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!

 

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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 25 ~The World Ahead~

Chapter 25
~The World Ahead~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 23
~Dusting off the Past~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

           Wholly and truly yours,
                                              Alcarín”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Voltarag??”

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

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

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

 

Image

 

Vaenomar in Dwarf Armour (heavy leather).

pencil on paper.

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 22 ~Silent Leave-Taking~

Chapter 22
~Silent Leave-Taking~

 Though the moon shone brightly, its silver beams making the leaves of the mallorn trees glow with the light of Telperion, for Ëaròn the night was blacker than his father’s heart that day, so many years ago.
 A few paces off the main way a bubbling stream coursed parallel, surrounded by foliage. The forest was damp and the soft moss was a wet but comfortable cushion on the stone on which he sat. As a large cloud, grey and white and glowing at the edges like white-hot silver, passed over the moon, the brook was darkened. The mithril disk showed itself again and a beam shot down through a break in the leaves far above and cast itself on the foam and glossy rocks in the stream. All but the rushing water was silenced and even the merry brook seemed quieter and more subdued tonight. The owl and the night-thrush called not their mates, nor did the crickets peep their nightly song.
 A huge duskmoth fluttered silently over and landed on Ëaròn’s knee. He watched as it opened and closed its wings, silvery-green dust leaving tiny trails of stars on the black cloth. A cold tear splashed on his lap as he watched the lovely creature. One single tear; his father would not have wanted more. He swallowed the rest and took in a deep breath of clean night air. The moth fluttered its wings and rose delicately into the air.
  Hours had passed since his father’s death had been announced to him. On and off he had been thinking and not thinking. Watching the night life around him and then seeing nothing but the darkness and emptiness of his soul.
  The sound of voices, jovial and pleasant, grated on his nerves. Through the trees he saw two slender figures walking side by side, the moonlight bright on their golden heads. They were followed, a few paces back, by the stately, graceful figure of Lord Arendial. In front the lithe figure of the handsome prince was arm in arm with Tairiel.
 Ëaròn bit his tongue so it bled and turned swiftly away. That was a match of perfection, surely.
The prince was staying with them while he was in Taurëmith. It had taken Ëaròn only minutes to fall head over heels in love with Tairiel; he doubted the Prince would take much longer.
He bore him no ill will, though, and simply tried to block the sound of their happy conversation out of his ears. Just before the party passed out of earshot, the words, “So you’ll come then? My father would be delighted to-” seeped into his ears from the gallant voice of the prince.
 Then Ëaròn realized he’d lost the only two people he had left. And in one night. Gone from his life and his reach…for good.
  A cool drip of dew fell on his cheek from a leaf nearby, inviting the held back floodgates to join in. He hung his head and with a shuddering breath let them flow down his face and onto the mossy ground.
 As he clenched his fist he felt the object the prince had given him from his father, sweaty and warm now. It was a ring, he made out through his tear drenched eyes. One of foreign craftsmanship. From Dale, he thought, Dwarven-made. He tried it on his big fingers, but it failed to fit any. A woman’s ring. A wedding ring. It only made him choke and weep harder, his silent shudders racking his body.

   Lightly clad in a wispy sleeping gown Tairiel looked out into the shimmering night. Her father’s guest was more charming and good-looking than she could’ve imagined and the night had been an enjoyable one, but in her heart was a pang of sorrow and guilt. Ëaròn was out there somewhere. Alone, with no one to comfort him. If the prince wasn’t there and her father still awake she would have, without a second thought, slipped out in secret to find him. She wiped the mist from her eyes. First thing in the morning she would go to him and comfort him, just as he had done for her.
 Wrapping herself in a blanket for sleep she prayed to the Valar to give her friend strength. “Tomorrow,” she whispered, “I’ll go then…”
But tomorrow would be too late.

~~~~~~~~~

  Before the sun had risen and its rays had time to warm the frosty leaves, Ëaròn had packed a small bag of provisions and clothes, belted on his Dwarf-scimitar, equipped his father’s quiver and bow and strapped on the few pieces of leather armour he owned and said goodbye to his little, quiet dwelling.
 As he neared the gates of the city the guard, from high up in his post in the tree, called out, “Whence go you, friend, so soon after the moon sleeps?”
“I go to join the Glade-watchers, friend,” he called back, his now steady voice saturated with sadness.
The Elf-guard inclined his head, “Then I salute you, my friend. Only be warned, though, that Captain Alcarín is a stern and hard leader. Or so I have been told by many.”

“Thank you,” said Ëaròn resolutely, as he passed through the small postern gate, “But there is nothing left for me here.”
As he walked he told himself not to look back. He left behind him sadness, but also love. His disobedient feet stopped and turned around. Just before he entered the cool, dark of the sleeping forest he clasped his hand to his heart, his palm feeling the little ring hung around his neck, and blinked back a tear.
“Goodbye Tairiel.”
And with that he turned his back on Taurëmith and disappeared into the forest.

~~~~~~~~

Having consumed no wine at the banquet last night, Tairiel easily awoke bright and early, before her father or even their princely guest arose. She threw on a warm velvet cape and walked quickly down the steps of the levels, shivering a little from the cool morning. Hardly anyone was awake. She hoped she wouldn’t disturb Ëaròn, though many times early in the morning she had heard his hammer hard at work.
  The lowest level was almost completely shaded, only a slight hint of the orange sunrise touched the earth now. As Tairiel neared Ëaròn’s home she listened for his forge-hammer, but in vain.
 Her heart sank lower, compassion and concern for him growing every moment. Though she knew it wasn’t any of her business, she had asked the prince that night. As delicately as he could manage he informed her that Ëaròn’s father was missing, respectfully leaving out personal details. Tairiel assumed the worse and now prepared herself, just outside Ëaròn’s door, to be as comforting as she could to the kind, young man, now so alone. She tapped lightly, the lower level dwellings often had doors instead of open doorways covered with cloth. There was no answer and the house was dark. Perhaps he was a heavy sleeper, so she knocked again, a little harder. Still no answer. She glanced around to make sure no one was watching. But why did it matter? She could associate with whom ever she wanted to.
  Rounding the back, she found his smithy unoccupied and the coals of his forge cold.
“Ëaròn?” she called out, louder than before, “Are you here?” He voice fell flat.
 The market stalls weren’t open this early, nor the Training barracks today. The sound of light, shuffling footsteps made her dash to the other side of the house.
“Ëaròn?” But no one was anywhere to be seen. Was he avoiding her on purpose? That sound had been much too quiet for his big feet. She returned to the back of the house and sat on a bench. She waited, as patiently as she was able, for fifteen minutes, but still no movement, voices or anything. On a workbench near his forge lay an assortment of hammers, tongs, other tools, a pair of thick gloves, some sooty towels and a large, tightly wrapped, oblong bundle. She stood up and investigated it. The contents felt metallic and sharp, like sword blades unfitted with grips. In the string that bound the package was caught a piece of parchment that read: ~Vilenas~ in a sturdy, bold handwriting. It was a delivery he had to make.
  Without a second thought she scooped it under her arm and trotted off towards the Training barracks.

  She knew the old battle master would be there no matter the day and awake no matter the hour.
She entered quietly and saw him, sure enough, sitting up straight at a desk, penning something down.
“Vilenas.” she tried not to startle him. His unfailing ears had heard her silent entrance. “Yes?” he replied, turning slowly. “Ah Tairiel! You’re out early, my lady, especially after last night.-“
She handed him the package.
“Ah…the swords for the barracks…” his brow furrowed. “Is the young man alright?” he asked concerned.
“That’s just it. I can’t find him. I found these by his forge…and it was cold and looked abandoned.” She appeared more worried and caring than he’d ever seen her.
“It is very early,” he encouraged, “He could still be asleep.”
“I’m quite certain he’s not at home, Vilenas. I always hear his forge in the morning…well, at least lately.”
“Have you spoken to him recently?”
She swallowed, “Not… really.”
He placed his hand on her arm, “I see your situation, my dearest. Fret not, I’ll find him. Go home and entertain your guest and I’ll make sure he contacts you…somehow or other. And thank you for delivering this to me.”
  She was visibly relieved and, thanking her trusted friend, hurried back home.

  But as soon as Tairiel disappeared out of his door, Vilenas lost his look of assurance. That boy was never late on an order and he had promised it yesterday evening. His sharp senses had caught something of ill news coming for the young smith last night and that they were delivered by the visiting prince.
He stepped out the doorway and looked around, half hoping to see the familiar, large silhouette of the black-haired Elf and bulwark of a fighter. Instead, following a good distance behind Tairiel was a small shape, furtive and seeming to wish to keep hidden. That Elf was not familiar, he thought to himself. Slowly and with a sure step the aged grand master-at-arms made his way down the road to the smith’s house.
Ever since he had quit at the barrack’s training he had lost contact with Ëaròn but for the commission he’d recently made, and now received. He was shy and had been a challenge to work with in training, but only because of his vastly outpowering the others. But Vilenas sensed something deeper and darker in the soul of the black-haired, pale Elf whose father had disappeared a few months since.
Just as Tairiel had described, he found the house to be empty and cool. He entered and looked around just to be sure; an old Elf could get away with just about anything. On finding the beds undisturbed he continued out back to the forge. It was cold, the embers dead. The tools left carelessly on the workbench, apron tossed on the table and no materials in sight. This forge was done. Suddenly a pang of sadness and melancholy entered his heart. He knew what had happened. To make certain, he walked down to the main gate.

“Master Vilenas, the light of Laurelin bless you.”
Quel amrun, Dorias. How passed the night?”
“Well. My replacement is coming soon.”
“Anyone leave in the night or early morning?”
The Elf paused then answered, “Yes, actually. I don’t recall his name, but the lar- the black-haired, tall fellow who runs the forge. Left just before sunrise.”
He was gone then.
“Ëaròn,” called up Vilenas and he turned away slowly. Disappeared just like his father. He didn’t know that status of their relationship, but he did know Tairiel would be very upset. He looked up at hearing footsteps behind him. Dorias caught up, “In case it matters, I remember him saying he went to join the Glade-keepers.”
“Did he indeed? Thank you, Dorias.” the old Elf’s heart was raised. Well he wasn’t gone for good, at least. Captain Alcarín, the leader of the Glade-keepers, had been his student once. He had always been intensely ambitious, passionate and not so very gentle, which had led to many arguments and difficulties.
Vilenas prayed internally for the young Elf on his new journey and planned how and what to tell Tairiel. At least the tale was better than he’d thought before.

~~~~~~~~~~~

  “Aich!” Vaenomar squeaked and sucked the blood dripping from her finger. Wiping the huge needle on her breeches she resumed her attempts at mending her armour. Leather, no matter how supple, was never fun to sew, especially for someone who hated sewing. Other than a few snags and scuffs, other than visual aberrance, her main set of Dwarf-armour had kept relatively whole and unhurt. That was excluding the nasty gash the damned tree creature had put in the rib area. She rubbed her torso, flinching partially at feeling the bruises and mostly from remembering the countless injuries she sustained on that part of her body. Her ribs were permanently misshapen, and she guessed that she was nearly as scarred up as Thorin. Recalling the few times she’d actually seen that body, though, she wasn’t sure. He was covered in battle-remnants: red gashes, white lines that were once deep cuts. There had been a long thin patch of bare skin on his hairy chest which, she remembered, was one of the things she had, herself, sewn up for him.

 “Ach!” she hissed and sucked her sufficiently bleeding finger again. It didn’t pay to be sidetracked while sewing. As she finished the last tight stitches and knotted the twine, she inspected her work.
“That should hold,” she nodded approvingly. Far from being angry about the rend in her armour and the many injuries she’d taken, Vaenomar thought to herself, “I’d gladly welcome the chance for more. The chance…not…necessarily the pain or the wounds.”
A heavy clang of the metal door into the mountain made her look up, startled out of her musings. That was odd. Usually ordinary traffic used the postern gate.
She threw on a bear hide for extra warmth and stepped towards the door. A gleam of light caught her eye, beckoning. Thorin’s gift axe seemed to beg her not to leave. She hesitated, then sighed, throwing off the hide.
“Alright,” she said aloud, as if to a pet or a favourite child, “But you can’t come with me after.”
She settled down and whipped out the Dwarf-king’s whetstone, which she had kept as a treasured remembrance of that night. Her sense of duty had just had won a little battle over her curiosity; a mighty victory, even if it was just a choice between sharpening an axe or investigating a noise. Somewhere in between was a good balance, one that she would have to find through trial and error.
It’d never do to leave a valorous weapon lying around like that after being rudely blunted and abused against wood- a substance it was definitely not made for hacking up.
After a rest of two days and three nights Vaenomar found she was itching for action, occupation…something to do! The fortress of Azaghâl, with all its inhabitants, would ever be her home, but tasting the freedom of life beyond the walls once again made her desire it more and more. The thought of tramping around the open countryside, ever ready for a fearsome, unbalanced skirmish with goblins and the like and trying to match up to Thorin and his Dwarves’ standards, raised the hair on her neck. The last bit especially. The many ‘what ifs’ were always on her mind. But then, of course, that all depended on Thorin and whether or not he would ever take her with them.
The axe blade sharp enough to cut clean through an arm, Vaenomar got up, setting the weapon gently on the table, pulled on her weighty fur and went to find out what stirred under the mountain.

Noiselessly Vaenomar’s feet tread through the massive halls. The blunt clack of goat hooves went rhythmically down one shaft, following steady Dwarf soles. She could hear Kjar’s shuffling echo softly through the halls from the kitchen. Nothing new there. Deep in a secluded room the continual fall of a hammer rang out. Vaenomar kept walking, the huge fur trailing behind her like a train, until a faint sound, almost the hum of a bee’s wings, caught her ears. She stopped and turned, scanning the area for the source.
A single, barely audible “Vaenomar.
The door to Bridi’s study was cracked open and a faint flicker of torchlight issued out. She crept nearer and craned her ears.
“I don’t care who she is. She’s mine and isn’t going anywhere.” There was a silent pause followed by a suspicious, “You didn’t…mention it to your ‘woodland friends‘ did you, perchance?”

  “Master Dwarf, don’t be ridiculous! I am here trying to help you. If you are going to be as dastardly stubborn as the rest of your folk then I am wasting my time. I shall take my indispensable counsel elsewhere!”

Both were quiet; tempers cooling, pride settling.

  “I am grateful for the information you deigned to share with me, wizard, but I can’t…I won’t up and run off for that. I can’t drop everyone here and back home, not now. We’re not ready for that. Not yet…if ever.”
 A sigh was accompanied by a large puff of smoke. “As you wish Thorin, son of Thráin, but there may come a time that you wish you had heeded my counsel.”
“There may; nothing is certain.”
“Some things are certain.”

Just as Thorin opened his mouth to respond hotly a shadow darkened the doorway. The Dwarf got up quickly and the wizard’s face brightened.
“Ah speaking of the witch,” said Tharkûn chuckling, pretending to ignore Thorin’s angry look to hush him.
“Tharkûn! Oh, I’m so sorry to intrude,” she lied. She’d rather Thorin not get in a fight with the conjuror.
“Ah, no dear. Our guest was just leaving…” Thorin said plainly as he took Vaenomar’s arm.
The wizard raised himself to full height and nodded, “Yes, yes. So many places to be- no time for rest,” he said with a meaningful glance at Thorin.
“Oh,” Vaenomar looked downcast, “You sure you can’t at least stay for dinner? I’m sure Kjar was-” Thorin’s stone grasp tightened on her wrist- “Planning on-” it grew tighter-“You staying,” she finished defiantly.
Tharkûn pretended not to noticed, but grinned internally. So, Thorin’s little lamb could bite then? Maybe it was a good thing he was so protective of her.
“Thank you, young lady, but I must be off without further delay. I’ve already stayed too long.”

  As she followed the wizard to walk him out to the gates, Vaenomar ignored Thorin’s glare that attempted to burn holes in her back. She didn’t know exactly what they had been talking about- but as silence had been cast like a spell the moment she walked in, it obviously wasn’t something for her ears. Thus, most likely about her. How galling to know people were talking about you…And probably concerning things she knew nothing about herself. Of course he would never tell her. That stubborn, rock solid nature of Thorin’s got him into more trouble than he cared to admit. Of late it had begun to rub off a little on her, reawakening that fire of defiance so long dormant in her person.
 “I’m sorry for the way he acts,” Vaenomar said gently, handing the old man a small bag of supplies from Kjar.
Tharkûn smiled, “He’s the same as his father and grandfather before him- not even half as bad! Do take care of him, he needs you.”
She looked at the ground uncomfortably, but nodded.
“And, anadûni kali, take care out there.”
She raised her head, surprised more at his words than the language in which he spoke that she understood. “Out there,” she murmured.
 “Tell your king to look for me in the future- but not here. I just hope it’s not too late by the time he realizes it,” the old man snorted and adjusted his belt. With that Tharkûn set off down the steep, loose slope of the mountain, no Mearas to guide his travels this time. As he rounded a craggy outcrop and disappeared from her sight, Vaenomar thought on the few, but heavy words they’d shared. She would never see him again, at least in this life.

~~~~~~~~~

 “But where did he go? Why did he have to leave so soon? What did he want with us anyways?” Vaenomar asked with a mouthful of hot stew as Thorin, Bridi and she shared a rare meal together. Thorin just stared absently into his bowl as if it held the future in its chunky, steaming goodness.
  Bridi glanced at Thorin, knowing Vaenomar’s interest was never easily brushed aside. “He had business concerning Thorin’s father,” she said slowly, careful to stop if Thorin bade it. But he seemed to only half listen.
 Vaenomar raised her brows, her interest even more piqued. “Oh? It is secret?”
Bridi rolled her eyes and sighed, about to reply with spent patience, when Thorin broke in, shaking off his stupor.
 “Not secret, dear. Just…complicated.” When he looked up again her inquisitive gaze was yet undeterred. He, in turn, let out a sigh, “And he wanted me to…” he paused and Vaenomar braced herself for something concerning her.
“Nevermind, it matters not,” he finished and got up to refill his mug.
  Vaenomar gasped, “What?!” she almost shrieked. “You- you’re not just-” she growled deep in her throat and jumped out of her seat, surprising both Dwarves immensely. She bravely barred his way to the ale barrel. “You can’t just cut off like that!”
The Dwarf-king choked and tried to keep from laughing, but her furious face was almost too much. “I do what I please, duzka! Now fill this up,” he shoved the tankard into her hand and strolled back to his seat.
Bridi’s smoulder furrowed down to her nose bridge and she kept her eyes on her meal.
“I’ll bring it if you finish your damn sentence,” Vaenomar’s clear, womanly voice rang out behind him.
He grinned mischievously from ear to ear and stroked his beard. “You’ll bring that ale because I told you to, girl. Now- hurry up about it,” he didn’t turn around. He couldn’t let the lass see how sinfully much he was enjoying this. Her long, sure steps made their way back to the table and she slowly lowered herself onto her bench, keeping eye contact with him the entire time.
No ale, no mug.
 “Tharkûn wanted you to…?” she repeated slowly, those naughty red lips teasing him, unwittingly.
 He forced down the unwanted urges that kept arising, “Where’s my drink?”
She shrugged, “On the other side of the question.”
 He gazed piercingly at her from under his bristling eyebrows, trying to hide his smile under his moustache. “I’m not telling you anything.”
 Vaenomar got up nonchalantly, walked over to the keg, refilled the mug and, reseating herself across from Thorin, proceeded to gulp down its contents.

   Part of Bridi actually enjoyed seeing this more fiery, Dwarven side of the girl, however gaggingly flirtatious it was to her. She was beginning grow accustomed to the fact that maybe Vaenomar was actually…good for Thorin. She’d never thought that day would come.

 Bridi got up. “Good luck with that,” she said, to Thorin’s utmost surprise, to Vaenomar, “Good night, my lord.” And with that she left the room…and Thorin to his prey.

  “So, duzka, you think you can disobey the king and get away with it, eh?” he purred as soon as the door latched behind Bridi.
Vaenomar’s hands clenched. “It’s terrible manners to stop mid way in a sentence,” she said in mock haughtiness.
Thorin chuckled, “Well, we Dwarves aren’t exactly renowned for our table manners, now are we, love?”
 Vaenomar snorted, “Hardly” Her expression changed, “Please, what did Tharkûn want with you?”
 Locking gazes Thorin seized the mostly empty mug from her hands. The young woman watched, patient and unmoved, as the Dwarf king sloshed the dregs of liquid about in the cup and poured it down his throat. He wiped his moustache neatly, “Ah, he just wanted us all to…pack up and follow him on some mad-puck venture. East, I think. Promises of riches beyond count…but nothing was certain. See? Nothing important.” The creases around his wisened eyes and the cloud upon his brow belied his joviality on the matter. Something had been stirred up about his past, Bridi had hinted at that, and Vaenomar knew this Tharkûn was no mere idler, sending folks on random, pointless excursions after fabled gold. But this answer was likely the best she would pry from him. Dwarf secrets were as difficult to get to as their locks were to pick.

 “Fine then,” she said after a moment, “I at least deserve to know what was said about me…”
His initial reaction of surprise was followed by a false one of, “What? Talking about you,” he gave a half-chuckle, “We weren’t talking about you. Why? Why would we?”
“I don’t know,” she answered adamantly, “That’s why I’m asking.”
She was too cunning to be played like a child anymore. His facade fell and he sighed, “You’re too damn good of a spy, Vaen. I’m wasting you,” the latter part of his words faded into a mumble not for her ears.
As she waited intently for his reply, he got up and slowly made his way around the table.
“The wizard merely asked…what I was thinking when I sent you out into the wild.”
He was behind her now, but she knew he was lying. She whirled around and stopped short, finding him much closer than she had anticipated.
“He- he did not.” She felt his hands on her shoulders, his strong fingers rubbing her stiff tendons and muscles gently.
“No…he didn’t,” Thorin said in her ear, his bristly beard tickling her jawline. “He asked why I kept a fighter like you penned up all the time,…and said you were born to freedom.”
 At these perfect words she melted into his grasp. He slowly pulled her body into his, her quivering back expanding as she endeavored to keep her breathing steady.
“Did he?” her softened voice trembled slightly.
Ai,” said Thorin, stroking her hair, “But do you know why I do?”
She swallowed hard and his thick arms snaked around her.
“Why?” her voice barely had sound.
“This,” he whispered and his hot, wet lips pressed onto her bare neck.

  There was that feeling again. Her mouth watered and her body tensed.
You could have had everything…” a voice said sadly, and the haunting man from the inn beckoned to her like a spectre. She jerked at this vision and shrunk away from the Dwarf, trembling and breathing hard.
Thorin, startled, stepped back and ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry, Vaen,” he muttered. “I- I’ve had too much to drink,” he tried to lie. Backing away he made a circle, ending with his back to the figure of his desire.

  The air was warm and tense, and neither made a sound for a long moment.
Then Thorin turned quietly back, “You still don’t trust me…”
Vaenomar had calmed herself elegantly. “My lord,” she said softly, not meeting his eyes, “It’s not that…”
 He took a long step towards her, his sudden action making her look up. “Then what?” he seized her shoulders passionately, “What is it, Vaenomar? Why do you shrink from me?”
His strong, masculine nose was but an inch from hers and his stormy eyes flashed lightning. The danger and beauty of his person desperately invited her to dare and touch. To play with the fire.
Against her better judgment her hand reached up and barely touched one of the dangling braids on his chin. The Dwarf’s heart skipped a beat, stopped and started again even harder.
“Vaenomar,” he whispered, trying to control his breathing, “Vaen…”
  Hesitantly she let her face near his, forehead first. Closing her eyes she pressed her brow against his, like a child taming a wild bear. The moment was so quiet and still the sound of beating hearts could almost be heard.
Then he could bear it no longer. Taking her head in his hands he greedily bit into her juicy lips, not pausing for breath, or relenting in vehemence, taking in her being’s every fibre.
She dug her hands into his knotted mane of hair and felt his move onto her back and pull her closer. This embrace was one long desired.. Her taste was more satisfying than he could ever have dreamed. His enrapturing passion was like a spell that could not be cast or conjured.
Nothing about this kiss felt wrong or guilty to Vaenomar, but ever so right. She couldn’t help but compare her second kiss to her first.
 The stranger at the inn, despite being overpoweringly seductive, his kiss had been one of a driven hunger, with purpose not inspired by good. The here and now, however. His embrace was of love and Vaenomar never wanted it to end…though she was getting short on breath.

  The two barely heard it, so engulfed in each other they were, but a sharp clatter of metal just outside the room made Vaenomar pull, reluctantly, away and look up, gasping for breath. She wiped her wet mouth and looked apprehensively to the door. Thorin, too, panted, but positively beamed and held onto her.
“Who goes there?” he shouted, his expected burst of anger placated by the satisfaction of late.

 “Oh…my lord,” came a bumbling, timid voice from just outside the partially open door, “Are you, uh, in there?”
Thorin growled and placed another wet, bearded kiss on Vaenomar’s cheek. She sat uncertain of what to do next, caught in quite an awkward position.
“No, I’m not, obviously,” said Thorin, distracted, trying to keep Vaenomar from leaving. She freed herself of his grasp and moved away just in time for the intruder to enter.
   The truth was he had come in a few moments previously, thus the open door, seen that which was not to be seen, left the room posthaste, and ‘accidently’ re-announced himself with a drop of an axe.
 Now Mirrakh feigned surprise, “Oh, pardon my intrusion, my lord- I had no idea you were busy!” He bowed low, trying to hide his nervousness.
Thorin grunted, “Apology accepted. We were discussing important matters, but I guess we can be finished…for now. What do you need?”
 Mirrakh shot a hesitant glance towards the young lady, which was answered by Thorin’s usual growl, “Just speak. She knows my ‘secrets’ like the back of her hand.”
Thorin ignored her raised brow to say, “Is that so?” and Mirrakh hastily began his tidings.

  “My lord, I just returned from our South Westernmost ‘borders’, if you will, with news from your men posted around. The goblins and especially bandits and brigands of Mannish origins have been growing in number and threat of late. Our numbers, down there, are too few and they worry...I worry that if a party of any larger than those previous should arise then our small forces may be overcome.”

The storm cloud so often sitting heavily upon Thorin’s brow now returned. Mirrakh pulled out a map and laid it on the table and the two leaned over it, not noticing the perked interest of the woman behind them.
Pointing to a line of charcoal below Jarlich and extending West Thorin said, “I have six Dwarves here, correct?”
Ai, m’lord.”
“Not counting you?”
“No, counting me.”
“So, five now.” Thorin inhaled deeply. “And here,” he tapped a line to the west, “Four.”
Mirrakh nodded.
Thorin’s jaw was clenched and his teeth ground together.
 “Yourself and the men you keep here are just enough to cover threats from the mountain and those that slip past our guard,” observed Mirrakh, “But…might I venture-” he stopped uncertainly.
Thorin turned his kingly, piercing gaze to the other, “Go ahead.”
 Mirrakh gulped, “I only think, as my cousin Gorlath informs me that not much of anything has been encountered in the Azrad forest for some time, perhaps…Vjarm, Khagran and old Zigilbeard might be withdrawn and sent South and West.”

  There were things in those woods, Thorin knew but would not tell, but whether they were dangerous or not was the question. It was true they had encountered no ‘real’ threat from the Western woods for a long time, but ever since Vaenomar’s appearance he had been suspicious of Elves. And not just explorers from Mirkwood: an entire population, perhaps. Deep in his heart he felt Vaenomar knew the answer, but he would not ask again. She would not answer.
  “I can’t leave that forest completely unwatched, and the men here are not ones I can just send out into the wild.”

“The men, no,” broke in a voice, heretofore silent, startling both Dwarves. “If, as you say, it’s not so dangerous, send me. I’m used to the woods, I don’t get lost and I have had more than enough experience as a woodsman,” said Vaenomar confidently, hoping it would rub off on the men, “Mirrakh is right.”
  That little witch. Thorin’s nailless fingers drove into his palm. Clever little witch.

 Mirrakh found himself agreeing with the tall woman. He looked at Thorin, waiting for an answer.
The king and the girl locked gazes in a battle of wills. They had the same duel over the same thing not long ago, but this time Thorin knew who would win. And she was right, too. Despite this he still wanted to say no. He couldn’t force himself to let her go! She didn’t look away though; she was not going to give up. It might spare the lives of many Dwarves; Dwarves that depended on him to make right decisions. But then…she might lose hers…and he lose her. The sharper the icy nip of her blue eyes pierced into his soul and conscience, the more he felt like she had his man parts in an steel grip- every minute he hesitated the grip tightened. A grimace passed over his face like a shadow and he broke away with a deep-throated growl of frustration. He was about to say no, despite everything.
“You promised,” Vaenomar’s steady voice halted him. “Anything.”
His back turned to her and bent over the map, he bent further, weighed down more heavily.
And so he had promised.
  Someone had just taken a cleaver and severed, in one blow, his heart strings. She would go then. It must’ve been exactly how his mother had felt when his brother Frerin had left. And he had never returned.
Moisture rolled down his weathered cheek and splashed on the map, scattering the fine charcoal dust about.
 Then her small hand was on his shoulder. “I won’t be gone forever,” she whispered.
A laboured exhale passed his lips and he turned to her, letting his emotion simmer away, melting in the pure light of her beautiful, loving face. He took her hand and she could feel him trembling.
“Is that your wish then?”
“I just want to help,” she replied softly, her words full of meaning.

  Eventually remembering the presence of the third party, Thorin straightened and turned loftily to Mirrakh, “Send word for the old captain to join his brother at the Western post and the other two head South. If they need to restock first then tell them not to delay.”
“Yes, m’lord,” said Mirrakh sensing Thorin’s eagerness for him to be gone, and, with a bow to the young woman, made himself scarce.

  Thorin tightened his grasp on Vaenomar’s arms, the height disparity seemed not to matter between the two.
“You’re sure about this, Vaen?” he finally asked, his deep voice solemn and caring.
  She nodded vehemently.”We can discuss the details in the morning, if you like,” she added, knowing full well there was nothing easy about this decision for him.
“As you wish then. I just hate to lose you…” his eyes were in a far away place and time.
  “You’re not losing me,” she said tenderly, “I’m just glad to finally be able to help.”
Thorin swallowed the swollen lump in his throat. “I don’t deserve something as perfect as you, Vaen. I don’t deserve you.”
   Once again their faces pressed together, but the breathing was steady and both faces streaked with a few tears.
“I’m far from perfect, my lord. But I’ll do what I can to make up for all the trouble I’ve caused.”
“Trouble?!” Thorin squeezed her shoulders in his hands, “You are no trouble, Vaenomar. And I will expect to see you every month. Safe and sound, no shortcuts, no chances. Same time every month- and your better not keep me waiting!”
Vaenomar stepped back with laughed eyes, “I’ve never had a mother, but I imagine that’s exactly what she would’ve sounded like.”
Thorin snorted and folded his arms, “Indeed? Well…” his voice trailed off.
  She raised her eyebrows scoldingly, “You can’t kiss me like that then expect to be my father!” She laughed and the light-like joy that radiated from her conjured memories of the long lost Heart of the Mountain.
 She was his Arkenstone.
“No, you’re right,” he said, his serious face gradually brightening. I’ll expect you not to forget your…loyalties while you’re out there carousing like an Elf.”
Vaenomar threw back her head, “Oh, Thorin!”
She said it.
“Finally!” he cried and pulled her face down to him, pressing his open lips onto hers in a last, long kiss for the night.
When he released her for a breath, he gasped, “Oh…and by loyalties…” he grinned, “I think you know what I mean.”
Ai, that I do, sir,” Vaenomar smirked and moved out of his reach. “We can discuss it tomorrow. Goodnight my- Thorin.”

   My Thorin… Although that’s not what she had meant, it was what he had heard, and he trudged slowly, but mostly with a light heart to his own bedroom. Maybe this was why he kept that scrawny, courageous little Elf-child so long ago, or so it felt.

  Now that he had finally won her, though, he had to let her go.

Image

Bridi’s Unfinished Map (still filling in the trees, damn trees.)

(Sorry for the bad quality, squint if you zoom in.)

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 21 ~That Thing Called Love~

Chapter 21

~That Thing Called Love~

THUNK! whirr THUNK!‘ Small throwing axes almost chased each other in the air across the room before being embedded in the cork and wood chest of the target dummy.
“That cursed-” ‘THUNK!’, “Prince-” ‘THUNK‘ “Of Mirkwood!” ‘THUNK!

“You know, my lord, peasants will chatter,” said Gormna timidly from behind the angry Dwarf lord.
“Yes they do,” he growled between clenched teeth, “And they were right.” Another axe sent the rest clattering to the ground.
“My lord?” asked Gormna confused.
Thorin ignored him, running his hands through his hair. Taking in a deep breath to calm himself he turned to the patient advisor. “I shouldn’t let my frustration make me forget my debt to you. Well done Gormna. You did your- my job- well in my absence. I trust it did not prove too difficult.”
Gormna inclined his head.
“It would be my honour to have you in my council once again.”
Gormna bowed lower and kept silent.
Thorin made for the door, measuring his steps, trying not to let his temper get the better of him. Then he stopped and turned on his heel. “In fact, Gormna, Kjar said you handled it all so well, that I want you to take control of the storeroom. Here,” Thorin handed him the key back. “May you keep it as well as I have.”
Gormna bowed so low his beard almost swept the ground, “Thank you my lord for such a tremendous honour.” He held the key tight in his hand as the Dwarf king left the room with no further ceremony. As soon as he disappeared Gormna’s smile faded and he sighed, looked tiredly at the key. It was back for good now.

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

Poor old Kjar nearly jumped out of her skin as the door to her lair swung violently open and in marched the king, his temper obviously holding onto sanity by a thread. She had been sweating over a large bread oven and in the middle of stuffing a few goat pies for supper, among many other things, but she snapped to attention, ready to serve her ‘young’ lord’s every need.

“Ah, my lad, what can I get for ye?”
He grumbled something unintelligible and surveyed the kitchen for something to eat.
“I’m famished. Haven’t eaten all day,” he finally said in a grumpy tone.
She didn’t ask, but she knew something had ruffled his feathers a bit. Nothing a full stomach wouldn’t solve though.
“Oh dear me,” she couldn’t help but dote on her precious king, however volatile, dangerous or not-so-very young he was. “Come sit yourself down and drink a bit of this,” she said, sliding a foaming mug of warm mead into his hands as he seated himself heavily on a low stool by the large preparation table. He exhaled loudly through his nostrils and raised the cup to his lips. The next moment he set it down empty, rather heavily, and let out another long deep breath.
“Thank you,” he said quietly and rest his head in his hands.
The devoted Kjar immediately refilled it and sunk a bowl into the steaming soup pot over the fire. She accompanied it with two hunks of crusty bread, a perfectly hardy meal for a growing young Dwarf.
Thorin couldn’t help but smile, his half-smirk that twisted the edge of his lip ever so slightly. She was the next best thing to a mother, he thought to himself. Except his mother had never cooked… she was the queen, though.
“Mind you eat it before it’s cold,” scolded Kjar gently, “I’ll have hot pie for you in two minutes.”
Thorin shook himself out of his mind wanderings and gulped down the rest of the brothy, rich soup.
Once he’d devoured the entire meat pie, and another couple tankards of mead, he was more satisfied than he had been in months. As he pulled the last bits of flesh off two cold pheasant drumsticks he heard footsteps in the halls. Kjar didn’t look up, but continued kneading the massive pad of dough in her corner. A lively whistle accompanied the springy step and a moment later both entered the room. In walked the familiar, tall, female figure with waves of mahogany tresses and the most delicious, slightly serious face with crystal blue laughing eyes.
“Vaen! You’re back!” Thorin almost jumped out of his seat. It felt like forever since he’d last seen her.
She was as surprised to see him as he was glad.
“Oh! Lord Thorin,” she gave a quick bow, “We, uh, just arrived.”
Putting on a more serious air he folded his arms, “Oh? And how did you fare?”
“Very well,” Vaenomar half lied, biting her lip.
“Good,” he said simply. His plan had been a success. “Put your things down so I can have a look at you.”
Well that had been easy, thought Vaenomar relieved. This part was never the most enjoyable though.
She slowly set the leftover bundle of food down and neared him reluctantly. Sensing her unease Thorin explained, “Your folk grow so very different than mine. I don’t want to turn my back and find you an old woman one day!”
“My lord,” Vaenomar said in a scolding voice and he held back a grin.
After looking her up and down, as per the usual, he nodded his approval, “Hardly different.”
“Lord Thorin, it’s been a week.”
“Thorin,” he corrected.
She glanced around her, “But Bridi-“
“I’m the king! Call me Thorin. And that’s an order.”
Vaenomar swallowed, “Fine,” she said after a moment, a little glint of mischief in her own eyes, “I’ll not call you anything. I’m not sure who I fear more- you or her.”
Thorin snorted then burst out laughing his deep-throated, ringing chuckle. “Come here,” he beckoned. She obeyed, a little nervously, but as soon as she felt his warm, solid embrace she couldn’t help but relax and melt into his arms.
Kjar glanced behind her and quickly went back to her work.
“I’m glad to see you two didn’t tear each other apart,” he murmured softly. Feeling her body tremble slightly with a laugh, he pulled her closer. “It’s good to have you back,” he whispered in her ear.
“It’s good to see you too,” she heard herself reply. And it was.
A tear splashed onto the dough Kjar was quietly rolling out. Despite what everyone said, she thought they made a fine pair.

That late afternoon Thorin listened with great interest to Bridi’s much abridged and edited version of their week on the road. As Vaenomar sat nearby, reclining peacefully in a corner near the hearth, she listened to Bridi’s familiar tale. She found herself looking quickly away every time Thorin shot a glance her way. She didn’t even mean to look at him. The more useful she felt around the city, however, the more comfortable she felt with him, around him. Or maybe he was beginning to understand her. Hardly plausible, though, she thought. They hardly spoke, even less spent time together. She wasn’t even sure if she would want to if the opportunity arose. He still terrified her. And intrigued her- as intensely as they day they first met.
Thorin seemed genuinely impressed by all their endeavours, especially those that involved either fighting or stratagem, and nodded in sympathy for the weariness suffered from travelling. Bridi had completely omitted their episode with the mysterious stranger at the Jarlich inn, embellished their dealings with Thane Bolgrew, and skipped a bit till they fatefully met the wizard Tharkûn.
Thorin scratched his thick beard, making his little braidlets tinkle as the clasps swayed. “Tharkûn, you say? I can’t say I’ve heard of him.”
“He has many names, so I’m told, but the only one I can remember is ours for him: Tharkûn.”
Vaenomar shifted in her seat and seemed interested, but reluctant to speak. It caught Thorin’s attention.
“Vaen? You ever encounter this ‘wizard’ when you were…an Elf?” he asked.
She did her best to keep the blood from rushing to her face. She was done with falling into his little traps. “No,” she said steadily, “But-“ her voice halted. “Never mind.”
“Oh no you don’t!” Thorin got up and approached her. “Finish.” He folded his arms, looking all the more handsome and dwarfing, (despite the irony of the word).
Vaenomar sighed, the only way he could ever understand her was if she let him, she supposed. “Well, you might know that I…” she ground her teeth but remained calm, “I can talk to birds…and they talk to me.”
No ridicule in his eyes, he stepped nearer and leaned on the back of a chair, “Ai, I’ve suspected something of the sort for a while. It does seem rather…Elvish…but then again the ravens talk to us.” He eyed her scrutinizingly, taking in her reactions, her expressions…and beauty. “But continue, Vaen.”
She did her best to avoid his eyes. “It’s not that important- just… some wood pigeons were conversing and they mentioned something about a Mithrandir and Olórin. It’s Elvish, of course,” she added for Bridi’s sake.
“But he wasn’t an Elf?” Thorin asked concerned.
“No, no,” said Bridi quickly, “I’ve heard he’s one of many- or maybe a few- wizards that inhabit the West. I don’t know much more than that, other than he’s quite powerful and has amazing timing. He should be here by now, though. I wonder what’s keeping him.”
Poor Bridi was hardly being afforded much of her lord’s attention, as Thorin’s eyes and thoughts were continually being drawn to the other creature in the room. He tried to ignore it, but every extended time he was away from her he realized he desired her presence more and more. It wasn’t just her beauty either. He’d seen and experienced many lovely females in his life, from many different walks of life and a good variety of races. But Vaenomar… this ever growing, wonderful, mysterious, increasingly dangerous, innocent girl. Woman. Who was many, many years younger than him… He tried to make himself stop. She was fidgeting under his gaze and he forced himself to walk back to Bridi.
“If he has business with me, I’m sure he’ll show up soon. Hopefully before I’m out again.”
A pause of silence ensued until Bridi leaned forward to Thorin and said in a whisper, “What of the Elves? Gorlath told me you found nothing.”
Thorin nodded glumly, his shoulders tensed and he took in a terse breath. “I wonder if they even made it this far. There was no sign of them,” he lied. “I trust Gorlath completely, but Elves are nasty sneaks. As long as they mind their own pointy-eared business then I won’t go looking for trouble with them. I’ve had more than enough dealings with their folk.”
Bridi nodded in full agreement. Finally they were beginning to see eye to eye. “I don’t know what they would want with us anyways,” she added, with a quick look at Vaenomar, who was not a part of the present conversation.
Thorin’s face was tiled downward, his eyes seemed to study the grains of the wood on which his arm rested. But many other things were on his mind. His angular, bearded jowl flexed and unflexed as he ground his teeth. The wrinkles in his forehead creased with the lowering of his thick eyebrows and he stroked and fiddled with the little braids that swung from his chin.
There he sat, the image of Dwarven perfection, his voluminous cascades of knotted hair rolling down his back and over his shoulders like the Great Falls just outside of the settlement. His distinct sharp nose was like chiseled stone from the high, powerful brow and forehead. Just as he had admired the younger female with a shameless gaze, so were two pairs of eyes set on him. Bridi watched him from beneath her arched red eyebrows, subtly. But Vaenomar found herself blatantly lost in his features. His looks and his person had begun to grow on her for quite some time now. And her feelings were beginning to morph out of simple respect into something…more, though she did not see it. In proportion to the great amount of time she spent in the town and Halls she really saw him very little. Their paths would ever lead opposite, it seemed. As she took in Thorin’s entirety, less obviously as he had done to her in the kitchen, her heart felt a pang of guilt shoot through it like a deadly Elven arrow. What if she had gone with that man in Jarlich? She really wanted to bang her head against the stone wall, cursing her foolishness. From now on she would never be tempted again, she promised herself. Thorin was her lord, master…and friend. Betraying him would be betraying herself. “If ever I see that man again, I’ll make him pay,” she swore in silence. Now that she was safely home that stranger set off her warning bells more than ever. Especially now, as she gazed at Thorin, in all his rugged, kingly majesty and beauty.
He looked up and their eyes met, just for a moment till he looked away. The illusion of Vaenomar, ravishing and tempting, hadn’t disappeared yet, so it must be real. Damn woman! Ever since he could remember he had been getting into trouble with her sex, which was why he’d sent them to Jarlich in his stead, but it seemed Vaenomar was the most dangerous of all who had crossed his path. And dangerous in many ways. He used to think she would be easy, in her innocence, but now he knew how wrong he had been. It was more likely to be him that got into trouble if he trifled with her now. A little vixen could bite painfully if threatened by a bear. She was safe, he thought, for now.
Forcing his tired body off the stool, he groaned and stretched. “I’m sure you two are worn out. You should take an early rest, start fresh tomorrow,” he suggested kindly, his eyes eventually finding a resting place on Vaenomar.
Bridi nodded and she too looked at the young woman with raised, expecting eyebrows. Vaenomar took the hint and jumped up, “Goodnight Bridi. Goodnight my lord.”
Bridi inclined her head and Thorin glared, but with a glimmer of playfulness in his eye.
Thorin,” he hissed in a whisper and tried to smack the young woman’s rump as she passed him for the door. Too quick for him, she ran out of the room and down the hall. Bridi looked mightily disapproving at him as they heard a slight giggle. Now they were communicating like the birds! With a sigh the Dwarf woman arose and took her leave. “Rest well, my lord.”
“And you as well, Bridi. Tomorrow we’ll need to make plans.”
She stopped and waited, “For what?”
“Distributing forces. Our defenses here are thin, but so too in the field. We will discuss it tomorrow.”
She bowed and left, glad to find he had more on his mind than masculine interests at that moment.
As Bridi’s footsteps quieted down the hall, Thorin sat for a moment, considering sleep. Then he heard a rumble. He was hungry again. Time for another visit to Kjar. Best to fill up while he was around.
Deep down he knew he was hungry for other things, not a hunger of the stomach or one satisfied by food. No other being tempted that hunger as much as Vaenomar did, but out of respect and a false feeling of paternal duty, he abstained from even the thought. Food would have to do for now; he never ate enough anyways.

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

The rewarding clang of the hammer on glowing red steel and the hiss of the quench sounded over and over again in the small smithy on the lowest level of Taurëmith. Sweat dripped from the loose strands of hair around his forehead and into his eyes as Ëaròn pounded a lump of light metal into an exquisite Elven blade. He was on his fourth sword of the day and had started at dawn’s first light. He was making good time, one blade to go until the order was complete.

Ever since his father had left him alone here the orders had dwindled. This was the last one and it would be finished today. Months ago he wouldn’t have minded much, as smithing wasn’t what he wanted to spend his days at, but now that he had stopped attending training at the barracks he wasn’t sure what he would do. Maybe he could get work as a gate guard. He wanted to use his training, but wearing armour and holding a weapon might be the closest thing he got to that. A guard position at the palace would get him the chance to see Tairiel. He’d seen the woman he loved less and less after leaving the Barracks, but it had been his decision.
His muscles only grew larger and more bulky at the forge though, while all the other young men stayed slender as saplings and lithe and agile. It was probably for the best that he and Tairiel’s paths seldom crossed, but his heart was rent by it. Yesterday he chanced upon her in the marketplace. There she was, as exquisitely stunning as usual. And there he’d been, blundering and foolish. Sometimes he hated himself for ever even dreaming he had a chance. But she had noticed him and smiled kindly, no pity or loftiness in her eyes, which by setting the fire in his heart blazing even hotter tortured his spirit the worse.
Sparks showered on one last hammer strike and he quenched the blade, wiping his brow and setting down his tools. Time for a breather. As Ëaròn sat heavily on a bench near the outdoor smithy he sipped a large vase of cool water. All around him gold and silver leaves floated down from high above and the waning sun set a wash of rich copper over the city. Sitting in solitude, his keen ears sensed an excited bustle in the busier part of the city. He walked around the side of his house and smithy to peer down the lane, not that he really cared much for the goings-on of other folks. A train of carts were in the market, by the look of them from the palace.
“Must be a banquet,” he thought, disinterested. Nothing that went on in the upper levels affected him, so he preferred to keep out of it. Tairiel would be there, his conscience painfully reminded him.
At a deliberate pace he walked back to his workplace and set to work on the last sword blade. As the metal formed gracefully beneath his strength and skill he took his time, working slower and slower. It was the last thing this forge would make for a while, he thought, maybe forever. At first this had come as a relief to him, but on recalling his father and their forging lessons, all the work they’d done together, his lips pursed and a tiny droplet rolled down his high cheeks and sizzled on the hot steel.
“The Greenwood,” Halläcar, his father, had said, “I must go.” He only vaguely explained. “Many years ago, when you were but a child, King Thranduil and I had a disagreement. I left in anger. It has gnawed at me ever since and I mean to make matters right. Whether I return…I know not. Take care my son.”
His father, Ëaròn knew, had once been very high up in rank in service to the King of the Greenwood. Ëaròn didn’t know who else knew, but it wasn’t important. He had made a home for his son in Taurëmith and neither had been to the Greenwood since, Ëaròn wasn’t even sure if he had been.
The last order minutes from being filled filled he busied his mind with possible other work elsewhere. He wanted very badly to join the Glade-watchers, as they were now called, in the woods. The only thing holding him back was Tairiel. The thought of probably never seeing her again was excruciating. While he lived his Elven heart told him never to abandon hope. It was difficult, but Ëaròn’s spirit was as strong as his body. He began to hum, his soft bass voice vibrating in the metal in his hands. The tune was one always on his tongue, but he had no idea where he’d learnt it. No words, just a melody. It didn’t sound Elvish either.

“Ëaròn Halläcarion?” came a voice, a little louder the second time.
He started and whirled around surprised, white hot blade still in hand.
The Palace messenger jumped back nervously. “I- I’m sorry to disturb you-“
Ëaròn hurriedly threw the steel into into the quench bucket and wiped his faced embarrassed. “Forgive me. You only startled me,” he said sheepishly.
The Elf bowed, “With respect, Ëaròn Halläcarion?”
“I am he,” the other replied simply.
“I am to inform you then, that your presence is expected by Túro Lenwë, Lord of Taurëmith, at the Palace in exactly one hour’s time. I hope you have been given enough warning.”
The tall, strapping Elf’s jaw dropped and he said nothing. The other, hearing no reply or complaint, took his leave and departed Ëaròn’s smithy.
The bench received his well-made figure with a slight groan.
“What??” He tugged at his long ponytail. Was there trouble? His face twisted; a commission? Then a gulp got stuck in his throat; there as a banquet tonight, or so he had guessed from the food collectors in the market. He knew he was not being invited to the festivities, by any chance, so…perhaps they needed guards. His heart swelled in his broad chest. Tairiel would be there.
In one hour?!
He jumped up, seized the blade out of the water, fortunately cooled for he had forgotten his gloves. Laying it on the bundle with the rest of the swords he wrapped the cloth around them and tied it tight, hastily jotted a name on a paper and tucked in it the binding string. He could deliver it on his way to the palace.
Once inside his quiet home Ëaròn perused his meager wardrobe. He’d never had to worry about dressing nicely before. He was amazed, however, at the percentage of dark and black mournful fabrics were there. With a sigh he picked a short sleeved black tunic cut in Greenwood fashion and embroidered with delicate gold plant forms. It was his father’s.
It was a bit too tight for his liking once he slipped it over his shoulders, but it was plenty long and it was beautiful. His father was taller than he, standing a giant nearly six foot eight, but much more narrow like normal Elves, thought Ëaròn out loud. His voice sounded so alone in the empty house. The last commission, the dark garments, the lonely home- it was getting to him. It all felt rather foreboding.
Trying to shake off his gloomy mood Ëaròn let down his soft black hair and wrapped it behind him in a long, thin strap of supple leather. A glance out the window at the sun’s light and lack of told him he had twenty minutes. He splashed water on his face and tried to scrub the soot and grime out of his hands. The heavily muscled Elf that stared mockingly out at him from the mirror, forearms rippling ever too obviously and chest and shoulders barely fitting in his tunic, made him cringe. He had half a mind to break the damn thing, but he didn’t.
“Time to go,” said his reflection, with a sour face and a raised, disapproving eyebrow. It took a bit of time to climb all the levels to reach the Palace. They were some of the tallest mallorn in Middle Earth and he didn’t want to have to run…and start sweating, or worse- rip his tunic.
Nearly an hour and a half earlier, a few levels above Ëaròn’s modest forge-works, was the not-so-modest dwelling of Arendial, whose household, much like many others on their level, was a place of excitement and preparation.
As Ëaròn had rightly deduced, there was to be a banquet in the Palace tonight and Arendial, being a high ranking advisor to Taurëmith’s ruler, Lord Lenwë, secured his home as the temporary resting place for the newly arrived, honoured guest. Meanwhile, in a much less vibrant mood, was the lord advisor’s daughter, who sat defiantly still in her room on her bed.
“Tairiel, I do hope you’re getting ready!” her father’s voice called up. She ignored him and didn’t even turn to look at her well-stocked wardrobe. With many tactics and in many ways he was always trying to find her a well-off, well-positioned match, though a match at all was the last thing she wanted.
“I don’t want to wear a dress,” she said stubbornly to her persistent maid, “I won’t.”
She heard her father’s footsteps near the doorway.
“Tairiel, dear, may I come in?”
“I’m not dressed yet,” she answered shortly.
“I need to have a word,” he insisted, holding back his frustration.
She made a very un-lady-like growl in her throat, “Alright, fine.”
The maid left and Arendial entered and found his daughter, as he suspected, dressed and not ready in any way for a palatial audience.
She faced the mirror, her back to him, and looked angrily at his reflection.
“Darling, please, I’m…begging you. I’m not going to tell you what to wear, but please- this is no ordinary guest. It’s not every day you sup with the Prince of the Greenwood!”
Tairiel rolled her eyes. “My dress will make no difference in Lord Lenwë and King Thranduil’s relations, father.”
He looked away, trying to hide his face, and cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Just, please. For me?” He put his hand on her shoulder and she turned around. She was spoiled and she knew it, and her father and she had never got on very well since her mother left, but Tairiel still loved him. Behind his grey scheming and clever eyes were unfathomable depths which deserved at least her respect.
She sighed deeply, making sure he heard her disinclination. “Alright. For you. And just this once.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “Thank you my dear,” he said and made to leave. She always suspected him, and she was right. She was too much like him, Arendial thought.
Just before he left, her father added, “If it helps any; I’ve heard the prince is… devastatingly handsome.”
This description was quite humourous coming from her father, but she stifled her laugh and pretended not to care.
This was going to be a long night.

The higher he climbed the harder his heart thumped against his chest. Maybe it was guard duty that he was being summoned for, but a dread like none other accompanied him on his walk up. Ëaròn rounded a curve that gracefully followed a huge, white mallorn trunk and caught a glimpse of a female figure and a male, lightly illuminated by a lantern.
Before he even recognized her, Ëaròn’s heart leapt into his throat and he slowed his pace. There was no mistaking that figure. And her father was with her. He hoped she would not see him and feel obliged to acknowledge his presence.
He watched from a good distance behind, her silvery lavender cape billowing together with the gilt torrent of her hair. It made him slow even more. So much so he ran the risk of arriving late for his summons.
The palace was in sight and the closer he grew to it the louder the merriment inside became. He would slip around the outskirts of the crowd, unnoticed, he planned in advance. He was now so near he could hear the Lord of Taurëmith making an announcement and what sounded a bit like an introduction. Lady Tairiel and her father approached the doorway and Ëaròn waited until they disappeared through the curtained entrance before getting closer himself. He sucked in a nervous, shallow breath and blew it out his nostrils, trying in vain to calm himself.
“You can do it,” he egged himself on in a hoarse whisper.
The curtains rustled silently as a young woman stepped outside. She too took in a deep breath, in preparation to be swarmed, and fawned over, and to present Lord Arendial’s daughter as the image of perfection she was supposed to be.
A quiet and excited, “Ëaròn?” startled him half to death, his nerves already in shreds.
“Lady Tairiel! I-“ he bowed, fumbling over his words.
“I’m so glad you’re here!” she smiled earnestly, without asking the dreaded question- why?
He only forced a smile that looked more like a cringe.
“I haven’t seen you for so long…well, besides yesterday,” she laughed. She was perfection in his eyes.
“Yes…I…I’ve been busy at the forge,” he apologized, haltingly and making sporadic eye contact.
She looked down, his nervousness was unsettling.
What was wrong with him? She put her small white hand on his pulsing, trembling arm, “I hope to see more of you Ëaròn. We’ve missed you at the Barracks.”
“Thank you,” was all he could manage.
“Tairiel, dear, where are you?” came a lofty voice from just inside the Palace doorway.
She rolled her eyes and shrugged explicitly at Ëaròn, “I’m sorry! See you inside?”
He nodded quickly and, barely realizing what he did, called to her, “Lady Tairiel.”
She turned, surprised but smiling expectantly.
“You look incredibly beautiful,” he said simply, without faltering.
Her soft rose lips parted, revealing her pearl-like smile. She took a step towards him. “And you look dashingly handsome,” she replied touching his arm ever so gently.
With another blinding smile she left him, his throat parched, muscles aquiver, and all male senses aroused.
He banged the back of his head on the wood of the palace in an endeavor to wake himself up from the spell the Elf witch had cast on him.
Now he was late, and more in love than ever.

Taurëmith palace hummed like a beehive with activity. Elven lords and nobles chatted and the Lord Lenwë and his royal guest spoke privately at the Taurëmaith seat of rule. Many glittering lanterns cast soft light into the air and the elegantly carved tables were being laden with food and drink. The smells were enough to drive a starving man mad and the woodland colours, sumptuous fabrics and patterns of the clothing were like the forest when autumn and summer meet and walk hand in hand for a time.

From all the way across the hall the prince’s all-seeing eyes caught the entrance of a tall, broad, black-haired Elf, with wide eyes and a shy countenance.
To Lord Lenwë he said, “Without a doubt, that is the son of Halläcar Mórefalma, lest my eyes are cheated”
One motion from the sovereign and all were silent and suddenly Ëaròn felt like his entire body had caught flame. All eyes were on him, as if he’d walked in naked as the day he was born. He froze.
“Ëaròn Halläcarion, you have been summoned to hear the tidings brought you by our esteemed guest,” here Lenwë bowed to the prince, who in turn respectfully lowered his head. “Please come forward Ëaròn.”

He didn’t know how he got there, but all of a sudden Ëaròn found himself withering under the gaze of the two most powerful people he’d ever met.
The prince stepped forward, his striking features more handsome than any other Elf-man he’d set eyes on, and strong, lithe and graceful. Tairiel was watching, his mind cleared enough the make him think. Forcing himself to straighten up, he met the winter-sky blue of the prince’s gaze. But no pride was in his eyes. Instead the prince’s face was sorrowful and he looked pained to deliver his next words.
Before the prince opened his mouth, Ëaròn heard his own voice say, “It’s my father, is it not?”
The prince stepped down to Ëaròn’s level and clasped his arms in his hands, “I’m sorry,” his voice was steady, but mournful, “He was killed fighting for my father on our borders. Foes from Gundabad. But he was duly avenged and given a king’s burial in my father’s house. I’m so sorry.”

Though he’d expected it the moment before, these news came as a club blow to a bare chest. He couldn’t breath and clenched the prince’s forearms in his hands.
The room was hushed and all he could hear was the prince’s gentle voice murmuring a prayer. He couldn’t even weep, his breath stuck in his throat. After a moment he loosened his grip on the prince’s comforting arms and bowed his head in thanks. Taking a bundle from his seat the Prince of the Greenwood unwrapped it saying, “Your father died for his people…and your people. Never fought a more valiant warrior under the Greenwood, Ëaròn, my brother. He left you this,” he placed a magnificently carved bow and quiver in Ëaròn’s hands. “He said- ‘Just in case.’ And this,” next a small satchel containing a phial of a healing liquid. “And lastly,” said the prince almost in a whisper, “This. He gave it to my father for you, saying, ‘Life is fleeting, but love is forever.'” The prince pressed a tiny, cold object into Ëaròn’s big hand and placed a firm brotherly clasp on the shoulder.
“I wish you the best. As does my father. If ever you should wish it, our doors are always open to you.”
Ëaròn swallowed the growing lump in his throat and nodded, “Thank you.”

At that moment he wanted nothing more than to be alone. Lord Lenwë silently bowed in respect as did the prince and Ëaròn forced himself to turn around, put the crowd out of his mind, and eventually made it to the entrance. A pair of unaverted eyes, just before he exited, caused him to look up.
That last look from Tairiel made him want to burst into tears, but instead he steeled his heart. Next the piercing look of a protective father shattered the feeling from before and he stepped quickly into the night, leaving the assembly to resume their banquet without the shadow of his misfortunes cast upon them.

~~~~~~~~~

Tairiel wasn’t sure what had passed between the prince and Ëaròn, but she assumed it was nothing to be joyful about. Rumour had told that the dark, young smith was from the Greenwood and some scandal involving his father had banished the two hither. She took it all with a grain of salt, as she did all gossip and rumour, but with the arrival of the prince and the unexpected episode that passed between them, she wondered. The gifts given as well, and the solemn, sad faces made her think perhaps a family tragedy had occurred.
She wanted terribly to chase after the poor fellow and ask him, and, if need be, comfort him. After all, he’d done the same for her. But her father held onto her arm and led her, gradually, to the head of the room. It was time to meet the prince who, she was recently informed, would be making his stay with them.

~~~~~~~~

Centuries past a towering, mighty Elf with hair black as night served under the ageless King Thranduil, as the Captain of the Guard of the Greenwood. Through his battle prowess he had risen swiftly through the ranks and was afforded much respect and honour from his lord and the royal household. He was given a beautiful dwelling all to himself and was sighed over by many women. As his rank grew so did his relationship with the king, who, as a friendly reward, gave him plenty of free time to do as he pleased. At first the dark-haired captain made use of this peaceful time to train younger Elves in his unwaivering methods of combat with many different weapons, but soon the King noticed him growing absent, both in mind and person, for longer periods of time. Some said he explored the vast Greenwood, others that he went farther, even making contact with the legendary Erebor and its inhabitants overflowing with wealth. No one suspected the city of Dale of being his frequent destination.
At times he would be seen arriving late in the Elven city, bearing strange weapons and goods. During his training sessions in the barracks some remarked subtly on his carrying a unique sword which seemed to be of Dwarf-make. He appeared larger and more muscular every time he arrived home, the kind of strength that only a hammer to the anvil would give.
One day the King, almost a brother to his favourite warrior, found him looking sadly into a fountain, his body bent and eyes pining.
“I won’t insult you by asking your whereabouts of late,” said the king, “But I cannot understand why you seem to pine for love when you are flocked by doting and worthy Elf-maidens daily. Else I misread you, my friend.”
The dark Elf was quiet and thoughtful for a moment, knowing the king only meant well.
“I guess I have withheld the truth from you for too long, my king. I am a married man; thus do I spurn the advances of the lovely ones that pursue me.”
No doubt the king was taken aback by the news. “Married? When? To whom?”
The other explained to him that his travels had taken him to many places indeed, but in the lake town of Dale had he found the most precious gem of his life. A strong, beautiful woman, unmatched in appearance and person by any he had met before. She had stolen his heart away and there it remained.
“That, my king, is why I pine. A man cannot well live without his heart.”
The king pondered all this, troubled only for a short time. “You gave up your immortality for her?”
“And would do so a thousand times more for another minute with her.”
The king understood then, his friend was truly happy and congratulated him and bestowed his blessing.
“I will miss you, my friend,” said the king on taking leave of the dark-haired captain.
“And I’ll never forget our friendship,” replied the other.
“Return to us if ever you miss your people.”
“I will someday, I promise.”
And with that the friends parted, one to mourn the absence of a friend and powerful ally and the other to join his loving wife and her people.

The Greenwood went on in life as it had for ages, and so Halläcar and his wife Savone grew in love and happiness, the former learning the ways of mortal-kind and she loving and teaching him. Soon Savone became with child. And, after an uncharacteristically long pregnancy, gave birth to a great bear of a boy with beauteous Elven features; pointed ears, his father’s black hair and eyes and his mother’s strong, sturdy build and lovely alabaster skin. Ëaròn Lorámie, they named him, Winged-Night, and raised him with all the loving care that could be given by any parents.
It became evident his growth would follow the pattern of his father’s people as he matured very slowly in body, but quickly in mind. As his mother taught him at home Halläcar took work in a smithy under the supervision of a Dwarf of the Lonely Mountain. Soon Halläcar and the Master Branbur grew to be good friends, an unlikely bonding between these two races, and the Dwarf made toys for Halläcar’s young son. So life went peacefully on until the year 2770 of the Third Age. The year of Unending Tears.
One early morning in midweek Halläcar was out hunting in the fields surrounding Lake Esgaroth, as he was apt to do quite often. Just before he released his bowstring to bring down a large buck, a sudden and tremendous gale swept the land with hurricane force and he was thrown, unprotected, on the ground.
The child strapped to his back had been so quiet that he’d nearly forgotten him. Only recently had the father begun to take his son with him on hunting trips and they never lasted very long. The child made his first whimper then as the two were cast violently to the ground. He cut his child loose and cradled him in his arms, shielding him with his body from the wind which gushed now like none he’d ever experienced.
The clouds rolled in quickly, dark and storm-ridden, and in terror the desperate father marched against the wind, trying to reach the city. But he and his son alone were lucky they never reached their home.
All of a sudden it was still and everything was silent.
Just before it happened he heard a bellowing voice from the mountain, “DRAGON!!!”

And then his world changed. The clouds were rent by two massive wings, their spread countless metres long. They bore aloft a mighty red wyrm, tail like a giant pronged scourge and jaws spewing molten rock and fire hotter than the forge of Telchar.
The Elf saw only a swift and terrible glimpse of the beast before it was hidden by the massive column of smoke that used to be Dale. The city was instantly enveloped in flames and the screams and crashing towers made it a living hell.
“Savone!!” Halläcar cried and tore madly towards the city, clasping his son to his breast. On reaching the water’s edge a drenched exhausted figure struggled to pull himself out of the lake. The Elf grabbed him with otherworldly strength and drug him to safety.
“Branbur!”
“Savone,” the Dwarf coughed, “I went for her.” He shook his head and tears streamed down his cheek.
The father and husband couldn’t take it. He thrust his child into the Dwarf’s arms, “Don’t let anything happen to him.” And left the Dwarf and his child with a determined dive into the black, flaming lake.
As the Dwarf cradled the child and crawled into a hidden ravine he noticed his precious bundle made no cries. The boy’s large black eyes were wide and little mouth shut tight. No tear fell, but he asked, his tender child’s voice trembling piteously, “Mama?”
Branbur clasped him tight, “She’ll be here soon, boy. Soon.”
But Ëaròn never saw her again. Hours later when his father found them he hardly recognized him so aged, worn and covered in ash and burns he was. There were no tears, only anger now. The Dwarf hadn’t the heart to ask about her. After many more hours of dread and silent waiting he ventured to his friend, “Where will you go?”
His features pale and expressionless Halläcar replied, “I know not. The Greenwood has betrayed me…us. Curse them all.” With that they parted; Branbur joining his fleeing kin from the Lonely Mountain and the Elf father and his child vanishing into the wild.

~Ëaròn Lorámie, son of Halläcar~

Ëaròn Lorámie