After the long article detailing the story of the Against the Shadow cycle, we learned that our heroes were moving to Rohan. And that is exactly where this story picks up again. This hinting at the next cycle will continue in these stories, and eventually, those links will become stronger and stronger after the Dream-chaser cycle. But we’re not there yet. Let’s read through the entire storyline at the Gap of Rohan through to the Dunland Civil War!
The Fords of Isen
Start: The heroes came upon the dead rider as the afternoon darkened and the rain threatened to turn to ice.
They found him facedown on the old road where he lay still and broken among the yellowing grasses. Life had been hacked from his body with axes, nearly destroying the sigil of Rohan on his hauberk. Not far from him lay the remains of his horse, a proud Mearas slain by black-fletched arrows in its graceful neck.
As they dismounted to prepare a simple cairn for the body, a gust of western wind suddenly carried the familiar clangor of steel and screams. The dead man’s killers had found new victims.
Rain and aching bodies momentarily forgotten, the heroes remounted and urged their horses to speed.
As they cleared the crest of a long bracken hill, the landscape opened up to reveal the Gap of Rohan. Below them, fed by fall rains, the river Isen crawled south like a bloated serpent. The road descended the west-facing hill and led directly into the river where a ford bubbled and frothed among smooth worn rocks.
Today, blood and steel mingled with the waters.
A small band of mounted Rohan warriors, knights of King Théoden’s household, were trapped at the center of the ford. From both sides of the river, scores of Wild Men from Dunland were attacking. Many of the Dunlendings brandished leather shields emblazoned with the crude sigil of an angry boar.
Water rushing at the knees of their mounts, the knights were trying to protect an emissary in their midst. The nobleman was riding a grey mare and wore a black cloak. He flinched as the green shields of his protectors broke the deadly flight of the Wild Men’s arrows. Already, arrows had claimed two of the knights, their bloodied detritus floating among the boulders.
The Wild Men, tired of having their arrows deflected, began to charge. A few were already engaged in melee with the riders, but many were just now beginning to wade into the icy water with their shields raised as protection from the swords of the mounted knights. The bellowing of the attackers grew louder.
The heroes didn’t hesitate before they charged down the hill. The men of Rohan were friends, and what help could be given, the heroes would give.
Completed: As the body of the largest Dunlending fell into the river, the Wild Men finally gave up the attack. They’d thought victory to be at hand, but a group of steel-willed strangers had appeared on the eastern ridge and brought relief to the hated men of Rohan. Denied of their prize, the remaining Wild Men retreated into the rocky highlands northwest of the ford. Their blue-painted faces screamed in fury back at the victors, their axes banging and pointing to the boar sigils on their shields with promises of revenge.
The remaining Rohirrim knights, exhausted but pleased at their renewed lease on life, greeted the heroes with bright smiles. The senior among them was about to speak when the dark-clad emissary kneed his mare forward. He was a young man with pale skin and inky circles under his grey eyes. Thinning wet hair matted his scalp in forlorn streaks and his black cloak clung to his body like dead skin.
“Help unlooked for is help most obliged!” The emissary’s flat voice was one of accustomed authority, but its treble betrayed the terror he’d suffered during the attack. He shot a frosty look at the knight who’d been about to speak. “It seems Threol’s lack of vigilance did not doom us after all,” said the emissary. The senior knight whom the heroes guessed to be Threol cringed at the rebuke, smile forgotten.
The emissary returned his dark glance to the heroes, evaluating them.
“I am Gríma, son of Gálmód, loyal advisor to Théoden King.”
Gríma pointed northwards where the valley of Isengard lay wreathed in rain and mist. In its midst, the spire of Orthanc emerged like a black nail hammered through a grey blanket. “I travel with a message to the White Wizard.” As Gríma spoke, he noticed that the river’s current had pushed the corpses of two Dunlending warriors into the shallower waters of the nearby bank. He shuddered. “We must be on our way.”
Threol cleared his throat and spoke for the first time, his gratitude to the heroes outweighing his deference to Gríma. “The King surely will reward you for the bravery shown to us today.”
“Of course, of course.” Gríma composed himself and eyed Threol with irritation. He circled his horse to study what remained of his escort. The councilor seemed as uncomfortable among the warriors as he did with the dead Dunlendings floating nearby. Gríma raised his pale face to the wind to study the hills, calculating the odds of another attack.
After an uncomfortable moment, Gríma turned his horse to face the heroes again. “We would be…honored if you would come with us to Isengard,” he said. “Your protection would be appreciated.”“As would your company.” Threol found his smile again.
“Saruman is a gracious host,” Threol continued, stealing a glance at Gríma with ill-hidden dislike. Threol was clearly embarrassed by the emissary’s self-serving behavior. “Warm food and dry beds must have appeal in this cursed weather, yes? Besides, I should dearly like to share a drink with those that saved our lives here today.”
Almost imperceptibly, Gríma inclined his head in agreement but said nothing.
The heroes accepted, and the group headed northwards into the low clouds, into the Wizard’s Vale. Into Isengard, home of Saruman the White.
To Catch an Orc
Start: Saruman received Gríma and his escort at the steps of Orthanc. The strange black tower rose coldly from the midst of Isengard’s luscious gardens. Its ebon walls seemed out of place among the greenery of the vale and stood in stark contrast to Saruman’s brilliant white robes.
Saruman, somehow, had already known about the affair at the ford. He lavished praise on the heroes for their rescue and reassured Threol.
“The Dunlendings have grown daring of late, dear Captain.” The wizard spoke with a silky voice. It was a voice that enthralled, a voice that rung wiser than the wind, and its faint lilt was as encouraging as dawn itself. “Such an attack surely could not have been imagined until this ambush.”
The wizard’s servants took the company’s packs and horses, and Saruman led them up the steps into Orthanc’s great front hall. The walls were made of the same glassy black substance as the tower itself, generously hung with white tapestries and lit by delicate sconces. Fires from several braziers warmed the hall yet seemed to give off no smoke.
“The clans have never forgotten their old feud with the people of Eorl,” Saruman continued, his voice reverberating in the great hall. “The clans fight amongst each other, and they all fight Rohan.” He spoke with sadness and regret “It is a shame such bravery and strength is wasted when the days now darken in the east.”
Saruman glanced sideways at the heroes, keen intelligence in his gaze. “I hope one day to convince the clans to unite their efforts.” Saruman smiled, and none felt untouched by it. “For the cause of our greater good.”
On their fourth day in Isengard, Saruman asked the heroes to dine with him. Neither Gríma nor the Rohirrim were invited.
They ate in the wizard’s elaborate private study. A great balcony adjoined the room, overlooking the great cobblestone courtyard that laid before Orthanc’s front doors. A late harvest moon shone through the balcony, white and wreathed in a ghostly halo. The food and wine was splendid, rivaling even that of Denethor’s table. Saruman ate little, preferring to talk and ask questions while sipping wine.
“I sense you are under the favor and employ of my dear friend Gandalf the Grey,” he said after concluding about of questions on Gondor and the disposition of Ithilien.
“You must know that we seek the same end, Gandalf and I,” Saruman continued, pleased with his guests’ comfort and attentive ears. “While Gandalf wanders, while he turns the rocks and douses small fires, I confine myself here.” The heroes nodded in appreciation as the wizard gestured proudly around his study. He sighed gently. “Here alone I study matters of the deepest significance. Of old things. Of such lessons as would help us face the rising shadow in the east.”
“While Gandalf’s ways differ from my own, there is one thing we share in equal measure.” He smiled. “The need to retain brave allies––those of stout heart to face danger and hardship in our cause.” He toasted the heroes, and all seemed right with the world.
“To that end, my friends, I ask you for your assistance, which I dearly hope you will choose to grant.” He steepled his hands as if emphasizing what was to be said. He looked at each hero in kind, taking their silence as interest to learn more.
“You already know the Orc threat has been growing in the mountains,” he continued. “In Gundabad, in Moria, near the high passes. Like the Wild Men, the servants of the enemy grow ever more aggressive.” He took a sip of wine, and his voice grew more intense. “In fact, one such band threatens the peace of this very valley.”
“I am uncertain of the band’s numbers, but I know they are led by a particularly large and gruesome specimen of their kind –– a chieftain who goes by the name of ‘Mugash.’” Saruman pursed his lips as if the word was bitter.
The heroes rose and spoke at once, proclaiming their willingness to destroy the Orc. Saruman waved them to their seats once more. “I am afraid it is more complicated than that,” the wizard sighed. “This chieftain, this ‘Mugash,’ has knowledge of his kin’s desires, of their movements, of their plans, and, most importantly, how they are receiving word from the east.”
Saruman lowered his voice to a near whisper. “The task I request of you is not to kill this specific Orc,” he curled his fingers to form a cage as he asked the impossible, “but to capture him.”
In hindsight, trapping Mugash was the easy part. Transporting the Orc back to Isengard was a problem unlike any the heroes had ever faced.
At first, they were pursued by angry remnants of Mugash’s band, often forced to halt and seek defensive ground. Yet worse than the pursuit was the journey itself. While fall storms ravaged the lowlands, early winter had come to the mountains. Gales of sleet made the path treacherous, and the wind willfully bit into every inch of exposed skin. Shallow ravines and steep rivulets, dry for most of the year, now gushed with ice-laden water. The nights froze, and every morning the stony slopes were coated in jagged ice.
They’d pried a staff beneath Mugash’s arms and bound his hands before him with thick rope. His legs had been forcefully bent and then tied together over another staff placed in the hollow of his knees. In this way, the heroes could drag the Orc or carry him by both poles when necessary.
On the first day of the return journey to Isengard, upon realizing his entrapment, Mugash had roared and yelled continually, spitting anger and snapping his fangs at his captors. His curses echoed in the mountainsides and encouraged the pursuers. After a day of listening to his screaming, the heroes had finally stuffed a piece of an old surcoat into the Orc’s fanged mouth. Using strips of leather, they tied the cloth so tight behind his head they heard his skull groan at the pressure.
At first, the gag seemed only to make Mugash angrier. It took another full day of traveling before he settled down somewhat, his breathing whistling angrily from frozen nostrils, eyes glaring at his captors with unvarnished bile.
After three days, the pursuit finally stopped, but the weather turned for the worse. The winds howled along the cliff sides, and a mordant never-ending sleet left their faces raw and blistered.
There was little forage on the trail, and the heroes walked on slim rations. They dared not feed Mugash. Undoubtedly, he’d begin screaming again, and even if the pursuit had ceased, they didn’t want to chance its renewal.
As the heroes drew nearer to Isengard, Mugash became ill. His eyes, which were once alive with hate, became puffy and closed in a feverish sleep. His nose leaked a blue-green sludge, and his breathing was reduced to a thin whistle. His dark skin had turned ashen grey, except where his limbs were pressed around the staves. There, it had bruised into a blackish purple. Mugash no longer struggled or grunted, and his weight seemed to have deadened.
That night, the heroes were troubled. They’d finally begun their descent into the lower passes and the weather had turned milder, but their prisoner seemed likely to die before reaching Isengard.
Reluctantly, they loosened Mugash’s bonds to improve his circulation. They removed the gag and forced hot wine and a paste of bonemeal into his foul mouth. The beast was burning with fever, so they placed him farthest from the fire near a boulder that blocked the worst of the wind. His breathing was so slight it could barely be perceived.
That night was the coldest of the journey, but the weather was clearing. A few stars could be seen in gaps between moving clouds and the sleet had paused. After choosing a sentry, the heroes huddled down near the fire and for the first time in their lives, they drifted off to sleep hoping that an Orc would not die.
Hours later, as the cloud-streaked moon dropped behind the south summit, the sentry thought he heard the scurrying of wolves down the mountainside. He rose to briefly investigate, but the darkness held nothing and he returned to the embers of the fire. As he settled, he no longer heard the Orc’s breathing, and so guessed the captive must have finally died. With a sigh, he rose again to investigate.
In the shadows of the nearby boulder, where he expected to see Mugash’s corpse, he instead saw scraps of cloth and rope. The two staves lay nearby; Mugash must have cunningly and quietly slid them inch by inch away from his body by pressing them against the boulder.
Mugash was not dead. Mugash had escaped
Start: Mugash was free and running.
The sickness lingered in his body, but he savored its malevolent presence. Because of it, his tormentors had thought him near death and loosened his bonds. The fools had even fed him.
Mugash’s arms and legs stung. His joints were swollen and throbbing where the ropes had tied him to the poles. His limbs had been useless the first few miles of his escape, and he’d crawled like a worm down the mountainside, pushing himself forward with shoulders and hips. The great Orc had laughed at the pain.
His way, the way of the Uruk, was not one of stealth and silence, but last night on the mountainside, stealth and silence had been his closest friends.
He flexed his hands. Through the pain he felt strength returning. He had outwitted the hated bright-eyed humans, and now he was free.
But the humans, the bùbosh skai, were hunting him. He could hear their pursuing feet in the pass above him. He spat, tasting the stale rag that had been jammed in his mouth for days. When revenge came, he would feed hot coals to his former captors.
As Mugash thought of his imprisonment, a blood rage almost took him, but he resisted the urge to turn and fight. He knew the skill of these particular skalug, and fighting them now would be foolish. Mugash was no fool. He’d become chieftain of the southern tribes through more than strength and violence. Vengeance would wait. He’d fight another night.
How Mugash wished it was night! The sun had risen, and its vile sharpness was like a blade in his eyes. Even so, the great Orc forged on. He’d always prided himself on his resistance to the white eye. Though it hurt him, unlike most of his tribesmen––he endured its viscous glare,. Even so, the bright path was hard to see and the pain was another tax on his punished body.
He’d thought of escaping back along the mountain path, but the ice would have slowed him further. Instead, he hobbled east, down the mountainside and eastward, into the damned rising white eye. Into the lower lands. Into the trees.
As the forest shadows shielded him from the sun, he grunted with relief. The southern forest, with its dense canopy of ancient trees, made for an almost-subterranean world, twilit in greens, browns, and blacks. He would have preferred a dark tunnel or cave, but this was not a bad place.
The great Uruk took a ragged breath and renewed energy came to him. He soon disappeared into the shadows of the primordial forest. It would be impossible for the bùbosh skalug to find him there.
Mugash soon learned he was wrong. This forest was, after all, a bad place.
Not far behind, the heroes followed in close pursuit. They’d caught the monster once, and were determined to do it again. Yet even the strongest determination could not stop them from hesitating when they realized that Mugash had ventured into the old forest of Fangorn, a place with a dark and dangerous reputation.
As they entered Fangorn, the air hummed with a subtle song of branch and leaf, and the tune was unkind. They’d come to a place forgotten by the world and abandoned by time. One that wished to remain so.
The trees and stone watched, as they always had. A humid wind whispered in the branches, and old memories stirred in bark and root. Sleeping things woke from sour dreams. Things that hated disturbance. Hated the smell of change and steel and fire that clung to the intruders.
Completed: As the trees gave way to the boulder-strewn grasslands of the mountainside, their spirits revived.
The heroes had awoken the anger of ancient things with rotten hearts. They’d fought the crushing power of old roots and strangling branches and they’d barely escaped alive. Now those horrors were behind them.
The great Orc, Mugash, was their prisoner once more, and after another two days of traveling, they finally descended on the winding path that led into the Wizards Vale from the north. Orthanc greeted them coolly among the welcoming colors of the vale’s vegetation.
Saruman was grateful for their help in capturing the Orc, and his rewards were generous.
The heroes spent the winter in Isengard, recovering from their ordeals in the mountains and forest. Yet, as the season passed, the heroes saw less and less of the wizard. He was often closeted with work in his chambers, and they sensed a growing frustration in him, as if the results were not to his liking.
Upon seeing the telltale sign of summer birds returning north in the high skies, the heroes felt their northward journey must resume. Over a rare dinner with the wizard in his high study, they told him of their plans to depart the following morning. Saruman seemed displeased.
“My work is unfinished, my friends,” he began as a servant refilled his goblet. The wizard sipped at the wine and continued. “The Enemy is wise, and he remembers such secrets of old that even the Elves have forgotten.
“It is of great consequence that we learn the depths of the Enemy’s measure and mind,” Saruman continued. “It is with knowledge of the past, and in the powerful weapons of yore, that I perceive our greatest chance.” He took another sip, considering his next words. “Did others not defeat Sauron and his master before? Should we not seek the old powers of Beren, of Gondolin, of Númenor?” The wizard leaned forward. A hungry, eager, light was in his eyes. “Of Isildur?”
The heroes gleaned the flaw in Saruman’s speech. If Sauron had truly been defeated, then how could he have returned to power? It seemed to them that weapons of the past had merely held the shadow at bay. They didn’t voice their doubts, however, for the wisdom in Saruman’s voice quickly dulled all qualms.
Saruman continued his lecture. “I believe a long-lost place, one thought destroyed by the enemy, may have been uncovered in the hills of Hollin. It was among those hills that the great Elven city of Ost-in-Edhil stood, and it was there Celebrimbor and his apprentices forged legendary artifacts of good, unmatched in the world today.”
Saruman’s back had straightened and he seemed to glance into the past, as if he saw the forge fires of the long-dead Elven masters. His voice became deeper and his bearing mightier. The heroes felt, rather than saw, the secret light of the Istari pulsing from him, like heat from a searing oven. “Is it not incumbent upon us to seek the tools and weapons of a better age?” It was not a question he expected the heroes to answer.
After a few moments, his reverie seemed to recede and, his gaze returning to the dinner table. “Word has come to me from the north. A Dwarf by the name of Nalir claims to have found a hidden Elven forge near Hollin.” Saruman paused, as if hoping for a reaction from the heroes. When none came, he seemed slightly irritated. “Nalir is waiting in Tharbad and desires to sell the forge’s whereabouts for a substantial sum of gold.” Saruman’s intonation made it clear he valued the precious metal no more than the crumbs on his plate.
“I believe this may be nothing less than the forge of Celebrimbor himself.” He folded his hands. “And it may prove a vital link to past strengths.”
The wizard now looked at each of the heroes in turn. “I know you wish to return to Rivendell,” he said. “I admire your dedication to Gandalf’s trifling endeavors. Yet I need your skills in exploring this place and procuring what it may contain.” The heroes shuffled uncomfortably in the seats. Their absence from the north had been long, and the grey wizard’s need was keenly on their minds.
As Saruman caught their hesitation, the enticement of his words seemed to magnify.
“My friends, I ask you most kindly. Travel to Tharbad for me and procure the forge’s location from this Dwarf. Then reconnoiter the forge and recover its contents for me. Do this, and you may rejoin Gandalf with my blessing and eternal friendship.” Saruman’s shadow seemed to grow as he spoke, and the room felt suddenly small. “It is of greater importance than I can ask you to understand.”
There was a moment of tense indecision, then the heroes, one by one, gave their nods. As the reluctance ebbed, Saruman relaxed. He smiled sweetly, greeting their acquiescence with a statesman’s grace.
“I knew you would not turn from duty,” Saruman said. His words seemed to stroke them as a master’s hand would his faithful dog. “With luck, your quest may help plant the seeds of a better age.”
It seemed their work for Isengard was not yet finished.
The Dunland Trap
Start: In the circle of Isengard, the heroes were preparing themselves for the journey to Tharbad. The leader of the White Council, Saruman, had tasked them with an important quest: to find the hidden forge of Celebrimbor, the master Elf-smith who forged Rings of Power in the Second Age. The Wizard believed that knowledge of Celebrimbor’s secret forge could be learned from a Dwarf who they were to meet in Tharbad.
The heroes were tightening their belts and shouldering their bags when Saruman descended the stairs of Orthanc to wish them farewell. “This gold should be sufficient to convince the Dwarf, Nalir, to sell you his map,” the Wizard said as he handed a heavy purse to the heroes. “Guard it well. For the location of Celebrimbor’s forge is a prize beyond worth, and we dare not let the servants of the Enemy find it in our stead.”
The heroes added the gold to the bag of valuables that they had recovered from the Orcs of Methedras, then Saruman bid the heroes hasten and returned to his tower. The heroes themselves mounted their steeds and rode south from the ring of Isengard until they reached the Old South Road that would lead them to Tharbad where Nalir could be found.
The road ran west and north through the hill country of Dunland and they rode until sunset. As the red sun burned low in the distance, the heroes gathered around a fire to keep warm and ease the weariness in their limbs. But just as sleep began to close their eyes, they were startled wide open by the sound of war cries from all around. A host of bearded Dunlendings was swarming down the hills towards them with weapons drawn…
Completed: Wounded, exhausted, and surrounded by Dunlending spears, you brace yourself for defeat. But at the last moment, the leader of the Wild Men lifts his hand to halt the attack. “ Wait!” he commands, his eyes focused on the baggage spilled on the ground. The large Dunlending bends down to lift a totemic I amulet from the ground. As he holds it up to inspect it more closely, you recognize it as one of the artifacts that you recovered from the Orc’s lair in Methedras.
“ Where did you find this? Tell me! ” the large war-chief demands, a mix of rage and wonder on his face. His composure becomes more thoughtful as he listens to the tale of your errand upon Methedras and your battle with the Orc, Mugash. He turns the amulet in his hand while he listens as if considering what to do. Then, with obvious reluctance, he gestures for the other Wild Men to lower their spears.
“ You are our prisoners now,’’ the fierce leader growls. With a jerk of his bearded head, he speaks a command to the other Dunlendings, and the heroes are bound and marched to the Wild Men’s village.
Upon your arrival, the warriors escorting you are greeted by savage cheers from the other Dunlendings. Lifting a hand for quiet, the war-chief addresses his people. “ The straw-heads took our land, ” he says with disdain, “ but the Boar Clan will reclaim what is ours! ” Then, lifting the amulet in his hand, he adds, “ As we have reclaimed this!”
A quiet falls on the crowd and you can see looks of amazement on their faces. “ This amulet belongs to the Boar Clan,” says the war-chief in a loud voice. Turning to face you, he continues, “ As do you, and everything you carry. ”
At his command, the other Dunlendings begin pawing through your belongings, until a shout of discovery catches the warchief’s attention. One of his warriors hands him a small bag. “ A rich bounty you have brought us, ” he remarks, holding Saruman s purse in his hands. To your dismay, he turns it over, spilling a rain of precious golden coins onto the ground.
As the Dunlending women begin lighting bonfires for a victory feast, the Wildmen leader approaches you and speaks quietly, “ Tonight, my people celebrate our victory.” He still holds the mysterious amulet in his hands, as if it were very precious to him. “ Tomorrow, we will deal with you.”
The Three Trials
Start: The heroes were bound hand and foot inside a wood lodge of the Dunlendings. Outside they could hear the warriors of the Boar Clan celebrating their victory, when a large Dunlending entered. It was the leader of the war-party that assaulted them, and the same Wild Man who ordered them taken prisoner. He approached the heroes until he stood towering over them.
The war-chief stared intently at the heroes, holding the totemic amulet taken from their baggage. “I am Turch, chieftain of the Boar Clan. Every ten years, an amulet like this is given to a youth of great promise,” he began. “The gift marks the height of his manhood and signals his worthiness to undertake the three trials.”
His eyes grew distant, and for a moment sadness washed over his stern face. Then, with a deep breath he hardened his face and continued, “This amulet was given to my son.”
At that moment, an elder Dunlending man wearing ritual boarskins and the bones of his totem animal entered. “You would reveal our secrets to these strangers?” He asked in a sharp voice, indicating the heroes with a sweep of his arm. “They are not Boars!”
The chief glared at the druid, “I am the chief of this tribe! I will speak what I like.”
The old man fell silent and bowed his head. When the chief returned his attention to the heroes, he held up the amulet in his weathered hand and resumed his story, “Whoever succeeds at these trials will recover the Antlered Crown and unite our people. My son journeyed into the forest near the mountains to attempt the trials several years ago. He never returned.” The chief’s eyes were haunted when he met the heroes’ gaze. “No other youth showed such promise, and none of his peers dared to take his place. To my shame, the Boar Clan has no champions to undertake the trials when the moon grows full this night.”
Once again, the old man interrupted, shaking his fist towards the chief. “These strangers wear the trappings of our enemies! We dare not trust them!”
The chief held up a hand to silence the wise man and kept his gaze on the heroes. “I see now that my son was slain by the Orcs you encountered,” he said. “It is good that Saruman sent you to deal with them.” Then, scratching his beard thoughtfully, he spoke to himself, “The friendship of Isengard in addition to the Antlered Crown would force the other clans to recognize the leadership of the Boar Clan.”
He seemed to ponder that idea a moment. Then, turning his attention back to the heroes, he spoke to them, “You avenged my son by dealing with the Orcs that killed him, and you fought well when we ambushed you. I believe that my son’s spirit is with you.”
The chief looked down at the amulet one last time before reaching forward to offer it to the heroes. “If you remain here, my people will demand your death. Instead, it is my wish that you take the trials in my son’s place and retrieve the Antlered Crown. If you do this, you will be spared and free to continue the Wizard’s errand.”
Before the heroes could reply, the old druid pounded his staff on the ground and shook it violently. “You cannot do this! They are not Boars! They cannot undertake the trials!”
“Consult the bones,” ordered the chief as he rose to his feet and towered over the old man. “Let the Boar spirit decide.”
The old druid reached inside his boarskins and reluctantly brought out a small purse. He opened the pouch to let the small bones inside it spill onto the ground, then he bent to his knees and lowered his face to inspect them closely.
After a tense minute of silence, the old man grunted, and rising slowly to his feet he spoke slowly, “The strangers may undertake the trials.”
“The bones have spoken,” spoke the chief. “It is decided then: You will undertake the trials to recover the Antlered Crown for the Boar Clan. Success will grant you and your master our friendship. Failure will grant you death.”
Completed: Upon your return to the village of the Boars, you present the Antlered Crown to their chieftain, who accepts it with a wide grin. “You have done well,” he says holding his prize high to the wild cheers of his clan.
After ordering a celebration, chief Turch explains the significance of the Antlered Crown to you, “This crown belonged to our king when we ruled the rich lands east of the river Isen. When the straw-heads drove us into these hills, our king died. We might have yet recovered our lands, but his three sons squabbled over who was best suited to lead and the argument divided us into three clans: Boar, Wolf, and Raven.”
“Thier fight nearly drove us to war with each other, but a wise shaman took the Antlered Crown and hid it in the woods where you found it and placed a curse on it. He told the three brothers that the one who was brave enough to retrieve the crown would be the one to lead our people, but none were successful. The spirits that guarded it were too strong.”
Then with a surprisingly friendly smile and a clap on your back, the chief continues, “Yet where others failed, you have succeeded. And now the other clans must accept the rule of the Boar.”
At the celebration feast, chief Turch makes you honored members of the Boar Clan and returns your possessions to you. Last of all he returns Saruman’s gold. As he hands you the purse, he holds your hand and says, “We are grateful to you and your master for your aid. We will make sure that you reach Tharbad safely to continue the Wizard’s quest.”
Trouble in Tharbad
Start: Looking at Tharbad, the heroes were dubious. The river town was little more than a haven of freelancers and highwaymen, filled with dilapidated buildings amongst ruined and crumbling causeways. As soon as they entered the ancient city, they inquired with several townsfolk to discover where they might find Nalir.
In due time, the heroes were pointed in the direction of a patched and ramshackle tavern, The Empty Mug. Once inside, the heroes found the Dwarf they sought sitting alone with a tankard of ale. His appearance did little to inspire confidence in the heroes, but there was a glint in his eyes when they spoke of the map that revealed a cunning mind at work.
“Aye, I have the map you seek,” he said, wiping the ale from his mouth. “However…” he continued slowly, “I sold it to a man earlier today, name of Bellach. A shady looking character, he was. Not the sort of man to take ‘no’ for an answer. But he offered a fair price, even if he was foul about it. I’m to meet him here at sundown to make the exchange… Unless you can offer a better price?” Nalir punctuated his question with a sly grin.
The heroes were eager to purchase the map, and Nalir used it to his advantage. It took all the gold from Saruman’s purse to convince the Dwarf to sell the map to them, but in the end a deal was struck. “Done!” exclaimed Nalir, clapping his hands together. “A nice bit of business! Now let’s finish it quick before that Bellach returns. I’d like to be far from here before he finds out I’ve sold the map to you. I don’t imagine he’ll take the news kindly.”
With that, Nalir stood up from his seat and moved his chair aside to get at the floorboard it had been sitting on. He lifted the board and took a rolled parchment from underneath. “Here’s the map I drew. It shows the way to the hidden chamber in Ost-in-Edhil,” he spoke with obvious pride. “Lucky to find it, I was. Elves are right clever about hiding things they don’t want found. Another Dwarf might’ve walked right over it without ever knowing it was there. I daresay you’d never find it on your own! But now that you’ve got Nalir’s map, you don’t have to worry about that…”
He was just about to hand his map to the heroes when there was a shout from the doorway. A tall man in a dark cloak stood there. He had a cruel scar across his face and his right hand was on his sword hilt. Several more sinister-looking men stood behind him.
“Bellach!” exclaimed the Dwarf.
“Is that the map you sold to me?” demanded the man in the doorway pointing at the parchment Nalir was about to give the heroes. There was murder in Bellach’s eyes. “You have made a foolish mistake,” he snarled, then put his fingers to his lips and made a loud, shrill whistle. To the heroes’ dismay, it was answered by the unmistakable sound of Orc shouts from outside the tavern.
“Kill them!” Bellach shouted to his followers as he drew his own sword. “In the name of Mordor! Bring me the map!”
Nalir wasted no time fleeing for the back door as Bellach’s men rushed inside. A roar of shouts and clanging steel filled the little tavern. Just as Nalir reached the door, it was thrown open from the outside by a large Orc. The Orc seized the map that was in Nalir’s hand, but the Dwarf’s grip was strong. After a brief struggle, there was a loud ripping sound as the map was torn in two.
“You fool!” snarled Bellach at the Orc with half a map in its hand.
In that brief moment of distraction, the heroes saw their chance. Grabbing Nalir, they shoved past the bewildered Orc and sped down the alleyway behind the tavern, the sound of pursuit close behind…
Completed: You can still hear the sound of shouts mixed with Orc cries coming from Tharbad when you reach the eastern side of the river Greyflood. You may have thrown off your pursuit for the moment, but it’s clear that Bellach and his minions have not given up the search.
“Well now,” chuckles Nalir, dusting himself off, “that was a close one!” But his laughter dies in his throat when he sees the bemused look in your eyes. His expression becomes indignant and he raises his voice, “How was I supposed to know he was from Mordor? He looked Gondorian to me! It’s not my fault he tore the map!”
At that moment, an Orc shouts clse to where you crossed the river. “They’ve found our tracks,” whispers Nalir nervously. “It won’t take them long to figure out which way we’ve gone. With the map destroyed, I’m the only one who can find the hidden chamber, and Bellach knows it. He won’t stop looking for me so easy.”
Bellach will no doubt set a watch upon the road. You’re sure to be discovered if you go that way, but you still need to reach Hollin. As you consider your options, it seems that the only course open to you is to enter the vast marshland of the Nin-in-Eilph which lies close at hand. If you can find your way through to the eastern side, you should come out near to the ruins of Ost-in-Edhil and the completion of your quest.
Nalir frowns as you explain your plan to him. “Yonder marshlands?” exclaimes the Dwarf. “There’s no path through those fens. They’ve been undisturbed for ages. Nobody goes in there. I’m grateful to you for helping me out, but no amount of gold is enough to convince me to go wading through miles of stinking water.”
Just then, there’s a loud splash followed by Orc cursing. The Orcs are making the crossing and getting closer.
“On the other hand,” begins Nalir nervously, looking in the direction of the noise, “Orcs are more like to kill me than water. And besides, I owe you for rescuing me back there. So perhaps it’s best if I accompany you to Hollin…”
With that, you lead the Dwarf into the tall reeds of the Nin-in-Eilph.
Start: With Bellach’s Orcs scouring the country around Tharbad looking for the Dwarf, Nalir, the heroes had chosen to flee with him into the Nîn-in-Eilph, a vast swampland that had been undisturbed for ages. By taking this path the heroes hoped they would throw the Orcs off their trail and come to Hollin on the other side. But after wandering for a day through the pathless marsh, the heroes were growing tired and Nalir’s complaints were getting louder.
“I told you this was a bad idea,” Nalir grumbled as he struggled through the marsh and sank to his chest. “I don’t like to get closer to water than the riverbank. Dwarves don’t swim, you see.” Despite the roguish Dwarf’s protests, the heroes trudged on. The mission they had undertaken for Saruman to find Celebrimbor’s forge was important, and all the more urgent now that the Enemy was searching for it too.
Nalir, however, cared little for Saruman and less about his mission. He had only agreed to make the crossing with the heroes for fear of the Orcs, but there was something about the swamp that made him more afraid. As they slogged through the endless marsh, they began to hear noises like gentle splashes.
A foul smell overtook the heroes and a sense of dread stopped them where they stood knee-deep in the swamp. Unconsciously, they drew their weapons and faced outward to see the murky water rippling toward them.
Nalir thought he saw a long dark shape snake its way across the surface. “There’s something out there,” muttered the Dwarf. The heroes strained their eyes but could see nothing through the fog that had settled over the swamp.
“We can’t stay here,” said Nalir, trying to stay near the center of the group. “We’ve got to find a way out.”
The heroes knew he was right. Whatever dangers lurked in the Nîn-in-Eilph, the heroes would have to brave them in order to reach the other side…
Completed: The fight amongst the fens is no easy feat: the swamp made for uncertain footing at best, and the creatures attacking you take ruthless advantage of the environment. Your battle cries echo strangely amongst the fens, and even the most practiced swordsman finds his blows robbed of momentum and grace by the muddy silt beneath your feet. However, your courage and skill carry the day, and you emerge triumphantly on the eastern end of the marsh. The strange denizens of the Nin-in-Eilph withdraw back into the swamp and you shamble away in a pell-mell retreat.
You climb a low hill before stopping to rest. As you bind your wounds, Nalir pulls off his boots to pour the water out. “Just what I deserve for trying to take a shortcut through that cursed swamp,” he mutters angrily. Then, reluctantly he nods to you, “I owe you my gratitude again. I’d have never survived to make it this far without your help.”
Nalir stands up and looks around then points south and smiles. “Well, we only need to follow the River Glanduin there the rest of the way to thr ruins of Ost-in-Edhil. Once there, I can show you the hidden door I discovered.”
Once rested, you follow the Dwarf along the shore of the Glanduin. For days you walk through the land of Hollin, a pleasant but unpopulated region. “Long ago, this place was known as Eregion. A mighty realm of Elves, it was,” Nalir explains as he walks. “The city of Ost-in-Edhil was their capital, until the armies of Mordor burned it down to the ground and all the Elves either fled or died.”
“But that was an age ago,” sighs Nalir. “We won’t find naught there now but crumbled buildings and…” The Dwarf’s words trail off as you crest a hill to see the ruins of Ost-in-Edhil spread out below you. Among the toppled stones and cracked roads of the ancient Elven city you can discern the skulking figures of Orcs prowling about and the tall figure of a man giving orders.
Bellach has arrived ahead of you.
Start: Orcs were crawling over every stone and into every hole in the ruins of Ost-in-Edhil when the heroes arrived at the edge of the valley. From their vantage point, they could see the man, Bellach, as he ordered the search.
“I should’ve guessed that scum would get here first,” hissed the Dwarf. “He must’ve led the Orcs here while we were lost in that swamp.”
The heroes looked on the scene with dismay. After all their travels, it seemed they had come too late to accomplish their mission. Then Nalir noticed something that made him growl, “He’s got the other half of my map with him! Look, he’s using it to direct the Orcs.” Suddenly the Dwarf started laughing, “That fool! He’ll never find the hidden chamber with just half. He’s searching in the wrong spot!”
Nalir’s news gave the heroes hope that they may yet discover Celebrimbor’s forge and recover its secrets before Bellach and his Orcs. However, the Dwarf had gone as far as he would, “What you do from here is your business, but with all these Orcs searching about, I daren’t go down there. If we’re seen by those Orcs, even warriors of your mettle may not survive.”
The heroes objected but it was clear that Nalir could not be convinced to lead them any further. “I’ll tell you where I found the hidden chamber,” said the Dwarf, “but I’m not going nowhere near that many Orcs. I doubt if anybody could make their way through that valley without being spotted.”
Nalir did his best to describe where the entrance to the hidden chamber was located before wishing the heroes luck and slipping away. He gave one last dubious look at the heroes before disappearing out of sight.
Turning back to the matter at hand, the heroes look out over the vale of Ost-in-Edhil and try to discern the entrance to the hidden forge at the valley’s end. They would have to move with great stealth if they wished to evade Bellach’s forces and reach the end of their quest.
Completed: After leagues and days of travel dogged by dangerous foes, you finally hold the prize for which you have labored: a partial ring-mould retrieved from the secret and ancient forge of the Gwaith-i-Mirdain, the People of the Jewel-smiths, the same Elven-smiths who forged the Rings of Power in the Second Age of Middle-earth. The servants of Mordor sought to capture it, but by your courage and skill Bellach has finally been defeated and his Orcs scattered.
Your companions fall silent as each of you gazes at this venerable relic of an earlier Age. The interior of the mould is lined with an inscription of flowing Elvish runes, perhaps written by the hand of Celebrimbor himself. If the ring-mould had been brought to Mordor, it would have surely given Sauron more strength. But in Isengard, there is hope that Saruman the White will be able to use the ring-mould to combat the power of the Enemy.
Eager to see this powerful artifact in the hands of the Wise, you begin your return trip to the Wizard’s Vale without delay. Keeping the Misty Mountains to your left, your journey towards the Old South Road that will lead you back to Isengard.
A few days travel brings you back to the borders of Dunland. As you climb the highlands of that country a new sight gives you pause: smoke rises over the hills in the distance and carrion birds circle above the reek.
War has come to Dunland.
The Antlered Crown
Start: The signs of war littered the hills of Dunland. Everywhere the heroes looked there was smoke and blood and fire. Across a wide valley, the bodies of Dunlending warriors lay slain in the dirt. Some wore the trappings of the Boar tribe, others were dressed with Raven feathers.
As the heroes searched the battlefield for survivors, they were alerted to an approaching troop by the tromp of marching feet. Looking in the direction of the sound, they descried the banners of the Boar Clan flying above an army of Wild Men. Striding proudly at the front was chieftain Turch wearing the Antlered Crown. He halted when he saw the heroes.
“Well met,” said the chief with a smile. “I am glad to see you again, but you cannot travel any further; our country is at war.” His face was stern, but his eyes were weary.
He removed the Antlered Crown and wiped his brow, then regarded the thing in his hand and frowned. “The Antlered Crown has not united the Dunlending clans as I had hoped. The leader of the Raven Clan has rejected my leadership and laid claim to the crown for himself, instigating this fight.” The large chieftain spat in the dirt to show his disdain.
“The cowards of the Wolf Clan have reserved their allegiance for the moment, but if they should ally with the Raven, I fear we will be overmatched,” he explained. Then, looking at the heroes he continued, “Yet, if the emissaries of Saruman were to ally themselves with us, the Boar Clan would surely be victorious! And you would return to Isengard with the friendship of a united Dunland. What say you?”
The heroes were reluctant to fight in the Dunlendings’ war. Yet, even if they refused, it seemed unlikely that they could escape Dunland unscathed. Better to fight alongside the Boar Clan than to flee into danger, they decided, especially if it meant they might earn friendship of the Wild Men for Saruman. Surely the threat of Mordor demanded that all free peoples unite together?
Seeing an opportunity to strengthen the West, the heroes agreed to march with Turch and his clan.
“Excellent!” bellowed the Boar chieftain. “Come, the Raven Clan is still scattered among the hills. We must find their chief before he gathers the rest of his clan to him. If we defeat the chief of Ravens, the rest of his clan will submit.”
Chieftain Turch placed the Antlered Crown back on his head and signaled to his men, “We march!”
Completed: Chieftain Turch leads the warriors of his clan in a victory shout, then turns to you with a wide grin. “The three clans of Dunland are united at last. Now that the Raven Clan is defeated, the Wolf Clan will support my rule and the Dunlendings will be one people again.”
The large Dunlending leans closer so that only you can hear what he says. There is real concern on his face. “It pains me to think that I fought against the servants of Saruman at our first encounter. Please tell your master I regret those deeds, and that I desire only friendship with Isengard. The people of Dunland are in his debt.”
You promise to share Turch’s words with Saruman when you return to Isengard. “Good,” says the chieftain, looking relieved. “I believe that the services you have done for the White Wizard shall long be remembered.”
After parting with the Boar Clan, the remainder of your journey to Isengard is uneventful. Upon reaching the great tower of Orthanc, you are greeted by Saruman. The Wizard’s face displays a triumphant smile when he learns you have been successful in your task.
“Well done!” he congratulates you as you tell him of your journeys. There is a gleam in the Wizard’s eyes as he accepts custody of the ring-mould taken from Celebrimbor’s forge. “I shall examine this mould carefully, ” he says. “Ï am certain a close study of this artifact will give the Wise new strength with which to fight the Enemy.”
When you tell the tale of your encounter with the Wild Men of the Boar Clan, Saruman lifts an eyebrow and strokes his beard. “You have exceeded my expectations by earning the friendship of Dunland. This is an even of great import.”
The Wizard peers out a tall window of Orthanc, deep in thought. “An alliance between Isengard and the Dunlendings could bring an end to their age-long strife with Rohan, and bring order to this region. I will need to send an envoy to their chieftain soon: one who can speak for both Isengard and Rohan. Perhaps King Théoden will consent to send Grima. He is deep in both our councils.” Turning back to you, Saruman’s pleasure in your accomplishments is evident. “You have done great things, my friends, and you have my gratitude,” he declares.
After a couple weeks of rest, it is time to resume your journey north. Saruman accompanies you from his tower to the gate where the guards bring your horses to you. As you climb into your saddles, the Wizard gives you a parting instruction. “Give my greetings to Master Elrond in Rivendell, but pray, speak nothing of the ring-mould. The eyes and ears of Mordor are everywhere, and even the Wise are not safe. Better that it’s whereabouts remain secret.”
You can see the wisdom in Saruman’s request and you swear to tell no one of your discovery. “Excellent,” he says, lifting his voice. “I wish you good speed in your travels. If you see Mithrandir, give him my greetings as well. Farewell!”
You ride out from Isengard and the gates close shut behind you. You have ended one journey, only to begin another. As you set out for Rivendell, you consider all your accomplishments and celebrate, if only for a moment, the great deeds you have done in Saruman’s service.
Epilogue: Mugash’s fate
One day at the end of summer, Saruman returned to the high cell.
The Wizard didn’t come in the night as he’d always done before, but at midday, and sunlight shone hot and sharp through the cell’s windows. The door quietly slid open and the Wizard strode into the cell with little sound.
Saruman nudged his staff, and Mugash was spellbound against the wall as he’d been during the Wizard’s previous visits. Saruman casually walked to one of the large windows, admiring the view of the White Mountains.
“Learning is a path that inexorably must lead forward,” the Wizard said softly. Mugash couldn’t recall Saruman ever speaking to him before, and the sound of the Wizard’s voice grated and punished his ears just as the sun stung his eyes. The Uruk growled maliciously, wanting nothing more than to tear the white-clad human apart with his clawed fingers.
“Alas, learning is a winding path. Full of twists and turns, false branches, and retraced steps,” the Wizard continued. “Thorns, pits and hardships are to be found upon it.”
Saruman patted the windowsill and turned to the Orc. “Such are the hardships of learning, that many choose to not travel its at all, satisfied instead with sitting in the soft grasses along its edge. Some start upon the path with vigor but soon lose heart. Others become quickly lost, adrift.”
“And there are those, such as the wise Gandalf the Grey, who believe some paths should not be followed at all, fearing what may be found at their end.” Mugash sneered angrily, not comprehending the Wizard’s babbling. Why had the old man come?
Then Saruman’s mood shifted. “But one may find lights that illuminate the path of learning, such as this.” He raised his hand in the sunlight, admiring a ring upon his finger. The Wizard smiled. “Long ago, there were many such lights in the world. Some would simply brighten the path. Others perceived the best route forward and shone like beacons.”
A faraway cloud momentarily cut across the sun and the room darkened. “A few of such lights, those most desirable of all, would reveal secret ways. The hidden trails connecting one path to another.” The Wizard turned the glinting ring in the sunlight, his voice thick with desire. He looked at Mugash.
“I’ve chosen you, Mugash, as the bedrock of my new power.” Saruman dropped his arm to his side and approached the Orc. “There were those of old who knew how to bend life to their will.” The Wizard traced a long bony finger along Mugash’s shoulder. The Orc barked angrily and snapped uselessly at Saruman’s hand. Saruman smiled. “What are Orcs, but Elves rewrought?”
The Wizard’s breath smelled of smoke and black cinnamon. “Alas, such paths were forgotten and have long laid dark.” He touched one of the scars on Mugash’s head and shrugged. “I thought I could manage this work, but my knowledge was too shallow. Too limited.”
Then the Wizard smiled in triumph and stood straight, caressing his ring fondly. “But I have crafted a light to guide me, and with it I’ll travel the forgotten roads.”
Saruman raised his ringed hand once more and the air began to throb. A primal fear overcame Mugash. He began to roar, and when the pain came, he roared louder still.
The last thing Mugash remembered was seeing Saruman’s outstretched hand held high in the sunlight.
A white hand.
We are going through these cycles pretty quickly this month, with 4 down already! Next up will be the Angmar Awakened cycle, after which the stories become longer and more interconnected! I hope everyone is enjoying this series, as it is taking over the blog a little bit. But the sooner we finish this series; the sooner everyone can read up on the complete stories of each cycle that the game’s developers have crafted over the years.