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…”

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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 27 ~Running Errands~

Chapter 27
~Running Errands~

  They had come for supplies, had lost an old friend and saved a town in the bargain. An extra cartload was the least the grateful populace of Old Estenna could do for their Dwarven protectors. The four, long haired ibex with long straight horns threw their heads impatiently as the people loaded their backs and shoulders with bags. Thorin’s gloomy mind was far elsewhere and the leading goat in vain tried to shake his mindless hand off its horn.
   He just had to come along, didn’t he. Damned Dwarven stubbornness! Vaenomar would never forgive him. And what was that…thing? Was it after him? Was it a sort of evil spirit? Was it human? Now he had questions for Tharkûn. Where was he when he was actually needed? Thorin growled to himself. His hope for solace lay in Bridi. She was a wealth of information of things non-Dwarven. But he wasn’t sure how she’d take Branbur’s death either.
‘You should never have let him go with you!’ he could hear from all sides.
   But who was he, really, to deny his oldest friend? He sighed, as finally the buck shook off his bothersome hand.

 “Lord Thorin.” Gorlath said in a respectfully low tone, “We’re ready.”
Thorin looked around him and nodded. “Let’s be off, then,” he commanded with strength and solemnity, and with a look bade farewell to Mairi and her daughter, Anya, who stood waving sadly in the tavern doorway. The rest of the village watched the even smaller Dwarf party leave in silence, all feeling the effects of last night’s battle.
  The sun was veiled by a thin layer of grey clouds, all pocked and splotchy underneath, and the north wind blew in irregular, cold gusts. Little flurries of snow came and went, never covering, but like little, wet diamonds melted on the top of the Dwarves’ heads. No one spoke. What a change from the journey there. As if Thorin had not suffered enough deaths of those near to him already and hadn’t enough troubles on his mind to deal with. Now another enemy?
Perhaps his axe throw had killed it, though. He doubted it, but couldn’t be sure.
 Despite the stiffness in his limbs and body he still felt the urge to push on faster. He needed to talk to Bridi. She was his hope for comfort in dark times like these; whether he needed it or not, he wanted her council. He wanted assurance that Vaenomar would be fine out there, that they had enough strength in arms and courage to last for more seasons, that he hadn’t made a bad decision to come North. That someday all his and his folk’s efforts and suffering would pay off.

  But ever his thoughts returned to poor Branbur. This would be a long journey. Squinting in the bright white clouds and watching his steaming breath puff out in front of him, Thorin began to hum. The others took up the dirge in droning voices and the crisp, guttural lament for their fallen brother soon calmed the travellers, two and four legged, and carried their trudging feet along the long North- South road.

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

   Little did Thorin know, as the funeral march rung through the tussocked plains, that soon he would be mourning another lost life.
Barely two days since, while travelling through the same vast, enchanted woodland as Thorin’s young woman, was a trio of Elves. And the same silver-blonde one as Thorin had spared a few weeks earlier.
  The prince and his guard, while riding quietly through the underbrush, had, literally, stumbled upon a corpse. Another might have missed it, but the hawk-like eyes of the Prince of the Greenwood spotted the angular patterning on a dark brown, leather doublet just as his horse stumbled over it and regained its footing.
 With a calm word he stopped the steed and dismounted, and his two followers trotted up.
“My lord, what is it? asked one as the prince knelt near his find.
Naug.”
“In the forest?” “Alone?” The two murmured and watched him.
  The prince reverently closed the copper-haired Dwarf’s eyes and inspected the body. No blood, no wounds: no evidence of a skirmish. But on closer look he saw now purple-grey punctures and scratches around the throat. Claws, most likely, but not from a beast, thought he.  The swelling caused by residues on animal claws was not there, and discolouration around the wounds gave evidence to metal. Clawed gauntlets. The prince cringed and looked up and around. But he sensed no enemy near and the body was very cold. No tracks or broken twigs, but from the Dwarf’s small, heavy footprints. Evidently there were Dwarves around, and enemies of Dwarves. Even if the Naugrim and Elf-kind had their extreme differences, any enemy of a Dwarf was his enemy as well.
  As always they would be wary. He climbed back on his horse and cast a final glance at the dead Dwarf’s face. It was severely drawn and pained, and- much too thin for a Dwarf. It looked as if bereft of all blood before he died. Yet there was no blood to be seen around. The glint of orange peeped out from under his leather doublet. Scales of copper-plated steel armour lay beneath, but no weapon was in sight and he bore satchels of food and bedding. An unwary traveller…
  “I wonder what his name was,” murmured the prince thoughtfully, “And why he met such a death in these blessed woods.”
  The three Elves rode away from the scene, and, with another look behind, the Prince of the Greenwood wished safety and blessings on a the lovely Elf-woman he’d recently parted with and the man she’d set out to reclaim.

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

  “You there,” called the captain, beckoning to a tall, brawny Elf with jet black hair. “Come here for a moment.”
 Patiently Eärón set down his bowl of warm soup, giving a playful glare to the others not to finish it for him, and joined his captain at his personal campfire. He stood attentively awaiting the summons while Alcarín finished his bite. Wiping his mouth politely, the captain finally looked up, “Ah yes- Eö-…”
“Eärón, sir.”
“Yes, yes, Eärón.” He paused deliberately, with haughty brow raised. “Who was your sire?”
The younger Elf shifted his weight, “Hallacar, sir.”
The captain nodded, “Blacksmith?”
 Biting his tongue under the spiteful scrutiny, Eärón replied calmly, “Yes, sir.”
Alcarín nodded again and then seemed to recollect his reason for summoning the new lieutenant. “Well, Eärón, I have a very important letter here, that needs delivering to Taurëmith. You’d not be against a short visit home, now would you?”
 This really was not a request.
“You want me to run an errand for you?” Eärón replied blandly.
“If you must put it that way, then yes, I do. You won’t mind being an errand-boy just for a night.”
Colour rose swiftly to Eärón’s high cheeks, but he held his tongue.
“Good,” replied Alcarín, not deigning to wait for an answer and produced a small sealed noted from his garb. “The seal is not to be broken, no matter what, as it is a highly confidential and important letter. If it is-“
“Sir, it won’t be.” Eärón interrupted sternly.
The captain looked surprised and paused, “Well then…” He peered haughtily into Eärón’s fathomless black eyes and handed him the letter. “It is to be delivered to Lord Belegren’s sister, Lady Belrien; into her hands only. I want you there before the moon is up and back ere the sun is half-way. Am I clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Eärón answered, but sounded slightly unsure.
“I’m sure she’ll pay you for your trouble,” the captain turned back to his fire. Still Eärón hesitated. “What is it?”
 “Will Lady Belrien…will she see me?”
“If she knows who it is from she will undoubtedly.”
“I’ll be off then,” Eärón bowed stiffly and, tucking the note in his chest, marched off.
Passing his comrades with a stony face he nodded towards his cooling meal. “Enjoy it for me,” he muttered, his companions’ eyes following him inquisitively. Captain Alcarín ignored the questioning glances from the onlookers and appeared to pay no more thought to the matter.

  Hastily grabbing his leather water skin and throwing off his cape onto his furred bedroll, Eärón mused darkly to himself, “Errand-boy….errand-boy?” He sighed through grit teeth and checked the level of the sun. He had about four to five hours, at most, to reach Taurëmith. And that was if he ran fast most of the way and didn’t get lost. He was glad he hadn’t eaten much. With nothing but a deep breath he jogged away from the hidden camp into the dense, cool woods.

  As the others with whom Eärón had been supping got up and went about their duties, Captain Alcarín slipped, unnoticed, into his tent. The bulky Elf smith was taking care of some business for him in Taurëmith, and he had some of his own elsewhere.

~~~~~~~~~

  Four and a half hours later, when the moon was just peeping through some woolly clouds close to the western horizon, Eärón breathlessly plowed into the sleeping city of Elves. He glistened with sweat and his legs throbbed. Pushing on, but at a walking pace now, he made his way through the lower levels. He was glad it was late: less chance of running into anyone. When he had left, about a week earlier, he meant not to return for a good long while. But the captain’s orders were final. He kept his eye on the way ahead of him and closed off his mind to the painful thoughts and memories that arose at every turn. He wouldn’t think of her. She would be happy with the prince. Someday, perhaps, the Queen of the Greenwood. Nothing less befitted her. She was much too good for him. As much as he hated to think of it, he should have listened to Silfdas. Now all he could do was try to put her out of his mind, though she would never leave his heart.
  His bulging thighs protested angrily as he slowly climbed up the winding stairs to the higher levels. Soon Eärón reached the delicately carved porch of the Lady Belrien, sister of the Lord Captain of the Guard, and former Glade-keeper herself. Trying to control his panting, he tapped on a post outside, and hoped someone would be awake still. A few moments later a stiff, yawning Elf bustled onto the porch from the curtained interior of the house, looking not at all pleased to see the visitor, who shone with sweat and looked rather wild on the doorstep.
“What could you possibly want at this hour, young one?” he asked exhilarated, “And who are you anyways?”
  Still catching his breath, Eärón said respectfully, “I have a message for Lady Belrien…from Captain Alcarín.”
 The door-keeper stood up straight, “Indeed? Then I shall deliver it to her as soon as the hour is right,” and he held out his hand.
 With an apologetic bow Eärón replied, “I have orders to deliver it to her hands only, good sir, with all due respect.”
  The other feigned affrontery. “Is that so? Well, young sir, you may have to return tomorrow, because my lady is indisposed. It is very late,” he said sharply, with a disapproving look at the other’s wind-rustled, black hair and dust covered travel garb.
Eärón stifled a grunt, “Nobility,” then continued aloud, “I must return to my camp by sunrise. Please, sir, if it’s not too much trouble. I did just run four hours to deliver it to her…post haste.”
The servant set his jaw proudly and inclined his head. With a flourish he turned on his heel back into the quiet, beautiful flet. As he waited patiently, Eärón paced back and forth across the porch, trying to calm his aching legs. Only then did curiosity for the letter’s content strike him.
  Ever since he arrived he’d had only less than pleasant experiences with the captain. Strict was an understatement. To his surprise Alcarín had given him the title of lieutenant, only two days after his arrival. Why? He’d never seen him fight; Eärón hadn’t even had a chance to really prove himself worthwhile. It felt like the captain enjoyed treated his inferiors with as little respect as possible and Eärón seemed to be his favourite in this respect. Perhaps he was just testing their mettle. Eärón wouldn’t break; he could take anything, but not all the young Elves out there were made of the same steel. Whatever did the captain want with Lady Belrien? He wondered.   Perhaps that high-browed Elf could turn on the charm when he needed to…

   He gazed down onto the city. The silver blue of the moon that peeped through the clouds cast a sheen on his sleek hair. Dim lanterns illuminated the elegant dwellings made one with the trees they perched in. He could see his breath in little clouds before him and all was so silent he could even hear his receding heartbeat, finally beginning to calm from his long run.
He could see her, sleeping peacefully, her graceful form gently caressed by the…dark velvet blanket. Eärón was disturbed by a tap on his shoulder.
“Lady Belrien agrees to see you, briefly.”
 Pulling the curtain back across the door he issued Eärón into the house and up a short flight of stairs.
 “My lady,” he bowed, indicating Eärón was to enter the room, all freshly scented with warm flickering candles, and left. The lady’s back was to the newcomer as she leaned on a small writing desk. She turned around, revealing a very handsome woman; stern beauty with flowing white-golden tresses billowing around her noble figure.
Eärón bowed, “My lady.”
 She inclined her head and a slight smile curved her lips, “And you are?”
“Eärón, at your service,” he replied simply, his smooth baritone blending with the shadows around him. She circled him with the air of an inspector. “Who is your sire?”
There was that question again, though he knew that she knew the answer.
“Hallacar, my lady. A blacksmith.”
   Though he’d had no part of it, Eärón had suspected something between her and his late father some time ago; something that was transacted by Silfdas. But he made no assumptions. Yet.

 The lady smiled, though without warmth, “I see. Hence your…fine figure?”
He turned red and stared at the floor.
“Well then Eärón,” she continued, not hinting at any previous knowledge of him or anything to do with him, “What have you brought me?”
  Recovering his composure he produced the parchment, now rather damp and crumpled. Again embarrassed, he tried to wipe it off on his chest and straighten it. She looked at it blankly as he placed it in her and as if awaiting an explanation.
 “From Captain Alcarín, my lady.”
“Ah,” she raised her eyebrows and opened the letter.
  Eärón looked away respectfully and held his hands behind his back. The flickering shadows hid his furtive side glance that closely read her face. The seeming simple, uninformed blacksmith’s son was more observant and keen than his lumbering figure would lead one to think. He waited, patiently, to be dismissed like yesterday’s breakfast.
  Instead, Lady Belrien folded the letter up with a placid face, set it on the table and turned to him with the cool grace of a queen. “Thank you, Eärón, for your swift delivery.”
He bowed.
“Ilurë set up a cushion for you. Go, wash yourself and you can leave in the morning.”
“Thank you, my lady for your gracious hospitality, but my home is-“
“You will stay here tonight,” she repeated firmly.
  Arrested, he looked at her, silent for a moment. Then bowed, muttering softly, “Yes, my lady.” And he left the room, followed by her sharp gaze.
 The moment her curtain drifted airily back into place, her stiff, lordly air faded. Belrien’s immortal, ageless brow creased in consternation as she read the letter again. Though its contents were very informative, the writing and words held not their usual tenderness. Perhaps her lover was worried, or distracted by other matters. But he was a dear to write at all if he was thus occupied.
 She stared into the wall, deep in thought, emotions conjured by turbulent memories flashing across her mind like the coloured lights in the Grinding Ice. Then, as if struck by the perfect words, she seized a pen and began to write hastily.

  Eärón’s own mind raced as he stripped off his sweat streaked shirt and splashed his face and arms with cool water provided him by her servant. Why was she keeping him here?
The air was stuffy and he hadn’t yet cooled from his exercise. He splashed more refreshing water onto his sleek chest and smoothed it over his torso. Running his hands through the waves of his raven hair he looked up into the mirror. His pale skin shone almost blue in the light from the moonbeams that filtered into the room. Eärón rubbed his hand over his chin and upper lip, tinged darker than the rest of his face by black stubble.
  A faint gleam of light reflected in two eyes behind him caused him to whirl around.
“My lady!”
Scrambling around he groped for his thrown off shirt.
“Looking for this, dear?” the intruder asked coyly, dangling the loose cloth in the air. His hand shot out to take it back, but she snatched it away behind her. In a confused attempt at modesty, Eärón turned his back to her intrusive eyes.
“My lady,” he stammered, “Please give me back my-“
“Boy,” she whispered into his ear, suddenly just behind him. Her nailed fingers gently pressed into the back of his thick neck. He inhaled sharply, every muscle tightening as if in freezing water.
 “Quite a body you have,” she purred as she stroked his glistening back muscles. “I’m sure you put it to good use…”
 The young Elf’s breath was short and he closed his eyes. Then her nails brushed ever so lightly across his chest. Then again. His mouth began to water. Her hand ran down his rippling torso slowly, enough to drive the strongest man mad with passion. As her wandering fingers went lower he seized her hand and held it firmly, turning around to face her. Onyx eyes bored into hers with a smouldering, bridled passion. The things he could do if he let himself. A tense moment passed which she broke by pulling her hand out of his grasp. She turned her back to him and took a few steps away, with him watching her closely all the while.
“Your father was an Elf…and what an Elf. But your mother?” She turned around on receiving no answer and found his back to her again, but still his eyes followed her every move in the mirror. With one hand she rubbed his tightened bare shoulders and the other fondled his chin, “You know, boy, Elves don’t usually grow hair there.”
 Eärón, holding onto what little control of his body he had left, tilted his head back and swallowed hard. She prodded him further, her nails growing sharper and sharper.
“It makes for interesting sensations, I’m sure,” she whispered.
His body burned and tingled, and he exhaled through clenched teeth. “Does Alcarín have hair on his body?” he asked quietly, forcing a steady tone. Her nails dug into his shoulders. Eärón grunted, but didn’t move.
“Of course not,” she replied smoothly, “He’s a real Elf.” Finally she released him and walked to the other side of the room.
Eärón let out a sigh, and felt warm blood running down his back from his shoulders. Quickly he found his shirt and threw it over his head.
Belrien seated herself casually on a cushioned couch, her flowing night-gown a black and silver wave about her body. “The thing is,” she went on, speaking on his level, “You’ve been asking too many questions that perhaps hold my good name in the balance.”
And this affair didn’t??
 She held up the letter from Alcarín. “The first few lines concern yourself, believe it or not. He asked if I know you… Oh, but do I. But- why, pray tell, are you so keen on this Beruthiel. The human girl who ran off with a herd of Dwarves so long ago. What business could you possibly have with her?”
 “That story, my lady, is most assuredly not the one I first heard.”
“Do you call me a liar?”
“No,” he gulped.
“Then what is your point?”
He was silent for lack of the right words.
“Well, Eärón, I will tell you. I myself led an expedition and continued to search for her on my own. She positively vanished. Unless you doubt my skill-“
“Certainly not, my lady.”
“Then what other questions might you have?”
He paused for a moment, confused emotions, passions and thoughts racing through his brain.
“Dwarves took her?”
 She shrugged, “So I was told. And, yes, I have good reason to believe it is true, but there was no sign of their presence, despite what you may think.”
“On the contrary, my lady, I know Dwarves are much more clever and dangerous than we give them credit for.”
 His even speech earned him a glare. She broke the ensuing silence in a patronizing tone, “You’ve spoken with Tairiel?”
A dagger’s point played with his heartstrings. He flushed and his brow furrowed, “I-I…We trained together.”
She raised her chin knowingly, “And you’ve spoken often?”
He shook his head, the calm that was returning now completely shattered. “No, no, I’ve not seen her for quite a while.
“Ah, well, she’s off to the Greenwood with the prince, now, so you may never see her again.”
“So I’ve heard,” Eärón heard himself say, almost choking on his words.
“Well, she knew this Beruthiel, whom you’ve taken such an interest in. She’s the one who told me the story of her disappearance. But if you want my advice- No. Whether you want it or not, here it is: Let the past lie. It has nothing to do with you.” As she spoke she neared him, like a cat cornering its prey.
 He stiffened, towering above her, and held his face out of reach. The contact of her soft, caressing fingers on his skin hardened all his muscles. She slowly wrapped her arms around his shoulders, stroking the bleeding cuts on his back. The fiercest battle he had ever fought was now against his roaring masculine passions. Her warm breath on his chest made his body tingle.

  He closed his eyes, and focused every last drop of will-power into controlling his trembling body. Then wet lips just barely brushed the center of his chest.
Just as he felt himself breaking, Belrien drew away, as carelessly as if nothing had passed. She took a sealed, scented note out of her gown and placed it on the nearby table.
“Take this to your captain. He’ll be expecting it.” Placing a few coins near it she added, “And here’s for your trouble. Sleep well, and may the Valar guide your dreams.”
    As she disappeared from the room, as silently as she had entered, Eärón gasped and his shoulders fell forward. He sat heavily on the small bed, and tried to breath deeply to calm himself. He collapsed into a horizontal position and closed his eyes.
“Breathe,” he murmured, and counted to twelve. “Breathe…”

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

  Naturally, it took Eärón quite a while to get to sleep after such a testing episode like that. Though it pained him more to think of her, in his heart he thanked his beloved Tairiel over and over again for the aid she’d lent him in avoiding disaster. When the temptation had grown too strong, her encouraging face had smiled at him and he’d held against the storm.
After a troubled sleep, filled by dreams having nothing to do with the Valar, Eärón rose early, before the rest of the city and slipped out. Only the gate guards had seen him come and go.
Tairiel was gone, then. Nothing more bound him to Taurëmith now and he left the city behind in haste. The blood red and rosy pinks of the rising dawn filtered down through the trees of the outside forest and tinged the world in colour. Though a bit achy from the run yesterday, his thighs and calves complied with a steady lope, and he hoped, with no stops, that they would get him back in time for a good meal. Last night had left him very hungry and with sore shoulders.
  The sun rose higher and in the thermal warmth of the forest he drained the last drips of his water to keep up with the sweat that soaked his body. Still on the move, the bulwark of an Elf stripped off his leather and cloth jerkin and tied it loosely around his neck. About to take off his sleeveless under-tunic he was arrested on remembering Belrien’s awkward reminder of his…hairy body. None of the other Elves would undress like that, he thought to himself.
    But her words, ‘it gives an interesting sensation,’ turned over and over in his mind. Not for any sensual reasons though. Now he was sure Lady Belrien and his father had corresponded. Her manner toward him was strangely familiar. And though there was no scandal in her involvement with his captain, all details were lightly swept under the rug, as was usual among the high-dwellers. Lady Belrien, kind and vigilant an example as she may put on, was free of any sort of chaste innocence. Eärón was quite sure of that. He had read it in her eyes long before she had laid hands on him. She knew how to touch men. He shivered.
He had stumbled upon a veritable hornet’s nest.
Why did she obscure and change Tairiel’s story? And so many other questions now lay on his conscience. His interest in this Beruthiel had sprung solely from the desire to please his love. Now he found himself on a rolling wheel that gained momentum with each fateful question asked.

 “Who goes there?” a voice startled him and he nearly lost his footing.
A Elbereth Gilthoniel, cried the maid,” he called back to the invisible scout.
“Back early, Mûmak,” chuckled the voice, “How went the night?”
“Well enough…” but his tone belayed his words.
  As he neared the camp the sun hid its face behind some uneven clouds and little flakes of snow made their way down through the thick branches. They instantly melted on his warm face and body, and refreshed him more than sleep.

  On arriving in the camp he was greeted, not so refreshingly, by the captain. He blocked his path with folded arms, his face tired and haggard. “Well?” he demanded as Eärón, tried to catch his breath.
 Without a word he pulled the letter, again damp, out of his jerkin’s pocket and handed it to his superior.
“Wonderful. Now go wash yourself and eat. You smell like a Dwarf,” and with that he marched stiffly off to his own tent.
The snowflakes turned into a cold patter of rain. Eärón sighed as he trudged off to his tent for some rest.
  One of the Elves that shared it with him was the sentry he’d passed on arriving back. They liked to call him Mûmak, a friendly pun on his massive size and strength. As he neared the circle of sleeping tents Eärón was very surprised to hear four or five unfamiliar voices emanating from the spacious coverings around. He wasn’t particularly fond of new people, as they always looked at him funny. He glanced around to make sure no one was looking and pulled off his linen tunic and ducked into his tent, sure of its unoccupied status.
  Instead, he was greeted by four new sets of eyes and an extremely awkward pause of silence.
A deep red overtook his face and so embarrassed was he that his vision blurred and stayed thus until somehow he had clothed his naked torso.
  Everything had happened very quickly and next Eärón realized he was seated, out of the way, in a corner on some crates. When the hot blood had finally subsided from his face he took some offered lembas and sipped a wooden cup of cooled tea. The conversing voices hummed once again and he heard his name.
 “So, mellonen, this is Eärón, or Mûmak, as we call him. Eh, Mûmak, they just joined our camp this morning.” Turning to the others, “Once you’ve spent a week here you feel like a veteran.”
It was Tethrin speaking, a fellow of Eärón’s. One newcomer snickered at the nickname, but the other three bowed politely.
  Eärón returned their greetings with a nod and a mouthful.
“Where’d you get those scratches on your back?” asked Tethrin.
“Ah, a…thorn tree,” muttered Eärón lying.
  As the others returned to their chatting, Eärón began to survey their faces.
Morcion was the snickering one with a thin face and large deep-set eyes. Ionwë was a tall, fair-haired Elf, probably Eärón’s age but with a face that could be much older. Rumil was an outgoing, handsome youth who seemed to have read much more of than practiced sword play.  The last to introduce himself was a very small and slender lad who avoided all eye contact and, to Eärón, had rather feminine features. At least at first glance, he told himself. Cropped auburn hair just above the shoulders and round lips, made him look even more like a child.
“Nurtalië,” he introduced himself in a soft, mid range voice and reddened slightly as he acknowledged Eärón.
Trying to be friendly he asked the shy Elf, “Did we train together? I feel like we’ve met.?
Nurtalië shook his head, “I don’t believe so… I’m a healer,” he said quickly. “But then…I’m bad with faces.
Eärón smiled, “A healer? You’re most welcome. I’m sure you’ll like it out here.”
Nurtalië nodded thanks hastily and returned to whetting a shiny new sword.
 It was one of Eärón’s handiwork. The ones he’d finished for Vilenas, but never delivered. And the young Elf’s nose…terribly familiar, but he couldn’t tell from where. The eyes were quick and active and the face almost too petite and handsome. The poor boy would probably break in a week, Eärón thought to himself dryly. He already looked terrified, as well he should be, under the command of Captain Alcarín. Poor lad.

   The rain had ceased as the sun went down and those not on watch-duty laid their heads down for sleep.
Rumil and Nurtalië were assigned to share Eärón’s tent with him, Tethrin and Lomirë, the watcher he’d passed earlier. It wasn’t near as spacious now. As the night noises began to hoot and peep and howl Eärón half expected the little shy one to start crying. Even his name meant ‘hidden one’. Nurtalië curled himself up in a thick blanket and watched the others fall into sleep until finally closing his eyes.
Just before he drifted off, Eärón heard the soft whisper of Nurtalië praying, “Give me strength and hide me…

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 25 ~The World Ahead~

Chapter 25
~The World Ahead~

  The sharp tap of a woodpecker’s beak drilled repetitively into the armoured hide of the tree. Its claws scratched and scuffled as it moved to get a better angle on a plot of wood for its new home. Drumming rapidly, the bird persisted till little bits of bark began to fly out and float down through the scattered sun beams, even more broken by the dense foliage. Sparkling dust airily caught on a slight breeze alighting on the slumbering, chilled face of another tree-dweller. The sleeper inhaled peacefully, only to awaken next with a startling sneeze.
  Vaenomar blinked in the cool, bright ray cast on her through a break high above and rubbed her thoroughly numbed nose and cheeks. On trying to sit up she was abruptly halted by realizing one leg was hooked tightly over something solid and her aching back felt as if lashed to her extremely hard bed. That’s because she was tied up…and to a tree. Leaning her head back on last night’s pillow of crooked bark and her folded hood, she smiled. She was getting really good at this sleeping anywhere skill. Her foot tingled from lack of blood as she pulled it over the branch and stretched.
  A little flock of twittering honey-sippers fluttered nearby and one hovered for a moment to examine the strange unfeathered bird.
 She grinned and untied herself, wrapped up the rope and began to climb nimbly down the three-meter trunk, whistling a warbling son of her own to her woodland fellows.
 Bubbling nearby was a fast-moving brook, its icy water straight from the mountain springs, with glacial cloudiness only further indicating its purity. She dipped her fingers in the swirling bubbles and immediately withdrew her hand, shaking off the ache from the extreme cold.
 Instead she found a roughly hewn wooden cup in her bag and scooped it full, letting it adjust to the less frigid outside air before downing it thirstily and splashing the rest onto her sleepy face. Stretching again to dispel the stiffness in her muscles, the new forest-warden slung on her pack.

   According to her calculations and with the help of Bridi’s map, the furthest reach of her monthly patrol would be about four days straight march from the mountain fortress. She had covered just less than a day’s worth yesterday and then into the night. As she moved deeper into the woods and kept open a watchful pair of eyes the map would most likely get splattered river branches, gullies, and possible ambush spots, for lack of anything better to put down. Once her route reached the furthest border she’d make a figure eight shaped patrol that should, as she estimated, take just less than a month each cycle. Then the map would fill up and Bridi would be happy.
  The prospect of having to explore almost the entire forest was wonderfully exhilarating. And the chatter and chirping of the birds, the occasional crash of a deer family moving about and the vibrancy of the many colours of the wintering forest only added to that rising feeling in her heart.  The feeling of freedom, but freedom with a purpose. The piercing bugle of an elk rang through the woods, unmuffled by tree or stone. She passed a couple of deep, muddy trenches, all with spidery roots like groping fingers, likely dug out by the wood-boar foraging for food. Now and then moss that hung like silky Elven hair from limbs of sleeping trees swayed in a gentle zephyr that managed to find its way into the deep under-cover.
 On a once majestic, tremendous Silver beech that lay stretched on the ground for many long paces crept little tufts of bright green lichen with a smiling orange blossom. Vaenomar gently ran her hand over the velvety plant which left her fingers damp from the dew gathered there.
  As she hiked without disturbing even the pair of tree mice she passed at eye’s height, she snacked on the rest of the trail food Voltarag had sent along and kept a mark on the sun to keep her bearings. The altitude was much lower and the air thicker in the forest, especially as she progressed westward. It wasn’t always downhill; plenty of steep gullies to climb through and inclines that seemed to go on forever. Even for one of her build and fitness, uphill climbs were less than pleasant- until the top.
  On reaching the flatter crest of one such amon, as the Elves call it, her feet and eyes were arrested by the sight. Tree tops, leafy and barren, stretched for miles, mist spreading over them in lower places and the billowing fluff of the cloud cover sweeping overhead. An ancient, very windswept ash towered at the top of the hill like a rigid sentry. Vaenomar climbed its sturdy, sullen branches and perched herself firmly braced against the wind. As she surveyed the horizons her hair whipped her face viciously in the icy North wind, and her nose and fingers grew numb in the cold, but it was worth it. Even at her height on this hill she felt incredibly miniscule and pathetic in the shadow of the mountains. Their snow caps glaring white even in the veiled sunlight and their stony arms that reached to the foothills and cast dark, fathomless shadows West. Clouds hung like children on their mother’s aprons around the peaks and as a particularly long one passed over the familiar Uzbad-zigil, Vaenomar thought she could make out the irregular shadows cast by the Dwarven handiwork of Azaghâl’s fortress.
  It probably wasn’t though, she told herself. Her eyes weren’t that good. “I’m not an Elf, but more like an extremely long-legged, tree loving Dwarf...”
  Finally she lowered herself down from her perch. After marking a little lump on her map with as much of the secret Dwarven language as she could muster to indicate “good lookout”, she climbed down opposite the way she had come up and continued on her way.

   Freely her feet carried her along and Vaenomar’s mind couldn’t help but wander also. It was beginning to feel like a long time ago, so much had she changed, but the hours spent roaming much the same woods with her Elf friends would always remain good memories. They were nearly the same woods; to the animals that lived in them they were the same mass of trees and vegetation, but to the more intellectual-minded, biped inhabitants there were borders. Out of her respect for the First-born, Vaenomar hoped she would need not go anywhere close to these borders, thus avoiding any possible trouble. But for Thorin she would at least mark warning signs on the map. He didn’t know where they lived nor did he need to. He knew that Elves were near, though, and Vaenomar saw no harm in knowing, herself, whose the turf on which she stood. She swallowed down the warm lump that grew in her throat while thinking of her former people. Half of her wished to spot one, but keep silent and out of sight. That other half warned against it strictly. No good could come of it. She loved Thorin and he had reasons well enough for the feelings he bore their kind. The Dwarves were her kind though.
  In the months spent with them they had shown her more warmth and love than the years could remember with the Elves. Throwing back her tense shoulders she sighed and tried to loosen up.    Still, she missed Tairiel. Not like before, as a child torn from its twin, but as a young woman trying to hold onto the last piece of happiness from a youth fading into dark obscurity. The memories of exploring and scouting the woods of Taurëmith were happy and light. Now she had a purpose for it all and that made everything better. She was being useful and helpful; important might be pushing it, thought she, but nonetheless a piece of Thorin’s puzzle.

   Her feet, fortunately, didn’t follow her mind and get lost, instead keeping a direct route Westward. The ratio of coniferous trees to the non-alpine variety began to shift the more Southwest and lower the terrain became. Many more beech and oak and the occasional mallorn grew and this change was not lost on the forester. The mallyrn weren’t near as impressive in size here as they were closer to the Elven city, but the wood was just as hard and flexible. A particularly healthy one caught Vaenomar’s attention as she gripped its bough for balance while manoeuvering a slippery ledge. It willingly held firm as she hoisted herself up, using the spring in the wood to help her jump the overhanging brush. Once on solid ground she turned to thank the tree with a respectful nod for saving her from what could have been a painful, messy fall.
 The same bough brushed her cheek and made a shiver run down her spine. Looking at the tree then at the branch the memory of an incident not unlike this a few years ago, flashed back.   She took the living wood loosely in her hand and stood thoughtfully for a moment. Then muttering softly, “Thank you,” she took up her honed axe and with a swift, painless swipe to the wedge in the ‘V’ of limbs was left with a durable, supple shaft of mallorn. She cringed for a moment on beholding the severed limb, but the great tree didn’t seem to mind, at least as far as she could tell. Another branch, still living and one with the tree, brushed her face with a tuft of leaves as if to say, “Worry not.”
 Reassured, Vaenomar happily moved on, stopping only for a drink and a late lunch in a hollow covered in a mossy bedding. There she began whittling and carving into her new found ally. Some time ago she parted with her first bow, made of the same wood. Now it was time for a new one. Gut string, leather for grip, good feathers from Kjar’s kitchen floor, metal scraps sharpened on the grindstone by Branbur; all she needed now was to gather good, straight shafts and arrows would be easy enough.
  She was about to get up and push on when a tiny figure scuttled up to her feet. The delicate, constantly twitching nose of a spiny hedgehog was held high in the air as it inspected these things with an odd smell on his doorstep. Her feet were still enough and seemed to be of no danger and so he burrowed into his home beneath the log on which Vaenomar was seated. She looked up with the same smile that’d been on her lips ever since she’d awoken two morns past.    The inquisitive, watchful eyes of a pair of Wood pigeons were fixed on her from their quiet perch across the small clearing as she pulled on her pack again. She was covering a lot of forest area in good time; granted the weather was decently favourable today and yesterday and she untired from previous trekking. It would not always be this easy, nor enjoyable, she knew this, but relished it all the same.

  From then until the sun grew low enough to hide itself behind the tree line, Vaenomar’s way was a gentle slope downwards and then relatively flat, at least in terms of altitude. The darker the woods became the cooler too, and the streams began to lightly freeze around the edges and quiet their sounds of heralding. She would be more careful in the dark, walking slower, listening and smelling more than looking. Boars liked to forage in the dark and Vaenomar wisely preferred not to disturb these less peace-loving inhabitants. Wolves were uncommon this deep under tree cover, preferring to hug the edges, but not impossible and were very keen stalkers.  They would take what they could this time of year.
  Vaenomar had always been a light sleeper and found it easy to train herself to become even more wary while sleeping yet still gain rest. Her mind remained awake to nightly noises: the hoot of an owl, peep of crickets, chitter of mice on the tree bark, while her eyes slept.
  She walked in watchful silence as the towering shadows of the forest lords slowly shifted with the departing sun’s glow and eventually melted into one vast sea of grey.
The moon rose, visible by a faint halo peeping through the cloudy blanket. The wind had died down and the night was peaceful. Slightly warmer than the night before, more nocturnal creatures ventured from their burrows and beds.
  Vaenomar passed through a creek bed covered in brambles, the silt once muddy and soft now frozen in the cool of night.
  On reaching the top of the bank she found another steep incline all scattered with jutting, mossy rocks and tangled vines: something difficult to manage in the dark.
A good time to rest.
  Finding a cozy hollow between two giant trees that had grown together for centuries, she dropped her now heavy pack, rolled out her blanket and dug some food from the satchel.
 She curled up tight and munched on a thick slice of cured ham, cold but satisfying. In the deep black of the season’s night she could barely see the handiwork done on her new bow shaft. It was still a little splintery, though the moist flesh of the green wood was smooth and supple for the most part, and the ends were beginning to taper nicely. As she followed the carved grooves along the wood with her fingers, she rest her weary head on the side of her shelter. Padded, bristling moss grew on the base of the trees and provided a rough pillow for the wanderer. The scratchy hairs of the moss reminded her of a certain black and silver beard fondly rubbing on her bare cheeks. Closing her eyes she wondered what he would think if he could see her. Talking to a tree, smiling at birds, carving a long bow…just like an Elf. But no need to start on that subject again, she thought. She closed her eyes tighter and snuggled up against the bearded moss. Thorin’s piercing eyes gazed into hers with such care that she had to look away. All she could do was embrace him, relax into the bulwark of his strength.
  There was so much more to the Dwarf-king than ever he led to believe. Bridi had dropped hints and Branbur told tales of his pre-dragon kingdom, but always stopped before tearing up. The rare times she had alone with her lord she wanted to ask him so many things. Whenever the time seemed right, though, she had lost her nerve. A stoic, strong-willed child of Durin, Thorin still had a side that was as troubled and mysterious as the blackest pits of Moria.
Why did he hate Elves so deeply? What was his childhood like? The rumours of his being popular among the taller species of womenfolk, were they true? Had he ever used a bow? What did his sister look like and why was she not here? How tall was Thráin? Who was his mother? So very many questions. Why did he take her in and adopt her, Elf-kin, a forest child, weak, orphaned and quiet?
  Maybe he didn’t even know the answer himself. Perhaps he was lusty, or had considered a ransom. He may have just wanted information and not getting it immediately decided to hold onto its bearer, for a time. Vaenomar was glad it had lasted longer than ‘a time’ and that he’d had enough patience with her antics to keep her. Was it a betrayal of her Elvish people to have taken up with Dwarves so quickly and stayed? Especially now with Thorin subtly hinting at the danger of possible Elven proximity. Now that she could admit to herself that her heart found its first and only resting place in Thorin, the mist that obscured their first meeting in her memory now blew away. She had been desperate, furious and disgusted those dark hours early on in her capture, but one feeling had remained constant. Her blessing and her curse: curiosity. Insatiable, ever-present, it was informative and dangerous at the same time.
  That wild maned, bristling, fierce-eyed creature with a hawk-like nose, a small, serious mouth, and the build of a giant compressed into a Dwarf-size form, had snagged her curiosity like a fisher’s hook. His guttural, gravelly voice, tangled shock of coarse waves, dangling beard and solid body all had impressed her first she laid eyes on him. Loathing had been the first emotion, then apprehension. How those led the way to her current state, she never could tell, but that she was glad they did.
  With thoughts of the past and present on her mind Vaenomar drifted into a light, peaceful slumber. Her only thoughts on the future were those of having to wake up to some hill-climbing.

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

   The inhumanely low growl of his stomach was a glaring reminder to Thorin of his duties that day. The food stocks were lower than he and Kjar had anticipated they would be when last they took inventory and so he would be forced to go early ‘to town’. The other empty bellies about were in luck, however, as the next stop on the list for supplies that season was Old Estenna. That village always seemed to have plenty of supplies to go around, was only a days march away, and, despite having a rather pitiful guard force, managed to stay a thriving village. Which it what worried Thorin the most. A juicy, fat, spoil-ridden village ripe for the plundering; just waiting for a hungry bandit raid. Or worse, goblins.
They would have to be careful on the road.
 Even as he pulled taut the oiled straps on his boots his thoughts were bent on the fresh blood he’d sent out alone into the forest; the accursed, magical forest that was probably crawling with Elves and other creeping things.
 Well, not alone, though if she was the woodsman she claimed to be it would not take long for her to lose the shadow he’d sent after her. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Vaenomar or her abilities; if he hadn’t felt tied by his other duties at home and to his people he would have accompanied her himself.
  Darzûn Copperscale had volunteered for the assignment, saying he didn’t mind the woodland terribly and needed to stretch his legs. This all happened quietly, the only others that knew about it were Salfgar the Tailor, Darzûn’s cousin, and Dor his aunt. Thorin didn’t want any complaints or questioning as to whether this was necessary. It was to him, and that’s what mattered. Vaenomar was ever so important to him and Darzûn was glad to have a posting. Thorin had jealous suspicions that the other’s eagerness was spurred on by the prospect of eyeing the pretty creature in question. But, as was now a known fact to all the Dwarves, male most importantly, Vaenomar was ‘crown property’. She was the king’s woman and all respected that.
   “Mahal take me!” Thorin chided himself with a fist slammed to the wall. Thinking about her only made the gaping hole caused by her absence hurt worse. He was hungry for more than just food, but the more substantial need roared louder. They would travel light so as to get there quickly. Hopefully the likelihood of a goblin attack was much lessened by the severe thrashing they’d given the last gang. Out of habit he went to his weapon rack left of the hearth. His long-handed, single-face axe was not there. With many other thoughts on his mind he stood for a moment just looking. Of course it wasn’t there. Vaenomar had it. Then shaking his head frustrated, he belted his sword over his shoulder, took up the straps of the heavy Oakenshield and tucked a dagger and a small hatchet in his hip belt.
  Buckling the silver clasps of his cape across his chest, he walked down the stairs to the Main Hall. On looking up he was greeted by his company: Gorlath, Drisgund, Mirkal, and-
“Branbur? What are you going here, Greymane?”
 The old smith was fully armoured and armed in an impressive suit of a light, traveller’s mail hauberk with two greatswords crossed on his back. “Din’t ye worry yourself, lad. I’ll be no burden to the company. I can carry me own weight well enough.”
“Branbur! That’s not my concern in the least. But- your eyes-“
 “They can see my sword and I can- sure as I’m a Dwarf- still hear. So my question is- will ye have me or won’t you?”
 Thorin grinned broadly, “Aye. Wouldn’t do to turn down a friend of my father’s father, eh? An extra blade is always welcome.”

   As the company of five walked, Gorlath leading at Thorin’s request by several paces at least, Thorin conversed with Branbur, a luxury neither had shared for quite a long time.
 “I know very well how far you went in disobeying my orders, son of Finbur, but I also won’t lie and say I’m not glad.”
 “My lord? I’m sure I’ve no idea what you’re getting at, eh.” Branbur held back a smile and tried to look surprised.
 Thorin grunted, “No one fools me. Not only have you encouraged her to be feisty, but you’ve given her the tools and skill to be dangerous. She’s not an innocent, tender girl anymore. But a woman not to be trifled with…and with too much beauty for her own good…” 

“Aye my lad, if you mean because she’s caught your lusty eye, then right you are. But she’s always been dangerous, lad. You know it, but she didn’t. And now she does,” he winked, looking very pleased with himself. “No good-for-nothing sot will ever try to take advantage of that one. No, not her. At least without losing some precious gems!”

 At the younger Dwarf’s offended gesture Branbur only chuckled louder.
“Did you just call me a good-for-nothing sot?!” Thorin asked, but with humour in his tone.
  “You tell me.”
Thorin stroked his beard, “Well, if that was a very blunt hint at telling me not to try anything with her, you’re wasting your breath…”
  Branbur looked at his king surprised, but said nothing.
Thorin continued, “Because I respect her more than myself, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I know you want me to break down and start choking out some flowery poetry like a damned Elf-” he gave the relieved Branbur a shove with his shoulder, “But I won’t. I hope she’s safe and that your lessons pay off…and that’s that.” He ended rather hastily, with a curt sniff.
  “Aye, lad. Talking about the young thing makes even this old codger get misty eyed. Better stop while we’re still men, eh?”
 Thorin snorted and smirked under the silvering hairs of his ebony moustache.

  After a bout of silence filled only with scattering pebbles and the heavy clump of armoured boots, Thorin said to Branbur, “Although I think it’s not a very sensible idea, I am glad you decided to come along. It’s been too long since we’ve travelled together… At least it feels long.”
  Branbur breathed in the crisp mountain air and looked up into the windswept clouds.
“That it has been, lad. The eyes have only gotten worse the last ten years. And I started to miss the adventuring life the day I realized I couldn’t see in the dark anymore.”
Thorin’s brow creased, “Why? Why do you think can’t see well?”
  Branbur shrugged, “Perhaps the forge smoke…been around that all my life. Working late in bad light. Hard to say.”
 It was very unusual for Dwarves to go blind or have bad eyes, especially in the dark.
“Well, judging by the excellent weapons you still manage to make, eyesight is overrated.” Thorin smiled, patting his old friend on the back. “Anyways, you obviously had no trouble training Vaenomar.”
 “I don’t think anyone would have trouble training her!” laughed Branbur and nudged the other in the ribs. “Your woman…” he sighed, “Ai, and you’ve been her man for longer than either of you know.”
  Thorin averted his gaze and chewed his tongue awkwardly.
“I know you meant well carving your royal initials in her back, but it was quite unnecessary. She’s been yours since you named her.”
  The broad shoulders of the king fell back a bit and he breathed in deeply, “I didn’t mean well, Branbur. There’s no justifying what I did to her. It was cruel…” His face was creased with lines of pain and regret, the former a feeling he experienced often, the latter being the opposite.
 “Ah, now, Thorin Oakenshield. You’re a jealous Dwarf, what can you do? Both of you are so damn shy about your feelings its not a wonder misunderstandings come in a plethora. I’m surprised now, that you’re not harping at me as to how I know she’s got a tattoo on her back, eh?”
  Thorin’s lip twisted upward and he rolled his eyes, “I didn’t want to insult you- not that I didn’t think of it.”
 Branbur slapped his thigh, “Ai! See? Well, lad- she told me, after I saw the stain. But it matters not. Was plenty long ago. I’m just glad you two got it over with and shared some tongue.”
Thorin stopped in his tracks and faced the other. The young, hot fire that burned in his eyes a hundred years ago now flared again.
  “Don’t ask how I know that ’cause I won’t be tellin’ ye.”
“You are bold, Greymane,” the young-again Thorin said as Branbur chuckled away. “I guess I have to let it go, though. How did my father ever put up with comments like that?”
 “Oh he didn’t, lad,” Branbur winked, “Why d’ye think I lived in Dale?”
Thorin couldn’t help but smile, his mood cooling and returning to the present, less hot headed Dwarf-king.
  There was a pause which was broken a moment later by Thorin. “Since I see you’ve been talking with the Queen of Gossip, Bridi-“
 “I’d say that title belongs to Kjar,” put in Branbur with a little bow.
Thorin snorted, “Bridi knows more about my town than I do- and probably more about me, you and Vaenomar than any of us. Anyhow, it’s obvious you two were talking. Did she mention anything about my cousin, Dáin? We’re past due for word from him. If it’s my fault in the matter I don’t want him to get angry. His temper is worse than mine.”
 With a cough Branbur raised his eyebrows in disagreement, but refrained from commenting. “Ai, right you are. He usually comes before the first frost. Though she certainly said nothing to me, if I were you I’d ask the lovely Flamebraid about it. The messenger lad seemed to be quite often on his way to the Halls, if I may say so. You didn’t hear it from me, though.”
Thorin nodded slowly, with suspicions rampant in his imagination. Bridi was always up to something. It was only a matter of who it concerned this time.

   The rest of that day was filled with off and on talking between Thorin and the others, mostly Branbur, and it seemed to pass rather quickly. Walking all day long was definitely considered a drudgery, especially doing it so often. Thorin had to remind himself why they didn’t use ponies. Namely it was hard enough feeding his own people, and living so far up in the mountains horse food wasn’t exactly plentiful. And also, most Dwarves didn’t trust them, much like a great many other things and folk.
 As the son of kings, Thorin found this to be a ridiculous suspicion concerning horses, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. He remembered the days of racing his little sister Dìs to the Dale and back to the Dwarf kingdom gates- and always losing because he was heavier. He never minded though. Dìs was his favourite and he loved to spoil her, his baby sister. A sad smile changed his features, and he estimated how old she was now. Still young to him. But she was married and had two precious sons. Thorin missed them all so dearly. When would he see them next? Perhaps someday they could meet halfway somewhere. And Vaenomar could come and finally he could show her to his sister. If anyone would approve whole-heartedly it would be Dìs. She always did. She’d done her best not to be upset at his decision to leave Ered Luin. And he’d even taken her good friend, Bridi, away. Last time brother and sister had spoken or written each other had been just less than a year. And the reply he received was from their cousin, Balin, who ever kept a careful eye on his liege-lord’s family. Dìs had burnt her hands in the smithy, grabbed the tongs which had been sitting in the fire, or so Balin’s tale went. Thorin laughed quietly to himself. Aye, that was Dìs alright. She could wield a blade plenty well, but not make one to save her life. Nor could she cook, much like their mother.

  Ach! Thinking of the past made the present more difficult. His family, their home, and their real home that was stolen. A family…of his own. A thought that rarely crossed his mind.
His mother or father, and definitely grandfather, would never have accepted Vaenomar into the line of Durin. But they were gone, like snow when the Sun awakes, and he was the line. Someday these lands would be safe and prosperous. More of his people would come to live here. It was closer to home than the Blue Mountains. At least what he considered home. He and Vaenomar would rule, Dìs would love her…and the boys, too. Everyone would have to, eventually. She was perfect…even her imperfections made her better. Irresistible, charming, strong, powerful and loyal and so precious to him. To Thrór or the Arkenstone had been ‘the King’s Jewel’, but Thorin’s was of flesh and blood. Lightning encompassed in sapphire eyes, glowing alabaster skin, lips like blood-rubies, and a body hewn from the living rock of Mahal. Beauty according to a Dwarf.
  By his father’s beard, even Dáin couldn’t help but fall for her. The loud-mouthed, bossy, patronizing son of a goat, that was his cousin. They never had gotten along incredibly well, but both had a mutual, brotherly respect for the other. At least until the mead began to flow. In spite of it all, Thorin was itching to ‘show off’ Vaenomar to his cousin from the Iron Hills. There wasn’t a chance Dáin wouldn’t be jealous and it was the next best thing to talking down to him from Thorin’s rightful throne in Erebor’s Halls.
  “Bridi…” though Thorin stroking his beard, “I bet she had something to do with it.” Last time Dáin visited, just a few weeks before the Vaenomar’s appearance, he had been making eyes and unveiled advances at Bridi. Thorin hadn’t been sure if she minded or not; women were so damn difficult to read in such matters. But he had done his best to halt his cousin’s sniffing around his councillor. The king’s women were to remain as such, even if they were just good friends.
   “That’s the face your father always got before he made some inarguable statement of sorts. Did you come to a conclusion?”
 Thorin almost jumped when Branbur addressed him. And almost again as they were passed opposite on the road by an ageing farmer and his son with an ox-drawn cart. It had been a while since he’d seen Manfolk and definitely none on the road until now. The sun was already slipping beneath the horizon, casting rays of orange and gold into the violet and indigo cloud cover. They were almost there.
  That was why Branbur had addressed him in Common Speech, rather than Khuzdul. “We’re almost there, “he encouraged his companions. And then to his friend, “Nothing very important. Except- I think you’re right about Bridi.”
 “Ai, that I am. That one’s a vixen, she is. Handsome girl, but always up to some justifiable trouble, you mark my words. Just like her mother…”
Thorin was puzzled, “You knew Bridi’s mother?! I didn’t even know her father and he lived in Erebor.”
 Branbur nodded, reimmersing himself in nostalgia, “Aye her father was a rover. Stopped in my shop in Dale a few times, years upon years ago. But her mother was from the Iron Hills. A favourite of the Prince’s, she was. Well, king. But that’s all dust now. She moved to Erebor and got married. That was after her sister died in battle with orcs,” he almost choked on these words and it caught Thorin’s attention.
  “Did you know Bridi’s mother well, then?”
Branbur shook his head.
 The other looked away and thought for a moment with furrowed brow. “Branbur- is Bridi Reykin’s niece?”
The swordmaster gave a sad laugh, “Aye, something like that.”
 “Why did you never tell me? Or her?”
“It makes no difference, lad,” Branbur shrugged, “We weren’t married.”
 “No, but you’re the closest thing she has to a relative. You had no one left alive after we lost our home…”
 “Best not to burden younger folks with a past that’s not their’s, lad. Especially when they’ve got one of their own,” he added, seeing Thorin’s thoughts immediately turn to the woman he loved.  “Little Vaen doesn’t have a past. At least not one she remembers. You’re helping her make it now”, Branbur smiled and tried to change the subject.
 “I wish you’d tell Bridi. It might cheer her up a bit, Bran,” Thorin said softly after a moment.
“We’ll see. It might make her love for us males even less. What with controlling fathers and all that.”
 Thorin wasn’t convinced, “I think you’re afraid of her.”
“What?” Branbur laughed incredulously.
 “I mean, afraid of seeing a little bit of Reykin again.” Thorin seemed very sure of himself.
“No, no, lad. You might have a smidgen of truth in some aspects concerning the Flamebraid, but believe me when I tell you- the time when I see my Reykin again can not come any faster. You’ll know what I feel like someday, lad. Just you wait.”
 And with these confusing, prophetic words on his mind Thorin led his company within the wooden-stake gate and wall of Old Estenna.

  “My lord,” muttered the watchguard politely as the Dwarf-king passed by. Thorin acknowledged him with a nod.
 As they tramped through the wide streets an older matron waved in greeting just before she went inside from the frosty night.
Lights in a few homes went out finally, as it was quite a late hour. The newcomers had no trouble finding their way to the frequented inn, The Spread Eagle.
 Thorin entered the warm tavern first, followed by the other four. All were heartily welcomed by the patroness of about forty-five who never was deaf to gruff charm, or blind to the good looks of Thorin. But neither was the barmaid, who happened to be her teenaged and rebellious daughter.
 “Lord Thorin and friends! Welcome, please come and sit yourselves. I’ll have something hot for you right away,” piped the woman named Mairi excitedly and hurried over to ready a place for them.
 Branbur grinned at Thorin, “Your name opens doors with the fairer folk, I see. I might have to inform the lass-“
“Oh no you don’t!” Thorin growled, turning a medium shade of crimson.

 “Mother? Is that who I think it is?” the keen ears of ‘who she thought it was’ heard from a very young voice.
“Just bring the ale, dear, and please don’t flirt!” answered the older woman scolding.

   Unfortunately in this instance, Thorin was the only Dwarf with a taste for tall females. But now he was taken and there was no one to pass the ‘love’ on to. The normal attentions payed him by these doting individuals would only be more uncomfortable in front of the men who knew his other life, in other words: Vaenomar. And Branbur was here and would make fun all night long if he wasn’t careful. The smith was seated across from him and as soon as the youthful barmaid entered the room, quite dressed the part, he raised his teasing eyebrows and his face indicated extreme questioning.
“Here we go…” thought Thorin.
  After Mairi’s daughter, Anya, had deposited the beverages on the table, with no small amount of lash fluttering, eye making and dimpled smiles at the company’s leader, she left in a pouty huff at her mother’s bidding. The hue of red that tinged Thorin’s cheeks was of a much deeper quality now. Branbur kicked his boot under the table as he found it nigh impossible to catch Thorin’s eye.
 Thorin sniffed distastefully, as he did when being forced to give an explanation, and whispered in a hiss, “It’s all her, you old fool! I never gave her any ideas or encouragement. She’s much, much, much, too young!”
 Branbur’s jaw tilted sideways as if to say, ‘Oh really?’ “And the mother?” he grinned.
Thorin looked into his mug and grumbled, “It was a long time ago,” and proceeded to gulp down the steaming spiced ale.

   As they filled their aching bellies with good, hot foot not a one of them could forget the others back home. There was some food back in the halls, yes, but not much and it was being carefully rationed until they returned. And the pretty women who waited on the Dwarves couldn’t help but notice the change in the manner of the leader, the one called Thorin. His thoughts seemed far away, and his manner, polite as usual, but more reserved and certainly less…flirtatious.

 “He’s probably found himself a girl, a proper girl, with a wee beard and a big bosom and everything. So don’t bother him Anya. He’s much too old for you anyhow.”
“But mum!”
 “No more on the subject. Let him alone. Now off you go and get to sleep. It’s too late already.”
With a purposefully loud sigh the young girl walked heavily up the stairs to her room above the kitchen.
 Mairi finished cleaning up the leftover food and brought another round of ale to her late night patrons.
 One more look at Thorin’s calming grey eyes confirmed her suspicions. She wasn’t jealous and didn’t feel betrayed. She had been happy once, with her husband- she hoped he would be too, someday.
  “Can I get you anything else, my lord?” she addressed the Dwarf as his gaze remained fixed on thin air and eyes seemed to glaze over in deep thought. He didn’t answer so Branbur put it, “Don’t mind him, my dear. He’s probably asleep with his eyes open.”
She smiled and Thorin, inhaling rapidly through his nostrils, shook off his stupor.
“Can I show you all to the largest guest room? Fine, good sized cots have been prepared for you all, my masters.”
  “Thank you, dear, you’re too good to us,” Branbur patted her hand kindly and rose, followed by the other, worn out three and eventually Thorin. She led the way with a small candelabra to the second floor, the boards creaking beneath their feet, and pushed open a door to a dimly lit room with five beds. She bade them goodnight quietly and turned to leave. But she was caught by Thorin, who had stayed out in the dark hall.
 Her heart leapt at his touch, but she told herself things were different. His rough, rumble of a voice still sent chills down her spine.
 “Mairi, thank you for everything.” He pressed several cold, heavy coins into her palm. “Are you doing well?” he asked with real caring.
 “Yes, quite well, thank you for asking.”
He nodded.
  Out of respect for whoever ‘she’ was, Mairi kept herself from melting into his grasp like times before.
 Feeling the rigidity of her posture he let go. There was a quiet pause in which neither were willing to speak.
 Then she broke it, but only with a whisper, “Who is she?”
Thorin looked up, surprised, but more relieved. “Am I that easy to read?”
 She brushed a coarse lock out of his face, “Yes.”
“She’s my beautiful weapon…and she breathed life into my corpse.”
   Mairi actually felt glad. There was always something about this particular Dwarf that she had been attracted to, but also something that saddened her. He seemed so alone, so bogged down by troubles, and the past- but now he was different. If only a little.
  “I am happy for you then, my lord. Be well and may she ever bring you joy.”
The stony heart of the king was touched and in honour of she who he loved, embraced Mairi.

   With a full belly, Branbur drifted off to sleep to the loud chorus of Dwarven snoring, and he too, felt happy. His own heart rejoiced to see his two favourite individuals on this good earth happy…and in love. Precious. A sentiment often rare among his people, but one so important in his own history. He could see his king’s chest rise and fall steadily as he rested, eyes fixed on the dark shapes of the ceiling above. Branbur had lost his own loved ones and friends long ago, or had outlived them. Vaenomar was like a daughter and a darling protegé. Vaenomar and the king’s grandson…no…the king. How…wonderfully…perf…ect…” The old smith’s mouth moved slowly as he fell fast asleep in the mid watches of the night.

   Peeping through the scattered, dark clouds were the winter stars forming the many designs the Elves called constellations.
  Back in time, when Elves of the Greenwood and his folk actually got along, Thorin remembered watching an Elf father showing his little son with a shock of dark hair, same colour as his own, to connect certain stars to form a great warrior. Thorin could still find it to this day.
 Perhaps Vaenomar could see it too, through those dark, shadowy trees she was prancing about under, happy as a young deer, or so he hoped.
  If Vaenomar’s forest proved to be safe from Elves, or at least they kept to themselves in future, and the goblin raids seemed to be thinning out since the last three or four cold seasons- just maybe Dìs and others would join them here in the Grey Mountains. Azaghâl’s fortress was bigger and grander than the quiet, rather stagnant city in Ered Luin. It was too warm there, also. Many Dwarves would be willing to make they journey if he called, he was sure, even if Dìs would not. But he wanted her boys to grow up in a hall befitting their lineage.
 His chest rose high and fell in a sighing exhale. They were growing up. The older was already sprouting a beard, even if it was a pathetic one. He smiled and stretched his arms behind his head.
  Vaenomar…he thought. He’d never imagined what a half-Dwarf child would look like… He laughed internally, then suddenly felt sad. He would never have a child…an heir. If ever he got back his kingdom to have an heir for. That damned Tharkûn had to come and rekindle that false hope in his heart that this might actually come to pass.
“Someday when my people join me and we build up strength… Someday.”

  Whenever he was away he could not sleep. His tireless eyes rarely closed. He dreamt, but hardly ever slept. His ears kept alert, but the town was silent. Nothing stirred, not even the wind. All seemed so peaceful. He forced his eyes shut. “Rest now, Thorin,” encouraged the tender, sensuous voice of his Arkenstone. He could see her beautiful face, and wanted to bite into her scarlet lips, stroke her cheeks and hold her strong body in his arms. But she pushed away from him. “Don’t sleep!” her mouth formed the words and her phantom turned then twisted and was consumed by a blinding puff of flame that made Thorin jerk awake.
  Always that accursed dragon would haunt his dreams! Ever would he be chased by this dread. He breathed deeply and exhaled, frustrated. There was no chance of sleep.
Now he could even see a faint red glow on the ceiling from the fiery dream. It flickered and seemed to glow brighter…and more real. He blinked. It was still there. Thorin sat up and looked out the window. In the near distance, just outside the town walls was torchlight, and lots of it. It ringed the city, at least in his view. Still unsure whether it was a hallucination, Thorin shook himself, holding his breath. What was it?

    A cry broke the still night, “To arms! To arms! We’re under attack!!”

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 24 ~Home Is Behind~

Chapter 24
~Home is Behind~

   “You can’t just…up and leave! No one does that! It’s- it’s- gah!”

 Tairiel collapsed on her bed exasperated. After closing her eyes for a moment and breathing deeply in an attempt to calm herself, she called out, “Lanya!”
  A few moments later her short, petite maid slipped quietly in the door, knowing full well by the tone of her young mistress that something was amiss. “My lady?” she piped softly, hoping not to startle the other, who was lying very flat in her cushions.
  Tairiel sat straight up, instead startling Lanya.
“Where is the prince?” she demanded. Something was clasped tight in her hand.
 “I believe he was walking about the city. Should I send for him as soon as he returns?
Tairiel stopped herself from saying, “No! Now!” and instead nodded, “As soon as he gets back… please.”
  As Lanya left the room, the heavy curtains swirling elegantly behind, Tairiel let out an immense sigh of disappointment and allowed her body to flop back onto the bed. She lay very still for almost a half hour, so still she seemed to be in a very deep sleep. But her mind was wide awake, every sense tuned into its utmost sharpness. The squeak of a wooden beam, rustle of a drape, a whisper of a male voice. She was so used to having her every whim fulfilled it was quite something to be hosting the Prince of the Greenwood, although there had been no whims of his to answer yet. She didn’t mind it at all, though. Well, until Vilenas’ note had arrived. She may have been a spoiled nobleman’s daughter, but she was always fiercely protective of and loyal to her own. The slightest breeze wafted over her form, a draft from air moving around the house.
She sat up and smoothed her comfortable day gown.
  The next moment soft, fluid voices hummed a level down and she stood up.
There was a knock on the lintel which hadn’t finished before she answered curtly, “Come in.”
 Lanya opened the door and showed the impeccable Woodland Prince in.
Smiling, as charming and polite as ever, he took Tairiel’s hand and kissed it, “My lady, I’m sorry I kept you waiting. If I’d known-“
  Tairiel stopped him, “It’s not your fault at all, my lord. Thank you for coming at all.”
“My pleasure,” he replied earnestly.
   There was a brief pause as Tairiel listened to the maid’s footsteps dying away down a few short flights of stairs. She then produced a sweaty, crumpled piece of parchment and held it out to him with a sort of feverish nervousness. “Why? Why is he gone?”
 The prince’s distinct, dark brows lowered and he searched the floor, “He?” he said confused after a moment. “I’m afraid I have no idea-“
 He halted as she handed him the note.
“Ëaròn,” she filled in the missing name hastily. “He’s gone. You must know why.” Her soft grey eyes searched his face for answers.
His expression grew rather sad, but he nodded.
  “I do not know why, my lady, but I may be able to offer something in terms of…speculation? However I hope I do not cause offense by asking why you’d like to know?”
Tairiel blushed profusely and gave a polite, little cough, “Well, I am a good friend…we’re good friends- or…having been. I don’t know why he’d leave without telling me-” Her face darkened and her tone lost confidence, “Unless…oh no. Oh dear…” she gulped. Her inner thoughts were keeping the prince waiting, though he showed no sign of impatience. She straightened up and regaining her calm, or what was left of it, assured him, “Please believe me, then, when I say I ask out of concern for a very dear friend.”
  “I never doubted that was the case, my lady-” said the prince sweetly as he led her to a seat nearby, “I just needed the excuse to disclose the secret.”
  “A secret?” Tairiel’s eyes widened girlishly.
The prince shrugged, “Sort of. I doubt he’d mind much if you knew, though. Unless I see more than exists…” he added under his breath.
  How uncharacteristic of a prince, thought Tairiel to herself as she watched her handsome guest’s every move, but then he seemed to have picked up on some deeper feeling than just friendly interest in Ëaròn.
  “As you may know Ëaròn Lorámie was the son of Halläcar Mórefalma. Halläcar- who resided in Taurëmith, I believe, for many decades until quite recently- was once a good friend of my father’s. They fought many battles together and were like brothers.”
  He knew the story very well, as Ëaròn was not many centuries younger than himself, but the prince feigned ignorance of the incidents of Halläcar’s departure from the Greenwood and the reason for the anger between the two. Those things were for Ëaròn to reveal on his own time.
  “As I didn’t know Ëaròn personally, I’m not sure who his mother was. His father was a well-traveled man, but I’m afraid she either died very early or maybe went West for neither ever spoke of her to my father. When Halläcar returned to make amends with my father, King Thranduil, it was a time of great merriment and celebration. I only wish his son could have been there. But now I see fate had willed it otherwise. Ever since I remember Mórefalma, he was as strong as an oak and formidable as the great tide of Ulmo. They rode out together, my father and he, far North of the Greenwood to ambush a slumbering tribe of orc-men, said to hail from Gundabad. None of the enemy survived…but at least three of our warriors were badly wounded and Halläcar Mórefalma had fought his last battle. All lamented his passing, but my father says…he chose to pass on. That he wanted to die.”

   A searing drop fell from Tairiel’s cheek to the soft wood floor. The prince lightly touched her cheek then whispered, “Some say it was to join his love…”
  Her heart thumped in a little burst of pain: Ëaròn! He had seen her with the prince, the same night he lost his father! Trying not to flatter herself too much, the distressed Elf-maiden weighed her possibilities. All their conversations, however few, the looks she’d caught him giving her, the open-hearted kindness he’d always shown her… There was no denying it. The lump in her throat grew. He was in love with her.

  The prince observed with good-natured interest as Tairiel’s face debated the same question from her own side.
  She sniffed and wiped her eyes quickly, then took a hard, decisive gulp. Apparently she’d made up her mind about something.
 Tairiel seized his hand in both of hers, “Thank you, my lord. So very much.” She got up and paced tensely across the room, her mind in a far away place.
  Sensing the brewing of a plan in the air the prince sat patiently and as Tairiel drummed her long fingers on the window frame. But the keenest bowman and hunter in Middle Earth had no trouble detecting the stealthy, silent approach of a figure outside the room. He waited and said nothing at first. Perhaps it was just an overly sensitive house servant passing by on the way to a different room. As a prince of a large, ancient court of long-lived noble houses, he was all too aware, however, of the possibility of intrigue and spying, even among friends. Taurëmith may be much smaller than his father’s kingdom, but Tairiel’s family was one with rank and thus his suspicions were aroused. Even more so as the person outside the room halted and didn’t move on. The prince’s perfect form was frozen and silent on the edge of his chair. One swift glance and he knew Tairiel sensed the other’s presence. Maybe he was blowing things out of proportion. He sighed and relaxed his shoulders. She was so beautiful, sharing many like features and characteristics with the woman he’d left at home a few weeks earlier. Even their names were incredibly similar. His father didn’t know about her, neither did he need to. He shifted a little on the seat; the stillness must seem a bit odd to the figure outside, he thought. Exhaling peacefully out of flared nostrils he mused on Tairiel’s silence. The young man, whose father’s death he had so recently announced to him, obviously meant more to her than just a friend. But she was loathe to admit it. Maybe because of her father. He flexed his jaw; he knew the feeling.
   She took in a quick breath and suddenly turned around. “My lord, Prince Le-” she stopped surprised as he cut her off with a raised hand.
“The forest does look incredible in this season, does it not?” he smiled widely, his thick brows meaningfully raised. Tairiel’s mouth opened in confusion, but he kept nodding as he rose and silently approached the doorway.
  “Either he’s mad or playing a prank on me,” she thought, but continued aloud slowly to humour him, “Yes…the trees are…lovely…as usual…?”
 Then to her shock the prince threw open the solid curtains and stood to his full, impressive height in the opening, his back to her.
 “My good sir, you should’ve knocked if you needed something. I’m sure Lady Tairiel wouldn’t mind if you came in for a moment,” he said in a lordly, patronizing tone.
  As the prince didn’t allow for refusal the subtle intruder was ushered in against his will, head bent severely low and hands trembling as they knit together. On beholding him, Tairiel’s face flushed a furious scarlet and her jaw dropped open to shout an angry rebuke, but nothing came out. No, not in front of the prince.
  “Silfdas!” her voice was menacingly soft and shook with calm anger, “I wonder what my father could possibly want to know from this conversation. I trust you need nothing further.”
   He couldn’t look at her, but he felt those eyes like a rain of barbed arrows covering his body and boring holes in his clothing. He shook his head back and forth and inched towards the doorway. Finally the prince released his grip on his shoulder and he slunk backwards out of the door, leaving his love and his shame behind him.

   Seeing her that angry, and at him, was unbearable, despite how lovely she looked when her colour rose. If only she knew his feelings. He could not tell her though, not yet. Lord Arendial would dispose of him immediately if ever he found out. She would marry the prince anyways and all his and Belrien’s work would be for naught. Although…look what happened to the bearded blacksmith, Ëaròn. Silfdas didn’t know if that was just fate or Belrien had actually managed it all. Well, there really was no more he could do. And anything was better than that big, oaf of an Elf having her. Almost anything.
 For all his misgivings he knew he had to trust Belrien, and she practically exuded confidence. Someday Tairiel would understand as he lovingly explained all the hardships he had endured in order to be with her. The reward was worth all the suffering, he thought as he pictured the woman he loved in all her radiant beauty.

~~~~~~~~~

   That same woman stood fuming, her temper ablaze and smooth cheeks flushed, in front of her father. “Spying on me?! With the prince? Father, how could you?!”

 “Tairiel- wait one moment!” Arendial ordered, as he set down his pen and rose majestically to face his daughter. “I’d very much like to know what you accuse me of, my dear!”
Indignantly Tairiel crossed her arms and huffed, “Oh father, spare me. I know Silfdas is your little pet spy and you like to keep an eye on me, yes, yes, but- why? Why then? In front of the prince of the Greenwood?”
  Arendial cleared his throat awkwardly, and looked down as he planned his next words.
She waited impatiently for his answer, her temper all but subsiding.

  “My dear,” he said at last, humbling his noble visage, “I see I have to admit…I do like to keep an eye on you, but only for your sake. Please- you must try to understand. Ever since your mother left… I’m not a good father, I know this, but I…I can’t let anything happen to you again…”
Tairiel’s heart melted like ice over a fire. “O atto,” she wrapped her arms around his neck, ” You’re a wonderful father!”
  He closed his eyes and pressed her to him in a rare embrace.
“But you don’t need to keep watch on me. Everything I do is by my own choice and I have no qualms with accepting the consequences of my own actions. Please- don’t spy on me anymore. You really don’t need to worry about me.”
  Arendial sighed and stroked his child’s long tresses, “I give you my word that I won’t. You are right, and I shall do my best not to worry. But I want you to know- I had no idea you were talking to the prince. Silfdas was definitely not obeying any order from me by intruding on you two and your privacy. If there’s anyone on this good earth besides myself that I would trust you alone with it would be the prince, and without hesitation. I have no reason, believe me, to want to interrupt or, even less, spy on you with him.”
  Tairiel breathed in slowly and nodded, “I believe you,” she gave a little half smile and he kissed her forehead.
  If Arendial was an adept schemer, his daughter was taking after him twofold.
“Well in that case, atto, I’m sure you won’t mind me traveling with only the prince and his escort. No need to send anyone else all the way to King Thranduil’s forest, hm?”
  Arendial opened his mouth to protest, but realized he’d fallen into his own net. He sighed again and sat down. “Is that your wish, then? To go alone to the Greenwood?”
 “Hardly alone, father.”
He shrugged, “Even if the prince is more protection than an entire battalion of warriors-“
 “Not that I need protection, father, but if saying it makes you feel better about it all…”
“It does, my love. I’m sure you’ll be fine. And I am very glad you agreed to go with him. I think you’ll enjoy yourself immensely.”
She smiled a bit distractedly, “Yes, me too.”

  He eyed her face, on which lay a wistful look; something was not quite right, but he was never sure when to ask. He knew spying on his own daughter wasn’t the right way to go about keeping an eye on her, but even when his wife had been there Tairiel had been left to do what she pleased. Arendial wasn’t faced with the duties of being a watchful father until somewhat recently, at least in proportion to his many years.
  “What is it my dear? Something is troubling you.”
She seemed miles away and looked up with consternation on her features. “Where did Ëaròn Halläcarion go?”
 Obviously thrown off by this turn of conversation Arendial hesitated to answer, “Well, dear, I heard he joined the woodland forces.”
“Why?” came her blunt response.
  Arendial stammered and finally shrugged, “I don’t know, dear. Perhaps- he wanted to.”
That seemed like the simplest and most obvious answer.
  After a brief moment of thoughtful silence Tairiel’s face brightened and her words evoked a sigh of relief from her father, “If it’s alright could I take some coin and acquire some new gowns when I arrive at the palace. I’d love to see the Greenwood fashion for the winter months.”
  “Oh yes! Of course,” Arendial got up, overjoyed at this kind of request, and immediately retrieved a couple of silken purses from a dresser. “Take anything you need and please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you get ready.”
  “Thank you,” she said and kissed his cheek before leaving the room to ready herself for her adventure.

     For an adventure is what it would be. Now she just had to get the prince to go along with it all, and judging by his obliging and highly untraditional manner this would be the easiest part of the ordeal. And she would be rid of that snooping, meddling Silfdas! Never had she felt right about her father’s advisor, servant…whatever he was. He’d always given her the wrong feeling. Was it the way he looked at her? His lack of care for his garb? Or the weak, simpering manner that made her hair stand on end.
  Just the opposite of Ëaròn, she caught herself thinking. Now that wouldn’t do at all. She didn’t know the smith well enough, and even if she did find herself falling for that dashing, quiet Elf didn’t mean he would or ever did feel that way about her. That morning it had all seemed so clear, but she began to second guess herself as she thought constantly on the matter. She wrapped a long strand of wavy golden hair in between her fingers and her pace was uneven as she made for the training barracks.
   Taurëmith was lovely and peaceful, but she hadn’t left it since the ‘Dwarf-incident’ over a year ago. She was itching to get out and while in the company of the prince her father could rest  easy. Nearing the open doorway of the barracks, she heard the sound of quick footwork and the swoosh of a single blade sliced the air. She stepped lightly in the calm shade of the building, careful not to disturb the concentration of the lone swordsman. Peeking around the corner into the great, circular room of training she saw, sure enough, Vilenas. Lithe and agile as a cat, he whirled the long blade around his nimble body in combat with enemies only he could see. His eyes were closed and his breath steady. Long white locks of hair gracefully moved in his wake, mimicked by his flowing robe of silver-green.
   Tairiel loved her father, but she couldn’t help but think how different her life might’ve been if she’d had this seasoned warrior for a father instead.
Vilenas was ancient, though like all of his people didn’t look it, and was revered by all. None even knew how dangerous he was in real battle as everyone here was too young to ever have fought along side him. He was so old he even had a beard, a small one, the soft, white whiskers curled neatly under his chin and framed his long, proud features to perfection.
Ëaròn looked like he could grow a beard, despite his attempts to hide it; she wondered how. Ever her thoughts returned to him. She sighed, louder than she meant to. It wouldn’t do at all to wish for a different father and now she couldn’t get Ëaròn out of her mind.
  Poor Arendial, he wouldn’t understand now, but he’d have to some day.

 Vilenas laid his sword on a rack nearby and approached Tairiel with a kind smile. He’d known she was there, but sensed she wasn’t quite ready to talk- until she sighed.
Mellonen meldenya, you received my message?”

 She thanked him for his trouble, “I only hope he is happy there. You knew Alcarín, the captain? What was he like?”
 Vilenas stroked his chin and looked thoughtfully about the room, “He is a brilliant warrior and bowman. He is very clever, but also wise and knows well how to lead. Some may consider his leadership harsh, but our borders are safe. Just as safe as when Lady Belrien and Lady Ithil kept a watch, and that’s saying quite a lot.”
  “Is it dangerous, then?” Tairiel asked, “The forest.”
“It can be, of course, anywhere can be dangerous. But that danger is lessened by skill and knowledge. So you shouldn’t have much to worry about.”
 His hand slipped off her shoulders, leaving her blushing and trembling, and walked over to a weapons chest with a broad grin.
 Did he know? Could he read her mind? What would he say? Her worries were cut short as he beckoned for her to join him. She held her breath, her stomach muscles clenched nervously.
  “Of course you can choose anything from my armory, my lady, but I thought I might suggest two of the finest blades.” He held out a pair of sharpened swords, both with newly-wrapped grips, one bearing a shorter hilt and blade and the other with a curved cross-guard and a long hilt.
  “You might recognize the craftsmanship; there is no finer make around.”
 “Thank you, Vilenas. It’s an honour,” she said almost trancelike as she scrutinized them delicately. She chose the long, narrow blade, swift and manoeuverable, to fit her combat style.      Gripping it firmly, excitement for her near future tingled in her fingers, then her arms, and down her spine.
   The two Elves’ eyes met and locked for a moment. The young and the old, the eager and the wise.
  “Where ever fate takes you, Tairiel, may the Valar be at your side and Eru guide your feet and hands. I give you my blessing. Now go and be safe. Find love and life and keep the shadow ever beneath your feet.”
Words could not suffice and so the tearfully grateful Tairiel fell into his arms and rest her head on her mentor’s chest. “Don’t let my father worry for me,” she whispered, stifling the lump in her throat.
 “He loves you; we all do. But you need to make your own life and choices. Many love you in other ways as well. That also is your decision.” He held her a short length from his chest, “Now go with my blessing. Alámenë!
 Tairiel nodded, took the scabbard he handed her, and, after kissing the beloved, old master on the cheek, ran out of the barracks.

   The dull thump of footsteps on wood neared the prince’s hideout on a secluded porch outside Arendial’s house-flet. A breeze stirred the silk drapery as he waited in silent solitude for his co-conspirator. The rustling trees whispered to each other and gilt and scarlet leaves spiraled down around him, some resting on the balcony, others plummeting many feet below to their final earthen bed.
  Despite the melancholy purpose which had brought him to Taurëmith, the time spent here had been quite pleasant. He was glad to be going back now; lately it was hard leaving the Greenwood for very long- matters of the heart playing a strong hand in this reasoning. And as a prince he had his duties, to his father and his kingdom. But his rank didn’t keep him from keenly feeling Tairiel’s situation, which was why it was his idea to meet somewhere quiet and undisturbed.

  He turned to see a perky face jut in between the curtains. A glittering row of diamond cut teeth flashed excitedly as Tairiel slipped out onto the porch. “No one’s around, finally,” she whispered. The prince greeted her warmly as she slipped in, the flowing folds in her gauzy, lavender dress playing around her delightful form.
  “I can’t thank you enough for being so kind…and understanding. I hope, my lord, that I don’t presume too much by asking such a favour of you. I just…don’t know anyone else who would help me.”
  With all the charm of a gallant prince, he took her hand and kissed it. Looking into the depths of her eyes he promised, “I will do what ever I can and whatever you want of me, Lady Tairiel. You have but to command it.” And he meant it; those illumined orbs of pure sapphire crowned by his straight, dark brow were as earnest as time itself.

   A floor and a half down, Lord Arendial reclined contentedly on a lounge couch in his study. He saw his daughter’s shadow slip over the window the same way the prince’s had a quarter hour past. He sipped his wine slowly and smiled to himself.
 Those two had bonded like silver and hot steel. It was perfection. And now she was getting ready to accompany him to his father’s palace in Greenwood the Great, meet King Thranduil and enchant, with her beauty and winning personality, the entire court. The prince had obviously been smitten by her as first they met and could only fall more deeply in love as they spent more time together. And she would be out of his meddling reach and that of the blundering Silfdas, who was due for a severe tongue-lashing after what happened this morning. Perhaps he meant well, but it was in poor taste and timing, and for some time Arendial had suspected he had ulterior motives for ‘spying’.
  But all that paled in light of the current event. He swallowed the last of the red liquor and got up. Pulling closed his elegantly embroidered robe, he shut his eyes for a moment to offer a prayer to his wife to watch over their daughter. Time to aid his child prepare for her departure.

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

     As the white midday sun tried to burn through the rolling clouds and the thinly-leafed treetops swayed, the city below was untouched by the coursing winter winds and a few of its inhabitants said farewell to their royal guest and a dear young woman. Four long-legged, agile forest steeds of Túro Lenwë’s stables were to escort them to the edges of the Greenwood as the underbrush of that forest was much too dense for them. Tairiel perched excitedly atop her roan mount as it kept apace competitively with the dark bay mare of the prince. His escort, two well-mannered, solemn warriors of his father’s guard, rode just behind. Tairiel looked behind her once more and could still see her father’s billowing sleeve as he waved to her. She grinned from ear to ear, exhilarated by the change of scene though they were barely out of Taurëmith. As she resumed her forward position in her saddle a dim, sullen shape caught her eye, leaning against a tree in the frosted shade. At first she felt an angry surge of heat rise to her cheeks, but forced her temper to cool. Instead of turning away in distaste she smiled radiantly and waved farewell. This threw Silfdas off-guard, and all he could do was bow and not raise his eyes till she’d passed. Was that false hope beckoning to him out of the darkness? False hope was better than none, some times.

  “Have you ridden much?” the prince asked with a glinting sparkle in his eye.
“Enough,” Tairiel raised her brow and her cheeks dimpled with a grin.
 The prince shrugged nonchalantly, “Then…shall we?”
The next instant the two younger Elves took off in a gallop, throwing dead leaves and twigs up in their wake and leaving the grumbling escort to catch up at their leisure.

 

 

Quenya and Sindarin phrases/words/names: atto: daddy. Mellonen meldenya: greetings my friend (f). Alámenë: go with a blessing. Túro: ruling lord. Mórefalma (Surtitle of Halläcar): Dark Wave. Lorámie (Surtitle of Ëaròn): Winged Night

 ~an old doodle of Taurëmith dwellings~

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The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 23 ~Dusting off the Past~

Chapter 23
~Dusting off the Past~

   The sleek, dun fur rippled like waves of dry grass under her fingers and the creature’s big eyes blinked slowly, its calm hiding the intense alertness of all the young deer’s senses.
A deep, starry blue of the Elf’s eyes bathed the animal in a fond gaze as she reclined peacefully in the shaded, quiet glade, listening to and breathing in the forest aura.

  The doe’s ears perked straight up and its head raised in alarm. The next second a flash of the soft dun was followed by a white tail and the animal was gone.
  The Elf looked up slowly, having sensed the disturbance as well, her petite nostrils flared, taking in the scent. Leaves crunched underfoot from behind a tree adjacent and a drably cloaked, bent figure emerged.

  “My lady Belrien,” the newcomer approached in a groveling manner, “I hope I haven’t disturbed you.”
 The Elf woman loftily turned her head, but motioned for him to seat himself at ease.
“I trust you have news for me, else you would not go to such trouble to find me,” Belrien said in a fluid, low voice, a confusing mixture of a warm zephyr and an icy rain.
  “Yes, my lady, I do.” He straightened his garb in an effort to be more presentable under her haughty eye. “The one-“
  “Why must you always wear such dull colours, Silfdas?” interrupted the lady, in an annoyed tone. “No woman, whoever she is, will want that.”
The other creased his brow and fidgeted. “I’m sorry, my lady. It’s just that I am no lover of bright colour.”
  “Yes, yes, but not all colour has to be bright. Anyways, Silfdas, that is less important. Carry on, please, with your tidings.”
 He bowed his head, a little shot down. “The one they call Halläcarion has left the city.” He paused as Belrien cringed slightly at the mention of that name.
  “And where has he gone?” questioned she stiffly.
“To join the Glade-keepers, or so it has been said.”
  “By whom?”
Silfdas swallowed, “Well…those who know him.”
She raised an eyebrow, “I suppose a spy isn’t a bad thing to have around, is it, Silfdas?”
The thin Elf cast his gaze to the ground, “Eyes and ears about the city is more flattering, my lady…”
  “Oh indeed,” laughed Belrien, “Is that how Arendial calls you when you spy on his daughter for him?”
Silfdas shifted uncomfortably and bit his lip.
  “Oh don’t mind too much, Silfdas. I’m only teasing.” Belrien said patronizingly. “You’ve done well and I think it quite beneficial that our interest coincides in the same person.”
“Well, my lady…” Silfdas began to correct.
  “Yes, your true interest is elsewhere, I know.” She got up and Silfdas followed. Without another word Belrien nodded to him and strode out of the clearing, but Silfdas, jumpy and hesitant, scuttled after her and called, “Lady Belrien?”
  She stopped, concealing the rather peeved look on her face. “What is it?” she said, her tall, slender form towering over him.
“There is one more thing,” he looked down and knit his hands.
Waiting expectantly, she said nothing.
“The prince…he plans on… Tairiel is going with him to the Greenwood.”
 Belrien’s brow lowered and she inhaled thoughtfully, “Indeed.” In her mind this was good news, too. But not to Silfdas. “I see…” she paused, ignoring the other’s simpering, waiting look.
  “Silfdas,” she took his shoulder firmly and looked him straight in his surprised face, “She will be yours. You will just have to trust me. She will go with the prince and the Greenwood will clear her mind of…the Halläcarion, and when she returns- for return she will- you will find her more beautiful, new, and open than ever before. She will be yours.”
Silfdas bit his tongue, his emotions causing him to tremble with apprehension and excitement.
  “Do you trust me?”
“Yes, my lady,” he stammered.
  “Good,” and with that she released him confidently and continued on her way.

     Men…men could be so foolish, so pliable…and yet so terribly upsetting. The only male with whom she had unfailingly gotten along with was her twin brother, Belegren. He was the Captain of the Guard in Taurëmith and they understood and appreciated martial skill better than anyone in the city, save perhaps Vilenas. But all others with whom she had had any sort of close contact with had only served to anger her further. Well, her lover, Alcarín, Glade-master, hadn’t yet fallen into that category.
  Having multiple love interests in one lifetime was quite untraditional for her kind and she knew it, but it wasn’t forbidden. It wasn’t as if she was married or had another lover, like those awful stories of Man-kind she heard now and then.
  She realized, however, that each man behind her left her more and more embittered. But two in particular had set the flame of revenge that ever gnawed at her innermost fibres.
  Many years past her eye had been caught by the brooding, mysterious outlander called Halläcar Mórefalma. He was quiet and kept to himself, working daily at his forge with his equally introverted son. Silfdas had delivered messages between them, mostly from Belrien, and eventually, after finally realizing the dark Elf would perpetually spurn her attempts at closeness, she angrily lashed out at him and his son through her messenger. Belrien doubted any of that past had anything to do with the disappearance of the father and son, but once she had been moved in the way Halläcar’s looks and person had done, her heart could only keep spiraling- now in anger.
  Fortunately Alcarín, the dashing Glade-master, many years her junior, had placated that burning fire in her soul. They both had fiery temperaments and proud ones too. Belegren often wondered how his sister could really love someone like Alcarín, so alike were their personalities.

    But she did, thought Belrien with a sigh, and she missed him. No news lately from the Glade-keepers’ watch. And no further signs for over a year of the other masculine creature she so despised. And this wasn’t simply slighted love and unreturned admiration. This was a seething hate, an emotion so rarely stirred in the noble hearts of the Eldar.
   The accompanying memories were ones she’d banned from her mind and found it difficult to keep composed when they managed to resurface.

    And then he’d shown up again. Maptalë-yondo! She knew it was him; the same cursed creature that had so abused her not eight short years ago. Why she had deigned to take rest at that accursed inn of Jarlich she could never explain to herself. Had it been curiosity? Or was it the unconscious desire to feel the awed gazes of the lesser races? Whatever it was she deeply and forever regretted it.

   The same night she had taken a room in the Full Moon Inn, as it was then called, so had a party of other outsiders. A group of travelling Nornalië, one of the many Elvish names for the thrawn ones or Dwarves, typically rowdy, loud and disgusting had stomped in the tavern out of the same freezing rain that she had taken refuge from. Upon entering their leader’s eyes immediately had rested on her, the beautiful, golden-locked Elf-woman alone in the corner, quietly minding her own business. They never spoke, but as the stunted group took their seats too close for comfort, Belrien had decided to lay up for the night in her rented room.
It was only sparingly cleaned, as expected of Man-kind, and chilly, but she soon found herself drifting off to a much more dry sleep than the outdoors would have provided.
If she thought she disliked Dwarves before that night, she was then given her first feeling of true loathing.

  Their leader, a tallish, brawny male with feral, tangled locks black as night and grey storm-filled eyes, had taken note of her room.
She had just fallen into slumber when she felt hard, filthy hands groping her and one seized her mouth to keep her silent.
Just before the revolting creature attempted to take advantage of her he hissed these words into her ears, “So, you just left us there, eh? My turn!”

     Belrien shuddered violently and jerked the hideous vision out of her mind. A stream of ancient curses waited at the tip of her tongue, but she swallowed them, trying her utmost to regain her usual composure. Looking down at her palms she watched the white marks where her nails had mercilessly driven in slowly fade away. Every curse she knew had been uttered that night and the anger left over had formed itself into a passionate desire for revenge. Though ever dangerously close to boiling, by now that desire had simmered down in the light of the seeming impossibility of ever finding him again.
    That was until just over a year ago when the little Mannish girl had been stolen away right from under her nose. At first the Elf called Tairiel, her friend, had seemed only shaken and confused when she reported the instance. Then she described him. And Belrien knew. She had searched everywhere with full intention of murdering, without regret, every last half-sized creature among them, but with no result. Beruthiel was lost to them, and Belrien did her best not to imagine what fate she had suffered with the slavering, lice-bearded scamps.
  Something in the depths of her conscience told her that if Beruthiel had been of her own kind she may have ventured out of tree cover, but she forced it away. Never would she abandon anyone of her sex to such a fate as that. Never…
“Never!”

 “I’m sorry, my lady, I’ll come back later…if you wish.”

  Belrien looked up in daze and saw her man-servant retreating quickly. “No, no, Aegnor, come back. My thoughts were…elsewhere. What did you need?”
  He bowed to his lady, sitting rather tensely on a low bench on the open flet in back of her dwelling. “Tis a letter for you, my lady, would you like it?”
  Her face brightened, the cloudy grey of her skin chased away by her usual pink alabaster, “Yes please. And- thank you, Aegnor.”

  Before she opened it she knew it was from Alcarín; his hand was distinctly one of a strong warrior with a good deal of class.
  “Please,” she looked up as her fingers nimbly tore open the paper, “Tell my brother that we dine with the Prince again tonight.”
Aegnor then bowed and left her.

  “It’s about time,” she thought, and happily set her mind to the altogether much more pleasant task of reading her lover’s letter.

     “I hope, cherished Belrien, that you will forgive the tardiness of this letter. As terrible an excuse it is, we ran out of any sort of paper for two weeks and only after the second arrival of our regular supply delivery did I acquire a mere piece! And that I had to ‘borrow ‘ off a new arrival to the camp. Which, I might add, came as a bit of a surprise as the recruits almost always come in pairs or threes, but this fellow was alone. Not to bore you with details, my love, I only must mention how familiar he seems in my memory, yet I cannot exactly place him. Dark hair, dark eyes, brutishly bulky almost, for one of us. I wonder if you might know him. Otherwise, nothing else of interest has happened or looks imminent out here.
  The young ones are striving to meet my standards and some are nearly succeeding. Well, closer than usual. I only wish you could join me. Just the two of us would be a force worth reckoning with.
  As I’m certain you know well, this season prevents my return as often as I would like and so I can only hope to see you soon. A break from the rabble here would only be sweeter if joined with you. Please give your brother my best wishes and write to me when you will.
Ilúvatar keep you and the light of Eärendil shine on you as ever.

           Wholly and truly yours,
                                              Alcarín”

   Content, Belrien smiled as she perused the letter again. She got out her own piece of blank parchment and dipped her pen in walnut ink and thought for a moment.

  “Yes, I do know him…” she murmured and started writing.

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

   “He said yes! He said yes!” sang Vaenomar’s musical voice as she swung her ageing trainer around in a jig of excitement.
 Branbur laughed heartily, “Ai, and you’d think you asked him to marry you, the way you’re celebrating!”
  Vaenomar plopped down on a bench in the warm smithy. “Pshh,” she waved her hand in the air , “Me? Married? That’s not going to happen.”
Branbur chuckled into his beard, “No, I don’t doubt it. You’re like the wind, lass. Untameable. Like a boon in need or a curse in its fury.”
  “Goodness Bran!” Vaenomar teased, “You are going soft!”
“Oh hush your trap, tree-thighs!” the Dwarf gave the young woman a playful shove. She somersaulted back off the bench, like an acrobat from the Mannish fairs. “An old Dwarf can have his moments of eloquence now and then.”
  “Even if they’re false flattery?”
He looked back at the girl, now such a woman.
“No,” his face grew serious and he approached her. “You see, Vaenomar, lass. You’re the perfect melding of Elven-kind and Khazad. Stout and foolhardy, graceful and clever, stubborn and fierce, just and noble. You’re plenty dangerous and too handsome for your own good. And best of all- you’re really neither of us; Dwarf or Elf.” He got up and went into a different room, obviously with the intention of returning soon.
   That gave Vaenomar a bit to think about. She knew, in the back of her heart, that what he said was, for the most part, true, compliment or not. But she liked being called Elvish less and less, though she knew he meant well. And Branbur seemed to have a much better opinion of the Eldar race than his kinsmen.
   In a moment he returned with a carefully wrapped bundle, rather heavily covered with dust. She watched with interest as he sat beside her on the bench and proceeded to unwrap it.   Without a word he threw off the covering and held up a sheathed sword. The hilt alone was of immense beauty and skilled craftsmanship. The two just sat and admired it for a few quiet moments. The finest onyx were inlaid in the angular pommel, the black, boiled-leather grip still in perfect condition. There was no cross-guard and the handle flowed effortlessly into the blade. Branbur held it upright and unsheathed the weapon, revealing a scimitar sharper than time and more exquisite than Vaenomar had ever seen. The blade was curved elegantly and gleamed bright in the glare of the forge. It was polished and unscuffed, no nicks or dents on the one sharp edge. The back of the blade was smooth and almost as thick as her smallest finger. Along the curvature of the sharpened side were gradual indentations, three in number, and the width of the blade at the base was close to four inches while it tapered gradually to a curved point at the tip.

    He placed it in her hands. “It was forged in the city of Dale, more than a century ago, before the Dragon came. It has a twin, equal in shape and size. The only difference being in the inscription on the blade.” Here he ran his thick fingers along the flat of the blade where was engraved a scrolling vine-like form and delicate Elven lettering. “Read it, lass. I’ve lost my knack at it.”
  She followed it carefully with her finger. “‘Alliances may be sundered…'” she read slowly in Sindarin.
  Branbur repeated the phrase in the Common tongue and gazed at the blade, reminiscing.    Vaenomar looked expectantly at him, “What did the twin say?”
  Branbur was aroused out of his memories, “Ah, the other…” he scratched his head. “You know…I can’t remember,” he lied. “Maybe you’ll find it someday and can read it for yourself.”   Patting her on the back he stood up. “I wonder what happened to its owner,” he muttered to no one.
  “Who was he?” Vaenomar asked, “Or she?”
“A good friend,” answered the Dwarf simply, his voice cracking a little. “I doubt he is still alive.” He paused sadly, then said to himself, “But the boy…”

   “This is beautiful,” Vaenomar’s soft voice brought him back to the present again.
“Ah, yes!” He rejoined her, “It is, much like yourself, lass, a perfection of Dwarven and Elven methods and craft. You barely even see the two as separate styles within the blade, so smoothly combined into one work.”
  Vaenomar hesitated for a second then asked, “Did…you make it?”
Branbur smiled fondly, “No. Not this one. I crafted its mate, the twin. Its inscription is in Khuzdul, that much I remember. Ah, and the pommel has sapphires instead of onyx-” His voice trailed off,”the colour of his wife’s eyes…”
   Obviously this was no easy territory for Branbur to traverse. Vaenomar pried sensitively, “Why Elvish? The script, I mean.”
“Why not?” he shrugged, avoiding her little trap with a knowing smile.
  Vaenomar sighed, but didn’t mind too much. He’d tell her someday, she was sure. She took the hilt in her hand and held it up. So light for how thick and cleaver-like it was in some places, but sturdy and perfectly balanced. The blade was not long, about her arm’s length, and most of the force power in hacking blows, like most scimitars. Despite its beauty it was a wicked foe, the carved indentations along the blade would rip mercilessly through anything if thrust and pulled by a strong arm.
  “Has it seen much battle?” asked Vaenomar, deeply interested, as her teacher watched with a pensive smile.
“Not enough, lass. Not near enough. That’s why I am hoping you’ll feed her lust with the sweet, red nectar she’s been craving all these years.”
The young woman looked puzzled.
“I mean,” Branbur chuckled, “I’m giving her to you. She’s never been named nor used enough, so- you and she can make a life together, eh?”
 Vaenomar’s jaw dropped, “You mean- I can keep it?”
“Ai,” the Dwarf placed his hand on her shoulder, “You will keep her, and methinks you’ll do right by each other.”
 The joy on the young woman’s face lit his own.
“Now who’s talking like marriage?” she laughed and embraced her friend, “Thank you so much, Branbur. I really hope I can deserve it.”
 “Oh lass,” he patted her back tenderly, “There’s naught to worry about there.”

    Just before his pupil left for the Great Halls for final preparation, Branbur took her shoulders firmly and looked her straight in the eyes, “I know you’ll hear enough of this from Thorin and everyone, but- you be careful out there. I know there are risks and chances we all must take, but choose them wisely, lass. Think before you shoot. Breath before you run. Rest after you fight. Stretch, sleep, eat and, by the Smith, watch your back. The forest may have been your home, but you can never know everything that dwells there. But don’t be paranoid like Bridi!”
The two laughed together. All that coming from the frenzied, bloodthirsty sword-wielder.
  “You definitely learned the hard way with us Dwarves about not watching your back. Just…don’t make ol’ Thorin learn the same way about losing a loved one. He’s lost too many. Meself, too, for that matter!” he huffed and wrapped his arms around her for the last time. “Take care of yourself, girl. And I’ll look forward to seeing you soon.”
    The friends said farewell and through damp eyes Branbur watched his little ‘tree-thighs’ walk happily up the mountain, cradling his gift in her arms.

   Once she was gone, hidden by a curve in the line of stone dwellings, Branbur slowly returned into his home. He sat down heavily on his wooden bed covered by an aurochs hide in his tiny bedroom.
   She would go out and fight. The child! Scarcely past twenty years! In Dwarven terms that was a bairn. Sixty years just barely old enough to train. She would fight, while he stayed here and did nothing. Plenty of weapons made and no one to train now. He was tired of watching the youth go and die. He set his jaw. No, not anymore. He craved the old bloodlust, the diminishing desire for a good gory battle. Branbur stood upright and pulled the heavy cloth off and armour mannequin, revealing a slightly tarnished full cuirass and helmet of steel Dwarf-craft.
   “Hello Reykin,” he said with the fire of battle once more kindled in his eyes.

   Axe: check. Sword in scabbard: check. Quiver and the last of the arrows: check. Gut twine for bowstring: check. Goose feathers for fletching: check. Knife: check. Change of undergarments, bandages, needle and thread, athelas leaves and herb satchel: check, in knapsack. Water bladder: check. Soap: check.
   Vaenomar glanced around the room as her mental list grew thinner. Food from the kitchen; Kjar would want to help her, she smiled to herself.
A knock on the door made her start. “Yes?”
  “Lady Vaenomar? May I have a moment?” a timid voice piped behind the wood.
“Of course. Come in!”
The door peeped open and the slight, pointy figure of Salfgar the tailor stepped in. “They said you were getting ready to leave, so I wanted to catch you,” he said, looking down at the well-made, curled tips of his shoes.
  Vaenomar beamed, “I’m just packing my things. It’s good to see you before I go.”
There was a pause then Salfgar produced a neatly rolled cloth from behind his back. “It doesn’t look like much, but it will keep you warm in those cold winter nights ahead of us.” He handed the thick woolen blanket to Vaenomar who nestled her face in the bristly wool.
  “Salfgar- this is wonderful! It’s just what I was missing. How can I thank you?”
The little Dwarf’s thin lips twisted into a smile, “Just bring yourself back alive and well, miss. That would be best.”

    After she had tied the new blanket on top of her knapsack and tightened her weapon belts, Vaenomar headed down to the kitchen. With every goodbye she made, however temporary they were, her big heart was pained. She actually felt that…they might miss her, at least a few of them. She would miss them all, even Bridi. She was the closest thing she had to a mother, albeit very far from it, and she looked up to Bridi as an older sister. Bridi need not be aware of it, though.
  Quietly she stepped into the kitchen and set down her bag. The ever busy Kjar had her back turned, and Vaenomar snatched up an apple slice and stuffed it in her mouth before the old Dwarf knew she was there.
  The cook caught the young woman’s reflection in a copper pot, “Eh you! An’ what d’ye think you’re doing, ye thievin’ magpie?”
   Vaenomar swallowed her bite down and grinned, “I’ve come to stock up so I can grow fat and lazy and lounge about in the forest.”
 Kjar dusted the flour off her hands and chuckled, “Ai, that you do. Come here then and see what I’ve got ready for ye. I knew you’d not wish to tarry long here once your cage was opened.”
 “Ai, but there’s a job needs doing,” Vaenomar smiled.
Kjar just grunted, “The forest is for Elves…and you, my dear, are a Dwarf.” Her voice was serious, but her eyes twinkled, “An oversized one, at that.”
   “I will miss you Kjar…and your cooking!” Vaenomar hugged the ageing cook and the old leathered hands patted her back fondly.
  The Dwarf’s grey and white streaked knot of hair bobbed back and forth as she shook her head, “Always the young things running off on their own,” she muttered. “You be careful out there. Don’t let any Elf-men come snatch you away like our young Thorin did, you hear? And make sure you eat enough, lest you get weak and scrawny again, eh?”
  Vaenomar nodded assuringly, “Don’t worry Kjar- I’m sure I wont be feasting, but that’ll only make me want to come home more often.”
 “Ai, right you are!” Kjar turned away to hide her tears, “Now be off with ye! And bring me a boar when ye return.”

     As Vaenomar exited the hall from the kitchen, she heard shuffling boots hurrying along around the corner. She slowed before turning and was almost crashed into by the brothers Gorlath and Gormna.
“Oh! My lady I was told you’d already left! I’m so glad we-“
“Are able to present our farewells in due fashion,” finished Gormna, interrupting his huffing brother. “Please forgive our inability to offer you any gifts,” he said with a humble inclination of the head.
  “No- don’t even mention it. I certainly did not expect anything from anyone,” put in Vaenomar hastily.
Gormna bowed his head again with a gracious smile. His brother, less formally, stepped forward and took Vaenomar’s hand, “I just want to thank you for doing this. Offering up your own comfort and safety for us. Thank you and keep alert. If ever you need a tip or a head’s up on a certain area…or…anything, always feel free to ask the King’s scout,” he jabbed proudly at his chest,   “And he’ll do his best to help.”
 “Ai, well said,” Gormna put in, “And though I may offer you nothing material I, at least, can give my best advice.
 “First, as you are to live in the forest, NEVER climb a tree in a fire. It will always catch you. Second, always think twice about using your real name. Especially more than once. That is- if you meet anyone or decide to sleep or eat at an inn or a house.”
   In all seriousness, Vaenomar listened carefully to Gormna’s typically long-winded, but well meaning speech, while his smirking brother, winked at her in fun.
  “And for the ninth and final- which I probably should have stated earlier: always remember who you are. You are very precious to us all, Vaenomar, and before you risk your neck where it need not be, consider not only your own dear life, but those back home that would have to bear the loss.”
  Gorlath pat his brother on the back, “Well said.”

   The tears finally began to seep into the corners of her eyes as she embraced the brothers and said yet another farewell. As she strode across the massive courtyard towards the waterworks room, Gormna called after her, “Oh, remember to make your kills swift! Never dally and play with your victim like the cat- or it may be lost forever or turn the tables!” His voice faded away into the mountain.

   Vaenomar filled her water-skin and slung it over her shoulder. There was plenty of clean, fresh water in the woods, no doubt, and there would be no problem finding it, but there was always the getting there part. She could imagine the little brook rippling, lightly iced, the bubbles trying to reach the surface world while trapped beneath their frozen curtain. The soft crunch of the golden leaves and the chilling rustle of winter wind in the tree tops and above. There would be few birds this time of year and just as many animals. Many evergreen grew near the base of the mountain, mingling with the hibernating mallorn, oak and beech further south, and they would provide the most cover as the nights drew longer and colder. She would be living in solitude.
 The cold mountain water tasted so good, icy cold, and numbed her mouth.
She wondered that after getting used to the constant company of the Dwarves if she would not grow lonesome. She hoped she’d not lost those skills which she had so confidently assured them all of.
   After all, it wasn’t a final goodbye! At least she’d do all in her power to make it not. She wasn’t on some death or glory mission, but going to live in the woods again, something she’d wanted and dreamed of for a long time, as long as she could remember.
   Her feet moved slowly as she made her way back to the main space of Azaghâl’s mountain. All these goodbyes were getting to her, she supposed. And she still had a few left to go.

   Light footsteps echoed down the hallway outside of Bridi’s open door and she could hear a young voice murmuring softly- “Got clothes, armour, weapons, whetstone, food, water, bedding…oil…for the sword…I feel like I’m forgetting something…have my bowstring…whittling knife…hmm-
  “Did you think you would slip off without paying your respects?” Bridi’s fierce red-head leaned out into the hall, making Vaenomar whirl around.
 “Bridi! Uh- no. I- I was-“
The Dwarf motioned for her to follow and she obeyed without question.
  Once inside the study, Bridi approached her low, sprawling table and took up a rolled piece of supple vellum tied neatly with a leather strip. Unceremoniously she placed it in Vaenomar’s hands, “I drew this one up for you. You’ll need a bit of charcoal, ink…or even blood, but I want you to mark it every time you find something…and anything that might be of interest. I’ve no doubt you’ll be able to keep track of your location well enough. Don’t thank me-” she cut Vaenomar off. “It’s part of your job out there.”
  The young woman nodded, “I’ll do my best.”
Bridi’s usual, slight sneer was there, but also a sort of satisfaction.
  “She’s glad to see the back of me,” thought Vaenomar in silence.
“The only advice I’ll offer, though I’m sure it’s unnecessary, is- beware of handsome men and empty promises.”
  Though serious, Vaenomar thought she winked.
“I doubt I’ll find many of those where I’m going,” Vaenomar said with a smile.
  Bridi’s hardened features formed a grin and she placed her hand on Vaenomar’s shoulder. “Everyone else might worry about you, Vaenomar, but I wont. I trust you. We’ve needed you out there for a long time.”
  Those words shocked the younger woman, “Th-thank you, Bridi.”
“Now get on it,” the Dwarf turned a tiny bit red, ashamed of her own softness, and pretended to resume her business.
  “Mind the map!” she called as Vaenomar left the room, grinning from ear to ear.

    She stuffed the newest gift under the flap of her bag and pulled it on her shoulders again. It had started out quite a light load, but was gaining pounds by the minute.

  All packed and ready. Now there was one goodbye left to make. And especially after last night it would probably prove to be the hardest.

  She hadn’t seen him yet that day. She knew he was too noble to detain her longer than she wished, but his absence seemed just a bit peculiar.
  Before she left Vaenomar wanted a goodly look at her majestic mountain home. Back loaded, she went out the postern door, stepping into the hazy midday light of the outside world. The sky was overcast, but no rain fell, and the cold wind of coming winter was but a rippling breeze.
 The high alpine air was crisp and the soft wind, caught amid the cluster of carved stone swirled her hair about her face. She brushed it aside, squinting as she peered up at the towering structure so masterfully hewn from the living rock of the mountains.
  Breathing deeply the smells of damp stone, cool air, and some wisps of smoke from the forges and homes of the little village, she saluted the great mountain reverently. “I’ll return soon. Goodbye and keep them all well,” she said aloud, unaware of another’s presence watching her.
   “I hope you will, my beautiful weapon.” The voice of the King under the Mountain made her heart beat hard and sent a chill of awe down her back. The mountain had replied through its king.
  As he approached her she bowed her head, “My lord…”
“No, Vaen. None of that, now.” He gently lifted her eyes to his with a calloused hand under her chin. His powerful chest expanded as her timid fingers barely touched his heart.
 “I will come back to you…I promise,” her voice was scarcely audible.
His own in smothered passion trembled, “I am a big, brutish Dwarf, too rough, mean and vengeful for such a treasure like you, Vaen. But I…I’m…” he paused, the words weren’t coming anymore. On seeing Vaenomar’s face with that same smile like mithril beneath a full moon; all he could manage was, “Curse the words,” then seized her face, pulling it down to his level and locked her in an ardent, hungry kiss.
  As she found herself returning his blazing passion, Vaenomar realized that which was now an engraved fact to everyone else around her. She was in love.

   After he finally released her she rested her cheek on his shoulders while he, equally pleased, pressed her to him, his bulging forearms diminishing her own slender form.
  “You’re beard is intense,” she whispered with a playful grin.
“Is that so?” he laughed and rubbed his coarse, bristling whiskers on her cheeks. Reluctant to let go of her just yet, Thorin grinned contentedly as the woman in his arms took the little dangling braids on his chin and swayed them back and forth. “You know Vaen,” he observed in a rumbling Dwarf version of a whisper, “I don’t think that was your- what- second kiss? You’re not quite as innocent as this old codger supposed, eh?”
  Vaenomar stepped back and gasped, “How dare you!”
He grabbed her again, holding her fast this time. “Eh? How taught you?”
  “Do I need teaching? How do you know some aren’t born…skilled?”
“It’s impossible,” his grin grew wider, “Not that skilled. Hand over the secret, or you’re not going anywhere.”
  She snorted, the good-natured fire in her eyes ablaze.”There is none,” and with a handful of his thick beard gave his chin a tug and slipped out of his grip.
  “I’ll be back when I have something worth talking about,” she called over her shoulder as she sprinted down the hill, leaving her king and lord standing in a daze. “And don’t take any more arrows while I’m away!”
  He smiled and shook his head, “That vixen…”

  “She learns from the best,” a voice came from a few meters away.
Thorin drew his eyes away from the fading figure to see his old friend, trainer and sword-maker, Branbur. “Ai, milord. She’ll be back. No finer warrior among us, save yourself, sir. The lass will make you proud- us all proud, no doubt. And keep us all safe too…in her own way.”
  The king nodded, blinking his tearless eyes in the sudden ray of sunlight. His thoughts were bent on the bleeding chunk of his proud heart he’d just sent off alone and unprotected. After a few moments of meditative silence Thorin’s brow narrowed, “‘Learned from the best’- what did you mean by that?”
  Branbur looked a little surprised, “Well, milord- the lass’ tricks, eh? She gets it all from you.”
A quick exhale through his nostrils indicated Thorin’s relief.
“Well, she ‘s a born expert then…” he said more to himself than Branbur and with another sidelong glance to the horizon trudged back into the mountain halls.

    The air of freedom filled her lungs and her head was giddy with excitement. Her feet barely touched the ground as she walked down the hill and came to the gate. With a blinding smile to the gatekeeper above she waved as he turned the gears and the door creaked open. She slipped through and took a farewell glance at the bulwark. “See you again,” she promised and faced her way down the mountain. A few paces away from the gate she saw a solitary figure seated on a boulder, his wooden leg rested on a clump of hardy lichen.

“Voltarag??”

 The Dwarf’s glistening head of snowy white hair turned.
“If it isn’t the long lost forest maiden with a growling stomach hungrier than the sea! It’s been too long,” he said as she embraced him with enthusiasm. “Last time you paid me a visit was three months ago, my tall, fine lady, and I bet that Kjar’s been spoiling you rotten with her cooking.”
  Vaenomar laughed heartily, “Well, of course! But I’m so sorry. I-“
“No, no!” he cut her off, “Don’t you even. We all must lead our own lives. And now look at you- off to your new position. King Thorin’s a wise and worthy heir of the Deathless Lord. I know you’ll be grand out there so…enjoy yourself, my dear.”
  He patted her fondly on the arm and put a parchment wrapped bundle in her hand.
“Oh Voltarag, you didn’t need to-“
  He held up his hand, “I wanted to. Before you get too excited though, perhaps take a look. It’s just something for the road.”
 She unwrapped a juicy pink apple, soft pungent cheese, an already buttered chunk of barely bread, and a few thick strips of dried meat. “Goodness! Now I’m already hungry and I just ate! Thank you,” she threw her arms about his neck.
    It had happened only a bit differently many, many months ago on their first meeting. He had given her food and she had thanked him deeply from her heart. As if reading his thoughts she smiled, “I won’t ask your name this time, dear friend.”
 There were plenty of missing teeth in his ancient grin, “Ah! You’ve seen enough teary-eyed Dwarves for one day, you have! Get thee gone before his lordship changes his mind!”
 With a loving pat the child of Aulë the Smith sent the boisterous youth on her way.

“Into the forest,
     into the world,
        to face all dangers,
           she was happily hurled.”

 He chuckled at his clever rhyme. “That might bring that bloody, steel-biting Branbur a tear or two.”

 

Image

 

Vaenomar in Dwarf Armour (heavy leather).

pencil on paper.