~ Reporting In~
The fitful ring of armoured boots echoed down the hall, causing the writer to leave a dark pool of ink on her paper.
Thorin was back, no doubt. Good. She was hungry.
“Woman?” came his growl of a voice, but in what could be called an almost frantic tone.
Bridi blew on the ink, shoved the parchment beneath a blank piece, and turned to face the door.
“Bridi?” he called as he neared her chamber.
“I’m here-” she began and jumped again when the door banged open.
Something was not right.
“We’re back,” he said, looking at the floor, his tired eyes eventually finding their way to hers, hair disheveled and clothes stained.
“I see that,” she answered sarcastically, “My lord, is something-“
“What do you know about blood-suckers?”
As if a whirlwind of ice had passed over her, Bridi moved not a muscle.
His face bore an unsure anxiety she’d not seen for a long time.
“Draegk?” she queried slowly.
-“I…I…only a little. Thorin, what happened?”
He hadn’t planned on telling her so soon- but it just happened.
“Branbur, he fell.”
Her chest was an anvil and those words a great hammer. In a hoarse whisper she managed, “Bran…the smith?”
Thorin nodded quickly and looked at the floor. “I’m sorry, Bridi…”
The pragmatist tried to push her emotions out of the way, “Why? How? I thought he was here?!” her words tripping over themselves.
Thorin summoned his strength and majesty, “He gave his life to save a town of innocents. We were severely outnumbered. If he hadn’t been there- there’s no telling who victory would’ve belonged to.” said he, placing a strong, heavy arm over Bridi’s shoulders. Never had he seen her so bent with grief. She held onto the table and lowered her head; her long red braid fell over her shoulder and swung back and forth in the sad silence.
Finally she looked up, her emerald eyes moist and caring, “Did you speak to him before…he passed?”
He nodded and gulped, not sure whether or not to tell her.
“Bridi…” his voice was soft and he hesitated.
“I’m alright. It’s just…I had no idea he was even gone.” She straightened and left the comfort of her king’s arm. Her back to him, Thorin could still see her wipe the tears from her cheeks.
“We burned him there, as he requested,” he said softly, not knowing what else to say.
“Selfish sot,” her laugh accompanied by a sniff puzzled Thorin. “Wouldn’t even let his next of kin mourn for him.”
Thorin was shocked, “You- knew?”
Bridi grinned, tugging on her braid and fingering the little metal circlet that bound it. “He thought I had no idea. Old fool. Although, not technically related, it was close enough. I know many things, my lord, many things.”
“But how?” he demanded, “He only just told me two days ago!”
She gave a simple shrug, “You don’t always have to be told things to know them. Accidental hints and observation usually add up to much more. It’s just a matter of putting the shards together, so to speak.”
The king scratched his beard and thought for a moment. Indeed his fiery councillor did know more about most everyone than even they did.
As he looked up again from his thoughts he caught Bridi deep in her own reflections. The news had gone over much more smoothly than he’d thought, but he didn’t want to interrupt with more bad tidings.
Once more, Bridi surprised him, however, by asking in a much changed tone, “But what does this have to do with draegk?” Her shell was as hard as his, he thought, but no head could be on straighter than that woman’s.
“When Branbur died- before he died, he said: ‘I’ve got no more left.’ I’ve never seen a Dwarf so pale and…drained.”
Bridi’s was wan and her eyes fixed on the floor, as if searching every thread of her memory.
“Did you see his murderer?” she asked trance-like, without looking up.
“Barely. Tall, lean- all in black strips of cloth. It’s eyes though. They seemed to have been human once…or Elf-kind.” He involuntarily shuddered.
Abruptly Bridi inhaled through her teeth, “My lord, I’ll look into this. Very disturbing; blood-suckers, tall and handsome…” her muttering trailed off.
“Handsome?” Thorin’s firm hand on her shoulder stopped her. “Who says it was handsome?”
For once in her life a retort wasn’t in ready on the tip of her tongue. Her pupils shrunk and her face grew frigid. “It was a guess. Talk in Jarlich. That’s all.”
Without letting her go, Thorin said in a low tone, “Jarlich…” Then slowly turned to face her, “What exactly happened in Jarlich?”
“We told you.”
“All of it?”
“Of course not.”
“What?!” Thorin boomed.
“Every woman has her secrets, my lord,” she said in as meek a tone as a Dwarf-woman could muster.
Red rage boiled in Thorin’s cheeks and eyes, “What happened?!”
Bridi held her ground, “I’m going to look into this, then I’ll tell you everything.”
The Dwarf-king swelled to his full height, “You’d do well to tell me now.”
Just then the door burst open and the excited messenger ran up, oblivious to his lord’s state, and handed him a letter.
“My lord! From your cousin, King Dain!”
This intrusion threw a bucket of cold water on the fire, and Bridi breathed a sigh of relief.
Thorin glared at the cunning woman, “You have an hour!” and glancing from the letter to Bridi, he added with a growl, “I’ll wager you had something to do with this, too,” and stomped out of the room.
As soon as the door closed behind the two men Bridi allowed her heart to beat, faster and faster. No time to mourn yet. As sure as her hair was red, that thing in Jarlich was a draegk. Intense sex appeal, cold flesh, lean, but muscular, seeming ancient, mysterious. He’d nearly had Vaenomar and Bridi shuddered to think what would’ve happened to her, had the girl not broken the spell. Heretofore she had only heard of these things in legends and very, very old wives’ tales.
She flipped through some cracking vellum pages in a huge book of histories. Choking on the dust, she pulled down another leather bound volume and set it aside. A glance behind her assured her solitude and she reached back into the cavity left by the last book. The velvet cover was smooth against her rough hands and she carefully pulled it out.
‘Yáraquenta‘. ‘Ancient Tales’; Branbur had given it to her many, many years ago. It had come from an Elf friend of his in Dale, and, since he couldn’t see well enough to read anyways, he passed it on to her in hopes of safe-keeping.
She wasn’t able to read it as fluently as the other books, but the Elven leaflets seemed to will her hand to turn them until she came to a certain tale. This would prove a good brush up on her Quenya.
“Morgoth created all manner of evil things; werewolves, vampires, fell beasts and balrogs. His lieutenant, Sauron the Deceiver, made use of these creatures in his wars against the Light. This curse of undeath was made to seem a blessing and was bestowed in the appearance of a gift to those who bowed to the Fallen Vala. Mighty lords would never die, their power never wane, their dominion and wealth only growing. This lust for unending domination ensnared many; noble lords and weak vassals alike.
The most dreaded of those who fell prey were the element-bending, nature-wielding Númenórean mage-lords. Because of the time that they once worshipped Melkor, they were called Black Númenóreans.
When the enemy again seduced the most haughty and might-bearing of their number, those that watched will never forget, nor will any after. Blood ran like water and was consumed as a choice wine. The horrors of those dark days will not idly be forgotten, and though I have lived to see the end of them, I tell you: power lusts ever for more.”
Bridi slowly closed the book and her head hung on her chest. He wanted Vaenomar. And if the girl knew the power she could have were she to join him she’d want him too.
Best she not know. And it made the urge to tell Thorin even less. But she had to tell him something.
Instinctively her hand clutched her throat. Poor, old Branbur. She shuddered and took in a laboured breath through clenched teeth. A long exhale was cut short by the soft, rumbling thunder of his voice.
“Tell me everything.”
A branch whipped her violently in the face, but didn’t catch skin thanks to her mask. Her heart pounded hard against her ribs and her feet the ground even faster. She didn’t look behind her.
As she crashed through the underbrush at breakneck speed her keen eyes searched desperately for a low branch.
The enraged grunting squeal behind her grew ever nearer and hooves tore the soft mossy ground in vicious pursuit. Razor sharp blades of ivory inched towards the heels ahead, but just before they caught up the grey cloaked form disappeared with a wooden thud.
The mother boar skidded to a halt and trotted back a few paces, mane bristling and quivering nostrils held high in the air, sniffing out her quarry.
Meanwhile the agile body climbed up her rescue, wriggling through the close knit branches.
At a few metres higher Vaenomar perched more comfortably on a thick limb and stopped to catch her breath. She slung the bow off her back and threw off the arrow cover, pulling out a goose-feathered shaft.
As the thickly-muscled swine circled around the base of her perch and scraped the ground threateningly, Vaenomar nocked her arrow. A close call that was, but she was quite safe now. Soon her pursuant would have to return to her four little children whom Vaenomar had accidently stumbled upon playing by a stream. Boars were viciously protective, but also rather skittish creatures. She loosed the arrow and it lodged in the ground with a rattling thunk, startling the matron and sending her squealing away in to the woods, curled tail bouncing behind her.
A few minutes later Vaenomar swung down and retrieved her arrow with a little grin.
Her stomach growled, like the frustrated noise Thorin made when he didn’t get his way, rare occasion that it was. That run had awoken her appetite and had made her back track quite a ways. By the time the sun set below the Misty Mountains in the West, she would be climbing the cold rugged path to the Halls of Azaghâl. The three and a half or so weeks she had spent scampering about in the trees had passed incredibly quickly. The days and nights didn’t have the same beginning and end to them as when she lived under a solid, stone roof. She slept when she wanted, woke when she wanted. Ate as much or as little as she pleased, sang to herself and spoke as seldom as she liked. Which, judging by lack of unfeathered company, was quite seldom aloud. The birds were pleasant enough companions, but she didn’t have to raise her voice to converse with them. And her mind was constantly on the go. Thinking, reasoning, debating, wondering- so many questions. Some she could answer just by thinking hard enough; others- would never see the light of day.
Ribs began to show a little as her meat intake dropped drastically along with her exertion level rising considerably. With a figure, full and impressively tall as hers, Vaenomar was hardy and found missing meals to be easier than some might. When debating whether to finish the last bit of over-salty venison or to save it for the morrow, the concerned looks of Branbur or Kjar on seeing her- “You’re so scrawny! You’re bloody starving out there!”- helped her stomach it down.
So far there had been no cause for concern in the part of the forest under her watch. Daily she moved along, some days slower than others because of terrain or the weather. A figure eight, in Mannish terms, was the basic shape of her monthly route, but she was always supplied with useful and trivial bits of scouting information by her loyal friends, the birds. They moved swiftly through dense branches and brush and their gossip even swifter. From the sighting of pale intruders covered in furs just near the southern edge to the juicy worm a certain crimson-tipped woodpecker had lucked out on last week; Vaenomar had no shortage of news. Though the worm wasn’t of much interest to her, she had inspected the area in which the Mannish hunters were spotted. There she found a few broken branches in an area of about forty paces around and then a trail of footprints and disturbed brush leading straight out of the woods. They must have been very hungry to venture into this forest. It wasn’t just the Dwarves who called it enchanted. There were plenty of woodsmen in other parts of Middle Earth, or so she had been told, but forests rumoured to be inhabited by Elven-folk, such as Greenwood the Great, the Azrad forest, and Lothlórien- other races steered clear of. Obviously, except for her.
About two weeks prior, her trekking had led into vaguely familiar territory. To many travellers, after a time, trees and ravines and such began to all look the same. To Vaenomar the characteristics of each area remained engraved in her memory. The Elves had taught her well; too well.
On a tree overlook facing West, Vaenomar had seen in the hazy distance the towering mallyrn. The same that grew more plentiful the more one neared an Elven city. That would be their border. With a bold line she marked Bridi’s map- ‘unfriendly territory’. Not very descriptive, but it did the job.
As she reached the top of a steep hill her throbbing thighs demanded pause. She pulled herself into a tree and perched on a sturdy branch. The forest was quite dark now, but over the rolling tree tops the sun’s rays still shone faintly. A cold, icy wind whipped her face as she surveyed the horizon. The mountains were shaded, only the very tips of them ablaze in the fiery orange of the sunset.
About three more hours and she’d be home. A sigh escaped her lips as she climbed down. She stopped suddenly and squinted.
Torches? On the mountain path? Were her eyes really that good?
They moved slowly, but not in stealth, obviously, not with torches. And their numbers were between fifteen and twenty-five, hard to tell from that far away. Perhaps it was Thorin and his men returning from an outing. But that was an awful lot of lights for their small numbers. She doubted if they were enemies. And then she remembered an overheard conversation of Bridi and Branbur.
They were a humorous duo, always teasing and poking fun at each other. They had been talking about one of Thorin’s cousins, Dáin, Lord of the Iron Hills.
Vaenomar sighed even deeper than before. Visitors. Not that guests wouldn’t make for a welcome change at the Halls, but she wasn’t fond of meeting new people. Or even dealing with people. All those new eyes and faces, frowning in disapproval and gaping at Thorin’s long-legged pet woman.
She slapped herself, “Damn! I’m becoming a reclusive, grumpy, old hermit and I’ve barely been away month.”
Her self-chastisement did nothing to quicken her pace, however, and her tired feet trudged along slowly. It would be good to see everyone. Bridi even, and dear old Branbur. Kjar. Hopefully Voltarag? And…of course, Thorin. Well at least he’d have to be there, with his visiting cousin and everything, not out chasing goblins and wargs and such. Always on the go, she thought. Much like herself now. But she was alone. Her own master; at least in the forest. She took no orders and gave none. He had to lead, to be strong always, to be just, make the right choices, be invincible. She envied him not one bit. It wasn’t power she wanted, but freedom.
The fresh, cool scent of mountain conifers wafted past her in a breeze from the North as she neared the edge of the treeline. The closer she drew to home the more she wondered about the torches. It probably was Thorin’s cousin, but it seemed strange that she had heard nothing else about his visit. Dwarves always planned everything far, far ahead of time, and almost never broke those engagements. If Dáin was planning this visit in advance then Thorin would most assuredly know about it. So many times had he spoken of his family and extended family and how much they would love her that she was sure he’d not miss this opportunity for them to meet. A knot tightened in her stomach. Maybe he preferred her not to come. She stopped in her tracks.
Now she was looking for any excuse to stall. With a distinct Dwarven grumble in her throat she forced herself to push on, holding in her mind as bait the images of the dear ones she wished to see at home.
Outside, on the jagged slope of the mountain, the night was crisp and quiet. Wind was the only movement and it pushed the circling mist in and around the towering peaks. All was still and solemn, and the small, dusky shadow that made its way up the mountain could never had anticipated the change of scene inside the stony Halls.
The gate guard hadn’t seen her. Snoring away loudly, his head was thrown back on his chair and he was all wrapped in a thick bear hide, steam billowing out of his open mouth. His mug of mead now cold, a plate sat next to it with a large cleaned bone and remnants of other feast foods.
Either Kjar had randomly decided to treat whose ever shift it was or the merry-making for Dáin’s arrival had begun.
She passed the cold, unlit home and forge of Branbur and smiled. He would be at the festivities as early as possible. A quiet moment to chat with him would be a prized rarity this time, but he’d doubtlessly have a plethora of questions for her.
Other thoughts temporarily succeeded in taking her mind off the impending excitement. But the closer she drew to the door to the Halls the tighter her stomach grew. She gnawed on her lip.
Just in front of the heavy postern door, her hand resting on the opening mechanism, the nervous newcomer filled her lungs with the calming night air. Then the metal-plated, stone grated open and clanged shut, and any sound it made was lost in the sea of revelry and feasting.
The torches in the sleeping chambers were being used elsewhere, leaving the corridors very dark. A slight glow issued around a corner, indicating some form of activity. The stealthy sneak slowed rapidly and silenced her already wary footsteps. The stone was hard and cold on her feet and the air felt closer than ever in the forest. As she peeped around the corner she found the hall unoccupied. But the light- it seemed to be coming from her room. She inched closer, back flat against the wall- as if sneaking up on deadly enemies.
The accents were foreign, but slightly familiar. Some of the ‘r’ pronunciations and inflections reminded her of…Bridi, but male versions.
“Aye, his lordship won’t mind where you put his armour! So petty! Just make sure he can reach the tankard from his bed and that the pillows are shaken up.”
“I did the pillows,” muttered the other, “Nice room this. Hope whose ever it was don’t mind too much.”
The other scoffed pompously, “I’m sure it is an honour for anyone to give up their bed in deference to the Lord of the Iron Hills. Wouldn’t you?”
Vaenomar didn’t wait to hear the answer, though by the loud reaction of the inquirer it probably made for a good laugh.
Unsure where to go now that her room was off limits, she slipped past the open door while the two Dwarves were occupied, and moved softly down the hall. One side of her lip was almost raw from nervously chewing it, and her tensed shoulders ached. She should’ve waited another week, her conscience scolded, but then Thorin would worry.
His door was just barely ajar and it was black and empty in the room.
She proceeded down the hall hoping to find someone familiar. A sigh of relief escaped her on spotting a thin beam of candle light under a door. But why was Bridi not with the rest of the clan? Despite the fact that it was most likely the Dwarf-woman herself who wanted Vaenomar absent on Dáin’s arrival, whatever her reasons, she was better company than no one in these spacious halls. It was unnerving to feel like a visitor in a place that had served as home for a long while. Anyways, if Bridi really felt the young woman’s presence was compromising enough, she would tell her, without reserve, and send her packing. At least this was how Vaenomar imagined it happening.
She took in a deep breath and knocked, “Bridi?”
“Come in,” came the first familiar voice in a month.
Vaenomar quietly opened the door and slipped inside. Bridi’s back was to her and she was apparently rapt in something for she didn’t stir when the visitor entered. As she observed in silence the glimmer of gems and metallic threads, Vaenomar couldn’t help but gape at the spectacle before her. A sea of coppery locks cascaded down a blue-green back, while tight braids of four strands were decorated with metal trinkets and stone beads. The dress, if it could be called simply that, was unlike any dress Vaenomar had seen before. It came down in precisely cut layers, each differing in its decoration while similar in hues. Armoured hip guards and pauldrons of hammered and polished brass finished the stunning ensemble with that overpowering touch of Bridi. On her wrists were a matching set of clasps, so elegantly wrought in a delicate fashion they might be mistaken for Elf work. They were the most feminine accoutrement she’d ever seen Bridi wear. She cleared her throat and the even more impressive, chest-encompassing necklace immediately caught Vaenomar’s eye as the Dwarf turned around.
“Well, well. You’re back then.”
Vaenomar smiled and nodded, though surprised at the lack of coldness. She seemed to be expecting her.
“I’m sure you fared well.”
“I did,” answered Vaenomar and finally swallowed the nervous lump in her throat, “You look beautiful, Bridi.”
The Dwarf snorted, “Something like that,” and pulled open the drawer of a short dresser. “Your turn. Better get washed up a bit. You smell like wet leaves. Throw your things over in that corner. It’ll do for now.”
Vaenomar hurredly obliged. Her manner was rather warm for Bridi Flame-braid, but she seemed, to Vaenomar, to have a cloud hanging over her. A touch of unmasked sadness in her eyes wasn’t in keeping with the rest of the spirit around the place. Vaenomar neatly folded her cape and mask atop her bags and weaponry and faced the waiting Dwarf.
“My,” mused Bridi, her thickly muscled biceps bulging as they folded across her torso, “You look like a starved pony. Your clothes are falling off you already.”
That remark was anticipated.
“I hope you fit into these.” A mass of deeply-hued suede and wool unfurled to the floor, revealing a long, thick garment, detailed with real silver threads and onyx studded silver clasps down the bosom and the sides. Similar to Bridi’s only in the amount of effort and elegance put into it, the closest way of describing it was as a robe. The front of the legs was open and the skirt flowed down to the back of the ankles. Her pale skin would contrast perfectly against the purple-black of the garb. A leather strip, cut and sewed in rigid Dwarven beauty, clasped behind her neck and attached to the front of the dress just below the sternum.
If Bridi had let her, she would’ve much preferred to sit and admire every square inch of the garment, but a harshly cleared throat pulled her out of the gleaming threads and lush textures.
As she slipped into the different pieces, arranged them and tried to fix her tangled, mass of hair Bridi stood by in silence, aiding her when she needed it but otherwise her thoughts far away.
“Is everything alright?” Vaenomar asked softly, clasping a silver ringlet on the end of a long braid.
She nodded absentmindedly, “Well enough.” Her eyes cleared and she looked up, as if throwing off a spell, “Just…no Elven fancies around Lord Dáin and mind anything you say in his hearing. If you say anything at all…”
Vaenomar smiled to herself; Bridi knew her well.
“And don’t bother with anything he says, either. Especially now, after he’s been drinking for a while. Rotten bastard he can be,” she muttered under her breath. With a comforting pat on her companion’s shoulder the Dwarf said seriously, “There’s a lot to talk about. Later though. Lord Thorin’s itching to see you.”
“Thank you for everything Bridi,” the young woman said earnestly.
“Wait till tomorrow. You’ve got the night ahead of you.”
Pen sketch of Bridi’s ‘gown’ design.