My armguards felt stiff in the still chilly morning of Faldham, the leather was dry and in dire need of oil and grease. Summer had lovingly laid its warm arms around us all, but before the sun had risen, there was still a cold sensation that lingered in the air for some time while the sun still struggled to spread its warmth. I looked to my companion Yllfa who stood by my side, her hair a glittering gold in the morning light, and her attire fit and ready for the expedition ahead. Elfmar, my old friend and brother-in-arms, a man whom I had ridden with years before, had asked for my help. I could not refuse his honest request while we were guests in Faldham. He had done so much for me and Ethel over the years, always being a kind and generous spirit beneath his hard-won and battle-hardened appearance. Uncle Elfmar she called him, and he had gifted her with a finely crafted bow and a quiver of arrows when she had slain a great boar recently, which we had taken to his halls and feasted on. Ethel Boar-slayer he named her and a proud sight it was to me and Yllfa both, though that is a story for another time.
The East Wall, the mountain range due east of Faldham that marked our border towards Nen Hithoel, had been the talk of the town for the past day or two. Hunters and peasants alike in the area had heard screams of battle and terror echo from the mountain top, and many had seen starved and wounded orcs flee in terror down the mountain, only to be cut down or shot by the patrols upon the fields. It was known that orcs held a camp up there, from the time we ascended the mountain in search of the hidden gold and minerals the dwarves had sought. The orcs were few and weak, many nearly starved to death already, and their known refuge in the mountains was considered to be of little concern. The way up was also long and dangerous, and it might have cost more lives to take inexperienced rohirrim - who rode horses upon flat plains since childhood but had never climbed a mountain - up along the steep rock, so the orcs were left alone for now. Sooner or later they'd die on their own or come down to be slaughtered, when they could endure no more. The sounds of battle and distress had worried the locals, and only I knew of the hidden path up there, except for the dwarves and possibly Duncadda. He had not been visible for a time, likely keeping to his normal schedule of disappearing for days or weeks at a time into the forest to be with his secret lover as the gossips go, and then return like nothing had ever happened. He would be back in due time. But for now, Yllfa and I were the only ones available, and we would investigate this to find out what had happened up there.
A young boy of Faldham tugged on my cloak. "I can fight too!", he said. "And I'm a good climber!" I smiled at the boy, for I knew his father, who was a good and brave man and currently out riding with the patrols. It was clear that much of his spirit had passed on to the boy. Politely I told him about the dangers of orcs and rock-climbing, and I asked him to stay here and guard the people of Faldham instead, which he agreed to with a nod. Children... they are so eager to please, and so proud when they get recognized. His mother apologized and dragged the boy away, though I didn't mind. Had things been different, then perhaps I'd have had a son just like him, I thought for a moment before shrugging it off. It was time to go. We mounted up on our horses and set course towards the looming mountain. The path up was difficult to find, and every step carefully chosen. Yllfa followed me like a shadow, her young and swift feet far faster than my own, and I felt more like a hindrance than a leader to her. We continued upwards, step by step, slowly and carefully. Suddenly I heard a quiet shout and the sound of sliding dirt and pebbles, and when I looked back, Yllfa had slipped and bruised her knee, when sliding a few meters down the rock face. I returned to help her up. The vigor of youth and strong, swift feet are sometimes not better to have. My own knee ached a little as usual, though it made little difference to me. We kept on going up, step by step upon the rock, and at last we found the ropes the dwarves had secured before. From here it was even steeper, but the ropes helped us climb with ease and finally, we reached the top.
The sound of a howling wolf spread through the few trees that stood tall upon the mountain. We pushed forward, swords at the ready, and with watchful eyes for anything unusual. We found a large pool of dried, nearly black blood upon the rock, perhaps from a predator who had found a meal a day before, though it felt strange that there were no loose fur or flesh left behind. Perhaps the blood belonged to something - or someone - else. Our feet slowly moved forward, and the sight of circling crows and the sound of their cawing ominously filled the sky. We went there, and I noticed a shadow in passing, trying to get away from us and hiding behind a rock. A fox I thought at first, but as we moved forward, the shadow took the shape of something that looked more like a small man, until we could see him more clearly. A wounded orc it was, small of stature, starved and with more bones than muscle, and deep cuts in his stained, bloodied flesh. "Hold there, creature!", I said, and proceeded to politely inquire about his misfortune. The orc was shaking in horror and he squealed and pleaded for his life, even as he held a short dagger in his hand. "If I tell you, you let me go!", he said with a shrill and grouchy voice, more of a demand than a request, and he was clearly afraid of what awaited him in death.
"Speak quickly then and crawl back to whichever dank and grimy hole you came from, you wretch." The orc then replied with incoherent mumblings about a "dark warrior" who had slain many of his kind, just a day or two before. It was an elf, the orc believed, for no man could move so fast or so easily hidden in shadow. I held my promise and let the pitiful creature go with a warning, that if he or any of his kind followed us, they'd not see the next sunrise. It did not matter much though, for the orc was so badly wounded that he likely wouldn't survive to the next day. He disappeared behind the rock, crawling with what little strength he still could muster between the rush of pain, agony and blood loss.
Our search continued. The wolves still howled in the distance and set the mood for whatever unknown mystery that awaited us further ahead. "A dark warrior", the orc had said. Who, or what? Was it a vigilante elf as the orc believed, or a man of our own blood? Or something else? Yllfa and I spoke very little to each other, our hearts that normally yearned to hear the other's voice, now silent and wondering what we had been dragged into. In silence we walked along the ridges. So much of this mountain was still untouched by living hands and feet, a place where animals could roam freely, if ever they found their way up. Birds sang everywhere, and we saw the shape of ospreys and eagles fly towards the lake on the other side in search of fish and other prey. The crows we saw earlier now sprung from the ground in a flurry of black wings, just a short distance away. For the crows it was a feast laid out for them upon the grass. For us it was a horror. A number of dead orcs lay there, spread out and hidden in the tall grass. Some of their limbs were hewn, and there were deep gashes in their chests and heads. There had been a battle here, a fierce one at that. Blood had splattered the ground and soiled the earth, and Yllfa's eye caught something amidst the rubble. Beneath one of the dead servants of darkness, she saw something familiar to our eyes. A once green shield with a painted golden sun, a common sight amongst the Riders of Rohan, now nearly covered in blood and gore. Its edge was splintered in many places and the heavy axes and hammers of the orcs had penetrated the wood in more places than one. Someone had taken a heavy beating, but delivered even more in return. Yllfa and I looked at each other. "It's one of our own.", we both thought and said nearly at the same time, but our thoughts stayed there as we wandered on. The shield I strapped to my back for now, in hope that whoever it belonged to was still alive and would gladly see it returned as a trophy for a well-won battle.
We didn't have to go far. A few more orcs lay strewn upon the ground like the rabble they were, they too now nothing more than a feast for crows and worms. At least in death, they would be useful to some. We wandered across the battlefield, and once again Yllfa's sharp wolf-eyes saw something glimmering in the rubble, where my eyes could see nothing but black blood and death. She had found a sword, also of rohirrim make - its once fine blade now jagged and dull, but with a bit of sharpening and care, it could still serve well for some time. "Do you recognize it?", she asked with a soft and tender voice, something I had heard far too little this day, and my heart and ears ached to hear her speak more to soothe my thoughts and weary body, but this was not the time for idle conversation. I shook my head and told her no, for it was a pretty common looking sword that could've been used by anyone in Rohan, and yet my thoughts couldn't help but wander away. This mysterious dark warrior, it couldn't be...? No, it's not possible. "Let's move on.", I said, and asked her to carry the blade strapped to her backpack. Such fine weapons deserve a better fate than being left to rust in the rain and be buried under snow in winter. I looked at Yllfa for a moment before we carried on. She seemed so strong and beautiful in the evening light, a rare occurrence to witness amidst this bloody massacre. With heavier steps we moved on, for whoever had taken battle to the orcs had lost their shield and sword, so there was little hope of finding someone alive. The path went upwards again, and there were bloody boot prints visible upon the rock and in the dirt, made by one who walked with heavy steps and thick leather boots. Yllfa went first, for with her wolf-eyes she could see far longer and better than I ever could. She was skilled in her art of salves and healing, and she carried the courage of a wolf in her heart. A good woman, I thought. And then, my thoughts of her scattered with her shout.
"Waelden! Come over here, quickly!", she cried out, a voice both of horror and of relief. She had found something. Or someone.