Part 109 – The Path to Combe.
The morning was cool in the valley beside Weathertop. Over the night, the fire had gone out as the wood had been exhausted of all its fuel. No droplets of dew had collected on the dry blades of grass or the leaves of the nearby trees. The dirt below the company was dry and loose. Some portions of it were cracked, choked of all moisture from the dry arid climate of the Lone-Lands.
From the morning sun that rose in the east, the lonely hill of Weathertop offered some shade. About the hills strewn across the landscape, the sun was already beating down on the dry cracked soil and the brown grasses. The sporadic weeds that grew in the soil blew in the light breeze that gusted from the east, moving like fingers as if they were beaconing one of the company to come hither.
There, facing out toward the road that lead up to the entrance of the cave was Eleswith. She stood in the cold shadow of the hill as she looked up almost hoping to see the man she adored come from the hill above. Her eyes looked warn as if hours of weeping or sleeplessness or both puffed out the lids all about her eyes. Her face was blank, not sadness or joy was on it. Just a blank long look as she closed her eyes for a long time. The sudden appearance of the sun on her face forced her to open her eyes as she looked at the camp where everyone was watching her. She just stared back up the hill again.
“I know we cannot force her to come with us,” Sergee said, “but we cannot leave her here either.”
“Where are we to go?” Eotheron asked.
“We should return to Annuminus,” Sergee said as he looked back toward Eleswith.
“I agree,” Theomin said, “but if you remember that woman who we saved a few nights back from those orcs in the ruins south of here. She invited us to go with her.”
“Right,” Teryndir said, “Mildred was her name.”
“Millie,” Sergee corrected Teryndir. “Millie Cartwright, if I’m not mistaken.”
“That is her,” Theomin said. “She said to meet her at the in there in Combe.”
“I feel no want for any merriment after our tragedy,” Sergee said. “Losing Helesdir has hit us and hit us hard.”
“Perhaps that is why we need this,” Teryndir said. “Such a tragedy and yet there should find joy.”
“Joy seems so far away like a night too far from the light of dawn,” Sergee said.
“Such a need for joy is what we are in need of,” Theomin said. “We have had many hard times on our journey. From the Valley of the Worms to the orc infested valley of Nan Wathren to the pits under Weathertop. We need glad tidings and merriment. We need a respite from such rough times. Not even celebration did we have after the retaking of Annuminus. We only settled on our new roles as Marshals but with not a celebration. This we need. No, this we deserve. If we will split as a group while you travel to Annuminus and I travel alone to Combe I will do so. But I much rather have all of you come with me.”
The group was silent for a while. Then it was Sergee who spoke, “I suppose you’re right,” he agreed. “I feel our friend over there will not follow us. But will Magla come with us?”
Magla stayed quiet as if he had been contemplating staying or leaving. Theomin shared his thoughts, “We will continue to Combe, where the lady Millie invited us to. We can invite Eleswith and Magla to come with us but I would understand why they would not share in the urge to come leave with us. From Combe, we will return to Annuminus. If they choose to go there instead or to remain here, I believe we will all understand.”
“I will accompany you,” Magla at last said, “I have not a family left here. And I will persuade Eleswith to come with us. Our company will be stronger for it.” Magla rose up and without a word walked over to Eleswith. They stood there for a long while as the rest of the company watched.
“If she does not chose to come, do you believe Magla will come with us?” Teryndir asked.
“I know not,” Sergee said. “He has expressed a want to come with us. But I cannot be sure. Eleswith is who I am concerned with. She may be grieving for such a long while that she may not be moved from the stupor she is in until she herself makes herself move.”
“Then what do we do?” asked Theomin. “We cannot leave her here by herself and we cannot stay here for too long a while.”
“Perhaps just leaving Magla here with her would be best,” Sergee said with disappointment. “He could aid her in her grieving for he can empathize with her.”
“But he too is grieving,” Theomin said. “Should we leave these two alone to grieve?”
“As far as solutions,” Sergee admitted, “that is the best I have. The choice really belongs to Eleswith. Will she feel fit to travel with us or will she part ways. Maybe she will return to Dale or maybe she will stay in this land to grieve; I don’t know. My heart hopes that she will come with us but we cannot force her to choose.”
At that point, Magla finished talking with Eleswith and began to return to the company. He looked at the company as he too had much grief behind his eyes, yet he did not outwardly show it like Eleswith. “She begs to stay for yet another day,” Magla said. “She cannot stand to travel with the thought of leaving Helesdir behind. At least not until she has properly mourned.”
“So,” Theomin said, “upon tomorrow at dawn, we shall travel to the small hamlet of Combe.”
And so it was they honored Eleswith’s request to stay there for the rest of the day. The company did not much that day. Sergee and Estonethiel explored the lands surrounding the great weathered hills. Eotheron too explored the hills but not with Sergee and Estonethiel. He was curious at the expanse of the whole region and how far it stretched. Theomin rested while Aches had laid next to him as he stroked his lynxes fine fur. Magla just sat at the camp site in deep thought. A couple times it was almost his eyes were welling up with tears but he was able to hold them back and hold a straight face. And alas Eleswith continued to stand at the same spot she had stood all morning. She just continued to look up the hill where they came down. The entire company all had their own activities to keep themselves busy until they all came together in the evening, ate, and slept. And it was not until long after the rest of the company had fallen to sleep that Eleswith joined the group, placed her head down and fell into a difficult sleep.
The morning after, Theomin had awoken to some of the company gone on their own again. Sergee and Estonethiel were gone. Eotheron had already killed a local boar and began cooking it over the fire. Magla sat by the fire and stared into the flames; serious was his face, much like the day earlier. The only one still in slumber was Eleswith.
As Theomin looked upon her face, it had a look of peace and a smile of content happiness. It was a side of Eleswith he had never seen before and after the terrible events of the other day, it brought warmth to Theomin’s heart. He almost did not want to awaken Eleswith so he left her to her peaceful slumber.
The morning went by quickly as the boar was cooked, eaten and Sergee and Estonethiel returned. They all had a quiet meal as Eleswith stirred awake. The peaceful look on her face had faded away and again the long face of sadness spilled across her face again. She said nothing, and just looked away once food was offered to her.
“You must eat,” Eotheron said. “Take some meat.”
“I cannot eat,” was all she said. She rose up and stood beside Helesdir’s horse and placed her head on it.
Sergee came to Theomin, “What path are we to take to Combe? I know of two paths, one that skirts past the Midgewater Swamp towards Bree. The other enters the swamps for a short while and then continues through the Chetwood.”
“What are the advantages of both paths?” asked Theomin.
“The path toward Bree is longer but much safer,” Sergee said. “It keeps us out of the marsh but is maybe a day and a half ride. We will be heading toward Bree, a place I know you want to avoid. While not completely entering Bree, we will be traveling along the outer edge of it, through Staddle and then up toward Combe. The other way takes us to the eastern edge of the Midgewater Marsh and through the Chetwood where brigands have been known to hide out. This path is much shorter, maybe a half a day’s ride if we have no ill encounters.”
“What is the danger of the marsh?” Theomin asked.
“There have been problems with goblins,” Teryndir said. “The marshes are a not very inviting with spiders and stinging swarms of midges flying about and even sickle-flies roaming around. Most people just travel around the bog as it is not the most alluring place.”
Theomin thought for a while. He contemplated the idea of traveling toward Bree and possibly traveling past that terrible place where Kronog first set eyes on Theomin, that place called Ost Baranor where he and Eleswith were, for the most part, saved by an invading swarm of goblins from the marshes. It dawned on Theomin that perhaps the threat of goblins would be somewhat diminished in the marshes due to the small invading force a long while ago. He then thought of brigands and how he wanted to avoid doing harm to men of all kinds. The thought of which path to take was weighing him down like a quagmire in his mind as he went through the negatives of both paths. But in his head, the one warning was the one of Gerald, or Kronog, and the fear that man incited in his mind. Bree was the one place he was wanting to avoid and that was what finally convinced him of his road.
“We shall take the Midgewater route,” Theomin said with confidence.
The rest of the day consisted of the company packing their packs on their horses and readying themselves for the trek westward. They also readied their weapons just in case there was an attack by goblins or brigands on their path toward Combe. They had all chosen Sergee to be their guide since he was one of the rangers who knew his paths around all the southern parts of Breeland. He knew the Midgewater marsh and the Chetwood. He knew the paths through the Weather Hills and even through all the villages between the Lone-Lands and the village of Bree.
So, it was that the company had a fast sleep and an early morning. Not much was said through the rest of the packing and the snuffing out of the fire. They turned and made their way back up the path that brought them to the lonely hill of Weathertop. At the summit of the climb up the steep slope that left the valley, Eleswith turned and set her gaze upon the hill one last time. She looked longingly at it for a long while as the rest of the company passed. She finally broke her gaze upon the hill and continued with the rest of the company and never again looked back.
They continued down the ravine down past the swift water that flowed down from Bleakrift and then back up the other side and turned west past the small circle of stone. The trail continued further up and over some small hills and passed the towering ruin near the camp they had set only a couple of nights earlier. At the summit of the hills the group could see the marsh already as their path would take them under the bridge they had passed over and into the Midgewater Marsh.
As they passed toward the bridge, the grass had become greener and more lush. The foul feel of death began to fade from Theomin’s heart as it almost felt like the greener grasses of the Norcrofts back in Rohan. The green grasses and the distant full and tall trees gave Theomin a nostalgic feeling.
Sergee then led the group down the slope under the bridge and on to the Midgewater Pass. Down the company went along the slope that found trees increasingly more abundant on either side as the path had shown the continuous sign of fading as if none had traversed the pass for many ages. The stones were cracked from neglect, grasses grew under the stone way, leading almost to an inability to see the path that led through the pass.
At last, the pass led to a great opening in the hills and the first glimpses of the wide, dim, and dark bog of the Midgewater Marsh was before them. The ground had suddenly become very moist and difficult for the horses to traverse. But traverse it they did as their hooves sunk deep into the moist earth as they turned northbound. The bog had a smell of decay and disgust. Almost as if it was the wash of all waste of the villages in Breeland combined. A horrible thickness hung in the air as the still stifled air hung stagnant with the smell, making it more unbearable as they trudged along the eastern edges of the bog just at the foot of the Weather Hills.
At last, out of the gloom of the bog tall statuesque trees rose up like mighty giant sentinels appearing out of the thickness of the fog of war. The trees they were of the Northern Chetwood. Tall and proud were they with trunks thick and vibrant. The size of the trunks of the trees were almost as thick as any normal house of Rohan, thick and ancient they seemed, proud and tall. In the Chetwood, the air had lost all of its stench from the bog of the Midgewater Marsh. In the wood, it was clean and fresh. The slight sent of flowers wafted through the air as the sweet scent of spring fell upon the noses of the company.
As they continued down the path of the wood with Sergee in the lead, a sense like that of being washed away from all of their sorrows of the Lone-lands passed through their bodies. The chirping of the birds, the feel of the breeze, the warming rays of the sun’s fingers lightly caressing their bodies, and the smell of cleanliness gave the company the much needed feeling that there was still life after the death of their good friend. White winged butterflies fluttered about them as if they had a want to welcome tired strangers with open arms and a sense of hope.
The path through the wood wound around some very tall trees and found itself traveling toward a small community of lumberjacks. Fenced in by a short wall of weathered, rounded rocks maybe a no taller tan waist high, the single house of stone with three work areas stood just on the edge of the clearing nearby the forest. Its lamps that sat on the walls were beginning to be lit as the daylight was already fading into the western sky.
The men watched as the group of six warriors rode through the path that led through their camp. They each stopped and watched the group as if it was a sight that was not seen all that often. Sergee looked at one of them and gave a nod of friendship to him. The woodsman gave a smile and a nod back to Sergee and then continued sawing. By the time the last of the warriors passed through the lumber camp, all of the men had continued working.
At last, the company came to the base of a small hill that, at the top, sat a lonely post lit by two lamps flanked on either side. The road lead up to that post and so the rest of the company climbed the small hill that led to the post. It took not too long before they crested the hill and then there, down the path that lead back down the hill was a small village, quaint and unassuming was it. Small houses lined the path leading to the town where larger buildings inhabited the edges of the town square where all manner of kiosks also stood by the buildings surrounded by trees, green and bright as they were being lit by the nearby lamps. The darkness also then invited the inhabited rooms to have a small flickering light of candles lighting them. The streets seemed busy as many walked up and down the small streets before the buildings that were also lit by lamplight.
All in the party felt a sudden rush of relief as their journey from the hill of Weathertop had seemed to, at last, come to a close.
“My friends,” Sergee said as the rest of the company looked at him, “welcome to Combe.”