It seemed that, in realizing we needed to be warned off this dangerous ground, Mushiebottom had come to understand our limitations in traveling through the mire. Once we were prepared and on our way again, the bog-lurker kept darting ahead, and when we thought to follow, even when the land seemed yielding or uneven of footing, it proved true. Within but a few days, the looming ruins were now behind us more often than not, and a few days after that, the ground started to become firm. At last, we were reaching the far side of these plains of bog and mire. Even as we crossed from mud to grass and bushes and even trees, Mushiebottom showed no signs of any intent to return to the fens, instead staying near to Shadryn like a faithful hound.
The comfort of being dry, something so easy to take for granted, was the most welcome luxury. For the first time in almost a month we could find fallen branches to make a camp-fire, find a site for our tents that afforded us room to stretch out, and even find hunting and foraging more palatable than scrawny birds and soggy cattail-root. It was now the fading edge of summer, when farmers would just begin to take in their early crops, and we found bountiful handfuls of berries and basketfuls of wild apples. Roaming the thin woodlands were rabbits, wild sheep, deer, goats, and plentiful boar to hunt.
The increase of wildlife also meant there were more predators about, including wolves, bears, lynxes, and bobcats. Whatever oddity hung about Shadryn, or more likely, her curious red stone, now seemed inclined to attract not just curious birds and strange weather, but also, more and more, threatening creatures. Though the land was dry, bountiful, and uninhabited, we were forced to resume our diamond formation (now reduced to a triangle) and other precautions, as time and again a pack of wolves would find us far more interesting than it ought. Mushiebottom proved surprisingly resilient and helpful in these encounters, springing always to Shadryn’s defense. It had grown and was now almost as tall as she was; for a spindly and gangly creature it was surprisingly swift, and its limbs struck wolves hard enough to cast them back some distance.
“I think it is time you told me the truth about that gem,” I said to Shadryn one evening as we camped under the shelter of a copse of aspens. “You cannot deny that it has some power, and that this power draws danger to you.”
She was sitting on a stone across the fire from me, eating roasted boar-meat with a vigor and lack of delicacy that would surely make Prince Imrahil feel a need to chide me for allowing her to lapse into savagery. She looked up at me, frowning and seeming almost haunted, and sat in silence for a moment. At last, she spoke. “I found it amongst the ruins in Minhiriath, as you no doubt guessed, Captain.”
Her use of my title was a warning; she was anxious and defensive. I sensed that I had best proceed with care. “I have no doubt it is an artifact of historical importance, my Lady, but my concern is for your safety. Bringing you, hale and well, to Bree, is my charge, the extent of my orders. I’ve no objection to unearthing a rare treasure while we pass, but I am concerned about what threat it might pose.”
“What threat could a gem pose?” Shadryn retorted, but it was clear that she was grasping for a defense, and knew the answer to her own question.
Still, if she was going to make me spell it out, I would oblige her. “We are both well-read and familiar with history, my Lady. There are tales going back to times barely even remembered by the oldest of the Elves, concerning artifacts of power, gems plucked from the heart of the world, crystals imbued with the light of the stars, weapons crafted in the forges of long-lost cities, and many other things besides. Many of these have been lost to the ages, swept out to sea, buried in forgotten crypts, forgotten in the treasure-hoards of fell beasts, consumed in the depths of trackless caves.”
She nodded. “And to recover such a lost piece of history… surely you can see how important it might be, to preserve the legacy of our distant forebears? How might you feel to carry back to Minas Tirith a standard from fallen Arnor, or a token of the lost isle of Númenor?”
“Indeed, such a discovery would be a source of great pride, my Lady. I do not oppose your efforts one whit, so long as they can be done in safety. But surely you recall how, in many of those tales, a thing shrouded in power also proved to be shrouded in misfortune.”
She made a dismissive snort. “Misfortune brought not by the artifact, but by jealous and greedy men, warring to possess them, making terrible vows that haunted their children and their children’s children. The same might be said of many things of value, or that a man might wish to possess. Just as much misfortune has followed from struggles to own bountiful lands, or vaults full of gold, or beautiful women.”
“You speak truth, my Lady, but there is more to it than that. Ever and again, fate contrives to bring peril to those caught up in the tale of these items of power. Dangers follow them, and evil creatures are drawn to them; and those who possess them are known to lose their way and fall under the sway of corruption and greed.”
She visibly bristled. “Do you worry that I am become enthralled, then?”
“No, my Lady,” I answered, and was almost surprised to find I spoke the truth. I had been so convinced by the similarity to the tales, but in truth, she seemed as much herself as ever she had been. To be sure, in our ordeals, the road had changed her as it had all of us — more, in her case, as the rest of us had started with more leagues of road passed beneath our feet — but while she might now have a strength and focus she had lacked when we set out, she remained as mercurial, whimsical, and playful as ever. As she had once told me when she first wore Dunlending garb, the road hadn’t so much changed who she was, as allowed her to be who she’d always been, but had pretended not to be. And in that, I could see no hint of corruption or greed.
“Then what is the concern?” she asked defiantly.
I let out a soft sigh. “There is none, my Lady, save to ask you to be cautious. Something about you draws danger to you, and it may well be that stone. Strange occurrences attend its passing, and this merits some consideration. The dangers of our journey remain, and it seems the stone draws them closer, and more besides. If you insist on keeping it, then you must perforce allow me to ward you against what it brings, by being all the more careful to follow my orders concerning our precautions, even as we near Bree; indeed, even when we are within it. Forget not that we have one fewer sword to fight for you, one fewer shield to ward you from peril.”
Her eyes darkened, and I do not doubt that mine did as well, at this reminder of Elemir’s falling. After a few moments that hung in the air like the promise of a thunderstorm, she nodded. “As you say, Captain,” she answered, stiffly. She returned the meat to the spit and then retreated to her tent. Though she bore no lantern, there were red-tinted shadows that showed her outline through the canvas, shadows that flickered and flashed like distant, angry lightning.