The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 36 (at last!!)~ Calm Before the Storm

Chapter 36

~Calm Before the Storm~

Pregnant white blooms cascaded gently from the impenetrable mass of sky, covering the foothills in a blanketing blizzard. Now and again a breath of wind would tilt the path of the thick falling snow and glass-like shards of frozen air would prick and nip any skin left to the elements.

Barely visible through the heavy snow and cloud cover, the jagged, towering wall of the Grey Mountains dominated the landscape with an overpowering presence.
Had the road not come in such nearness to it, the trails of wood-fire smoke and snow-covered roof tops of Old Estenna, dwarfed to nothing by the shadow of the mountains, may easily have been missed.

The Northern-most town of men, Old Estenna had supplied their secretive Dwarven neighbours and protectors with much of their daily bread for the last several years. Or their daily meat, for that matter.
The town lay just off the road and a few of its outlying homes dwelt among the border trees of Greenwood the Great. A branch of the Forest river wound through the center of the town, allowing for boat travel and trade in the warmer months. Its people were mostly the hardy hunter-folk who had inhabited the North for countless winters, a few descendants of Dale-refugees scattered among them.

A steadily prosperous town, if somewhat sleepy- especially for a young mind full of adventurous dreams.

But Rúan’s plans were not Thorin’s plans.
With a will as rock-hard as the mountain’s flesh, the Dwarf leader had made it very clear that curious outsiders were unwelcome, no matter their good intent. Unwelcome- or not allowed.
Nonetheless, the Northman sensed that a foul wind of trouble dogged their steps.
The missing bird, the false alarm, and the disturbing tales from the Dwarves- nothing quite added up.

“You said your sister is soon to give birth, eh?” Gormna queried pleasantly as their extra companion’s destination grew nearer.

“Her second, yes. I just hope it’s not <i>another</i> girl.” The fair Northman smiled, “We’ve got quite a handful already.”

Scratching the thinning hair atop his wide pate, sending tiny ice shards scattering about, the Dwarf counselor mused thoughtfully, “Indeed. I wish I could say the same.”

Around a hilly bend they walked and immediately the beaten, frozen road to the town rolled out before them.

“So…are there…Dwarf women?” Rúan asked after a few moments of contemplation.

Gormna laughed heartily, in spite of the few cocked eyebrows and sour expressions of the others. “Well, where else d’you think we come from? Rocks? Holes in the ground?”

The tall man chuckled sheepishly, “You never see them…”

“What about the dame with Dáin’s crowd? She shared words with your sister.”

Rúan’s frost-nibbled cheeks turned even redder and he glanced around in exaggerated embarrassment, “<i>Araw’s Hoary Hound</i>! No one heard that, right?”

The older Dwarf continued, unoffended, “Granted, Lâkhi was a little on the…brusque and burly side. Ah…but a fine, fine specimen would be the Flamebraid. Sharper than a two-edged axe, strong as an aurochs, and wields a brace of any weapon fiercer than a wildfire!”

Rúan smirked, “Doesn’t really <i>describe</i> her much…”

With a huff, Gormna shrugged and pondered, “Ah…well- <i>Mahal</i>! Hmmm…yes, yes! She has hair like molten copper- eh, a bit like yours, lad- and thighs…thighs to-“

“That’s enough, Gormna,” a gruff rumble cut off the conversation and Thorin abruptly halted the march. “We’re here, Master Rúan. Safe travels.”

From under bristling eyebrows, two cold, stormy eyes glared at him, and the waiting looks from the rest of the company pushed him along. The young Northman nodded a polite bow to Thorin, avoiding his gaze. “Thank you for letting me accompany you.” He acknowledged Gormna and Gorlath with a quick look, “Safe travels and I hope all your…business turns out for the best.”

Before he even finished his words- which held more meaning than they seemed- the Dwarf leader turned and motioned for his people to follow on their way.

Left in a swirl of tinkling white dust, a lanky, lone figure stood, with heavy shoulders, and watched his chance of a lifetime march stoically away. Breath puffed away from him like the many stone-stacked chimneys down the road, and his hawk-like eyes darted uncertainly back and forth.
Just as the dark lumbering shapes melted with the grey roots of the mountains, the last dull gleam on the Dwarven axes fading away, the Northman pulled his furred coat higher on his shoulders and pinched his numb ear tips and nose. With a lung-full of biting air, he set off at a diagonal to the Northwest, away from Old Estenna.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Like a dark, creeping chain the somber company moved over the crunching mounds of snow. Any tracks left were soon blown over by gusts of mountain wind that were growing ever more frequent.
From above, through the thick blanket of clouds, the land’s balding head looked to be splotched with a soft white mold, the contrasting bare ground and sprays of hardy tussock grass sporadically breaking up the snow-drifts.

The foothills swelled and became jagged with great wounds left in their sides, belling out towards their base in massive, spearhead-shaped gullies. Leaning pines with spindly tops caressing heaven’s chin sparsely climbed the rugged shale and only the hardiest persisted in growing without air.
Settling in the many cracks, highlighting even the dullest grey stone with its purity, the snow flakes whisked playfully across the face of the mountain.
The black, craggy caves that dotted its face were like many watchful eyes. The chasm below- a lulling mask of clouds hiding the sheer incredible depth- a yawning mouth, ready to swallow and keep. On the brow sat a finely-hewn crown crafted from the bones of the earth by the hands of her children. Their magnificence waned in her shadow, but faithfully guarded her glory and power to all ends. Just as her stone-crafted children guarded treasure of all sorts.

Doubt had chewed away at him, like rust on a bloody sword. Every minute of every hour since she left, it was on his mind.
In the darkest caverns of his heart, he knew she would come back, but ever reason stood persistent at his door: ‘You don’t know that. What if there is far more to this picture than you are seeing? Like…the man…’
She would come back, he told himself.
And the moment he set foot inside the bulwark, he knew she had.

But the weights of worry pulling on his shoulders lightened only little. He felt her- like never before. No one else seemed aware of it, but something was not right. His mind was shut and barred, as if by a thick dark fog. Imaginary blinders seemed to block his peripheral view, leading him onwards like a dazed beast.
“Where is she…” he muttered.

Heaving a creaking basket of waxed cheeses and leeks high above her head and onto a shelf, then marking the last tally on her vellum scroll, Bridi dusted her hands and stepped out of the spacious pantry. She let the iron-lined oak door thump closed behind her, the lock clicking in place on its own. Before clopping off to find another task to fill her restless hours, she paused.
Voices echoed through the Great Chambers; a couple- one rattling on and on…Gormna.

Gormna!

Short springy steps carried her swiftly up a flight of stairs and just as she passed a doorway to the kitchen she saw a flash of steel and heard a deep purr.
“Bridi.”

She skidded to a stop and whirled around, breathlessly, “You’re back!”

He stepped out and approached her, a tumultuous sea of unrest in his eyes betrayed his outward calm.
“Safely?” she asked.

Thorin nodded and was followed by an odd, lengthy silence.

“Bridi,” he said at last, “Where is she?”

The Dwarf-woman took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, “She’s here, my lord.”

“I know. Where?”

“They told you, then,” she nodded. “It’s late enough- I’d suspect in her room.”

“Thank you, Bridi,” his tone grey more brisk and he clapped her on the shoulder as he took a quick leave.

A year ago, this would’ve ignited a fearsome rage of jealousy, enough to raze a city. But now, she breathed a deep sigh of relief. They would be safe with their king among them. <i>She</i> would be safe. And perhaps he could talk a little more sense into that feather-filled brain.

Like thick, pale eyelashes or tiny Elven boats curls of shaven mallorn lay scattered over the flickering stone. A long tendril of smoke rose to the depths of darkness in the tall ceiling as one of the candle-wicks met its end amidst a pool of melted tallow.

The room, barely warmed by the sparking fire that burned in the small hearth, was filled with as much sound as the heart that beat nearby was of mirth. Even the whittling knife, as it dug into the wooden flesh and left neat winding trails behind, was solemnly silent.

It would be over soon, the voices whispered, some calming, others terribly excited. Her mind was a dulled battle-axe; it cut through nothing and only weighed her down. The cloud that hung over her reeked of despair and blood. Each whispering wind a taunt or a cry of betrayal.

She would go to him. <i>”There is no other way…”</i>

Feverish and bloated were the things that played an unending game of chase around her mind, making her dizzy and sick and wishing nothing more than rest. A fast working disease spread not more quickly and ruthlessly than his infectious power took hold of her heart and turned it to ash. To ice. To stone…

<i>”Duzka…”</i>
That same heart leapt, like a real beating heart, at the rolling quiet thunder of that word.
Her bow clattered to the ground and she instinctively clasped her chest, wide eyes and trembling lips open.
Before she could speak or rise, Thorin strode towards her, a blue flame dancing in his eyes, and his face was overwrought with a kindness and caring she had never seen before.
Suddenly, as she was wrapped by two pillars of massive strength, Vaenomar felt the heat of life surge like a geyser through her veins, the grim film was wiped from her eyes and a sigh, more profound than a child’s first breath, threw off the deadweight.
She closed her eyes and let her cheek nestle into the fur that hung over his shoulders onto his chest.
Strong hands rustled her hair and their hard calloused tips brushed against her skin, sending a tremour through her whole body. His hot breath poured over her and he muttered, “Vaenomar…at last…”
Her own pale fingers slowly slid across the sleek bear fur and fiddled with one of his dangling, silver-black braids.
“My lord…” a soft murmur finally broke her silent fast, and two crystalline orbs of cold-blue raised to his. “I’m sorry…”

He took her cheek in one hand and placed the other on her shoulder, shaking his head calmly. “No, Vaenomar. No need for that. It is not you who should apologize, anyway.”

She cast her gaze onto the many tarnished chain links peeping from beneath his leather cuirass. “But I caused you worry, I know. And for that I am sorry.”

His kingly pride told him she was right, but another knife twist in his heart drove home the pain he knew she had felt, the betrayal of having her trustworthiness questioned, her loyalty doubted.
“My cousin sends honest and humble apologies, Vaenomar. I would have dragged him back here and made him grovel, but I did not think you much wanted to see him again…”

She gave a slight laugh of agreement and the curve of his moustache twisted upward in a warm smile. “He thought he was protecting me…the old fetcher. Thinks I never grew up.” A look in his eyes was far off.

At the word ‘protect’, however, he felt her shoulders tense. “As if I need protecting,” he added meaningly, watching her reaction with unmasked concern.
He had sensed Bridi’s unrest and it coincided disturbingly with his own. Though both women knew much and had told him most of it, there was an impenetrable blackness, deeper than an Erebor mineshaft., that dwelt in Vaenomar. And he did not understand.

She made no reply, seeming to shed her troubles by clinging to him. Those little warm hands, her velvet cheek, that firm, embracing form- never again would he let her run from him. Never let this feeling slip away. He could hear the dripping of his cold heart melting beneath her touch.

But his tongue couldn’t hold, it be damned! In a confidential tone peppered with light, fatherly scolding, he said, “You <i>did</i> reek of Elf, though…”

The warmth of her embrace tore away and he was met by an angry pout, “Reeked?”

What did he expect she would do? Laugh? Still, he took the defensive and snorted. “Of Elf. Which, were it not for its bearers, would probably be deemed a good smell. Where were you?”

She stood up and stepped away from him. All of a sudden she seemed to tower over him, her broad shoulders less feminine and thick-cuirassed body lost its slender litheness. He thought a heavy cloud swept ominously around her.

A Dwarf is not accustomed to feeling small or weak or powerless. They simply refuse such petty states refuge in their stalwart beings.
Thorin folded his arms across his chest and glowered.
<i>She had changed.</i>

“In the forest- scouting, keeping watch…<i>for you</i>!” she snapped and instantly seemed to regret her tone, for she shook her head, confusedly, and plopped back down onto the bed.

<i>Or had she?</i>
Letting out a steady exhale, the Dwarf lord relaxed and dropped his arms to his sides. “Vaen…” he sighed again. “I’m- sorry.” The word was unnatural to him.

Tiny diamonds glimmered in the creases of her eyes and her flared nostrils quivered.
“No,” she breathed, “I am…”

He gulped down the warmth that sought to choke him, but instead of wrapping her in his love again, as his entire person begged to, he let his jealousy flare and mask weakness.

“Why? Was it a man? How old- no, that makes no difference. Where was he?”

A bright morning’s pink flushed across her cheeks and down her neck, and the delicate fringe of her eyelashes whisked away the moisture. The graceful arch of her brows lowered drastically and she began to reply but was interrupted.

“And what was he doing so close to our fortress? Or were you in their lands? What did you tell-“

“Thorin!” a clear voice like a flute shot through him. “My lord,” she added more calmly. “I was injured in a fall. He aided me- no questions. I was at the border of our surroundings as he was his. And no, he did not recognize me.”
She thought it best to make no mention of the fact that he carried a piece of Branbur’s handiwork. Or of the kiss that left her guilt-racked for an entire week. Or that he knew well her long-lost best friend. There was no telling where a jealous mind might go.

Each word she spoke grew more strained and wavering, hot tears hovered in her eyes just waiting to make the plunge. Thorin was silent for a long moment. Downcast eyes surveying his own thoughts carefully, he let the feeling of chastisement- another foreign state of being- soak into his hardened skin. She did not deserve this.
He trusted her- Elves or no Elves.

His lips moved without his order, his voice was a quiet tender growl, “Was he handsome?”
She gazed at her fingers kneading in her lap and shook her head, but he sensed the lie and smiled. “And yet here you are…”

As a child looks uncertainly to a parent for forgiveness after a just scolding, so the young foundling turned to her lord. “I love you, my lord. Only you.”

He took her hands in his and drew rough thumbs across her small chapped knuckles. “I know, Vaenomar,” his tone was a soft rain, cool and dark, “And you will never leave me again.”

His last words, so tenderly spoken, were like one hundred lashes. She blinked and swallowed, a hesitant biting of her lips leaving them redder and even more tempting.
Scarcely audible, she said, “I must…”

His aura of calm shattered and he jerked, muscles tensing, and sucked in a breath through his nose. His ears were playing evil tricks on him.
“What?” Shock flickered across his face, “What did you say?”

Vaenomar steeled herself. The looks of wounded pride and longing faded from her placid face and her eyes met his again, but now full of stubborn resolve. The same look she’d given him when first, as such an innocent thing, she had pleaded to fight along side him.
“He killed Branbur,” she said as though numbing herself, “Perhaps Darzûn as well. He will kill you all until he gets to me. I will not let that happen…”

In a horrified snarl, Thorin planted his legs apart, “He?! Who killed them? The Elf?!”

Vaenomar shook her head wearily, her forehead creased as she searched for the answer.
“No. No… The <i>Draegk</i>.”

She seemed unmoved by the effect her strange transformation was having on him. Why was she so damned peaceful?! So…unafraid?
Branbur had acted the same way the night he died…

“The <i>Draegk</i>? A blood-sucker? How?!” he raged, the thunder of his voice like a mountain storm. “What power does he wield that the mighty sons of Durin fall like flies to him? Folly! Let the accursed bat bring its claws here and I will rip them from its body and carve out its festering heart!”

His anger seethed volcanically and furiously he stomped an armoured boot on the ground. A piteous crack sounded and all eyes were drawn to the two shivered pieces of white wood, now dead and useless.

Vaenomar’s facade shattered with her bow, and she stifled a cry with her hand.
Her look of horror dug violently into his breast and he felt suddenly empty.

“Vaen-” he began quickly, fully meaning to apologize and reclaim her with tenderness. But instead he growled, “You will not leave.”

She stood, tall and haughty, but so full of beauty and unknown power now, that it almost made him pause. Her auburn hair rolled over her shoulder in thick plaits, and her strong, aquiline nose, arching brows and solemn neat lips made every fibre of his manhood tingle. The full chest, narrow waist, powerful thighs…

A woman, not a girl, stood before him. The same, but not the same, as he had claimed for his own out of the forest. Was it chance that brought them together? Or simply fate? The gut-feeling that had whispered and nagged and teased him that day, whispered and nagged and teased him now, saying the same thing:

“Let her go…”

“Never!” he roared, steam practically billowing from his nostrils, “You will not go!! Even if I have to lock you in the Deeps- I am NOT going to lose you!”

Carefully she watched his pacing, taking a defensive stance as she faced him. “I am not a gem to be locked under key. I am not…your Arkenstone,” her voice cracked. She took a deep breath. “There is a darkness in me- and I have fought it all my life. It is in my blood. It calls to me, Thorin, ceaselessly. It is an evil that will not sleep. Remnants of the malice of <i>Melkor</i>…Morgoth…ancient and horrible beyond imagining. I will defeat it or die trying. But I will <i>not</i> let it touch you.”

Feeling his grasp slipping he scrambled madly, as a man hanging over a precipice does in a last desperate attempt to live. He marched up and seized her by the arm, bringing her down onto the bed in one fluid movement. Her legs dangled over the side and she held tightly onto the heavily-muscled arm that trapped her below him.
He bent down close and his breath scorched her cheek. “I am your king, <i>duzka</i>, and you belong to me.”

As the familiar, haunting chill of stale air crept into his bones, and the icy claws of that same strange power covered his eyes and heart in blackness, Thorin lowered himself onto her, pressing his mouth hotly onto hers in a first kiss.

~~~~~

Girding the twin scimitar to her hip and clasping a steel brooch about her woolen collar, Vaenomar idly let the rivulets of salt water flow down her cheeks. She could still feel the tickle of his beard on her chin, taste his wet kiss on her tongue, and hear his pained groan as he slid to the ground against the wall when her power enveloped him and sapped his strength unto its own.

And she wept as she- unable to leave with another look- fell to her knees beside him and kissed his hands and bathed them in her tears, placing her forehead against their cold, hard flesh.

“I <i>am</i> yours, my king,” she sobbed quietly, “My lord.”

At last, the young woman raised herself stiffly and bowed. Through uneven breaths, she whispered and pressed her balled fist hard against her throbbing heart. “And I love you…Thorin… Farewell.”

~~~~~~~~~

The entire plate of food Bridi was carrying clattered to the ground when a roar like a vengeful dragon curdled her blood to cheese.

“VAENOMAR!!” it screamed.
And again.

His voice was a hoarse bark, a wild ocean, a mourning mother. The instant she heard it, she knew what had happened.

Gormna and his brother, who had remained in the Halls after their journey, heard it too. Gorlath rounded the corner of the kitchen with wide bloodshot eyes and the older soon after, both looking to her for orders. Dread was written all over their faces.

Echoing rapidly through the many stone halls, Thorin’s heavy boots made an unsteady, thudding run for the postern door. Bridi cringed as he roared again, just before going out, then the door clanged behind him.
With a nod she ordered the brothers to follow her. So it was upon them, then, the fate she had hoped and prayed to avoid.

A plan. They needed a plan.

~~~~~~~~~~~

The sound of his heartbeat matched the speed of his feet. Branches of dead winter slapped him across the face and his shins were whipped by the sleeping foliage as he bounded agilely onwards. Madly, he tore through the woods, and a cold sweat trickled down his sides.

“They would be safe,” he kept muttering between puffs of steam, “Safe.”
But safe from what?
Tethrin’s keen Elven sense boiled in warning within him. Skidding to a stop, he caught onto a tree and leaned there, catching his breath.

The forest was deafeningly silent, even the shrill tinkling of the surrounding snow drifts halted. A surge of darkness filled the back of his eyes and a suddenly it felt as though a frozen gauntlet groped for his soul. Murmuring the blessed name of Eru, he clasped his heart, panting, gulping at the air, as the effect was replaced by a sickening, poisonous smell of dread.
So deep no human ears could sense it, a vibration of air, like giant wings flapping, made him freeze and forget to breath. Moments later a huge black shadow, spanning over many trees, sailed noiselessly overhead. Its windless wake left him hollow and trembling, and he stood for too many moments one with the tree that supported him. A hollowness filled with such evil that his knees nearly buckled, his being refused to go on.
But he did.

Mind blurred like the forest that whirled past, trying to grasp the sudden plight he found himself in, he neared the place of the Glade-Keeper camp. No guard gave a warning call or asked for a password. No sounds of life and liveliness came from his fellow Elves. They were all gone, scouring the forest…for a woman!
What kind of captain sends his men on a mission without telling them why? What did he want with her? Why was he so ill-tempered of late? Why had he hurt Eärón? And what, on this good earth, had possessed Tethrin to encourage his friend to defy the captain and offer to return with the news?!
He slowed to a jog. Grey, white and dark, slate brown wheeled around him. His temples boomed, claws seemed to dig into his shoulders, and an angry voice howled in his head.
“Alcarín is right! Eärón is betraying you.”

“No!” he gasped, but pressed on at a slower lope.

“He is tainted. The cursed blood of Man runs in his veins. He is driven by lust. <i>She</i> is a bearer of true darkness.”

Though he attempted to force the hissing voice out of his head, the memories began to roll before his eyes. Eärón had spoken of the mysterious woman in the forest very little indeed. And he <i>had</i> seemed rather perturbed ever since meeting her. That could not make her evil, though!

“Do not doubt your thoughts for they are pure and full of truth! Eärón has fallen into her snare- Alcarín wants only to protect his people: You- and all the others. Find her.” The voice melted into an almost caress-like female sound,
“Kill her.”

Mechanically, Tethrin drew his blade and walked; he had entered the clearing of tents.
Turning in a cautious circle to take in his surroundings, he sensed the source of all the malice that now churned in his beloved forest. It was so near, and the voice urged him with such force, he could not discern the ugly howling from the silky whisper.

He stopped and breathed deeply. The soft leather grip of his sword was warm in his palm, but a grinding, icy wind from nowhere insisted on muddling his thoughts.
He did not even know who <i>she</i> was. He trusted Eärón, but it would not be the first time his friend had been driven by passion. And Tairiel? Why was she here…really?

Dragging a trembling hand through his hair, Tethrin tried to dispense the chorus of warnings and orders that writhed in his brain as he turned about warily. Any moment now, it felt as though something horrible would leap out at him.
Its power choked him, it was so strong. Her evil? Something ancient- older than him, but not his people. Everything began to wheel around, whispers, squeals, and hisses made his skin crawl and he clawed at his own head as it felt about to burst.

Then, like a ray of the sun in the deepest mire, or a hand of safety to a drowning man, the brazen rasping caw of a raven shattered the stifling mind-mist and shook him.

The majestic bird swooped gracefully down and landed on the top of the Captain’s tent. Tethrin breathed a deep sigh and caught his breath.
It looked meaningfully at the Elf and gave another hoarse cry, and great black wings opened slightly as if in readiness.

Suddenly upon his lips he felt words forming.
“Cursed One- Reveal thyself!” he ordered in perfect Quenya, “The Light has found you!”

The tent opening flapped and out stepped the Captain.

Tethrin stumbled backwards a step. In the recesses of his mind, he caught a glimpse of glittering silver waters and hills and forests of lush emerald, and his spirit was calmed.

“Where is he? the dark, velvet voice demanded, a perfect marriage of those that had swarmed Tethrin.
The Elf bit his lip and lied for the first time in his life, “I could not find him.”

The Captain’s brow grew dark and he stepped forward, the ebony cloak that enveloped his tall, thin form flicking like black flame.

As he drew closer, Tethrin could make out strange, sharp protrusions beneath the fraying mantle and he thought the Captain hid something beneath its folds.

“Where are they?!” he demanded again, this time seething with venom.

Sword still in hand, Tethrin gulped and shrunk back. “They?” <i>How did he know?</i>

Alcarín’s eyes blazed upon hearing the call of the raven behind him. All colour drained from his skin and his thin lips drew into a cruel snarl as the incantation again fell from Tethrin’s lips.

“Reveal yourself!”

The Captain whipped around and hissed toward the bird. The next moment a harsh flutter of rough wings entered the clearing and a tattered, bloody crow dove towards the raven. A loud thud was followed by angry caws and the clatter of sharp beaks and claws.
When he turned back, his face was even more drawn and haggard, far more than just from fatigue. His eyes were an empty dull black and a wave like ink coursed down the strands of gold that were once Alcarín’s hair. Towering over Tethrin, the swirls of his cape pushed to the side, revealing hateful spines and iron teeth of a hulking suit of black armour.

As Tethrin finished slowly, eyes widened, heart sinking fast, “The Light has found you,” a grin, wrought with gnawing malice, spread on the Captain’s face. Two teeth were sharp and elongated like a wolf’s and a red gem at the center of his chest-plate flickered ominously.

“I gave you a chance,” the creature said in a sickly laugh, and moved forward.
The Elf threw himself aside and with a battle cry, such as he’d never used before, brought his blade down heavily on the outstretched arm of the other. The former Captain hissed and lurched from the force of the blow, but Tethrin’s sword glanced off the ebony gauntlet and sent him teetering backwards.

“Pathetic!” cackled the fanged creature, “No Elf nor Man has the power to defeat me! My force will grow and I will cover all the North in Shadow. Soon- I will surpass even Angmar! Feed me worm!”
Struggling with all his strength, Tethrin could do nothing against this overwhelming evil as it seized him in iron-clad grips and raised him helpless to its bared fangs.
He closed his eyes as his jerkin was torn away and the tender skin of his throat punctured. His bones ached, fever raged, and his life blood drained.

“Silver glass,” he murmured, and on the distant shore he thought he saw his mother’s smiling face.

As he was dropped carelessly to the hard ground, it felt as though two barbed spearheads were ripped from his neck. He weakly tried to push himself up, groaning and gasping, and a hot, thin trickle of blood danced down his chest.
“There is no darkness,” he spat, struggling for breath, “That can defeat the Light!”

A sharp armoured boot forced him onto his back, the impact launching a wheezing death rattle in his lungs, and it pressed its iron plates into his ribs. The same sneer now showed blood-stained teeth and lips, the ashen-yellow of unliving skin wrinkled in hate. Drawing his own sword from a giant sheath on his hip, the cursed one bent slightly and whispered,

“It already has.”

But Tethrin did not hear the squelch of the jagged blade in his own stomach, nor the swoosh of wings as a huge horror of feather and scales landed and bore its master up. He felt no more pain.
Just as darkness seeped over his sight, the last movements departed from a ragged dark form as it lay limp, like him, on the wintery floor.
The raven, he thought, and a pang of sadness brought tears to his fading eyes.

But still shining in brilliant blues and greens in the white light of the falling snow, a sleek black bird left the pile of bloody feathers and flapped with strength into the air.

Tethrin smiled and shut his eyes at last. “Valar protect them…”

The Saga of Vaenomar – Chapter 35 ~There is Always Hope~

Chapter 35
~There is Always Hope~

Bubbling of excited wrens, grumbling of a hungry stomach, the jarring clang of a working smithy and a thousand other voices throbbed in her ears as with trembling fingers she fiddled with the chest’s latching. Too many voices demanding too many things.
 It was impossible to heed any one or all. She could simply obey the clearest order.

“I come or you.”

 The smell of freshly oiled leather was sweet and the softness of her armour warmed her as she pulled it on, piece by piece- but she felt no respite.
“I must go,” she muttered in a daze back to the voices, “I must. There is no choice for me…”
She belted on her dagger and axe, and slung the hand-carved bow over her shoulder. Not even bothering to give a parting glance, she pulled her hood out from under her quiver, over her head and slipped out of her room.
 Nothing else mattered. He couldn’t come here.

 Her footsteps made no sound on the cold, stone floor of the Halls, and the torches along the walls were unlit. Her shadowy figure moved with feline grace towards the main courtyard beneath the mountain. From there the postern door, and then the main gate… It wasn’t the first time she’d snuck out from the town before, but it would be the most difficult with the watch doubled. But her flighty thoughts moved no further ahead than the first step: the door.

 “Go! Go! Go!” the voices screamed and her feet picked up speed along with her heart beat. The stone echoed the slight patter of her footsteps as if chastening her haste to leave it.
“Farewell,” mouthed her lips.
 On rounding a corner, she could see, down the corridor and across the vast room, the door to outside. Almost there. Her legs moved with a numbness, their pace determined and never slackening.
 But just as she came within fifteen paces of the stairs, a short, broad silhouette stepped casually out from the wall, where it had reclined in the shadows, and blocked her path. Bristling arms folded under a full chest, a pointed voice said, “And where, in Durin’s name, are you going?”

 Vaenomar froze in her tracks, her heart leaping madly into her throat. Words stuck, and wild thoughts raced through her mind: the voices and their countless demands and warnings.

 Bridi sighed and drooped her shoulders a little in relaxation. “Vaenomar,” she tapped her metal boot on the stone, “I thought we talked about this? Eh? It seemed to me like we actually accomplished something…for once,” she added.

 A misty curtain seemed to slowly fade from the younger woman’s face and little glistening droplets formed on her lashes. She bit her lip, still unable to speak, and her trembling fingers, after a moment of hesitation, fumbled with a pack on her belt.
Slowly she came forward, blinking back tears, her form tense with anticipation and doubt, and placed a tiny roll of parchment in Bridi’s hand.
Unrolling it, the Dwarf took a quick, blank look and shook her head, “What’s it say?”
Vaenomar gulped and her voice quivered as she pronounced the words slowly, “I come…or you…”

 Bridi’s cynical stare remained unchanged and she shrugged, “And? That doesn’t even make sense.”
Vaenomar hung her head and took in a breath so deep it racked her entire being. “Bridi,” she sighed, exasperated, “If I do not go to him, he will attack us all…here.”

 Bridi nodded, yet unmoved, “And so you’re going to give yourself to him…?”
Her stoic, stony Dwarven manner made the ordeal seem so different. So much…less desperate.
Vaenomar’s head bobbed side to side, as if to say, ‘You don’t understand’, “I must face him. He’s after me. I want to face him.”
Nonchalantly, Bridi cast her eyes about the dark corridor and appeared to take a thoughtful stance on the girl’s desperate case.
“Well, now,” she said at last, “How sensible. You wish to engage in battle an ancient monster- that even your trainer could not defeat, and has slain too many others. You wish to enjoin a battle you cannot win. Hm… Obviously a very well thought out plan. Undoubtedly.”

 Bridi might as well had slapped her with a cold fish called Sense.
Softly Vaenomar ventured, “We don’t always have time to plan, Bridi…”
“Well, now that we do, why don’t we take advantage…and plan, eh?”

 A flood of emotion washed the spell that ensnared the girl and it was swept away like a leaf on a waterfall. Her back thudded against the stone wall and she slid down to her feet, burying her tearful face into her hands.
 Never before, not even when facing death in the Deeps, had she felt to utterly alone and lost, groping about in the pitch black mire of uncertainty. Waiting in dread for the enemy to come. Come for her. Praying with bated breath that the man she loved would be safe from the vengeful curse that pursued her. Hoping, somehow, to be given the power to rid the world of this evil. And yet, none of this seemed possible. All had turned bad too quickly to go back; to turn around.
‘No happy ending for you…’ the voices had taunted. But she didn’t care. All she wanted now was to give back.
Thorin, Branbur, Kjar…Bridi…they all had taken her in, in their own ways, and made her something different, powerful, a force to be reckoned with.
The least she could do would be to try and save them from a fate she herself had brought upon their heads. And just by being who- or what- she was:
Of the line of the Fallen Númenóreans. Worshippers of Melkor and Kin- Betrayers. Blessed with the wisdom and power of the Children of Ilúvatar, and cursed with the bad blood and power-lust of their faithless betrayal.
 Why else had she understood Tharkûn all those months ago, when he had addressed her in Adûnaic? Whatever parent had abandoned her in Taurëmith must have taught their child the tongue of her ancestors. In ancient days, the Firstborn had taught her people to speak to animals and to feel nature as part of them. The Black Númenóreans had corrupted that power, forcing it to bend to their wills.
Queen Beruthiel…and her cats… Perhaps the story was true. Had the Elves never wondered about their little protege’s name?
Or did they know all along…
What about Grimsvodn? Who was he, really?
Too many doubts. Too many questions.

 She wondered at what her life would be like had she never been taken by Thorin…
“As worthless and pathetic as it is now,” she muttered with a sob, forgetting she was not alone.

Steel boots shifted and a figure seated themselves heavily beside her along the wall.

 “Heroes are not something of everyday lore, you know, Vaenomar…” said Bridi, her harsh tone now warm and quiet. “Especially not among Dwarves. We only have a handful that make it into the great tales, and most of those are kings.” She paused a moment, thoughtfully, and loosened her finger joints. “But among us- in our settlement, our- family, if I may- we’ve gotten lucky. Old Branbur… he was a hero. Made it out of Dale the day it burned. Trained the king’s sons. He died fighting…
“Lord Thorin- well, he’s our greatest hero…and still breathing. But you know what, Vaen…we’ve got one unlike any other. Our own-” she sniffed, searching her memory, “Beren…almost. You remember Beren’s tale, right? Well, you know who ours is?”

Vaenomar tugged on her braid, but said nothing.

 “A woman. Quite young, by any standards. Pretty enough- even if she is too thin. And she’s got the longest damned legs any Dwarf has seen- or tried to keep up with.”

Vaenomar shifted and gulped down tears.

“Came to the rescue of an entire Dwarven patrol. Alerted them to an impending ambush, and saved their thick hides to boot, even when it meant blatantly disobeying her parole and risking her young, inexperienced neck. Strong as a Dwarf, quick as an Elf- she even uses old magic…”

 A stifled choke mixed with a sniffle was all that came from the blushing listener.

“But on top of it all…she’s done what no other has done before. Got a guess as to what that might be?”
 The girl’s heart swelled to bursting, and warm tears coursed down her cheeks and drenched her knees. She shook her head with another loud gulp.
“She broke a stone. Shattered it. She thawed an iceberg that had been frozen solid for over a hundred long years. And without any magic, too- or at least that I know of. She climbed the mighty Oak…and holds a gem more precious than the Arkenstone. Do you know what that is?”

 Vaenomar’s form shuddered and she hugged her knees tighter, but her bowed head nodded ever so slightly.
Bridi’s firm hand thumped on her back, “So…you see at least one reason why you cannot leave? We need our hero. And he needs his woman…”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 “…And when it comes to hero-worship- ha!- grown men are the worst! Children- they can’t help it, but,” he chuckled, “…I’m heavily guilty…”
Gormna cast a confused glance at the tall, lanky man, “Worship?”
Rúan shrugged, sniffing between every word from the eager, nipping air. “What my sisters call it. You know…being in total awe of someone- a hero, perse- and, well, as a child, wanting to be like them when you grow up…”
 It was Gormna’s turn for merriment, “Oh and you never grew out of that?”
The Northman paused thoughtfully and blew hot breath into his gloves, “No, I suppose I didn’t,” and he grinned mischievously with a nod towards the stolid, majestic figure that led them, “You Dwarves, though…”
 The muttered conversation of the nearest two of the company, Ljofir and Sakka, suddenly halted and, with ember-bearing glares, they waited for the outsider to go on, almost daring him to misstep.
 But Rúan’s lip twisted higher and he pretended not to notice, “You Dwarves…have far more folks to call heroes than we do. Old militia leaders, all grey and sleepy-eyed now. My father…old Silver Bearclaw… Most have passed on, leaving nothing but soft children raising urchins of their own.” Between wet sniffles, Rúan finished, wrapping his woolen scarf another time around his neck, “It’s always been in my night and day dreams to change that tradition… To become something more. To do something…different.”
 Gormna nodded, deep in thought. He’d heard plenty of similar speeches from hot-blooded, rebellious youngsters, just like this long-legged, spindly lad. But perhaps it was the fact that he had left the comforts of home, that Gormna felt inclined to consider Rúan’s words as something more than wishful thinking.

 “Hmmm,” mused the ageing Dwarf aloud, as he watched his younger brother fall into line next to Thorin. “What will you do, lad, to alter your future? Not marry? And have rusty-haired, scrawny pups like you?”
 Rúan laughed softly, “Oh I don’t know. Not yet, at least. I’d make a terrible father…too used to being mothered by my many sisters.”
 “Then what?” Something in those crafty, opal eyes made Gormna pry further, feeling sure of some buried treasure.
 Rúan’s smile turned a shade hesitant and he shrugged, “Well…I-” his voice fell low in pitch and tone, “Not going to stay in Old Estenna, that’s for sure…”
With raised brow, Gormna awaited a confession.
 “Alright,” chuckled the man, throwing up his hands and immediately burying them beneath his armpits again. “I want to…go somewhere. Anywhere. That’s just exactly why I asked to join your party. If I know anything about Dwarves, it’s that adventure finds them.”

 The wild, tangled locks of the Dwarf king up ahead swayed slightly as he shook his head.
He heard every word.

 “You mean,” asked Gormna, amazement piqued, “It is your wish to- stay with us?”
Rúan’s cheeks flushed even more than their cherry-red chappedness could, “I would. I would like to help.”
 Gormna, in shock, opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by a gruff, “No,” from up ahead.

Thorin finally turned, briefly, and glared at Gormna. “We will part ways at Old Estenna, as planned.”
 The Northman’s jaw snapped shut and he swallowed down a wave of hurt pride and disappointment.
 Not sure how or what to follow with, Gormna hung his head a little, and for a good long while naught but the soft tramp of boots over a thin layer of fresh snow was heard.

 “I’m sure your folks would wonder what happened to you, anyways, lad,” said Gormna softly, after quite some time of contemplation, “One can’t just disappear off into Durin-knows-where without at least dropping a subtle hint.”
 Rúan shot a wary glance at Thorin’s back from deep-set eyes. “I gave more than a hint, Master Gormna,” he muttered, “Dána knows my plan. In fact…she suggested it.”

 “Plan?” thought Gormna. The boy definitely had more going on in that pale head of his than he let reveal. “Plan… not, say, intent?” queried the counselor, unsuspiciously as possible.
 With a shrug, Rúan’s lowered spirits tried to throw off their heavy mantle, “Eh, whatever you want to call it. You’re the one with the fancy words. I…only wish I was broad and strong enough to tote one of those man-weight bear-skins around on my back all day. I’d sure be warmer!”

Gormna just snorted; time for a subject change apparently.

 And the miles stretched on, many sets of short legs and a pair of long ones moved, stiff with continual motion and the bite of Winter’s fangs. They were nearing half way.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Oh lady, beloved of golden sunlight…”
 “Dearest Lady, enchantress of souls…”
  “Blessed one of the Forest’s aura…”

“My Lady Tairiel,
I, your most humble and doting servant, dare to write to you, only to confess in deepest reverence the pain the absence of your fairest presence has inflicted upon my pathetic being.
One cannot put any amount of blame on a soul so pure and radiant as yours, and so shall I not, as one who admires even your slightest syllable. But the throb of my severed heart as it reflects on your departure and absence, ever draws its owner, its living seat, earthwards in prostate grief.

Lady Tairiel, I lo-“

 With a clenched, frustrated sigh, Silfdas crumpled the elegantly inked parchment and tossed it across the room, so that it ricocheted off a post and rolled into the recesses beneath a dresser.

 No matter how many different adjectives for beautiful he conjured, or how painfully he recalled the day of her departure- his mind ever returned to another. Tall and graceful, as well, with locks just as purely golden that flowed like to a banner of honey behind her. One whose age was far greater in wisdom, but never touched her physical form.

 On arriving back from the Glade Keeper’s camp, cold, sore and head full of foreign thoughts and notions, Silfdas had come straight to his own abode and collapsed in exhaustion into an even more fitful slumber. There was too much; too much to contemplate, to consider. Eärón’s strange state, and…Alcarín. And that was exactly why he avoided his lady- his true lady- in mind and body.
 What would he tell her? How? For he could only put if off so long.

He stood up, leaning on the desk covered in crumpled pieces of paper, and sipped the carved wooden goblet of water. He hadn’t eaten since early this morning and that was many, many hours ago.
 Leaving his modest, quiet study and bedroom, he came into the main space of his small abode. Just as he crossed the threshold into the kitchen, a knock sounded on the entrance post. He turned quickly to see a dark silhouette hovering just outside.
“Who’s there?”
The figure pulled aside the door-curtain so that the firelight from inside illumined their features.
Relieved, Silfdas sighed: it was only Lord Arendial’s servant.
Aiya, Silfdas,” he greeted him quickly, “My lord, Arendial, requests your presence. I came earlier, but you did not answer.”
“I was not here,” Silfdas broke in, “Tell my lord I will come immediately.”

 So much for a meal. Silfdas turned around to redress himself in the heavy cloak, now a bit soiled on the hem.

 

 “Of course, I had thought Túro Lenwë would prefer the latter, but I see it is not so. What we must consider is…”
The deep, musical hum of Lord Arendial’s voice floated like fog above a field at dawn in Silfdas’ subconscience. He nodded and looked hard at the floor, seeming to absorb every word spoken, while in truth, his thoughts were in quite a different realm.

 “I am not sure I have your interest, my friend,” Arendial’s softened tone startled his daydreaming companion, “Other matters hang heavily upon you, I can see it.”
“No, no, my lord, forgive me-” Silfdas endeavoured to cover himself, but the lord shook his head, “Worry not. Return to me on the morrow, at your leisure. And rest yourself. You look very tired.”
In truth, he was very tired and Arendial had not seemed to mind postponing their chat- about what, he had no inkling.

 There still had been no news of Tairiel, but somehow he was not surprised. The elevated track and stairways that rose many feet off the ground wound about the thick trunks of mallyrn, shimmering all over with a brocade of frost and cool, still blue in the dark of evening.
He followed the flet-path that made its way behind Lord Arendial’s home and eventually descended to the lower level dwellings where he resided.
Straight above him now, masked from below by an intricate web of branches and hardy leaves, was the house of Belrien.

 The realization caused him to halt his steps at a cross-section, where a long flight of twisting stairs ascended to the heights and one delved lower into the city.

 Many times he had taken the caring, and perhaps a little blinded, responsibility of warning the young Tairiel of the unsavoury character of her associations. Done, of course, in a very roundabout way, and trying very hard not to step on her lovely toes- figuratively speaking, he still had stuck out his neck for her, and with no immediate reward in mind. Why? Because he cared for her.
 But who had done much for him, had treated him politely, tenderly, almost- as an equal…? And would he not do the same for her as he would Tairiel?
He arranged the spacious, velvet hood over his head and determinedly took the high route.

 His stomach turned a few circles and stayed upside-down and shivers shot up and down his arms. The flickering bluish flame in the lantern on the elegant front porch cast his shadow upon the heavy curtain, much larger and broader than its owner. More like…the smith’s son. That illegitimate half-elf creature. It felt strange not to have that age old anger and jealousy burning at the thought of the man. All he felt now was a black, creeping worry that slowly began to gnaw at his soul.
 The same worry forced his sweaty hand to knock.
Inside he could hear the shuffle of footsteps aroused by his soft tap on the wood. Then a smooth, stern male voice, issued from a distance within the house, “Don’t bother yourself, Ilurë. I’ll answer.”
 Silfdas jerked in terror, “Belegren!” He hadn’t counted on that possibility!
A second meeting? At their house?! If anything might arouse suspicion, that would.
But before his nerve completely failed him and he had time to flee, the heavy drape was pulled aside and the powerful, stately Captain of the Guard stood before him.
“The stars greet you, my friend.” His tone was only less cool than before- Eärendil’s light! Was that really just this morning?
Silfdas bowed, thoughts chasing each other wildly through his brain, trying to spill out in the havoc. “Blessings, sir,” he finally managed.
 The imposing Elf folded his arms across his chest with an expectant smile. But it bore no warmth. He knew what brought the visitor to his doorstep, but it was evident this wasn’t going to be easy.
There was no getting around it. “My lord, I know the hour is late and I am intruding on your hospitality a second time, but I have a delivery for your sister, Lady Belrien. I believe she would wish to have it as soon as possible.” As he spoke, he prayed to every Vala that ever loved Elf, to not let Belegren offer to take it himself. He didn’t know what excuse he would make.

 The proud warrior shifted his weight and nodded, as if trying to bring two mental threads together. Silfdas waited on shards of glass for his answer.

“Unfortunately, she is not here.”

 All at once the little Elf’s heart rose and dropped. Not here?! It was nearly ten and she was always home for the night around eight.
He must have seen or sensed more than mere disappointment in Silfdas’ eyes, for Belegren relaxed a little and offered, “It is late, and I know not for sure where she is…but…” he hesitated and his sigh revealed a discontent, “But you may inquire on the city’s ground. I try to stay out of her affairs, but people will talk…”

 Silfdas understood completely, having gleaned much from such talk over the years.
Hantanyel, my lord Belegren, for your aid,” Silfdas bowed again and made to rid the captain of his presence.
“Tell her-” Belegren began and shook his head, “Never mind. Goodnight, Silfdas,” he said, in a much tamed manner.

 He didn’t know what madness took him, but the nagging dark at his mind’s edge broke loose upon his tongue, “Captain…sir,” he blurted out, “I’ve been to the camp of the Glade-Keepers…of Captain Alcarín…”
 Intrigued, Belegren immediately turned back.
“I’m not entirely sure why I am saying this- but- if I were- no,” he breathed deeply, “It’s just- there is something not quite right there.” He gulped and shook his head, “I don’t know what it is…but you-“
 “Indeed. Thank you for alerting me,” interrupted the Captain with gravity and pondered his words. “You seem a trustworthy fellow,” he said, more hopeful than convinced. “I shall look to it straight away. Is there anything else you can tell me?”

“The captain…” was all that came out and even that was difficult.

 Belegren nodded and his wisened face took on a deep searching expression. Turning slowly to the door, he added over his shoulder, “I wish you well in finding her.”

 

 As always, the descent down the ten or so flights of stairs was far more tiring than the going-up. Despite the anticipation in his mind, though, Silfdas’ feet followed each other rapidly to step after step, nearly missing one and sliding the rest of one stairway.
Belegren’s mood had been unsettling, as the same unsurety and aloofness rife in Silfdas’ thoughts seemed to pervade his own. Especially concerning Lady Belrien.
But he couldn’t know what Silfdas knew. Not unless he read his thoughts…

 ‘…On the city’s ground…’ He couldn’t imagine what Lady Belrien would be doing down there this long after moonrise. If the tree-heights were complicated to travel around, with their many stairways, flet-bridges and different level, the ground level was vast. Almost endless places to look- or to hide, were that the desire. The twisting walls integrated seamlessly with the surrounding forest life and brooks and gullies, trees and brush, houses, shops, market stalls and the Palace grounds and gardens. Taurëmith may have been a village compared to the subterranean caverns and massive forest realm of the Greenwood, but it was large enough to lose someone in.
Where to start…
 He paused to catch his breath at the last stair, watching the puff of steam form whispy clouds, blue in the soft oil-lights, that dissipated slowly in the night air. Across the way and up the hill a little warm glow illumined a narrow window of the now quiet training barracks.

 Vilenas! That ancient sage-warrior saw all and knew all. Nothing that happened in this city escaped his knowledge. Silfdas started a reinvigorated step towards the great arched structure, but hesitated a moment after.
He might ask about Eärón… What with all the intrigue, meeting and reflection- Silfdas was quite to the brim with ‘Mûmak’ on his mind. Anyways, such a conversation would be incredibly uncomfortable… Perhaps, the old master wasn’t there; it was very late.

 But as he stealthily approached the open doorway, ‘should I, should I not’ running through his mind, a noise inside arrested him. He peeked around the corner and, seeing no one, stepped inside, listening intently. A light grunt issued from an alcove to his far left and down the wide hall, lined, on either side, by practice mannequins.

 The things that kept him busy over the years had never involved the use of a weapon- his tongue and wit were the sharpest tool he needed. Or had needed. The hall was unfamiliar to him and the corner from whence the movement came was dim and out of his sight.
With silent steps he neared the T intersect and prepared a profound greeting for the Master. But all words were torn from his lips on rounding the corner.

 Assuming her full height and towering nearly a head over the hunched Silfdas, the Lady Belrien held outstretched towards him, as if he was expected, a heavy leather cuirass, feminine in build and wrought all over in scrolling, organic motifs and raised ridges that outlined bodily curves.
“Help me, Silfdas,” her demeanour was stern, like her brother’s, yet calming, with an intensity that took his heart with groping, cold fingers.

 Slowly he took the offered armour, helplessly gazing at her arms outstretched and waiting, body clothed in close-fitting wools and fur, and torrents of morning sun rolling down her back, gathered high behind her head by a silver clasp.

 It was a feat that he was able to place the pieces of armour at all, so enthralled was he, but, tongue-tied and awestruck, his thin fingers tenderly laced up her side, her elbow-length vambraces with silver-inlay and a hidden knife, and the steel-spined leather shin-plates.
She didn’t heed his fumbling, or the fervent adoration that gushed from his eyes, but stared on ahead, steadily breathing in and out, with enchanted calm.

 Wonder and questions swarmed him like a hot wind, amid the many other sensations that burned within him. His fingers tingled as they brushed the satin skin of her hand. He could feel her pulse as he pulled a heavy velvet cape over her shoulders and pinned it with her white jeweled brooch about her throat.
 Stepping back with a bow upon finishing, he eyed longingly the impressive, stunning beauty.

 The muscles of her jaw rippled tightly and a subtle flare of her nostrils betrayed her inward unrest, though try as she might to conceal it with determination.

 As he looked on with short, shallow breaths, from a nearby table she took up a long, sheathed hand-and-a-half sword, with a deadly curved blade and strapped a full quiver over her breast. Onto the opposite shoulder she slung her famous longbow, its own name, Naltirno, being the origin of the Glade-Keeper’s, the smooth mallorn of its shaft etched and inlaid with riverlets of gold.

 Belrien stretched out her hand and the velvet tips of her fingers touched his cheek, “My silent and ever-faithful friend.”A certain distress hovered just behind the outward calm of her eyes.
 By her look and that single precious touch a newfound and altogether different type of loyalty sprung to life in his being. It burned like a newly lit forge, coaxed on by the wind of bellows, hot and dangerous- but willing to go anywhere; risk anything.

 “My lady,” his voice trembled uncontrollably, trying to come to grips with just what was happening. “Where are you going?”
 This simple question, though not at all what he had planned to say, called forth a shift across the lovely visage. She didn’t hesitate, but turned and took up a satchel from the ground.
“I must go. He has called for my aid.”

 As if nothing had happened, no farewells were needed and it wasn’t remotely strange that she was departing, Belrien emotionlessly turned and, with long strides, made for the door.
Silfdas started out of the waking dream and hurried after her, chiding the madly throbbing heart within him. He took the pack from her shoulder with a simple, “Let me,” and endeavoured to keep up.
 She marched straight ahead, not even glancing behind with a strong determined drive.
“He??” Silfdas gasped in an attempted whisper.
“Alcarín,” she answered bluntly as they neared the gate.

 The guard didn’t question, but threw open the gate for the Lady before she arrived.

“My lady!” Silfdas panted, now jogging, “Please, hear me out for a moment. I- I have news about- him. He is- there are things you might like to know. No- you would definitely want to know!”

“Another time, Silfdas,” she said bluntly and nodded to the gate-guard, “Tell my brother, I will return in a few days… I hope.”

 Again unsurety! Lady Belrien was never anything but teeming with well-earned, settling confidence. Once again, he felt the same jealous wrath boil his blood. Alcarín…

 In a last desperate measure, Silfdas threw his narrow, crooked form in her path and blocked the gate’s opening.
“My lady! There is a fell spirit in the Captain Alcarín and you must hear me!” he pronounced clearly and aloud, his voice suddenly finding its strength, “I do not know what he wishes by bringing you to him, but- please-“
The kiss of death.
 A finger alighted on his lips and froze them with uncanny power, no magic needed. His heart stopped for a moment while her body touched his and as she passed he melted like heated silver.

 The crunch of leaves under her light footsteps could still be heard by the time the Elf-man recovered, and moon-beams shone bright on her golden head as she wore no hood.
His feet ached and body pleaded for sleep, but the beating life’s blood through his veins, the heavy thumping in his chest, the warning toll in his mind- all demanded otherwise.

 “Meldonya?” called down the wondering gateguard. Silfdas sucked in a hasty breath for confidence and his feet pattered away quickly, while the black of his own billowing cloak blended with the encompassing night.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 No, no, No!! It was not supposed to happen like this!
He was not supposed to find out- it needed to be her idea! Her plan, at just the right time. Now- now it was over. He had run. That look, on his already wounded face, so utterly handsome, so unlike any other man she had set eyes one. But no more. And it was her own fault.

 What did she expect? Shunning him like a harmful wasp, waving him away without another thought. Oh, but there were other thoughts. But those, too, had she run from; put away. Right until he disappeared. Thinking she had interest in the Prince of the Greenwood. Ha! As if his father would ever consent to such a betrothal. And she would rather wander the wilds to the end of her days than make a ‘good match’, as her father would say, and ‘reap the benefits’.

 The little time she had spent as a man among the Glade-Keepers had re-honed any softened points in her scout training. If they only knew…
The puny, slinking Nurtalië, always hiding- as his name implied- was good for no more than binding up minor wounds, fetching light things, and tagging along, bothering his betters.
The pride of Taurëmith’s young warriors, daughter of a lord, now a worthless nobody.
 But it had all been worth it. To be near him, hear his voice- a dark breath of midnight- to watch him move: those hills of muscle rippling just below cloth and skin. She blushed to think how she was reduced to such a shadowy onlooker. But such things one of her status would never experience without scandal.
 If only they knew? But he did know.
Disturbed, she was sure. Regretful? Hurt? But how could he not be? And what was he thinking? And why, why did he clasp his side so painfully!

 The hot tears that streamed silently down the Elf-maid’s cheeks quickly turned to tiny, delicate icicles and the cold breeze nipped at her skin. Hunched over, burying her face in her lap, Tairiel wept.

 She loved him. And he was gone, and would not understand. Without having to speak, to explain, she wanted him just to know. But she herself was so terribly confused and lost- how could she even hope…
He was in trouble, and her helplessness drove like a barbed arrow through her.

And he would never know.

 Without breaking the frigid air it floated through, the ethereal shards of a snowflake alit on the trembling form. One after another the chink of tiny crystals filled the air and covered the ground and solitary figure in a soft wintry dusting. The salty drops formed patterns like shattered glass on her woolen pants, and were joined by the graceful, white gift from above.
The delicate points of her ears grew numb as they peeked out from her dyed-brown locks, and turned a bright pink along with her nose, thin shoulders sending tremours of cold and sadness through her body.
 All good creatures were hidden away, warm in their dens and nests, snuggling close with their loved ones. Even the falling snow had endless beautiful companions. The silence of the wintering forest took the lone figure and wrapped in it its peaceful, utter loneliness.

 All the things she wished she had done began to haunt her with a chill breeze. Her mistakes became as numerous as the falling snow, blackened against its purity, and all hope became as empty and lost as these cold, silent woods, in which nothing stirred.

Beruthiel…she would have known what to do. But she was gone. Dead, most likely.
And now Eärón.

 She didn’t even move when the fallen log that she sat on shifted under the weight of another body, much larger. She didn’t deserve false comfort, she told herself. To suffer unrelenting cold for all that she’d done: that was her just fate.

 But when the unfamiliar sensation of two solid and thoroughly warm pillars of strength encircled her shivering form and clasped her to the comforting mass of body beside her, the illusion of despair became doused in light and she forced open her eyes.

Wisps of shining black hair stood out like raven’s wings against the white sky. High chiseled cheekbones outlined two deep, onyx eyes that pored into her soul like a soothing balm. With two trembling fingers she reached out to touch the bent nose, so wonderfully close to her, to be sure it was…not real.
 It couldn’t be real, she told herself, and rested her face on the chest that so long she had yearned to touch.
“I wish you were here…” her lips muttered, almost soundlessly.

 The very real illusion whispered back after a silent pause, “Is there any way Lady Tairiel could forgive the blind, foolish cruelty of a simple smith?”

 Hearing the well of sincerity in that velvet tone, Tairiel choked a little, burying her face so that she felt the illusion’s beating heart. “Don’t torment me! I…love you.”

 The heart seemed to speed up and she heard a gulp, “How? A-after all I did…?”

Body pressed tightly to his, still warm in his embrace, she turned and took his face in both her hands. “You. You have done nothing. But I…” the strength in her tone trailed off, “If you were here…Eärón.”
She felt his hands press into the small of her back, and an intense hopefulness kindled fire in his eyes, “If I were here?”

 

  On hearing a less rhythmic and rather unfamiliar sound in between the crunch of his boots on the crisp ground, Tethrin stopped, held his breath and listened.
His sharp ears told him whatever it was- it was wet. And breathed loudly. A lot.
He took a few more steps in the direction he’d been headed and glanced around the calm, whitening woods.
 Suddenly between two twisted dragon-scale beech, he spotted it. Jogging forward nimbly, he hid himself behind the trees. Peeping around the trunk, the closer look revealed much more than he thought he’d seen.
Two dark-haired Elves, one brawnily muscled, the other small and fair, were entwined in each other’s arms, their lips gently biting at the other’s, slow and full of long-pent passion.
A wide grin spread across Tethrin’s features, and he sat on his heels with a sigh.
“Finally,” he muttered and peeked for another look. It wasn’t something he saw every day.
He was just glad none of the other Keepers were along, as they would surely not understand.

 Amid the capricious snow-crystals that floated about, never landing quite where you thought they would, the lovers were lost, far gone, in the numbing, yet enlivening tingle of their passion. Ever timid and easily ignited, Eärón’s work-worn hands stroked Tairiel’s supple back, as she knelt on his knees, grasping handfuls of his ebony locks as kiss after scorching kiss branded both mouths and rendered them breathless.

 At the rate they were at, it could go on forever, thought Tethrin. But then again- it might be their last time. His heart sank and he glanced back the way he had come. It was time.

 With an obvious ‘ahem’, Tethrin stepped out from behind the tree and peered up to the sentry rock where the lovebirds were perched. “Is this part of your job, watchman?” he said with laughter in his tone.

 Both started as if from a feverish dream, Tairiel, gasping, covered her mouth in horror, followed by her whole face. Eärón’s already pale hue tried to blend with the snow, and, after half-catching his breath, he stuttered and stumbled, “I-it’s not what you- th-think, Teth- Listen-“

 The gleaming smile on Tethrin’s face battled fiercely with the dread in his heart, and he chuckled knowingly, “It’s exactly what I think.” He sniffed and shrugged at the same time, “I’m only surprised I’m the only one who noticed. My sister always told me I was the most inobservant of types.” With that, he bowed to the woman, “I doubt your true name is Nurtalië, my lady. But I am still Tethrin, at your service.”
 Tairiel’s shock still would not allow her to speak, and only a squeak-like-breath came as a reply.
He then turned to Eärón and a blanket of grey seriousness changed his manner.
“I really am loath to spoil such a lovely…encounter, but” he shook his head gravely, “He’s lost it. You saw how he paced back and forth for hours, and practically tore you apart- alright maybe you didn’t see. But I’ll tell you: He’s ordered the entire camp to empty in search of the ‘intruder’. The one…you found. No one is to return until ‘she is cast to her wicked knees before him’! His own words. I was sent to round up all of our sentries,” he nodded towards Tairiel, “And to relay his orders. And Eärón,” he paused for a breath, “He wants you back at camp. There is something very fell in his words. I can’t place it, but it disturbs my soul. You cannot go.”

 Paler than death, Eärón slid off the rock and approached his friend, stormy black eyes fitful with alarm. “What do you mean,” he asked, voice low and dangerous.
Tethrin swallowed hard and looked into the other’s eyes, “Just don’t.”
“Tethrin-“
He drew in a steady, resolved breath and patted the towering Elf on the shoulder. “It’s alright, Mûmak. I’ve got a good plan.” He glanced at Tairiel, who had joined them, standing close behind Eärón, and knew what must be done. “Take her. Go into the woods. Find the woman. If she’s innocent like you say- warn her. But whatever you do- do not return to him. I will tell him you’ve disappeared into the forest… It should give you time to get a head-start.”
 Eärón took Tethrin by the shoulders, making him face straight on, “But you can’t- And how-?”
Tethrin closed his eyes resolutely, “Just do it. It’s a feeling- in here,” he patted his middle. “Atto always said to trust it.”
 His friend’s manner was so sure, so unafraid, that Eärón could not question him further, despite how little he understood what was going on. He stared at the ground as if searching for a map to this whirlwind.
 “And Taurëmith… If Alcarín has…run amok, then the Captain of the Guard should know,” the smaller lieutenant thought aloud. “Someone must tell Lord Belegren.”
It seemed like an age had passed since that morning. Since the one Elf he had once disliked more than Alcarín, had come sniveling and slinking into the camp. He was still an Elf, though.
“Likely he already knows,” Eärón said, “Silfdas.”
Perhaps gossip-mongers could be of use after all.

 Elven minds read into each other far deeper than other folks could ever dream of. Tethrin and Eärón took another’s forearms in farewell. “May the Valar keep you safe, my friend,” Eärón said, though the gravity of their plight was truly unknown.
“Oromë’s swift wind and Yavanna’s love on the both of you. Go. And don’t worry about me. I’ll see you in Taurëmith.” A familiar smile, though a little forced, spread Tethrin’s smooth features again as he waved and trotted off.

 The full force and depth of Tethrin’s words sunk in slowly, like a rain on a damp Spring earth, and Eärón tried to awaken himself from the two-tiered, spell-like daze he’d fallen into. One second he was wrapped in a fierce embrace, kissing his love for the first time. The next, he felt the throbbing, cracked rib scream with anger at the mention of Alcarín. And he was told to flee. From what?
Him. Why? Because of her.

 A surge of heat shot through his entire being, as a caress, softer than a butterfly’s wings, touched his arm.
“Eärón…who is she?” the energy in her quiet voice trembled.
He took the hand in his own and turned to her.

“Beruthiel.

 

 

Quenya words:

Aiya: Greetings

Meldonya: my friend

Hantanyel: thank you.

Atto: dad.

Image  

Eärón Lorámie washes his wounds.

 

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 34 ~Company~

Chapter 34

~Company~

Grey. Everything was grey.
 The low hanging clouds that lazily floated overhead were as drab as the pale lichen covering the stone over which she tread. The smoke that sailed from the stone chimney of the squat Dwarven house, her thick wool cloak, the resealed cracks in the ice of the courtyard’s fountain: all the same, lifeless shade of dust.
  Even the scarce light that barely filtered through the airy, winter canopy was cold and dead.

 A breeze whipped loose strands of her hair across her forehead as she drug her feet over the stones. The birds were gone. Hiding away, warm in their nests. Now and then a dusting of snowflakes would alight on her, coming down from the snow-capped mountains, hidden in the cloud.
 But all she saw was grey. Any other day, she might’ve relished the many different tones and hues of it in nature, but not today. Her mind was filled to the brim with it, like an overused fire pit, overflowing with ashes.
 Listlessly she found herself wandering up the stairs to the Western ramparts.
A familiar spot.
 She leaned her chin on the icy merlons and took in a deep breath of cold air.

 Despite the low clouds, the view still stretched on far to the West- the dark slate of forest and its dormant inhabitants.
 Her eyes saw nothing. Nothing there, at least; but searched deep and delved tirelessly in her soul.

  The understanding slowly unveiled itself, but the will still cowered away.

~~~~~~~~~~~

  “It’s nothing to fret about, alright, just make Grezof and Vahgdûr get the message,” the firm, pointed tone of Bridi ordered, while she distractedly rifled through a large oak chest of gear.
 “Aye, milady,” said the burly Dwarf, trying to hide his confusion.
“And give them these,” she turned and thrust a pair of old, metal shields in his arms and laid an array of Dwarven projectiles on top.
 “Crossbows?” he wondered aloud. “We expectin’ visitors?” his piqued interest hovered between excitement and worry.
“No. Just do it.”
 When Bridi closed a conversation, it was closed. He nodded hastily and exited the room.

 Bridi sighed and folded her arms under her chest as she surveyed the room. The magnificent stone walls rose high up into the darkness until they mingled with the living mountain’s flesh. But below, only a few dust chests and dilapidated armour-stands remained to tell of the glory it once had seen as Azaghâl’s armory.
True, it was in the holding of Durin’s proud heir, but that was all.

 An attempt at expansion…that failed; Bridi’s thoughts drifted in melancholy over the past decade. He tried so hard, wanting nothing more than the good of his people and to restore to them their birthright. Their place as Lords of the Mountains.
But that would not come. Not until Thorin Oakenshield sat on the restored throne of Erebor.

 An ancient heirloom from the line of Thrór, a heavy buckler of once-shiny steel, hung on a rack on the wall. Reverently she dusted off its engraved boss, her breath on the cold metal forming a static cloud that slowly faded away.
 A tired, square-faced woman stared back at her, wisps of coppery hair framing her forehead, and mahogany-red brows lowered over a permanently intense scrutiny of green eyes.
 The edges of her tightly closed lips sunk downwards seriously, set with her jaw in an uninviting frown. A long white scar ran down the length of her brow to lower cheek; it had been there for a good long while. But an inexplicable feeling in her gut told her it was about to have company.

  A patter of footsteps in the outside hall drew her away from the shield. Kjar, no doubt.
Bridi hurredly closed the lid to the chest and stuffed the new whetstone into her belt just before the elderly matron entered the room.

 “Ah, there you are, lass!” she said, her huffing making evident her search for the other. “I was-” A befuddled look on her face interrupted herself, “What are you doing in here?”
Bridi had expected that, “What are you doing in here?”
 The old woman sputtered, “Well, looking for you, of course!”
Bridi shrugged, “I was just making sure nothing was rusting. It’s too damn quiet around here…”
 Kjar gestured clearly that she fully agreed and resumed her previous business.
“I’ve been looking for you for a half hour!” she tossed up her hands, “Because I’ve been looking for Vaenomar even longer! Where’s she got to?”

Bridi’s features paled rapidly. Vaenomar!
 Without even acknowledging the other woman, Thorin’s counselor marched off in a storm, muttering, “Can’t leave that whelp alone one minute without her flying off! Curses on those long legs,” and left Kjar to hobble after her.

  After a quick, unsuccessful search of her room, the kitchen, Thorin’s room and any other sub-mountain haunt of hers, they took to the village.
“Go ask Salfgar and any one else you see on the way.”
“They’re all gone,” said Kjar sadly as she set off towards the tailor’s house at an sturdily wobbling pace.

 Bridi’s metal-toed boots thudded rapidly over stone after stone, eyes darting about, ears piqued for any odd sound. Wind funneling in between two mountain houses caught her in a gust causing her to sway momentarily. She clenched her teeth against the biting chill. A heavy, studded door creaked open behind her and she turned, in one fluid movement on her heel.
“Vahgdûr!”
 He jumped at the intensity of her tone and at her presence; Bridi wasn’t a common sight out from under the Halls.
 “The girl- you seen her?” the King’s right-hand demanded, but not without an unsettling amount of worry in her stern hoarseness.
“Eh- Vaenomar?” the off-duty gate guard stuttered hastily.
 “You’ve seen her?”
“No, no,” he said, waving his palms defensively, “But I-“
 “Help me look for her,” Bridi cut him off and resumed her determined march.

It was far too early to panic, yet. But if that girl was gone…if she’d run off to perform some hair-brained heroics- or worse- if she was taken captive…by him

  Bridi jogged to a halt, her long whip-lash flopping over her shoulder as she quickly surveyed the market area. No one was around in this frigid weather- the trading only took place in summer, when there were new trades to be made from the payment of Mannish villages.

 The breeze eerily stirred a ragged cloth awning over one of the stalls and a dusting of sleet swirled around her feet in the lonely, empty court.
“Vaen?” her voice bounced off the cold rock that surrounded her and came back, dull and out of place. There was no one here.
 Was it Thorin’s absence combined with the oppressive silt-grey of the sky that brought on these sudden bouts of hollow melancholy? But Kjar seemed to feel the same way. Not all was well: every fibre of Bridi’s subconscious being told her so. Even her rational mind worried constantly over the unknown ‘man‘ in Jarlich. The draegk.

  A few blocks down, Bridi heard Vahgdûr calling the girl’s name, muffled by the wind and stone. She took in a generous, numbing breath to slow her escalating heartbeat and clear her mind.
Jaw set like steel, she turned south and strode towards the gate.

  From several dozen paces off she could see the squat forms of the guards, Khin and Narukar, sitting at their posts on either side of the gate. In addition to the great bear furs that draped the cousins’ already bulky forms, they bore the shields Bridi had assigned to them that morning.
 Aulë grant they not need them.

 Along with the shields and the one crossbow and a few spare bolts she’d dug up to give them, they’d also been given the order not to let Vaenomar near the gate. Bridi didn’t really think she would leave, but she was as precautious as Thorin was headstrong.
And young things often fill their heads with rash nonsense, she though to herself in growing nervousness.
 Looking left revealed only a barren, sloped street devoid of life. She turned right to see Vahgdûr emerge from between the buildings and look in her way with a shrug of fruitlessness.
A few more paces brought her in calling distance of the gate. But her name, short and urgent, caused her to glance back at her companion. He pointed West, far behind her, and up.
She whipped around and immediately let a sigh of relief puff like smoke from her nostrils.

 High above, perched like a rock-dove clad in slate-grey, on the massive wall of the bulwark stood Vaenomar. The same spot where Gormna had ‘caught’ her so many months ago.
Her cloak billowed restlessly behind her, a colourless banner for the nameless, houseless one.
 She was motionless, but for her windswept hair and garments. Her dark, still figure could’ve been carved there, thought Bridi, as she motioned silently for her companion to join her.
“Find Kjar. Tell her she’s fine. Look with Salfgar,” she ordered in a low tone.

 The girl was alone too much as was. Contemplating could be dangerous. Very dangerous.

~~~~~~~~~~~

 “He’ll be back soon.”
Those simple words, soft and firm, caused her to nearly jump out of her boots, as she gasped and took a few steps backwards.
 “Bridi!” said Vaenomar breathlessly, as if awoken out of a dream.

 The Dwarf peered off into the distance, leaning against the solid merlons and rubbing her stubbily-nailed fingers over the pocks and cracks of the stone.
 Giving the younger woman a moment to regather her composure, Bridi surveyed the steep, craggy descent from their mountain abode. Even from that height the precarious path was practically invisible.
 A calm settled over the Dwarf woman’s spirits as they both gazed out over the mist-covered expanse.

It was time.

 Her voice, poignant and low, broke the heavy silence, “Before Thorin found you- what were you?”
 It almost seemed as though she expected it, her manner changed so little. Vaenomar didn’t look up, but an unnoticeable shudder coursed down her spine.
 Though silence persisted a few moments longer, Bridi knew she would answer. The cloaked fear of rejection was being cast off and a firm, level resolution being made in that secretive brain of hers. Bridi the mind-reader could see that far.
 At last, Vaenomar breathed in soft and slowly, and answered.
“An Elf.”
 Bridi glanced at her from the corner of her eyes, but said nothing.
“Or so I wished,” continued the younger woman.

 “Deep in those woods lies an Elven city. Taurëmith. City of the Trees. You’d never be able to find it,” she gestured with her head towards the vast sea of forest to the West, “I wouldn’t either. But it is beautiful.”
Bridi thought a sigh escaped her.

 “I was a border scout, along with many others. Tairiel and I…wandered too far from our camp…” her voice took on the old, musical, Elven accent as she spoke.
 “I was foolish, I know well, now, that Taurëmith was in no danger of being found. But then- I would have protected its secret with my life.”

 Bridi nodded thoughtfully. None of this was too surprising news. But she wondered aloud, “None can find it?”
 Vaenomar shrugged, “Except for the Elves. There is a Girdle of ancient magic surrounding it. Nonetheless, we- they- keep their borders safe and pure. Or so they try.”

 “Yet you doubt?” queried Bridi, reading further into the girl’s thoughts.
Vaenomar’s head dropped low and she scraped at some grey-green lichen on the wall. “I- feel something. Something strange…ancient. As old as their magic- yet, stained,” she turned to Bridi, pallid and eyes wide as if from a waking nightmare, “Evil.”

 The Dwarf clenched her teeth and nodded darkly. “Anything like…” she paused, searching for the right words.
“Me, Bridi,” interrupted Vaenomar, feverishly. “Calling nature to my aid, through a word, a thought. Like in the forest…before Tharkûn arrived.”
 “I thought you didn’t know it happened,” said Bridi, mildly suspicious.
Vaenomar shook her head,”I didn’t. But I remember it now. And…with Thorin…the first time. Bridi,” she turned fully towards the Dwarf, “Ever since I met him, I remember. I…” she grimaced confusedly, “I recognized it in him. It’s nothing I was taught. It’s…in my blood…? Spirit- Ach!” she slapped the rock exasperated, “I don’t know.”

 Bridi suddenly seized her wrists firmly, her cold-numbed fingers gripped tightly over Vaenomar’s bare pulse. “But you do know!”
 The girl’s eyes widened in shock.
“You may not know what is it- but what does that matter? You have power. Thorin- Lord Thorin- sensed it in you from the beginning! Why else did he keep you and release the Elf? He could’ve used her for ransom- but no! He chose you! Your power- use it. Against the creature- that thing- that seeks to destroy us. Turn it against him!”

 By now the young woman was trembling and paler than before, droplets of salty water at the corners of her eyelids. Her lips quivered and her chest rose and fell in short breaths.

 It worked. All that- Bridi had made up- just in that instant. But it worked. She had no idea why Thorin had chosen Vaenomar; she doubted if his choice had more to do with rationality than matters of the flesh.
 But in the end, she was right.
Vaenomar could help. The fortress of Azaghâl would have a worthy regiment atop its walls- praying Thorin and the rest returned before anything hit.

 “You can control it, Vaenomar, right?”
The girl bit her lip, still trembling, “I…think.”
 “He may be undead. May be ancient- but not even the forces of Gundabad could stand against the Heir of Durin. If that creature comes here- he will taste the true meaning of ‘cold as the grave’.”
 Vaenomar nodded vehemently, riled by Bridi’s speech.
The Dwarf patted her shoulder and turned to leave, her mission well accomplished.
 “He’ll be back soon,” she added in a softened tone and glanced at the mountain stairs, wishfully hoping to see her lord.

  As the Dwarven metal boots clanked down the stairs, the tear dislodged itself and splashed, alone, onto the cold merlon.
 But it was more than that. She could feel him. Not Thorin, no. The draegk, as Bridi called him. The man from Jarlich. The nameless shadow that haunted her dreams and made her moments of waking into nightmares.

 It had all happened so fast. One day, she had been a happy, pensive Elf-child, carefree and studious in everything. Then she became a Dwarf. Much too tall and awkward, doing her very best to fit in the rigid, stony structure of their culture. And then Thorin. It had started as fear, became fearful respect, mixed ever so slightly with defiance. But she had felt herself falling much deeper than that. The little they had seen of each other had ‘blossomed’, though hardly a fitting word, into the closest thing to love the hardened Dwarf-king could feel. And then he showed up. She wondered what would’ve happened if she hadn’t gone to Jarlich. Would he have found her anyways?
Probably.
 Was his sole intent to entrap her? Or was she only another piece to a larger construct; one that had no relish of good in it.

 Elves, when confronted by a hidden evil, always recognized it and shunned it ruthlessly.
She had felt it, though not immediately, and had been tempted by it. Why?! She was raised in goodness and light. She knew right from wrong as easily as a raven from a hawk.

 Squinting, she tried to make out a small dark shape breaking through the heavy mist.
As the little form slowly grew closer, Vaenomar chided herself. “Maybe that’s what he wants you to think. To question. To doubt…” She growled in frustration. “Curse him! These are my people and I will defend them with my life!”

 She made out a bird of prey, flapping then gliding, in an unbalanced fashion in her general direction. It seemed…wounded, over-tired?
 Her pity aroused, she watched intently as the distance between them shrunk. “Land here…” she muttered, scaling the length of the wall restlessly, “Land…”
Soon enough the bird began to slow and spread its chest and wingspan to land.

 Alighting on a merlon, the nighthawk’s dappled feathers heaved rapidly as it struggled to regain breath.
 Vaenomar approached it slowly, in a non-threatening, slow amble. She greeted him, but no reply came. She asked him where he was from, but he only looked at her with sad, frightened eyes. Something was wrong. He had much to say, but couldn’t.
 Vaenomar held out her finger and the tired bird curiously stretched out his hooked beak and nibbled it.
 “Will you not speak to me?” she asked pitifully, aloud.
The nighthawk sullenly looked at its rock-hewn perch, shook out its soft feathers, and then pecked at its own claw.
 Then she noticed a tight, rolled piece of weathered parchment tied by a strap to the raptor’s scaled talons.
 A messenger bird! No wonder it was so tired, the poor, dear thing.
With tender gentleness, she reached below the bird’s downy body and slipped the tiny note from the leather carrier.
 Despite her attempts at friendliness, rubbing his bony jowls, stroking his underchin, the stately nighthawk seemed indifferent and a hollow tranquility loomed in his black eyes. An emptiness in his thoughts- and he would not speak. Vaenomar thought that he wished to, but, knowing he could not, didn’t even make the attempt.
With consternated brow, her numbed fingers unrolled the parchment.
 On the outward side there was a faded scrawled note, bearing a few sentences in the Common Tongue which were hard to make out, because of the water stain and weather and the curling faint hand.
 An immobilizing frost spell seemed to fall on her as she turned the note over.

 In bold Cirth runes the colour of dried blood, it read:

“I Come.
Or
You.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 The frost fall sparkled and shone as it caught the first light of dawn. A silvery field of tiny shards and prisms; every stalk of grass and slumbering leaf encased in a wintry suit of mithril.

 The cloud of vapour that floated away from the mouth and nostrils of the solitary figure dissipated quickly in the clear, crackling air. Even the axe blade at his hip was covered in a blue brocade of organic swirls and shapes. A blanket of grey clouds barely moved overhead, their soft undersides just beginning to take on the tint of the rising sun, which would soon be lost above their wooly forms.

 With a lung-numbing inhale that came out a sigh, Thorin turned and began an idle march back, the lifeless vegetation crackling underfoot, showering little crystals onto the king’s furred boots.

 He could almost imagine the frosty carpet being of the finest velvet, covering lengths and lengths of black marble streaked with emerald veins. Silver and gold in all forms imaginable, at his feet. Gems so plentiful they were commonplace- but their beauty still unmatched by all the world.
His kingdom.
 But Vaenomar would find all this- the curled leaves, the bent grasses, red berries all covered in the night’s icy tears- to be most lovely. The clouds the colour of her cloak, touched with the cold pale blue of her eyes.

 If she was with him now… But, no. She was gone. Running wild in the woods, cursing the name of his cousin, his family- maybe even his. What if she came back while he was away? Or worse- never came back at all.
 Instinctively his fingers fondled the axe-head restlessly.
It was time to go home.

 It didn’t take the keen sense of a Dwarf to smell something rotten going on. There were no goblins. No bandits. Nothing here. Nor had there been.
 His boot met with a hollow, hard object and sent it rolling several feet ahead. Picking it up, he found a jawless skull, covered in cracks and filled with dried leaves and fur, having served as some small creature’s bed.
 Washed white by many years under sun and sky, its brittle frailty belied the importance it once held. And havoc it once wreaked. An ugly, oversized canine tooth along with a couple others were still rather sharp. Thorin tossed it down.
At least there hadn’t been any goblins for a while.

 When he arrived back at the longhouse after many hours of a sleepless morning out in the countryside, Thorin heard the boisterous chatter of feasting Dwarves, and smelled good, fatty meats, eggs, cheeses and fresh baked bread.
 He had been treated much more hospitably than his actions of the night prior had merited, but the men- it was just what they needed. Good rest, good food, good company. And then a good, quick march home. Then their minds would forget and forgive the mistake.

 Mistake, he sneered inwardly. The trick! A cunning play by a clever enemy. But he had survived worse.

 Quietly he came into the hall where a table had been set up, and took a respectfully-left-open place next to his cousin, Dáin. The same smiling, round face with autumn curls bounced up to him, hands full of breakfast and back again with warm spiced mead.
As he politely smiled his thanks, a less than subtle jab in the ribs came from his onlooking relative.
“Eat up,” Thorin quipped, ignoring the gesture, “Or you might die of starvation. Just look at you.”
Dáin just snorted, patting a robust waistline, and continued to shovel steaming heaps of eggs and sausage into his mouth.
“She is pretty, though,” Thorin admitted, as the friendly Thaneling’s daughter reseated herself between an Iron Hills woman and a doting Gorlath.

 “We get it from our mother,” Thorin heard her say and shake out her fiery hair.
“Like Bridi…except taller. And happier,” he thought.

 “Rúan’s name even means red-headed,” she laughed again and Gorlath refilled her mug.
“Good thing you don’t name after your surroundings like we do,” he said, “Else you’d be a bunch of Browngrasses and Softmuds.”
 The Dwarf woman rolled her eyes and explained to Dána, “Like Ironfoot, Stonefist…and Numbskull- like him,” she gestured to Gorlath.

 Thorin turned back to his food. He’d never seen Vaenomar enjoy herself that much. What had he done to her…
 “What do you got against your food that you’re glaring at is so?” said Dáin, his grating voice making Thorin look up from his thoughts. “If you’re not going to eat that-“
“Get off my food!” Thorin pushed his cousin away, “You’ve got plenty!”

 The clear, feminine voice of Dána rang out again, “Little Rúan- he might seem scrawny and young- well, he is. But he’s got some skill. Not as good as I am, of course, or my older sisters… but he can hold his own, well enough. He’s always dreaming of being a warrior- like the tales of my father….when the militia was still around.” She shrugged. “Shining his knives, oiling his armour, always practicing with me and Fían. Silly boy. He’s not even been out of Aldon for five years.”

 Thorin drained his third mug and followed it with a rinse of cold well water, and arose.
Dáin followed him and then a few others, at their own pace. The rest of the table looked up expectantly at their respective leaders.

 “A hearty thanks to you and our family for your hospitality, Lady Dána,” Thorin bowed low. “I’m afraid we must take out leave. Home calls us.”
 Dána bowed respectfully back, “It was good to make your acquaintance, Lord Thorin, and that of your people. You all are welcome here any time. Lord Dáin,” she nodded also to his cousin.

 Wooden plates and bowls, metal tankards, rustic iron cutlery began to clink and clack together as the table was rapidly cleared and the hall restored to proper order.

 The aged Thaneling, Thorin was told, would not be awake and ready for an audience until a few hours later. Dána promised to give him the Dwarf lords’ regards. And relay thanks to her strangely absent brother.
 “It’s quite possible that he over slept, drunk too much, or something of the like. Could be in town, too, with his lady friend,” she shrugged.
 Thorin took her small, white hand and pressed it gently to his bristling moustache. “Take care. We will probably never meet again.”
 The warmth in his deep, smoky voice was like a thrilling caress to her smooth cheek. She blushed the colour of musk rose, but nodded, a little sadly, at his words.
“And you take care, too. Eru keep you.”

 And leaving the proud daughter of Aldon on the steps of the longhouse, he joined his cousin and followers at the gates of the town.

 On approaching, Thorin was met by his wild-maned, broad cousin with outstretched arms and a metallic grin.
 As the tree-trunk thick arms of both men slapped familiarly on each other’s backs, Dáin chuckled, “Well cous, I’m glad you managed to live through my visit. You’ve gotten grumpier since last winter. And worse since the winter before!”
 “And you’ve gotten fatter and uglier,” Thorin tugged his cousin’s white braid back and received a playful punch in the stomach.
 “You get back to that long-legs of yours and tell Bridi there’s still room for two on my throne. I’m not that fat yet.”
 “I can only imagine what she’d say to that,” snorted Thorin and motioned for Gormna and Gorlath to get the others ready.
 Newly laden packs were slung over shoulders and belts loosened for walking with full bellies.

 “You send me word if anything shows up along the way,” Thorin told his cousin seriously. “Anything.”
 “Ah, even, say- a little, white rabbit or something?”
Tossing his black head of hair behind him, Thorin grunted and beckoned for his men to follow him Northward; homeward.
 Dáin and his retinue headed southeast, towards the Old Forest Road and began their long march to the Iron Hills and other stops along the way.

 Gorlath the Scout’s jogging footsteps were much springier than the day before as their sound slowly disappeared ahead.
 Hopefully they would all reach the mountains in good speed and unscathed- no surprises along the way or when they arrived.

 But just as Gorlath’s quicker pace drew out of earshot, a longer stride behind him and the Dwarves caught Thorin’s ears. He whirled around, hair on end, to see a very slim figure with long, lanky legs and the sun blazing on a bright copper head. The satchel at his side bounced wildly as he jogged to catch up, breath puffing away in the frigid morning air.
The others stopped and turned, surprised at their sudden halt.

 Steam puffed violently from Thorin’s flared nostrils as he folded his arms across his thick chest and waited, stoically, for their pursuant.
 Drawing closer to the Dwarf lord, Rúan slowed to a lope and then a walk.
Lungs filled with the nipping cold, he panted a bit to catch his breath, grinning widely, pink cheeks spread with excitement.
 “I didn’t think you’d get far,” he laughed in between breaths.
Thorin eyed him suspiciously, “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.
  “Did we forget something?” put in Gormna, helpfully.
“Or did you?” Thorin raised his eyebrows.

 The young man was in fur-lined leather armour, very new and very clean looking, gird with a matching brace of daggers and some throwing implements jangling from his belt.
“I am headed to- ah- Old Estenna- to see my sister. Maybe to find our missing hawk, too. So- I thought I could travel with you.” He glanced around, a little less comfortably than before.

 “Is that so?” Thorin said measuredly, “And leave your father?”
Rúan shook his head, “Oh, he’s in the best of hands with Dána. We don’t get many- or any- visitors, anyways.”

“And what about the strange man from the inn? What if he comes back?”

 Rúan’s already pale face blanched from beneath his cold cheeks, and he nodded. “That’s why I want to come.”
 Thorin’s black brows lowered darkly and he huffed, “Very well. To Estenna, then we part ways.” The smile returned to the young man’s face and he gladly fell in line next to Gormna.
 Only one or two Dwarves muttered or grumbled at having the tall, trim fellow obscuring their view.
 His good-natured and genuine excitement was rather infectious, however, and Gormna queried, “So…where were you, lad?”
 “Who, me?” the Thaneling’s son glanced around.
“Nah, him,” Gormna sarcastically nosed towards Thorin in front of him.
 Rúan grinned, “Eh…giving farewells.”
Gormna nodded knowingly, “I see. So…she’s heartbroken now?”
 To his surprise, Rúan threw back his head and chuckled. “Actually she took it quite well…along with the key.”
 “Oh?”
“Had someone else to give it to, I suppose,” Rúan shrugged.
 “You don’t seem too worried about that, lad.”
Rúan’s dark blue eyes twinkled, “I’m not. I’m gone.”

  And so began Thorin’s long walk ahead of a young, energetic human who hadn’t been away for a half a decade.

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 33 ~Captain Alcarin~

Chapter 33
Captain Alcarín

 “Tairiel…” a baritone voice muttered feverishly into the pillow grasped between strong hands.
“Savo-….” he writhed a little onto his side and drug a weary hand across his sleeping, sweat-drenched face. “Speaking…nauglian…” A quick gasp-like exhale brought him on his bare back, chest heaving and hands trying to throw off invisible ropes and weights.
“Tairiel!!” he cried and his upper body sat stiffly upright.

 Panting, Eärón finally awoke. The tent was dark and still. In his sleep he had cried out, but apparently hadn’t woken anyone. His pectorals rippled as he stretched and took in deep, calming breaths.
  The tent, lined with thick furs, always grew too warm for him at night. He had fire in his blood, so his father used to say: the blood of a smith.
He pulled the leather tie out of his messy braid and shook out raven locks that cascaded onto his shoulders and back.
 In the far corner he could hear Tethrin’s steady breathing, in and out through his nose. Morcion, almost snoring, was sprawled on his stomach, as loud in slumber as in waking.
 He could never hear Nurtalië. Living up to his name seemed all too natural to the unwittingly stealthy, shy young man.

  Eärón put his hand to the side to lean on, but immediately encountered something warm and solid. And alive. Scooting away from the body, he reached to touch it again. Yes, it was a body.
 There was plenty of room in the tent! Why, oh why, did Nurtalië always have to end up so close to him?!
  An annoyed sniff was all he allowed himself and fumbled about in the dark for his tunic. Instead, all he found was the tiny, thin body of his timid tent-mate; bony arms, but relatively sturdy legs, the thinnest neck and tiny shoulders. Eärón wondered how old he really was. A child’s figure. Those scared, big eyes, straight and delicate nose.
 The fact that he seemed to magnet to Eärón aside, he’d always given the smith’s son a strange, awkward feeling by his presence.
 “Poor thing,” he thought to himself, and ducking, so as not to take down the sleeping quarters, Eärón stepped carefully over the boy towards the flap opening.
 Carefully, Eärón stepped out and into the morning.

   He was greeted by an icy embrace from Winter’s arms. It took his breath away for a moment and he gasped, watching the steamy clouds float away from him.
Indeed no one was stirring yet, save the watchers at their posts, many paces away from camp.
It must be very early, he thought.
 He rubbed his hands on his bare arms to warm them and jogged, barefooted, over to the arming tent to find something to wear.

  It conserved space better to keep the bulk of the equipment, clothing, and personal weapons in a separate tent. It also made for a quick wake up- running to the ‘armory’ in one’s under-tunic.
Though Nurtalië slept in all but his leather jerkin, boots and bracers.
A quizzical lad, that one. Always in Eärón’s peripheral, some way or another.

  Bending over to fasten the straps of his tall boots, he noticed a slip of a shadow enter the tent.
He stood up, startled, to find the same boy, shivering and huffing, quailing beneath his gaze.

 “I-I’m sorry, Eärón- Someone got up and, eh- guess it woke me up, too. Oh…I guess it was you…”
“I guess you sleep too close to me,” Eärón wanted to say, but simply nodded and laced up his tunic.
 Nurtalië pulled another woolen layer over his already numerous ones and found the bench bearing his suit. The boy moved gracefully, pulling on the tiny jerkin and wrapping a soft wool scarf multiple times around his neck and shoulders.

  Eärón tucked his gloves into a satchel on his hip and made to leave. He didn’t want to be rude…but-
 Then the lad’s crystalline, smooth voice stopped him, “So…what are your…uh…duties, today?”
 He stopped, back to the other Elf, and bit his lip. Turning around, he pretended to have forgotten something, “Oh…” his tone was careless, “Have to oil the bows and fletch a few shares of arrows. Probably take a watch later. You?”
Nurtalië shrugged, as if unprepared for him to actually respond, “Not sure… em… The captain…I think he’s forgotten about me.” He gave a nervous chuckle and looked back to the ground.

 “You could always-“

“Tag along with you!” barged in a jovial, laughing voice that entered the tent with its owner.
Eärón whirled around, “Tethrin!” he snarled in surprise.
The Elf slapped his hulking friend’s lower thigh, “Eh! He’s been making healing salves enough for the Greenwood army! I’m sure you could use help with fletching, eh Mûmak?

 It took all of Eärón’s composure not to throw Tethrin out and let him taste the dirt.
Tethrin’s mischievous grin was accompanied by a teasing glint in his glassy, blue eyes. Maybe that straight, sightly pointed nose of his might look better with a bent bridge like his own, thought Eärón.
 Tethrin only kept grinning, though he could well read his friend’s thoughts. He jumped into his boots and leather greaves, huffing off the cold, while Nurtalië’s large grey eyes searched for somewhere to hide.
 “You want to make arrows, boy?” said Eärón finally, forcefully quenching his temper like a red hot blade.
“Oh…I can…make more salves,” he stuttered.
Eärón rolled his eyes.
 “Arrows it is, then!” Tethrin chimed in, breaking the sudden quiet. “You’ll want your gloves, boy. The cold is biting today.” He glanced at Eärón’s bare hands. “And don’t follow Mûmak’s example on everything. Isn’t for nothing he has that name.” The buoyant Elf patted Nurtalië on the shoulder as the boy passed, exiting the flap held open by Eärón.
  The towering Elf’s head yanked back a bit, Tethrin’s hand on his long braid like a bell rope. Eärón turned quickly and grabbed him by the wrist in an iron grip.
“Eh!” Tethrin sobered, “You’ll thank me someday.”
Eärón released his hold, puzzled by that remark, and sullenly followed his tag-along out into the morning for an early start on the day.

  Several slow hours passed, full of near silent, tedious fletching. Numb hands, puffs of steamed breath, carefully cut feather pins and barbs, and smooth, curled mallorn shavings.
 Nurtalië followed his dark, equally quiet companion around patiently without speaking or eye contact, but seemed to be, overall, quite content.

 Handing the little man an armful of finished arrows, Eärón sent him to the arming tent with the delivery, while he gathered up the newly oiled bows and leather grips. Individuals would wrap their own weapons to get the grip just how they liked.
He breathed out a long sigh, now alone, and stood up to stretch his back.

 The boy wasn’t so bad. Disturbingly quiet, he always seemed to be hiding something- or maybe there just wasn’t anything to see, to find. So obedient in his immediate action, it seemed he was trying too hard to please, terrified he was going to mess something up.
He set the last bow on the heavy pile in his arms and headed towards the camp from their little work-clearing.
 Then like a flaming arrow shot through a cloudy night, a voice full of anger and spite called out his name.
 He froze in his tracks.
Someone had told the Captain.

  Blood rushed to his face and his legs mechanically began to move towards camp. A haze covered his sight and his head grew tight and he couldn’t think of anything- anything but the girl he’d met in the forest. He stiffly set down his bundle in the armory and moved towards the captain’s tent.
 Everything else faded out of his vision and he watched his big feet trudging one after the other on the dark, hard ground patched with bits of moss.
When his body stopped, he forced himself to look up.

   The captain stood rigid before him, eyes like brimstone, and darkened brow heralding a storm like none before. He stepped aside stiffly and whipped open his tent flap. Eärón bravely swallowed the apprehension that writhed in his gut and ducked into the opening.

  A distant cry of a whip-poor-will was answered by a similar call, relaying the message of an arrival to the camp.
  A few minutes later, a small man shrouded in a heavy cloak with fur lining shuffled in between two tents into the campsite.
  The day had warmed considerably, as foretold by Master Vilenas, but the forest proved much more chilly than Tauremith’s protected dell.
The visitor’s eyes dodged around and he fidgeted nervously with a flat leather pouch he drew from his chest.
 A slight armoured figure stole into the open space, and seemed to be attempting to mask his intense interest in a particular tent. The largest one.

  Silfdas watched him for a moment, unsure whether to wait to be noticed or address the Glade-keeper.
 The boy, for he seemed far too young and fragile to be amongst these men, had posted himself in hiding alongside one of the sleeping tents a few down from the large one in the wide circle.
 Silfdas was just out of his main view and his attention was now riveted to the spot.
Then he understood why.
 A raised voice, muffled by the furs covering the canvas, shouted words unintelligible.
He heard no response, but a moment later the young man opposite him flinched and cowered at a violent clatter and thud from within.

  “Are we clear?” the enraged voice hissed, murderously hushed, his voice barely penetrating the outside air.
Silfdas shuddered and glanced around, as if he’d just heard something he wasn’t supposed to.

 Then he saw the boy straighten suddenly and turn. No further sound evacuated the large tent. The boy’s eyes were wide and face ghastly, but they weren’t looking at him, Silfdas realized, relieved.

 “Nurtalië,” said a tall, built Elf that strode into the glade. “Are you alright?” his tone sincere and worried. But he stopped suddenly as something caught his eye, and turned.
“Ah- welcome, friend!” he greeted Silfdas, surprised, “I thought I heard the signal.”

 Silfdas bowed quickly and glanced at the one he’d called Nurtalië. But he was gone.
When the newcomer noticed his disappearance as well, his brow creased and he sniffed. “He’s run off,” he shrugged and turned to the stranger, “I’m Tethrin, lieutenant. Welcome to our camp.” “Thank you,” Silfdas inclined his head again, not knowing what else to do, “I am Silfdas. I bear a message for your…captain.”
 He knew not why, but he hesitated and glanced at the tent.
Tethrin followed his look, “Ah…I believe he is here at the moment- he’s been gone quite a bit of late.” His cheerful face took on a more solemn state and he sniffed again, a trait of his when something was bothering him.
“You- didn’t happen to see a giant of a man: black hair, bit of-” he gestured around his chin, indicating facial scruff, “Did you?” His tone almost quaivered, Silfdas thought.
 He began to answer in the negative, when the realization struck him. There was no one else that could be.
  Just then both men’s attention was drawn to the tent, as the flap was thrown open and a very tall figure stumbled out.
“Eärón,” Silfdas muttered under his breath.
  The immense Elf didn’t even look up and Tethrin said nothing. A glaring purple bruise scarred his smooth forehead and extended to his left eye. His usual long-stepped gait was diminished to a pathetic limp, though he tried his best to hide it. He looked as though he’d been hit very hard below the belt, and he clasped a hand to his right middle rib-cage.
  Silfdas clenched his teeth as his nemesis approached him, though apparently without having yet seen him.
 Not a word to Tethrin, who just stood watching, his own natural colour having waned and his looks betraying his inner thoughts.
 In order not to be ran over by the lumbering beast, Silfdas stepped aside. Only then did the smith’s son stop suddenly and suck in a pained gasp and cringe.
 But the expected icy welcome never came. Instead, he lowered his head again, muttering something unintelligible, and limped away.
  Tethrin, perturbed, watched his friend disappear slowly in the shade of the forest.
Silfdas could tell he wanted badly to follow, but turned to him. “Well…er…he must’ve been hurt…while…er- hunting,” he fumbled.
Looking nervously about he softly called for Nurtalië, though evident by his tone he didn’t expect an answer.
 Unsuccessful, he turned back to the guest, “You said you had business with the captain, right?”
Silfdas pulled himself out of his sudden reverie.

  All the hard feelings he bore the smith’s son seemed so pointless now. Not that he pitied him; no. Whatever trouble he was in, was sure to be of his own making. Nonetheless,  Silfdas eyed the captain’s tent and a dread encompassed him.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” he said finally.
 Tethrin swallowed hard, “One moment,” and approached the tent.
“Captain?” he said in a forced stoical tone. “You have a visitor…from Tauremith.”

 “Show them in,” came a smooth, masculine voice, almost pleasant, from within.
Silfdas sighed to calm himself. Perhaps the confusing signals given by the others were casting a false light on the situation and he was completely misjudging it.
He nodded to Tethrin, who returned the gesture with an oddly sympathetic look in his eyes, and entered the captain’s tent.

   Standing before him, between a simple table and a low cot, was a slender, but powerful-looking Elf with nighted, flowing locks, and dressed in a graceful mixture of dark metal and leather armour. He smiled, bowing his head politely, and Silfdas surveyed his face.

  It could have once been handsome, exquisitely so- but now bore a tired, sleepless drawn look. His skin, unwrinkled, clung tightly to his high protruding cheekbones. Arched brows crowned a broad forehead with a haughty demeanor. A neatly tapered chin and chiseled jaw line led up to long, pointed ears like snow-capped peaks jutting through the waves of his deep mahogany braids. A long straight nose and lips that formed something between a sneer and polite frown, gave Silfdas the feeling of a proud hart; proud and haughty to his own demise.
  “So…” his chillingly smooth voice drawled, “You are the faithful Silfdas. Loyal to a fault, or so our lady praises you. A pleasure, truly.”

  Silfdas inclined his head in respect, but something in the voice disturbed him. No, not even the tone. Almost impatient, mocking and distracted, yet none of these. It was inconsistent, always smooth, but- no! He couldn’t place it. His throat became dry and words stuck there, so he produced the leather-wrapped, sealed letter and handed it to Captain Alcarín.

  Opening it and lifting the seal, without a muscle twitching in his face, he perused its contents quickly.
 His eyes flashed momentarily, then he raised his head slowly. That’s what it was! thought Silfdas; his eyes! They were calm enough, but their was no feeling in them. No real feeling, at least. Cold, callous and lifeless. Ancient, perhaps? No- he was taking it all too far!

  “Your mistress chides me for my lack of faith. She says my tardy reply burdens her happiness greatly,” he paused, ” But I could say the same.”
His stony gaze caused Silfdas to shift uncomfortably, “Captain? What do you mean?”
“I have received no word from her for many weeks. How can this be explained?”
Silfdas felt his heart beat speed up a little. Alcarín’s tone sang an accusatory note.
 “Sir, I have delivered her letters to the messengers every time she writes them. I would gain nothing by inhibiting their travel. Else I would not have traveled in such haste to deliver her words to your hands. Captain-” he paused to breath, trying to hide a flare of emotion on his mistress’ account, ” Lady Belrien is distressed.”
 Alcarín’s brows lowered sympathetically, but his cruel eyes seemed not to move. Or blink.
“And I feel responsible- though not in the way it would seem.” He let out a forced sigh and turned his back to Silfdas.

  In that time the smaller man glanced furtively about. For once his suspicious nature played him true: just peeping from beneath a gilt box on the desk was a small stack of familiar toned paper, covered in a feminine hand Silfdas would never mistake.

Alcarín was lying.

  The imposing captain turned quickly around, as if struck by the answer to their problem. “How long did you say it was since she received word from me? Could it be- just after she was visited at her home by my own messenger?”

 Eärón! Silfdas thought for a moment and then nodded. “Yes…that does ring true,” he admitted.

 “Would you care to speak with him?” suggested the captain, watching him intently.
“I-” Silfdas began to protest.
 “Should you refuse, I might imagine…hmm…foul play…co-conspirators?”
  Silfdas didn’t reply, but lowered his head to hide the growing irritation. He sensed the captain had read something deeper in his immediate refusal attempt, or perhaps he knew more than he thought.
 Silfdas had never felt so confused or outmanned in the battle of minds.
Indicating the conversation was closed, Captain Alcarín came around the table and led the way out of his tent. His unwaivering confidence seemed to drain Silfdas of his own and there were obviously other things on his mind.

  They emerged into the shifting light of the cloudy winter sky and Silfdas found the cool air that quickly filled his lungs only worsened his scattered mind.
Not only had he let himself become embroiled into an overly complicated affair between two of his betters, but now it apparently involved the brutish, bearded son of a smith.

  He wished he could just…demand the truth, with a presence that commanded awe. Or leave it all behind him, swifter than the brook that ran downhill in a warm spell. He wished Lady Belrien-
 He forced his mind to stop there, before his deadweight grew heavier and drowned him.
It was not to be.

  “Ah, Nurtalië,” the lordly purr called out, freezing the thin boy of earlier in his place just behind two other young men.
  It almost seemed that he tried to hide himself, slipping agilely behind a larger body.
Realizing the impossibility of escape, Nurtalië came forward slowly with bowed head.
“Captain,” piped the lad, stiffly standing to attention before them.
“Have you seen Eärón lately? asked Alcarín, unphased by the boy’s groveling, though it seemed to Silfdas that he was hiding less from the captain than from him.
“Ah, no, captain, I don’t th-think so…” he said glancing about, in a paranoid manner.
Silfdas held his breath.
 The captain’s brows arched even higher on his head, “Please escort our friend here to him. They have business.”
 Head still bent away, the young Elf insisted, “I don’t know where he is, captain-“
“Do as I say,” came his response, almost before the other had finished. He nodded coolly to Silfdas and walked back to his tent sans ceremony.

  Without a look or a word, the Elf-lad jerked his head for Silfdas to follow and jauntily marched off, keeping the stranger at his back at all times.
 Not ten paces out of the ring of tents, they encountered another small party of chatting Elves. One was familiar to Silfdas.
 Before he had a chance to acknowledge Tethrin, his little guide swerved, brushing into his fellow Glade-keeper, and, with a few rapidly muttered words, disappeared behind some brush. It was the last Silfdas would ever see of Nurtalië.

   Puzzled but compliant, Tethrin gave his companions orders, and joined the outsider.

“Forgive me,” apologized the latter, “I don’t mean to keep imposing upon your time.”
“No! Don’t think on it! Rumil and Irethas need to learn to work together.” He smiled his perfect, toothy grin, but it somehow seemed very faked, the jolly note of earlier now vanished from his voice.
  “Thank you,” said Silfdas, but wishing Tethrin had said something more like- “Oh you can find him yourself, right?” from whence he would take a very speedy leave. Running, fast. Away from this writhing nest of-
 “So, you know Mûmak?” asked Tethrin, trying to make polite conversation.
Silfdas cleared his throat and pulled up his heavy robes to step over a fallen log.
“Mûmak?” he queried, silently sneering at how well the nickname fit the bearer.
  “Oh,” Tethrin gave a short chuckle, “Eärón. That fellow gets a lot of teasing, but he puts up with it like a mule. I’m sure the females love him though,” he laughed shortly.
It made Silfdas grimace: “Good thing she was well out of his reach, then,” he thought. Who, though.
Tairiel, of course!
  A heavy wood-pigeon took off and startled him. They were well into the woods now, the bustle of the camp hushed to a murmur now and then.
  Suddenly Tethrin, his expression greatly changed to one of deep concern, turned to his follower.
“As his good friend, I wish Eärón the best- of course. And I’d never want to say something that might get him in more trouble.” Seeing the other’s confusion, he went on, “I don’t know what the matter is between Alcarín and Eärón- he won’t tell me. I think he’s protecting me- I don’t know. Just-” he sighed, as if exasperated by his attempt, “I just ask you to use your own good judgment, sir. He’s a good man.”
  Both men looked up as another bird fluttered from a low branch out of a nearby tree, disturbed from its hidden perch.
  Then several paces away a warm, chesty voice sounded from behind a small, mossy grove of ivy-covered beeches. “Tethrin? Is that you?”
 They heard a stifled groan and the underbrush rustle as Eärón tried to get up. Tethrin jogged ahead and leapt over another log and down into the green gully.
“Just sit still, Mûmak- you’ve got company.”
  Eärón’s head jerked up and his nostrils flared defensively. But before he could ask who, the dark figure emerged and approached slowly.
 The smith’s son immediately pushed himself up and rose to his towering height. He grimaced and bit his already split lip to hold back the groan.

  Not a word, he watched Silfdas, waiting, a sullen and worn look in his face.
The last conversation they’d shared had been far less than friendly or pleasant. Much had changed, much had happened since then. Silfdas looked at his swollen purple eye, his lopsided stance and wounded demeanor, and knew it was no hunting accident that had rendered him thus. He had gone from bad to worse.
  It was his own fault, of course, but Silfdas couldn’t help but hope he didn’t end up the same way.

 “Your captain seems to think you have deliberately detained letters you were instructed by him to deliver,” he began bluntly, growing uneasy in the hulking shadow.
Eärón looked at Tethrin, whose features betrayed only innocence.
 “The only message I ever delivered was in person, to Lady Belrien’s own hands,” his cheeks flushed a little though he tried to stay calm, “Whatever you accuse me of is slanderous.”
 Silfdas rubbed his cold nose and met Eärón’s eyes which had begun to kindle again. Big word- slanderous- he thought disdainfully. But to Eärón’s surprise, he shrugged.
 “Then I am right.” He inhaled quickly and finitely through damp nostrils, and surveyed the other’s poor state blatantly, “I see you’re fitting in well out here.”

 Eärón cocked his head, “Not as well as you are.”
The tension between them hissed and sizzled for a moment, then died out with the slightest twitch of a grin on Eärón’s lips. Silfdas allowed himself a deeper breath and jogged up his eyebrows, “I don’t know…I was thinking of staying.”
  Tethrin glanced to and from the opposite men’s faces, not sure what to think.

  “Enjoy yourself then- and beware the wolves,” said Eärón, though something in his tone rang true with Silfdas.

 Eärón Hallacarion had confirmed his suspicion. The smith’s son was too simple to lie and the letters on the strange captain’s desk were really all the proof he needed.
 But how would he break it to Belrien? Would she even believe him? His dread of this task was mixed with the relief that perhaps soon it would be over. She would be at peace once she got over the ‘betrayal’.
  Before they left though, he felt Eärón’s heavy hand stop him, just by settling on his shoulder.
 “If I may, Silfdas,” his voice was intense and very low, riveting his attention, “Get yourself out of this. It’s too late for me, but-” he looked down, brows creased, “Be careful.”
With that he let go of Silfdas’ shoulder and turned his back to them.

  Silfdas’ heart picked up speed as he walked. Not from the exertion so much as Eärón’s words. It was all so strange, and so much more than a broken love affair.

  At the edge of the protected area surrounding the camp, Tethrin stopped. “I guess I just assumed you weren’t going back to camp…”
Silfdas nodded assuringly.
 “Ilúvatar be with you then,” Tethrin said, “Mind your map and good luck. North is that way,” he pointed a reminder.
Silfdas thanked the friendly lieutenant. He turned to begin his trek back- quite the walking stretch for one day- but hesitated. Turning back he asked carefully, “Nurtalië…”
Tethrin waited, quizzically.
 “Is he from Tauremith?”
“Well, yes,” he answered, surprised at the question.
 “Hmmm,” Silfdas mused aloud, “Just that I’ve never seen him before…yet, he’s so vaguely familiar- as if I know a relative, or something. Ah, well, thank you anyways.”
And so they parted.

 

    After he was sure Silfdas and Tethrin were gone, Eärón unlaced his jerkin and lifted his shirt, revealing his torso, held tightly in pain.
 His right rib cage was bruised badly, as if hit by solid metal. He raised it higher and craned his neck, clenching his teeth, to see the rest. Bloodied and black and purple, three ribs were broken.

  A gasp, broken by a hand just as it escaped the lips, came from the tree above him. Something had moved up there before and now he knew it.
Dropping his tunic and jerkin and ignoring the excruciating pain, he jumped up and seized the body. He lost his grip as gravity claimed him again, but succeeded in dislodging the oversized bird.
  He fell to his knees and the spy crashed to the ground beside him. Instantly one hand latched onto the tiny throat pinning him down, his other anchoring down his chest.
 “Nurtalië!” he growled and little soft hands trembled as they weakly held his wrists.
The eyes, grey crystals, wide and with little seas forming at their heavily lashed edges. The trembling lips, too naturally red, like the delicate petals of a musk rose. The flushed cheeks, dainty nose and chin, and- the- chest-?!
  If he’d been clubbed in the back while sleeping standing up, he couldn’t have been more shocked, breathless and mute.
 He jumped up, as if bitten by a serpent, and stumbled back a few paces. The word- no- the name that hovered dangerously on his lips never escaped.

Tairiel.

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 32 ~False Alarm~

Chapter 32
~False Alarm~

  A gauntleted arm shot stiffly up and in a moment the murmur was hushed and the scraping tread of heavy boots diminished.
Their leader turned quickly and gave a sign to be on the ready. They were nearly there.

“Gorlath,” the king said in a low murmur, “No more than seventy paces, then come back.”
  “Aye, milord,” the scout nodded and trotted off, his steps muffled by a softer leather than the others’.

 Gormna stepped forward to fill his brother’s place next to the king. “Orders?”
“Fifty paces behind. I don’t want you gone longer than fifteen minutes. If anything happens, call, throw something…anything. I’m not losing any more men.”
“Your will, sir,” the Dwarf bowed and fell behind.

    After a few minutes more of marching, their pace was greatly lessened and more careful, Dáin grunted to his cousin, “The mist always shows up when you’re looking for something!”
Thorin only snorted.
“Are you not worried about an ambush, eh?”
“No,” Thorin’s beard braids tinkled together at the clasps as he shook his head. His eyes darted here and there, ears perked and senses piqued, “I know these roads well. Unless they have some sorcery to make them invisible- we’ll see them.”
Or smell them,” put in the older cousin.

  A few more minutes passed, and Dáin again broke the silence.
“It’s too damn quiet!” he growled uneasily.
 A smirk twisted one side of Thorin’s lip, “Not with you around.”
Unchecked, Dáin went on, “No- the air, the wind- nothing! It’s so still. This damned mist! So, sticky- rrrgh!”
“It could help us, you know,” Thorin said patiently. ignoring his cousin’s frustration.
Dáin grunted, “Oh aye, and then we’ll be rescued by your long-legged tree-berserker, eh? I’m afraid we’re out of luck on those lines this time, cousin.”
Thorin rolled his eyes. At least he didn’t call her an Elf.
   Much like brothers at odds with each other, the two descendants of Durin had managed to make up; to heal the rift between them, if only fragilely. By ways of an apology, Dáin had limited his discourse on Vaenomar and when the topic crossed his lips had somehow conjured some manner of art to his wording. This was accepted by his volatile cousin, although he would’ve preferred it go directly to the young woman herself.
She would understand; he hoped.

  No precipitation and no wind, but the mist swirled around with a will of its own. Thinner on the road than in the squat rolling hills surrounding, it left the party feeling over-warm and restless.

  Gormna returned in perfect time, though Thorin almost lost track thanks to his cousin’s chattiness, and Gorlath soon after.
 No sign of movement, no odd sounds, no tracks, nothing. Granted they could’ve moved on, and quickly too, but Thorin had his doubts. Especially without having any signs or tracks. Goblins weren’t that clever. Never had been, never could be. They thought ahead, not behind and hadn’t changed their tactics for all the ages of their existence.

  “My lord,” Gorlath said, “I may be mistaken, but up ahead the fog seems to be thinning.”
Thorin nodded. They were nearing some cropland and then Aldon, the sprawling hamlet in charge of the area. It was not one of their regular routes, as it had never had problems before. Being not particularly easy to find probably aided in its safety.
The report had said goblin activity “in the area”. He hoped the town would still be alive and intact.

  Sure enough, to all the Dwarves’ delight, especially Dáin’s, the mist greatly thinned. It now only played in wispy ribbons above their heads, floating nonchalantly by and away.
The cool air was still and the damp brown and gold of the tussocked hills seemed to lull the area into a wintry sleep.
 Thorin too had to force his senses awake now, so dull and calm seemed his surroundings. The countryside was empty for as far as the eye could see.
With the mist gone, so went the nerves.
Gorlath jogged on ahead again, veering off to the East and West a few times.

 “There’s nothing out here,” he shrugged, a little frustrated to Thorin.
The Dwarf king heaved a sigh, “So it seems.” Then he turned, “Pick up the pace! We reach Aldon by sunset!”
“If this turns out to be a play on us- then- oh ho!” Dáin patted his axe’s head and didn’t need to go on.
Thorin shot him a smouldering look, “You can keep those thoughts to yourself.” He glanced back at his men, “As if they want to be here either.”

  It wasn’t easy for Dáin to be a follower, but half of his entourage had taken a straighter route home as per his orders. They were on Thorin’s territory, now, and though the majority of the number were his men, his cousin lorded these lands. He was heir to Erebor, and, by the knots of Durin’s beard, did he act like it.
He gurgled something unintelligible, but followed the orders.

  The troop covered another five miles and by their leader’s reckoning their destination was close. Several paces ahead of the group Gorlath froze. Thorin followed suit and then the rest.
A cry, hoarse and strained, cut through the dense air, and was followed by another, more shrill.
They sounded like children, or perhaps women.
 In a flash of sharpened steel, weapons were out and muscles flexed, blood-thirst pumping through their veins. With a gesture bearing only one meaning, Thorin began a long charge towards the cries.

  “Before we butcher them up,” Thorin heard his cousin rasping beside him, “I just want to say-“

Was this an apology? Thorin was shocked.

 “I hope,” he continued, taking quick breaths between each phrase, “Your tidbit comes back in one piece. And you don’t have pointy-ears on your doorstep the next day. Women are fickle- you know that.”
Thorin grinned, “Bridi’s not.”
Something like a laugh gurgled from Dáin’s throat, “Exactly! And you go for the newborn long-leg?!”

   A ramshackle barn appeared at the base of a small hill, some rundown fences surrounding it, and the dark shapes of Aldon’s buildings just past the surrounding plot.

   The cry came again and was followed by the same shrill whimper. In the fading grey light the Dwarves saw only an empty pasture and a frozen garden plot.
Then something moved; or sounded like it. Metal clanged from inside the rundown structure and Thorin stopped the advance.
He motioned for Dáin to stay and Gorlath to follow.
   The bone-chilling shriek-like cry came again. Gorlath agilely vaulted over the fence, but one smash from Thorin’s axe sent the rotten timbers into the frozen ground. It was easier.
The two crept stealthily up to the opening that passed for a doorway and listened.

  But instead of the snarling, slavering cacophony of feasting goblins, there emerged a clean, shrill whistle. It wobbled a little then formed into something like a tune. Thorin’s brows bent low enough to touch his nose bridge and Gorlath looked at his lord just as puzzled.
 Goblins couldn’t whistle!
Then came the shriek again and the higher pitched one in chorus.
“Ah, shat yore traps, wouldjya! Ahm movin’ as fast as ah can!” came a stuffed up, gruff male voice. Still axe at the ready, Thorin stepped in, Gorlath at his heels.

  Hobbling around, quite slowly, was a greying, haphazard man in a dirty tunic, with an equally soiled beard. A twisted leg accounted for his lack of speed and thus the complaints of his charges, the owners of the blood-curdling cries of late.
Goats.
A mother and her overgrown daughter, who still thought she was entitled to nursing rights.

   Thorin felt a hot anger surge in his blood and rush to his face. Embarrassing, to say the least.
Gorlath’s expression betrayed his surprise double that of Thorin’s.
  As he decided what to do next, the gleam of the lantern on Thorin’s scale-mail caught the bumbling farmer’s eye.
“Gran’s hairy knuckles!!” he shrieked, nearly as terrible as the caprines, “W-w-wha’ you want?! Ah ain’t got squat! J-just me an’ me lasses, ‘ere!”

   Thorin lowered his axe, trying not to let his sneer show too plainly, “Goblins. Where are they?” he demanded.
 The man paled and looked around, terrified, “Goblins, you say?” He swallowed his words as if afraid goblins would hear and come running.
“Yes. Where are they?”
The man’s stuttering grated on Thorin’s piqued nerves.
“Ah- Ah- Ah ain’t seen any of…” he swallowed, “Them. Naw, never.”

  The majestic Dwarf king took a couple threatening steps forward. “No?”
The man nearly fell over in an attempt to back away. “No! None ‘ere. Wha’ you want them for anyways- if- if you don’t mind me askin’ sirs, ah course!”
 Thorin turned towards the doorway, rolling his eyes, “To ask them to dinner. What else?”
He jerked his head and was followed out by Gorlath. Their exit was hailed by the does in a series of hungry shrieks and cries.

   As the king and the scout approached their anxiously waiting comrades, the brooding pall on Thorin’s visage was enough to silence all but the boldest.
“Well?” demanded Dáin. “What was it?”
“Nothing,” snapped Thorin and turned to the others, “March on!”

  Dáin looked suspiciously at Gorlath and back to his cousin. “Then where are they? And what was that infernal noise?”
“Oh, just dying babies,” Thorin quipped sourly.
“No sign of goblins and no one’s even seen them,” Gorlath ventured, attempting to put Dáin at rest, “Well…he hadn’t.”
Dáin snorted, “Hmph! So what? We head to the town, ask around, do some whoring and drinking and that’s it?”
Thorin glared at him, “Let’s just get to Aldon first and I’ll go from there.”
Dáin shook his head from side to side and fell back a few steps to share some words with his men. Something was eating away at his cousin, he could tell. And not embarrassment or worry about goblins. Something far away…back home, perhaps. Something dangerous, or in danger.

   A tin cowbell clanked methodically up ahead, and the trudge of six feet, four hooves and two boots, moved along the same frozen mudded road as they.
The post and spike wall of Aldon was no more than a dark shape on the immediate horizon. The man and his cow moved quickly aside for the foreign bunch as they plodded past, with a nod from a few.

   At the gate, which was more of a temporary cessation of spikes ‘guarded’ by a single, sleepy peasant, Thorin gave orders for the bulk of the party to keep watch just outside the town and question the watchman- if they could wake him from his liquor-driven stupor.

 “Keep an eye on them,” he told his cousin, knowing he’d be glad to be in charge for a bit. And that it’d be better not to have him along.
He nodded for the brothers to follow and passed through the gate, the man with the cow several timid paces behind.

  “Look sharp, lads,” ordered Dáin, folding his bristling arms across his chest and taking an imposing stance just next to the gateway.

 

      “How do you not know of a horde of goblins near your home?” muttered Thorin exasperated.
  Gormna opened his mouth with some well intended explanation, but Thorin’s attention was arrested elsewhere. A noise had caused him to look behind him at the gate posts.

  Ruffling its dark feathers and darting black glances below it was a raggedy crow.
She seemed uncannily interested in the Mannish and Dwarvish goings-on that surrounded her perch, but made no sound.
 His own look lasted longer than he’d planned, and Thorin turned back to the wide dirt street, growing uneasiness gnawing at his liver.

  They passed a weathered hovel, white-washed and tarred against the elements. A warm light issued out of it, silhouetting the tiny figure of a child.
Hand in mouth he watched the strange trio pass his door. The large, wondering eyes of his sister joined his in the doorway.

  The brothers didn’t notice, but Thorin met the little ones’ gazes.
The warmth in his heart froze again at the thought of goblins. He hoped those little ones never had to see the creatures.
  The little boy turned into his sister’s arms and squealed when the Dwarf waved offhandedly.

  “Close the door, you’re lettin’ in the winter!” came the chiding voice of their mother from inside. Thorin looked back to see the last glimmer in the child’s eye before the door closed.
 He sighed inaudibly and looked for any lollygaggers about to question.

  “I don’t smell ‘em… I can always smell ‘em from miles away,” Gorlath muttered.
“Might have something to do with all the animals,” said Gormna superiorly.

   Even in the unorganized maze of farm houses and rustic wooden shacks, the Thaneling’s longhouse was easy to find.
The entrance was unguarded and so Thorin made unceremonious entry.

   The hall was warm, as a large fire burned in the center. The two wolfhounds that lounged together near its warmth sat up, one growled, the other barked, both with long-haired waggling tails.

  An ancient man, head crowned by snowy locks and a face whose wrinkles could number twice his years, sat deep in a roughly-carved chair, swathed in furs and robes.
The younger man at his side stood up, on seeing the visitors, and walked proudly to meet them.

“My lords!” he said in an expressive, pointed voice, “Welcome!”

 Thorin bowed and cast an eye about him, “We come to speak with Thaneling-“
“Wulfur,” the young man filled in, “My father.”
He gestured behind him and climbed the few steps back to his father’s side. “Dwarves, father. I believe- Thorin Oakenshield. Shall I…speak for you?”
  The Dwarves watched as the old Thaneling patted his son on the shoulder, while looking straight ahead with unseeing eyes.
The son bowed respectfully to his sire and returned to the company. Light red hair, closely cropped and smooth pale skin.
Thorin thought of Vaenomar. How different her life might have been… This polite, handsome young man might’ve made her a happy bride.
He shook himself, “Reports reached us in the North from your town of a goblin threat in your region. Very near Aldon. Yet we have no sign of them. No sign of this knowledge, either, in your townsfolk.” He raised his brow, creasing his forehead, and awaited an answer.

  As the Dwarf spoke, the young man’s look of polite interest had changed to alarm. He thought for a brief moment, “Goblins, you say?” his tone was incredulous.
Thorin barely nodded.
 His fiery head looked to the floor as if racking his brain, “Goblins…” he muttered; it seemed foreign to his lips.
 Finally he met the Dwarf’s eyes, “No. No goblins, and I can only hope there will never be. You…you say you were summoned?”
He looked back at his father, who slowly shook his head; one could almost hear the revered bones creaking.

“Yes. Summoned.”
Jaw muscles rippled and the lanky man stroked his velveteen head.
“Impossible.”
Thorin heaved an impatient sigh, “A night-hawk arrived two days ago. We made good time, it is impossible for us to have missed them.”
 The other shook his head, “Yes. Yes, it would be.” He looked intently at his guests, “I’ll come clean. I did not summon you. Thank Eru, we’ve had no goblins in these parts for decades. As you have probably gathered- it is unlikely my father had anything to do with this either.”
 He took in a deep breath, “And I am the only one with access to our hawks.”

 Thorin’s face darkened, the tips of his thick moustache lowering even farther. He took three long strides forward and seized the young man by his throat, drawing him down to his height.

The old Thaneling did nothing, Gormna grimaced and Gorlath jumped to the ready.
  “If you’re lying to me-” Thorin began, but the cold terror in the other’s dark blue eyes made his insides twist.
  Unexpectedly, he let him go. The young man straightened, holding his throat, and stumbled back a few paces.
 Thorin ran his hands through the multitude of his tangled hair.
The Thaneling’s son watched defensively in silence as the burly Dwarf lord paced back and forth.
Gorlath couldn’t hold any longer, “My lord-s. The untruth doesn’t belong to anyone present, that much is obvious. Or so I believe. I-“
Thorin whipped around. “No? Then who, Gorlath?” His eyes blazed and his words bore subtle thunder.
Gormna came to his brother’s rescue, “What if we investigated the hawk-roost?” He turned to the tall man, “Would that be acceptable, my lord?”
 His red-head bowed jerkily, still in shock from the assault, and he turned to his seeming placid lord, “We will return shortly, father.”

   As Thorin didn’t move immediately, Gormna took the initiative and followed their host.
The storm of the Dwarf lord’s temper subsided slowly, leaving him in a distracted, brooding humour.
  They passed through a dark hall, emerged into a chilly passageway lit by a single torch, and then arrived at the heavy door, either side hung with old tapestries, too faded to see the story they told.
  The young man drew a leather thong from around his neck that bore three keys. One had a tattered white ribbon tied to it.
“Quite the key ring you’ve got there,” grinned Gorlath, trying to lighten the mood.
The man smiled back. “One for the hawks, the coffer, and-” he winked and held up the ribboned key, “My lover’s chambers.”

 The door creaked open as he unlocked it and the dark room immediately filled with shuffling talons and ruffled feathers. He took a torch off a sconce on the wall outside, handed it to Gormna, and entered.

  Feathers soft as maiden’s skin, beaks and claws as deadly as a lover’s kiss, six sleek night-hawks stood on their various perches, two or three huddled familiarly together.

  “They’re called night-hawks because they can see in the dark, like owls- but they fly just as well in daylight.” He fondly stroked the neck of a large mottled bird, “Wonderful creatures.”

“You have six, then?” observed Gormna.
 “Seven, actually. Yesterday my father sent a letter to my pregnant sister in Old Estenna. He should be back tomorrow morning.”
  Thorin listened, his suspicion only growing. He eyed the birds carefully and watched their owner handle them with great gentleness.

  The young man took one on his arm, its talons easily could’ve ripped through his thin, tender skin, but it grasped its perch so softly, it must have known.
“Do you think you could recognize the messenger that brought you the news?” he asked Thorin carefully.
 Thorin grunted, “I doubt it.”
   The young man let his charge back onto its perch and walked over to another. The bird eyed the newcomers as suspiciously as Thorin watched her. Then she lightly stepped onto her trusted friend’s outstretched arm, curiously nibbling a brass clasp on his doublet. Her eye turned to Thorin again…as if in recognition, but not in trust. She bore a stark white feather on her left wing, where the pigment refused to colour it, and the intelligence that emanated from those black eyes was uncanny. Thorin looked away and then back.
 “It seems you have met Lady Gloaming,” the Thaneling’s son said softly.
Thorin nodded. The younger man’s face grew puzzled and he kissed the top of the bird’s head in thought.
“If she couldn speak, I’m sure she’d have a lot to say…”

    “Vaenomar…” thought Thorin, “She could talk to you…”
The bird cocked its head and met Thorin’s eye, but imparted nothing further.

  Gorlath’s voice from a far corner made a few of the hawks jump, “There’s no other entrance or exit. The ventilation is far too small for a human body to fit in.”
“No other keys?” Thorin finally addressed the man.
“None,” he answered in utmost honesty, his own trust slowly ebbing back.

 He didn’t deserve Thorin’s wrath. The Dwarf king’s black thoughts searched for who did.
Was it because he had imagined Vaenomar with this young man, that had caused jealousy to flare and blind him? Was it one frustration and worry after the next?
Or was it because he felt someone or something was undermining him at every turn.
Thorin sucked in a long deliberated breath and let it out of his nostrils.

  “No sign of goblins for decades, you say?” Gormna asked as Thorin gathered his thoughts.
 “Ever since my father defeated their regional chief, mmm…twenty-five years ago or more- they haven’t been back. I was only a tiny lad then, but we used to have something of a militia.” He sighed in nostalgia and let the hawk back on her resting perch, “I guess it disappeared with disuse. I only hope we don’t need it…”
 Thorin nodded solemnly in agreement. He hadn’t placed warriors around this locale since two years of dwelling in the Grey Mountains. There had been nothing to worry about.

“Any visitors to the town lately?”

 The taller man cocked his head and eyed Thorin, “Visitors?”

“Foreign, odd-looking…male?” 

  He ran his fingers over the coppery stubble on his head. “Now…that almost rings a bell.” Drumming his long fingers on his skull for a moment, he looked up slowly, “Eh- perhaps you should talk to my sister.” With that he took the torch from Gormna and led the way out.

  “This door locks when it closes,” he explained, “Dwarf-make, actually. A fellow…from Dale, I think, or something like that.”
Thorin glanced at Gorlath.
  The only Dwarf in these parts that claimed to hail from the city on the lake was Branbur. Gormna raised his eyebrows.
“A different sister, I take it?” the older brother said slyly.
 That earned a frown from the patient host, “I knew Dwarves were mistrustful, but- not everyone is a liar. -Yes. I have three sisters. They practically raised me.”
  “Pretty boy,” snorted Gorlath, louder than he meant.

  The ring of a knife being drawn cut the air and the man turned on his heel, easily pinning the scout to the wall with a hand and his superior height.
 “Pretty moves, too,” he hissed, with a slightly crazed grin, Gorlath’s eyes widening as he felt something jabbed hard into his underchin.

  Thorin’s axe was at the ready just as fast, but any action was halted by a throaty chuckle from Gormna.
 The tall man’s grin softened, a raspy laugh shaking his own thin frame, and he stepped back, removing his hand from the Dwarf’s throat. In place of a knife he had used his thumb, and now sheathed the dagger which he’d held behind his back- to Gormna’s merriment.
  He patted the reddening scout on the back and cast a wary eye on the Dwarven leader who slowly lowered his axe.
 “I’ll have you know, all my sisters can fight. They were the ones that disciplined me…not father.”

  They came to an open room, not very large, with carven pillars at the four corners. He approached a door on the West and, clearing his throat, he knocked.
“It’s just me, Dána. Are you…awake?”
 The sleepy drawl testified otherwise, “It’s so late, Rúan! What is it?”
The voice grew nearer and he quickly motioned for the Dwarves to stand back a bit.

   The door opened and a well-built, round faced woman with shoulder length, thick, orange curls stood, tall and lovely in her billowing nightgown. As her eyes accustomed to the torchlight, she blinked and suddenly shut the door to only a few inches.
“Rúan! You liar! You said it was only you!”
“Well, I meant-“
“What do you want?!”
 Thorin stepped forward, throwing the stray hair out of his face with a toss of his head. The fire light of the torch lit up his fine, rock hewn features and highlighted glints on his scale-mail.
 “Thorin Oakenshield, at your service, my lady,” sounded his gravelly rumble. It always worked.

  Her fair cheeks tinged rosy and she made a sort of curtsey. “Dána, daughter of Wulfur, at yours.”
“Forgive the intrusion, we never meant to wake you.”
She shook her head, copper curls bouncing lively.
“Your brother made mention of…a stranger to the town, that perhaps you had some dealings with?”
 The colour left her cheeks and she shot a withering look at her younger brother. “Maybe,” she said weakly.
  Playing his cards well, Thorin took her hand and pressed his lips and beard to it respectfully.
“It is very important that I find him,” he said calmly, doing his best to hold back unnecessary emotion, “You would do me a great service by aiding me in this matter.”

  Rúan glanced at the Dwarf brothers, but they were just as in the dark as he.

Her tone lowered confidentially, but she let go of the door.
“Five days…or around that, I was-” she glanced at her brother, “At the tavern. There’s never anyone new in Aldon- so, when this striking…gorgeous…strapping…” she blushed again, “Man comes up and asks to buy me an ale- I’m not going to refuse.”
Though he hardly agreed with the reasoning, Thorin nodded sympathetically.
“He had a strange accent, ah, a short beard,…very…strong body,” her eyes moved wistfully over the Dwarf king for a moment, “And the most perfect….white teeth I’ve ever tast- er…seen.”
 She turned even redder and again resorted to glaring at her brother.

   Thorin said nothing. His eyes were fixed as if attentive to the girl’s story, but by now his mind was far away.
 The damned teeth! Accent…Bridi had mentioned that. No defining descriptions of a face though…odd. Women always seemed to be good at that sort of thing, he mused.
He returned to the present to hear her say, “Cold…he seemed so…cold. Not that I touched him or anything.”
Thorin’s own blood began to run cold in his veins.
  She hesitated for long enough to make Thorin wonder if she realized his his inattention.
He bent closer and whispered, “Did he try to…touch you?”
She gulped rather loudly. “He asked my to join him upstairs. I- I couldn’t say no. But- you see, I’m not that kind of girl, alright. But…I don’t know, he – well, my cousin made me come away with her. But, I’m not that kind of girl-“
  He placed a firm, calming hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. I know you’re not.” It was the least he could do to calm her back down. “My-” he looked down and sniffed uncomfortably, “‘Daughter’ had a similar experience with this same man. I’m glad you’re safe.”

  She nodded gratefully with large eyes. Thorin mocked himself in his mind, “Your daughter? What a father you’d make! And Vaenomar…a daughter?” The thought was gut-wrenching.

   The three onlookers grasped the situation slowly, each in their own time and way.

“Dána…” Rúan’s voice broke in softly, “Any idea where he was headed?”
She didn’t look at him, but kept her eyes on the intriguing company, “He never talked about himself. But there was something about him…that made me not even want to know…” Her curls bounced as she jerked her head, “Ah, I’m talking strange now. I’ve told you all I can. I hope it helps…”
  Before she shut the door, Thorin took her hand again and placed a farewell kiss on her soft skin. “Thank you, Dána. Forever shall I be in your debt.”
A smile flickered across her round face as it disappeared behind the door.

  The smile that had lightened his was gone with the thud of the door, buried deep in re-unearthed troubles.
“”Draegk!

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 31 ~Shadows of the Past~

Chapter 31 ~Shadows of the Past

 

  His morning walk amid the crystalline dew on the delicate emerald grass blades and the fading song of some determined crickets had been cut short by a summons, one that daily grew less and less pleasant. Fallen leaves of red and gold hues clung to the damp, slightly tattered hem of his dark cloak as he grudgingly made his way to the nearest tree stairway that wound with a swirling pale mist into the heights of sleeping mallorn boughs.

  Of late, Lady Belrien had begun to worry Silfdas. At first only slightly, but now- she called for him every day, asking for news, sending a letter, wanting his observational gleanings. As soon as Tairiel, the object of his desire, had disappeared into the woods alongside the fair Prince of the Greenwood, Silfdas realized- so had his chances. A gloom had fallen on him, a heavier one than his usual disposition, and, despite all Lady Belrien’s frustrated attempts to bring him out, he resolved himself to having lost the woman he loved. The one and only consolation that warmed him at night, was knowing his rival, the brute and impure Hallacarion, would also never call her his own. And he hadn’t been afforded a farewell; the fool had vanished the night of the Prince’s reception. Or perhaps there were things he’d missed.
The climb had gone faster than usual, as Silfdas was lost in his unsettled mind, and before he realized it the lavender and gold banner of Lady Belrien’s flet fluttered just ahead.

  “Almáre’ arin,” greeted a smooth, dark voice, startling him to look up. Belegren, Captain of the Guard, bowed his head politely. His tall, strong figure in ivory and silver armor towered over the visitor, though not without an unmasked suspicion in his knitted eyebrows.
 Silfdas bowed and spoke hastily in an attempt to dispel the uncomfortable air around,  “Good Morning, Captain. Your sister…is well, I hope?”
“She is, I thank you.” The stately, golden-haired Elf inclined his head again. “And your walk,” he nodded towards Silfdas’ leaf trail, “I trust, was a pleasant one?”
  “A most enchanting wintertime we’re enjoying,” smiled Silfdas, hoping to cover up the nervous twitch brought on by Belegren’s meaningful display of observation.
   After a pause, accompanied by a silence most awkward for Silfdas, Belegren gestured fluidly to the doorway, “You’ll find Lady Belrien on the Eastern porch, watching the rise of the sun. Go right on in, friend.”
  The Captain took his leave and the icy breeze of his wake made Silfdas shudder. In his innermost thoughts and dreams his spirit warned him that the affairs in which he meddled were better left to those they concerned. They could lead to no good. Exactly what they were, he had no idea, but he was in knee-deep and now with nothing to gain. Hopefully he was only being over-careful. It wouldn’t be the first time he was paranoid.
   Silently he entered the cool, freshly scented house and made his way through the open rooms, decorated with wooden furniture all carved elegantly and organically and hung with soft, hand-woven tapestries and fabrics.
 He wasn’t sure which individual he was more nervous to encounter, Belegren or his sister. One was made of cold, proud stone, the other dangerous, fitful waves, and one never knew what could come next.
  Through a gauzy curtain with shimmering silver thread embroidered in leafy patterns down its length, he could see the voluptuous silhouette of the Lady of the house. Her gilt waves of hair coursed down her open-backed gown, covering the alabaster smoothness of her skin. The wisps of her dress fluttered around her bare ankles, casting faint shadows dancing about the leaf littered floor. Her heavy velvet cape of deep, nightly blue was cast to the side over the branch on which she leaned as she soaked up the morning rays.
  Silfdas looked away shamefully as his mouth began to water and sighed, louder than he’d meant to. As pure and stainless consciences as Elves were assigned to have by admiring Mankind, there were darker, more corporal feelings in the deep recesses of their beings than ever revealed.

“Silfdas?”

 Her voice made him jump, “Oh, my lady- there you are,” he tried to cover his back.
Soundlessly he stepped through the curtained doorway and out onto the balcony.
“You sent for me, my lady,” he said softly, bathed in the warm sunlight that pierced the still leafy limbs of the lords of the forest.
  A full, heavy silence loomed for another several minutes, as the beautiful woman seemed to relish the spell she’d fallen under in the amber sparkles of dust in the sunbeams. Silfdas’ body grew restless in the wait, partly in anticipation and partly from the places his mind wandered while in her presence.
  He forced his eyes to the other spectacle of beauty before them. Not a moment too soon, for just as his squinting eyes focused on the sunrise, graceful as a serpent, she turned to face him with a sudden exhale, as if she’d forgotten to breath.
“Lovely, isn’t it?”
  He quickly cleared his throat, looked at the ground near her slender feet and muttered something incoherent by way of agreement. More lovely than she knew, he thought.
“My lady-” he ventured, while observing what seemed like a distinct, uncharacteristic worry creasing her features, “If I may be so bold-“
“Go ahead,” she encouraged less interested than he’d expected.
“Is everything well?”
  The more familiar flash of sharp pride lit her features for a moment, “And how else should it be? Why do you ask?”
“Only, my lady, I was sent for in apparent haste,” he skillfully left out the many other things that led him to such a question. She looked tired, worried, the light in her eyes greatly lessened- she almost seemed to have aged…
 “Yes, yes,” she turned away again, her tone distracted and uncertain. She took in another deep breath that moved her entire being. “I have a letter…”

   He knew it. It was that damned Alcarín. His recent, spontaneous neglect of the lady had sent her into this state. It made Silfdas deeply angry inside, and vengeful to see anyone affect her so. He had been her faithful servant for a long time, doing the most unpleasant and degrading of jobs in her honour. He wouldn’t stand by and see her treated like this; even if he meant as little as nothing to her. It was like caging a wild hart and throwing her dead grass to eat, simply for the pleasure of viewing her.
“My lady…do you not think we should wait for a messenger from their camp? I only sent one two days ago.”
  She didn’t even look at him. Normally she would’ve thrown an electrical glare his way and silenced him, but she did nothing.
“I fear something may be detaining his reply… That’s why,” she turned and beckoned for him to approach, “You’ll be delivering it directly to him.”
  His hand froze as he reached to take the offered letter. He nervously met her gaze, “Me?” He was struck. He’d not been out of the city for years, and the last place he wanted to break that tradition with was a nest of those nearest to being his enemies.
“My lady, surely-“
 “You won’t mind, will you?” She read the hesitation before a word passed his lips. As if to make him further incapable of declining, he felt a silken hand on his cheek, only for a moment, but long enough to make his whole body tingle and shiver. She slipped the parchment into his hand and her fingers brushed his. He could only nod and mutter, “Yes, my lady.”
“And remember,” she added, “I’m sure we’ll have news of Lady Tairiel soon.”

   He departed the upper levels in a daze of guilt and dread. But deep within his conscience he knew it was only ever a false hope. Tauremith or the Greenwood. Himself or the Prince. He knew which she would choose…and why not?
He trudged his way to his humble quarters to ready himself for quite an unexpected journey to the forest. If he was lucky, that abandoned son of a smith wouldn’t be around, and the only unpleasantry to deal with would be the captain himself. As much as he disliked the idea of any dealings with the man who had so distressed such a sound mind as the Lady Belrien, he couldn’t deny his curiosity to behold the person that had her so enthralled. Strange tastes women had…

  Along with the letter for her lover, Lady Belrien had given him a very vague map, directing him to the Glade-keepers’ campsite and with the correct phrase to allow him passage into their hidden ranks. It was no one’s fault but his that he was placed in these situations. Always for a woman, too.
 Cloaked and hooded, with a water pouch and a dagger slung at his side, he studied the little map and directions as he walked towards the gate.
“You seem rather underdressed for a journey from the city, vinya Silfdas,” came a venerable voice that caused him to jerk up, quickly hiding the papers, though he knew not why.
 “Ah, Master Vilenas,” he touched his right hand to his left shoulder and bowed his head, “But it seems most temperate today.”
The bearded Elf smiled, his ancient face uncreased by age or time, “Indeed, my friend. You will likely grow quite warm after not so very long. Any chance you’re headed to the Keepers’ camp?”
 He hid his surprise behind a subtle smile, “A letter from the Captain of the Guard to their leader, Alcarín, is my charge.”
“Ah?” Vilenas’ deep voice mused and he leaned back against the post outside of the training halls. “If you see him, tell Eärón Lorámie that Master Vilenas sends his regards…if you would.”
 Heat surged to Silfdas’ sunken cheeks and made his hair stand on end beneath his heavy, furred hood. “Of course,” he muttered through clenched teeth and with a bow took his leave.
 The clang of swords inside the barracks seemed to laugh at his back. The Master knew much…

  “Be careful, young man,” he called after the retreating figure knowingly.
The words, though simple and casual, came more like a gentle pat on the shoulder. And, since his mind already tended towards doubting the soundness of his recent choices, this caution struck to the depths of Silfdas’ consciousness. Before rounding a corner and leaving the barracks out of sight, he cast a glance behind him. Ever-watchful, Vilenas raised his hand in farewell.
 Silfdas immediately regretted his unkindly feelings of earlier, and waved back. The warrior Elf’s thick white hair gleamed brightly in the sun, and his strong, graceful build stood imposing and impressive at the top of the hill. Silfdas turned the corner and made for the city gate. Envy and jealousy never bring good.
  If he had to see the smith, then he would be civil, no more, no less. Any open hostilities would be instigated by Eärón, not himself. Not as if they had a woman to fight over anymore and the other things were long passed.
   He stated his business to the gate-guard, and, as the postern gate was opened for him, Silfdas heard the powerful, resounding voice of Lord Arendial, Tairiel’s father, high above.
“No, no letters yet,” he laughed, “Dear, ungrateful child. She’s enjoying herself- and the Prince- too much to remember her own father.”
“Or anyone else,” the traveller muttered darkly to himself and exited the city.
But perhaps that was a good thing, he considered.

  He pulled out the map and patted the letter in his breast to be sure of its presence. Pulling his heavy cloak around him, he set off at a brisk pace, his lungs filling with the cool Northern air. About time he got out and stretched his legs…and cleared his head.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

   The woods were still asleep and dark when she awoke; as dark as her thoughts. There had been no sign of Darzûn, everywhere- anywhere. It had been almost two months since Thorin had sent him to shadow Vaenomar and only just less than that when he was expected home. Vaenomar knew in her heart if he was in the woods, alive, she would’ve found him by now. He could have gone out of the forest, taken a longer route home, but Dwarves weren’t known for their dalliance nor for any tendencies to get lost.
She would be home by nightfall. Her every muscle tensed giddily with the thought of facing her beloved lord after the scenario at which they had last parted.
He wouldn’t be angry, she told herself: probably more relieved than anything. But she had no good news to bring him.
  The winter grew cooler every day and a darkness grew on her conscience. Was it the Elves? It couldn’t be. She always knew they were there. Branbur’s death weighed heavily on her mind. His absence was painful, but more-so the suddenness of his disappearance. And its obscurity. Every day she trudged through crackling brush and crisp dead leaves she fought the smouldering passion in her breast. Bandits? Taking down a hardened, battle-berserk Dwarven champion? He was a superb, unbestable fighter, trainer of the Oakenshield and many more. In no way could she reason the matter out. She had been in one battle, all her life, and a few scuffles- but she knew enough of the art and skill to conclude: Thorin must be hiding something…
But then, so was she.
  The mysterious seducer in Jarlich ever tormented her. Though she hadn’t succumbed, the guilt from as if she had gnawed at her insides.
She would tell him. The whole truth. He would love her the more for it, too. And if the matter turned out to be more serious than she’d supposed, Thorin couldn’t refuse her help in dispatching the threat.
  The woods were calm and beautiful even in the middle of a barren winter, but she longed to be at his side, fighting- actually helping. There was nothing here to scout. The young Elf-man, Eärón, was most definitely not a threat. He had been exploring, just like her.
  The forest beyond the reach of Elven lands was not so pleasant as that surrounding Tauremith. He would, no doubt, forget her and the outer woods soon enough. But she wouldn’t him so quickly.
 Tairiel was alive and happy. She had a lover, too. Vaenomar wondered what her old playmate passed the days with now. Did she still train from Vilenas? Had she progressed to the higher classes of warriors?
How did she get on in the Watchers? Maybe men had joined their group and that was how she and Eärón had met and fallen in love. Precious thought.
Vaenomar was sure their meeting and courtship was much, much more smooth and romantic than her own.
 If she could even call it that.
Ah, what Bridi would say if she read her thoughts now. She’d probably start by vomiting. Bran would laugh, kindly, but hard. Thorin…wouldn’t even understand.

  Vaenomar smiled to herself. In her heart and mind, peace had been made with her lord’s cousin. She resolved to forgive him, should he be there on her return, and to bear with fortitude his criticism and mistrust. Then again, it’d be better if he weren’t there at all. There was much she wanted and needed to discuss with Thorin. Too many things had gone unsaid for too long.

  Quick as a startled doe she crouched on the sudden loud crash a few metres off. The morning light was just peeping over the mountains and into the trees. She froze and waited for movement. When nothing stirred for a good minute, she crept slowly forward. It was only a branch; dead and dry in the cold winds from the high canopy, the tree had released it to rot on the forest floor. On further investigation she found nothing of interest, though half expecting to find a dead Dwarf beneath it, or claw marks from a large flying creature. The forest was still. She looked up and saw yellow-gold clouds floating peacefully overhead.
 Perhaps her imagination was getting the better of her. Some good grounding chat with Bridi and Thorin would do her good. Too much time alone could play with one’s mind, or so Kjar had informed her.
   Thanks to the Half-Elf’s skill with a needle, her leg had healed masterfully. She knew when the time came to do it, she’d never had the nerve to tell Thorin and Bridi about him. Yet another secret buried inside of her. They wouldn’t understand. Especially not Thorin.
If Branbur was alive- “No! Don’t go there,” she chided herself.

     Her surroundings kept her well occupied with one eye on her trail and the other out for anything else, and many hours later the sun began to drop below the Western Horizon, casting long unstable shadows to the East. She was sharply greeted by an icy winter wind from the mountains as soon as she left the woodland cover. So the warm spell was gone and winter was raging on as usual, outside the forest. She wrapped her cloak tighter around her body and pulled down her hood.
She turned North along the rushing glacial water of the river and had to hold her hood to keep the wind from pushing it back. The farther into the foothills she progressed small flurries of icing moisture floated down and melted on her hands. Plenty warm in her thick leather doublet, furred on the inside, and woolen pants and socks, Vaenomar adjusted quickly to the weather. After a battle of wills with the gusts of wind, she finally gave up and released her hood, allowing the little icy flurries to whiten her hair and rosy her cheeks.

  The sudden clatter of brittle rocks as she passed a boulder made her look up, hand on her scimitar. She turned to her left to see a large rock-goat with spear-like horns, bounding deftly away from her.
 After another wary look around her, she breathed a sigh and continued on, her shoulders tense from the surprise and the satchel she bore on her back. It was still rather heavy, despite a few weeks having passed since her departure. Kjar would have a fit if she saw how little Vaenomar was eating. On that thought, she pulled a hunk of cheese out and began to munch on it, before her stomach could growl a reminder.

  As her bulging thigh and calf muscles pulled her up the mountain path, the great hulking walls of Azaghâl’s fortress towered above, just in view. The smooth weathered stone glowed rose and orange in the fading light of the distant sunset. Vaenomar paused and turned to take in the view. But a low cloud cover of shadow and mist had covered the land below. She was high enough, though, to see the last rays of day tinge the soft fog gold and amethyst.
 In spite of the wind’s attempts, the air was so calm and peaceful on this side of the mountain. Vaenomar’s heart sunk just a little thinking of leaving it all to go under the stone.
  She pushed on at a slightly quickened pace; it would be dark soon and no matter how many times you’d made the trip, it was never safe on that path without light. It was a new moon tonight and wouldn’t show its shy face for a few hours yet.

  Soon enough the bulwark of wall and merlon rose majestically against the faint glow of deep blue clouds and combatted for aspect with the peak of Uzbad-zigil, the King’s Peak, that towered over them.
  A small flicker of red flame in a brazier on either side of the gate helped to light her destination. Before she was thirty paces away, and she made no effort to mask her steps, a guard on the left jumped to his feet in a clatter of scale-mail, and demanded, hefting his axe and shield in front of him, “Speak, trespasser! And your life will be weighed!”
His action was echoed a moment later by the other, less aware guard.
 “It’s Vaenomar,” came her soft, well accented woman’s voice in Dwarvish.
The original challenger chuckled in relief. “You have a burly silhouette, my girl!”
“And a sneaky one, too,” muttered the other, a little embarrassed at his failure to see her first.
A lever clicked and the guard unlocked the gate from his high station. “Good to see you back, lass,” the first guard called down good-naturedly, but his voice betrayed something else.
“Thank you, Durmahk,” he could hear her smiling face from the shadows below.

  There were two gate guards now, she observed. Were they there when she left?

 The cobblestone streets, a little slick from the precipitation, but still intact over centuries, were hard on the bones of her feet, used to soft leaves and moss. The smooth slope of the town, though, was definitely preferable to mountain climbing at night.

  Along the main street only a few narrow windows were lit from inside the dwellings, the rest had been cold and dark for many years. On her left she passed slowly by a very familiar, low house, with another longer building attached on the side. Branbur’s home and forge was now still and void. Her heart crawled up into her throat when she shot a yearning glance at the sad sight. It took all her willpower to swallow down the tears.
She couldn’t go in now; some time, but not now. She would too surely break.
   Trying to put the past’s shadows behind, she hurried along and passed through the empty stalls of the tiny town market. It was surprising they still kept it going, despite the miniscule population. Not as if there was much gold going around, and even fewer novelties coming in to trade with or for. Tradition was as strong as families with the Dwarves, and loyalty to their family’s honour as solid and unfailing as the rock from which they were hewn.
  She swallowed hard, would Thorin forgive her for leaving? Dáin, after all, was his cousin and thus he was bound to respect him and his views.
The more she questioned, the greater her presentiment grew of the upcoming meeting. The more time she spent away from her lord, the less she felt she knew him. But recalling the few but precious tender moments shared in exchange, her heart warmed and sped her feet.

   On entering the shelter of the mountain’s heart she was struck by the imminent silence.
Torches flickered in the Great Hall and her footsteps echoed like dropping water in a cave. She looked around hesitantly, unwilling to break the stillness and stark abandoned feeling of the ancient Halls.
   This is what it must have looked like when Thorin and his company showed up a dozen years ago.
 For half a moment her stomach twisted tightly as the ghastly image of this fortress emptied of his inhabitant darted across her eyes. What if they were gone? What if something had happened? A tiny spark from a torch fell slowly to the cold stone beside her. She took in a deep breath of cool mountain air and exhaled to calm herself. She was becoming as paranoid as Bridi…

  Then heavy, rapid footsteps paced across a distant stone expanse. They were accompanied by a hummed tune from a resonant, unbroken female voice which lifted the sudden dread from Vaenomar’s shoulders like a swift burst of sunshine.
 They grew nearer and the newcomer debated whether to make her presence known yet.
The torchlight immediately alit on the fiery-red of Bridi’s hair as she left the passage way and made her way down a few steps to the main hallway. She had an empty wooden plate in one hand and a tankard in the other. Evidently something caught the corner of her eye for she turned non-challantly, then jumped, nearly dropping the dishes.

 “Ikhin Nurz!!” she cursed, “What are you doing skulking in the shadows like an assassin?!”

Vaenomar apologized profusely and stammered, “I only just got back…”

 Bridi huffed, catching her breath and continued on her way to the kitchen. Vaenomar followed her.
“You need to walk like a Dwarf in here. Don’t want an axe in your face…”
The younger woman smiled at the Dwarf’s frankness. It was refreshing in contrast to her own evasive methods of reasoning.
 “Um…” Vaenomar ventured as curiosity tugged violently at her mind’s strings, “Is Dáin-“
“He’s gone,” the Dwarf said quickly, and wiped the crumbs off the plate, placing it on Kjar’s neatly stacked shelves.
Though muffled, Bridi heard the sigh of relief that escaped her flared nostrils.

  “Is he angry?” Vaenomar said, before thinking twice.
The Dwarf snorted, “Who, Dáin? No.”
“Oh good,” Vaenomar grimaced slightly; that wasn’t who she meant. “And Thorin?”
“Worried, like a father and mother twice over, and half a young lover- which he is not.”
Sensing the girl’s confusion, Bridi clarified, “He’s fine. I don’t think he blames you for leaving. They worked it out more…effectively after you left.”
Vaenomar half-grinned, imagining what that must’ve been.
“They’re reconciled now,” the Dwarf finished and headed towards the hall of bed-chambers.

 “No one’s in your room this time either,” she nodded at Vaenomar’s dark room.
“It’s so quiet,” murmured Vaenomar, eyeing Thorin’s closed door and the darkness that seeped from under the space.
 Bridi glanced at her. Yes, it was. Perhaps that was why she had been less incensed at Vaenomar’s less-than-assuring entrance. “They’ve been gone a couple days now. Even Gormna went along. It’s just us women holding the fort down…as usual.”

Gone?!!

  In answer to the sudden halt in breathing behind her, Bridi explained in a tone that belayed her own unrest, “Called away- goblins to the South West. There weren’t very many- so went the news.”
She pushed open her door, “We’ll talk in the morning- provided you’re still here.”

  And with that Vaenomar was left, dumbstruck, in the dark hall. Tears hovered at the edge of her lashes and a great frigid emptiness dropped into her heart like a weight.
Bridi’s door clicked as the metal border lightly shut against the door frame. Vaenomar moved stiffly towards Thorin’s unoccupied room. Her fingers brushed the smooth wood and cold metal mechanism of a handle.

 Their paths, must they always diverge?

   In her room, Vaenomar slumped down onto her bed. In different circumstances she would’ve relished the soft straw and down feathers that she sunk into, but her thoughts were absent and lightless. She pulled her boots off heavily and tossed the different pieces of her armour on the low table nearby. Without washing or changing she threw herself back onto the bed and shut her eyes tight, trying to smother the rising emotions that plagued her. Despite it having been two months or more since she last slept in her real bed, Vaenomar knew there wasn’t a chance for repose tonight.
 Her mind, at first dulled and drowned by Bridi’s news, now began to churn fitfully again. The more time passed without her talking to Thorin, the more her too long hidden secrets tormented her. She forced her eyes closed and, for what felt like a moment, drifted half into sleeping.

   A strong hand caressed her bare throat and she felt hot breath on her neck. Something wet moved across her cheek and sent strange chills through her body. She tried to shrink away, but invisible chains held her fast. A voice, familiar yet foreign, ancient but recognizable, whispered into her ear, “Power..all of it. Yours, Vaenomar… I will be yours…”
   She sat up with a start. The room was black and still. Beads of cold sweat ran down her temples and she got up. It was the third time she’d had that dream, memory…apparition- whatever it was. The floor was numbing to her bare feet, but she couldn’t go back to sleep. She wouldn’t, and it was too dark to see her bag anyways.
 Fumbling blindly she found the door, then the handle and pulled it open, sending a heavy wooden groan into the hall. The torches had burned down an inch since she last saw them; her feverish sleep had lasted nearly an hour.
  Ignoring the sound of her flapping bare footsteps she pushed Bridi’s door ajar and stepped in. To her surprise a tallow candle still burned and flickered a shadow on an alcove wall. Bridi was still at her desk, but with her head was rested parallel to her folded arms on the surface. Her long braid was unraveled and the torrents of her hair covered her back like a blanket.
  “Bridi,” in her own ears her voice was that of a timid, sneaking child. She cleared her throat. “Bridi,” she tried again, much stronger.
 The Dwarf inhaled sharply and sat up straight. “You need something?” She rubbed her eyes and looked around sleepily, “What time is it?”
“Middle of the night…not sure exactly.”
“What’s the matter then?” she said, still a bit groggily and tied her mass of hair back.
“I need to talk to Thorin.”
  Bridi folded her arms and leaned back in her chair. “Indeed?” she said patiently, “Well, if you’ve not already forgotten, I told you he was gone. Are you even awake?” she asked suspiciously, narrowing her eyes.
“Yes, Bridi. But I need to find him and speak with him. My gut tells me it’s urgent.”
 The Dwarf rolled her eyes, “Vaenomar, go back to bed.”
“Please tell me where he’s gone. It’s…it could be important.”
“Vaenomar, have you any idea how ridiculous this sounds? Go. To. Bed.” She stood up and laid a hand on the pallid girl in an undertunic.
 But Vaenomar resisted. “Wait- it’s…it’s about something…that happened- to me,” she couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“Do tell,” the Dwarf demanded mockingly, still under the impression that the young woman was sleep deprived.
  There was no getting around it any longer.
“Bridi- that…’man‘ we encountered in Jarlich… I can’t get him out of my head. He…did something to my mind. I- I know it sounds ridiculous, but- I dream of him- nightmares, more like. He tries to tempt me again- I- What if he’s dangerous? More than…for women, I mean.”

   The Dwarf’s ruddy complexion paled to match her companion’s tunic. She looked away and tugged at her hair behind her. Her eyes darted back, kindling sparks, “Have you seen him since?”
Vaenomar looked nervous, “In p-person, you mean?”
Bridi nodded suspiciously.
“No, no! Just- in my mind.”
“What did he say to you in Jarlich?”
 Vaenomar sucked in a deep breath. “It was much…much more than lust, Bridi,” she began slowly and exhaled. “Power. It’s always about power. And- me. As if I- he needs me–no, I don’t know. That’s probably just words, words.”
The girl was visibly trembling and her manner distraught and distant.

   Bridi took a turn around the room and then stopped by the hearth. “Perhaps…but perhaps not.”

  Vaenomar gulped. “I need to tell Thorin, see? We should never have hid it from him.”
“Oh?” snapped Bridi defensively, “And what good would it have done him? Or anyone? Yes, he needs to know- but timing is just as important as the matter itself. Anyways,” her temper cooled, “He knows more than you think.”
“Did you tell him?”
“What he needed to know. Which is no more than any of us know for certain. So- sit down and relax.”
 Vaenomar took a seat, but sat up stiffly. “Bridi, I really-” she sighed hopelessly, “It may just seem like an excuse to be near him, Bridi, but it’s the reason I came back. Something tells me…there’s more to this…man…than we thought.”
“Yes, Vaenomar I know. And so does Lord Thorin.”
The younger woman cocked her head, “You know? How- or, rather, what?”
“Nothing for sure, at least no details. No matter what the case is, though, you are to stay here or in your precious trees.” Her tone was so absolute, Vaenomar wondered at it.
“Why?”
“His orders,” replied the Dwarf simply.
“Would I not be safer with him?” Vaenomar pushed further.
“Branbur wasn’t…” Bridi murmured under her breath. She immediately regretted it.

   Vaenomar felt the heat of salty tears rush to her cheeks and couldn’t catch a deep breath. She swallowed down the hot tears. “What do you mean?” she almost choked.

   Bridi deliberately took her time, lighting another candle and reseated herself.
“When Tharkûn payed Lord Thorin a visit, months ago, his reason was twofold. The first, concerned Thráin, Lord Thorin’s still missing father, and was of no immediate consequence or concern. On our way from Jarlich, as we neared the treeline- our ‘shortcut’- we saw the wizard and Shadow-“
“Shadowfax,” put in Vaenomar quickly.
 “Yes. He had been to visit the Elves. Probably the same folks you showed up with. He wouldn’t discuss his business there in detail with Lord Thorin- very wise on his part- but- the second reason for his visit here…was you. Much more than that I cannot tell.

 “Perhaps his searching led him first to the Elves and then to Lord Thorin, or maybe it was happenstance that he came upon us in the woods. Either way- he had a good bit of advice concerning you- and only that which could come from a knowledgeable person.

  “Lord Thorin was outraged, at first, assuming he was in league with the Elves, but I knew that wasn’t the case. Tharkûn is in league with himself and his interests only. Fortunately they tend to concern matters of good, rather than ill. All that being said- I don’t know his business or concern with you. It could be the same that Thorin saw when he took you in; could be he knows your parentage. Or else the old sorcerer thinks you’re up to no good and is keeping an eye on you.”
 Bridi sighed deeply, tired of the endless wave of speculation that plagued her astute mind.
“Nothing is certain, Vaenomar- but that man- the-” she hesitated, “Draegk…vampire, creature…very well could be after you too.”

   The young woman said nothing for a good long while. Both sat in silent meditation, staring at the floor, seeing very, very different things.
 Her jaw set with resolve, Vaenomar, at long last, looked up with a long intake of breath from her core.
“Then I need to leave.”

   Bridi, for the first time, felt genuine pity for the young girl. Never to have a real home, to be a danger to her only family. Bridi’s own people, Durin’s folk, suffered a similar lot, but they always had each other. Vaenomar was stranded, suspended between Dwarves and Elves, and neither of which could she really call her own.
There must be something to be done!

  The Dwarf got up without warning and began to pace around the room, much like her lord was wont to do when perplexed. She tugged on her hair in turbulent thought. “If only Tharkûn would show up, just like he’s so good at, right when he’s needed.”
She glanced at the doorway, half hoping to see him there.
 “What if it’s all a ruse,” Vaenomar said weakly, not even bothering to look up. “I’m nothing. Why would anyone want me?!”
 “Well, what if you’re not?” Bridi said, “And what if you have more power than you know? If he is at some sort of evil then maybe you must stop him…” She scoffed at herself, “By the Knotted Beard, I sound like old Branbur telling a story. A very bad one, at that.”
A sad smile raised Vaenomar’s lip slightly. “I wish I could talk to him…to Thorin.”
Bridi nodded pensively, “He does too.”

  The tears came up again, but they were kinder and heartwarming ones of love. She missed him now, more than ever.
 “My advice is that you stay here until they return”, the Dwarf said at last. “As a matter of fact, I won’t allow you to leave, disregarding what Tharkûn and Thorin said. I think you should be here the moment they arrive.”
  In this instance, Vaenomar was happy to have solid orders. She didn’t want to go- yet. But she didn’t want to endanger the town…
“Bridi, what if-“
“That’ll be enough ‘what ifs’ from you for one night. Do as I say and we’ll talk more in the morning. These walls have never betrayed my people. Come goblin or draegk- we’ll be ready. He hasn’t found you yet, and it may be that he’s not even looking. Night distorts many things.”

  Vaenomar arose with renewed strength and spirit and nodded.
“And Vaenomar,” Bridi stopped her with a sarcastic hue in her voice, “No heroic escapades, please. One was enough.”
The young woman smiled, “I think I’m too tired for that, anyways. Good night, Bridi.”
  Hand on the door’s handle she paused for a moment and turning back, she wrapped her long arms around the surprised Dwarf’s shoulders.
“Thank you.”
Bridi huffed and shook her head as the girl left her room.

  If simple words could have such an effect on the poor young thing, then how much more if they were spoken differently. And accompanied by actions…from a charming man…with a driven intent. But she had resisted the power of the draegk… even stronger than Bridi herself.
 She mused on the remnants of history she had unearthed a while ago. “Black Númenórean…” muttered Bridi and shook her head. “Impossible. They’re all dead…or undead.”

 

       Out of sheer exhaustion of nerves, Vaenomar fell into a deep, lurid sleep, one not unlike that she’d experienced in the hope-murdering Deeps, more than a year ago.
Her dreams made no sense. No one was recognizable but herself and nothing of remembrance took place. Or was it all real?
  One minute she felt a terrible cold, the next she was drenched in sweat.
The word ‘betrayer’ kept echoing off shiny black walls, and pale flames harmlessly licked her feet.
  Dwarf-runes and Elvish script lit up her eyes like conjoined stars and drops of ebony and purple blood splattered all over her body, seeping into her mouth. It tasted sweet and she drank it up.
 But her hands began to burn from the inside, and on looking down at them she perceived the branded word, “TRAI TOR”, in a language she could smell, but had never seen.
  Then a shadow fell on her and clawed metal hands grasped her naked shoulders. She struggled but she had no arms, or they were bound far behind her. No face, only darkness gaped at her from the black fumes that swarmed the bodiless thing. She was cast to her knees in a bubbling mire of sand.
“Bow or bow. There is no choice.”
She bowed as best she could, and saw another kneeling nearby who held his head proudly up.
That…face…
 The illusion of darkness swarmed in poisonous silence to the Unwaiverer. As it enveloped him in its hate, she tried to look away, but found herself being drawn towards them. Then the fumes dissipated and the hole of poison vanished. All that was left was a pale shade of the form that was there before.
 He arose, with no eyes, drew a dagger from out of the air near his pelvis, and approached her. His lips pressed onto hers and she felt the cold tingle of his air-blade slicing through the skin of her chest.
 “We feel, my lover, more than others. It is our curse and our sin. You will feel me well before the end.” His voice, though absent, rattled and soothed, at the same time, every membrane of her cold corpse.
“Traitor…but I love you.”
These last words were- different. They had a voice. A deep, gravel-filled, rumbling thunder.
 His hand grasped hers, strong and real, and then another, more slender but with the same kind of honest strength. Black hair, one streaked with silver lightning and the other sheening with blue moonbeams in the invisible light.
His pointed ears bore scars along the tips.
“I will help,” came the velvet-sweet sound of the young Elf. A bright light shone behind them and grew so blinding that it consumed them both.
 But she didn’t squint as it shone into her eyes. Evaporated silver breath caressed her cheek and she could feel herself being slowly lifted to her feet. A green line on the horizon materialized, and she was surrounded by rolling waves of purple and white. A sleek black bird was at her side and gazed into the distance with soft whistling in his feathers. Water lapped against the side of their large, radiant skiff. She pulled on a rope to raise the mast. Gulls of white sunbeams circled overhead and cried her name in welcome:
Beruthiel….Vaenomar…Vaenomar.”

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 30 ~ Not Alone~

Chapter 30
~Not Alone~

  The welcoming chirps and rustling forest calm was all but lost on Vaenomar as she crashed through the underbrush like the same mother boar she’d so lately been pursued by. The feverish heat in her head obscured the other sensations of her body and mind. Her legs throbbed violently from an intense march of nearly five hours. Locked and firm, her jaw was set in an angry scowl, eyes straight ahead, only barely seeing what was there through the fiery haze fueled by one man: Dáin.
  Her small vocabulary of curses didn’t suffice to describe him so she left off trying. Branbur, the man she trusted most, was gone forever. Thorin had done next to nothing to stop Dáin’s abuse and Bridi even less. They actually were listening to him!!
She was disgusted.
 They took his word over months and months of her unfailing loyalty?! How could Thorin? If a guest at her pleasure had insulted one she professed to love, she knew, most definitely, she would never sit by and watch them so rankly offended!
   Dáin’s words rang through her ears like giant bells clanging overhead, making her unsteady.
A large bank into a brook sloped down, littered with rocks and loose soil. Carelessly Vaenomar jumped onto the slope and began to slide, losing her balance and tumbling down with a splash, feet first into the water. Without hesitation she got back up, tears of fury welling up in her eyes, and climbed up the other side. Teeth grinding fitfully, she thought to herself, “Perhaps I’ll just not go back for a long time. I’ll do my duty as flawlessly as ever and go back when I please. That should teach them.”
Just maybe Thorin would feel bad; heartless man!
   Dark clouds were high above the trees while smaller wisps floated just over the tallest branches. The air was chill but damp and in the forest dank and muggy. A warm spell in the middle of the winter had awoken a few Northern creatures, but still the woods were quiet. Quiet, but for the plodding footsteps that traversed the Western edge.

  The trees were less dense and the underbrush leafless and sleeping from the cool winds that penetrated the edge of the woods for about a half mile. Vaenomar’s aimless marching led her just out of the warmth of the inner woods and into the realm of winter. But she noticed it not. Nor did her clouded eyes perceive the broken branches and stirred leaves that under more normal circumstances would’ve been picked up immediately.

  A stronger anger she had never felt in her life, at least that she could remember. The Elves had taught by example to be patient, caring and above such base feelings. The Elves: why were the Dwarves so suspicious of them? Her past association with them was the main source of her problems and her own upbringing left her unable, or unwilling, to address such insults as Dáin’s.  Picturing Thorin’s grisly, rasping relative beside her, she lashed out with a wayward punch, her fist colliding with a rough tree trunk. That, of course, had a jarring effect on her knuckles and she recoiled her hand. Sucking the numbing scrapes, she looked up at what she’d struck. Dead leaves rustled as if unhappily disturbed and the dormant beech’s branches swayed in a breeze.
Vaenomar stepped back, muttering, “I’m sorry…” Then a clang echoed through the forest and searing pain shot up her leg as cruel, iron jaws sank into the flesh high above her ankle.
Her body collapsed in utter shock and she heard her throat utter a wailing cry. With grinding teeth and bated breath the trapped creature pulled her throbbing leg out from under her to find an iron contraption as long as her forearm and hand, piercing, with long, evil teeth, latched on either side of her leg.
  She gasped for breath, squeezing tight the blood flow on her calf and closed tight her eyes.
As she tried with trembling hands to pry off the clamped fangs, the blood left her face and raced to her leg. It wasn’t budging, despite all the strength she forced into it. Blackness hovered around her sight, replacing the haze of frustration, and it closed in.
“This is what I get for running off?” she muttered through clenched teeth, “I’m sorry Thorin…”
Her arms went limp and she keeled backwards, head landing on a soft bed of lichen, while the malicious row of metal spikes remained locked on its prey.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    The last several hours Thorin had spent chastising Dáin at the top of his lungs, and arguing and calling for Vaenomar in and on the outskirts of town.
 She had been seen leaving by the gate, confirmed by the half awake gate-guards, and, according to Bridi, had brought her fresh filled, supply bag along with her.
Bridi had assured him that the girl needed only to let off a lot of steam, and, being a well-mannered thing, preferred to do so without the company of others.

  “When have you ever seen her lose her temper?” she had encouraged, “And let met tell you- doubt not that she has one.”
 She’d simply returned to the woods, to her post; her duty. She’d return soon and make amends. It was her way. With a magma-filled glare at Dáin, “If there are amends to be made,” she said.

  Thorin’s throat was sore and his head ached. As he stared at the cracks and uneven shelves in the flagstone floor, his eyes saw only Vaenomar, abused and offended beyond measure. He should have done more. Not in his wildest dreams did he think his cousin would go that far.
Thorin bore no love for Elven-kind, but Dáin’s dislike seemed to have turned into an extreme hatred. Not only had he accused his cousin’s adopted lover of being a sympathizer, but had argued for that being as bad as a goblin-chief or such. Since when had Elves and goblins been simultaneous in a Dwarf mind?! Not in Thorin’s long life time.
Branbur had always a good opinion of most pointy-ears, Bridi was neutral, and both were, and had been, trusted opinions.
  Dáin and Thorin and all of Durin’s line from under Erebor had good reason to be at odds with the folk of the realm of the Greenwood, but all Elves?
Vaenomar would never truly understand, and she shouldn’t have to. As he told himself often: it wasn’t her burden to bear.
 Through shouting, threats, curses, and a bit of blood-drawing punches Thorin and his newfound ally, Bridi, had mostly successfully driven that point like a spike in Dáin’s thick, rocky skull. Not that he apologized- but he would have to.
 If she ever came back…
Bridi’s firm hand rested on his shoulder, as he hunched over in a chair.
“She’ll come back, my lord. If I know her at all, she’ll come back. Just give her time.”

   He glanced at Dáin, who was sitting sullenly in a corner, sharpening a few axe-blades to pass the time.
Thorin’s eyes turned back to the floor.
“I shouldn’t have made her come…”
“It’s not your fault.”
“It could’ve been avoided… My own failure to see things the way they are-“
“My lord, it’s not your fault. Believe me- I’d tell you if it was.”
He managed a chuckle, “Oh Bridi, you’re worth more gold than was ever in my father’s coffers.”
“I hope so,” she replied dryly. “You could never have anticipated such a row, so don’t blame yourself. There are more important things to deal with at hand.”
He nodded solemnly, but his mind still lingered on Vaenomar. Her sudden absence had struck him like a ballista bolt. He hadn’t even been able to-
 Startling Bridi and his cousin, he stood up. With Vaenomar not around his restless spirit awoke and tormented him. He had half a mind to follow her…
 If Darzûn hadn’t found her though, there wasn’t much of a chance he could. Especially if she didn’t want to be.

   Passing out of the postern door, he made his way in the clear air to the bulwark walls.
In the gloaming light of evening he peered into the dark mass of forest far below and hoped somewhere in their midst a young woman, wronged in her own home, lay at rest with a forgiving heart and peaceful mind. Comfortable on a pillow of soft leaves, enmeshed deep in her soft woolen blankets. Someday he would hold her in his arms, kiss the tender skin of her neck, and enjoy the peace and innocence of young life, as he had none.
Always, it was someday.
 Thorin realized then- if he’d actually been worried, or doubted her, he would’ve immediately given chase. But he didn’t. Now he must sit and rot with his accursed cousin, waiting for news from her or others to call him away.
 Bridi was always right, there was no reason to doubt her now. In matters of female emotions she was a good one to trust. If he’d been insulted in such a way he simply would’ve broken the insulter’s nose.
 So why hadn’t he…before Vaen got incensed and ran away? Back in a circle! Confound it all!
He slapped the stone and looked East, letting the cool wind whip his worn, stately face.
A small, black silhouette soared high above the base of the mountain against the remnants of an orange and violet sunset. He thought of Vaenomar’s friend, Grimsvodn the Young.
  “Take care of her… where ever you are… where ever she is.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

   They had been tramping for two hours now, though probably only an hour in distance from camp, and had found nothing unusual. Not even the beasts were about, and the only tracks they found were very few by river banks in the barely thawed mud and silt.
  The two men that followed him kept a constant quiet babble, mostly coming from Rumil, as they endeavored to keep up with his vigorous pace. Though a large frame was less agile and maneuverable in tight branches, Eärón’s solid thighs provided him with all the stamina of a horse. Or a mûmak, as his friends called him.
   As usual, the day was uneventful. Not that he minded being sent into the woods on seeming pointless rounds. Anything to get out of camp. Captain Alcarín grew on his nerves daily; the more he saw Eärón the worse he liked him as well. Despite his rather fruitless returns from scouting, however, Eärón had retained his promotion to lieutenant. It didn’t really mean much, but that he got to ‘head’ the small groups of Glade-keepers that accompanied him. He didn’t even get to choose who went along.
  On the last few outings the timid, clingy Nurtalië had come. He always seemed so nervous, never looking in the eye and watching his back as if something pursued him, walking just at Eärón’s heels. He was too young, Eärón thought, and scared. It was infectious, making Eärón nervous too when he was around.
So thin and frail, like a little girl, almost. He made Eärón, in all his broad bulk, feel so big and clumsy.
But at least Nurtalië was quiet.
 He threw a stern glance behind him, as a signal for the lads to pipe down. Earlier he’d been more polite about it, but one too many times had exhausted that.
   Up ahead a brook rushed loudly, the ice melted as the day warmed considerably. He turned, walking backwards for a moment, and, with a nod to either side, he jogged off.
Morcion stood in his tracks, confused, but Rumil explained, “Split up!”

  Eärón gripped a thick branch and pulled himself up onto a massive fallen tree that spanned the width of the stream. They always crossed separately, if possible: scouting tactics.
The mud below looked particularly soft and so he decided to inspect, in hopes of finding signs of any sort of life. Plus, he didn’t mind having a moment of quiet to himself now and again. Ever since he left Tauremith the first time, he had, with much forcing of his willpower, tried to block Tairiel from his mind’s eye and rid his memory of her precious torment.
 However unsuccessful this had really resulted, at least now he had things to distract him, tedious though they be.
  As he inspected the river bank he felt the icy water with the tips of his fingers and shivered. The air was much more chill here than closer to Tauremith. Barely two months ago he’d been hot at night even without a shirt, now two blankets was just enough out in the woods. Last time they’d slept outside of camp while on a ranging party, the little Nurtalië had been so cold that he, in his sleep, had snuggled up to Eärón’s back for warmth. Out of pity, he didn’t complain, despite how awkward it had been, but the poor boy had apologized so profusely that Eärón chose to forget it all.
 “Who needs a fire with Mûmak around,” Tethrin had joked, tugging the big Elf’s long black braid.
   Eärón smiled to himself and looked into the ripples and courses of the clear brook flowing happily over smooth pebbles.
  His reflection was distorted as he watched it shimmer and fragment, but his face changed quickly from placid expression. The water was tinged red! Just slightly tinted in ribbons of colour, but there was no doubt. Blood in the stream.
He jumped up and listened. Only the hum of his companions a few metres off.
They could wait; not as if it was possible to lose them.
 With only the strength of his arms he hauled himself back up onto the natural bridge and moved upstream in the brush. Stopping to inspect further, he found no tracks, but a more dense stream of red liquid in the water. He was close.

 “Eärón?” his heart thumped hard on hearing Rumil’s hushed voice behind him.
So they could be quiet if they wanted.
“Have you found something,” the other whispered.
Eärón held his finger to his lips, “Spread out in silence. One eye on me and the other on the river,” he said as simply and quietly as he could.
Rumil leapt nimbly over a narrow opening of the brook, while Morcion moved away from the bank and disappeared in the forest.
 Their leader melted with the underbrush, his dark leather armour and black hair camoflauging well with the wintering woods.
  As he crept up the hill, slowly moving through the undergrowth along the gradual waterfalls, he heard one splash, followed by the rustling of dead leaves underfoot, and froze. Upstream about twenty feet.
   Silently he picked up his pace and came within five feet of where the movement have been. A quick glance showed him no less than a boot print on the opposite side of the bank of him. It was large enough for a small man, squared and light. A dark mass flashed ahead and he jumped to the pursuit.
  The other two had seen only the action of their leader and moved to keep up with him. He was obviously on the trail of something.
 The few broken twigs and boot prints left by his quarry made it clear that whatever he was after was a very clever woodsman. He didn’t move quickly, as one would if they knew they were being pursued, but it kept Eärón on his toes to stay apace. On Elven soil, outsiders were as uncommon as natural death and nearly as unwelcome, unless by invitation. He seemed to be oblivious to Eärón’s and the other’s presence, and so too, probably that these woods were in Elvish keeping.

  Eärón skidded to a halt. A dozen or so paces ahead stood a tall, broad, and darkly cloaked form, with a mask and large woolen hood that obscure the rest of the face. Eärón watched as the figure turned away and a white hand pulled down the mask a little to free the nose.
He sniffed the air, replaced the mask and shot a penetrating glance in Eärón’s direction before starting off into a lope.
 He did know they were there, though not precisely where they were. He couldn’t let him disappear now.
 Eärón kept up the chase, moving stealthily from one tree to the next, with both eyes on his quarry and ears on his companions. He couldn’t hear them and didn’t want to.
The outlander woodsman stopped again only briefly, to shift the pack on his shoulders and continued on. The pursuing Elf peeped out from behind the towering mallorn to see the draped figure pull his long, elegantly carved bow off his back in a calm, measured manner, more in defense than attack. He resumed his quick walk and pulled the cover off his quiver.
  Perhaps no mere woodsman, thought Eärón. A muffled whistle of a pine thrush broke the peaceful quiet, but didn’t seem to disturb the cloaked traveller. Eärón called back to Rumil in a similar call and was answered by the croak of a raven.
 That wasn’t Morcion’s call!
It came again and the quarry looked about and kept moving. The warble of a bullfinch came from Eärón’s right hand side and set him more at ease.
They were both there; not as incompetent as they seemed.
 Several paces more and the Elf lieutenant gave his thrush call again. The mysterious figure came into a long, narrow clearing and Eärón hid himself behind another giant mallorn. Taking in a deep breath, he readied a warning speech.
  But the crunching of leaves stopped and a low, but not at all masculine voice demanded:
“What do you want, Elf?”

  Thrown completely off his guard, Eärón started and peeped slowly around the white trunk.
She, for it definitely was no man, hadn’t turned to face him, though she seemed to know where he was.
 He left his hiding place and came into the clearing. With a frame like his, weapons were often unnecessary for intimidation effects. But his tone was mellow and resonant.
“I wish only to learn your business in the forest?”
  Curtly she replied, turning around to face him, “None of yours. Why are you following me?”
She was very tall and appeared strong and possessed a calm and cool that unsettled Eärón.
“I protect and patrol these woods. State your business and if it be peaceful I will gladly let you to it, friend.” He didn’t come any closer than seven long paces.
“Friend?” her masked voice scoffed, holding her bow limp at arm’s length. “Well, friend, you may as well call off your men…”
 After a tell tale pause he stammered, “My men?”
She didn’t miss a thing.
 “The one there,” she nodded to his right, “is so loud I could have hit him with a stone…blindfolded. He’s quiet enough,” she gestured to the other side, “In comparison. But you- I could’ve smelled you from miles off- with a cold.”
  Her tone was serious, but he caught the sarcasm and smiled: he could appreciate humour, even coming from a stranger who had completely foiled his stalking attempts. A word in Elvish from their lieutenant brought Rumil and Morcion out of their hiding places, albeit a bit timidly, and they fell into form behind him.

  The woman smirked aloud at her own exactitude and she turned and resumed her walk, to Eärón’s surprise. Her aura of confidence only intrigued him more. Cold and aloof, she was ready for anything: just as he would need to be in dealing with her.

  “Who are you?” he asked, keeping close behind her, though he knew not what he expected to learn.
“What’s it to you?”
 “I ask only for your purpose here. If you are a friend, then you may pass freely in these lands.” He hoped his voice was as convincing as his words.
 “These lands?”
By her accent, he couldn’t tell her race or homeland, but in size and bearing she suggested a very tall and noble culture.
“You are on Elvish soil,” he said, lengthening his strides to gain the space between them.
 “I am on soil. And you are an Elf.”
Eärón sighed; the masked intruder was a tough nut to crack.

 “Do you really think you own the soil?” she threw a glance over her shoulder, measuring her followers’ decreasing distance.
“Ah- no,” he mumbled. Such an unexpected situation was getting the better of him, “But,- we are charged with the safe keeping of these woods. You’ve crossed into our territory and you must declare your intentions.”
 She whirled around and glared at him from under hood and mask, “Oh must I?”
Behind Eärón, the two others, tense and skittish, glued their hands to their sheathed weapons and bow and arrow hand ready to nock.

  “A friend to these lands can go free. If you pose a threat, however, you will be taken captive.” There wasn’t a chance this would end nicely if she saw his uncertainty. He heard his father’s stern, warlike voice in his own.
 She cocked her head thoughtfully, “So, would taking a deer for food be posing a threat?”
He hesitated and then answered quickly, “No.”
 “Then you really wish to gauge how dangerous I am.”
Eärón cleared his throat, “I guess…”
 She was making him dance around like a fool in front of the others; he could feel their nervous fidgeting behind him, just waiting for any sudden movement.
 “Say- then,” she continued, not slackening her pace in the least, “I could slay all of you before the third could draw his sword.”
 Eärón put his hand on Morcion’s sword arm as Rumil soundlessly reached for an arrow.
  Again she whipped around, showering ice down on Rumil with her glare, “And you’ll be first!…But would I? No. Not unless you attacked me.”
 Calmly she turned back around and moved on.

  The terrain was more level and easy now. At Eärón’s bidding, hoping to avoid further incident, the two others hung back and he jogged to catch up.
“Are you a mercenary?”
 More patiently than expected, she shrugged, “Something like that. I live in the forest. Eat what I need to survive and nothing more. I leave no marks where I go and only kill those who make themselves my enemy. Dangerous? Yes. Trouble? No.”

  There was no doubt that she was a skilled combatant as well as a ranger, but the stony exterior aside, Eärón sensed something far deeper and infinitely more personable within.
 “Then you are free to roam as you will…”
Somehow, he believed her. Despite the looks from his companions suggesting their feelings to the contrary, in Elvish, true to his word, he sent them back to camp. “I’ll join you soon and make a report to the Captain.”
  As was evident by her familiarity with the woods and lifestyle she had dwelt her for some time.  To Eärón’s peaceful logic what harm was there in letting her be? His conscience spoke otherwise. “You can’t trust her,” Rumil’s wary eyes had said before he left.
“I can fend for myself,” the lieutenant assured him in muttered Quenya.
The other two Glade-keepers vanished into the brush and Eärón continued to follow her, unwelcomed.

   Hearing the large feet in soft boots crunching behind her and a little to the side, she sighed, “And yet you still follow me?”
Without the others tagging behind him Eärón felt his confidence returning. He wasn’t completely sure if he still pursued her for the sake of sating his curiosity or actually out of duty.
 “We’re going the same way.” He could almost hear her roll her eyes. “Nice try, Eärón,” he thought.
  “Ah, and you actually sent them off,” she observed, pretending not to have understood his Elvish. “Good,” she added in a purr that arrested Eärón’s pulse like a bolt of hoarfrost.

  The ground grew uneven as her path led them downhill towards a watery ravine. Thousands of questions chased each other through his mind and her every step, quickening with the descent, increased his wariness of her and made him doubt the soundness of his judgment to follow her alone. Not that he doubted his ability to match her in combat, only he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. His unease only grew the longer he followed her.
 The forest began to feel chill, despite there being no wind. His heartbeat raced and all his sensed tuned to their sharpest. The croak of a large bird sounded ominously again a ways off and the mercenary began to move faster and less casually. Cold instinct made Eärón silently unsheathe a long hunting knife. The clouds darkened overhead and he could see their fitful forms through the canopy. Amid her hasty footsteps he thought she gave a short, grim chuckle.
She slowed on coming to a steep incline and Eärón stopped a few paces behind her.
“What’s happening?” he demanded breathlessly, more from apprehension than exertion.
    She halted and turned slowly. Seeing his weapon at the ready she unflinchingly approached him. “You know… it’s dangerous threatening someone on their home ground.”
 Before he could step away she was there, and two sudden pricks in his throat and below the ribs arrested him.
  Her dual blades pressed harder against his skin and thin leather doublet, forcing his steps backwards until he was backed against a broad tree.
  Blue eyes flickered beneath the dark hood. His heart beat so loud he was sure even she could hear it. The cold steel moved up and down with his larynx with a gulp. As the sellsword gave no signs of letting him go, Eärón threw down his knife. “I’m sorry,” he said earnestly, his handsome features respectful and pleading. “I was jumpy, that’s all. Please- I mean you no harm. Forgive me.”
  Still the whetted blades hovered about his vitals and a fell blaze lingered in her icy glare. The mask covering her mouth and nose moved in and out with measured breath.
“Please,” he insisted in as suave and calm a tone as he could muster, ” I’ve disarmed, and apologized- What more do you want?”
 With a guttural rumble she rolled her eyes and released him, sheathing both her dagger and an arm’s length scimitar of unique fashion. The quick flash he saw it Eärón thought it looked familiar, but wasn’t sure. Rubbing his throat, he let her retrieve his knife and get a head start before resuming his shadowing.
 She was dangerous, that much was undoubted, but she was only as wary of him as he was of her. Perhaps he was being paranoid. After all, she was the first sign of two-legged, non-feathered life anyone had seen in this forest for a long while. He couldn’t leave her now. and she did nothing to deter him. The curiosity was on both sides.

 “‘On their own turf'”, she had said. And was right. The mallyrn were nowhere to be seen. They moving just along the border of Elven lands. “You are a much keener forester than I,” he called good-naturedly, as he caught up, “One could almost take you for an Elf.”
“Oh really,” he heard her grumble back, obviously not taking his well-meant words as much of a compliment.
 There was much more to this self-professed mercenary than she revealed. Something drew him to her, and it definitely wasn’t his tired, trudging feet. She was deeply suspicious, but more trusting than reason would dictate. Both pairs of eyes and ears kept close mark on each other.
A certain fate was engraved in the depths of her glacial eyes and their sad, knowing aura. She seemed lonely, yet peaceful enough with her life. How he could know so much from a look, feel so much from just being near her…he had no idea.
 As if she could read his prying thoughts, she broke the silence, “What is your name, Elf?”
 They waded through an icy stream, the ground uneven with rocks and fallen timber and he caught up close behind her.
He knew not why, but he answered her falsely, “I am called Eöl.”
 She snorted, “Oh? And I go by Beruthiel, Queen of Cats.”
Eärón, off his guard again, found himself unable to reply.
 “Just as well, then, Eöl Moriquen, as I wouldn’t have given you my name either.”

 There was nothing distinct about her garb: she was wrapped in a wide, slate, woolen cloak and hood, without adornment. Her boots of simple, worn leather. She walked with the steady, powerful gait of a noble, well-trained person. Until after they reached the top of the craggy hillock on the other side of the stream.

 Before his conscience could stop him, his tongue wagged, “Why are you walking like that?”
He wanted to slap himself.
“Like what?” snapped the defensive voice of one who knows they’re being observed.
It reminded him of Tairiel, only lower and more reserved.
“You’re walking different…” he tried to explain.
But she was. Her lower leg or foot seemed suddenly in great pain, despite her efforts to hide it.

  Ignoring him, she pushed on. As the water from the stream eventually dried from the tracks left by her boots there appeared another dark substance. Blood! More blood!
“You’re bleeding!” he caught up to her side, “What happened?”
“Nothing!” she hissed and pushed him away, charging ahead.
 The facade of ruthlessness and stern cool originally put on by the female forester ceased to play on Eärón’s honest personality. It didn’t make her any less formidable, though. “You’re wounded! Wait,” he placed a firm hand on her shoulder, but was violently shaken off.
“I don’t need help- especially from you! Leave me alone,” she said angrily and took off in a laboured lope.
 It was no trouble keeping up now, “Please! You must let people help you every now and then!”
     How could he possibly know that?
She shook her head and growled angrily, “No, no I don’t.”

  He brushed past something white and it drew his eyes upwards. Mallorn bark.

 “We’re on my ground now. Stop or I’ll shoot.” He held his bow at arm’s length and an arrow loosely nocked.
 She stopped in her tracks, but didn’t turn around. “You’re catching on, then. And it’s only been fifteen paces.”
“Go no further,” he ignored her sarcasm, “I order you on pain of death.”
 Exhaling through flared nostrils, “You won’t do it.” She took one step forward.
The wood of the bow now creaked under pressure.
“Disarm yourself. Quiver first.” Along the route of gaining her trust, this was probably one of the worst shortcuts he could’ve taken. Who knows what was going through her mind now. Again, he wanted badly to bang his head against a tree, but he couldn’t turn back.
 After a long stubborn pause, she actually obeyed.
Her quiver clattered to the ground a few feet away from her.
“Now the daggers and your sword.” All three clanged as they fell atop each other.
Arrow drawn to his ear, bowstring held firm in place by large, strong hands, he asked, “Anything else?”
 “Oh, of course not,” came her sarcastic tone.
“Throw it to the side,” he ordered sternly.
 With a defiant snort she drew a hatchet from beneath her cloak, and two boot knives and tossed them to the side. She unstrapped a hand blade from her thigh and pulled off another throwing axe from the small of her back.
 The growing heap of weapons made a slight shiver run down Eärón’s spine. Still feeling the prick of her dagger in his throat, he wanted badly to see the face of this mercenary.
“Now step away from them.”
 She acquiesced, leaving a larger print of blood where her right foot had been.
 “I know you’re not going to shoot me.”
“I will if you don’t do as I say,” he lied convincingly.
 She scoffed, “What are you going to have me do? Strip?”
“I could,” and then to himself, “Idiot!!
 “I’d rather be shot.”
“Sit down on the patch of moss over there.”
 “No.”
He steadied his voice, “Do it.”
 “I don’t want help.”
“I’m not going to hurt you. Just do as I say.”
 “You are threatening to shoot me. Are you suggesting that is painless?”
He growled, “This is your last warning. Do as I say.” Harsh as his threat sounded, he relaxed his bowstring.
It was all she needed.
 The captive ducked and whirled around, knocking the bow out of his hand with a wild blow. A quick reactor, Eärón seized her wrists and used his massive body to knock her onto the soft moss. She planted a knee in his gut, sending all air from his lungs, but he didn’t let go. Taking both her wrists in one hand and turning on her stomach, while anchoring the writhing body with his own weight, he bound her hands behind her back and lashed her to a tree.

  An Elf with that kind of brute strength was not what she expected. He stepped back and all colour drained from her cheeks as he stripped off his belt. He buckled it behind her, strapping her throat to the tree. She couldn’t move without hurting herself so she eventually quit struggling. Heart thumping wildly against her chest she ground her teeth in anticipation of his next move.
 “Get off me!” she hissed like a cornered snake.
“Relax,” he tried to calm her, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
 “Don’t touch me.”
After securing the buckle, he sat back on his heels, “Please. You’re hurt and bleeding. I saw the blood in the stream, too. I’m going to look at your leg.”
 “You will not!”
“I’m a healer-“
 “So am I. Get away from me!”
“Obviously.” His smile was so genuine and calming that she relaxed just a bit.
 “I can take care of myself,” she squirmed.
“But you’re not. Just hold still.”
 “Let me go, now!”
Patiently, he promised, “If it’s nothing, I give you my word I’ll leave it alone and let you go, alright?”
 The same bear-like gurgle issued from her throat and she banged her head against the birch she was bound to.
 Removing his kneeling leg from her lap, a rather compromising position to be sure, Eärón gently took her foot in his hand, staying clear of a kick in the face.
He slipped off the muddied boot and unwrapped the bloody stockings from her solid calves. On finding her cold, pale skin he began to wish he had Nurtalië’s gentle touch. He’d watched him handle a nasty gash on a fellow keeper’s arm recently without so much as a groan from the wounded party.
  She didn’t move as his sturdy fingers examined her wound. It was clean, but very deep and looked incredibly painful. He glanced up at her wan face, “Was it a boar?”
 In silence she watched him from beneath thick eyelashes.
“Was it?”
 “Why do you care?”
“Just tell me- please.”
 She sighed and leaned her head back, “No, it wasn’t.”
His brow furrowed on looking more closely. “What was it?” he asked almost to himself.
 “Some sort of trap. The one time I wasn’t paying attention, I stepped directly into it…”
He grimaced, “How long before you got it off?”
 Her head fell back again, “Too long.”
Realizing the pain that must have caused he shuddered, “How long ago?”
 “Why so many questions?” she demanded.
“I need to know if there’s rust in it.”
 There was a quiet pause of terse breathing and she answered, “Five days ago. I cleaned it well.”
 “That you did.” He hesitated briefly, “I’m going to have to sew it up.
 “What?” For the first time she jerked, “No!”
“It’s the only way it will heal,” he pleaded.
 The slightest tremble moved in her voice, “No.”
He placed his hand on her knee and used the intimate tone he might ask a very personal favour in, “Please?”
 Eyes shut tight, she refused to answer. There was only fear now. A male stranger, threatening to shoot her if she didn’t obey, forcing her to the ground, tying her up, now asking to stick a sharp object into her flesh… What else could he expect? He began to feel sick , realizing what she must be going through. He couldn’t just leave her though, and her wound needed tending to. Now, it was far, far too late to turn back.
 He dug into the pack at his side and produced a small satchel. At the sight of the long, curved needle she pulled back her legs, and groaned.
While readying the thread his voice was soft, and caressing, “Have you ever seen a wound sewn up?”
 “I’ve closed one before…but not on myself.”
“Well, you don’t need to watch. Here,” he rolled up a piece of bandage and offered it to her for between her teeth, which she refused. “It won’t be too bad. Just relax.”
From a small brook nearby, he scooped up the icy cold water and rubbed it onto her leg to numb and clean the wound. It ran off streaked red.
 The last thing she saw was him readying the needle.
She shut her eyes and looked away.
  For the best angle and least possible movement Eärón straddled her legs, backwards, putting the least amount of weight on them as possible. Her entire body stiffened and he heard her breath shorten. Pulling off his cloak, he bundled it up and placed it over her knees and between his legs. He didn’t want any…injuries.
 Without further hesitation he deftly pierced skin and flesh and began to close up the bloody gash.

 Why he was forcing help onto a complete stranger he couldn’t explain.
She seemed a woman with a strong heart and body, but Eru knows what she was thinking as he, virile and very male, tied her to a tree and straddled her.
 “Think before you act,” Vilenas had encouraged with endless patience, apparently to no avail. Eärón wasn’t used to thinking in such…country matters. Until his encounter with Belrien, at least.
He tied the knot and began to bandage her clammy leg.
With a long held exhalation, he relaxed his clenched stomach muscles. Lifting his weight off her legs, he knelt softly by her side.
 “I’ve finished,” his smooth, dark voice said softly.
 She didn’t stir.
“It’s over…” Her shaded eyelids took on a bluish hue beneath her hood and her chest didn’t appear to move.
 He hesitated then touched her arm, “Wake up…please.”
Still nothing.
 Acting, once again, before thinking, Eärón reached for her throat to feel her pulse.
The second she felt his fingers crawling on her chest trying to find her bare throat, she jerked out of the stupour. Eärón shrunk back with a hiccup-like breath and gave a nervous laugh, “Ah, there you are. I was afraid you’d-“
 “What have you done to me?”
He cleared his throat then smiled, “I put a clean bandage on. Left it a bit loose so when you stand it should fit perfectly. The salve will help it heal fast and keep it from bleeding.”
 Suspicion still hovered in her manner, but she inspected his work with a nod. “Well done. They taught you well.”
 Humbly he bowed his head again, “I can see why you had trouble with keeping it closed. It must have been a strange metal and-” He realized he was attempting to make conversation with a stranger belted to a tree.
 “Oh, let me-” he leaned forward to remove the strap from her neck, but she shied away from his hand and instead he took hold of the cloth and the belt and off came the mask.

  After a frozen moment of shock and surprise, the captive woman screeched, “No!! How could you?!”
Eärón shrunk back as if bitten by a snake, “No, no! I’m sorry! You- you don’t understand! I didn’t mean to- at all! Please!”
 Betrayal, fury and terror raged across her revealed, handsome features. Her savage aspect was like to a wounded wolf.
 “Lying, cheating son of a whore! Come here! You untie me and I’m going to rip off your manhood with my teeth!” She was hysterical.
Eärón didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t leave her, but had no intention of risking any part of his body to her teeth. Her features were unfamiliar to him, though very lovely even in their current savageness. He couldn’t imagine a reason for her to hide from him, save, perhaps, that she was a criminal or fugitive…
 “Please stop! You’re going to hurt yourself! Tairiel- uh-no- stop!”
Feverishly she writhed against the unforgiving bonds, while the towering, flustered Elf stood frantically by, begging her forgiveness.
“I’ll-get-out-of-here- if it’s the last thing I do!”
 Tears streamed down her impassioned face as she struggled to no avail and her throat muscles bulged and purpled against the tight belt.
 “Do your folk know what kind of Elf you are? Bet they like having one so pure around their women-” she spat, in desperate indignation.
 Looking down at his feet to gather presence of mind, he noticed, to his embarrassment, that his doublet had, unbelted, unlatched itself, revealing a bit of tunic and a lot of skin beneath. He shoved the clasps back together, threw the loose wisps of raven hair out of his face and knelt next to her. With powerful hands he ceased her head’s thrashing, holding her skull firmly in a soft, but steel grip.
  Their bodies were so close he could feel her heart throbbing. The tension between them crackled and hissed like fire on ice. She was lovely, he was handsome, both powerful and very opposite. Her body stiffened and trembled, and she stared straight ahead at his chest, panting through her teeth.
 His hands relaxed and left her head slowly, moving down her neck and onto the belt.
Closing her eyes, she felt her nose nudge into his partially bared chest as the belt was removed.
His calloused palms worked ever so tenderly on her smooth wrists and soon her hands were unbound.
 He squatted to the side and stared at the ground.
“My name is Eärón,” he said at long last.
 “I know,” came her reply a moment later. “Mine is Savone. I’m from Esgaroth.”
“Savone?” he tried to hide his surprise, “That’s- a beautiful name.”
   The storm passed as quickly as it had arisen. Out of the sparking mistrust from before had come a peaceful wariness of each other. What had doused the fire or calmed the waves, neither could tell, but Eärón offered her a hand and she took it. She steadied herself on her feet and he gathered up the panoply of weapons nearby. Handing her the excellently crafted pieces, he asked, “So…you speak Elvish?”
 “A very little.”
She strapped on her knives. “These are very beautiful,” he remarked, genuinely impressed as he handed her a long-shafted axe with a unique blade shaped like an angular rune.
 A grunt sufficed to answer the compliment.
“Are they Dwarf-make?” Eärón asked with piqued interest.
 Her cheeks drained and coloured just as quickly, but she answered without hesitation,  “Probably. Found some in an old riverbed and bought the others on the road. All that matters to me is that they’re good quality and won’t fail me in a tight spot. No dragon curses on them or anything.”
 Eärón agreed with a nod, but found himself unconvinced of her non-caring attitude towards these works of such artistry.

  Here they were, holding conversation as if they had shared the forest for months, when only moments ago escaping unscathed, sans violence, seemed a luxury on both parts. Whatever had transpired between them had happened so subtly that neither was sure of it.
  As she shifted the strap of her quiver more comfortably, Eärón took up her last weapon, hilt in one hand. Something about the grip was so familiar he almost didn’t think twice.
Before she reached for it, he glanced at the handle. It was wrapped in soft, black leather and decorated with a pair of onyx on the elegantly formed pommel.
Almost identical to his own sword- save his had sapphires!
 The scabbard was beautiful in it’s simple elegance, but the shape- there was no other pair of hilts so alike.
“Where did you get this?” he asked energetically.
 Taking it from him she hastily gird it on, “Why?”
In explanation, he drew his own, holding forward carefully by the blade for her to see.
Something in her bright eyes flashed a remembrance…or a realization?
“Similar, eh? Fancy that.” Her words were forced.
“My father gave me this sword, telling me that its twin lived in the hands of a friend, somewhere far away. That Dwarf forged my sword and my father its twin.”
He could see her hands tremble as they fingered her pommel. “I think you’re mistaken,” she said and took a step back.
 “And Savone was my mother’s name,” he added, his tone more grave and looks more in wonder every moment. “Who are you really?”
 “Believe me, sir, I do not know you. I got this sword from Dwarven merchants near Jarlich on their way to Esgaroth. As your build would suggest, you are not of purely Elven blood. Your mother, I might guess, was of Mankind. My name isn’t uncommon- and you are quite fortunate to have a father with good Dwarven relations. Too few of his kind left in the world…”
There seemed to be something else in her words, something that revealed too much, but nothing. Too many coincidences. And it wasn’t called Esgaroth anymore.
 She was greatly affected. Her eye lids were red and the corners of her eyes slightly moist.
 “Is there an inscription in Elvish?” he persisted.
She gave an exasperated sigh; he wasn’t giving up. “Yes.”
“Don’t you want to know the other half?”
She couldn’t hide it: yes, terribly.
It rang out into the trees as she pulled the twin from its sheath. As the two, shining, curved blades neared each other for the first time in over a hundred years, a pure, blue glow began to emanate from the etched inscription.
  Completely mesmerized, he read aloud in his smooth, musical tongue, “Alliances may be sundered,” and she finished, her own voice beautifying the earthy Dwarvish, “But Friends are fast as Steel.
 He raised his head slowly to meet her eyes. Both pairs, deep onyx and glowing sapphire, glistened in memory of the swords’ makers.

  A muffled croak sounded high above from the same watchful raven. The young woman glanced up. There were very few ways this could end.
 Eärón, enrapt in the moment, gazed at her now resolved features, highlighted by the moon-like glow of the enchanted weapons.
 Then he felt her hand on his bare chest, soft as a lover’s caress, and he melted. His sword fell to the ground as her face neared his and she pressed her warm, wet mouth onto his. The last thing he heard from her, was:
“Forgive me, Tairiel.”

   The two hundred pounds of solid Elf body slumped to the ground, back against the same tree.
Vaenomar dusted her fingers and replaced the powdered mushroom mixture in the herb satchel at her side.
Being the first time she’d used that concoction, she was quite relieved it worked. She made quick work of binding him to the tree, his beautiful Elven twine was effortless to tie. Was a shame he’d have to cut it, though.
  Despite what he had unwittingly put her through, she felt a strong affinity and warmth for this kind, slightly clumsy man. How could she not? Long before she was even born, dear Branbur had held this baby in his arms and shielded him from dragon fire, while his father searched in vain for the poor child’s mother.
 Not five days earlier she had cursed every one of the First-born in her anger. Then the name Tairiel had accidentally escaped his lips. And then Bran’s sword.
 Holding both scimitars side by side she admired them with a full heart. She sighed and stuck Branbur’s blade in the ground between Hallacar’s son’s legs, very near his armoured codpiece.
“Farewell, Khuzd-friend. Maybe some day we will meet as friends…”
 And after a nudge to ensure his unconscious state, she trotted off.

   “One Elf amid all those trees and he happens to be in love with Tairiel. What are the chances,” she murmured to Grimsvodn, who kept a watchful eye on her while hopping about on the branches above. He simply cocked an eye down in silence.
 In her heart she knew Elves and Dwarves would never truly get along,…but she wished ever so deeply to see such a phenomenon. Being away from the Eldar for so long had made her forget her love for them- getting away from the Dwarven family for a few days helped quench the anger. Now she saw things from a more calming, even perspective. She only wondered if Thorin could ever see in the same light…