Ensuring that none of the Hebog-lûth escaped to warn the rest of their clan about us did not, it turns out, provide us with a safe journey through the remainder of Dunland. Perhaps they had already learned of our presence and decided, for reasons we would never learn, that we were enemies or prey, thus explaining their unprovoked attack. Perhaps there had been scouts watching the fight who we did not notice. For whatever reason, as we continued on our way, we had to watch for, defend against, and when possible flee from, several more attacks by the Hebog-lûth. We ran our horses hard as we dared for several hours before we paused, only then learning that Radolf had a deep puncture in his side from one of the wild-men’s spears. We dared not linger to let him recover, so we had to make do with a field dressing that would hold him well enough to continue riding. Fortunately, the injury was not grave.
For that harrowing, hurried ride, we stayed near but not on the Greenway, its paving-stones crumbling in disrepair; and we kept in diamond formation. Since we knew the Hebog-lûth preferred attacking without warning and from above with spears, Elemir, the only one of us to routinely use a shield, was assigned to stay with Lady Shadryn and focus on protecting her during any attack, while the rest of us met and engaged the enemy. When I gave him this order, I had a bad feeling, perhaps a premonition, perhaps just realizing this might put him in more peril than the rest of us; but it was the only tactic that made any sense. Several times, he clung close to her side, knocking spears or arrows away from her while I circled behind the Dunlendings and cut them down, and Darrien and Radolf returned fire. Several more injuries were incurred before it was done, but nothing as bad as Radolf had suffered in that first fight. We also lost one of the pack horses, and some of the supplies. Quite a few Hebog-lûth slipped away from fights, and this time we did not pursue them, even though those same might come at us again, since it was clear we could not stop word of our passing, and haste out of their lands was paramount.
We rode through most of the nights, as we could not pause to rest without fear of being ambushed. The best we could do is huddle against a rocky outcrop, or whatever shelter we could find, so that we could be attacked only from one direction, and try to get some waking rest and food during the few darkest hours of the night when we could not make much headway. It was during one of those nights that I thought I heard voices carried on the wind, some words spoken in the Dunlending language that I did not recognize, but some in Westron, spoken in more fluid tongues with a southern accent; and I was sure I’d heard the word Gondor spoken at least once. But I didn’t dare try to get closer to hear better, as I have no talent for walking silently, and no one else had heard it. As weary as I was, I wondered if I’d imagined it.
As the hills began to fall away, we saw less and less sign of the Hebog-lûth, and, sore and exhausted, we eased our haste gradually. It was not until we’d gone an entire day without any sign of the Dunlendings, and the land had become level, desolate wasteland occupied only by countless birds, that I called a halt. Heavy with fatigue, we made only a crude camp and collapsed on the soft grassy ground. “This,” I said softly, “must be Minhiriath, deserted for more than a thousand years.”
“Why deserted?” Darrien asked, looking around at the pleasant, if austere, plains. “Is there some danger?”
I shook my head. “Well, likely there is, but only wildlife, and difficult terrain. There were many reasons why the land was abandoned, but perhaps the greatest was the Great Plague, which claimed the lives of thousands.” Darrien began to look about anxiously, eliciting a little laugh from me. “Don’t worry, that was quite some time ago, and it has long since burned out. All we’re likely to see are ruins.”
At this word, Shadryn’s ears perked up, and though she was as exhausted as any of us, her eyes grew brighter. “But we will not have time to investigate ruins,” I insisted, trying to head off her question, “and they are likely to be inhabited by whatever predators prowl these plains.” But the words felt hollow. The empty plains seemed an unlikely place to meet bears or wolves, as there would be little for them to hunt other than flocks of small, noisy birds. Shadryn did not pursue the question, perhaps too tired even to argue, or perhaps making her own plans.
I allowed a full day of rest, with a wary eye in case any of the Hebog-lûth might have followed us, but we saw no more sign of them, that day or any other. We never learned why they had set upon us. After the draining fear and haste of the previous days, it was a relief to traverse only bare plains, with little to see, though at another time such a landscape might have seemed dull. Days turned into weeks, and there was naught but flocks of birds. Our camps were often damp and unpleasant, but satisfyingly peaceful, and there were many starry evenings when I played my lute to brighten the tedium.
And, now and then, we saw something that could only be called “ruins” with an excess of charity. From time to time, we might find two stones piled atop one another, or one with square enough sides, that it seemed likely to have been part of some structure long lost. And while these seemed of no import to my men and me, Shadryn halted our journey to dig in the dirt around these stones, and though she came up with little more than more dirt, much of which ended up on her face or in her hair, she seemed as pleased as a child with a new toy. From time to time she came away with some tiny stone or fragment of metal, which she carefully cleaned and wrapped in pieces of hide to secrete in her bags. As it was a simple matter to guard her while she engaged in these endeavors, I thought it best to allow it, as it seemed so much to please her, and made her more tractable to orders thereafter. But even when she was pleased over some new treasure, I could see some hint in her eyes that she also had wished for more. Nay, more than wished for; that she had expected more, that she had some idea before we arrived in this land of what she might find, and she had not found it yet.