Over the weeks we spent crossing Dunland, we met many hunters from several clans. At times our encounters were strained, and we were bid to move on as quickly as possible out of the lands a particular tribe would hunt, particularly when we met those of the Draig-lûth, who seemed unnecessarily hostile. Sometimes a tribe would offer challenge of word or deed, and more than once, I was able to offer a bare-knuckled fight that satisfied the needs of tradition, without incurring a blood-debt. I won some and lost some, and felt about equally sore after each.
But more often the people of Dunland we met were, though wary and protective, ultimately curious and somewhat welcoming. More than once we were invited to share in a hunt, and in the following feast. Neither of our archers, Darrien and Radolf, had done much hunting; they’d studied the bow primarily as a weapon of war. But their efforts were appreciated by the Dunlendings, particularly when Darrien helped drive some wild dogs away from their cattle with a few well-placed arrows. Elemir’s skill with cooking was celebrated from time to time as well, and Shadryn’s knowledge of the words and customs of the Dunlendings proved invaluable.
As spring turned to summer and we grew closer to Minhiriath I thought we might reach that wasteland without incident, but our fortune ran out near the northern edges of Dunland. We had but a few days left before we would leave the lands over which the clans ranged, and while we were still being cautious and kept a schedule of watches, we no longer rigorously maintained a diamond formation, and when we saw signs of hill-men, we prepared to speak to them rather than to fight. Thus it was that, as we crossed into a narrow defile and heard hints of movement on the rocks above us, we closed ranks, but we weren’t fully prepared when a half-dozen Hebog-lûth started throwing spears at us from above without a single word.
Soldiers of Gondor are well-trained; as soon as I saw a savage rise up over the rock with a spear pointed at us, and could see from the way he was moving that he was about to throw, I called out “Strike!” We’d agreed beforehand that was the word that signaled we were engaged, that it was time for steel and blood, to avoid anyone prematurely starting a fight we’d have to finish. Almost instantly the soldiers were spurring their horses into motion, and Lady Shadryn was looking about alertly. With enemies around us, I stayed with the Lady and focused on knocking aside any spears that came towards her, trusting my men to find the attackers, wishing I had thought to bring a shield. Strangely, though, none of them were striking at her; in fact, they were pointedly avoiding her while attacking the soldiers.
The Hebog-lûth were skilled warriors and hunters, but they did not have the discipline of Gondor’s army. When Elemir charged towards them, they jumped aside, right into the paths of Darrien’s and Radolf’s arrows. In the space of a dozen heartbeats, the hill-men were routed, four of them down and two making to run. “Catch them,” I called out. “If they warn others…” but I didn’t need to say more; Radolf and Darrien were in pursuit, while Elemir fell back to guard against any ambush.
“Surely we should let them go?” Shadryn said in a stricken voice. It did not occur to me until later that this might well have been the first time she ever had seen a man lying in a pool of his own blood, dying. “There’s no need to kill them all, is there?”
“Any who escape will tell others of their kind to call us an enemy. We will have several days of running from nearly constant attacks. I do not relish the idea of withholding quarter. It is not what honor demands. But I must prioritize my orders to escort you safely, and there is no way to secure parley from those who would attack without provocation or warning, particularly after several of their men and women have fallen.”
She was not satisfied by this answer, and this was for me some relief, since I was not satisfied either. But I could see no other way, and I had wracked my brain often under the stars of Dunland imagining this situation and trying to find another solution in vain. There was naught for us to do but wait in the gorge until Darrien and Radolf returned, reporting success in their objective. I could hear in their voices that they were no more pleased by this outcome than I or the lady, and had to remind myself that the Hebog-lûth had attacked us without warning.
The moment after a fight stands apart from those before and after it. During the fight, there is the haste, the thrumming in the blood, the eagerness and fear entwined; and afterwards, there is the return to normalcy, the compelling need to seek it out. But in between there is a moment that is neither, that is like no other. We stood in the gorge in that moment, soaking in the consequences of what had happened.
When the moment passed, I spoke sharply. “We must make haste. Collect your arrows, so there will be as little sign as possible of who is responsible, then we will canter henceforth. The horses will be tired when we reach Minhiriath, but they will survive. Go!” I turned to Shadryn, trusting the men to take their orders, and said, “This is a hard thing, my Lady, and I am sorry that it happened. But we must move quickly. Make yourself ready.” She seemed stricken. “My Lady!”
Her eyes snapped back into focus, and slowly, she nodded. “But why did they not attack me?” she asked, speaking mostly to herself, softly, as she set her horse into motion.