My second day alone upon the river was no better than the first. I was glad of my floating log that I clung to as I drifted downstream, but I longed to get out of the water for good, and by nightfall I began to feel sick. Though I am more than half Dunedain by blood I felt my body beginning to succumb to weariness and cold. A sense of loneliness that I could not shake off began to cling to me by then as I pondered the events of the last two nights. It seemed unjust that I should be the only one selected to survive the war and bear the grievous tidings to Queen Amariel of the death of her husband and son. The news would be devastating to be sure.
Hunger began to gnaw at me without restraint by the third day. I began to despise and curse the very river that aided my flight; feeling that it would yet be the bane of me ere I ever reached Cardolan. My prophecy nearly proved true! The current of the river began to quicken and white foam began to surge around me in the water. Rocks of many shapes and sizes could now be seen flying past me as I drifted down river. Had I collided with them I would surely have lost my grip upon my floating log and drowned. Yet despite it all I avoided most them and remained free of any further injury.
I tried to occupy my mind with thoughts of food again, and began to consider catching fish to eat but knew not how I would ignite a fire so that I may cook them. Instead, I took my chances upon the eastern bank and foraged for food among nearby woods. I found wild berries and a few acorns but little else before I gave up on the idea.
The fourth day of my flight upon the river the terrain began to change again. Both banks became rocky and steep and were soon unclimbable. But then I descried a lofty bridge high above the river off in the distance to the south. This was cause for joy to me, for as I drew closer to it amid the river I knew that bridge to be the one that allowed access across the Hoarwell by way of the great east-west road, wrought in the days of old by the engineers of Elendil. I could see strange shapes of things being suspended from the railings by ropes. They were dead bodies – the bodies of orcs! There they were – dozens of them, hanging lifeless by their necks on both sides of the bridge. No doubt they had been slain and hung there to serve as a warning to others of their kind. As I passed under the bridge I could see three more bodies laying amid the rocks along the eastern bank, all of which were orcs.
Coming over to the east bank I inspected the dead. Their bodies were crushed and disfigured from the fall from the bridge. But on two of them I discovered pouches in their pockets which contained a kind of dried meat, though from what beast or creature it had come I dared not guess. Yet in my desperate hunger I took the rations and resigned myself to consume them if no help came to me in one more day.
That night it began to rain. The wind picked up and began howling through the valley of the river, blowing the rain hard against both stone and tree. Yet that was not the worst of it. What I had mistaken as the howling wind was something quite different. It was the howling of wolves! I sat amid the rocks of the eastern embankment and shielded myself from the elements and prying eyes as best as I could. Sleep could no longer be warded off by then and I gave in to its temptation despite the danger. Yet I was startled out of my slumber in the late hours of the night by a loud and sudden crash in the river, only a few yards away from where I sat huddled under the shadow of the bridge. I hoped the wolves could not navigate the steep cliffs leading down to the river.
The rain ceased with the arrival of the gray dawn. I had suffered no assaults or molestation during the night, and for that I gave thanks to the Valar. Seeing or hearing no one, I arose and investigated the area of the crash during the night. There, only a few paces away from me, was another body laying face down in the shallows of the water. It was one of the orc bodies that had been hanging from the bridge. The wolves must have gnawed through the cords that suspended him in the air! I thought myself very fortunate that the falling body had not struck and killed me. His face and body were mangled beyond description, but I noted that he bore the devices of Mt. Gundabad upon his uniform. “They are all from the far north,” I said aloud to myself. “Perhaps the orcs of Gundabad have been worsted by the Dunedain! Amariel secured help from Malvegil after all. If so, it is too late, I fear.”
Finding nothing of use on any of the dead along the river I resigned myself to move on. Wanting to avoid submerging myself in the water again I attempted to make my way along the eastern riverbank, which was exceeding stony and provided unsure footing. Slowly I made my way southwards in this manner for many miles (or so it seemed). By midday the embankments on both sides of the river began to give way to lower ground. This allowed me to move at a quicker pace, but also left me exposed to assault, and ere long I saw that sight which I had dreaded – two wolves had made their way down the eastern bank behind me! Slowly they began to follow me, stopping occasionally to cry aloud their echoing howls.
It occurred to me then that my miraculous escape would end in disaster after all. I was hardly in a condition to engage in a battle with wild wolves, being both weary and sick, and only armed with a single knife. I began to see more of the beasts arrive along the top of both riverbanks now. I could think of nothing to do but to turn and let them see the bright steel of my dagger in an act of intimidation. This accomplished nothing other than anger them all the more. My situation was grave and I could think of nothing else but to begin shouting at them with all the volume my faltering voice could muster up. I cursed them under cloud and sky and began to cast rocks at them, hoping to dissuade them.
Then a most incredible thing happened. All of the sudden I saw arrows fly out of the tangled underbrush and strike the two wolves that followed me from behind. More arrows flew through the air at the beasts that lingered above me upon the embankment. The wolves cried aloud in pain ere they turned to face their hidden attackers. I crouched down and listened silently, hoping not to feel the bite of a feathered shaft in my back. The sound of voices was now plainly audible off to the east. They were talking to each other in the Sindarin tongue! As I waited for the sound of battle to end I could hear them coming closer to me now. They had slain or driven off the wolves and were coming to rescue me, or at least I hoped so.
Presently, five cloaked figures emerged from the thickets on the eastern bank. To my shock they were not men at all, but elves! They were clad all in green and brown and all had bows with arrows knocked and pointed at me. “Stand where you are and do not move!” said one among them in the Sindarin tongue. I froze in my tracks, though my knees must have quaked before them, weary as I was. “A strange thing is this!” he continued in his fair voice, though a hidden authority lay behind it. “Few men ever navigate the Metheithel in this country nowadays. And none have we ever beheld swimming its length until now, though perhaps you do not choose to do so willingly. Do you understand me, O mortal man? Who are you?”
“If he does not know our tongue,” said another, “then he is no friend of ours. Let us take no chances. Shall we shoot him, lord, so that we may be on our way? More orcs may be nearby.”
A sudden silence fell among all of us as I stared at their company in uncertainty. I had expected them to welcome me, but now I realized that I might very well be shot and left for dead. At last I spoke to them accordingly, “Yea, I am fluent in the tongue of the Eldar, and I am not an orc. Nor am I of the Hillmen or any other folk that dwell here. I am Iliandor, man of Cardolan and councilor to King Calimendil. I do not navigate the river in this fashion by choice. I was nearly slain by the orcs and was forced to throw myself into the river to escape them. Will you not help me, for I am destitute and without hope of survival. Not much longer shall I endure this torment, for soon I will be spent in both body and mind.”
Two of the elves spoke in hushed whispers together ere they spoke again. The others remained standing as still as stone, there feathered shafts aimed at my breast. “You are a councilor you say. Yet where is your king? Or has he perished in the orcish onslaught like many others of your kin?”
“Alas. He is dead. All others, it seems, are gone as well, save only myself,” I answered. But one among their company shook his head as if in apathy to my plight, saying, “So it ever goes among men; beginning wars and griefs that they cannot finish to their own detriment. And now you have stirred up an angry bee’s nest here on the borders of our lands, yet comfortably far from your own homes. Who now shall remain here and contest the rising evil in the north?”
But their captain rebuked him and said, “Peace, Maerod! One could make similar accusations about our own history and troubled past and be not far from the truth. Yet little good does it do us now. The Witch King is an evil that does not discriminate. He hates us no less than the men of Westernesse; from whom, I deem, this lost wanderer is no doubt a descendant. It is only proper now that we lend him our aid in his need.”
I was too weary and wayworn then to take any offense at the elf’s harsh words towards me or my kin, and instead offered my introductions to them. They would not reveal to me whence they had come but only that they were on an errand to secure passage of the Last Bridge and prevent any foes from seizing possession of it. But I could not resist the urge to beg for tidings of the orc armies that had overran much of Rhudaur. To this Orowe, their leader, answered, “We drove out and slew a horde of orcs that had attempted to cross the bridge over into Eriador, as you no doubt must have seen as you crossed beneath the bridge along the river. If any remain they have fled and hid themselves. But rumors report that they have taken much of northern Rhudaur and driven forth or slain most of the Dunedain that did not make it out. An evil alliance exists now between Rhudaur and Angmar that will be difficult to break, and I forebode that your kingdom of Arnor will be put to the test in the years to come.”
Then the elves took me into their escort and gave me food and dry clothing, and even lent me one of their horses. I spent several hours with them in a patch of thick trees nearby where I was given a remarkable warm liquor that soothed my innards and unburdened my mind of grief and anguish for a while. Quickly I told the elves my tale of all that had befallen our great host upon the battlefield and of my flight afterwards. The sat round me in silence as I spoke and listened attentively, being especially interested the fall of King Calimendil. But when I again told them that I was the only survivor of the disaster Orowe checked me and said, “In this I think you may be mistaken, Iliandor. Our scouts that guarded the Last Bridge reported that they descried two men in a small boat floating down the river not more than three days ago. My folk did not attempt to waylay them, as they looked to be men of the west and were fully armed. Yet the description I was given of their garb closely resembles that of your own attire.”
This news sent a wave of shock through me and I pondered deeply what it might foretell. It would be beyond all hope that one of these two men might very well be Bregardil, now the King’s only surviving male heir. I thanked Orowe and his companions many times ere we parted company. They would not come with me on my road southwards, but assured me that I would encounter no orcs south of the great road. “Soon you will come into that land, which men call the Angle,” he said. “Its inhabitants have not been directly touched by your war yet, though I fear that that day may come soon. Indeed, not even Cardolan will long endure against the power that grows apace in the north unless you men of the West put aside your quarrels and unite against it. Is not the history of my own people evidencing enough? The war that you have initiated was ill timed, I deem. Yet even still we offer you our condolences for your loss. Remain close to the river as you go south and go not eastwards. I can offer you no further counsel at this time. After you return to your home harbor our horse for one night than let him return to us. He will know the way. Go in peace. Farewell!”
The elves departed swiftly thereafter and I never saw them again. But being now strengthened in mind and body by their aid I mounted my new steed and rode south in great haste. Ever as I went I pondered the tidings they had given me of the two survivors that they had seen, hoping against all hope that one of them might be Bregardil. I forded the Hoarwell in the south of the Angle, and at last crossed into the territory of Cardolan. My eyes were filled with both tears of joy and sorrow as I once again trod upon my own home soil, and on the third day from parting with the elves I at last came within sight of Dol Calantir under a cloudy sky of rain. Even as the guards came to take me in I felt my hands tremble with a loathing anticipation. The time had come for me to face Amariel the Queen, and look her in the eye and tell her of the horrible story of the disaster of Cameth Brin…