Standard Bearer, The
3. The Road South
The first few days of their journey were uneventful save for the usual hazards of sampling the hospitality of unknown inns.
“We’d have been better off sleeping outside,” grumbled Amarnon, as he yawned and scratched at his latest set of bed bug bites.
“You’re only saying that because it didn’t rain.” laughed Gildinwen.
“So do you think we’ll make Ethring today, Father?”
Amarnon scrutinised the sky, “Yes, I think so, if the weather holds. And we’ll cross the Ringlo tomorrow.”
“Where do we go after that?”
“Then it’s on to Linhir.” He smiled, “You’ll be able to see the sea. By then I hope to have had news of where the army will be raised.”
“Why don’t you ride for a while, Father. The ground is very rough, and we’ll make better time.”
“Yes, I think I will, my child.” He walked round to mount up, giving Loreglin’s snapping teeth a wide berth. “Hold this devil’s head for me, will you?”
Gildinwen did so, stroking his neck and talking to the horse fondly, “What a naughty rascal you are, trying to bite Father.”
Her father settled, they started off, and after about an hour they came in sight of the main road, running down from Erech in the North West to Linhir in the South.
The road was busy, and it seemed as if the whole of Gondor was on it, each travelling in a fashion most suited to his nature, and all going South. Leather-faced men of the Northern hills, dressed in rough skins, walked silently in ones or twos; larger groups of farmers, armed with makeshift weapons, strode along singing and chatting to keep their spirits up; Ranks of soldiers, their faces grim, marched resolutely in step, their pikes gleaming; wagonloads of supplies lurched cumbersomely, belongings and laughing children perched precariously on the top; gaggles of women – wives and camp followers – shouted and laughed with each other, while fear pulled tight rings around their eyes.
“Well Father, it looks like we won’t be needing to ask the way.”
Her father’s face glowed with happiness and excitement as they tagged onto the back of a large group.
“Hello!” They were greeted by a shout from a sturdy man driving a large wagon. “I’m Deanor the Smith.” He gestured to the ruddy woman and young child beside him, “this is my wife Matilda, and my son Dalbur. My another son Daruth, marches up ahead with the soldiers. Where do you hail from?”
“I’m Gildinwen, and this is my Father, Amarnon. Our place is a small village in Lamdon.”
“Gildinwen!” exclaimed Matilda with snort “That’s a very high and mighty name for a village lass!”
Gildinwen laughed, “Blame my mother, she was a hopeless romantic! Please, call me Gil.” A small sliver of sadness tugged at her, as she remembered that this was her brother’s name for her.
“So what news, Master Smith?” asked Amarnon “We have been sorely lacking it in Lamdon.”
“Sauron has taken Minas Ithil and burned the White Tree, Isildur has fled to join his father in the North. Elendil and Gil-galad have formed an alliance - their army is at Imladris, and Anarion is defending Minas Anor against the Enemy as we speak.”
“Imladris.” Gildinwen whispered to herself, “Gil-galad.” The names from her books were coming alive. For so long she had read about them, now they were real, and it seemed her fate would take her nearer to them yet.
“May we journey with you, Master Deanor?” asked Amarnon. “ I think the road would pass quicker with some company.”
“Indeed you may Master Amarnon. In fact I would recommend it, being as how your Gil is a bonny lass, and this is a rough crowd.”
“Aye, that it is.” confirmed Matilda, “Not the place for a young lady at all! What possessed you to bring her, Master Amarnon?”
“My father and I have only each other Mistress Deanor, we could not bear to be parted.”
“Oh well, not to worry, you’ll be safe enough with us. Dareth keeps an eye out, and makes sure there’s no trouble – he’ll look after you.”
“Thank you kindly,” said Amarnon.
Gildinwen tugged gently on her father’s cloak, whispering in his ear as he bent down. “I think it would be wise for us to say nothing of why we journey, the thing that we carry is very precious and it wouldn’t do for it to be stolen.”
“And what are you whispering about?” remonstrated Matilda with a smirk, “Did your mother never tell you that it’s rude? Isn’t that right, Dalbur?”
The little boy nodded solemnly but without animation.
“My apologies, Mistress Matilda,” answered Amarnon, “My daughter was just wondering if she would be able to meet your son tonight?”
“Father!” Gildinwen hissed under her breath.
“Oh I’m sure that could be arranged,” said Matilda, with a broad grin, “Why don’t you join us for dinner, my son usually eats with us at night.”
“It would be our pleasure, wouldn’t it Gildinwen?”
That night they made camp after crossing the River Ringlo at the ford of Ethring. Deanor built a great fire and opened a jar of ale, while his wife busied herself preparing food. After settling her father at the fire, Gildinwen went to see if she could help Matilda.
“Well everything’s in hand for the meal, but if you’ve a spare minute perhaps you’d sit with Dalbur for a while.” She lowered her voice, “He’s not been very well lately, poor wee mite.”
“What’s the matter with him?”
“He has a fever, and no appetite.”
“How long has he been like this?”
“It’s been weeks now,” she looked up sadly, “I don’t like to worry Deanor but the boy’s getting worse everyday.”
“I have some healing knowledge, would you let me see if anything I carry could help him?”
Matilda gripped her hands tightly. “If you can do anything for my wee lad, you’ll have my gratitude.”
It was a slow matter to cajole the little boy into drinking the herbal tisane that she prepared, but the promise of a story did the trick, and soon he was nodding sleepily in her arms as he journeyed over the Sea with Eärendil. When he was finally asleep she tucked him up carefully in his bed under the awning of the wagon, and went to join the others as they sat down for supper.
Mildred looked up at her expectantly as she handed her a plate.
“He’s sleeping quietly.”
“Thank you, Gil.” The older woman touched her hand gently, but then the moment was broken by a hearty voice.
“What ho! Mother!”
“Daruth! Welcome, my son!” She turned to meet a large strong man, his golden hair and beard shining brightly in the firelight.
“I’ve brought some friends too – these are Fastred and Girion.” Two more solid fellows stepped into the firelight. All three were well armed with swords and stout staffs.
“Any friends of yours are more than welcome,” rumbled Deanor getting up to greet the young men. “And we have some more guests today, fellow travellers. This is Amarnon and his daughter Gil.”
A flurry of gruff greetings and hearty handshakes followed, then everyone sat down to eat.
“How’s Dalbur, mother?”
“He’s sleeping for now, Daruth, Gil here has given him something she thinks may help.”
“My thanks to you for that.” Dalbur gave a courteous half bow, “he’s very precious to us all.”
“I can see why,” Gil smiled, “he’s a lovely child.”
Gildinwen and her father slept close to the fire that night, wrapped tightly in their cloaks and blankets. Daruth and his friends took watches till morning.
The dawn that came was damp and chill; Gildinwen was wakened by her father coughing and wishing for the bug-ridden comfort of the night before.
“You’ll feel better once you’ve some hot tea in you.” She said, making up the fire, and picking up their kettle. “I’ll just off and fetch some water, I won’t be long.”
She picked her way quietly past the still sleeping members of the family, and made her way uphill through the trees to where she could just hear the sound of running water. The ground was soft and her footfalls muffled in the moss, overhead silent birds sat huddled, and not a breath of wind stirred the branches.
Reaching the stream, she had just bent to fill the kettle when she felt herself grabbed from behind. She twisted violently, managing to break loose.
“Hey!” she shouted angrily, turning to face a rough, dark fellow, his face twisted in an ugly leer.
“Well, well,” he growled, advancing towards her menacingly, “If it isn’t my lucky day? There’s nothing I like better than a pretty young wench first thing in the morning.”
“Father!!” she screamed, launching the heavy kettle at her attacker’s head, “Help me!” she plunged through the stream but the bank on the opposite side was steep and her assailant reached her before she gained the top. Blindly she kicked out as hard as she could, feeling a grim satisfaction when her foot connected with his head. He kept his hold on her ankle though, and she could feel him trying to get a grip with his other hand.
“Gil!” It was Daruth.
“Over here! Help me!” Realising she had company, her aggressor quickly released her and disappeared into the woods, just as Deanor’s son rushed up, his sword ready in his hand.
“Are you all right?” he demanded.
“Yes, thank you. He ran off when he heard you coming.”
Daruth reached down a strong hand to pull her to her feet, sheathed his blade, then jumped down the bank to fetch and fill her kettle.
“Here you are.”
“Thank you Daruth.” She looked down at herself, she was soaked to the knees and covered in mud. Her face must be just as bad, and even worse, she could feel tears trickling down her cheeks. Ashamed, she wiped them away roughly, trying not to sniff.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Daruth said gently, handing her a large, clean handkerchief as they made their way back down the hill, “I was in tears too the first time I was ever in a real fight. It’s the shock.” He grinned helpfully.
She smiled back gratefully, wiping her face.
“Gildinwen! Are you all right?” Her father was climbing laboriously up the hill towards them, his breathing rough with exertion.
“Yes, father. It was just a fox – it gave me a scare, and I slipped down the bank.” She looked sideways at Daruth.
“Aye, she’s fine, just a scare, like she said.”
They made good progress over the next couple of days. Once the sun came up, the morning chill quickly lifted, and the sky was clear and bright before them. The road, busy as ever, was now winding down out of the foothills into the open forest of the land of Dor-en-Ernil.
“When will we see the Sea, Father?” shouted little Dalbur, jumping up and down excitedly beside his mother.
“Not for a day or two yet, my boy.” laughed Deanor.
“What’s it like? Will I see ships? Will I see Vingilot?”
“You’ll likely not see any ships until Pelagir, though you’ll see boats enough at Linhir.”
“Will they be big ships, Father?”
“Oh, yes. Tall ships, sailing up the mighty river Anduin to the great city at Minas Anor, carrying all manner of things.”
Deanor laughed, “You’ll have to wait and see! Now, how about a ride on the horses in the meantime.”
This idea went down well, and soon the lad was bouncing happily on the back of one of Deanor’s long suffering beasts.
Matilda’s eyes were shining, and she brushed away a tear. “He’s like a different child, I don’t know how I’ll ever thank you.”
“Please, don’t mention it, especially after how welcome you’ve made us. Isn’t that right, Father.”
“What, er..sorry, I must have nodded off there for a minute.”
“I said that Mildred and Deanor have made us very welcome.”
“Oh, yes.” He coughed, “very welcome indeed."
That night Gildinwen’s father went to sleep early, while she sat up with the others at the fire.
“What are you doing?” asked Matilda companionably.
“I’m soaking some herbs to make a tea for Father in the morning, it’ll help ease his cough.”
“You take good care of him.”
Daruth come over from the other side of the fire and sat beside her, looking slightly awkward, and glancing at his mother for confirmation. In his hands he carried a long, slim, package wrapped in cloth.
“I’ve something for you. Well, it’s from all of us really, to say thank you for helping little Dalbur.”
“Please,” Gildinwen demurred, “there’s no need.”
“No, we insist. It’s something you’re going to need and we want you to have it.” He undid the covering to reveal an elegant sword, which he offered out to her. “My father made it for you. He is a member of the Guild of Master Armourers. It should be the right size, robust enough without being too heavy.”
“I can’t take this, it’s too much.”
“Of course you can, dear.” insisted Matilda
“But,” Gildinwen protested, gripping the handle and tentatively hefting the blade, “I’ve no idea what to do with it.”
“Well, you’re holding it by the handle,” grinned Daruth, “that’s a good start.”
“Don’t worry,” continued the young man, “I’ll show you how to use it, and then you won’t need to worry about ‘foxes’ any more.”
Gildinwen held the blade up in the firelight. It felt surprisingly light, and was perfectly balanced. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered. “Thank you.”
“We’ll make a start first thing tomorrow morning, before your father wakes.”
Another few days travel brought them down onto the broad grasslands of the coast, where shimmering in the distance, and drawing closer with every step, was the Sea. A stiff, cold wind blew inland, bringing with it the smell of salt and sound of gulls. Daruth was a good as his word, and early each morning, while her father still slept, he gave her instruction in the use of the weapon.
“Well done, lass,” he praised, at the end of their latest lesson. “I think you’ve about got the basics now. Not that you don’t still need lots of practice.” He grinned, “But for most offal the mere sight of a blade in the hand of someone who has an idea how to wield it is enough to send them packing.”
“Thanks Daruth!” said Gildinwen, “I’m beginning to think it might just be worth all those sore muscles in the morning.”
Laughing they made their way back to the camp, just as the others were awaking.
“Good morning, Father,”
Amarnon was huddling close to the fire, still wrapped in this blankets. His face was pale and grey, and his skin clammy. Gildinwen felt his forehead and looked worried.
“He’ll be a bit better for some vittles,” suggested Matilda, “Here, try this porridge, it’s hot and nourishing.”
After breakfast Gildinwen’s father did indeed seem a little better. The herbal tea had helped his cough, and Matilda’s porridge had put some colour in his cheeks. They were just packing up ready to leave when a disturbance on the road made them look up.
A horseman, his livery that of the Kings of Gondor, was headed North at a gallop, scattering the crowds before him. The horse was sweated and foam-flecked, and the herald’s clothes mud-caked. Above the sound of the hooves, he shouted a message, “The Alliance is at Emyn Muil! All soldiers to make best speed to Pelargir! Ships await you there! Make haste! We need every sword arm!” and he spurred his mount on.
“Oh my!” exclaimed Matilda. “ Did you hear that?”
Just then Daruth ran up to them. “I’ve only a minute to say goodbye, mother, and then we must be off – we’ve a hard march before us.” He threw his arms around Matilda and gave her a great hug, then a kiss for Dalbur, and a handshake for his father.
“We’ll not be far behind you, my son,” said Deanor, “Smiths will be needed just as much as soldiers.”
“I’ll see you when I can, Father. I must be off. Goodbye Gil!” he called to her.
“Goodbye Daruth! Be safe!” she shouted back, and then he was gone.
The road was in chaos as wagons and civilians cleared the way for the soldiers. A noisy melee of people, animals and conveyances overflowed onto the banks and into ditches. There was no bad feeling, however, instead a kind of grim camaraderie ensured that all were greeted with shouts and cheers, and many heroic songs were sung. Gildinwen and Amarnon soon lost sight of Deanor’s wagon in the crush, and for the rest of the day made such poor going that Gildinwen despaired of catching them up. Throughout the day parties of armed men continued making their way through the crowd on their way South, but as the afternoon drew on, the flow dwindled to nothing – Gondor was empty of fighting men.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.