The mighty river Gwathló is one of the largest in Eriador, carrying rainfall from lands from as far as the High Pass that connects Eriador to the Vales of the Anduin over the Misty Mountains. One might expect its roar to be as mighty as the range it touches; the appropriately-named Loudwater is but one of its tributaries. But where the Greenway crosses it at Tharbad, there is little to hear, and indeed, almost nothing you would call a river. Once, the books say, Tharbad was a great river port, with a deep enough draught to welcome even seagoing ships. But over the countless years, after Minhiriath was stripped of trees and then left bare and forgotten, the river lost its way. For a great distance, the flow bifurcates into smaller and smaller rivulets until there is little more than a fen criss-crossed in streams, so broad that the bridges that once spanned the river at Tharbad now have both ends mired in muck. Many of the bridges, and indeed much of the city, has sunk into the hungry mud.
We never heard the flow of water as we approached the ruins of Tharbad; instead, we just felt the ground get softer and wetter and harder to cross, until we had to dismount and lead our horses, lest they sink too far into the muck. Our progress slowed more each day, and we spent more time following weaving paths trying to find firmer ground, often reaching dead ends and having to retrace our steps. We’d spent days trekking through this bog and still hadn’t seen a hint of the ruined towers and walls of Tharbad itself, and there were few traces of the Greenway anymore, the paving stones long since sucked down into the eager muck, leading us to wonder if we hadn’t lost our way.
As it had been throughout Minhiriath, the lands were ever and always the home of great flocks of birds. If anything, there were far more of them here in the fens. But as the ground grew wetter we started to see more, and stranger, creatures. There were great flying insects, as large as a dog; huge, strange flowers in vivid hues, with dangling blossoms like bells; turtles so large that other creatures built nests on their shells; and strangest of all, beasts that looked like they grew from tree branches and vines, but which could walk, or perhaps shamble was a better word for it, as freely as any animal of flesh and bone.
As we made our way through the bogs, some of these creatures lurked nearby, observing us with what seemed like a clear sense of purpose, though we could not guess what that purpose might be. We came to feel like they were ready to take some action if we did something of which they disapproved, but what might such a being disapprove of, we could not guess. Shadryn found all of these unfamiliar creatures fascinating, but none so much as these ‘bog lurkers’, as she came to call them. She could not get close enough to one to study it; I would not allow it, and neither would the lurkers, as they kept their distance, striding across the fens as easily as we might cross a road of stone. But ever did she watch them from as near as she could, trying to understand them, determine what manner of beast they might be, and of what they were composed.
Thus it was that, one evening as we were separated into pairs seeking a dry place to camp for the night, fresh water that wasn’t a stew of mud and muck, and maybe something for supper, she got her chance to see one up close. Peering at the bog for forage, Darrien happened to find one of these lurkers, a very small one, that seemed to be injured. Shadryn was not far away as the crow flies, though given the twisting paths that avoided the hungry mud, it would take her some time to reach him when he mentioned what he’d seen. Eagerly, as she told me the tale later, she started retracing steps to reach him, while he examined the creature.
It seemed to him one of the legs was broken, and the creature was suffering. His experience with animals, especially horses, made him think it would not survive, particularly since it was so much smaller than the others we’d seen, perhaps a child. Or seedling, or whatever the right term was. Instead of the guttural clicks and humming purrs we’d heard from the lurkers before, Darrien heard sounds like the scraping of bark or broken bones, and soft, almost silent whimpers. When a horse is in such pain, and cannot recover, the mercy is to end its hurt; it is a hard thing to do, a painful thing, but a necessary and honorable one.
But as Darrien raised his knife, Shadryn stepped between them, holding her hand up, exhorting him to stop. Her call was urgent, and carried far over the emptiness of the bogs, drawing my eye. It was from some distance I had to watch the unfolding events, unable to cross the muck to intervene. Darrien’s arm was moving swiftly, to bring the creature’s suffering to an end as painlessly as he might, when Shadryn interposed herself, and to avoid injuring her he had to twist in such a way that he fell face-first into the muck. Even from a great distance I could hear him grumbling words of frustration that should never be spoken in the presence of a lady, not even a lady herself covered almost entirely in mud.
Taking little heed of Darrien’s discomfort, Shadryn turned toward the creature. She planted her staff in the mud so it would stand on its own, the red gem in it shimmering in a most curious manner. “It was as if the gem in that staff, and the creature, were speaking to one another,” Darrien would later recount to me in a tone of disbelief. With the ginger care of a mother tending her child, Shadryn lifted the creature from the mud and cradled it in her arms, stroking it with one hand while making soothing sounds. For my part, I watched almost dumbstruck; I had seen many sides of Shadryn’s spirit during our journey, but this was the first time I had seen this one. In the back of my mind I wondered if there wasn’t some hint of remorse still lurking in her heart for Elemir’s passing, urging her to save another life to balance the ledger.
Tending to the creature’s hurts required us to spend two days camped at the largest patch of dry land we could find, which could scarcely hold us and our horses, but which was at least blessedly free of danger. Other than the birds which remained curious about Shadryn and came to watch her almost constantly, the creatures of the muck left us alone, while she passed the hours fashioning curious mixtures of herbs and mud and applying them to the lurker’s broken leg. Her treatments resembled my mother’s healing arts almost not at all, and she explained, when she could spare a few moments from her ministrations, that a creature more of plant than animal needed different salves, but was capable of recovering from more grave injuries, just as a tree might recover from a blow that would fell a man.
The delay did not please me. I was eager to find dry land once more, and to reach our destination. While I would never admit it to Lady Shadryn, I was myself eager for a warm meal and a pint of ale in a public house, and perhaps even a soft bed. Autumn would be coming soon, and I did not relish the idea of being forever damp in these fens as the nights grew colder. But there was no swaying her; Shadryn was determined to nurse this bog lurker to health. At the last, we came to a compromise; she described a sort of sling that might let her carry the beast while she hiked, and later when we rode again, and I set Radolf to crafting such a thing.
“Then will you bring this creature with you all the way to Bree, and keep it as a pet?” I asked her in a tone almost mocking, but clearly not serious.
“Perhaps I should,” she answered, and I wasn’t sure if she was teasing or not. “But it was not my intent. I expect it will be well enough to walk within a fortnight, perhaps sooner if my intuition about tinctures of sweet flag is correct, and then I plan to set it free to return to its home.”
I grunted in assent, relieved, but my eye caught a glimmer of red light, dancing from the gem to the lurker, unsettling and mysterious.