In the town of Marton, we made camp in an unused barn from which we could see, out one window, the trailing foot of the Misty Mountains looming to the north, and out the other window, the wall of the White Mountains. Where they came together, hidden by the wall of the barn, was the Gap of Rohan, where we would ford the River Isen and leave the province of Rohan. To be sure, even beyond it, the Rohirrim maintained a few camps and forts; but by early morning we would be in lands where the savage Dunlendings might wander freely.
As we supped on thin broth, a quiet hung in the air. We hadn’t spoken of it, but we all knew that things changed on the morrow. I broke the silence at last, starting with what we were all thinking. “When we leave this place in the morning, we cross into Dunland. The Dunlendings live in warring tribes, and they are unwelcoming to outsiders. All the precautions we have been following,” I frowned as Elemir gave a little snort at this, “will become vital on the morrow, as this is the most dangerous part of our journey. If we cross swords with the Dunlendings, even if we survive in triumph by shedding their blood, should even one hear of it, we will have the enmity of the rest of their kind, and the next fortnight will be spent fighting for every yard. We will, in this case, very likely be slain, to the last man. And woman.” I pointedly looked at Shadryn. “The only way we will survive is to cross their lands with the utmost caution, and make no hostile gesture.”
“What do they consider a hostile gesture?” asked Radolf, sharpening his sword. It is well that swords are made from steel, for as often as Radolf felt a need to sharpen his, were it made of anything softer, he would wear one away every day.
I let out a soft sigh, having hoped to put this question off a bit longer. “Amongst the tribes of Dunland, there is, I have read, a tradition of challenge. The head of a tribe or hunting party, on encountering another, may well open with threatening gestures. Rude and insulting words, physical intimidation, brandishing of weapons or fists, bluster and bravado. This is part of how they determine who is to be the leader, and often how they resolve conflicts, but it proves doubly dangerous for us. If they offer us such challenge, we must not rise to it.”
“Why not? If that’s how they do such things…” Radolf asked.
“Because we are outsiders, if we rise to it, they will feel obligated to continue, and to ultimately triumph. Which will inevitably take the form of the spilling of blood. Should two tribes clash and blood be spilled, it only adds to a long history of conflict; they will seek to avenge the slight, but it need not mean war, and the loser can retreat to his tribe’s hunting grounds to recover. But we have no such retreat. If we triumph, the tribe will hunt us, and likely, tribes that squabble one with the other over hunting grounds will come together to hunt us, and then turn back to fighting with one another only when it comes to picking over our bodies for trophies.”
Radolf shook his head. “Then what can we do?” Clearly this seemed unacceptable to him, and understandably so.
I felt much the same. “Even if they should slight our honor, or the honor of the Lady, or of Gondor, we must dismiss their words as the posturing of ignorant savages, and not rise to the challenge.” Shadryn stiffened slightly, but it was the soldiers who seemed about to revolt, so I took a firmer tone. “We have our orders, to deliver the Lady Shadryn safely to Bree. That is more important than convincing some flea-ridden spear-man to concede to the eminence of Gondor. We have seen the majesty of the White City, the broad expanses of the Bay of Belfalas, the gardens of Imloth Melui, the swans in the fountains of Dol Amroth. We know of our own history, our lineage tracing back to the shores of Númenor, and all the great deeds our forebears have accomplished. We hold this in our hearts, and nothing a Dunland brawler says can take anything away from that.”
While the others were silent, Radolf still seemed dissatisfied. After a moment, he said, “What about fisticuffs?”
I was taken aback a moment, then stopped to think. After some consideration, I said, “You may have something there, Radolf. It’s possible a debt of honor can be paid through a bare-knuckles fight, at need, without incurring any debt of blood. If it were to happen, it would have to be my fight, as a meeting of chieftains. And it’s still something to be avoided by any means available. But better that than the drawing of steel.” Radolf seemed satisfied by this, though only just.