Into the Valley of Death (Part the Second)



The Household of Bar-en-Acharn sat in a dreadful pause of quiet, having heard the lady Seregrían hint at the prospect of another expedition.  The silence was broken by a raucous cry of greeting as Applecider exploded into the hall, Lancogard rising to greet his adventurous companion.  Seregrían could not help but smile at the high-spirited hobbits.

“Sorry ‘bout the delay, folks,” Appecider said, “all that snow last night, it took me absolute yonks to dig out th’ front door an' tunnel to Jonagold's pen an' dust the snow off all the rocks I brought for teh fireplace...”

“All that matters is you’re here,” Lancogard said, “an’ just in time for starters, too!”

“Here you go,” Royzenberry offered two helpings of Berryblast pie for the hobbits to sample.  “Something to nosh on before you set to – and there’s plenty to drink, warm, too!”  As the hobbits began to pile plates with bits of everything on the menu (just filling up the corners, Lancogard muttered), a woman quietly entered the hall, shaking off her hood and cloak and sighing at the warmth of the hall.

“And here at last is our newest member, Catrena Fendey, formerly of the Company of the East Road,” Seregrían announced, “and an old acquaintance of mine and Cutch’s.”  Greetings rose from the people at table as Catrena removed her cloak and hood, revealing handsome, patrician features and intent blue eyes.

“Welcome, Catrena,” Seregrían said.  “Please, sit with us and dine as you please!  Cutch, dear one, find our friend whatever she wishes.”

Catrena moved to the table and took a seat across from Gilberian, and next to Iyenue.  “Greetings to all, and I apologize for being late.  It would seem the weather is taking a turn for worse, and the roads are thick with mud.”  Cutch brought a selection of food and drink, which she eagerly fell to. 

"I do not remember having the company of so many of Elven-kind before,” Catrena said as she ate, looking around the table.  “I apologize in advance, for my manners are according to my own kind."

“Pshaw, dinnae mind 'em Miss Catrena,” Applecider said.  “Mostly they broods a lot an' says ‘Aye, yeah, no, yeah, it's complicated’ a lot.  But skinny Elfs en't bad once yeh feed 'em a bit.”  Cutch hid a grin at that quip.

“Good food - better mood. A truth of life, that,” Catrena offered.

“It’s as I told you, Catrena, our Household is a very mixed bowl of good-hearted, high-spirited folk,” Seregrían said.  Cutch and Royzenberry resumed bustling around the table, topping off drinks and setting out more wine.

“So milady,” Catrena asked, “what matters are there to discuss tonight? Or is this gathering merely to become acquainted?”

“It is both, actually,” Seregrían answered, “At our House Councils, we mix revel with counsel.”

“Aye, true,” Applecider joined,”some'ut always be goin' down hereabouts, an' rarely be it entirely reputable…”

“Oh, as if we don't find trouble on our own, is that it?” Lancogard said.

“Well I tells yeh Lancey,” Applecider retorted, “ if'en yeh'd learn ter treat them trees with proper respect an' all?”

 “As I was saying?”  Seregrían said in an exaggerated tone, rolling her eyes in jest.  “I had mentioned that all I am doing is just talking about things,” she began.  “Talking, and thinking... I do that a lot these days.  But for the present, I called you here for a purpose, as I always do.  Not just for fellowship, but for your opinions, which I prize greatly.  I mentioned Catrena joining our Household, and she brings with her great lore and knowledge of a place we all know:  Angmar.”

Reactions swirled round the table at the mention of Angmar.  “I heard that name before,” Lancogard said, “when we were investigating the Wildwood! Nasty place, by all accounts.”

“And you would be right, Lance. Much woe has been brought by that land, with more to come,” Seregrían said.  “Now, Catrena and I shared many things during her last visit, and we spoke of artifacts to be found in that place, secrets long since buried but could still be brought to light.  And she pointed out on my maps a place in Angmar that holds special dread – Imlad Balchorth, the Vale of the Walking Dead.”

“Oh, I don't like the sound of this at all!” Lancogard said.

“Me neither,” Royzenberry agreed.

“It all sounds interesting,” Iyenue said, “but what purpose would we have poking our heads into such a dangerous place?”

“I think it sounds risky,” Gilberian said.  “Maybe we can find some artifacts somewhere around the Shire, perhaps?”

“And what value would these artifacts have for this House?” Cutch asked.

“I know I once said, 'I ask, I do not command',” Seregrían said, “and I especially mean that now.  Friends, it is plain that my days of dashing off into the Wild are put aside for some time to come; but I wonder if there is a way...”

“And just what do you mean by that?”  Iyenue asked.

“Wait... Your Ladyship?” Lancogard said, “surely you thinking about another tramp into the Wild!'

“I hope that Catrena might add a few points for your thoughts,” Seregrían said.  “Catrena, what say you?”

Catrena stared at her glass of wine as she spoke.  “Imlad Balchorth is indeed what we spoke of. But the question is how much profit it'd be? It was my intention to ask Lady Seregrían to accompany me on the expedition, for she would well know the value of artifacts and scrolls that I am after. However... considering her current state there ought to be a change of plan, perhaps?”

Applecider raised one ginger eyebrow very high.  “Ye know quite well regardin' Miss Sergie backin’ down from any endeavor on which she had th’ bit already in her teeth, whatever her ‘state’…”

“Again, it’s very interesting," Iyenue said, "though one must ask what kind of artifacts would prove to be of such worth to risk the dangers of such place?”

“After some research,” Seregrían said, “I learn that Imlad Balchorth does indeed promise to have lore and artifacts which are shall we say, relevant to interests of mine.  For an obscure text mentions Imlad Balchorth and a connection to those creatures known as the Merrevail.”  Cutch’s brow lifted at the name, and Gilberian shook her head.  “'All of you here know enough to be aware of my ‘interest’ in any lore regarding the dark-wings.”

“I imagine that many scholars in Gondor would be ready to show their interest in scrolls from Angmar,” Catrena stated, “whether it is from Angmar's more pleasant history, or its gruesome state as is now.”

“As has been pointed out,” Seregrían declared, “I cannot in good thought undertake such a journey... not with Bainiel.  So, I put this to discussion by all of us: shall we, as a Household, mount an expedition into Angmar?”

“Well, I'd first like to know why!”  Gilberian said strongly.  “What is your interest in those beings?”

Applecider hissed out the side of her mug, "Thar be a bit of a familial .... history with the blighters, Miss Gillie.”

“My own reasons include profit and knowledge, and to form connections with Gondor for future,” Catrena said.  “It was my intention to take what I find in Imlad Balchorth and move with that cargo to Gondor, where to sell it. Trade provides a marvelous opportunity to form connections to other people. I have never been to Gondor before, but I know their interest in history and other scholarly arts.”  Catrena looked around the table, "And who knows... perhaps there is interest among the Elves as well.”

“What you say is true,” Seregrían said.  “The Lore-houses of Gondor are among the premier in all the lands, the only ones among Mortals to rival Imladris or Duillond.”

“Well I wants ter make copies first,” Applecider said.  “I best be givin' that kind o' useful information ter the Green-Hoods, if it helps 'em keep the Bounds.”  Cutch pursed his lips at the mention of the “Green-hoods”.

“And are you planning on bringing some of those artifacts at home, Seregrían?”  Gilberian asked.  “Maybe the ones pertaining to these merrevail?”

“Gondor, Anger-mar, Inlaid-whatever... all these lands makes my head spin!”  Lancogard said.  “But I only think about one thing: Her Ladyship is with child! I cannot allow that to go unthought!  Bainiel, your baby had better be first in your mind, an' that you can tie to!”  

Cutch looked fondly at Lancogard.  “Aye, I would agree.”

“The lad speaks true, Miss Sergie,” Applecider joined in.

“Count me there,” Royzenberry said, “the baby comes first!”

Seregrían blinked, “I have never heard you speak with such resolve, Lance.  And yes, I have thought about that too, how can I not?  Which is why I ask this of you all: if we determine to mount this enterprise, I cannot go far, if I go at all.”

“I agree with this statement whole-heartedly,” Catrena said.  “And that means that someone else with scholarly knowledge is needed.  I myself do not know the value of scrolls or artifacts at all - and I do not wish to take such a journey just to bring back paper…”

“Aye, now none 'ere be suggestin' leavn' yeh ter keep house, Miss Sergie,” Applecider said.  “But what if'en ye came so far's Mister Halros's gaffer's seat -- what be that fort north o' Trestlebridge? 'Steldin, I’m thinkin?”

“Hmmm... Esteldin... What an interesting idea...”  Seregrían mused.  “I would have to start a new line of research – and Esteldin would be a good location.”

“Mister Sir Halros say they gots a library ye can nest in fer a spell ... so ter speak”, Applecider offered.

“We can get safely to Esteldin, I can promise that,”  Cutch said.

Gilberian cried out in frustration.  “Can I just say something!?  This is too dangerous, with or without you!  And what are those artifacts worth, anyway?  For once you will be facing more than just orcs there!”

“We cannot know their true value until they are recovered and examined,” Seregrían said.

“So it's a gamble, and you’re not certain,”  Gilberian scowled,  “That is my opinion at least.”

“And I value it, dear Gilberian,”  Seregrían said.  “A gamble, you call it and you are right - but the payout on that gamble promises to be immense.  Any lore regarding the merrevail is of value beyond price to me.”

“I believe there are no orcs on the way,”  Catrena offered, “but the way to Imlad Balchorth is not as dangerous as one might think.  I have discovered a path to follow that allows one to reach the vale without being noticed - if going carefully. And the vale itself is closed from the surroundings. You only need deal with what lies within.”

“I'm afraid that answer is not enough for an expedition to Angmar.  At least not for me.”  Gilberian said resolutely.

“Might I offer something?”  Cutch said.  “Her Ladyship and I have travelled in Catrena's company before, and I trust she knows where she is going and can do so safely. I also know the value my wife places on lore of the merrevail.  I know that it would folly for me to tell my wife what to do, or not to do, but I am bound to Her, and my daughter's safety. Esteldin would be a good place for Her to base Her research.”

“Am I the only one left out on the merrevial situation?” Gilberian said with rising frustration.  “Forgive me for being so pushy, but it seems I am missing something here!”

“Gilberian,”  Seregrían replied, “I shall explain in brief.  I have a very important line of research, regarding anything and everything I can collect regarding knowledge of the merrevail.  Even the smallest scrap of lore has value to my efforts.  And when Catrena stated the location of Imlad Balchorth, that along with other lore in my possession spells immense profit for lore.”

“Well, I appreciate your passion for academia,” Gilberian said. “However this does not make our pursuit of it worth the risk.”

“It is a potential windfall that I cannot allow to pass.  As I say, I ask, I do not command,” Seregrían said.

“So, if im hearing this right,” Royzenberry ticked off on her fingers, “we going to Angmar and grabbing relics to study dead people and these  merrevail bat things?”

Catrena looked at Royzenberry thoughtfully. "It depends on whether there is a scholar, and whether there are few strong, brave and willing to let the scholar work. I am not certain if these things are present here."

“The scholar is most assuredly present, my friend,” Seregrían said in a frosty tone, “but the scholar must constrain herself to caution.  That is the only issue.  The only other scholar in our Household is Ryonoir - and he is far abroad and may not be able to join us.  Swords and bows, we have in plenty.”  She looked down at the table, her voice sad.  “This is when I find I miss Anurania.  She was - well, I was hoping for her to be my apprentice; but we parted company under less than amiable circumstance.”

“Anurania? I stumbled upon her not a few weeks past in Rivendell,” Iyenue said.

“How is she?  Is she a resident there nowdays?”  Gilberian asked.

“She is well,” Iyenue said, “and continuing her studies there to become a healer.  Very ambitious, indeed.”

“Thank you for considering the matter so openly, Seregrían,” Catrena said.  “I would not drag anyone hesitant along. But if there are warriors, I am sure that one more scholar can be always found.”

“I be a bard, Miss Catrie,”  Applecider said, “an' with us lies the Lore o' the Ages. If 'en thar be want o' record, be it Tragic or Noble or Merry or Otherwise, it be a matter o' duty practically ter make note of it ... so to speak.  I dinnae ken the Black tongue, I admits thar be no means o' learnin' it in Shire lore. But I reads an' speaks Elf, an' I read Beardie Dorf, even if I dinnae speak it much.”

Catrena looked at Applecider, "My, your repertoire exceeds mine for sure!"

“I am a Shirriff, as you all know by now,” Lancogard said, “and my bow and my skills in the wood are always at Her Ladyship's call.”

“I could place my swords for such an endeavor, certainly,” Iyenue said.

Catrena looked at Iyenue ,"You do have the look of an Angmarim's nightmare," she smirked playfully.  Iyenue returned the look with a grim smile.

“I’m having some skill with a sword,” Royzenberry joined in, ”and I’m always ready to help lady Seregrían with fighting anytime!”

But Gilberian still held out.  “I will not risk my life with this. Goblins at Minas Eriol is one thing. Parties of orc scouts, or worse, is another. But can I offer my help in another way, Seregrían?  Except advising against it...”

“You shall offer, and I shall always accept, Gilberian, you know this,” she replied.

“I was just thinking I could help you with the scholarly work.  I am not a scholar, but I know reading, writing, mathematics, and so forth.”

“Hmmm...” Seregrían thought a moment.  “That is a very good suggestion!  While the Household moves north into Angmar, you and I would tarry in Esteldin, and make sense of whatever lore they possess!”

Gilberian smiled, “I am glad I can still be of some use.  Minas Eriol was enough adventure for me.”

“My friends, risk is always something to be mindful of,” Seregrían said.  “But if that risk can be brought to naught, then is not the effort now worth making?  Now, let’s look to the planning of the expedition itself.”

“I can help with that,” Catrena said.  “I have already arranged for a cache of provisions to be delivered to Othrikar, by the  Blackburrow Trading Company; so that part has already begun.”

“Othrikar,’ Seregrían mused. “That is a Dwarf-hold just north of Esteldin, if memory serves... and not a bad place for an expedition to start from.” Seregrían smiles at Catrena, “You have been forward-thinking in this, I see!”

“I prefer working with the Dwarves over the Rangers,” Catrena said.  “Not that I mind the Rangers, but Dwarves are more no-nonsense and business-minded. Neutral, in general.' Cutch nodded to Catrena's preference.

Applecider spoke up, “Never let it be said a Bolingbroke shied from an opportunity for exploits worthy of epic balladry, 'specially if 'er House be throwin themselves into Danger's open maw -- we seen what THAT'S turned up when we does it alone, hereabouts,” with a smirk to Cutch, who pulled a face in reply.  ”Them braw Green-hood lads do be a cagey bunch ter starts .... fortuitously, Lance an' Mister Crane an' meself all gots a bit of an "In" with them, for different reasons.”

Seregrían coughed lightly into her hand.  “Well, then! I would know your thought, each of you. Cutch? What say you, my husband?”

“I will attend you wherever you go,”  Cutch answered.  “I can help with provisions and shuttle items between the forward and base camps.”

“And you, Lancogard?”

Lancogard squirmed to be put on the spot.  “Your Ladyship, you know I'd help as much and as often - but the baby!'  Now, I guess this Estel-deen place is as safe as any in the North?”

“It is,” Cutch said.

“And if you want to hold up there whilst others make the trip, that's a little more sensible,” Lancogard said.

“Aye, she can ride a horse as far as a gated guarded stone fort-city, Lance,” Applecider said, “it en't currently under siege.”

“But if you even think about setting foot farther than that, you an' I shall have words!” the hobbit said with great force.  Seregrían could not help but smile at Lancogard.

“I'll loan ye a nice haddock ter slap 'er with, Lance, an’ I'll 'elp,” Applecider quipped.

“And now, Cider? Your thoughts?” Seregrian said.

“Aye, as I said Miss Sergie, never let it be said a Bolingbroke shied from an opportunity for exploits worthy of epic balladry, 'specially if 'er House be throwin themselves into Danger's open maw -- Hobbits be remarkable quiet on our feets, an' if'en ye seeks lore, I speaks languages. I'll polish B-Sharp Major an' add some new pages ter me book!”

“Why, what you just said sounded like a ballad already!” Catrena exclaimed.

“I'll drop a line to Mister H, shall I?” Applecider offered, “an' ask about who ter enquire if'en we wanted to ask fer 'ospitality in their fort-base.”

“'Mister H?'” Gilberian asked.

“Mister Sir Halros,” Applecider said, “be a Duney Green-Hood what keeps the borders north o' Brockenborings. 'Lance an' I 'ad a few scrapes with 'im last summer.”

Seregrian looked past Gilberian and turned to Ingrasion.  “Ingrasion? I look to you and your counsel.  Surely my Master of Song shall be heard?”

Ingrasion had held his tongue most of the conversation, nut now merely replied, “Your Ladyship, I must say that I cannot attend you on this venture.  I shall remain here, by your leave, and make new songs.”

Seregrían nodded silently. Cutch said, “It is a wise thing, really; we do need to keep the House secured, melon nin.”

Seregrian turned then to Royzenberry, who saw it was her turn to speak.  “I’m going with you, Lady.  It was all I could do to find you here in these Elf-lands, and I will not let you go someplace without me watching.  Besides, the baby…”  Cutch couldn’t help smiling at the hobbit-lass.

“And My Mistress of the Hunt? Iyenue, your thoughts?”  Seregrian asked.

“You know my answer already,” Iyenue said.  “I've already placed my swords as your vanguard before, and I shall do so once again.”

Seregrían beamed around the table.  “So, it is decided:  in one week's time, the House shall depart the Lair, bound for Esteldin!”

Applecider hissed, "Bad news, Miss Iyen:  I think thar may nae be pork in Angmar..."

“Wait... STOP.. There is no...pork?!”  Iyenue cried.

“You expect pork, in Angmar!?”  Catrena said.

“Aye, we best bring it,” Applecider said.  “After all, thar be why they all turned ter Evil in th’ first place!”  Royzenberry grinned with mischief as she slid a pork pie to Iyenue.

 Cutch declared, “I can safely say that where ever you are, Iyenue, there shall be pork!”

“So it has been spoken,” Iyenue laughed, “and so it shall be!”

“Well, it seems the matter is decided for now,”  Catrena said.  “With Seregrian’s leave, I shall depart in the morning for Esteldin, and meet everyone there.  Then each can decide whether to go or stay there.  I shall ask around for a scholar who may join us, but it ought to be doable within a week.”  Catrena then lifted the glass of wine before her. "To the Lady's honor, and prosperity of the house!"

Seregrian raised her goblet as well.  “To the Household, and our latest venture!”  And all there raised cups and tankards in salute.  “My friends, I call this Council to rest. Let us revel and partake of food and company!”

Cutch leaned closer to Lancogard and whispered, “May we agree that one of us will be with Her at all times?”

“As if you had to ask, Black Fox...” Lancogard replied, and Cutch offered his hand, which the hobbit took and pumped gladly. 

 

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