The Old Grey Wizard
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The Chronicles of The Kelvar: 4. Into The Wind
Part 1: Shadowfax.
Chapter 4: Into The Wind
We set out soon thereafter, as quickly as I could appoint a lieutenant to rule in my stead, and as fast as the old man could gather a bundle of supplies for the journey. The Sun had set and the sky was angry with red and violet streaks. Stars glimmered in the East; the Moon would be thin and late.
But I needed no light of Sun or Moon to do what I do best, to do what I live for: to run. And run I did, into the Wind that streamed down from the Misty Mountains, with the old man upon my back, through the falling of twilight and the darkness of night. Day came and on I ran, urged by my rider, confident that those we pursued were likely to avoid travel beneath the Sun's bright rays, and thus might we gain on them. The chill waters of Isen splashed around my hocks; the Gap 'tween the range of White Mountains and the Mountains of Mist passed us by and we continued.
Day passed into night, and again and again. The Wind filled our faces, and it was a cold wind, with a rank trace of decay. On and on we went, north and west, through lands I had not seen the need to explore, though my companion seemed to know them well. He named the landmarks and streams, noted the ruined settlements of men and other indistinct features of the dull lands that we rushed through; and ever he urged us forward.
Lands we sped through: Rohan, Dunland, Eredwaith, Minhiriath. Rivers we crossed: Isen, Gwaithlo, and others of names forgotten. No other folk, on two feet or four, did we meet face to face, and those we espied from afar fled from the very sight of us rushing through the days and nights, our grim countenances set on our destination. Rumors we heard of the passing of the Nine Riders in Black. On occasion he had me halt so he could inspect in brief some sign upon the land: a discarded black glove that he handled gingerly before tossing aside with a shudder of distaste; a ring of pounded earth, marked with the hooves of at least a half-dozen horses, most likely more; and once, a fox, or what remained of one. The red fur was trampled into the ground, and by the look of the tracks that led to and from the small bloodied corpse, they had run the wee thing down for sport. He stood and stared at the body as the muscles of his jaw clenched. That such a small death should even concern him, much less seem to upset him so intrigued me. But we had miles before us, and I nudged his shoulder with my nose to signal that we should move onward.
We swung west and away from the mountains, and I sniffed the sharp tang of the Sea upon the autumn air. I believe my companion sensed it as well, for he whispered and muttered too low to be heard—or so he thought. But whether I could hear every word or no, in his mutterings I understood that some part of him, deeply buried, felt a great longing to continue right to the shores of that watery realm, and beyond. But such longings were not to be satisfied, not now, when the foulest servants of the Enemy sped before us. Other tasks remained undone, before this Two-Foot could follow any yearnings of his own heart, I deemed.
And so it happened through the long miles, with none but one another for companionship, and with nothing between us but a few layers of grey fabric, that friendship was kindled between us. I heard more of the man's tales and what fears he cared to share with me, and to my speech he listened with attention. My primary concern was for my folk, of course, and for the Gold-Hairs with which we have allied ourselves. But this Grey One seemed to spread his concern upon the Four Winds; he expressed knowledge of and apprehension for the fates of many folk, great and small, noble and lowborn, from lands far and wide. Indeed, he even spoke of his fear for those of the Kelvar who would undoubtedly suffer under the grim changes upon us in these troubled times, whether the struggle against the Darkness succeeded or not. Mayhap he said such things for my benefit; but I think not. As I have said, I pride myself on my talent in reading other beings, even Two-Foots, and I do not believe he spoke so to cozen me.
Through driving rain and the heat of the fading summer Sun we ran. By Starlight and slender Moon, in Sunlight and under hazy cloud, we hurried forth on what had been the Two-Foot's venture, but increasingly had become my own. I could not but respond to the urgency of his desire to bring what aid he could to this small friend of whom he spoke with such tender fondness. And beneath that softer sentiment ran a resolve of steel to turn back the Darkness. I ran more swiftly and with greater endurance on that journey than on any I had heretofore taken; and I was proud to do so.
Yet even I, Lord of the Mearas, cannot run forever without stopping to slake my thirst, crop my fill of the late season's grass, or at times, to rest; and so at needs, we did. But I admit, the old man's steely resolve surprised me. He seemed as proudly tireless as I. Not that the many long miles astride me, without tack or saddle—to which I have never submitted—affected him not. Indeed, quite the opposite. I saw it well enough, in the grimace upon his aged face, in the stiffness of his movements when he climbed down from my back, and in the groans of discomfort he tried unsuccessfully to suppress. More than once his dismount was little more than a tumble as he pitched from his perch atop me onto the ground, however springy with turf or hard with stones the ground was at that moment. And whereas I had food aplenty, to be found growing from the earth, he ran out of his meager supplies within a few days of our departure from Rohan. As I stopped to graze I saw him search the interior of his food bag with a look of frustration. I eyed him with a questioning snort.
"It is of no consequence, my friend," he grumbled with a sigh as he shook out the empty sack. "It won't be the first, or I suspect the last time I must endure an empty belly…" He shoved the offending piece of cloth into the depths of his leather bag and stood. "There is nothing to be done for it," he said with a wry smile. "I dare not take time to search for food, and I never was much of a hunter…" He turned abruptly toward the stream nearby, and bending, filled his water bottle. "Ulmo's Gift to Arda shall have to do for now." He tipped the bottle up and drank his fill, bending once more to replenish his supply.
I felt a bit uneasy at the impoliteness of eating in front of a starving creature. I pulled at a few tendrils of grass half-heartedly, all the while keeping my eye on him. His next words to me made me wonder whether this old Two-Foot could see my thoughts.
"Go on, satisfy your hunger in full," he murmured. "Yours is the strength we must sustain if we are to succeed, for speed is the critical factor, and only you can provide that! Eat, eat! And waste not an instant in worry about me... "
I'd like to pause my tale here and make it perfectly clear that I wasn't really worried about him. It was merely that I am an extremely well-bred Kelvar, as befitting a King. I was simply anxious at being forced into a blatant display of uncouth manners…
Well, perhaps I was a trifle worried about him… After all, I had not seen him sleep, not once... But little did I know that the time for real worry was well ahead of us.
Our fifth night together came, and he was full of heightened attention and anxiety; for if I understood his mutterings aright, we were now coming near to the land he sought. At his urging, I galloped full out across the darkened plains.
"No more than 50 leagues between the Greyflood and the Brandywine," he murmured into my ear as he clung to my neck while we raced along. "We shall soon cross the southern border of the Shire... Perhaps the Sarn Ford patrol of the Rangers will have news…"
But news—ill news—is oft carried on the wind long before it can reach the ear. Though we had been following in the wake of the stench of the Nine Riders for five nights and four full days, suddenly the air into which we rushed was fouler still. I could not help my instincts, and I shied from it, tossing my head and turning away from the unmistakable reek of death.
"Nay, Shadowfax," my companion cried. "Ride on, carry on, my friend! There have been dark deeds here, and we must discover them… Forward!"
I got command of myself and rode down the slope toward the broad brown river shimmering faintly by the light of only Stars—for the Moon was but a New Crescent, and had set early and left us alone in that black night. Yet a faint light came from above and behind my head, and I started in alarm once more until I realized that my companion was the source of that light. The tip of the long stick he carried had begun to glow, and it illuminated the crevices and grooves of his aged face, and brought a fierce fire to the depths of his eyes.
The river we now crossed was slower and shallower, but wider by half than the last one. The far bank rose, and I scrambled up it to flatter land. The vestiges of a small Two-Foot encampment were scattered about, and the odor of death hung heavily upon this place. I snorted and pawed at the earth as my companion slid from my back, his glowing staff clutched in one hand and a gleaming sword that he had not to that point seen fit to draw from its sheath in the other.
The evidence of what had happened was nauseatingly clear. Unmoving forms lay sprawled about on the ground between the remains of a few man-tents and the blackened sticks of a Two-Foot campfire not a week old. From one to the next I watched him stride. At each he bent or knelt, turning the corpse to see the face or search for a badge. It was soon apparent that his sword would avail him nothing, and he sheathed it with such force that the metal clanged as would a tolling bell.
We found six valiant horses and their men dead at that campsite. The Two-Foots were of the North-lands, men he named Rangers. They were descendants of the Sea-Folk, he told me as we hurried onward. The signs in the earth showed clear enough: the Nine had swept through them like scythes through wheat. I have seen battles aplenty and my courage is very great; but I admit that the sight of those six noble steeds slaughtered, their riders nearby, was terribly distressing to me. That any horse should die so, at the hand of undead demons! It was horrible.
"At least I sense no sign that any souls were ensnared," he sighed softly into my ear.
I asked what he meant, for I had not heard of such a thing. When he explained, my hot blood ran cooler for a while, though my rage at the monsters we pursued flared up even hotter.
We followed the trail of pounding hooves and found, to his dismay and mine, that four more steeds and their Rangers had fallen to the Nine, chased to the ground and slain, no doubt as they tried to escape to raise the alarm. At each site of death of horse and Two-Foot we stopped briefly. Alas, at the last equine body, I watched as my friend bent down, then stumbled backwards with a cry. I turned to look. A blood-soaked grey cloak lay there beside the horse, but no man-corpse could be seen. One of the bodies was missing, and I felt the thick fur over my spine rise with dread.
"No!" he said in a choked whisper. "This last must have taken one of their foul blades in the heart...! They stole his spirit as well as his mortal life…"
His fists came up and he clutched the sides of his grey-haired head. And as earlier I sensed he could see my thoughts, suddenly I could see what was in his mind. His friend--the one he felt so responsible for--could well suffer the same horrible fate! And the undead Riders were still far ahead of us. Then he turned toward me, and there was more resolve than I had yet seen burning in his eyes.
"Come, Shadowfax!" he cried as he leapt upon my back. "There is not a moment to lose… Fly from here, we can do nothing but go on... and hope!"
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