made ready for our charge.
I took in a deep breath and whispered wishes for our success upon the frozen air, watching them cling together for a moment in a mist, before they were taken by the wind and hurried away…
I looked to Deverell and, when she nodded, we set out…
We charged toward the rise before the Vale, keeping to snow-covered ground to muffle signs of our approach…
…the dawning sun rose behind us, its light gleaming over our shoulder…
We rode over the rise, keeping behind the monuments and whatever cover we could, before riding into open ground…
…the Dourhand rose, still waking from their slumber. Their eyes were pierced by the morning sun, and their ears were beset upon by the sound of hooves striking stone, charging…
Deverell and I cried out, as the walls of Gondamon rose before us, hoping to give a moment’s pause to the foe before us…
The Dourhand near us clustered together, meaning to cut off both our advance and our escape…
“Jump us over, girl,” I whispered. “Carry us through…”
Dandi leapt into the fading night, shooting past those taking aim at us from either side, and over any who dared stand before her…
…she cleared the last embankment, slowing any who thought to pursue us…
I urged Dandi up the steep pathway leading to the stair, keeping her head low while also leaning forward as arrow and bolt sped past, from the ramparts and walls of Gondamon, into the Dourhand horde behind us…
The Dourhand ceased their pursuit once we started our climb, settling for hurling curses our way, rather than their axes and hammers…
We gained the hill upon which the stair leading to safety beckoned…
…but not before we took one last look at the teeming masses that we had infuriated, and I feared their wrath would come soon…
But, for that moment, the walls of Gondamon rang with the cries of joy and triumph. Our small victory had given Gondamon’s defenders something to cheer for, and a moment to rally themselves before what was to come…
I waited until Deverell came alongside me…
…and, together, we made our way to the stables, greeting the throngs who had barricaded themselves within the settlement walls, forced into making a prison of what should have been their home…
As wonderful as it was to see spirits lifted and hopes rekindled within the eyes and the hearts of Gondamon’s people…
…my heart was heavy with the knowledge that we did not herald the arrival of a greater force, nor had we aught to offer but ourselves, merely two more to add to the line…
We were brought to meet with Lord Mathi, who took the news in true dwarven fashion…
“You lasses are daft!” he grumbled, and Deverell and I could do naught but agree…
“Still,” his voice softened, “we be glad to have you both.”
Mathi summoned his garrison’s generals. They explained their plan to defend their home, and what our part in it was to be…
“They will strike soon,” Lord Mathi warned us. “Be ready!”
There was naught to do but wait for the attack to begin. I found a place in the library alcove to record our journey, warming the phials of inks I had brought along within my hands to make them fluid…
It was at mid-day, while searching for a map of the northern lands to show Deverell, when we first heard the drums of battle…
“The Dourhand are marching for the gates!”
“To arms! To battle!”
Neither closed eye, nor covered ear, could turn away the sights and sounds of what promised to come…
Deverell and I made for the command square that had been prepared, from where Lord Mathi would direct his defense of Gondamon…