Menrial of Mirkwood: Chapter 5 - The Wildlands (Part 2 of 2)
Night fell on the wildlands, and the elven army was given a respite from marching. The way they traveled was treacherous, and not easily navigated in the dark. Messengers from the Men had persuaded the King to change his course, and now they were making straight for Laketown. Most of the supply train had gone ahead, down the river, bearing goods for the townspeople.
Alduin, Vanyar, and several other members of the 23rd Company were gathered around a small campfire, shivering. A ways off, someone was playing an old ballad, and rumor had it that a barrel of illicit wine had been opened in the 18th Company. Most of the younger elves had headed over there in hopes of a share. Alduin had stayed behind with the more experienced soldiers, too cold and exhausted to care.
The day's march had been long and hard, and the novelty had worn off very quickly. He hadn't even managed to catch a glimpse of the King, only the royal banner fluttering in the air over the ranks. Then, to make things worse, there was this change in course to irritate him. Alduin didn't see why the entire army had to go to Laketown. Since when are the elves at the beck and call of Men?, he thought irritably. At this rate, winter will be here before we get to Lonely Mountain![/] The last straw had been the noisy crebain that had taken to flocking above the army. Although they flew off at the onset of night, Alduin had heard others predict their return, with much shaking of heads.
"They say the black-wings expect war.", he said quietly, almost to himself.
"What else would they expect?", sharp-eared Vanyar asked, stretching his long legs out to the fire in an attempt to dry his sodden boots. "We're certainly dressed for it, and a host this large has not left Mirkwood for many years."
"The King expects trouble, or he'd never have called up so many men." added Undom, who was busy perfecting the edge on his spearhead. He looked up from his work for a moment, to eye Alduin intently. "Where have you been that this surprises you?"
"Nowhere!", Alduin said defensively. "Besides, I never said it surprised me."
"But your face gives you away.", Vanyar informed him. "You're finding the king's service a little harder than you expected, are you not?" He grinned knowingly. "Steel yourself, elfling. This is hardly scout's work."
Alduin bristled. "What's wrong with scout's work?"
Vanyar raised his hands laughingly. "Peace! I meant no insult. You're a warrior, not a scout, or you wouldn't be here at all."
"Or so he says.", muttered Undom. "Shouldn't Captain Earel have confirmation from the 14th by now, anyway?"
"I swear, Undom, you're as suspicious as a dwarf sometimes! Forget Troilus and rest, you're the one who needs some of Percal's wine!"
Undom only scowled, and returned to his work. Alduin pulled his cloak tighter, and resolved to stay silent for the rest of the night. That had been awfully close.
The second morning was, if possible, worse than the first. It rained, and the ground before them became one huge expanse of mud. Supposedly several ponies from the remainder of the supply train had been lost to the bog.
Things cleared up by the afternoon, however, to Alduin's intense relief. He was not sure if he could have gone on much longer under such conditions. The only good thing about them was that they had put the 23rd in such bad spirits that Captain Earel seemed to have forgotten about confirming Alduin's presence with the 14th.
But once they got to Laketown, there would be more than enough time for a full investigation. And according to Vanyar, they would be there by tomorrow morning at the latest.
Traveling by water, the supply train had a far better time of it. Menrial's was a long, damp journey, and cramped, too, what with all the supplies the Otter was carrying, but the company was pleasant and her feet stayed dry.
The group of elves she rowed with were friendly, if a bit too curious about the Otter and her business. But when their questions had been politely shrugged off once, they were gracious enough to let them lie, and spoke of other things. The gathering of the army, the messengers from the Men, and when they would reach Laketown were all popular subjects of conversation. The only thing in their talk that disturbed her was the mention of the crebain that had followed the army ever since it left the forest.
The thrush's words from that fateful morning a few scarce days ago came to mind: "The crebain forbode only that which is to come.".
Birds of ill omen., Menrial thought. Of course they follow the army. They anticipate battle, and death. A great battle, and many deaths, for such a great host.
Although she could think of no enemy to match the elven army, the thought still left a queasy feeling in her stomach. She pushed it away, and forced herself to focus once more on steering her boat.
They reached the Long Lake a few hours after the rain stopped on the second day. It was enormous, stretching grey to the very horizon, and for a moment Menrial was simply frozen with awe. She had not seen such a large body of water in all her life.
But there was little time for sightseeing. In the center of the lake, burned ruins were all that remained of the once flourishing Laketown. The dark outlines of several huts and a few thin plumes of smoke rising from the western shore were the only signs of life. The elven fleet did not dally, but made haste towards these frail beacons with no further ado.