On the next day, we did not speak much of the events of the previous night. She did not even seem contrite in the slightest; on the contrary, as we rode, she seemed as pleased as a housecat full of cream. She laughed often, took to singing spontaneously, and kept entreating the rest of us to appreciate the beauty of the landscape. Her cheer was infectious; soon Elemir and her were singing together, her horse was nickering and prancing, and it even seemed that the birds themselves went out of their way to fly near to her, spin in the sky above her, and then wheel on their way. I felt like I should remain upset with her, or at least stern, but this mood was hard to hold while everyone around was full of laughter, and by supper I could scarcely remember the terror of staring down a horror under starlight.
There were more ruins, and in better condition, as we traveled over the next few days, and she did indeed seek to explore some of them and dig in them, but with only a fraction as much determination as before. For my part, I made a point of allowing it any time that there was no sign of danger, so that when I forbade it, my ruling would have more weight. And she did not fight me when I did forbid, nor did she sneak off to any of those ruins, at least that I learned of. It seemed she was content with whatever she’d found in the spider’s lair.
The riding was easy, though the weather was impetuous, with strange bursts of storm appearing out of a clear sky to pour rain and lightning for but a few moments before moving on, or sudden gusts of wind causing flocks of birds to abruptly wheel and scatter. More and more, the birds seemed to take an interest in us, particularly in Shadryn, though never threateningly; they would simply fly around us and move on. Occasionally a particularly brave starling would alight so close to Shadryn that I imagined it might perch on her outstretched hand like a trained hawk, if she but offered such a perch. These occurrences each alone seemed curious but no more, but as they continued to pile one upon the other, I started to mull over possibilities. The question would occupy my mind much over the following weeks.
In the days of long-lost Númenor, Minhiriath had been a vast forest, but the shipwrights of old had stripped it bare, and thousands of years later the land still showed the scars of that brutal harvest. But in some places, woods cropped up, timid growth of pines with clusters of maples and oaks at their center, or spacious canopies of beeches and poplars bending with the wind. We were nearing that part of the Greenway that ran nearest to the forest called Eryn Vorn, and though that woodland was some leagues away, patches of forest occasionally sprung up near the road, perhaps taken root from seeds that had been carried from Eryn Vorn on westerly winds from the sea.
I was pondering the curious weather as we rode peacefully through such a copse, when a short call from Darrien caused us all to pull up short. “Men,” he hissed, “more than a dozen, in the woods around us.”
There seemed little reason for men to be hiding there that would not be a threat. Still, as in Dunland, I hoped to avoid a battle if I could. “Hello,” I called out, and swung down from my horse, passing the reins to Radolf.
A large man with a bushy beard and hair nearly as red as Darrien’s stepped from behind a tree on the road before us. “Well met,” he said, but there was something in his posture that suggested something other than welcome. “The great highway here is ours to keep. Travelers may pass after they pay a toll.” But as he was speaking, his eyes had found Shadryn, and his words came more slowly. “I’ve no doubt you have something of value and beauty you could use to pay,” he concluded, with a leer in his eyes that set my teeth on edge.
With effort, I adopted a formal tone, keeping my hand from reaching for the hilt of my sword over my shoulder. “The Greenway was built thousands of years ago, by men of stature beyond that of you or me,” I said, allowing just enough of a pause after the word “you” to make it seem like I was going to end the thought there. “It was built to link the sister nations of Arnor and Gondor,” and as I spoke this name, I touched the White Tree on my badge of rank, “and though it has been long since these lands were left empty, if anyone here has a claim on its tolls, it would be a Captain of the Army of Gondor, or a Lady of the family of Prince Imrahil.” I affected a smile that had nothing of merriment in it. “But as a courtesy, we will seek no toll. Should you leave us to pass peacefully, we may all find the rest of our day is warm and without trouble.” The edge in my voice was plain, though my words allowed the man some space in which to withdraw without losing face, I hoped.
The bushy-bearded man considered my words a moment quietly, even the birds joining him in silence. Then a loud laugh bellowed out from him, and soon his men, now drifting into view all around us, joined in the laughter. One couldn’t be sure what the laugh meant, but after only a few gales of merriment, he gestured once, and then drew and brandished a thorny club, charging towards me. All around, his men followed suit, their intent plain; what they could not extort from his, they might take from our cooling bodies just as well.