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.

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The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 33 ~Captain Alcarin~

Chapter 33
Captain Alcarín

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “You could always-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alcarín was lying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Tairiel.

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 32 ~False Alarm~

Chapter 32
~False Alarm~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was this an apology? Thorin was shocked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any visitors to the town lately?”

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

“Foreign, odd-looking…male?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 29 ~Dáin~

Chapter 29 ~Dáin~

  The antic flames of the roaring blaze in the center of the Hall of Feasting licked the blackened beams thrown in their midst and matched the bustle and busy movement of the party around. Surrounding the central fire of the hall was a massive stone table with a large cut hole in its center for the enlivening blaze. Rectangular, in Dwarven fashion, it was decorated by the finest stone-carving and smoothed to the softness of a maiden’s cheek.
 Centuries of unuse had not touched the superb masonry of this room, and when Thorin and his followers had arrived here, eleven years ago, it had entreated for feasting to be held within its walls. Perhaps it was the ghosts of those that used to dwell and revel here many long years past, but thus was begun the rather new, at least by Dwarven standards, cousins’ reunion.
  Dáin, Lord of the Iron Hills, by virtue of the relative safety of his own lands at the time, made the journey on pony-back to the Halls of Azaghâl and was greatly impressed by the works. Thus also was rekindled the brotherly competition between he and his cousin Thorin, son of the Kings. It was too much danger for Thorin to leave his fledgling settlement and visit his cousin’s realm, but now arose a new matter for judgment. While at home, Dáin was far too busy dealing with matters of order and state to take time for other more primal passions, but Thorin had told him of a beauty in his scope whom he’d been dallying with over the past year and a half. Not that Dáin was jealous. By the beard! No, that was Thorin’s trait. But a certain, delectable red-haired lass had caught his eye and held it ever since first he met her on his first visit to Thorin’s new ‘kingdom’. She was the counselor, the steward, if you will, and never a sharper wit or tongue had he seen on any before or since. Due to a bout of drunken rowdiness the last time or two he’d visited, Bridi Flame-braid had advised him to mind his tongue and manners in her presence and her lord’s. With the stubborn pride of all Dwarves, Dáin had at first shrugged off her scolding, but now he was determined to so charm and win her that Thorin got jealous.
  Then again, Thorin had his own little strumpet to munch on. But where were those two. He itched to see the woman that had finally caught his cousin’s roving and choosy eye, for not only had he never chosen one in all his 181 years, but was known to have a highly unorthodox and peculiar taste in these matters.

  On surveying the rowdy, joyous, moving room Dáin’s eye was unarrested. A few Dwarf-women were at the table, but they had come with him- all excepting Dor, and the rest were men. His cousin’s bellowing roar of a laugh snapped him out of his reverie, especially on being accompanied by a slap on the back.
 “Your nephew here says ‘tether’ means-” he coughed, “Something completely different to the Carniens! Is it true?”
 Without answering the less interesting question put forward by Thorin from a young Dwarf who was not his nephew, Dáin whispered gruffly to his cousin, “Where are they, eh? Your lass?”
Thorin’s eyes lost a minute degree of their merriment and he looked into his dwindling mug of mead. He exhaled heavily, “Vaenomar is…possibly detained. Bridi should be in soon enough.”
“Possibly detained?” Dáin wheezed, “What’s that supposed to mean? You said I was going to meet your little tidbit and I-“
 Thorin interrupted him by standing up majestically. Surprised, Dáin followed his cousin’s locked gaze to the far end of the hall. A pair of newcomers walked slow and unobtrusively into the bustle of the room. The fire’s blaze melded like hot copper with the hair of one and flickered already in the eyes of the other.
 The other: skin like mother-of-pearl, with shimmers of colour running through her veins or a shy blush tinging the cheeks. A neck with a graceful curve, but strong and rippling like that of a steed. The smooth hills that barely arose from the top of her bodice required another few looks and sturdy shoulders led to a gripable, narrow waist. Powerful thighs and true Dwarf-crafted hips accentuated the small waist and melted into the rich black folds of the gown enveloping them. Eyes like hoarfrost beneath shapely, expressive brows darted subtly here and there, taking in all, weighing and measuring their surroundings. A nose chiseled from fine alabaster, soft round cheeks and lips the colour of fresh blood formed their relaxed, natural pout.
In short: she was beautiful. But all of those things were among the last to catch Dáin’s notice.

“She’s-“
 “Gorgeous. I know,” Thorin grinned radiantly and beckoned for the women to join them at the head of the table.
 His cousin turned full towards him, “Thorin! You whoreson! You never said she was a long-leg!!”
 Trying his best to ignore the outrage and unpleasant surprise of the other, Thorin shrugged, “Didn’t I? Ah, my mistake. Guess it didn’t even strike me…”
The gurgle in Dáin’s throat could not but force his attention, “If that doesn’t strike you then maybe I should! What are you thinking?! She’s- practically an El-“
“One of us,” Thorin snapped, “So treat her that way.”
“I can’t believe this,” he could hear his cousin mutter, “You’re how old and still refuse to follow your real head.”
 Thorin took a deep breath to calm himself and prepared to greet the woman he’d not seen for a month now. “Before you judge blindly, cous, like to many of our folk, test her. If she wasn’t born to be a Dwarf then neither was I.”
“Wishful thinking.”
 “Dammit! She’s been here for a year! You give her a fair chance or I’ll smash your balls on the anvil!”
 Dáin was about to reply when he felt the shadow cast by the stature and person of this specimen of womanhood.
 Thorin’s casual, familiar grin belied the excitement in his breast. She had actually come! Not a day too early or too late. And here she was, more elegantly beautiful than ever he’d beheld her.   All he wanted was for the entire roomful of people to vanish and she be left alone, wrapped tight in his warm embrace. His digits tingled with anticipation to touch that skin, looking so delicate and cold in its bareness. Heretofore many had accused him of cold-heartedness, a determination driven only by revenge or gain, not one with true passions of the body. Thanks to the same creature before him now, had he proven those accusations false: to them and to himself.

  When all he desired was to simply embrace the woman he loved, Thorin refrained…somehow. Her proud but shy eyes studied the designs on his brushed leather tunic, avoiding him and the less welcoming individual at his side.
“I see you managed to drag her in here then. Well done, Bridi,” chuckled Thorin taking Vaenomar’s clammy hand and pressing a bearded kiss on it.
 Turning to Dáin he said, “Bridi, you know this rogue already. Vaenomar-” he pronounced her name dramatically, “My cousin, Dáin Ironfoot, Lord of the Iron Hills.”
 The young woman only briefly met his eyes as she bowed politely, hand on her chest.
The Dwarf cringed, “I’ve heard a bit about you, quendil. Better get eating, lest the wind blow your lanky figure back up into an Elf tree.” He stuck his chin in the air and turned to Bridi, “Now you…have we met?” His manner was all charm now. The bolt shot at Vaenomar had not failed to graze Bridi’s tough skin as well.
 “A good thing we haven’t,” she retorted coolly, and motioned for Vaenomar to take her seat on Thorin’s right, while she placed herself between the cousins.
 The king had let Dáin’s rude remark slip, though it pained him deeply to do so. Vaenomar had a hard shell and he had confidence that by the end of the evening his cousin would be at least half as enamoured by her as he. The four took their seats and Thorin gave her a lingering glance, “Thank you for coming, love.”
 As if startled out of a dream Vaenomar gave a little jump, a fog clearing from her eyes, “Of course…my lord. Don’t think I didn’t want to.”
His lip twisted and he stroked her back. “Ravishing…” his whisper made her shiver and blush.
  A low groan issued from the kitchen door hinges as a line of three paraded out laden with platters full of savory odors that even to remember it would get the gut roaring in hunger. Kjar’s cooking at its finest.
“Eat up, love. Mahal knows you don’t eat enough out there.”
She smiled pleasantly, “I will. Not sure how I couldn’t.”
  For all her smiles and blushes, Vaenomar had no mirth. It was good to be home, but not like this. It was deafening after the tranquility of the woods. Too many judging faces eyeing her up and down. It was that first judgment day all over again. Thorin seemed to be enjoying himself indifferently, she was glad, and every one else as well.
 But that Dáin! What a pig-headed cockerel! If she was a Dwarf, perhaps like Bridi, she would’ve knocked him upside the head. But she wasn’t: and thus was the very origin of the problem.
 Stifling a sigh, she pushed some straggling hairs out of her face. The dizzy haze that had warmed her at Dain’s insult had begun to melt from her vision and her hot cheeks tried to cool, though constantly thwarted by the blaring fire in the middle of the room. She looked around, surveying the new visages and moving slowly from one to the next of the familiar ones. Some eyes made contact with her own and a sweet smile always followed on her part. The entire town had been invited, of course. Not a large number, to be true, but no one had any reason to miss it.
No one.

  The hum with occasional outbursts of yelling or laughter morphed into a mass of slurping, crunching and cracking, with a coughs and a few chinks of little used utensils. Thorin sunk his teeth into a dripping, saucy leg of a fat tussock hen. Before he could swallow it or even chew it up enough to, he felt a soft nudge in his right arm. Quickly wiping the grease off his black beard, he turned to find Vaenomar’s well-loaded plate untouched and her with the look of a lost fawn.
“Vaen!” he exclaimed with a full cheek, “Eat! Durin’s eyes, why are you so pale?”

“Where’s Branbur?”

~~~~~~~

  Vaenomar’s velvety voice drowned in the wave of resurging bustle in the Hall. But Thorin’s sharp ears had picked up one word: where.
The question he’d been dreading for weeks now. The ruddy tinge of his cheek drained ever so slightly as he pretended not to hear her query.
“Pass the keg this way, iron-bollocks,” he instead shouted to his cousin and tried, with a forced, laboursome gulp, to wash down the bitter taste brought by Vaenomar’s question.

  In a daze, Vaenomar ripped a juicy bite off her drumstick with her teeth and chewed it slowly. The noise began to fade and melt into one big empty space. A black, fitful cloud writhed around her eyes and the meat lost its flavour. Time ceased to past and she sat in a pit of nothingness and dread. Then a thin sharp jab in the back startled her. She turned and saw a long, three tined fork-like utensil reached behind Thorin’s back.
“You look like you’ve seen your own ghost,” came Bridi’s hoarse yell-whisper in an attempt to avoid the men’s hearing.
“Bridi,” the wan face murmured, “Where’s-“
  Again she was interrupted in this question, now by Bridi standing up. Both the King and his cousin halted their conversation abruptly.
“Where are you going, lass?” asked Dáin trying unsuccessfully to grope Bridi’s arm. But Thorin only hung his head and stared darkly into his empty tankard as the younger woman followed Bridi’s jerk of the head and left her seat beside him. He felt the sad light of Vaenomar’s gaze bent on his back, but he didn’t turn.
 This was one job, men might call ‘dirty work’, he was happy to leave to Bridi. The time Vaenomar had known the old swordsmith was short in years compared to his own span of acquaintance, but what difference did it make? So too was her own age span shorter.
That thought made his throat constrict and he sputtered suddenly, choking on his gingerly sipped mead.
 A hard thump on his shoulder from his cousin’s fist helped only to bring him back, not the feeling in his throat or stomach.
“Eh, what’s gotten into ye? You’re going soft!”
 Unperturbed, Thorin shook his head, “There’s not one part of this that’s soft,” said he, gesturing to his body.
 “It’s that Elf-wench,” muttered Dáin, plenty loud, and gulped down large mouthfuls of ale.
Instead of replying Thorin backhanded the mug into his cousin’s face, spilling the drink all over his wild, greying beard.
 “Spawn of a-” wiping the liquid out of his eyes, he turned to retaliate, but no one was there. On looking around he spotted the knotted raven locks just over the heads of those at table.
“Following the women…the dog,” he thought, shaking his head disapprovingly. “She cannot and will not come to good!”

   They had retreated to the kitchen, Kjar’s den of savoury smells and scattered scraps. As he trailed them, Thorin’s feet grew heavier and his jaw tightened and pulsed.
Like a shade that haunts its final resting place to watch its dear ones in life, he hovered at the edge of the doorway in the gloom cast by the corner between the hall and kitchen.
The noise behind him consumed the solemn voices of the trio in the kitchen, but looks sufficed abundantly. Bridi’s back was to him while Vaenomar and Kjar faced the entrance, the latter stroking the young one’s back with motherly tenderness.
 The flushed rosebuds of Vaenomar’s cheeks had long vanished. Wide, cold eyes slowly gathered pools of crystalline moisture at their edges. Bloodless lips trembled as laboured breath came in short spasms. A tremulous moved through her defined neck muscles as they flexed and she shook her head in disbelief.
 Bridi’s shoulders limply hung and her head was downcast, the news, at last, painfully delivered. Kjar folded the girl in her arms, racked with weeping.
 He hated to see her suffer. Every time he witnessed her pain he hated it more. He turned away from the scene and leaned his head against the cold, mountain stone.
“She’ll be right in the morning,” a low voice soothed his ears and a strong hand patted his shoulder.
“Thank you, Bridi. I don’t think I could’ve done it.”
 She shrugged, “We all have to be soft for someone.” As the Dwarf-woman left him he heard her add, “Except me.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

   “Aye lass, that be the truth,” chuckled the old Dwarf between hammer strokes as he mended a very dented metal shield. “But the only way you can tell is- oh never mind. You’re too young.”
 “Ach, Bran!” she jumped up, “I hate when people say that! I’m plenty old enough for anything. You’ve probably got more years left than I do, anyhow.”
 “Din’t ye dare start blitherin’ in such manner, young lady. Now pick your sword up and practice changing weapons: bow to sword, and back again…”
 “But I’m tired. I want to sleep,” she heard herself mutter again and again.
“Wake up! Vaenomar, wake up!” Branbur’s raspy, expressive tone gradually was replaced by one of similar accent, but of a smoother more fluid quality. “You’ve slept plenty long. It’s nearly midday!”
She rubbed her sticky eyes and wet her dry throat. No Branbur. It was Bridi.
 How she ever managed to fall asleep the night before was only due to the exhaustion of travel, shock and a sea of tears. Her head throbbed violently upon sitting up, but relaxed soon after.

 “I didn’t want to wake you, but Thorin’s been anxious to talk with you. Try to forget about last night, eh?”
 As her eyes cleared, so did Bridi’s face, stoic and calm as usual.
Vaenomar drug herself to her feet, wobbling on stiff joints and a heavy head. “You’d think I drank too much,” she gave a melancholy smile as Bridi handed her some clothes.
“Or not enough. I’ve never seen so many tears. Not even from Kjar,” Bridi snorted, “And he was my kin…”
“What?”
 “In so many ways,” the Dwarf shrugged.
“I had no idea, Bridi…”
 “Makes no difference now. Come on, get dressed,” she concluded hastily.

   At every turn Vaenomar’s mind and memory tried to draw her back. Branbur’s words, his faces, his tricks, his stories. When she thought Bridi wasn’t watching she, with closed eyes, violently shook her head to try and dispel the tormenting memories.
Bridi sighed through flared nostrils, “Have you any idea how many family members and friends Lord Thorin has lost?”
 Vaenomar looked away with a gulp. “I’m sorry, Bridi. I just wish I had been there.”
“He was seasoned for his passing. And he knew it was coming, the old codger…”
Brushing a silent stream of water from her cheek, Vaenomar nodded.
 “So don’t weep for him anymore. If you’re to be a true warrior, to follow in his footsteps, he won’t be the last that you’ll lose.”
  Vaenomar swallowed down a hot, salty gulp of tears and nodded. Bridi was right. And if Bran could see her now he’d most surely not be happy with her state. With solemn resignation steeled by a deep breath Vaenomar forced away all outward shows of grief, resolving, from then on, to live the warrior’s life. A familiar oath; one sworn to herself before the flaming bier on the ‘death’ of her first bow.
 “Anyways,” added Bridi, folding her arms as Vaenomar belted her tunic, “You’ll need a warrior’s balls to face Dáin. He doesn’t get any better than last night.”
 With a gurgle of frustration, Vaenomar rolled her eyes, “Well, let’s say Bran willed his to me.”

     As was his wont to do when waiting impatiently, which was more often than not, the King Under the Mountain paced fitfully back and forth before the hearth of his chamber.
Vaenomar, he hoped, would have sufficiently recovered from the night’s shock enough to relay her own news. Most importantly he just wanted to see her well. And safe.
The ‘chat’ he’d had with his counselor a week ago had proved most informative and worrisome. The usual Bridi; in relating the events of Jarlich she’d kept the details scarce and vague as possible. They had, while at the Full Moons Inn, espied a man- Elf- creature that very like matched Thorin’s own somewhat limited description. Despite the lack of words in Bridi’s tale, her language and attitude filled in many blanks.
  The creature had given both women a very strange feeling, according to Bridi. He’d seemed especially interested in the younger woman and Bridi remarked that Vaenomar had unwittingly found him quite attractive. Yet another detail Thorin sensed was left out was that she had agreed. Hastily Bridi assured him there was no cause for jealousy.
   What mattered most was that this thing seemed to have an unhealthy interest in Thorin’s jewel. Though his supposed second appearance outside of Old Estenna could well have been coincidence, or not even him, the gut feeling that he’d always trusted without failure told Thorin something was amiss. Now the words of Tharkûn resonated clearly with him, where before they had seemed needless precaution. “Nowhere is safer than the forest for her. Not even your Dwarven battlements and stone walls. Though you see it not now, in time, you will come to know the wisdom of my words. I only hope it is not too late.”
  Still Bridi knew more than she told him, and though he would let it go for now, the grey wizard’s olden council would not be lost on him again. As much as it went against his own judgment and desires, Vaenomar’s home and safety lie among the trees. One would have to be a cleverer woodsman and hunter to find her there, and not to mention persistent.
She was a wonderful asset as well, keeping a watchful eye of a large part of their borders. Whatever Dáin or anyone said, he trusted her, and never had second thoughts when it came to Elves. Or so he told himself.
  What could they do anyways? She was a grown, capable woman. Happy where she was and with real attachments here. Not as if they could just drag her back…like he did.
  Something too much of this, he thought, throwing back his mane of coarse hair. Was this what ‘love’ was like? Always fretting about the other. Or was that just him being an old man… Dáin would have a thing or two to say if he could read his thoughts now.
“Gah! Thorin growled exasperated between his teeth, kicking a loose log across the wide hearth stones. “Blast him if he knows anything about anything!”
  Elves, ancient vampires, bothersome relatives; he wondered if he was going senile, too.
Vaenomar was and would be safe in the forest; her trust in the protection of the trees was infectious and his trust and faith in her, he hoped, would only grow by her report. As for the safety of his town and people, he would double the watch guard by night and warn the southerly patrols of the strange creature’s appearance and danger. Otherwise, there was not much more he could do. He didn’t have the troops or the resources to hunt the thing. The bulwark and fortress had never been breached, or so went the legends, and as of now, none knew of its location other than the Dwarves themselves. He planned it to stay that way.

   Short-spaced, brisk pattering grew louder as Dwarf feet moved down the hall. They were followed by lighter and fewer footsteps with a sort of reluctant slowness in their gait.
“Here they come,” muttered Thorin and halted his restless pacing directly in front of the fire.
The heavy door creaked open and in walked the autumn head of Bridi, followed soon after by a very solemn and tired faced Vaenomar. He was beginning to wish she hadn’t come, for her sake, of course. It was a soothing balm to see her face after such an absence, but not in this less than cheerful state.
“Vaenomar,” he began right away and beckoned her with open arms, “Come.”

  She had sworn to herself to be strong. She knew what he would say, and it was probably true.

“He didn’t want you to mourn for him, Vaen. He knew his time had come…”
His hands stroked her back, while her tongue grew raw from the violent chewing: her desperate attempt to keep closed the floodgate of tears. “Even before he left. The farewell he gave you on your departure was his last.”
  On his shoulder he could feel her trembling body shudder and she swallowed hard many times.
Several feet away, Bridi hung her head in respectful silence to honour the dead.
With a mute chant on her lips Vaenomar finally calmed herself, “For him, I will weep no longer.  To avenge his death by doing my duty and honour his life by doing his wishes.” With such heroic and calming words, she regained the same brooding composure that a long night of mourning had inducted her into.
  Taking a deep breath and stepping stiffly back from the comforting warmth of Thorin’s embrace, Vaenomar began her report.

  To his relief there were no concerning occurrences to deal with issuing from the ‘Enchanted forest’. Her method in relating her activity, in as brief a manner as she might, intrigued him more. Now and again she would slip and mention things told her by the birds of the forest and the incredible details that she picked up just from walking astounded him. She, literally, saw everything, or so it seemed to Thorin…and Bridi, though she refused to be impressed by it.
 The markings on the map were enough for her; and were they plentiful! Most of them only a very slight chance could they prove helpful. It seemed by the delicate swirling hand and descriptive lines used that the scout had taken more interest in the artistry than anything else.   But that long, North-South, unbroken line through the Eastern third of the woods piqued her curiosity.
 “‘Unfriendly territory?'” she asked aloud.
“How so? Thorin too wondered.
 “Other…settlements, perhaps,” Vaenomar said quickly, her heart beat rapidly picking up. “It was just a feeling I had when I was there…” she added.
 Thorin stole a confirming glance from his counselor, then asked gently, “Elves, perhaps?” There was a hesitation in her answer, but she cleared her throat non-challantly, “Oh…I don’t think so. It’s pretty far North.”
“So were you,” his voice was soft and he stroked her hair.

 “Elves?!” a hoarse, wheezing voice bellowed, startling the three. “Well that’s unpleasant!”

“Dáin,” growled Thorin, “Eavesdropping?”
The other snorted, “You’ve always had a loud voice.”
“And you haven’t…” muttered Bridi sarcastically.
 Attempting to ignore the interruption, Thorin turned to Vaenomar again, though with dampened spirits. Bridi’s ear was turned to Vaenomar’s news, but she kept her eyes on Dáin as he wandered, seemingly oblivious, around the room. Having imbibed an impressive quantity of liquor not so many hours before, Dáin was visibly under this influence still. Visibly to a Dwarf, as their kind held and carried their drink differently than others. Not that it would change his disposition much towards the long-leg, being without alcohol in his blood. She foresaw this going nowhere good.

“Have you noticed anyone…sharing the woods with you?” Thorin’s thunderous voice was a mellow rumble as he spoke to his lovely scout.
 She looked puzzled, “My lord?”
“What he means is: have you been back to see your pointy-eared friends and relatives, girl.”
  A flood of hot blood rushed to Vaenomar’s cheeks and Thorin whipped around, “No. That’s not a bit what I meant. Thank you for your worthless input, cousin. Bite your tongue, will you?”
 Her sorrow slowly turning to anger, Vaenomar stiffened in her seat and went on the defensive. Wariness of Dáin’s unsubtle suspicion had grown in her. She didn’t like him any more than he liked her, however hard she was trying for Thorin’s sake.
 Their frigid, electric glares locked in a proud mental combat of silence. With every attempted insult her defiance rose and burned with vigilance.
 “I’ve noted no one, my lord, and that’s the whole truth.” Vaenomar drew her eyes from her opponent’s stare and gave her attention to her lord.
“I believe you, Vaen, only…” No! There was an easy entrance for Dáin- “I’m sure you’re right. But that worries me.”
“Thorin, why?”
 Bridi’s attention was momentarily drawn to Vaenomar on the usage of her lord’s name. Was that out of affection or to spite his cousin?
 “You remember Darzûn??”
“The Copperscale?”
 “Aye-“
“She sold him to the pointy-ears for information. Or better yet, killed him herself,” Dáin said in a very fake whisper into Bridi’s ear as he paced around the room. She sat still, but watched Vaenomar’s jaw muscle pulse like a wave and a pale rage grip ever so gradually her features.
 Thorin took her hand and held it firmly, “Look at me, Vaen. Darzûn- you saw him not?”
“Was he following me?” her voice trembled distractedly.
 “Just to make sure you were safely reunited with the woods, love. But I expected him to lose you and come back by now…”
 “I’ll search for him if you-“
“Aye! That she will,” Dáin blurted in, “For his corpse. See if you can find it again, girl-“
“My lord!” Bridi hissed.
  Thorin stood up so fast his chair clattered over behind him. Steam practically issued from his nostrils and his face was livid. “Leave her alone or you’ll wish you had, cousin!”
 “Thorin! You can’t seriously trust her? Have you eyes? Or has lust blinded you? An Elf spy in your midst and your bed?!”
Narageldumû!!” Thorin erupted in a volley of molten choler, “Atkâtel!
   Without a word Vaenomar, unable to stand any more, jumped up, cheeks flushed, eyes bloodshot, and, like a maddened hind, stormed out of the room, leaving an icy wave in her wake.
“Vaenomar!” called Thorin urgently, taking a few steps towards the door. But there was no answer. A fierce rumble emanated from the depths of his chest as he turned threateningly towards his cousin.
 “Typical woman,” shrugged Dáin, with the dignity of just having exposed a wound, “She’s obviously hiding something, Thorin, or are you actually blind?”
 “Mind your tongue before the king,” Bridi’s voice commanded venomously, aloud for the first time.
  Both men looked at her. Then Dáin turned to his cousin, “But you’re not really the king, though, are you?”
Thorin seethed, “Bastard!! You come to my house and insult my people and me! If I trust her, then so should you! I’m going to talk to her, and you’d better be ready to apologize on your cursed knees when we return!”
“And if I have no intention of apologizing to the ‘king’s’ whore?”

  The final straw. Before Thorin, who looked to have been kicked below the belt, could move, the simmering temper of Bridi burst like a geyser. She marched over to her lord’s cousin and with a fist as solid as his skull, gave him a punch up into his jaw, sending him flying over backwards.
  The men were stunned for a moment, one blanched with astonishment and rage, the other boiling with humiliation and shock. No words were needed. As Dáin pulled himself to his feet, Thorin pushed the Flame-braid to the side and met his cousin with angry blows to shake a mountain. They fell to the floor, hammering each other’s stony skulls and bellowing curses at the other.
The best way to work something out, the Dwarven way.
 Bridi left the brawl, her knuckles throbbing with the pleasure of having done that herself. He’d likely not forget that blow any time soon; especially at her hands.

   Thorin’s nose dripped crimson and Dáin spat out a bloody piece of his own cheek. They grappled and Dáin pulled Thorin’s hair, yanking his head back violently. A knee to the gut released that hold and Thorin threw his cousin to the floor. The other kicked his shins, sending him to the stone. More steel punches ensued, grunting and painful thuds replacing the angry curses.
 Then, as suddenly as it began, the fight was shattered by a full bucket of icy, spring water.
The men sat breathless on the ground, dripping with water and blood. Kjar held the empty bucket and shook her head.
 Bridi entered behind her, bearing a grim scowl.

“Lord Thorin… Vaenomar is gone.”

 

 

quendil: Elf-friend

Narageldumû: ‘black-blood’
Atkâtel!: Silence!

 

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 28 ~Reporting In~

Chapter 28
~ Reporting In~

  The fitful ring of armoured boots echoed down the hall, causing the writer to leave a dark pool of ink on her paper.
Thorin was back, no doubt. Good. She was hungry.
 “Woman?” came his growl of a voice, but in what could be called an almost frantic tone.
Bridi blew on the ink, shoved the parchment beneath a blank piece, and turned to face the door.
“Bridi?” he called as he neared her chamber.
 “I’m here-” she began and jumped again when the door banged open.

Something was not right.

  “We’re back,” he said, looking at the floor, his tired eyes eventually finding their way to hers, hair disheveled and clothes stained.
“I see that,” she answered sarcastically, “My lord, is something-“
“What do you know about blood-suckers?”
 As if a whirlwind of ice had passed over her, Bridi moved not a muscle.

  His face bore an unsure anxiety she’d not seen for a long time.
Draegk?” she queried slowly.
“Yes.”
-“I…I…only a little. Thorin, what happened?”

He hadn’t planned on telling her so soon- but it just happened.
 “Branbur, he fell.”
Her chest was an anvil and those words a great hammer. In a hoarse whisper she managed, “Bran…the smith?”
 Thorin nodded quickly and looked at the floor. “I’m sorry, Bridi…”
The pragmatist tried to push her emotions out of the way, “Why? How? I thought he was here?!” her words tripping over themselves.
  Thorin summoned his strength and majesty, “He gave his life to save a town of innocents. We were severely outnumbered. If he hadn’t been there- there’s no telling who victory would’ve belonged to.” said he, placing a strong, heavy arm over Bridi’s shoulders. Never had he seen her so bent with grief. She held onto the table and lowered her head; her long red braid fell over her shoulder and swung back and forth in the sad silence.

   Finally she looked up, her emerald eyes moist and caring, “Did you speak to him before…he passed?”
He nodded and gulped, not sure whether or not to tell her.
“Bridi…” his voice was soft and he hesitated.
“I’m alright. It’s just…I had no idea he was even gone.” She straightened and left the comfort of her king’s arm. Her back to him, Thorin could still see her wipe the tears from her cheeks.
“We burned him there, as he requested,” he said softly, not knowing what else to say.
“Selfish sot,” her laugh accompanied by a sniff puzzled Thorin. “Wouldn’t even let his next of kin mourn for him.”
Thorin was shocked, “You- knew?”
 Bridi grinned, tugging on her braid and fingering the little metal circlet that bound it. “He thought I had no idea. Old fool. Although, not technically related, it was close enough. I know many things, my lord, many things.”
 “But how?” he demanded, “He only just told me two days ago!”
She gave a simple shrug, “You don’t always have to be told things to know them. Accidental hints and observation usually add up to much more. It’s just a matter of putting the shards together, so to speak.”
 The king scratched his beard and thought for a moment. Indeed his fiery councillor did know more about most everyone than even they did.
 As he looked up again from his thoughts he caught Bridi deep in her own reflections. The news had gone over much more smoothly than he’d thought, but he didn’t want to interrupt with more bad tidings.
 Once more, Bridi surprised him, however, by asking in a much changed tone, “But what does this have to do with draegk?” Her shell was as hard as his, he thought, but no head could be on straighter than that woman’s.
 “When Branbur died- before he died, he said: ‘I’ve got no more left.’ I’ve never seen a Dwarf so pale and…drained.”
Bridi’s was wan and her eyes fixed on the floor, as if searching every thread of her memory.
“Did you see his murderer?” she asked trance-like, without looking up.
“Barely. Tall, lean- all in black strips of cloth. It’s eyes though. They seemed to have been human once…or Elf-kind.” He involuntarily shuddered.
Abruptly Bridi inhaled through her teeth, “My lord, I’ll look into this. Very disturbing; blood-suckers, tall and handsome…” her muttering trailed off.
“Handsome?” Thorin’s firm hand on her shoulder stopped her. “Who says it was handsome?”
  For once in her life a retort wasn’t in ready on the tip of her tongue. Her pupils shrunk and her face grew frigid. “It was a guess. Talk in Jarlich. That’s all.”
 Without letting her go, Thorin said in a low tone, “Jarlich…” Then slowly turned to face her, “What exactly happened in Jarlich?”
“We told you.”
“All of it?”
“Of course not.”
“What?!” Thorin boomed.
“Every woman has her secrets, my lord,” she said in as meek a tone as a Dwarf-woman could muster.
 Red rage boiled in Thorin’s cheeks and eyes, “What happened?!”
Bridi held her ground, “I’m going to look into this, then I’ll tell you everything.”
 The Dwarf-king swelled to his full height, “You’d do well to tell me now.”
  Just then the door burst open and the excited messenger ran up, oblivious to his lord’s state, and handed him a letter.
“My lord! From your cousin, King Dain!”
 This intrusion threw a bucket of cold water on the fire, and Bridi breathed a sigh of relief.
Thorin glared at the cunning woman, “You have an hour!” and glancing from the letter to Bridi, he added with a growl, “I’ll wager you had something to do with this, too,” and stomped out of the room.
    As soon as the door closed behind the two men Bridi allowed her heart to beat, faster and faster. No time to mourn yet. As sure as her hair was red, that thing in Jarlich was a draegk. Intense sex appeal, cold flesh, lean, but muscular, seeming ancient, mysterious. He’d nearly had Vaenomar and Bridi shuddered to think what would’ve happened to her, had the girl not broken the spell. Heretofore she had only heard of these things in legends and very, very old wives’ tales.
 She flipped through some cracking vellum pages in a huge book of histories. Choking on the dust, she pulled down another leather bound volume and set it aside. A glance behind her assured her solitude and she reached back into the cavity left by the last book. The velvet cover was smooth against her rough hands and she carefully pulled it out.
Yáraquenta‘. ‘Ancient Tales’; Branbur had given it to her many, many years ago. It had come from an Elf friend of his in Dale, and, since he couldn’t see well enough to read anyways, he passed it on to her in hopes of safe-keeping.
 She wasn’t able to read it as fluently as the other books, but the Elven leaflets seemed to will her hand to turn them until she came to a certain tale. This would prove a good brush up on her Quenya.

    “Morgoth created all manner of evil things; werewolves, vampires, fell beasts and balrogs. His lieutenant, Sauron the Deceiver, made use of these creatures in his wars against the Light. This curse of undeath was made to seem a blessing and was bestowed in the appearance of a gift to those who bowed to the Fallen Vala. Mighty lords would never die, their power never wane, their dominion and wealth only growing. This lust for unending domination ensnared many; noble lords and weak vassals alike.
 The most dreaded of those who fell prey were the element-bending, nature-wielding Númenórean mage-lords. Because of the time that they once worshipped Melkor, they were called Black Númenóreans.
 When the enemy again seduced the most haughty and might-bearing of their number, those that watched will never forget, nor will any after. Blood ran like water and was consumed as a choice wine. The horrors of those dark days will not idly be forgotten, and though I have lived to see the end of them, I tell you: power lusts ever for more.”

  Bridi slowly closed the book and her head hung on her chest. He wanted Vaenomar. And if the girl knew the power she could have were she to join him she’d want him too.
Best she not know. And it made the urge to tell Thorin even less. But she had to tell him something.
 Instinctively her hand clutched her throat. Poor, old Branbur. She shuddered and took in a laboured breath through clenched teeth. A long exhale was cut short by the soft, rumbling thunder of his voice.
“Tell me everything.”

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

   A branch whipped her violently in the face, but didn’t catch skin thanks to her mask. Her heart pounded hard against her ribs and her feet the ground even faster. She didn’t look behind her.
As she crashed through the underbrush at breakneck speed her keen eyes searched desperately for a low branch.
 The enraged grunting squeal behind her grew ever nearer and hooves tore the soft mossy ground in vicious pursuit. Razor sharp blades of ivory inched towards the heels ahead, but just before they caught up the grey cloaked form disappeared with a wooden thud.

  The mother boar skidded to a halt and trotted back a few paces, mane bristling and quivering nostrils held high in the air, sniffing out her quarry.
 Meanwhile the agile body climbed up her rescue, wriggling through the close knit branches.
At a few metres higher Vaenomar perched more comfortably on a thick limb and stopped to catch her breath. She slung the bow off her back and threw off the arrow cover, pulling out a goose-feathered shaft.
  As the thickly-muscled swine circled around the base of her perch and scraped the ground threateningly, Vaenomar nocked her arrow. A close call that was, but she was quite safe now.  Soon her pursuant would have to return to her four little children whom Vaenomar had accidently stumbled upon playing by a stream. Boars were viciously protective, but also rather skittish creatures. She loosed the arrow and it lodged in the ground with a rattling thunk, startling the matron and sending her squealing away in to the woods, curled tail bouncing behind her.
  A few minutes later Vaenomar swung down and retrieved her arrow with a little grin.
Her stomach growled, like the frustrated noise Thorin made when he didn’t get his way, rare occasion that it was. That run had awoken her appetite and had made her back track quite a ways. By the time the sun set below the Misty Mountains in the West, she would be climbing the cold rugged path to the Halls of Azaghâl. The three and a half or so weeks she had spent scampering about in the trees had passed incredibly quickly. The days and nights didn’t have the same beginning and end to them as when she lived under a solid, stone roof. She slept when she wanted, woke when she wanted. Ate as much or as little as she pleased, sang to herself and spoke as seldom as she liked. Which, judging by lack of unfeathered company, was quite seldom aloud. The birds were pleasant enough companions, but she didn’t have to raise her voice to converse with them. And her mind was constantly on the go. Thinking, reasoning, debating, wondering- so many questions. Some she could answer just by thinking hard enough; others- would never see the light of day.
  Ribs began to show a little as her meat intake dropped drastically along with her exertion level rising considerably. With a figure, full and impressively tall as hers, Vaenomar was hardy and found missing meals to be easier than some might. When debating whether to finish the last bit of over-salty venison or to save it for the morrow, the concerned looks of Branbur or Kjar on seeing her- “You’re so scrawny! You’re bloody starving out there!”- helped her stomach it down.

   So far there had been no cause for concern in the part of the forest under her watch. Daily she moved along, some days slower than others because of terrain or the weather. A figure eight, in Mannish terms, was the basic shape of her monthly route, but she was always supplied with useful and trivial bits of scouting information by her loyal friends, the birds. They moved swiftly through dense branches and brush and their gossip even swifter. From the sighting of pale intruders covered in furs just near the southern edge to the juicy worm a certain crimson-tipped woodpecker had lucked out on last week; Vaenomar had no shortage of news. Though the worm wasn’t of much interest to her, she had inspected the area in which the Mannish hunters were spotted. There she found a few broken branches in an area of about forty paces around and then a trail of footprints and disturbed brush leading straight out of the woods. They must have been very hungry to venture into this forest. It wasn’t just the Dwarves who called it enchanted. There were plenty of woodsmen in other parts of Middle Earth, or so she had been told, but forests rumoured to be inhabited by Elven-folk, such as Greenwood the Great, the Azrad forest, and Lothlórien- other races steered clear of. Obviously, except for her.
   About two weeks prior, her trekking had led into vaguely familiar territory. To many travellers, after a time, trees and ravines and such began to all look the same. To Vaenomar the characteristics of each area remained engraved in her memory. The Elves had taught her well; too well.
  On a tree overlook facing West, Vaenomar had seen in the hazy distance the towering mallyrn. The same that grew more plentiful the more one neared an Elven city. That would be their border. With a bold line she marked Bridi’s map- ‘unfriendly territory’. Not very descriptive, but it did the job.

   As she reached the top of a steep hill her throbbing thighs demanded pause. She pulled herself into a tree and perched on a sturdy branch. The forest was quite dark now, but over the rolling tree tops the sun’s rays still shone faintly. A cold, icy wind whipped her face as she surveyed the horizon. The mountains were shaded, only the very tips of them ablaze in the fiery orange of the sunset.
  About three more hours and she’d be home. A sigh escaped her lips as she climbed down. She stopped suddenly and squinted.
Torches? On the mountain path? Were her eyes really that good?
 They moved slowly, but not in stealth, obviously, not with torches. And their numbers were between fifteen and twenty-five, hard to tell from that far away. Perhaps it was Thorin and his men returning from an outing. But that was an awful lot of lights for their small numbers. She doubted if they were enemies. And then she remembered an overheard conversation of Bridi and Branbur.
 They were a humorous duo, always teasing and poking fun at each other. They had been talking about one of Thorin’s cousins, Dáin, Lord of the Iron Hills.
Vaenomar sighed even deeper than before. Visitors. Not that guests wouldn’t make for a welcome change at the Halls, but she wasn’t fond of meeting new people. Or even dealing with people. All those new eyes and faces, frowning in disapproval and gaping at Thorin’s long-legged pet woman.
  She slapped herself, “Damn! I’m becoming a reclusive, grumpy, old hermit and I’ve barely been away month.”
  Her self-chastisement did nothing to quicken her pace, however, and her tired feet trudged along slowly. It would be good to see everyone. Bridi even, and dear old Branbur. Kjar. Hopefully Voltarag? And…of course, Thorin. Well at least he’d have to be there, with his visiting cousin and everything, not out chasing goblins and wargs and such. Always on the go, she thought. Much like herself now. But she was alone. Her own master; at least in the forest. She took no orders and gave none. He had to lead, to be strong always, to be just, make the right choices, be invincible. She envied him not one bit. It wasn’t power she wanted, but freedom.

   The fresh, cool scent of mountain conifers wafted past her in a breeze from the North as she neared the edge of the treeline. The closer she drew to home the more she wondered about the torches. It probably was Thorin’s cousin, but it seemed strange that she had heard nothing else about his visit. Dwarves always planned everything far, far ahead of time, and almost never broke those engagements. If Dáin was planning this visit in advance then Thorin would most assuredly know about it. So many times had he spoken of his family and extended family and how much they would love her that she was sure he’d not miss this opportunity for them to meet. A knot tightened in her stomach. Maybe he preferred her not to come. She stopped in her tracks.
  Now she was looking for any excuse to stall. With a distinct Dwarven grumble in her throat she forced herself to push on, holding in her mind as bait the images of the dear ones she wished to see at home.

~~~~~~~~

    Outside, on the jagged slope of the mountain, the night was crisp and quiet. Wind was the only movement and it pushed the circling mist in and around the towering peaks. All was still and solemn, and the small, dusky shadow that made its way up the mountain could never had anticipated the change of scene inside the stony Halls.
The gate guard hadn’t seen her. Snoring away loudly, his head was thrown back on his chair and he was all wrapped in a thick bear hide, steam billowing out of his open mouth. His mug of mead now cold, a plate sat next to it with a large cleaned bone and remnants of other feast foods.
  Either Kjar had randomly decided to treat whose ever shift it was or the merry-making for Dáin’s arrival had begun.
 She passed the cold, unlit home and forge of Branbur and smiled. He would be at the festivities as early as possible. A quiet moment to chat with him would be a prized rarity this time, but he’d doubtlessly have a plethora of questions for her.
   Other thoughts temporarily succeeded in taking her mind off the impending excitement. But the closer she drew to the door to the Halls the tighter her stomach grew. She gnawed on her lip.
 Just in front of the heavy postern door, her hand resting on the opening mechanism, the nervous newcomer filled her lungs with the calming night air. Then the metal-plated, stone grated open and clanged shut, and any sound it made was lost in the sea of revelry and feasting.

    The torches in the sleeping chambers were being used elsewhere, leaving the corridors very dark. A slight glow issued around a corner, indicating some form of activity. The stealthy sneak slowed rapidly and silenced her already wary footsteps. The stone was hard and cold on her feet and the air felt closer than ever in the forest. As she peeped around the corner she found the hall unoccupied. But the light- it seemed to be coming from her room. She inched closer, back flat against the wall- as if sneaking up on deadly enemies.
 The accents were foreign, but slightly familiar. Some of the ‘r’ pronunciations and inflections reminded her of…Bridi, but male versions.
 “Aye, his lordship won’t mind where you put his armour! So petty! Just make sure he can reach the tankard from his bed and that the pillows are shaken up.”
 “I did the pillows,” muttered the other, “Nice room this. Hope whose ever it was don’t mind too much.”
  The other scoffed pompously, “I’m sure it is an honour for anyone to give up their bed in deference to the Lord of the Iron Hills. Wouldn’t you?”

   Vaenomar didn’t wait to hear the answer, though by the loud reaction of the inquirer it probably made for a good laugh.
Unsure where to go now that her room was off limits, she slipped past the open door while the two Dwarves were occupied, and moved softly down the hall. One side of her lip was almost raw from nervously chewing it, and her tensed shoulders ached. She should’ve waited another week, her conscience scolded, but then Thorin would worry.
His door was just barely ajar and it was black and empty in the room.
  She proceeded down the hall hoping to find someone familiar. A sigh of relief escaped her on spotting a thin beam of candle light under a door. But why was Bridi not with the rest of the clan? Despite the fact that it was most likely the Dwarf-woman herself who wanted Vaenomar absent on Dáin’s arrival, whatever her reasons, she was better company than no one in these spacious halls. It was unnerving to feel like a visitor in a place that had served as home for a long while. Anyways, if Bridi really felt the young woman’s presence was compromising enough, she would tell her, without reserve, and send her packing. At least this was how Vaenomar imagined it happening.
 She took in a deep breath and knocked, “Bridi?”
“Come in,” came the first familiar voice in a month.
  Vaenomar quietly opened the door and slipped inside. Bridi’s back was to her and she was apparently rapt in something for she didn’t stir when the visitor entered. As she observed in silence the glimmer of gems and metallic threads, Vaenomar couldn’t help but gape at the spectacle before her. A sea of coppery locks cascaded down a blue-green back, while tight braids of four strands were decorated with metal trinkets and stone beads. The dress, if it could be called simply that, was unlike any dress Vaenomar had seen before. It came down in precisely cut layers, each differing in its decoration while similar in hues. Armoured hip guards and pauldrons of hammered and polished brass finished the stunning ensemble with that overpowering touch of Bridi. On her wrists were a matching set of clasps, so elegantly wrought in a delicate fashion they might be mistaken for Elf work. They were the most feminine accoutrement she’d ever seen Bridi wear. She cleared her throat and the even more impressive, chest-encompassing necklace immediately caught Vaenomar’s eye as the Dwarf turned around.

 “Well, well. You’re back then.”
Vaenomar smiled and nodded, though surprised at the lack of coldness. She seemed to be expecting her.
“I’m sure you fared well.”
“I did,” answered Vaenomar and finally swallowed the nervous lump in her throat, “You look beautiful, Bridi.”
The Dwarf snorted, “Something like that,” and pulled open the drawer of a short dresser. “Your turn. Better get washed up a bit. You smell like wet leaves. Throw your things over in that corner. It’ll do for now.”
 Vaenomar hurredly obliged. Her manner was rather warm for Bridi Flame-braid, but she seemed, to Vaenomar, to have a cloud hanging over her. A touch of unmasked sadness in her eyes wasn’t in keeping with the rest of the spirit around the place. Vaenomar neatly folded her cape and mask atop her bags and weaponry and faced the waiting Dwarf.

  “My,” mused Bridi, her thickly muscled biceps bulging as they folded across her torso, “You look like a starved pony. Your clothes are falling off you already.”
That remark was anticipated.
 “I hope you fit into these.” A mass of deeply-hued suede and wool unfurled to the floor, revealing a long, thick garment, detailed with real silver threads and onyx studded silver clasps down the bosom and the sides. Similar to Bridi’s only in the amount of effort and elegance put into it, the closest way of describing it was as a robe. The front of the legs was open and the skirt flowed down to the back of the ankles. Her pale skin would contrast perfectly against the purple-black of the garb. A leather strip, cut and sewed in rigid Dwarven beauty, clasped behind her neck and attached to the front of the dress just below the sternum.
If Bridi had let her, she would’ve much preferred to sit and admire every square inch of the garment, but a harshly cleared throat pulled her out of the gleaming threads and lush textures.
As she slipped into the different pieces, arranged them and tried to fix her tangled, mass of hair Bridi stood by in silence, aiding her when she needed it but otherwise her thoughts far away.
“Is everything alright?” Vaenomar asked softly, clasping a silver ringlet on the end of a long braid.
 She nodded absentmindedly, “Well enough.” Her eyes cleared and she looked up, as if throwing off a spell, “Just…no Elven fancies around Lord Dáin and mind anything you say in his hearing. If you say anything at all…”
 Vaenomar smiled to herself; Bridi knew her well.
“And don’t bother with anything he says, either. Especially now, after he’s been drinking for a while. Rotten bastard he can be,” she muttered under her breath. With a comforting pat on her companion’s shoulder the Dwarf said seriously, “There’s a lot to talk about. Later though. Lord Thorin’s itching to see you.”
  “Thank you for everything Bridi,” the young woman said earnestly.
“Wait till tomorrow. You’ve got the night ahead of you.”

Image

Pen sketch of Bridi’s ‘gown’ design.

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 26 ~Reunited~

Chapter 26
~Reunited~

 Havoc spread as quickly through the town as the fire on the dry plains-grass surrounding it. Cries went up and people ran here and there, some organizing buckets for water from the well and the rest taking cover as deep into the stone of the Mead Hall as they could.
  Thorin tore down the stairs of the inn, barking orders for the proprietress and her daughter to douse all lights and get into the cellar, while buckling his weapons belt tight. The clatter of Dwarf-steel sounded through the inn.
  Once the troop got to the door, Thorin stopped Branbur, “I won’t force you to- but, if you wished, you might stay and make sure Anya is safe-“
 “My place is with my Prince, my lord. We won’t let them past the wall.”
Thorin nodded, though his heart bode ill, “Then be careful.” Turning to the rest he roared, “Baruk Khazad!!” and led the charge out onto the frozen street and towards the fiery fray.

  By the time the few seasoned, bearded warriors plunged into the battle the town guard, valiant in their effort, but untrained and lacking in discipline, had lost four of their already small number, either to wounds of fear. The enemy was made up of a ragged bunch of bandits and outlaws, hungry for food and lusty for riches. Old Estenna had fought off these raids before, but never had the enemy been so brutally lethal and determined.
  Thorin’s first blow landed heavily in the back of an unsuspecting bear of a man, over twice his height and breadth. The fire in the charging Dwarves’ eyes was matched that which blazed on the field.
  Nearby a town guard in a mail hauberk grappled with a large-boned woman with maniacal hair and wielding two short swords as if in a deathly dance. Thorin took down another, using his Oakenshield as a bludgeon, after a jarring clash of steel axe on solid quarterstaff and turned to aid his ally. He was greeted by a spurt of hot liquid in the face and immediately was charged by the blood-splattered woman. The gore from the fallen guard blinded him only for a second, but long enough for his opponent to launch an attack on him. One of her knives barely pierced his shoulder, and he only just blocked the other from his throat with an armed gauntlet. With brute strength he seized her hand and twisted it, his bellowing mixed with her raging scream. One arm he cracked behind her, the other, still grasping her sword, he plunged into her throat.
Wrenching the bloodied blade from her dead grip he cast it in the arm of one marauder about to draw a bow.
   Branbur’s dual greatswords whirled around him like scythes of death. None could near him without losing their life or at least a limb or two. As his visage was painted in the warm red of his foes’ lifeblood, he laughed and taunted, almost as happy as if reunited with his lost lover. The old bloodlust was back. A blonde scraggled head sailed through the air and fell, unceremoniously, with a thud on another lifeless body. As one sword clashed and brought the enemy weapon to the ground, his other dove into the rib cage and spilled innards and organs.   The sword master spun, his right arm at the high guard and his left sweeping low, and passed clean through a pair of limbs. The screams of the hewn enemy he silenced, in pity, playing the executioner to his head.
  Thorin looked up just in time to see the maddened smith bearing down on a big brute with a flail and a pronged mace. Too near to that pair, however, a young member of the guard struggled to retrieve his spear and shield.
 “Boy!!” Thorin roared and willing his reach farther, caught him by the sleeve and yanked him out of harm’s way. A long blade, glistening crimson, sliced the air just past the boy’s ear. Breathless he looked to Thorin. The Dwarf nodded, “He’s got bad eyes- stay out of his way.”

  “Thorin!” he heard Drisgund’s voice surface above the din, “They’re trying to scale the gate!”
He whipped around to see three stealthy sneaks, trying to hide their torches in front of them, with ropes and hooks at the gate.
  “To the gate!” Thorin bellowed and the young guard and three others followed him.

  A final stroke to the guts ended Branbur’s opponent. Staggering with adrenaline and fatigue the swordmaster surveyed the field. He panted, still with a crazed laughter in his lungs, and wiped the gore out of his eyes.
“Any more? Come on, don’t be shy!” he cried and flourished the dripping blades. None rose to his challenge. He could see only the blur of fire light on faces; now mostly just the blaze on the dry grass.
 Five or six outlaws, realizing the unexpected odds, decided they preferred life and took to their heels. The few that had tried the way of stealth and tried to steal into the hamlet with fire, were dispatched quickly with an arrow in the back or Thorin’s axe severing their limbs.
   But for a few stubborn fighters, the death or glory type, the battlefield was quiet. The last wounded enemy was silenced and Gorlath called out, “Victory!”
 Thorin looked back at the blaze on the field and the pitifully few left standing. He jogged towards the carnage and his sweating face was met by a sudden gust of air from the west.
Strange, as there was no wind this night.
  The Dwarves and the guards paused to catch their breath in this calm after the storm. As Thorin scanned the black and red field, scattered over with lifeless bodies, parts and weapons, an object floated gracefully down in front of him. It was on fire, and its tendrils curled and crackled as it was consumed by it. A feather? He looked past it.
And his soul fell as if into the depths of Angband’s pits. All breath was torn from his chest, and his eyes, wide and riveted, thought they dreamed.

  Branbur, his oldest friend and teacher, was suspended a meter in the air, his solid body limp and lifeless. Then he fell, collapsing on the ground in a pathetic pile. The blackest form of darkness enshrouded the thing that had held him. It moved forward, not floating but with a bodily form. Only then could Thorin move, and without any thoughts he rushed at it, uttering a blood-curdling cry of horror and bile. Before he came even fifteen paces from it, Thorin could see through his tear streaked eyes, the beautiful, but cruel features of a tall, gaunt man. He could not make out if he was Elf or Man, but his rage only boiled over like a volcano.
“DIE!” bellowed the Dwarf and with all his strength hurled his axe into the heart of the creature’s black robes. Just when the steel should’ve pierced flesh and shattered bones, the fiend’s form dissipated and transformed into a screeching, flapping mass of bats that flew at the Dwarf, then disappeared into the black of night.
 Thorin fell to his knees, mouth gaping, and groped for another weapon. But it was gone.
“Come back, you coward!” he roared and panted, and his hand met with a cold steel blade. As he tried to take it up he met with resistance and looked to the cause. The heavy body of a small man lay drenched in blood atop it. Thorin recognized the armour in a second. It was from Erebor.

 “Branbur!” he choked and turned him onto his back. Blood on his face, but no injuries that he could see. “Bran!” he begged and shook him, “Hear me! Your king calls you!”
An eyelid twitched, “Aye, but so does my Reykin…”
  Thorin gasped, thanking Mahal that he was alive. “No- she can wait. Where are you wounded?” Thorin felt a firm hand laid solid on his shoulder.
  “Not this time, lad. I- I’ve got no more left,” the dying smith struggled.
“No, no! We’re getting you into the city, damnit! Where are you wounded?!” He made to lift his friend up frantically, but Branbur stopped him.
  “Burn me out here. It’s plenty lovely…” he said with a pained grin. “Tell my bonny Vaenomar that I’ll miss her. Hopefully I’ll see old Thrór- I’ll be sure to tease him for eternity…” his laugh turned into a choking fit.
 “Bran! Don’t give up. You’re not dying yet, old fool,” Thorin encouraged and noticed the old smith’s hand tugging weakly at his collar.
 Branbur muttered with laboured breathing, “He asked me…something. I didn’t answer, but- ah, it doesn’t matter now… Long life to you, lad, and don’t let her grieve for me… Damned eyes-” and his head fell back limp over his king’s arm with a final exhale.
All was silent at Branbur’s passing.

  Hundreds of leagues away, deep in the Western forest, all the early morning bird song ceased and Vaenomar’s heart went cold and her body felt clammy. Tears rolled down her cheeks and she sat heavily down on a fallen log. Her heart was as dark as the sleeping woods around her and, though she knew not why, she grieved.

  Thorin laid his old friend gently on the grass, closing his unseeing eyes. Branbur’s cold hand gripped at his collar even in death. As Thorin laid it on his breast with his other, something caught his eye. So it wasn’t a black magic that killed him!
 He tore open the laces on his fallen companion’s hauberk and started in horror. Deep, narrow gashes bloodied his neck and chest, almost like fang marks from a warg. Thorin shuddered, his entire body frozen in dread.
  Branbur’s words, ‘I’ve got no more left…’ Blood; he’d been drained of blood!
There were no other marks or wounds on his body that could have slain him. Thorin quickly pulled the neck piece back around the Dwarf’s throat and paused to think.
 The others had seen nothing, as they kept a mourning and respectful distance.
Where had that thing come from? He shuddered again and forced himself to his feet. It obviously wasn’t working with the marauders, they didn’t even know it was there. But it was after him…and his men.
  His eyes met with the others’, standing around him with downcast faces. He wasn’t sure how much of the creature they had seen, but all keenly felt their fellow’s death. Thorin mustered the rest of his strength, “We’ve lost the best among us this night,” they nodded, “But we’ve prevailed and the town is safe. Hail the glorious dead and those that live in victory!”
Dwarves, guards, and townsfolk alike took up his cry. There was always the need for a strong leader, even when that one felt as down and unsure as the rest. Thorin gazed into the distance, his thoughts bent on this new found enemy. The hate and rage he had burned with on seeing the thing’s features had been mixed with terrifying familiarity. Not the face itself, as nothing about it had been recognizable, but the feeling on beholding it. He’d had it before. It was handsome…yet indistinguishable as to Elf or Man. A haughty, cruel beauty. It reminded him of…

Vaenomar.

 “No!” With a sharp jerk of the head Thorin forced it all out of his mind. It was all black sorcery. He would talk to Bridi; she had a clear head and knew lots outside the typical Dwarven learning. But now it was time to send Branbur’s longing spirit to the ancestral halls to meet his lover.

  To the west burned a reeking bonfire, unwatched, unmourned, full of enemy corpses. The great bier bearing the late swordsmith and master, friend and trainer to the Kings Under the Mountain, burn high against the Eastern sky. The flames, as hot as those that had engulfed the Dwarf’s fierce passion, now mixed with the blood- red sunrise and a chant as low and solemn as thunder in the mountains rumbled. His fellow Dwarves mourned him and sang of his victory, even in death.
  Thorin’s deep bass eventually faded out and he, with his head hung on his chest, turned away from the flames. Nearby, the townsfolk mourned their losses and dug graves, as was their custom, with the wailing and weeping of sorrowful matrons.
Looking on from a distance Thorin sadly mused, “That old sot never would have told Bridi… And now he’s with his woman…” He swallowed hard, lost in his wandering thoughts. In his hand he gripped the heavy hilt of one of Branbur’s greatswords. He’d saved one for Bridi, and the other for Vaenomar. The closest things the smith had to children.
 Then a glint of orange light caught in the angular runes etched in one side of the blade. Branbur always loved inscribing his works; some were quite clever, others poetic, but all with a touch of his natural humour.

 “I drink like a fish; but not of ale or of water. My name is Thirst. Of Blood.”

Thorin’s jaw tightened. And some were prophetic, he thought with a shudder.
 “Be at peace, friend,” he muttered. “You’ll never be forgotten and your death shall be avenged, I swear it!”