As much as I might have found Mushiebottom’s name hard to take seriously, and a reminder of Shadryn’s hurtful assessment of me, I would, in time, find myself quite grateful for its presence in our company.
When it could walk, with tentative and clumsy strides, Shadryn released it with great ceremony, but it did not seem much to understand her intent, and simply stood beside or behind her, bending forward in a long stretch and then rising to click and chitter. We spent some time trying to shoo it off. At first, it didn’t seem even to understand our intent, and when we finally got it to stand still while we left, it would keep coming back. This went on for several days, and it was made all the more difficult by the fact that it was a long, agonizing struggle to move any distance in the bog, but it could stride across the surface without effort.
After several days of this, we gave up. “It will probably turn back when we reach dry land,” Shadryn said to me in an attempt at reassurance, though there was something in her tone suggesting she did not believe it. Nor did she wish it; her affection for the creature, and its for her, had only grown with each day, and though she made a token effort to conceal it, she was evidently relieved every time it found its way back to her.
The ruins of Tharbad loomed off to our left, and I estimated that we were likely in the path where the river once flowed, when Mushiebottom started to behave in a curious fashion. Rather than trailing behind Shadryn, it started to move in front of her and then stop, blocking her progress and forcing her to edge around it. At which point it would simply move to in front of her once more. As the sun rose, it grew more insistent, even starting to shift to try to block her as she sidestepped it, causing her to frown in consternation.
It was during one such scuffle that Darrien called out, “Ahead, firmer ground, this way!” Indeed, the way had become less spongy. Perhaps the bog-lurker knew we were reaching dry land, and simply did not wish us to leave the lands it found most comfortable? Shadryn was forced to continue her dance with the beast while we led the horses up onto this spit of solid ground.
I was beginning to think we might even be able to ride again, a welcome thought after more than a fortnight of leading our horses, when Mushiebottom set to frantically chittering, and even bowed its head and bumped it against Shadryn’s chest, not forcefully enough to hurt her, but certainly enough to elicit a started cry. She stopped and stared, then the creature turned and skittered ahead, making its way to a spot not far from us and then stopping. It crouched and bobbed its bulbous body, drawing our attention, all the while making the same warning chittering sound.
I held up a hand to call a halt, then peered carefully into the distance. There was something at the spot where the creature stood, a dark, hazy shape. Was it warning us of some danger? Darrien was also staring curiously, wondering aloud, “What is that?”
In the end we could not determine what was there for certain without getting closer, and I felt that we needed to know, to progress safely on. But mindful that we might be being warned off, I did not dare let us continue on this course. “One of us will approach carefully, after stripping down to be as light as possible, to avoid sinking into the muck.”
“I am the lightest of us,” Radolf insisted, “so it should be me.”
“Surely I am lighter than any of you,” Shadryn objected.
“Indeed you may be, my Lady, but it would be best that the man who goes should be ready to defend himself should there be some peril there, and while you have learned much with your staff, I think it better to be a trained soldier. No, I shall go,” I argued, cutting off Radolf’s movement, “because you and Darrien can help defend me from here, but I have no bow, nor any skill in using one.” Intending to cut off any objection, I started to strip out of my armor. At Darrien’s insistence, I tied a long rope around my waist and played it out as I went, so they could pull me back if I became mired.
The ground remained firm, easier travel than we’d had in days, as I approached, sword drawn and with rope trailing behind me. Mushiebottom watched me approach, still standing sentinel, though seemingly accepting of this method of advance. “It looks like the remains of a horse,” I described as I approached, then gasped and stopped short.
“What is it?” I heard called at me frantically from behind, by several voices.
“It is a steed of Gondor,” I called back, not taking my eyes off the body before me. “I recognize the markings on the caparison, and the saddle. This horse came from the stables of the House of the Steward in Minas Tirith. It bore proudly one of the sons of Denethor, if I make the heraldry correctly, until it met its demise here.”
“What demise did it meet?” asked Darrien.
I crouched to examine the horse from a distance of a few yards. “It seems that, while the land seems firm to this point, it suddenly becomes greedy. There is likely some flow of water beneath the surface here that suddenly sweeps one into it. The horse thrashed in panic but this only made it grow more mired until it could not be saved, and it perished thus,” I called out, my voice bitter at the thought of the noble beast’s agonizing demise.
“And what of the rider?” asked Radolf.
I took some time to study the surroundings, while above and ahead of me, Mushiebottom chittered softly. “I see no trace of him. I cannot be certain, for it’s possible he was dragged so far under that nothing remains visible, but if I had to wager, I would bet that he was able to escape, and continued on.” I straightened up and took a few steps back. “It must have been an arduous journey for him, to be without steed and provisions in a land as bleak as this, but if he was a son of the House of Húrin, I would expect he might prevail over such adversity.”
As I made my careful way back, Shadryn said in a soft, awestruck voice, “This too would have been our fate, or worse, had we not been warned.” Her eyes were on Mushiebottom, who was now following me back to the others. I wanted to object to her assessment, but as I opened my mouth to speak, I realized I had no basis. What other explanation could there be for the creature’s behavior, but to warn us off from this deceptively inviting spit of solid ground? Reluctantly I had to concede the point; the creature had repaid her kindness by saving us all.