Grief of the North Kingdom (a novel)

by Aug 9, 2010Stories

CHAPTER SEVEN

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Those of the lost and helpless Rhovanions that had the strength to stand and look out from the entranceway of the cave upon the newcomers down in the long valley below were overcome with joy at this new stroke of luck that presented itself. It seemed to them that they would all be saved; or at least rescued from their immediate plight and perhaps be given food and clothing to sustain them. The sudden appearance of a small column of men whose origins and intentions were unknown to them as of yet was not a welcome boon for all. Elendis especially disliked these new tidings of men coming up the valley when Vilthavia relayed the news to her. By now her sufferings in both mind and body had begun to take their toll on the young Dunadan maiden from Rhudaur. The expedition over the high passes had been a disaster almost from the start and by now Elendis had nearly lost all heart and hope of recovery. This new and blossoming acquaintance with Vilthavia had no doubt been a great comfort to her over the last few days – indeed, more so than she was willing to admit to herself – but he alone could not save her sinking spirits. She was still young even among her own high folk and perhaps had not seen much of the wide outside of Eriador but she was wiser than many men and, having lived the bulk of her young life in the Rhudaur country, had a solid knowledge of the folk in and around her homeland, few of which she loved or trusted.

Yet Vilthavia was by now well out of his element and so far away from his own homeland and the lands that he was familiar with that he could only find hope and encouragement at the sight of the approaching men. Besides, he thought to himself, what other choice did they all have? To keep hidden inside the cave and hope for the men to turn away or pass them by without notice would surely be a death sentence for them all. They could not hope to survive another night out here in the lost and frozen wilderness of the mountains – of this he was certain. They were all by now quite frail and helpless. Elendis’ condition, he reckoned, was perilous above all, for her arm was lame through injury and he feared that if she did not receive some method of treatment soon her limb would deteriorate further still and, assuming she survived the mountains, might even need to be cut off to prevent the gangrene. He said nothing to her as of yet about the theft of Cernan’s family amulet by Urlavia. That could wait, for knowledge of this would only antagonize Elendis and agrivate her frail condition. No, it would not do. Revealing themselves to these newcomers could not be avoided by now. Therefore, Vilthavia was in agreement with his surly uncle for once in choosing to greet these men and plead their case to them. Perhaps, he proclaimed to her timidly as he came to her in the back of the little cave, they might have even come across Vidui and Ningavia further down on the foothills and maybe even rendered them aid. They might have even been sent here by their two lost scouts. To this Elendis said nothing but only sighed and closed her eyes wearily and waited for the unfolding of the morning.

As soon as Urlavia had descried the strangers coming up the snowy valley off in the distance he had made up his mind: he would take it upon himself to go out to them and speak on behalf of his stricken companions and plead for aid. He wanted to do this himself despite the fatigue that afflicted him most heavily by now, for he desired for these men to hear own version of their story before they had spoken to his companions. By now Urlavia had little love for his fellow Rhovanion travelers back in the cave, they having already openly rejected his council and leadership (an act of mutiny in his own weary and cloudy mind), and he sought to endear himself to these men before others had a chance to do so.

So there he stood; Urlavia of Rhovanion alone among the scattered trees and snowfields of the mountain valley as he awaited the approach of the newcomers. The sun had not yet fully risen in the cold dawn, it still being quite early, but its penetrating glow had already begun to illuminate the world below it. The shadows in the valley were long and Urlavia was initially alarmed when he saw one of these long shadows before him among the evergreens a stone’s throw away begin to move this way and that. His first thought was that there existed an unknown presence very close to him that he had been unaware of and that it seemed to be coming towards him hesitatingly. There was no sound around him and barely a breath of wind stirred this morning. Only the sound of his labored breath and the cold steam that spilled out from his open lips with each breath penetrated the silence around him. But the strange shadow continued to grow nearer, it moving sometimes quicker sometimes slowly as if lost in confusion. Then he saw another neighboring shadow close to the first move in similar ways and fear crept over him again. His mind turned to flight as he quickly forgot about the approaching footmen and Urlavia began to back away. Yet had he not been robbed of much of his wit and better judgment by way of days of pain and torment the ill-tempered trader and hunter might have realized that the menacing shadows in the woods before him were those of mere deer who were most likely fleeing from the approaching men. Urlavia then turned his back on the hidden threat and began to run back towards the cave. Yet he got only a few strides before inadvertently stumbling in a small hole in the ground and fell headling into the snow. He felt a stabbing pain in his ankle but ignored it for the moment and instead turned around in the snow to cast a quick glance back at the shadows that he guessed were stalking him. Then he saw the two deer, who in turn beheld him as they hesitated with indecision. They were quickly joined by two others who saw the hulking figure of Urlavia in the snow and immediately changed direction and sped off to his right and vanished behind a cluster of trees. Still two more came into view and they hastily followed their brethren into the safety of the shadows.

Despite the new pain in his foot Urlavia felt a fool. He had mistaken the long and advancing shadows in the snow as intruders and he had fled from them. If he had been in his right mind at the time and, as he reassured himself, more sound in body he would have immediately drew his bow and arrow and launched a quick volley of feathered shafts at such a prize. But then he realized that he had neither bow nor quiver at hand. Indeed, he had not even thought about them since his narrow escape from death back up on the mountain slope, and it was then that he realized that they were gone – probably lost back up the slope or in the avalanche three days ago. He felt for his dagger blade upon his belt but it too was not with him. In his state of weariness and eagerness to escape his ill plight he had come down to meet these men unarmed. He had not even remembered to put on his tattered wool coat What a fool he had just been! And now he had a turned ankle to compound his woes.

With clenched teeth, he stood up again and brushed the snow away from himself as he awaited the approach of the men. They disappeared briefly behind a series of trees and a dip in the terrain but presently came into view again. By now they were perhaps within a couple hundred yards and had surely sighted him by now. Urlavia could now make out many of their features. There was, as he counted to himself, no less than two dozen of these unknown strangers – all of which looked to be armed primarily with long spears, though a few possessed bows and arrows and a few blades slung at their waists. Their clothing was mostly the same all round: heavy winter fur wrappings with knee-high boots, leather gloves with the fingers cut out for mobility and thick furry hats that hung down on the sides to cover their ears. Yet the most striking feature that Urlavia immediately noticed about them was their hair. Most of these stout folk had very long locks that hung well out from underneath their caps and were carefully braided with various little gold and silver spools that not only served as decorations but also kept each braided coil of hair confined in its proper groom. They were mostly fair-haired, though a select few bore dark locks with beards to match. Their leader, or he whom Urlavia took to be their leader (for surely all wandering groups of armed travelers must necessarily possess a man who leads the others), certainly stood out from his peers if for no other reason than his frontal position among the marching order. Yet there was far more in him than merely that, as Urlavia guessed. The closer they came to his current location among the scattered trees the more sure Urlavia was of their race.

Though he had only once before been in the Rhudaur lands the more sure he was that these burly men before him were those that most men of Eriador blandly refer to as Hillmen. In other areas of the world such a plain title could belong to any stock race of men that made their dwellings in hilly terrain, but not so in eastern Eriador. The term ‘Hillmen’ belonged exclusively to a separate breed of the Edain that might have originally been a mix of northmen and Dunlendings, though by now, over so many thousands of years, they no longer claimed any kinship with the latter race – indeed, they now widely reckoned the Dunlendings as their foes and raids and bloody skirmishes were waged between the two fairly often, especially farther to the south in the lands nigh Dunland. Yet over the centuries most of their Dunnish blood had been bred out of them with the result being that the Hillmen of Eriador bore a bloodline almost exclusively their own. They were not tall men by nature but they were stout and strong and possessed a short temper when roused to anger. They kept company mainly with themselves, though they were known to be fond of dwarves and even traded with them occasionally. They called few men outside their own race ‘friends’ and they possess an undying hostility towards the Dunedain in particular, for the High Men had over the ages held them in scorn and had gradually pushed the Hillmen off of their ancient hunting grounds in the lands of old Arnor, and when Elendil’s old kingdom split asunder into three separate realms that are now called Arthedain and Rhudaur they had, by way of overwhelming force by order of their kings, herded the Hillmen eastwards into the foothills of the Misty Mountains. Whenever the Hillmen had dared to push back the Dunedain fell upon them by blade and by arrow until the Hillmen were cowed and agreed to pull back closer and closer to the mountains where the lands were more harsh and infertile. Few of the wandering tribes of Hillmen had forgotten this unrighteous act and ever since they have called the Dunedain their enemies. These feelings of hostility had carried over until the present day.

Several minutes passed as Urlavia waited for them to draw near. The pain in his ankle was acute enough to cause him to grimace as he nursed his new injury. He also began to notice that his feet were becoming ever more numb with cold, so much so that he had to resist the temptation to sit down and remove his wet boots from his feet to massage his toes. He cursed his present plight bitterly as he watched the grim Hillmen come up to him. They were all staring intently at him by now as they exchanged words with each other. The intense scrutiny by which he was being discerned by them put Urlavia off exceedingly, and instead of calling out to them he stood rooted in place, breathing heavily and causing the steam to course out through his nose and mouth, which hung agape.

Three men stepped forward out of the gathering throng and marched through knee-deep snow until they were within thirty feet of the haggard Rhovanion. There they halted and one among them called out to him in a tongue unknown to Urlavia. The man made no gesticulations with his hands as he spoke which might have assisted in imparting the meaning of his unintelligible words to the stranger, so Urlavia simply shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. The gruff-looking Hillman squinted hard at Urlavia for a few passing seconds as the sun’s first morning rays suddenly shone down into the upper arms of the valley, bathing the distant snow-patched rock and trees with a rich yellow and orange glow. Urlavia blinked repeatedly at this sight, taking it for a hopeful sign of his preservation.

The dark-haired Hillman broke the momentary silence by speaking once again in a different tongue – a tongue Urlavia thought he recognized somewhat, though it was not one he himself spoke. Again he made another gesture that he did not understand the man’s words.

“Who are you?” asked the Hillman at last in the Common tongue of the west. The question was laced with suspicion and displeasure. Urlavia paused before replying.

“I am a Rhovanion – from the far eastern lands I have come – ”

“You must divulge your name to me immediately! I did not ask you of your origins yet.”

None of these Hillmen looked anything remotely like friends or folk to tangle with, that much was certain. The long-haired man who had posed the question and who stood only a dozen paces away now held his spear confidently yet relaxed with its pointed blade upwards and the weapon’s butt planted in the snow. He was confident and obviously unafraid of Urlavia, who felt a bundle of nerves by now.

“I was…er, that is to say, I am called Urlavia. I am quite lost and need assistance most desperately – as you can no doubt see for yourself.”

“A blind cave bat could sense as much – Urlavia of Rhovanion. Indeed, you will doubtless soon perish out here from want of food and exposure to the elements. Yes, you are in need of rescuing. But I do not think that I am obligated to provide you of a rescue just yet – not until my questions are answered and my curiosity slaked. Whether you willed it or not you have stumbled into the lands of Broggha the High Chieftain of the north and for this you must give proofs of yourself.”

The words of the Hillman were severe and unfriendly to be sure, but of this Urlavia had expected beforehand. This leader who spoke seemed entirely fluent in the common tongue, though his accent was thick as his consonants seemed to stick in the back of his throat.

“We were assailed by a sudden tempest back up the mountain…”

“‘We’?”

“My companions and I.”

“Where are they now? Are they dead?”

“Some are. There are few of us left. Two more died during the night. They are still back up in that cave over yonder,” replied Urlavia, gesturing behind him with a nod of his head.

“How many yet live?”

“Perhaps seven or eight. I did not count heads before I came down here.”

The leader of the band of Hillmen turned and called back to one of his subordinates, who in turn came forward. This man said nothing in reply but merely stood alongside his leader in silence as he scrutinized Urlavia without the trace of emotion. The leader spoke again.

“You will tell us of your adventure and of your mishaps thus far, and be quick about it.”

Urlavia hastily retold their gloomy tale of misadventure since they climbed the high passes of the mountains, leaving nothing out but adding extra emphasis and embellishment concerning his leadership and bravery in the face of danger. The leader of the Hillmen must have sensed his stretching of the truth for he checked Urlavia and ordered him to be silent when told about his castigation and unfair treatment by his companions.

“What of your errand, ‘hunter of Rhovanion’?”

Urlavia hesitated as he wiped his nose on his torn sleeve. He and his most of his fellow Rhovanions had been on a mission to visit Rhudaur and the Dunedan king, but somehow he judged that this answer would not suffice at present, knowing full well of the animosity born by the tribes of the Hillmen towards the Dunedain in general. Yet he also knew that whoever this man before him was he seemed quick-witted and able to detect an outright lie easily. Therefore he said only that they had been hired by three men from Rhudaur to escort a certain young lady from the afore mentioned realm over the mountain passes to her home in Rhudaur.”

“Who is this young lady you speak of? Does she possess the blood of the high men of Arnor?”

“Aye, she does,” answered Urlavia slowly.

“Tell me her name and that of her father.”

Urlavia could see that the Hillman leader was staring at him most keenly now as if trying to sift through his words in order to read his mind. Urlavia quickly regretted alerting these men to the presence of one of the Dunedain among his group, for not only did he bear no grudge against Elendis in particular but he also knew that, assuming he could somehow extricate himself from this sour encounter and eventually arrive in Rhudaur, he had probably just forfeited any chance of profiting from the girl’s safe deliverance by her kinfolk after he made it know to them that he had taken extra care in her preservation after the death of Cernan, the girl’s protector. But his courage was not as stout as his words now and he feared to anger these well-armed men. Besides, he knew that Vilthavia had grown very fond of her by now and would almost certainly confront him about his obvious theft of the deceased Cernan’s amulet, which Vilthavia had seen fall out of Urlavia’s torn pocket before he left the cave. Even if these Hillmen were to let them all depart freely – an increasingly unlikely prospect now – his pest-of-a-nephew would proclaim him a thief before the rest of their companions and he himself might very well be abandoned alone in the wild as a punishment. Then what chance would he have of survival? None whatsoever. Might as well give the girl up, he thought bleakly to himself.

“The girl’s name is Elendis,” said Urlavia. “She had three other men of similar race with her when she set out but they are all dead now. She alone remains of them. Yet I know nothing of her father or even his name.”

“Where is her home?”

“I am not sure, lord,” replied Urlavia reverently, throwing in the high title at the end in order to ingratiate himself to this gruff man. “In upper Rhudaur perhaps, somewhere nigh Cameth Brin.”

“Is that where you were going, Urlavia of Rhovanion?”

Again Urlavia paused before replying. He was beginning to regret volunteering to come down and confront these newcommers by now. He was loath to admit any connections he had to Camth Brin and the court of Denethil, though that was indeed his original destination. His mind and judgement was fogging over, for not only was he weary beyond words but his twisted ankle throbbed and at last he gave into the temptation to sit down in the snow and nurse it with his hands. At last he ventured to reply to the man’s previous question, saying that he had only purposed to deliver the girl safely to her home before setting off for the port city of Tharbad to the south. But the leader of the Hillman, who had yet to disclose his name, had already turned away and spoke quietly to his companion next to him. His companion then produced a tattered and rolled up piece of yellow parchment and handed it to his leader, who in turn strode forward ten paces in the deep snow until he was standing tall above the slouched Urlavia. He glared down at Urlavia contemptuously before squatting down to eye level with the way-worn Rhovanion.

“Perhaps you might explain this letter of summons to me, ‘Urlavia, hunter of Rhovanion’?”

Urlavia turned his red-shot eyes away from the brute before him and looked at the parchment. He recognized it as that which had belonged to Vidui, whom had openly boasted of his royal summons by a certain Dunedan prince by the name of Ermegil, son of the king of Rhudaur – the very name that was signed at the bottom of the summons. Ermegil had been the author of the letter and Vidui the intended recipient. Urlavia barely glanced at the coded words that were written there (for he could not have deciphered them even if he had tried) but realized then and there that the mystery of the missing Vidui and Ningavia from last night was now solved. They had probably been apprehended by these very Hillmen and either now dwelt somewhere as their prisoners or else were dead.

“You perhaps are familiar,” asked the Hillman chieftain accusingly, “with the said ‘Vidui’ that is mentioned here in this letter?”

“I am,” admitted Urlavia, for there was no use in denying this now.

“We came across him and his companion yesterday afternoon further down in the valley. We captured them and escorted them both down to to our village in order to interrogate them. They were quite forthcoming with their answers – some of which do not correspond to some of those which you have just given me. That means one or both of you are liars.”

Urlavia sat upwards again and began to protest.

“Nay, lord,” he quailed and began to attempt to explain the discrepancy between his answers and those that Vidui and Ningavia might have provided him with, but the chieftain, silenced him by suddenly seizing Urlavia’s unkempt hair and thrashing it back and forth in a furious manner so that Urlavia’s head was jerked to and fro.

“You dare attempt to deceive Broggha, Lord of Men?” screamed the chieftain wrathfully. His identity now disclosed, Broggha released his hold of Urlavia’s long hair and shoved the Rhovanion backwards by the face with such force that Urlavia fell backward into the snow with bloody nose. He let a single moan of pain escape from his lips before turning over upon his stomach, where the blood trickled onto the white snow staining it red. He made to raise up on all fours and once more try and assuage this raging man’s anger but instead felt Broggha’s heavy boot upon the back of his neck. Urlavia fell forward again face first into the cold snow.

“You are a miserable little maggot, Urlavia of Rhovanion! Broggha has no love for spies in the service of Denethil, King of the Worm-folk.”

“I am no spy, my lord! I swear it to you!” quailed Urlavia, his voice muffled by the snow in his mouth.

“Silence! Do not speak to me!”

“But my lord!”

Urlavia felt Broggha’s boot dig in deeper into the nape of his neck from behind.

“Utter one more word to me and I will kill you! I swear I will! I shall spear you like the deer that you fled from a few moments ago!”

Broggha called back to his men behind him, the latter of whom came up on both sides of Urlavia and raised him up bodily by both feet so that the Rhovanion was upside down. In agony, Urlavia cried out in pain as his injured ankle throbbed in the grasp of one of the Hillmen warriors. He listened to the Hillmen speak to one another in their own tongue. A few of them could be heard laughing. Then he felt himself being dragged away by his feet face downwards by two men with arms the size of tree trunks. One of them spoke with a heavy accent to Urlavia as he insulted him.

“You are now to be informed that you are a prisoner of Broggha, Lord of Men,” said the bodyguard.

“I advise you to tell all that you know truthfully to Broggha or you shall suffer as your two companions did last night.”

The last thing Urlavia remembered before losing his wits in a painful blackness was the sound of harsh Hillmen voices and the feeling of being fastened by ropes to a wooden ice-sledge before having his eyes veiled with a blindfold. Most of the remaining Hillmen began to retrace their steps back the way they had just come with three of them pulling the sledge that bore Urlavia through the snow and back down the descending valley. Ten others were ordered to follow Broggha further up the snowy slope where they purposed to come to the little cave up on the hillside where ten suffering Rhovanions and one Dunadan maiden languished in frozen agony as they awaited the return of Urlavia and the badly needed aid he must surely be bring with him. Broggha gave the strictest orders to his warriors that the girl was not to be harmed in any way regardless of what happened next. If possible the men folk should be taken as prisoners – or be slain. He did not really care which.

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