They we’re not the only ones to be summoned to the Ranger’s refuge in the North Downs. In Bree, the Shire, Falathlorn, and Thornin’s Hall, Kinships rallied themselves together and began to march north. Not all, but enough that no army of Mordor would have dared stop them. The sheer number that had been summoned bespoke a huge battle to come.
It was a several day journey to Esteldin from Bree. They rode at a pace that would not tire their steeds. Other Kinships were journeying north as well reuniting old friends. By the time they reached Threstelbridge, they were traveling with several hundred people – hobbit, dwarf, elf and human alike. Minstrels sang songs of valor and brave deeds around the campfires while hunters patrolled the borders of the camps.
“There is something amiss in the air,” Melannuial muttered one evening as they camped just over the Bridge and were in the North Downs. She stood gazing into bleak, grassy plains of the Greenway where there were few trees to protect them from the coming storm that was on the horizon. The sun was almost down and camp fires dotted the hills as others finished evening meals.
“Other than the absence of orcs in this area I see nothing wrong here,” Cynthrya said between a mouthful of waybread and dried meat.
“It better not rain,” Venza whined, looking up into the sky. “I hate the rain.”
“I love the rain!” Kynta said.
“You like getting wet?” Venza asked. “Are you a Brandybuck descendent or something?” Kynta only rolled her eyes and went back to composing her newest song in her well-worn song book (which she often referred to as Minstreling for Dummies.)
“Actually,” Melannuial said, “it is the absence of orcs that is starting to bother me. Even the wargs and crabain of this area have fled.”
“Go check the orc camp,” Kynta said. “Maybe they’re all there celebrating some disgusting orc holiday.”
“Orcs have holidays?” Venza asked but no one answered her.
“Listen,” Isilrien said suddenly, standing up. “Can you hear that?”
“No, not with you three elves breathing down my neck,” Kynta muttered. Cynthrya elbowed her to silence.
The lore-master went to stand next to Melannuial. “There is no wind so it is too faint for your mortal ears to hear,” she said to Kynta who snorted, “but there are wolves howling.”
“There are wolves and wargs around here,” Cynthrya said. “My blade has found the heart of several when I traveled up here last. At least there is something still up here.”
Frowning, Isilrien turned back to the darkness beyond. “Melannuial is right,” she said. “Something is wrong. The closer we get to Esteldin the stronger this feeling of unease grows. Surly even you simple Shire-folk can sense that.”
“May I remind you,” Kynta said, leaning back from her book, “that north also lies Angmar. You know, where the Witch King lives. Big, bad, second in command to Souron. So the farther north we get the closer we get to him. I think it is only logical that an evil presence is starting to build. I mean, we were asked to come up to Esteldin to help fight a war. Not have a party with the Rangers. Whatever we’re going up there to fight is probably what we’re feeling. Duh.”
“I know the presence of the Witch King,” Isilrien said, turning to the hobbit with almost a savage look. “This is not he.”
“Elves are so mysterious it annoys me,” the minstrel sighed, standing up and stuffing her songbook back in her pack. “I’m going to bed before you bore me to death.”
Melannuial put a hand on the younger elf’s shoulder when she bristled in rage. “She does not know you’re tale,” the hunter told her. “We’ll keep an eye out. I’ll talk to the other hunters and lore-masters. Perhaps they can sense what is disturbing the world. It is not the threat of Angmar I feel. It is something else.”
Morning rose overcast and cold. The companies set out, each Kinship moving from through Threstelbridge and over into the North Downs. The last two days of travel were quite as they drew closer to Esteldin. Even the minstrel’s found it hard to lighten anyone’s mood. The temperature dropped during the next night and many were regretting coming on this expedition. They huddled next to the fires under crude tents or wrapped in blankets. Around them, wolves howled mournful songs that made everyone uneasy.
“I do not like the sounds of the wolves,” Cynthrya muttered as she sat under the crude tent while a misting rain drenched everything slowly. “It is not random and it seems to repeat. I am beginning to think it is some kind of code.”
Venza scoffed. “Wolves are not that smart. Wargs, maybe. They talk, but not wolves.”
“Maybe they are just wargs,” Kynta said as she polished her dagger, Sigillor. “Wolves are too stupid.”
Cynthrya said nothing more until Melannuial came back. “We’re leaving now,” she said. “Cocah wants to reach Esteldin before dawn.”
“Damn that dwarf!” Kynta cursed. “He’s such a slave driver!”
“The elves and hunters are not the only ones sensing something wrong,” Melannuial told the outraged hobbit. “I would feel much safer behind the protected walls of Esteldin, coming battle or no, then out here in the open with these wolves howling every hour. You’re free to stay here and rest, Kynta. I will not stop you.”
“Shove it, elf. I’ll not be warg bait!” With a practiced flip of her wrist, she sheathed Sigillor and moved to find Oreoh who fidgeted nervously alongside the taller, longer-legged horses of the three elves and champion. Seeing her pony agitated made Kynta think that the elves were right. “Isilrien?” she asked as the lore-master came to take the reins of the roan. “Do you really thing those are wargs?”
“No,” the lore-master said. “And I fear Cynthrya is right. There are meanings to the messages. Whatever awaits us in Esteldin…” she did not finish the sentence, only shaking her head as she walked a few feet away to mount the roan in a graceful leap Kynta only wished she could master. Taking a deep breath, Kynta mounted Oreoh and went to find Alephnull. Wolf or warg, she knew her warden friend would protect her if they became hungry for hobbit.
Esteldin was in a state of chaos when they arrived. Several kinships were camped outside the walls preparing to leave. Cocah asked most to remain on the hills outside the refuge while he took a small party into the camp to see what was going on. Melannuial went. Kynta refused only because the elf was going and she was still sore that her prank failed. She sat on her pony and waited for them to enter the gate before spinning Oreoh on his heels.
She slowed the reluctant pony down to wait for Alephnull to catch up. “This is going to take a while, you know that,” she said. “I’m going to go orc hunting.”
“Not without me you’re not,” he said. “Come one. Let’s go see if they’re still camped by those old farms.”
“I was going to go to back to Stoneheight since this is bound to take a few days,” she admitted.
His eyes lit up. “Even better! I have enough food for both of us. Come on! I’ll race ya!”
They set off. Instantly Kynta felt better. She didn’t know if it was because she was finally away from Melannuial of if she was finally away from being with so many people. They raced back down the road they came and into the abandoned fields. Neither were really paying attention, despite the gray morning and the fact they had rode all night. The unspoken challenge of a race kept them from paying attention until Oreoh suddenly shied, nearly unseating Kynta. She grabbed the pony’s mane before she fell and righted herself while trying to get the frightened pony back under control.
“What’s his problem?” Alephnull asked, bringing his own pony, also acting skittish, next to her when she had Oreoh settled enough.
“I have no idea,” she said, shaken from nearly falling. Looking around she noticed the strange pile in the mist several strides from where they stood. “Those aren’t rocks,” she said, sliding off Oreoh’s back and walking up to the pile. The warden followed.
What looked like an unorganized pile of rocks in the middle of the pastures were corpses of large wolf-like creatures. As they came closer they noticed these wolves had wings. Some were feathered; others were like that of bats. The dread that came off some of them caused Kynta to shiver and feel sick.
“These are not wargs,” Alephnull said, poking one of them with his javelin. “They look like a cross between a wolf or warg and one of those bat-people.”
“Morroval,” Kynta muttered. “I wonder if they were the things that kept howling while we traveled up here.” She pulled out her dagger and poked one as if making sure it was dead. It was one of the feathered ones but so torn up and bloody that it looked hideous. “I think we should go back and tell Cocah. I’ve never heard of creatures like this in any of the lorebooks.”
Alephnull was already moving through the blood soaked ground. The dread, he noticed, did not emanated off all the wolf corpses, just some of them. As they were such a scattered mess in the field, it was hard to tell which ones felt evil.
“Aleph!” Kynta cried suddenly and the warden turned to look where she was pointing.
All he saw was the rocks partially obscured by the morning mist. He relaxed out of his fighting stance and sighed. “Kynta…”
“There was something there!” she protested. “It looked like a wolf. Maybe even one of the winged ones.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing as winged wolves,” Aleph muttered. “I bet there is some new sorcerer out here working devilry for Souron. We should try to find him and stop him before he releases any more of these…things.” He went to get his pony but Kynta grabbed his arm.
“Just wait one moment,” she snapped. “Just what makes you think just us two little hobbits could take down something that has enough power to not only create these abominations, but to create something that feels that terribly powerful. We should tell Cocah and let him figure it out. Maybe others in the Kin would help us.”
Alephnull frowned, looking at the corpses, then back at the rock where Kynta had claimed she had seen another one. He didn’t really doubt her. Her eyes were as sharp and keen as any hobbits. A scout perhaps? Or a straggler who lived through the massacre? “What bothers me,” Alephnull said after a while, “is that there are only wolves here. What killed them?”
“Maybe they turned on each other,” Kynta shrugged. “Either way, can we go back to Esteldin and let Cocah know? This place is giving me the creeps.”
Reluctantly, Alephnull agreed. They found their nervous ponies and made their way back to Esteldin. Even though the mist was evaporating in the morning sun, the two hobbits couldn’t shake off the feeling that they were being watched though their eyes never caught sight of anything following them.