There were six of them, three men and three women, their faces and bodies painted with garish stripes in earthen hues, wearing nothing but treated hides painted in the same way; and they were encircling us.
Very nearly they had ended up surrounding Shadryn. She had caught sight of ruins and, without asking, spurred her horse off to investigate them, leaving the rest of us hurrying to catch up. While being irritated at her for this defiant and dangerous act, I was also, in a hidden place in my mind, pleased. It was a turn away from the cold mood that had lingered after the knife-play lesson, through that first day in a Dunland forest, damp, rainy, and uncomfortable. I hesitated to chide her as well as I ought, and instead focused only on getting my men back into a diamond formation around her. Which is the only reason we were in position when the savages came from behind a broken stone wall to form a circle around us.
Even she tensed at the sight of them. Elemir’s hand moved to the hilt of his sword, despite all my lectures how we must never raise a weapon first but only be prepared to defend ourselves. Radolf, thankfully, made no move for his bow but instead held the banner of Gondor higher. I gave out a small hiss to stay Elemir’s hand, and nudged my horse forward, making clear that I was the leader of our group, then held out my hands in what I hoped was an unthreatening gesture. “Good day, friends,” I began, but a hint of an edge crept into my voice as I spoke, for I noticed at least one of the Dunlending women was taking a particular interest in Shadryn.
“Wrach-gwirod?” one of the larger men asked, pointing at Shadryn with the tip of a crude sword. I didn’t know what to make of this question. While in Dol Amroth I hadn’t had as much time to spend in the library as I wished, and had little luck finding books about Dunland — it seemed a few had gone missing — but what little time I’d had reinforced all I’d learned before, that even the Dunlending savages still knew the Westron language. After all, Dunland had once been part of Gondor, in the days of Anárion and Isildur. Before I could think what to ask, he pointed the sword at me and asked, “Brenin?” Then he laughed and pointed back to Shadryn. “Gwraig?”
Dimly I remembered something from a book in the Library of Saphadzîr. “Brenin,” I said with a nod, pointing to myself. “Ioreld Brenin.” If I remembered correctly the word meant something akin to ‘chief’, and the most important thing to convey now was that they should be treating with me.
“That is well, and her?” the man asked in a coarse accent, unlike anything I’d heard before, but the words were clearly recognizable Westron. “Wrach-gwirod or gwraig?”
I glanced back to Shadryn, who I was surprised to find was holding back a laugh. I narrowed my eyes and cocked my head questioningly, and she straightened herself out and took on a more serious expression. “Neither,” she said to the Wild-Man as she swung down from her horse. “Just another traveler, and gwraig to no man. Least of all this one,” she added, pointing at me.
All of the Dunlendings set to laughing, and while I felt sure I was now on the wrong end of a joke at my expense, better that than the wrong end of a sword. The Dunlending woman took a step towards Shadryn, holding out a hand, and when Darrien stepped between them, Shadryn made a disapproving sound and guided him aside. Why he allowed her to is a mystery to me, as he had clear orders not to let anyone near her, but I also felt sure that, somehow, I would have done the same thing in his place. Even as this was happening, the larger man with the sword was saying to me, “What means this?” pointing the sword at Radolf’s banner.
With one eye on Shadryn, who was now talking easily with the savage woman with Darrien standing anxiously nearby, I made answer to the man, still trying to keep the situation calm. “It is the banner of my people, the land of Gondor, far to the south.” I tapped the White Tree on my badge of rank, then pointed in a southerly direction, making sure not to point southeast towards Rohan. Fearing this might not be enough, I said, “Not of Rohan.” The banner of Gondor was a calculated risk; we’d prefer that any Corsair scouts, or those who might sell them information, not learn of a fellowship from Gondor passing through, but better the Dunlendings know we were from Gondor than suspect we were of their ancestral enemies, the Rohirrim.
The man laughed. “Not forgoil. We have eyes.” He then pointed to my hair, and then to Elemir’s, which was even darker than mine. “Duvodiad not need flag for to tell this.” He slipped his sword back into a crude scabbard, little more than a hook on a belt, and asked, “Why you go this road?”
Ah, the heart of the matter. “We pass through your lands, with respect, to go to a land far to the north,” I explained slowly, accompanying my words with grand yet unthreatening gestures. Shadryn and the woman were engaged in animated conversation, which seemed to focus on the ornamentation, a line of silver chain and beadwork, along the edge of Shadryn’s riding tunic. “We ask only passage through, and will do no harm as we pass.”
“Then you not hunt bwach and uch. Cow and bull,” he explained the last word with his fingers curled like horns at his forehead, then did a credible imitation of the lowing of a cow. “Belong to Uch-lûth. Hunt rabbit and elk and wing-beasts. Hunt with clan, share, yes? We hunt hill,” he gestured to the rising land to our east, “you hunt with us, go to camp,” he pointed towards a distant point on the hill where I could see a thin stream of smoke rising from an unseen fire, “make feast, all.”
I was just about to accept what I took to be his offer when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the woman talking to Shadryn starting to pull off her coarse, but practical, tunic of hide. Darrien was at a loss; we’d discussed many contingencies, but none of them included women disrobing in front of him. Shadryn intervened, though, reaching out a hand to stop the woman, then leaned in to whisper something to her. She then pointed to Darrien, then me, and the man to whom I was speaking. The Dunlending woman seemed puzzled, but then nodded and let her tunic fall back into place. Darrien and I let out the same sigh of relief, then I turned to the man, the chief, or brenin, of his clan, I would later learn, and agreed to share a hunt.