“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.