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The Eastern Clans

Ghorim

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Thuri settled back in his chair as Fingil spoke, resting his head in his left hand, with his second and third fingers pressed against his temple. His eyes, ringed with dark lines of age, held firmly on the ranger. Their gaze seemed to bore past the speaker's face, in search of the thoughts that lay behind the words. At the mention of regicide, Thuri's brow furrowed, and his eyelids fluttered briefly, but otherwise his posture remained static. The others grumbled quite audibly, and Dvarim went so far as to slam his bare fist upon the table, his bony knuckles making a thunderclap upon the weathered wood. When Fingil concluded, Thuri leaned forward once again. His left hand fell back to the table before him, the fingers interlocking with their counterparts from the right side.

"I've heard tell," Thuri began, his voice growing darker now, the words slightly obstructed by phlegm, "that rangers can be quite elusive. You've certainly proved that rumor true, Fingil. How can I get a handle on you, I wonder? I provide reasonable advice, the best I can manage, and yet you sidestep my suggestion of consulting Gondor. Worse still, you move in for an attack! What's this of King Thingol, lad?"

Only here did Thuri allow his own frustration at the remark to fully show, as his wrinkled brow collapsed down once again into an agitated 'V.'

"I believe that in your youth and ignorance, you've failed to recognize just how darkly that king's massacre looms over our folk's history. Do not idly cast that name about, ranger! Perhaps you think that we've wronged you or your kin with our words here tonight, and aye, some at this table have. But let me say this for all to hear: the insult matches are over for this evening. We discuss these matters honorably, henceforth!"

Thuri seemed to be growing in physical stature as he delivered these sharp words. It was almost as if the table was now orienting itself toward him, and the fiery lights of Dvarim and Kiril were receding into the night. They and the others were all mere spectators now.

The old dwarf cleared his throat of that nagging blockage and continued. "Now allow me to respond to your arguments. The occasions to which you allude, when the Khazad came to assist Men and Elves in times of duress... these events all involved an assault by forces of the Shadow, from Angmar or Mordor or elsewhere. The evil of the foe and the virtue of the allies were both plain to see, and these attributes illuminated the course of action for our leaders when the time of decision came. Poor friends we would be, indeed, if we did not lend axes and shields to the defense of the realms against the Darkness!"

"But in this particular situation, we would not be cleaving the necks of orcs or carving up the fleshy torsos of trolls, but slaying Men on behalf of other Men. You can see, Fingil, why there would be cause for us to hesitate. In fact - and perhaps you will be pleased to hear this - the slaughter of Thingol plays no small role in our reluctance to slay servants of the Light, regardless of their motives. And... aye, what of the motives at work here? Who are we to judge which warring faction is the purest of cause, and take up our weapons to assist them? For in the pursuit of personal power, no fellow's spirit - be he Dwarf, Man or Elf - can go without taint. You yourself, Fingil, have said that none of the heirs of Earendur is particularly praiseworthy. Nae, we shall not fight under the banner of any faction against another. Understand, Fingil, that this is a refusal that lies beyond the influence of negotiation."

The other soldiers nodded and grunted their assent. At this point, Dvarim withdrew from the circle, folding his arms and glowering moodily.

"Now diplomacy remains an option, as you have mentioned, Fingil. I have my doubts as to how great an impact our consultation with Amlaith could have
upon him, though our party is in many ways designed for a diplomatic mission. You say he thinks us, the orcs and the Elves to be myth? Well, if he continues that opinion of the rakhas, then he's in line for a nasty awakening. And if your nephew thinks the Khazad not to exist, that we are some imagined mountain fairies or other... well, I can only conclude that he's lived his early years with his head buried between two rather thick stones!"

Thuri chuckled dryly, and some of the others joined him. The notion struck them as so absurd, that a few of the dwarves wondered if Fingil were merely inventing reasons for them to meet his nephew. Just before Thuri began speaking again, the familiar form of Zûbrim emerged from the crowd. He went straight for where Dvarim stood isolated from the others, and whispered a few words in the commander's ear before heading for the staircase at the other end of the room. Taking this all in from the outskirts of his field of vision, Thuri continued in his talk with the ranger.

"If he does not think us real, then I hardly see how our opinions would hold much relevance to him. All the same, if he dwells somewhere that roughly lies along our path - that is to say, to the East - then perhaps we could afford a brief delay and detour to help set him straight. For I agree that a stable, united Arnor is in the best interests of all the realms, including our own. I hope you'll be more forthcoming of your own reason for holding this opinion, sir ranger."

"Understand that I was not attempting to forcefully dispel you from this party in suggesting you travel to Gondor. I merely felt that this course of action would do the most to assist your cause. Considering how volatile our surroundings are, I'm sure we would all appreciate your accompanying the party and lending your knowledge of the area, at least until we reach the Eastern borders of this land. But I should think that your personal obligations would prevent you from following us any further, aye?"

"As for winning a war... I hold no great insights that will dam the flow of Arnorian blood that regrettably seems fated to come so soon. I merely meant that in your efforts to assist Amlaith, you can either act boldly and without concealment, as some of my esteemed comrades would have you do, or continue to act with discretion, as I would advise. Beyond that, it lies in your hands, Fingil. I cannot direct your will. But at any rate... what say you to my suggestions? Does Amlaith's base indeed lie along our path? Do you truly believe that our presence in his halls will have a positive consequence of any sort? Shall you go South to Gondor, or East with us? And just what should we know about Arnor's importance to the rest of the land? Do not dance around my queries this time, if you will."

While the others awaited the ranger's latest response, Dvarim moved up beside Malkin and muttered quietly in his ear, using Khuzdul as Zûbrim had done earlier.

"I did not like the tone of our guide's voice as he spoke to me just now. He's discovered something rather upsetting, I believe. Go upstairs after him and see what he has to say about his whereabouts over the past little while. I must continue to attend to our... guests."

Malkin nodded and wordlessly stood, leaving the company and marching up the stairs in pursuit of the blue-bearded huntsman. Not knowing which room was rented to the travelling party, the young dwarf found himself trying each knob as he went. Thankfully, the first unlocked door proved to be the correct portal, and Malkin entered the dwarves' room to see Zûbrim in profile, sitting on one of the beds and staring pensively at the opposite wall. It was a fairly expansive room, by inn standards, but the beds were bunked to save space. The other furniture was sparse, with small tables between each set of beds, a chest of drawers residing beneath the window on the room's far end, and a couple of rickety looking chairs by the door. A few candles, positioned at various points in the room, lit the scene.

More and more it seems like the barracks back home, thought Malkin.

But now the soldier trained his attention fully on the guide, of whom he still knew precious little. Malkin leaned against the doorframe casually, and though his words might have been mistaken for chitchat, they carried a measured gravity that suggested a more definite purpose.

"Hail, Zûbrim!" Malkin began. "How was your walk?"
 

Ciryaher

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Zûbrim looked up at Malkin wearily and then gestured encompassingly to both a bunk and a chair in a vague invitation to sit. He continued to refuse to use the human language and spoke in Khuzdul, "My walk, my walk...pleasant stone and air cannot compensate for ill news." He stood and moved to the shuttered window, peering between the thin wooden strips and letting out a sigh.

He spoke without turning, in a soft voice, "I have heard many things in my prowl about the city. I say prowl, because that is what I did, as a thief in the night." Pausing, he shook his head and turned back to Malkin, "But I stole no solid thing, only knowledge. These men that you have seemingly invited into our company...what of them? Who is the tall one; his name? Do you not think him to have a strange look about him?"

Not waiting for an answer, he went on, "I trust him none. The other perhaps...but not this tall man. Humans of high lineage and high aspirations have time and time again proven--throughout the ages--to be the most likely to fail in their nobility and fall. All of those tall, proud men...hmph." He scoffed and pointed out the window, "This place is about to turn into a bloodbath. Man against man. The eastern kingdom of Rhûdaur--as they call it--does not approve of the new King Amlaith. Cardolan, to the south, swears that anyone that interferes with the throne will suffer. Arthedain says that anyone who denies the king will be destroyed, and seems convinced that both of the others are plotting to overthrow."

He shook his head vigorously so that his beard wagged back and forth, then crossed his arms and sat down on the edge of his cot again. "It's madness. And what's worse is that we're likely to get caught right in the middle of it. What's worse than that is that we're quite unsafe on the road, and so we're going to have to make our baggage try and keep up with us on the wilderness paths. We'll have to foot it to reach the Gate before the weather turns foul."

There was a long pause as Zûbrim closed his eyes and pondered, until he finally opened them and looked at the other dwarf, "What do you think? Mind you, Dvarim has the final say, but I'll be content for now if you tell me what you think...or what you think he'll say."
 

Ghorim

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Malkin followed Zûbrim's invitation and sat upon one of the chairs, which immediately voiced its complaints with an audible groan. The soldier placed his helmet upon his right thigh, and adopted an expressionless military countenance as the guide spoke his piece. When his time came to reply, Malkin ran a hand through his fair-colored hair and glanced at the ceiling in contemplation before returning his gaze to Zûbrim.

"Ill tidings have us hemmed in rather well, it seems," he said. "What a poor stroke of fate that we should pass through this land now, when all of its tensions are set to boil over. But we'll move swiftly, no matter the path we are forced to take. You underestimate our... baggage, as you call them. Brian can keep pace, Owin is haler than he appears, Boffin likewise has more in him than one might think, and... well... Froli can be carried, if necessary."

"That ranger, however, could complicate our route. He calls himself... Fingil."

The soldier regarded the name as it left his lips, seeming to weigh its merits for a brief moment before continuing.

"You missed a great deal of revealing behavior on his part! He took offense to the singing of my comrade Kiril, and the two locked wits for a time with an exchange of rhymed insults. A pity you missed it, really. More interesting, however, was the wager that this man made with Dvarim beforehand: if he were defeated, he would accompany us along the journey. We would not have had him along otherwise, for he does indeed look poorly. Kiril bested him, however, so now he's aboard, at least for the time being."

"Imagine our surprise, however, when he claimed the recently departed king of these lands as his brother! The others seem to be humoring him on this assertion, though I've my doubts as to his lineage. I agree with you in that he's not the type to be trusted. Kiril seemed won over by the fellow's stubbornness, but he's a... gregarious sort, aye?"

"At any rate, this Fingil wants our advice on how to handle his own business. Dvarim and Thuri have offered him some, but he doesn't appear satisfied by their suggestions. He seems set on having us meet his nephew Amlaith, for reasons that are yet unclear to the lot of us. At present, Thuri is negotiating with him on that point. I trust his wisdom, though ultimately, as you noted, Dvarim closes all matters with his say. And he does not want this Fingil to accompany us, that much is clear."

"Now... my opinion? This mess is past the point where we could do anything to clean it up. Fingil can challenge and stoke the pride of my comrades all he likes, but they're bound to see the truth of the matter. Meeting with Amlaith, even in the name of diplomacy, could mark us as targets for the other factions. I cannot see this council having enough benefit to justify such a risk. We need to charge East without delay."

The young dwarf paused, and chuckled quietly. "Aye, I hear that the air is thinner up where Men's heads reside. Their thoughts are often confused... and it seems that the delirious aspirations of a powerful few will tear these lands asunder. It saddens us all, but we mustn't let our own thoughts be deluded in thinking that the ten of us alone can do anything to ease matters."

He nodded quickly as a sign of conclusion, and stood in a crisp motion of militant grace. "That is my say. I am returning to the company downstairs to see how matters with the ranger play out. Perhaps you would like to come along?"
 

Ciryaher

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Zûbrim grunted, "So much for getting some shut-eye." He dropped his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up quickly. He tossed his cap into the air and then caught it before flopping it onto his head, then moved to the door, kicking it a bit after passing through to give Malkin time to follow after before it closed. He moved quickly down the stairs, giving the humans he saw a sour, tired look, then moved back to the table. He crossed his arms, eyeing the humans yet again, then spoke loudly in Khuzdul.

"If you've any sense, you'll be ready to leave this place in the morning. Do not get involved in the affairs of the humans. They cannot be trusted, and our mission is not to dawdle in this land of long-shanked ruffians. We have a long journey, and I believe that every moment we linger in this land we risk failure. Failure not to ourselves by dying, but also by failing our people, the fathers of our houses, and our king. We MUST NOT get involved in this."

He grumbled something, then went on, "Remember what we came for, and remember that by delaying, not only do you delay arrival at the halls of our kindred far away, but also you delay our arrival in the halls of our cousins in Khazad-Dûm. Let that be your inspiration to dally no longer than neccessary in this confusticated land of men!"

Turning his eyes to Truor, he inclined his head in a slight gesture of respect and spoke in the common tongue, "You look as the stories say, from the upper vales of the An-du-in. Your people are a sturdy folk, yes?" He slid his eyes over to Fingil, then on to Dvarim. He cleared his throat and then grumbled with a faint grin, "So is the drink here as terrible as I hoped?"
 

chrysophalax

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Fingil had been about to answer Thuri directly, when Malkin and the one he had heard referred to as "their guide" returned to the table. The guide opened his mouth and for the first time, Fingil heard what he could only imagine to be Khuzdul openly spoken. This he wondered at, for he had heard from the elves that dwarves only spoke their own language in the presence of other dwarves. What could be so secret that this breach in protocol had occured? The speaker stared at him appraisingly, as though he were meaningless and posed no threat. Others had made the same mistake.

He returned his attention to Thuri once again. "Many of your critcisms and observations are well founded, yet do not judge me so harshly too soon. Fair heart may become foul if it only has itself for counsel and my heart tells me that the time has long past when wisdom might have prevailed. Indeed, I fear that Arnor as it has been will very soon be gone forever. Greed has overthrown my nephews and I..." The sound of shattering glass, followed by a loud curse caused many to jump. The landlord slammed open the half-door at the bar and stomped upstairs to see what had happened, grumbling as he went. The raven sought refuge in the rafters and squawked loudly down at Truor, who seemed to be of like mind.

Fingil rose to his feet. "Wait but a moment, my friends and I may have news for you. I believe the answers to all our questions are about to be answered!" With that, he drew his hood up and left silently through the back door, leaving the others to guess among themselves what he was up to.

Malkin had only recounted half the song contest to Zubrim when Fingil reappeared, looking grim. Kiril silently passed him a full tankard and he took it with a nod of thanks. He stared into it for a few long breaths, then downed it in one. "Right. That's it then. That non-so-subtle breakage of glass was one of my companions, Haldad and he has brought ill tidings. The fighting has already broken out to the north and west of here, but not many have been slain, as yet. This forces my hand and I have instructed Haldad to send those men of my company into the forest glens and mountain passes east of here, closer to Imladris. Elrond will countenance no fighting on his doorstep and there at least some remnant of Numenor will be able to live in safety. That my friends has ever been my priority, not the saving of a kingdom, but the saving of a people and a way of life. We are few in number now, but while some of us survive, there is yet hope that sanity will prevail and peace will be restored."

A weight seemed to have been lifted from his shoulders and Fingil was inwardly glad that fate had stepped in to make up his mind for him. "It seems our path lies eastward and I am as ready now as I will ever be. Once on the road, I'll tell you the course that will best suit your needs and our safety. Are we agreed?"
 

YayGollum

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Kiril's reaction to his suggestion was apparently too surprised to show much of his opinion. Boffin, ever hopeful, grinned and stared at the ceiling to compose his thoughts, deciding how to preach about the superiority of elves to the guy, when he came upon a chance. He missed a few things in the discussion, subsequently, but once he zoned back in, he found that his opinions were no longer necessary and that the humans were smart enough to know where best to hide.

Zubrim's entrance and instructions in the secret Dwarf language induced a panicky sweat and wringing of fingers, since he could only translate pieces of it. It sounded important, and he didn't want to look incompetent, so he tried to calm his nerves and remain observant. He wanted to welcome the Ranger to their group but reflected that Zubrim might have requested something contrary. Tired, full, and a bit stressed, Boffin fished out a few coins, handed them to the bartender, waited with innocent and expectant eyes for some change, then shrugged and hopped off of his stool when the guy gave a grin and a quick bow before rushing away.

Wearily and to the general group ---> "Ah, I'll be heading off to sleep, now. We'll probably be marching early, as usual, and I'd like to take advantage of a bed, while I can. Nice to have met you, Fingil, sir." After a nod and a yawn, he trudged up the stairs and collapsed on the first bed that he found. To quell his fears of combat that they might come upon, he started counting in Quenyish to put himself to sleep.

Truor was having a wonderful time as he revelled in good, honest, and Dwarvish personalities. He echoed most of their enthusiastic views throughout the episode, but did hang back a bit when they dipped into subjects that he knew little about or preferred to remain neutral towards. He politely looked away and pretended to be interested in a card game going on a few tables away as Zubrim made some speech in the secret Dwarf language. When the guy acknowledged him, he assumed that the Dwarf meant that he had heard stories of Truor, specifically.

Since he'd closed his eyes to congratulate himself on tales well spread, he didn't notice that Zubrim had already turned to someone else. "Just as sturdy as yours, I'd say." With a wink at Shadowflaps and thinking himself achingly clever for his best attempt at sneakiness, he located Zubrim again and raised questioning eyebrows once he caught the guy's eyes ---> "So, when are we looking to leave, tomorrow? You seem to be the one in charge, sir. Or is it Dvarim here? Truor's the name, if you missed it, by the way."

The changeling wondered how these Rangering types came up with their secret signals, then shook his head in confusion. Relieved that the far scarier than travelling to meet some lost Dwarves business of choosing a side in a war seemed to be closed, Truor bobbed his mug at Fingil. "Sounds good to me! I'm already packed." He then wondered how these Ranging types looked at obligations to families and countries, since, even though the guy's main interest sounded secure, his nephews would still be going after each other's throats.
 

Ghorim

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Thuri walked a taut and delicate line in his debate Fingil, balancing the obligations of his mission, the provoked tempers of his comrades, and his concern for the ranger's plight as best he could manage. So when Zubrim barged in from upstairs and fell upon the table with a fiery tongue, the old soldier was understandably upset. He felt like a glass worker whose meticulous project had just been dashed to pieces at his feet. The guide's words seemed to embolden Dvarim's desire to withdraw from negotiations, and the commander very well would have interrupted Fingil's response had a sudden commotion not beaten him to the punch.

The soldiers were already on edge as the talks with the ranger grew more grave. Upon the crashing noise from upstairs, five sets of hands immediately went to their axes. In order to not further enflame the suspicions of the tavern patrons, the warriors had kept their deadly tools stored beneath the table, out of hand, but always within reach. As Fingil went to investigate, the soldiers all rose in a grim silence with hands tight around their axe handles. They held their positions like a small garden of statues until the ranger rejoined them. All save Malkin, who tried to ease the tension in the air by recounting the contest of words that Zubrim had missed. Upon his return, Fingil explained the source of the noise, and that although the war had already begun in earnest, he was now no longer tied to the lands of Arnor.

At this stunning development, the dwarves naturally had quite a few choice comments.

"A comrade of yours, you say? I thought you rangers did things more discreetly," said Kiril, lowering his weapon and placing his right hand upon his hip.

"A desperate hour such as this may call for uncharacteristic tactics," said Thuri, who saw that matters had passed out of his hands now. He turned away from the ranger and sat once again, gazing at the grain of the table's wood in meditative silence.

"That's odd, Fingil," said Halak, with a dark expression. "As soon as the fighting starts, that's your signal that it's fine to leave the land?"

"That's the most uncharacteristic tactic of all, I'd say!" roared Dvarim, launching on the offensive again. "Aye, this has worked out very well for you, hasn't it, ranger? That at the very moment of decision you should receive the word that secures your retreat from Arnor! Well, I suppose your beloved Amlaith shall have to fend for himself, then."

Dvarim marched around the table to approach Fingil. He did not leave his weapon behind.

"I do not tolerate cowards well, ranger. But let it never be spoken that a Dwarf failed to honor a handshake. I would never besmirch the name of my folk to make things easier on myself."

The commander glanced over his shoulder at where Zubrim stood. The guide was clearly as aggravated by this development as he was. Things were not about to get any easier for the both of them.

"You may have some knowledge of these lands, though, I shall not discount that," continued Dvarim, returning his gaze to Fingil. "You shall consult with our guide Zubrim on the course we are to chart, but he holds the last say in all matters concerning our route, understood?"

There was a practiced manner in which Dvarim uttered that final word. He had been using it on subordinates for years now, and had honed it to the point where he could make his target sound like nothing more than an ignorant child with his delivery. Fingil clearly took exception to the mocking tone. Things might have become more heated in that moment, had not Boffin, ever oblivious, wandered up from the bar and drowsily announced his intentions to turn in for the night. Watching him stumble up the stairs, Dvarim turned back to the others.

"For once, Boffin's got the right idea in his head. We'll be leaving well before sunrise. This land is no longer safe enough for us to travel at a leisurely pace. Henceforth, we are in a sprint for Khazad-dum. Expect tonight's rest to be more akin to a short nap than a full night's slumber."

He removed his helmet and inclined his head to the company slightly.

"I take my leave for the evening. Zubrim, Fingil... you shall conference on our itinerary for the next two days. As for the rest of you, I advise that you seek your rest as soon as you can."

The commander began to move for the stairs, but then turned back, his stern expression coming to rest on the stout form of Truor.

"Should you wish to accompany us, Truor, I shall raise no objections," said Dvarim coolly. "But expect to be roused early tomorrow. If you cannot keep pace, then I see nothing that necessitates keeping you on board... and the same goes for your... companion."

The commander gave a brief, none-too-friendly look at the raven before he turned swiftly and resumed his course toward the party's room. Froli practically leapt out of his chair to follow, though his legs, reduced to rubber from days of unfamiliar strain, nearly buckled under him as he reached his feet. The noble had been too petrified to retire without an accompanying soldier to ensure that thieves did not ransack their room. But there was no question that he was wholly exhausted, and upon hearing of the long, painful marches that awaited him, Froli felt that he had to race to knock himself out for the night. Owin also stood to follow, though his grandson remained entrenched in his chair.

"Come, Brian," said the elder in the simple, stern manner of a grandfather.

"But grandfather, sir..." Brian began, though he seemed to already sense he was protesting in vain.

The old dwarf reached down and gave a sharp tug on one of the lad's ears, indicating that debate was indeed futile. "Come!"

Kiril smirked, leaning one elbow on the table as he watched this exchange. "Listen to your grandfather, boy! It's well past your bedtime, I'd say. Feel fortunate that you got to sit with the adults for so long!"

Brian's cheeks flushed a hot red, and he stood meekly, muttering a 'good night' to the table before joining the procession upstairs.

"Ahhh... that lad," chuckled Kiril once the other dwarves had disappeared up the stairs. He trailed off without completing his thought, and there was an uneasy silence. Zubrim and Fingil were eyeing each other warily, neither making a move to begin their compulsory deliberations.

Kiril shoved his tongue into his cheek as he noted this stand-off, and turned to his comrades to gauge their expressions. Halak wore a thick scowl. From the start, he had been unimpressed by the ranger's conduct. But when Fingil invoked the name of Thingol in questioning the character of the Khazad, Halak had simply heard enough. The fact that the two of them were linked by the loss of a brother was obscured beneath the intensity of Halak's grudge. Thuri and Malkin, meanwhile, were still undecided on Fingil's character. They stayed behind, curious as to how he would carry himself following Dvarim's latest string of insults.

Unsure of how to defuse the situation, Kiril glanced over at Truor, who merely shrugged. Shadowflaps gave the dwarf a clipped squawk, which Kiril interpreted as an attempt at provoking him to speak. Muttering a few oaths in the direction of the raven, Kiril nonetheless took its advice and turned to the guide and the ranger.

"Now come, you two! We'll have rather sorry odds of making it to Khazad-dum unscathed if the two of you don't cooperate. You both know the lands as well as an eagle would. But Zubrim's been studying them extra carefully for months in preparing for our journey, and Fingil most likely has a better notion of how to avoid the troops in the region. Of course, it's all a matter of luck in the end, but we might as well give ourselves a decent shot at a safe trip, aye? Now shake each other's hands and get on with it, already! No one's asking the pair of you to kiss and make up, but you'd best be able to work together, at the very least!"

Upon the completion of his speech, Kiril quickly filled up a flagon from Fingil's keg. He might have been breaking orders, but dealing with all of this nonsense over Fingil required a stiff drink. Couldn't any of the others see that this ranger was a fine ally to have?
 
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Ciryaher

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Zûbrim eyed the ranger, then stuck out his hand in a gesture towards him and spoke gruffly, "I said no words about you, ranger, that were ill. But about your people, humans, I have little trust. For while the elves are full of themselves, they at least keep their grudges for a thousand years and will not flop back and forth from day to day as they wonder best how to deal with the death that looms near on their horizons." He reached up to stroke his beard, "I hope that the stories about how the wise men of the Star Land in old days are true, and that you may prove to be as noble as they. Should you prove to be as one of the...less noble...well, I am sure that if you don't have an axe on your mind, you'll have an arrow through your heart."

He suddenly shook his head and rubbed his cheek, "Agh, but don't mind my dark words." Giving the man a more friendly look, he stuck out his hand again, this time offering a handshake, "I'm sure if you had some sneaky plan, you wouldn't be wanting to go where we're going. Wrong direction, mm?" As Fingil warily shook the dwarves hand, he nodded and gave a bit of a grin, his gaunt face taking on a strangely friendly look.

"So shall we rest and discuss our plans for travel while we're on the trail in the morning?" he asked, raising up one brow, "I've a mind to enjoy a bed while I can. Won't be getting one again for a long bit, I deem, and I don't like to run from armies without a good night's sleep before!"
 

chrysophalax

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Prowling the Withered Heath
"I have no axe to grind with any of you. I may have earned your friend's diatribe against me, but my folk are hardy and well used to being misunderstood." Fingil shook hands with Zubrin, noticing as he did, a glint of approval in Kiril's eye. He then drained his tankard for the last time. "You will find that I will be ready, have no fear on that account!" He turned then to Truor, who was busy trying to wheedle a late-night morsel out of the landlord.

"I'll be glad to have you along, Truor. You have a way with tales and I look forward to hearing much more of your adventures. If any of you need me, you'll find me in the stable. I find the sound of sleeping beasts quite soothing. Until dawn then, and yes, we can talk on the road of our general path, Zubrin, but my suggestion is that we make for the town of Bree, or possibly Archet just to the north initially. There we may be able to gather news without attracting much attention as the townsfolk are used to traders and the like." Fingil then went upstairs to collect his pack and sword. He could already feel anticipation buildng within him, that sense of being at the edge of the unknown. How he had missed that!

Quickly he came down the stairs and with a nod to what few of his companions still remained in the common room, went out to the stables to bed down for what was left of the night. Familiar, comfortable smells filled his nostrils and he breathed them in gladly. As he settled wearily into the straw next to a fat pony, many thoughts nagged at Fingil, each vying for his attention. Was his decision to leave his brother's kingdom to his greedy sons to do with as they would, the right one? Would he have been powerful enough to have made a difference? One thing he knew for certain was that he did not want to be used by any side as a pawn, or, Eru forbid, he be set up as king!

Fingil had always known his place and that was on the outside, looking in. Let them tear each other apart with their intrigues and political machinations! The remnants of Numenor had been and always would be first in his heart. Having seen to it that at least some of his people would be safe, he could rest, no matter what the dwarves or anyone else thought of him or his motives. His companions would come to see that not all men were weak and treacherous and that appearances could be very deceiving. With that comforting thought, he drifted off to sleep.
 

YayGollum

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Dvarim's notice invoked quickly erect posture and a short nod that could have been seen as nervous. Once the guy was gone, he showed a grin to Shadowflaps, who only squawked paranoiacally that the Dwarf bore him some ill will. Before his friend could get very far into his analysis of the other personalities in the room, Truor tossed a "Bah!" at him, then zoned in on Zubrim and Fingil, since Kiril drew his attention there. The shrug of the shoulders was probably only given since he hadn't even noticed a problem yet. Shadowflaps, though, always proud to generously show off his usefulness to those who would pay attention, gave the Dwarf a nudge.

Fingil's compliment shot Truor's eyes back to the ceiling to call forth a couple of his most popular journeys. He had them gathered well enough for him to show a smirk and nod at the guy before he left, though. To the general group of Dwarves still around ---> "I enjoy the open air and the earth on my back as well as the next, but I believe that the novelty of a bedroom is a far better sight than a stable, when you're at the verge of another long march. oh well. I won't be late. A lot of roads to avoid, dodging these troop movements tomorrow." A jerk of the head brought Shadowflaps back to his shoulder. The two communicated as well as they could, Truor being overly eager and demanding, Shadowflaps being overly paranoid and haughty, about what these Dwarves would lead them to.
 
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Ghorim

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The four soldiers who stubbornly remained at the table could sense the party drifting apart, as the call of sleep grew stronger with each passing moment. They remained fastened to their seats, for want of seeing how affairs with that maverick Fingil concluded for the evening. But theirs was also the obstinacy of children attempting in vain to postpone their bedtime. Soldiers were never much for sleep... it was the one time when they were forced to let their guard down completely. The false promises of dreams held nothing for them; the cold reality of an axe gripped tightly in hand was all that mattered to their lot.


Yet, ever grudgingly, they had to admit that hours of sleep were to become precious currency to them over the coming days. Perhaps at times they thought themselves physically conditioned to the point where they resided above the demands of their bodies, but that simply was not true. Thuri began their departure, and the other three warriors followed his lead, each standing and pushing in his chair. They all wished Truor a hearty good night, and he already seemed adopted as one of their number, so natural was their tone in addressing him. As Fingil made for the stables, Kiril's head was filled with so many delectable insults that he simply didn't know which one to choose.


"Ha! And I thought I was just making things up when I sang that you slept with the animals! Well, I suppose you'll be cleaning up after them, too?"


“Not without receiving healthy coin for my effort,” said Fingil, not missing a beat, and not turning around as he made his way out of the Broken Barstool.


Kiril doffed his helmet to the ranger nonetheless, in recognition of a sound parry. He then glanced to Halak, who was busying himself with draining the remnants of Fingil’s keg into a mug.


“Ho now!” bellowed Kiril. “Didn’t you hear Dvarim’s orders?”


“Hmmph,” grunted Halak. “Don’t think that your own dip into this keg went unnoticed.”


He inspected the contents of his drinking vessel with a probing eye... mostly foam, as he’d figured.


“Might as well be insubordinate in pairs,” he muttered, downing what he could from the mug. “Besides, it’ll help me sleep.”


“What? You got the jitters?” asked Kiril, giving his comrade an elbow.


“Never that,” said Halak tersely, moving past Kiril for the stairs.


The blackbeard followed his friend’s progress with a watchful gaze, sensing something vaguely amiss in Halak’s demeanor.


Just grumpy... some rest’ll do him well.


With one last savoring glance upon the tavern, the stage of one of his finest performances, Kiril marched for the stairs. Most of the remaining patrons were hardly aggrieved to see him go.


---


Halak always slept with his axe. Soldiers were generally known to keep their weapons close by at night, but Halak actually brought his blade into bed with him, his hands resting on the handle as he lay upon his back in a corpse-like repose. His comrades ribbed him for it, calling it a child’s habit. Kiril was convinced that one night his friend was going to accidentally cut his throat in his sleep. Halak never felt the need to explain himself to the others.


Your axe is all you have in this world, lad. I won’t always be about to guide you. But trust your weapon, trust in your ability, and you shall never be misled.


Did Halak even understand his father’s advice back when it was given? No, but he stored that exact sequence of words in his memory nonetheless, a precious fragment of the time he spent with that blurry, half-forgotten figure.


The axe did not go to Holmin; it went to me. I couldn’t even lift it yet, but it went to me.


Halak’s brother wouldn’t touch their father’s blade. His face seemed to grow ashen whenever he gazed upon that weapon for too long, as if he saw his departed elder’s face reflected in its sparkling blade and not his own. Or perhaps he could already glimpse his own end in the polished metal, could see Death’s skeletal wings spreading over his own head. In time, it was Halak who took up the heirloom, his father’s only possession to speak of.


How many times had he tried to envision that mighty form laid low by an orc’s blade? It was always a slow vision, as he watched the weapon slip from the gauntleted hands and fall to the muddy ground.


Did he think of me as he fell?


But that thought was inevitably chased by another.


Don’t be so selfish! It had nothing to do with you.


These were things that ought not to still be troubling Halak. Their lingering presence within his thoughts was unacceptable. Could he yet banish them with laughter, as Kiril had taught him to do? Most times, aye. But the nights were growing worse, ever since the morning when he closed the door on his mother, leaving her side in her greatest time of need.


He saw her walking in the city’s streets now, himself lingering well behind, strolling the familiar thoroughfares leisurely. He was fixated upon her form; only peripherally did he notice the others falling upon the cobblestones. All about him, the city dwellers were collapsing in dying throes, their hands grabbing at the air as their knees buckled and their eyes blackened.


It’s a plague.


The thought struck Halak dully, its full weight not apparent until he realized that his mother was also in danger of succumbing to the illness that was sweeping the streets all about him. He hastened his pace, but his mother seemed to recede all the further toward the horizon. The dead were impeding his path now. Yes, he was scrambling over piles of bodies, suddenly seized by a desperation to reach his mother and carry her from this dying city. He called to her, but no sound came from his mouth. All was horribly silent, save for a faint ringing in his ears. A sickly yellowish hue now hung in the air. The mother's back remained turned to her son. But she halted suddenly, and a great light fell upon her frail silhouette. Slowly, ever slowly, she fell to her knees, and then collapsed over to the side. Halak tried to sprint for her now, but his foot caught on a corpse. He felt himself plummeting, with nothing below to break his fall...
 

Ghorim

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Halak awoke with such a start that his neck very nearly did meet with his axe blade. Sweat crept upon his skin, only a thin film, just enough to remind him that he had been deathly afraid for a passing moment. The dwarf dragged his sticky palm across his forehead, cursing himself in his weakness. A fine soldier he made, wetting his sheets over night phantoms! And yet fear still prickled his senses, not so easily discarded. Agitated to the point where he knew that sleep would not visit him again that night, Halak clambered down from the top bunk where he had lain, taking his axe along. His bare feet touched down upon the chilly wood of the floor, and he marched past the slumbering rows of bunks toward the room’s entrance, where Malkin sat on his lonely guard duty.


Seeing his comrade approaching in a cyclone of delirious energy, Malkin climbed to his feet quickly. The young dwarf felt a chill pass over him as he saw Halak’s eyes, wildly alight in the room’s darkness. What had seized this soldier, whom Malkin had always thought of as the most steady and unflappable in their company?


“Evening, Malkin,” Halak whispered hoarsely. “Sleep’s betrayed me tonight. Let me take over your shift at watch.”


Malkin, feeling a knot starting to form in his throat, swallowed heavily and shook his head. “I just relieved Thuri not fifteen minutes ago. I’m in no need of a replacement.”


Halak growled, the low, guttural sound just carrying over the snores of the others. “You ought to take a kind offer when it’s given!”


Malkin did not budge, though he felt the foreign sensation of apprehension clutching at his heart. “Settle yourself, my friend. I appreciate the gesture, rest assured. What say we both pull the shift and keep each other company?”


Seeming to remember himself, Halak loosened his posture gradually, reaching up to rub his eyes with his free hand. “Aye... fine, then. We’ll do that.”


The two soldiers sat on opposite sides of the portal, their feet illuminated by the light that trickled in from beneath the closed door. Their shadowy figures made for a strange contrast, as Malkin sat stiff and upright, and Halak slumped in his seat, tired and oppressed. Malkin racked his mind for the appropriate way to phrase the question that hovered over his thoughts.

He tried to pose his query in the lighthearted manner that he knew Halak preferred.


“I’ll buy you a drink once we reach Khazad-dum if you tell me what’s on your mind.”


“Nothing... nothing on my mind,” muttered Halak darkly, looking like a mourning shadow in the suffocating blackness that surrounded them. “Let’s just get this race East started already.”


Malkin pried no further. Dawn was a long time in coming for the both of them.
 

Ciryaher

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In the end, the whole party--new faces included--made their way to some sort of bed for the rest of the night. Before dawn came, Zûbrim rose and woke those that weren't yet up, letting the twilight greet them with a heavy, impenetrable fog that came off of the North Downs. They gathered up their gear quickly and after just a short breaking of their fast, they made their way through the south gate of the city and set off on the great road heading southward that would later be known as the Greenway.

It was a wary time; Zûbrim and Fingil lead them off of the well-kept road and onto obscure side-paths that wound through an increasingly untamed wilderness. The days passed by and they made all haste towards the wooded hills of Breeland, keeping an untrusting eye on the Midgewater ever-looming on their left flank. Little did they see of other men, save for the hamlet or farmstead that they happened to pass by.

Only on one night--black as the void with a new moon--did they see any sign of the rapidly-escalating conflict that menaced on the edge of their collective imaginations. There was a bright glow, far away beyond the Marsh, as though there was a great burning going on. There was little to make of it at the time, and when the morning came, a haze covered the eastern sky and the reek of smoke wafted into their nostrils.

Besides this one event, however, there was little else to note; though the land was eerily quiet. The war-hardened dwarves--and perhaps also the men--knew well that this was the tension of a land waiting for destruction. But for those who had not known of war, hardship, or the woe of combat, this was perhaps the most trying time they had yet experienced. The lonely hills and dales of Arnor offered no quarter for the weary traveller as the ghost of war howled in the distance.

At long last, however, they began their final approach into Breeland from the northwest, seeing a few lamps illuminating Bree-proper as it lay nestled against the western flank of the hill. The whole party--whose spirits were lifted by the prospects of a warm bed and a stout drink--picked up their pace and passed through the West Gate as darkness enveloped the land. Zûbrim and Fingil lead them up the cobbled streets until they stood beneath a carven, white-painted sign bearing a rather rotund pony.

Zûbrim, who seemed to always have a penchant for the anticlimactic, grunted as he dropped his pack onto the ground, "So who's buying?"
 

Ghorim

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And there they were, dogs on the trail once more, their heads bowed to ward off the oppression of sun and rain. Each morning they tried to beat the sun to the eastern horizon, wiping the sleep from their eyes as they slogged forward. The welcoming sprawl of the plains vanished in a maze of gnarled branches, limbs to the shadowy guardians of the forests that assailed the party on all sides along the back roads. The travelers assumed a tight formation now, even as the more poorly conditioned marchers routinely lagged behind the brisk pace set by Zubrim and Fingil at the head of the procession. Kiril took up position at the rear, prodding along the weary civilian marchers with barked orders and the occasional shove. Froli, Boffin and Owin did not take kindly to this harsh treatment, and continued to churn their legs against the protestations of their enflamed lungs and thudding hearts. Nights brought them little solace, as they now only held the promise of a respite too soon interrupted.

On one of those brief stops, Owin lay upon his bedroll, feeling his true age for the first time in years. His grandson Brian had simply collapsed beside him, and now drifted through the formless void of exhausted slumber. Owin tried to kick off his boots from where he lay upon his back, but found them fastened on too tightly to yield. He sighed deeply. Loathe to complete the sit-up motion that would allow him to remove the boots by hand, he resigned himself to sleeping in them for the night. With what energy he could muster, he rolled his head to the side to regard the unconscious lad at his right. What was it that he always said to Brian when he had lost some trinket or other?

“When was the last time you saw it?”

Well, he now had to ask himself a similar question. When was the last time that he saw this journey as a good idea? Aye, it was a struggle to remember. All of the old aches and pains that he had once thought relegated to the past were flaring up again from the first day of marching onward. Each night he sank into a broken sleep, only to have his guard Thuri rouse him what seemed like mere moments later. Oh, but this was an adventure, was it not?

Aye, from the fitful days of his youth, Owin had hungered for the thrills that only the road could bring. He came into the world nearly a month too soon, so hungry was he for a taste of it. His lack of patience made for a sickly childhood. Dwarves, hardy beings that they are, rarely contend with illness for an extended period of time, at least not until their final days. In what should have been the full blossom of his youth, Owin found himself laid out in an infirmary bed, his frail body racked with fever, eating mashed foods for three weeks straight as he stared at the ceiling through his impaired haze. Owin didn’t remember much from that time. Certainly nothing of the comings and goings of his frazzled parents, or the words that the nurses would murmur in his ear from time to time. But the little things stubbornly wormed their way into his memory: the velveteen texture of the drapes that framed the nearby window as he ran them through his fingers, the snoring of the old invalid with whom he shared his room, and a singular thought that arose from the back of his mind.

As soon as I get out of this bed, I’m going never going to rest again.

It was a ridiculous goal, the kind that only a delirious mind could conjure up, but Owin had by and large held to it, becoming a habitual traveler even as his muscles gradually softened and his endurance waned. This trip, however… could it be anything other than his last? Owin struggled mightily to contemplate this question, but how his thoughts were beleaguered by weariness! He succumbed to sleep, his musings left incomplete for the night.
 
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Ghorim

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It was that very same evening that the fiery glow reined on the horizon while the group camped. Froli had long since engaged in his nightly tradition of throwing himself upon the ground and falling dead asleep, but the increasingly pungent aroma of smoke perked his mind from the depths of slumber, reminding his still sleeping senses of the smoked ham that he frequently enjoyed in his home. Yes, he was back at his dining room table, with the generations of marble busts flanking his seat. He could just smell that ham, feel his mouth water as he took up fork and knife to plunge into the evening’s main course. But what was this? There was simply too much smoke wafting from the dish! Why, that fool of a cook had overdone the ham again!

“Take it away,” the noble mumbled, half-asleep, drawing the attention of Halak, who was crouched nearby Froli’s dormant form. His eyes had been locked in grim contemplation on the north. All of his armor remained in place. He had yet to sleep that night.

“Take it away?” he muttered, more to himself than to the aristocrat. “It’s only bound to get closer. That is, unless we hit the trail again, which we soon ought to.”

“Hmm?” Froli’s eyes drifted open, and seeing the unnatural brightness of the evening, thought the sun was now on the rise. Lifting his head and rubbing his vision into focus, the noble realized this was not so.

“What is that?” he murmured to Halak, whose gaze had returned to the reddish-orange mist that hung menacingly in the distance.

“That’s what’s chasing us, Sir Froli,” said Halak quietly. “That’s Arnor setting itself aflame.”

“Are we… in any danger?” asked Froli timidly, his anxiety giving him the energy to sit up a bit.

Halak shook his head, though the noble now noticed that the soldier had a firm grip upon his axe. “Not yet. No one’s on the lookout for our party, remember. They’re more concerned with tearing the other army to bits than picking off a few strays who happen to be passing through. If Zubrim guides us properly, those flames are never going to get any closer to us than they are right now.”

Halak had not forgotten about Fingil, yet still he did not mention the ranger’s name.

Regicide, indeed! And you, leaving your land’s rightful heir to perish!

The soldier shook these angry thoughts aside, and settled back upon his rear end, as if to indicate to Froli that it was safe to relax.

“You’d best grab what shuteye you can before we resume the march. Shouldn’t be long, now.”

Froli lowered his head slowly, but no longer felt compelled to drift off.

“It’s so frightful,” he whispered, “to imagine what they must be doing to each other…”

“That’s war,” said Halak with a shrug. “That’s a soldier’s lot in this world. At least you see now that we’re not just dots on a map.”

“Excuse me?” said Froli, sitting up once again.

“Dots on a map… from the council chamber, that’s all a division looks like. You draw the routes those dots have to follow, and then we dots do our dirty work out here.”

“Sir Halak,” said Froli, ever cautious in addressing his guard, “do not think that we of the Council do not appreciate the sacrifices that you and our infantry make for the rest of the mountains. We’ve many songs for the exploits of warriors upon the field of battle, but when was the last time that you heard a song commemorating a councilor’s decision to reduce the grain tax? Or… or… to set a limit upon the number of candles in each household?”

Froli smiled a bit to himself. Perhaps it took a bit of time and distance to recognize just how trivial his recent legislative proposals truly were…

Halak shook his head slowly, his demeanor unsatisfied. “Songs and praise… fine repayment, aye, but that… it doesn’t…”

He sighed wearily, his tongue more adept at trading insults with Kiril than expressing the ruminations of his heart.

“Listen, Sir Froli, I’m not going to complain about my station, or yours, or any of those things that neither of us chose, aye? I… appreciate your remark just now, and the words you had for the infantry back at the Broken Barstool. But your appreciation of the soldiering life… well, you need to see all the sides to the thing before you can praise it so highly. Honor and camaraderie… that’s a big part of it, but you’ve never seen… well, you’ve never shoved through a breach in the enemy’s flank, have you? Never seen this fellow right next to you get dropped... never had to hear the news…”

Three orphaned pegs on the wall.

“I’m sorry, lad, but your brother…”

“Well… never mind that. What I’m trying to say, is that if I or any other soldier actually wrote those songs that you speak of… they wouldn’t be so sunny all the time, ya know?”

Halak glanced to Froli, looking to see if the noble actually did ‘know’ what he was getting at. In the noble’s fleshy features appeared a great strain, the folds of his brow and cheeks burdened by the worry that he might have offended Halak, that his ignorance had been so truly profound. For a moment, Froli was no longer just a bloated container of hot air. For an instant, Halak was something more than a simple workhorse.

Halak smoothed out his mustache, emitting a muted chuckle to ease the mood. “Well, to be straight and honest with you, it’s just dull. That’s what kills the old soldiers. They’re marching in circles day in, day out, wearing themselves down to bone. We drill, we stand guard, we try to keep ourselves entertained, that’s the routine. That… nasty side only comes around once in a great while. I’ve only been in a few battles, myself. But you’ve got to be prepared to leap from one life straight to the other, aye? Those Men who are slitting each other up North… why, not too long ago, they were probably bored out of their skulls, just lying about their barracks…”

“Aye, I can certainly relate,” began Froli, but then froze in apprehension, realizing that he was already falling back upon his old assumptions. “Er… that is to say…”

Halak waved a hand dismissively. “Go on.”

“Well, I’d venture that ninety-five out of one hundred initiatives that the Council hears are of negligible importance to the Ered Luin, at best. Just between the two of us, I rarely make it through a full week’s worth of sessions without dozing off in my chair a few times. They’re the sort of issues that make your beard curl. How many new smithies do we allow to open this year? How much pipe weed are we to import?”

Halak gave an exaggerated yawn. “Sounds about right.”

“But occasionally an issue comes along that rends the entire Council asunder. Our decision could drastically affect the economy, or our diplomatic ties with other realms. Every fellow has his own opinion on which direction to take, and suddenly every councilor becomes quite animated, leaping from his seat to make speeches about the honor of the Khazad and other such grandiloquent nonsense. It’s a jarring transition, to say the least.”

“Hmm…” Halak’s right thumb and index finger held upon his mustache as he mulled Froli’s words over. “I suppose, no matter what his calling, a fellow must be prepared to take on the extraordinary at any moment.”

The noble nodded enthusiastically. “Aye, that’s a fine way of putting it! Just as you must be extraordinary should our party… Mahal forbid… be assailed…”

“And as you must be extraordinary when it comes time to break the bread with our Eastern kin.”

“Ah! I fear I shall be too exhausted by then to muster anything more than an inquiry for the nearest bed.”

Halak chuckled. “You have my solemn oath, Sir Froli, that by the time we make it that far East, you’ll be in the best shape of your life. Weeks of hard marches and slim rations will have you in top form.”

“So there’s a mithril lining in this mess after all,” said Froli in bemusement, wrapping his robes tighter around his still-flabby figure.

“You just have to strain your eyes hard enough to make note of it,” said Halak, with a knowing smile.

The two fell silent, and it was not long before the beanpole form of Zubrim marched up behind them, seeing that they were the only two others awake.

“A fine sight, eh?” he said as he gazed toward the blazing horizon, his monotone as inscrutable as ever. “Rouse the others. We’re moving on.”

Halak rose like a stone pillar jutting forth from the ground. “Think you can keep pace today, Froli?”

Froli stumbled to his feet, finding his limbs still blissfully asleep. “Not a chance.”

Halak strolled over to the snoring Kiril and gave him a healthy boot to the ribs. “Well, give it time.”

“As you say,” replied Froli, sounding truly cheerful for the first time since the long march began. He moved to wake only his fellow civilians, as he knew well enough to let sleeping soldiers lie… Kiril’s litany of curses in Halak’s direction reminded him of that old adage’s enduring truth.
 

chrysophalax

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It had been a hard thing to bear. Each time the party halted for a rest, or while they made camp for the night, Fingil would disappear for a short while. He would find a tall tree or the top of a nearby hillock and watch his birthplace burn. It was not the drifting smoke that blurred his vision as he looked on. Rather, it was guilt. That over-powering, ever present demon that whispered constantly in his mind. Coward, liar! How could you have left them behind, during the only time your nephews ever really needed you? Convenient that these dwarves happened by just now, is it not? You can run away and never have to look back. If they all kill each other, one of your men will find you and you can return and claim your throne, isn't that right? Isn't it?! Very clever of you, Fingil! Either way, you win!

"No, that's not how it is at all." he told the darkness as it settled around him. "I care not what happens to me, only to my people..." Ah, the ones you abandoned, you mean? The ones you claim to love? Why is it again that you warned only your company...because you wished to save them? For what? To live lives of secrecy and insecurity? To be hunted down like rats by rival factions? Spare me then your love! In that moment, Fingil drew forth his hunting blade and sadly admired the care with which he had sharpened it. It would be so easy a thing to give in to despair and die, letting those who might later find him wonder what they would. But no, this was not the manner in which a man who called himself a man should end. Toe to toe with an enemy or after a long life well lived, that was how a Numenorian died!

His blade slid smoothly back into it's sheath as his wiped his eyes with a grimy sleeve. "I should be getting back. We'll be moving out soon." he said to himself as he began his descent from a stout oak. Suddenly a shout from below startled him and his foot slipped off the slender branch on which he had balanced. A stream of muffled oaths followed his swift plummet and he was reunited rather decisively with the ground. Fingil had landed flat on his back and was fighting for air when a grinning dwarf leaned over him. Kiril was shaking with silent laughter. "We'll have to do something about those nerves. Ranger. Come on, let's grab some food before Boffin eats it all!" Fingil glared up at him, then shook his head when Kiril's twin appeared. "Ah, nay...not two of you! I have a hard enough time with one." He groaned as Kiril helped him up. "Brilliant. Another thing I'll never live down. Go on, old one. It seems I need a nurse-maid."
 

YayGollum

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OOC: Here. Something for everyone, maybe?

IC: Outside and after Froli woke him up from a blissfully ignorant sleep, Truor groaned. "Ugh! Don't you people know that if you pack well, you can survive in the wilderness longer, and don't have to rush it so much? Argh! I'm awake! Just give me some time!" He was spooked into alertness after a report from Shadowflaps on the closeness of the battle.

Careful not to show off much worry, he readied his things for departure and ranted all the while. "I travel for the joy of it. Wanderlust, it's been called. My family hates me for it. They're a bunch of uninteresting sheep, if you ask me. Zubrim, you're our guide, been travelling for a while, now. Were you always just working for your boss, or do you have the wanderlust, too? Ah, I know this road! Probably couldn't draw an accurate map of the thing, but I could tell you what the people along it are like. The last time we were in the area, Shadowflaps here was telling me to skip the human settlements and sample the flavors of the elves nearby. Argh! Not I! I went straight from Bree to the Misty Mountains! Hadn't even heard of Khazad-Dum, at the time. I'd rather sneak my way past Orcs than suffer the hospitality of an elf! Hey! You should have known better!" The last being said while Truor tossed a stick at the raven, who knew that it was coming and was already gone.

Boffin had been experiencing large troubles with sleeping while the civil war was going on so close by. In his travels, he'd known a few men from this area. He was hoping that they would survive and wishing that he knew where they were, since he'd have no problem with leaving his group to help them. After being knocked out of a depressed mood by Froli, he got up to stand ready by his pony. The packs that Pooftop had been carrying were depleted enough for him to be comfortable, and he figured that he'd be too tired to march very well. Truor's rantings were obviously meant to distract them and lighten the mood, but Boffin ignored them when he found that the guy had something against elves.

He stroked Pooftop's mane as he waited for the others to move out, thinking about the elf who had given the animal to him. Mutterings to Pooftop ---> "They've never even met an elf, and they refuse to believe that they are the best friends to make. Why, Pooftop? We'd all be better off if we would only listen to them. They're just stubborn old Dwarves, I guess."

______________________________________________________________

Truor, already on his way to the stables with his horse, laughed at Zubrim. "Ha! That's quite a deal you've worked out, Zubrim! You lead them where they want to go, and they cover everything you decide to cost them! I'm surprised that you don't pick the best lodgings available!" Once out front again and on his way inside, he tossed a good-natured rib at them. ---> "Well, I won't wait for a bunch of miserly Dwarves to finish their quibblings when I've got a stomach to fill."

Boffin, who'd passed through this town several times before, was getting bouncier and bouncier with every step that he took closer to the Misty Mountains, although he should have known that the group wouldn't even come close to Rivendell. After stowing Pooftop away, he almost cried out that he'd pay, if they would only make their stay short, but he knew that the Dwarves would do that, no matter what. "I'll just meet you all inside, then. This place should be far enough from the fighting that they still have plenty of food, right?"
 

Ghorim

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The party swooped down upon Breeland, borne by the hot winds of war. Its unearthly howl still echoed in their heads, which caused a great deal of apprehension amongst the civilians. The soldiers, meanwhile, had learned to block the sound out. They moved as if in time to a festive war march. Their crisp, militant steps echoed the martial crack of the drum, the jangle of their armor plates was the triumphant fanfare of horns, announcing a weary sort of victory as they closed in on what was seemed like the first homely house that the road had offered them.

The trying circumstances of their flight to Bree forged the group tighter, even with two (or rather, three) new members integrating themselves into the party. They were all of them deprived of sleep's restorative gifts, and the only way to manage was to turn the hard march into a group struggle, with each fellow lending an aiding hand to his companions, should it be needed. Froli, attempting to prove his mettle to Halak, put in a redoubled effort to match his guard step for step, and shockingly managed more often than not.

"He's feeding on all of those reserves in his belly," remarked Halak to Kiril one evening. And yet there was less derision in his tone than when he had spoken of the noble previously.

Fingil still found himself watched closely at all times, which didn't much surprise him. He knew that most of the dwarves would not welcome him fully until he could illustrate his character in action.

Truor found the transition easier, and even Shadowflaps was beginning to receive some acknowledgment from the party. Zûbrim respected the bird most among the Naugrim, and frequently reminded the others that the dwarves of Erebor had a long and amicable relationship with the ravens that dwelt upon their lonely mountain. The soldiers, of course, had a difficult time remembering these words when Shadowflaps was amusing himself by pecking at their helmets.

When they at long last approached Bree-proper, the lights of the city intoxicated them from afar, and they made one last heavy push to make it into the town by nightfall. Finally, they stood before the cozy yellows and oranges of the lit inn windows.

"So, who's buying?" grunted Zûbrim.

Anticlimactic, indeed! After days of wearing down their soles upon the poorly-marked back trails, of pulling thistles and other such annoyances from their beards, of constantly looking over their shoulders for assailants, this was their grand arrival? And yet the notion of finally being able to stuff their bellies and partake of a full night of ignorant sleep excited the group's sensibilities so, that the fat pony on the sign was as good to them as the trees and stars etched by Narvi upon the West gate of Khazad-dum.

As Truor chuckled and ribbed Zûbrim, Kiril and Halak exchanged a glance. Wordlessly determining the obvious course of action, they each contributed a hand in shoving Froli forward. The noble, barely standing as it was, nearly went stumbling into Zûbrim, which would have been a thoroughly unwanted scenario for the both of them. He regained his balance in time, however, and dusted off his shoulders as he glanced back at the two grinning soldiers. For awhile on the trail, those two had actually begun to seem like a couple of adults, but now in the twilight of Bree they seemed like an unkempt pair of children once again.

"Now, now!" said the noble, smiling wearily. "You could stand to be more subtle in delivering your message. I shall pay up, to commemorate our escape from Arnor."

"'Twas naught but a strategic retreat!" said Kiril.

Zûbrim scowled, and seemed eager to temper this celebratory air with a few choice words, but he was immediately cut off by a flood of laughing remarks as the troop piled in through the small entrance to the Prancing Pony. He, Fingil and Dvarim seemed the only ones who realized that the party wasn't yet out of the woods, and it was this trio who entered last, their mood a reserved counterweight to the elation of the others.

The interior setting proved to be far more encouraging than the cold decay of the Broken Barstool. There was a roaring hearth and roaring discussion amongst the patrons, chairs and floorboards that did not creak uncivilly when pressed upon, generous portions and generous space for customers to sit and chat. And yet here too, though less obviously, the specter of war made its presence felt. The laughter of the people here died off too suddenly; it seemed too afraid to sustain. Their eyes, though perhaps mirthful, trembled with uncertainty as they gazed out the windows or towards the door. When the dwarvish soldiers had burst in upon the main room, the entire establishment seemed to stiffen at the sight of armor and weapons, only to exhale uneasily when it became apparent that these fellows were all too diminutive to be of Arnorian stock.

Most of the dwarves seemed oblivious to this all. They conversed excitedly as they assembled at a long table near the center of the room, mostly discussing all of the magnificent delicacies that they would order at Froli's expense. But when they settled down to dine, most of them settled for standard, meat-and-potatoes items. Kiril, however, insisted on a full pig for the table, a dish that was long in coming. Dvarim once again imposed his two-drink limit upon his troops, trying to rein in their mood somewhat. When their mirth exceeded his patience, however, the old dwarf shot to his feet with a sour expression.

"You'd all do best to settle your spirits," he said solemnly. "Don't forget, there's still a war on your heels!" And with this remark, he reached across the table and shoved Kiril's resting boots off of the table.

Kiril, not appreciating his commander's treatment of his well-worn feet, scooted his chair back from the table with a scowl.

"What?" he asked annoyedly. "You think the Arnorians are going to involve this sleepy little place in their feud? What good would it serve any of them?"

Fingil shook his head. "Knowing the commanders of these armies as I do, I wouldn't rule out any course of action on their part, no matter how insensible it might seem."

Thuri nodded his assent. "A grip upon Bree could be crucial for marshalling supplies, or simply adding another territorial feather to the cap of an ambitious heir."

Kiril remained unconvinced. "You think? Well... let me see about that. I'm going to nose about and see if the people here have actually heard any rumblings of the war making its way here. Save my seat, lads, and give me a holler if my hog arrives while I'm gone!"

And the soldier stood in a blur, impulsive as ever, stomping toward the bar as his companions looked on inquisitively. Kiril mounted one of the few available stools, and hailed the tender with a sharp bark. He placed a quick and well-practiced order for a drink (his third, coincidentally), and made the usual bits of small-talk before making his main thrust.

"So, Oswald," (of course he knew the tender's name by this point) "how's the mood in Bree, what with all the sparks flying up North?"

"Hmm... I'd love to tell ya that it doesn't once cross our minds each day, Kiril, but that's just not the way it's been. We're a pretty easygoing folk in these parts, but you can just tell that it's on everyone's mind. Word is that this mess'll be spreading all over the region. You'd be a fool to think that a war like this'd be collared by Arnor's borders."

Kiril blinked in surprise. "Well... er... it's not all that foolish a notion, aye? Why, what would any of those Arnorians want with Bree?"

Oswald shrugged. "Do they need a reason? Besides, we're ripe for the picking, aren't we? Ain't much of a standing militia 'round here. No one's going to put up much resistance if one of the Northern divisions comes prowling around down here in search of quarter or food."

Kiril ran a hand through the thin barbs of hair that stood guard over his growing bald spot. "Ah... well... a shame my comrades and I are on a mission East. You folks sound like you need someone to whip you into fighting shape, just in case..." Kiril knocked on the wood of the bartop, "things get ugly."

"Well, you're here for the night, aye?" said Oswald, scrubbing a dirty glass idly as he regarded Kiril. "I hear tell that they could use some extra watchmen along the borders. Even if it's just one evening, you and your companions could help out, if you're feeling so generous."

The dwarf considered the offer, reflexively stroking his salt and pepper beard. "Well, we've all been running on next to no sleep for the past little while... we're conditioned for it. Ah... ya know? I'm going to run that by the others, see what they think."

And so Kiril did, announcing his findings upon his return to the table.

"Now, I know some of you just want to crawl into bed and stay there until noon or later, but I'm inclined to sign up for a shift. It's the least we can do for the hospitality these folk have shown us, aye?"

"The least we can do," said Dvarim in his usual dour tone, "is pay them adequate compensation and be on our way. Why must you involve us in the affairs of every township we pass through, Kiril?"

"Ah, I just can't get enough of standing guard, sir," said Kiril with a grin, effectively ducking his commander's question. "Now, am I going to be alone in this?" He glanced over the others with a child's curiosity, awaiting their reaction.
 

Ciryaher

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Zûbrim looked over the rim of his mug at Kiril as he spoke, saying nothing as the young soldier and his commander exchanged a few words. When the younger asked, "Now, am I going to be alone in this?" the gaunt-faced dwarf turned to him, setting down his tankard with a soft clop on the table.

"I can already tell you what you're going to see tonight," he said flatly--though with a peculiar hinting tone in his voice, "If you insist on staying up, though, I will stay with you just so you don't feel so surprised when it happens." The guide went silent and then leaned back in his chair to give Kiril an unsettling stare with his pale, blue eyes. After a moment, though, he turned to look around the group and then clambered up to his feet.

The hunter looked at Dvarim and spoke softly, "Make sure that nobody unpacks any more than is absolutely neccessary...and I suggest you all get to sleep as soon as you can." He touched a finger on either side of the tip of his beard in the dwarven sign of bad news to come, then stepped off, searching for someone that could get him an apple.

Oswald Butterbur peered down over the bar as Zûbrim approached and rubbed the bridge of his nose, "And what could I get for you, Master Dwarf?" He hesistated for a moment as the dwarfs eyes locked onto him, but gave his usual, amicable smile nonetheless.

With a nod, the dwarven guide held up a thumb, "Just an apple, barkeep."

"Why, of course!" said Butterbur with a nod as he shuffled over towards the kitchen and yelled into it, "Oi! Bring me an--" He was cut short by a hobbit sticking his arm through the swinging doors; there was an apple in his hand. Oswald took the apple with a puzzled expression, then stepped back over to the waiting dwarf, speaking aloud, though apparently to himself. "Always knows what I need, that lad!" he chuckled and scratched his head, then handed the apple down to the waiting Zûbrim. "Here you are! Free for a fine customer, naturally."

The blue-bearded dwarf looked down at the apple and rubbed it on his grey sleeve, then looked up at Oswald, flipping a copper coin up to him with his thumb. "Better take the coin now," he turned around and took a bite from the apple, then spoke over his shoulder with a full mouth, "You're going to need it when there aren't any apples left."

Without another word, he moved back to the table, leaving the Innkeep to stand there with more than a little bit of uncomfortability welling up inside him. But it was short lived and pushed to the back of his mind as the entire inn suddenly seemed to cry out for more ale in a loud clanging of tinware on mugs and fists on tables.

Zûbrim returned, pulling a bit of apple from his mouth and then holding it out to Shadowflaps with a (seemingly) uncharacteristic smile on his lips, "Here you go, little friend, a treat for you." The bird quickly pecked the sweet morsel from his hand and gobbled it down, then squawked gratefully. The dwarf turned to Truor as he sat down beside the man, "A fine friend you have there. I'm glad to have both he and you along the way." He grinned and took another bite from his apple before reaching for his mug.
 

YayGollum

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While giving Shadowflaps an amused as well as raised eyebrow along the lines of, "Since when do you warm up to company so fast?" Truor shook his head. "Ah, he's just a mercenary, at heart! He'd be long gone, if he didn't owe me and have at least a little of the honor he's always telling me about." After attempting to hurry a few bites of the plate that had been set before him, he licked his lips and sighed, conflicted. "Argh. This break's been a while in coming, but, when you act so mysterious, I can't pass up the chance to tag along. Give me a few more bites, and I'll come with you and Kiril."

Although he agreed with Dvarim's sensibility and would much rather have sampled another night in a bed, he was stubborn enough to banish comfort from his mind for another night. During their days of travel, his excitement at travelling with Dwarves had dimmed. He had gotten to know them and, even though they were refreshing, they had become just another band of adventurers, in his mind. He had always been fascinated by the mysteries that Dwarves hoarded and since they hadn't been displaying many along the road, his curiosity clung to this new opportunity.

After a struggle between his curiosity and his appetite during which he even ended up stowing a few tidbits away for later, Truor pushed the plate away resignedly. "Okay. Shadowflaps, think you could check around? I'd love to show that we don't need to be led to all of our answers by others, for once." Shadowflaps squawked something along the lines of that, as a spy, he took offense to that, then hopped to Truor's shoulder, waiting for a ride outside.

Boffin, of course, was ravenously hungry and could only be bothered to remember to be a bit more polite about it only half of the times when someone else glanced in his direction. Once his first plate was gone, he hopped out of his chair to find a better vantage point from which to spot the approaching pig. Understandably distracted, he had missed all of the words passed since they had gotten their food. "Thank you very much, Froli! I will buy at the next town!"
 

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