The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 36 (at last!!)~ Calm Before the Storm

Chapter 36

~Calm Before the Storm~

Pregnant white blooms cascaded gently from the impenetrable mass of sky, covering the foothills in a blanketing blizzard. Now and again a breath of wind would tilt the path of the thick falling snow and glass-like shards of frozen air would prick and nip any skin left to the elements.

Barely visible through the heavy snow and cloud cover, the jagged, towering wall of the Grey Mountains dominated the landscape with an overpowering presence.
Had the road not come in such nearness to it, the trails of wood-fire smoke and snow-covered roof tops of Old Estenna, dwarfed to nothing by the shadow of the mountains, may easily have been missed.

The Northern-most town of men, Old Estenna had supplied their secretive Dwarven neighbours and protectors with much of their daily bread for the last several years. Or their daily meat, for that matter.
The town lay just off the road and a few of its outlying homes dwelt among the border trees of Greenwood the Great. A branch of the Forest river wound through the center of the town, allowing for boat travel and trade in the warmer months. Its people were mostly the hardy hunter-folk who had inhabited the North for countless winters, a few descendants of Dale-refugees scattered among them.

A steadily prosperous town, if somewhat sleepy- especially for a young mind full of adventurous dreams.

But Rúan’s plans were not Thorin’s plans.
With a will as rock-hard as the mountain’s flesh, the Dwarf leader had made it very clear that curious outsiders were unwelcome, no matter their good intent. Unwelcome- or not allowed.
Nonetheless, the Northman sensed that a foul wind of trouble dogged their steps.
The missing bird, the false alarm, and the disturbing tales from the Dwarves- nothing quite added up.

“You said your sister is soon to give birth, eh?” Gormna queried pleasantly as their extra companion’s destination grew nearer.

“Her second, yes. I just hope it’s not <i>another</i> girl.” The fair Northman smiled, “We’ve got quite a handful already.”

Scratching the thinning hair atop his wide pate, sending tiny ice shards scattering about, the Dwarf counselor mused thoughtfully, “Indeed. I wish I could say the same.”

Around a hilly bend they walked and immediately the beaten, frozen road to the town rolled out before them.

“So…are there…Dwarf women?” Rúan asked after a few moments of contemplation.

Gormna laughed heartily, in spite of the few cocked eyebrows and sour expressions of the others. “Well, where else d’you think we come from? Rocks? Holes in the ground?”

The tall man chuckled sheepishly, “You never see them…”

“What about the dame with Dáin’s crowd? She shared words with your sister.”

Rúan’s frost-nibbled cheeks turned even redder and he glanced around in exaggerated embarrassment, “<i>Araw’s Hoary Hound</i>! No one heard that, right?”

The older Dwarf continued, unoffended, “Granted, Lâkhi was a little on the…brusque and burly side. Ah…but a fine, fine specimen would be the Flamebraid. Sharper than a two-edged axe, strong as an aurochs, and wields a brace of any weapon fiercer than a wildfire!”

Rúan smirked, “Doesn’t really <i>describe</i> her much…”

With a huff, Gormna shrugged and pondered, “Ah…well- <i>Mahal</i>! Hmmm…yes, yes! She has hair like molten copper- eh, a bit like yours, lad- and thighs…thighs to-“

“That’s enough, Gormna,” a gruff rumble cut off the conversation and Thorin abruptly halted the march. “We’re here, Master Rúan. Safe travels.”

From under bristling eyebrows, two cold, stormy eyes glared at him, and the waiting looks from the rest of the company pushed him along. The young Northman nodded a polite bow to Thorin, avoiding his gaze. “Thank you for letting me accompany you.” He acknowledged Gormna and Gorlath with a quick look, “Safe travels and I hope all your…business turns out for the best.”

Before he even finished his words- which held more meaning than they seemed- the Dwarf leader turned and motioned for his people to follow on their way.

Left in a swirl of tinkling white dust, a lanky, lone figure stood, with heavy shoulders, and watched his chance of a lifetime march stoically away. Breath puffed away from him like the many stone-stacked chimneys down the road, and his hawk-like eyes darted uncertainly back and forth.
Just as the dark lumbering shapes melted with the grey roots of the mountains, the last dull gleam on the Dwarven axes fading away, the Northman pulled his furred coat higher on his shoulders and pinched his numb ear tips and nose. With a lung-full of biting air, he set off at a diagonal to the Northwest, away from Old Estenna.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Like a dark, creeping chain the somber company moved over the crunching mounds of snow. Any tracks left were soon blown over by gusts of mountain wind that were growing ever more frequent.
From above, through the thick blanket of clouds, the land’s balding head looked to be splotched with a soft white mold, the contrasting bare ground and sprays of hardy tussock grass sporadically breaking up the snow-drifts.

The foothills swelled and became jagged with great wounds left in their sides, belling out towards their base in massive, spearhead-shaped gullies. Leaning pines with spindly tops caressing heaven’s chin sparsely climbed the rugged shale and only the hardiest persisted in growing without air.
Settling in the many cracks, highlighting even the dullest grey stone with its purity, the snow flakes whisked playfully across the face of the mountain.
The black, craggy caves that dotted its face were like many watchful eyes. The chasm below- a lulling mask of clouds hiding the sheer incredible depth- a yawning mouth, ready to swallow and keep. On the brow sat a finely-hewn crown crafted from the bones of the earth by the hands of her children. Their magnificence waned in her shadow, but faithfully guarded her glory and power to all ends. Just as her stone-crafted children guarded treasure of all sorts.

Doubt had chewed away at him, like rust on a bloody sword. Every minute of every hour since she left, it was on his mind.
In the darkest caverns of his heart, he knew she would come back, but ever reason stood persistent at his door: ‘You don’t know that. What if there is far more to this picture than you are seeing? Like…the man…’
She would come back, he told himself.
And the moment he set foot inside the bulwark, he knew she had.

But the weights of worry pulling on his shoulders lightened only little. He felt her- like never before. No one else seemed aware of it, but something was not right. His mind was shut and barred, as if by a thick dark fog. Imaginary blinders seemed to block his peripheral view, leading him onwards like a dazed beast.
“Where is she…” he muttered.

Heaving a creaking basket of waxed cheeses and leeks high above her head and onto a shelf, then marking the last tally on her vellum scroll, Bridi dusted her hands and stepped out of the spacious pantry. She let the iron-lined oak door thump closed behind her, the lock clicking in place on its own. Before clopping off to find another task to fill her restless hours, she paused.
Voices echoed through the Great Chambers; a couple- one rattling on and on…Gormna.

Gormna!

Short springy steps carried her swiftly up a flight of stairs and just as she passed a doorway to the kitchen she saw a flash of steel and heard a deep purr.
“Bridi.”

She skidded to a stop and whirled around, breathlessly, “You’re back!”

He stepped out and approached her, a tumultuous sea of unrest in his eyes betrayed his outward calm.
“Safely?” she asked.

Thorin nodded and was followed by an odd, lengthy silence.

“Bridi,” he said at last, “Where is she?”

The Dwarf-woman took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, “She’s here, my lord.”

“I know. Where?”

“They told you, then,” she nodded. “It’s late enough- I’d suspect in her room.”

“Thank you, Bridi,” his tone grey more brisk and he clapped her on the shoulder as he took a quick leave.

A year ago, this would’ve ignited a fearsome rage of jealousy, enough to raze a city. But now, she breathed a deep sigh of relief. They would be safe with their king among them. <i>She</i> would be safe. And perhaps he could talk a little more sense into that feather-filled brain.

Like thick, pale eyelashes or tiny Elven boats curls of shaven mallorn lay scattered over the flickering stone. A long tendril of smoke rose to the depths of darkness in the tall ceiling as one of the candle-wicks met its end amidst a pool of melted tallow.

The room, barely warmed by the sparking fire that burned in the small hearth, was filled with as much sound as the heart that beat nearby was of mirth. Even the whittling knife, as it dug into the wooden flesh and left neat winding trails behind, was solemnly silent.

It would be over soon, the voices whispered, some calming, others terribly excited. Her mind was a dulled battle-axe; it cut through nothing and only weighed her down. The cloud that hung over her reeked of despair and blood. Each whispering wind a taunt or a cry of betrayal.

She would go to him. <i>”There is no other way…”</i>

Feverish and bloated were the things that played an unending game of chase around her mind, making her dizzy and sick and wishing nothing more than rest. A fast working disease spread not more quickly and ruthlessly than his infectious power took hold of her heart and turned it to ash. To ice. To stone…

<i>”Duzka…”</i>
That same heart leapt, like a real beating heart, at the rolling quiet thunder of that word.
Her bow clattered to the ground and she instinctively clasped her chest, wide eyes and trembling lips open.
Before she could speak or rise, Thorin strode towards her, a blue flame dancing in his eyes, and his face was overwrought with a kindness and caring she had never seen before.
Suddenly, as she was wrapped by two pillars of massive strength, Vaenomar felt the heat of life surge like a geyser through her veins, the grim film was wiped from her eyes and a sigh, more profound than a child’s first breath, threw off the deadweight.
She closed her eyes and let her cheek nestle into the fur that hung over his shoulders onto his chest.
Strong hands rustled her hair and their hard calloused tips brushed against her skin, sending a tremour through her whole body. His hot breath poured over her and he muttered, “Vaenomar…at last…”
Her own pale fingers slowly slid across the sleek bear fur and fiddled with one of his dangling, silver-black braids.
“My lord…” a soft murmur finally broke her silent fast, and two crystalline orbs of cold-blue raised to his. “I’m sorry…”

He took her cheek in one hand and placed the other on her shoulder, shaking his head calmly. “No, Vaenomar. No need for that. It is not you who should apologize, anyway.”

She cast her gaze onto the many tarnished chain links peeping from beneath his leather cuirass. “But I caused you worry, I know. And for that I am sorry.”

His kingly pride told him she was right, but another knife twist in his heart drove home the pain he knew she had felt, the betrayal of having her trustworthiness questioned, her loyalty doubted.
“My cousin sends honest and humble apologies, Vaenomar. I would have dragged him back here and made him grovel, but I did not think you much wanted to see him again…”

She gave a slight laugh of agreement and the curve of his moustache twisted upward in a warm smile. “He thought he was protecting me…the old fetcher. Thinks I never grew up.” A look in his eyes was far off.

At the word ‘protect’, however, he felt her shoulders tense. “As if I need protecting,” he added meaningly, watching her reaction with unmasked concern.
He had sensed Bridi’s unrest and it coincided disturbingly with his own. Though both women knew much and had told him most of it, there was an impenetrable blackness, deeper than an Erebor mineshaft., that dwelt in Vaenomar. And he did not understand.

She made no reply, seeming to shed her troubles by clinging to him. Those little warm hands, her velvet cheek, that firm, embracing form- never again would he let her run from him. Never let this feeling slip away. He could hear the dripping of his cold heart melting beneath her touch.

But his tongue couldn’t hold, it be damned! In a confidential tone peppered with light, fatherly scolding, he said, “You <i>did</i> reek of Elf, though…”

The warmth of her embrace tore away and he was met by an angry pout, “Reeked?”

What did he expect she would do? Laugh? Still, he took the defensive and snorted. “Of Elf. Which, were it not for its bearers, would probably be deemed a good smell. Where were you?”

She stood up and stepped away from him. All of a sudden she seemed to tower over him, her broad shoulders less feminine and thick-cuirassed body lost its slender litheness. He thought a heavy cloud swept ominously around her.

A Dwarf is not accustomed to feeling small or weak or powerless. They simply refuse such petty states refuge in their stalwart beings.
Thorin folded his arms across his chest and glowered.
<i>She had changed.</i>

“In the forest- scouting, keeping watch…<i>for you</i>!” she snapped and instantly seemed to regret her tone, for she shook her head, confusedly, and plopped back down onto the bed.

<i>Or had she?</i>
Letting out a steady exhale, the Dwarf lord relaxed and dropped his arms to his sides. “Vaen…” he sighed again. “I’m- sorry.” The word was unnatural to him.

Tiny diamonds glimmered in the creases of her eyes and her flared nostrils quivered.
“No,” she breathed, “I am…”

He gulped down the warmth that sought to choke him, but instead of wrapping her in his love again, as his entire person begged to, he let his jealousy flare and mask weakness.

“Why? Was it a man? How old- no, that makes no difference. Where was he?”

A bright morning’s pink flushed across her cheeks and down her neck, and the delicate fringe of her eyelashes whisked away the moisture. The graceful arch of her brows lowered drastically and she began to reply but was interrupted.

“And what was he doing so close to our fortress? Or were you in their lands? What did you tell-“

“Thorin!” a clear voice like a flute shot through him. “My lord,” she added more calmly. “I was injured in a fall. He aided me- no questions. I was at the border of our surroundings as he was his. And no, he did not recognize me.”
She thought it best to make no mention of the fact that he carried a piece of Branbur’s handiwork. Or of the kiss that left her guilt-racked for an entire week. Or that he knew well her long-lost best friend. There was no telling where a jealous mind might go.

Each word she spoke grew more strained and wavering, hot tears hovered in her eyes just waiting to make the plunge. Thorin was silent for a long moment. Downcast eyes surveying his own thoughts carefully, he let the feeling of chastisement- another foreign state of being- soak into his hardened skin. She did not deserve this.
He trusted her- Elves or no Elves.

His lips moved without his order, his voice was a quiet tender growl, “Was he handsome?”
She gazed at her fingers kneading in her lap and shook her head, but he sensed the lie and smiled. “And yet here you are…”

As a child looks uncertainly to a parent for forgiveness after a just scolding, so the young foundling turned to her lord. “I love you, my lord. Only you.”

He took her hands in his and drew rough thumbs across her small chapped knuckles. “I know, Vaenomar,” his tone was a soft rain, cool and dark, “And you will never leave me again.”

His last words, so tenderly spoken, were like one hundred lashes. She blinked and swallowed, a hesitant biting of her lips leaving them redder and even more tempting.
Scarcely audible, she said, “I must…”

His aura of calm shattered and he jerked, muscles tensing, and sucked in a breath through his nose. His ears were playing evil tricks on him.
“What?” Shock flickered across his face, “What did you say?”

Vaenomar steeled herself. The looks of wounded pride and longing faded from her placid face and her eyes met his again, but now full of stubborn resolve. The same look she’d given him when first, as such an innocent thing, she had pleaded to fight along side him.
“He killed Branbur,” she said as though numbing herself, “Perhaps Darzûn as well. He will kill you all until he gets to me. I will not let that happen…”

In a horrified snarl, Thorin planted his legs apart, “He?! Who killed them? The Elf?!”

Vaenomar shook her head wearily, her forehead creased as she searched for the answer.
“No. No… The <i>Draegk</i>.”

She seemed unmoved by the effect her strange transformation was having on him. Why was she so damned peaceful?! So…unafraid?
Branbur had acted the same way the night he died…

“The <i>Draegk</i>? A blood-sucker? How?!” he raged, the thunder of his voice like a mountain storm. “What power does he wield that the mighty sons of Durin fall like flies to him? Folly! Let the accursed bat bring its claws here and I will rip them from its body and carve out its festering heart!”

His anger seethed volcanically and furiously he stomped an armoured boot on the ground. A piteous crack sounded and all eyes were drawn to the two shivered pieces of white wood, now dead and useless.

Vaenomar’s facade shattered with her bow, and she stifled a cry with her hand.
Her look of horror dug violently into his breast and he felt suddenly empty.

“Vaen-” he began quickly, fully meaning to apologize and reclaim her with tenderness. But instead he growled, “You will not leave.”

She stood, tall and haughty, but so full of beauty and unknown power now, that it almost made him pause. Her auburn hair rolled over her shoulder in thick plaits, and her strong, aquiline nose, arching brows and solemn neat lips made every fibre of his manhood tingle. The full chest, narrow waist, powerful thighs…

A woman, not a girl, stood before him. The same, but not the same, as he had claimed for his own out of the forest. Was it chance that brought them together? Or simply fate? The gut-feeling that had whispered and nagged and teased him that day, whispered and nagged and teased him now, saying the same thing:

“Let her go…”

“Never!” he roared, steam practically billowing from his nostrils, “You will not go!! Even if I have to lock you in the Deeps- I am NOT going to lose you!”

Carefully she watched his pacing, taking a defensive stance as she faced him. “I am not a gem to be locked under key. I am not…your Arkenstone,” her voice cracked. She took a deep breath. “There is a darkness in me- and I have fought it all my life. It is in my blood. It calls to me, Thorin, ceaselessly. It is an evil that will not sleep. Remnants of the malice of <i>Melkor</i>…Morgoth…ancient and horrible beyond imagining. I will defeat it or die trying. But I will <i>not</i> let it touch you.”

Feeling his grasp slipping he scrambled madly, as a man hanging over a precipice does in a last desperate attempt to live. He marched up and seized her by the arm, bringing her down onto the bed in one fluid movement. Her legs dangled over the side and she held tightly onto the heavily-muscled arm that trapped her below him.
He bent down close and his breath scorched her cheek. “I am your king, <i>duzka</i>, and you belong to me.”

As the familiar, haunting chill of stale air crept into his bones, and the icy claws of that same strange power covered his eyes and heart in blackness, Thorin lowered himself onto her, pressing his mouth hotly onto hers in a first kiss.

~~~~~

Girding the twin scimitar to her hip and clasping a steel brooch about her woolen collar, Vaenomar idly let the rivulets of salt water flow down her cheeks. She could still feel the tickle of his beard on her chin, taste his wet kiss on her tongue, and hear his pained groan as he slid to the ground against the wall when her power enveloped him and sapped his strength unto its own.

And she wept as she- unable to leave with another look- fell to her knees beside him and kissed his hands and bathed them in her tears, placing her forehead against their cold, hard flesh.

“I <i>am</i> yours, my king,” she sobbed quietly, “My lord.”

At last, the young woman raised herself stiffly and bowed. Through uneven breaths, she whispered and pressed her balled fist hard against her throbbing heart. “And I love you…Thorin… Farewell.”

~~~~~~~~~

The entire plate of food Bridi was carrying clattered to the ground when a roar like a vengeful dragon curdled her blood to cheese.

“VAENOMAR!!” it screamed.
And again.

His voice was a hoarse bark, a wild ocean, a mourning mother. The instant she heard it, she knew what had happened.

Gormna and his brother, who had remained in the Halls after their journey, heard it too. Gorlath rounded the corner of the kitchen with wide bloodshot eyes and the older soon after, both looking to her for orders. Dread was written all over their faces.

Echoing rapidly through the many stone halls, Thorin’s heavy boots made an unsteady, thudding run for the postern door. Bridi cringed as he roared again, just before going out, then the door clanged behind him.
With a nod she ordered the brothers to follow her. So it was upon them, then, the fate she had hoped and prayed to avoid.

A plan. They needed a plan.

~~~~~~~~~~~

The sound of his heartbeat matched the speed of his feet. Branches of dead winter slapped him across the face and his shins were whipped by the sleeping foliage as he bounded agilely onwards. Madly, he tore through the woods, and a cold sweat trickled down his sides.

“They would be safe,” he kept muttering between puffs of steam, “Safe.”
But safe from what?
Tethrin’s keen Elven sense boiled in warning within him. Skidding to a stop, he caught onto a tree and leaned there, catching his breath.

The forest was deafeningly silent, even the shrill tinkling of the surrounding snow drifts halted. A surge of darkness filled the back of his eyes and a suddenly it felt as though a frozen gauntlet groped for his soul. Murmuring the blessed name of Eru, he clasped his heart, panting, gulping at the air, as the effect was replaced by a sickening, poisonous smell of dread.
So deep no human ears could sense it, a vibration of air, like giant wings flapping, made him freeze and forget to breath. Moments later a huge black shadow, spanning over many trees, sailed noiselessly overhead. Its windless wake left him hollow and trembling, and he stood for too many moments one with the tree that supported him. A hollowness filled with such evil that his knees nearly buckled, his being refused to go on.
But he did.

Mind blurred like the forest that whirled past, trying to grasp the sudden plight he found himself in, he neared the place of the Glade-Keeper camp. No guard gave a warning call or asked for a password. No sounds of life and liveliness came from his fellow Elves. They were all gone, scouring the forest…for a woman!
What kind of captain sends his men on a mission without telling them why? What did he want with her? Why was he so ill-tempered of late? Why had he hurt Eärón? And what, on this good earth, had possessed Tethrin to encourage his friend to defy the captain and offer to return with the news?!
He slowed to a jog. Grey, white and dark, slate brown wheeled around him. His temples boomed, claws seemed to dig into his shoulders, and an angry voice howled in his head.
“Alcarín is right! Eärón is betraying you.”

“No!” he gasped, but pressed on at a slower lope.

“He is tainted. The cursed blood of Man runs in his veins. He is driven by lust. <i>She</i> is a bearer of true darkness.”

Though he attempted to force the hissing voice out of his head, the memories began to roll before his eyes. Eärón had spoken of the mysterious woman in the forest very little indeed. And he <i>had</i> seemed rather perturbed ever since meeting her. That could not make her evil, though!

“Do not doubt your thoughts for they are pure and full of truth! Eärón has fallen into her snare- Alcarín wants only to protect his people: You- and all the others. Find her.” The voice melted into an almost caress-like female sound,
“Kill her.”

Mechanically, Tethrin drew his blade and walked; he had entered the clearing of tents.
Turning in a cautious circle to take in his surroundings, he sensed the source of all the malice that now churned in his beloved forest. It was so near, and the voice urged him with such force, he could not discern the ugly howling from the silky whisper.

He stopped and breathed deeply. The soft leather grip of his sword was warm in his palm, but a grinding, icy wind from nowhere insisted on muddling his thoughts.
He did not even know who <i>she</i> was. He trusted Eärón, but it would not be the first time his friend had been driven by passion. And Tairiel? Why was she here…really?

Dragging a trembling hand through his hair, Tethrin tried to dispense the chorus of warnings and orders that writhed in his brain as he turned about warily. Any moment now, it felt as though something horrible would leap out at him.
Its power choked him, it was so strong. Her evil? Something ancient- older than him, but not his people. Everything began to wheel around, whispers, squeals, and hisses made his skin crawl and he clawed at his own head as it felt about to burst.

Then, like a ray of the sun in the deepest mire, or a hand of safety to a drowning man, the brazen rasping caw of a raven shattered the stifling mind-mist and shook him.

The majestic bird swooped gracefully down and landed on the top of the Captain’s tent. Tethrin breathed a deep sigh and caught his breath.
It looked meaningfully at the Elf and gave another hoarse cry, and great black wings opened slightly as if in readiness.

Suddenly upon his lips he felt words forming.
“Cursed One- Reveal thyself!” he ordered in perfect Quenya, “The Light has found you!”

The tent opening flapped and out stepped the Captain.

Tethrin stumbled backwards a step. In the recesses of his mind, he caught a glimpse of glittering silver waters and hills and forests of lush emerald, and his spirit was calmed.

“Where is he? the dark, velvet voice demanded, a perfect marriage of those that had swarmed Tethrin.
The Elf bit his lip and lied for the first time in his life, “I could not find him.”

The Captain’s brow grew dark and he stepped forward, the ebony cloak that enveloped his tall, thin form flicking like black flame.

As he drew closer, Tethrin could make out strange, sharp protrusions beneath the fraying mantle and he thought the Captain hid something beneath its folds.

“Where are they?!” he demanded again, this time seething with venom.

Sword still in hand, Tethrin gulped and shrunk back. “They?” <i>How did he know?</i>

Alcarín’s eyes blazed upon hearing the call of the raven behind him. All colour drained from his skin and his thin lips drew into a cruel snarl as the incantation again fell from Tethrin’s lips.

“Reveal yourself!”

The Captain whipped around and hissed toward the bird. The next moment a harsh flutter of rough wings entered the clearing and a tattered, bloody crow dove towards the raven. A loud thud was followed by angry caws and the clatter of sharp beaks and claws.
When he turned back, his face was even more drawn and haggard, far more than just from fatigue. His eyes were an empty dull black and a wave like ink coursed down the strands of gold that were once Alcarín’s hair. Towering over Tethrin, the swirls of his cape pushed to the side, revealing hateful spines and iron teeth of a hulking suit of black armour.

As Tethrin finished slowly, eyes widened, heart sinking fast, “The Light has found you,” a grin, wrought with gnawing malice, spread on the Captain’s face. Two teeth were sharp and elongated like a wolf’s and a red gem at the center of his chest-plate flickered ominously.

“I gave you a chance,” the creature said in a sickly laugh, and moved forward.
The Elf threw himself aside and with a battle cry, such as he’d never used before, brought his blade down heavily on the outstretched arm of the other. The former Captain hissed and lurched from the force of the blow, but Tethrin’s sword glanced off the ebony gauntlet and sent him teetering backwards.

“Pathetic!” cackled the fanged creature, “No Elf nor Man has the power to defeat me! My force will grow and I will cover all the North in Shadow. Soon- I will surpass even Angmar! Feed me worm!”
Struggling with all his strength, Tethrin could do nothing against this overwhelming evil as it seized him in iron-clad grips and raised him helpless to its bared fangs.
He closed his eyes as his jerkin was torn away and the tender skin of his throat punctured. His bones ached, fever raged, and his life blood drained.

“Silver glass,” he murmured, and on the distant shore he thought he saw his mother’s smiling face.

As he was dropped carelessly to the hard ground, it felt as though two barbed spearheads were ripped from his neck. He weakly tried to push himself up, groaning and gasping, and a hot, thin trickle of blood danced down his chest.
“There is no darkness,” he spat, struggling for breath, “That can defeat the Light!”

A sharp armoured boot forced him onto his back, the impact launching a wheezing death rattle in his lungs, and it pressed its iron plates into his ribs. The same sneer now showed blood-stained teeth and lips, the ashen-yellow of unliving skin wrinkled in hate. Drawing his own sword from a giant sheath on his hip, the cursed one bent slightly and whispered,

“It already has.”

But Tethrin did not hear the squelch of the jagged blade in his own stomach, nor the swoosh of wings as a huge horror of feather and scales landed and bore its master up. He felt no more pain.
Just as darkness seeped over his sight, the last movements departed from a ragged dark form as it lay limp, like him, on the wintery floor.
The raven, he thought, and a pang of sadness brought tears to his fading eyes.

But still shining in brilliant blues and greens in the white light of the falling snow, a sleek black bird left the pile of bloody feathers and flapped with strength into the air.

Tethrin smiled and shut his eyes at last. “Valar protect them…”

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The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 34 ~Company~

Chapter 34

~Company~

Grey. Everything was grey.
 The low hanging clouds that lazily floated overhead were as drab as the pale lichen covering the stone over which she tread. The smoke that sailed from the stone chimney of the squat Dwarven house, her thick wool cloak, the resealed cracks in the ice of the courtyard’s fountain: all the same, lifeless shade of dust.
  Even the scarce light that barely filtered through the airy, winter canopy was cold and dead.

 A breeze whipped loose strands of her hair across her forehead as she drug her feet over the stones. The birds were gone. Hiding away, warm in their nests. Now and then a dusting of snowflakes would alight on her, coming down from the snow-capped mountains, hidden in the cloud.
 But all she saw was grey. Any other day, she might’ve relished the many different tones and hues of it in nature, but not today. Her mind was filled to the brim with it, like an overused fire pit, overflowing with ashes.
 Listlessly she found herself wandering up the stairs to the Western ramparts.
A familiar spot.
 She leaned her chin on the icy merlons and took in a deep breath of cold air.

 Despite the low clouds, the view still stretched on far to the West- the dark slate of forest and its dormant inhabitants.
 Her eyes saw nothing. Nothing there, at least; but searched deep and delved tirelessly in her soul.

  The understanding slowly unveiled itself, but the will still cowered away.

~~~~~~~~~~~

  “It’s nothing to fret about, alright, just make Grezof and Vahgdûr get the message,” the firm, pointed tone of Bridi ordered, while she distractedly rifled through a large oak chest of gear.
 “Aye, milady,” said the burly Dwarf, trying to hide his confusion.
“And give them these,” she turned and thrust a pair of old, metal shields in his arms and laid an array of Dwarven projectiles on top.
 “Crossbows?” he wondered aloud. “We expectin’ visitors?” his piqued interest hovered between excitement and worry.
“No. Just do it.”
 When Bridi closed a conversation, it was closed. He nodded hastily and exited the room.

 Bridi sighed and folded her arms under her chest as she surveyed the room. The magnificent stone walls rose high up into the darkness until they mingled with the living mountain’s flesh. But below, only a few dust chests and dilapidated armour-stands remained to tell of the glory it once had seen as Azaghâl’s armory.
True, it was in the holding of Durin’s proud heir, but that was all.

 An attempt at expansion…that failed; Bridi’s thoughts drifted in melancholy over the past decade. He tried so hard, wanting nothing more than the good of his people and to restore to them their birthright. Their place as Lords of the Mountains.
But that would not come. Not until Thorin Oakenshield sat on the restored throne of Erebor.

 An ancient heirloom from the line of Thrór, a heavy buckler of once-shiny steel, hung on a rack on the wall. Reverently she dusted off its engraved boss, her breath on the cold metal forming a static cloud that slowly faded away.
 A tired, square-faced woman stared back at her, wisps of coppery hair framing her forehead, and mahogany-red brows lowered over a permanently intense scrutiny of green eyes.
 The edges of her tightly closed lips sunk downwards seriously, set with her jaw in an uninviting frown. A long white scar ran down the length of her brow to lower cheek; it had been there for a good long while. But an inexplicable feeling in her gut told her it was about to have company.

  A patter of footsteps in the outside hall drew her away from the shield. Kjar, no doubt.
Bridi hurredly closed the lid to the chest and stuffed the new whetstone into her belt just before the elderly matron entered the room.

 “Ah, there you are, lass!” she said, her huffing making evident her search for the other. “I was-” A befuddled look on her face interrupted herself, “What are you doing in here?”
Bridi had expected that, “What are you doing in here?”
 The old woman sputtered, “Well, looking for you, of course!”
Bridi shrugged, “I was just making sure nothing was rusting. It’s too damn quiet around here…”
 Kjar gestured clearly that she fully agreed and resumed her previous business.
“I’ve been looking for you for a half hour!” she tossed up her hands, “Because I’ve been looking for Vaenomar even longer! Where’s she got to?”

Bridi’s features paled rapidly. Vaenomar!
 Without even acknowledging the other woman, Thorin’s counselor marched off in a storm, muttering, “Can’t leave that whelp alone one minute without her flying off! Curses on those long legs,” and left Kjar to hobble after her.

  After a quick, unsuccessful search of her room, the kitchen, Thorin’s room and any other sub-mountain haunt of hers, they took to the village.
“Go ask Salfgar and any one else you see on the way.”
“They’re all gone,” said Kjar sadly as she set off towards the tailor’s house at an sturdily wobbling pace.

 Bridi’s metal-toed boots thudded rapidly over stone after stone, eyes darting about, ears piqued for any odd sound. Wind funneling in between two mountain houses caught her in a gust causing her to sway momentarily. She clenched her teeth against the biting chill. A heavy, studded door creaked open behind her and she turned, in one fluid movement on her heel.
“Vahgdûr!”
 He jumped at the intensity of her tone and at her presence; Bridi wasn’t a common sight out from under the Halls.
 “The girl- you seen her?” the King’s right-hand demanded, but not without an unsettling amount of worry in her stern hoarseness.
“Eh- Vaenomar?” the off-duty gate guard stuttered hastily.
 “You’ve seen her?”
“No, no,” he said, waving his palms defensively, “But I-“
 “Help me look for her,” Bridi cut him off and resumed her determined march.

It was far too early to panic, yet. But if that girl was gone…if she’d run off to perform some hair-brained heroics- or worse- if she was taken captive…by him

  Bridi jogged to a halt, her long whip-lash flopping over her shoulder as she quickly surveyed the market area. No one was around in this frigid weather- the trading only took place in summer, when there were new trades to be made from the payment of Mannish villages.

 The breeze eerily stirred a ragged cloth awning over one of the stalls and a dusting of sleet swirled around her feet in the lonely, empty court.
“Vaen?” her voice bounced off the cold rock that surrounded her and came back, dull and out of place. There was no one here.
 Was it Thorin’s absence combined with the oppressive silt-grey of the sky that brought on these sudden bouts of hollow melancholy? But Kjar seemed to feel the same way. Not all was well: every fibre of Bridi’s subconscious being told her so. Even her rational mind worried constantly over the unknown ‘man‘ in Jarlich. The draegk.

  A few blocks down, Bridi heard Vahgdûr calling the girl’s name, muffled by the wind and stone. She took in a generous, numbing breath to slow her escalating heartbeat and clear her mind.
Jaw set like steel, she turned south and strode towards the gate.

  From several dozen paces off she could see the squat forms of the guards, Khin and Narukar, sitting at their posts on either side of the gate. In addition to the great bear furs that draped the cousins’ already bulky forms, they bore the shields Bridi had assigned to them that morning.
 Aulë grant they not need them.

 Along with the shields and the one crossbow and a few spare bolts she’d dug up to give them, they’d also been given the order not to let Vaenomar near the gate. Bridi didn’t really think she would leave, but she was as precautious as Thorin was headstrong.
And young things often fill their heads with rash nonsense, she though to herself in growing nervousness.
 Looking left revealed only a barren, sloped street devoid of life. She turned right to see Vahgdûr emerge from between the buildings and look in her way with a shrug of fruitlessness.
A few more paces brought her in calling distance of the gate. But her name, short and urgent, caused her to glance back at her companion. He pointed West, far behind her, and up.
She whipped around and immediately let a sigh of relief puff like smoke from her nostrils.

 High above, perched like a rock-dove clad in slate-grey, on the massive wall of the bulwark stood Vaenomar. The same spot where Gormna had ‘caught’ her so many months ago.
Her cloak billowed restlessly behind her, a colourless banner for the nameless, houseless one.
 She was motionless, but for her windswept hair and garments. Her dark, still figure could’ve been carved there, thought Bridi, as she motioned silently for her companion to join her.
“Find Kjar. Tell her she’s fine. Look with Salfgar,” she ordered in a low tone.

 The girl was alone too much as was. Contemplating could be dangerous. Very dangerous.

~~~~~~~~~~~

 “He’ll be back soon.”
Those simple words, soft and firm, caused her to nearly jump out of her boots, as she gasped and took a few steps backwards.
 “Bridi!” said Vaenomar breathlessly, as if awoken out of a dream.

 The Dwarf peered off into the distance, leaning against the solid merlons and rubbing her stubbily-nailed fingers over the pocks and cracks of the stone.
 Giving the younger woman a moment to regather her composure, Bridi surveyed the steep, craggy descent from their mountain abode. Even from that height the precarious path was practically invisible.
 A calm settled over the Dwarf woman’s spirits as they both gazed out over the mist-covered expanse.

It was time.

 Her voice, poignant and low, broke the heavy silence, “Before Thorin found you- what were you?”
 It almost seemed as though she expected it, her manner changed so little. Vaenomar didn’t look up, but an unnoticeable shudder coursed down her spine.
 Though silence persisted a few moments longer, Bridi knew she would answer. The cloaked fear of rejection was being cast off and a firm, level resolution being made in that secretive brain of hers. Bridi the mind-reader could see that far.
 At last, Vaenomar breathed in soft and slowly, and answered.
“An Elf.”
 Bridi glanced at her from the corner of her eyes, but said nothing.
“Or so I wished,” continued the younger woman.

 “Deep in those woods lies an Elven city. Taurëmith. City of the Trees. You’d never be able to find it,” she gestured with her head towards the vast sea of forest to the West, “I wouldn’t either. But it is beautiful.”
Bridi thought a sigh escaped her.

 “I was a border scout, along with many others. Tairiel and I…wandered too far from our camp…” her voice took on the old, musical, Elven accent as she spoke.
 “I was foolish, I know well, now, that Taurëmith was in no danger of being found. But then- I would have protected its secret with my life.”

 Bridi nodded thoughtfully. None of this was too surprising news. But she wondered aloud, “None can find it?”
 Vaenomar shrugged, “Except for the Elves. There is a Girdle of ancient magic surrounding it. Nonetheless, we- they- keep their borders safe and pure. Or so they try.”

 “Yet you doubt?” queried Bridi, reading further into the girl’s thoughts.
Vaenomar’s head dropped low and she scraped at some grey-green lichen on the wall. “I- feel something. Something strange…ancient. As old as their magic- yet, stained,” she turned to Bridi, pallid and eyes wide as if from a waking nightmare, “Evil.”

 The Dwarf clenched her teeth and nodded darkly. “Anything like…” she paused, searching for the right words.
“Me, Bridi,” interrupted Vaenomar, feverishly. “Calling nature to my aid, through a word, a thought. Like in the forest…before Tharkûn arrived.”
 “I thought you didn’t know it happened,” said Bridi, mildly suspicious.
Vaenomar shook her head,”I didn’t. But I remember it now. And…with Thorin…the first time. Bridi,” she turned fully towards the Dwarf, “Ever since I met him, I remember. I…” she grimaced confusedly, “I recognized it in him. It’s nothing I was taught. It’s…in my blood…? Spirit- Ach!” she slapped the rock exasperated, “I don’t know.”

 Bridi suddenly seized her wrists firmly, her cold-numbed fingers gripped tightly over Vaenomar’s bare pulse. “But you do know!”
 The girl’s eyes widened in shock.
“You may not know what is it- but what does that matter? You have power. Thorin- Lord Thorin- sensed it in you from the beginning! Why else did he keep you and release the Elf? He could’ve used her for ransom- but no! He chose you! Your power- use it. Against the creature- that thing– that seeks to destroy us. Turn it against him!”

 By now the young woman was trembling and paler than before, droplets of salty water at the corners of her eyelids. Her lips quivered and her chest rose and fell in short breaths.

 It worked. All that- Bridi had made up- just in that instant. But it worked. She had no idea why Thorin had chosen Vaenomar; she doubted if his choice had more to do with rationality than matters of the flesh.
 But in the end, she was right.
Vaenomar could help. The fortress of Azaghâl would have a worthy regiment atop its walls- praying Thorin and the rest returned before anything hit.

 “You can control it, Vaenomar, right?”
The girl bit her lip, still trembling, “I…think.”
 “He may be undead. May be ancient- but not even the forces of Gundabad could stand against the Heir of Durin. If that creature comes here- he will taste the true meaning of ‘cold as the grave’.”
 Vaenomar nodded vehemently, riled by Bridi’s speech.
The Dwarf patted her shoulder and turned to leave, her mission well accomplished.
 “He’ll be back soon,” she added in a softened tone and glanced at the mountain stairs, wishfully hoping to see her lord.

  As the Dwarven metal boots clanked down the stairs, the tear dislodged itself and splashed, alone, onto the cold merlon.
 But it was more than that. She could feel him. Not Thorin, no. The draegk, as Bridi called him. The man from Jarlich. The nameless shadow that haunted her dreams and made her moments of waking into nightmares.

 It had all happened so fast. One day, she had been a happy, pensive Elf-child, carefree and studious in everything. Then she became a Dwarf. Much too tall and awkward, doing her very best to fit in the rigid, stony structure of their culture. And then Thorin. It had started as fear, became fearful respect, mixed ever so slightly with defiance. But she had felt herself falling much deeper than that. The little they had seen of each other had ‘blossomed’, though hardly a fitting word, into the closest thing to love the hardened Dwarf-king could feel. And then he showed up. She wondered what would’ve happened if she hadn’t gone to Jarlich. Would he have found her anyways?
Probably.
 Was his sole intent to entrap her? Or was she only another piece to a larger construct; one that had no relish of good in it.

 Elves, when confronted by a hidden evil, always recognized it and shunned it ruthlessly.
She had felt it, though not immediately, and had been tempted by it. Why?! She was raised in goodness and light. She knew right from wrong as easily as a raven from a hawk.

 Squinting, she tried to make out a small dark shape breaking through the heavy mist.
As the little form slowly grew closer, Vaenomar chided herself. “Maybe that’s what he wants you to think. To question. To doubt…” She growled in frustration. “Curse him! These are my people and I will defend them with my life!”

 She made out a bird of prey, flapping then gliding, in an unbalanced fashion in her general direction. It seemed…wounded, over-tired?
 Her pity aroused, she watched intently as the distance between them shrunk. “Land here…” she muttered, scaling the length of the wall restlessly, “Land…”
Soon enough the bird began to slow and spread its chest and wingspan to land.

 Alighting on a merlon, the nighthawk’s dappled feathers heaved rapidly as it struggled to regain breath.
 Vaenomar approached it slowly, in a non-threatening, slow amble. She greeted him, but no reply came. She asked him where he was from, but he only looked at her with sad, frightened eyes. Something was wrong. He had much to say, but couldn’t.
 Vaenomar held out her finger and the tired bird curiously stretched out his hooked beak and nibbled it.
 “Will you not speak to me?” she asked pitifully, aloud.
The nighthawk sullenly looked at its rock-hewn perch, shook out its soft feathers, and then pecked at its own claw.
 Then she noticed a tight, rolled piece of weathered parchment tied by a strap to the raptor’s scaled talons.
 A messenger bird! No wonder it was so tired, the poor, dear thing.
With tender gentleness, she reached below the bird’s downy body and slipped the tiny note from the leather carrier.
 Despite her attempts at friendliness, rubbing his bony jowls, stroking his underchin, the stately nighthawk seemed indifferent and a hollow tranquility loomed in his black eyes. An emptiness in his thoughts- and he would not speak. Vaenomar thought that he wished to, but, knowing he could not, didn’t even make the attempt.
With consternated brow, her numbed fingers unrolled the parchment.
 On the outward side there was a faded scrawled note, bearing a few sentences in the Common Tongue which were hard to make out, because of the water stain and weather and the curling faint hand.
 An immobilizing frost spell seemed to fall on her as she turned the note over.

 In bold Cirth runes the colour of dried blood, it read:

“I Come.
Or
You.”

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

 The frost fall sparkled and shone as it caught the first light of dawn. A silvery field of tiny shards and prisms; every stalk of grass and slumbering leaf encased in a wintry suit of mithril.

 The cloud of vapour that floated away from the mouth and nostrils of the solitary figure dissipated quickly in the clear, crackling air. Even the axe blade at his hip was covered in a blue brocade of organic swirls and shapes. A blanket of grey clouds barely moved overhead, their soft undersides just beginning to take on the tint of the rising sun, which would soon be lost above their wooly forms.

 With a lung-numbing inhale that came out a sigh, Thorin turned and began an idle march back, the lifeless vegetation crackling underfoot, showering little crystals onto the king’s furred boots.

 He could almost imagine the frosty carpet being of the finest velvet, covering lengths and lengths of black marble streaked with emerald veins. Silver and gold in all forms imaginable, at his feet. Gems so plentiful they were commonplace- but their beauty still unmatched by all the world.
His kingdom.
 But Vaenomar would find all this- the curled leaves, the bent grasses, red berries all covered in the night’s icy tears- to be most lovely. The clouds the colour of her cloak, touched with the cold pale blue of her eyes.

 If she was with him now… But, no. She was gone. Running wild in the woods, cursing the name of his cousin, his family- maybe even his. What if she came back while he was away? Or worse- never came back at all.
 Instinctively his fingers fondled the axe-head restlessly.
It was time to go home.

 It didn’t take the keen sense of a Dwarf to smell something rotten going on. There were no goblins. No bandits. Nothing here. Nor had there been.
 His boot met with a hollow, hard object and sent it rolling several feet ahead. Picking it up, he found a jawless skull, covered in cracks and filled with dried leaves and fur, having served as some small creature’s bed.
 Washed white by many years under sun and sky, its brittle frailty belied the importance it once held. And havoc it once wreaked. An ugly, oversized canine tooth along with a couple others were still rather sharp. Thorin tossed it down.
At least there hadn’t been any goblins for a while.

 When he arrived back at the longhouse after many hours of a sleepless morning out in the countryside, Thorin heard the boisterous chatter of feasting Dwarves, and smelled good, fatty meats, eggs, cheeses and fresh baked bread.
 He had been treated much more hospitably than his actions of the night prior had merited, but the men- it was just what they needed. Good rest, good food, good company. And then a good, quick march home. Then their minds would forget and forgive the mistake.

 Mistake, he sneered inwardly. The trick! A cunning play by a clever enemy. But he had survived worse.

 Quietly he came into the hall where a table had been set up, and took a respectfully-left-open place next to his cousin, Dáin. The same smiling, round face with autumn curls bounced up to him, hands full of breakfast and back again with warm spiced mead.
As he politely smiled his thanks, a less than subtle jab in the ribs came from his onlooking relative.
“Eat up,” Thorin quipped, ignoring the gesture, “Or you might die of starvation. Just look at you.”
Dáin just snorted, patting a robust waistline, and continued to shovel steaming heaps of eggs and sausage into his mouth.
“She is pretty, though,” Thorin admitted, as the friendly Thaneling’s daughter reseated herself between an Iron Hills woman and a doting Gorlath.

 “We get it from our mother,” Thorin heard her say and shake out her fiery hair.
“Like Bridi…except taller. And happier,” he thought.

 “Rúan’s name even means red-headed,” she laughed again and Gorlath refilled her mug.
“Good thing you don’t name after your surroundings like we do,” he said, “Else you’d be a bunch of Browngrasses and Softmuds.”
 The Dwarf woman rolled her eyes and explained to Dána, “Like Ironfoot, Stonefist…and Numbskull- like him,” she gestured to Gorlath.

 Thorin turned back to his food. He’d never seen Vaenomar enjoy herself that much. What had he done to her…
 “What do you got against your food that you’re glaring at is so?” said Dáin, his grating voice making Thorin look up from his thoughts. “If you’re not going to eat that-“
“Get off my food!” Thorin pushed his cousin away, “You’ve got plenty!”

 The clear, feminine voice of Dána rang out again, “Little Rúan- he might seem scrawny and young- well, he is. But he’s got some skill. Not as good as I am, of course, or my older sisters… but he can hold his own, well enough. He’s always dreaming of being a warrior- like the tales of my father….when the militia was still around.” She shrugged. “Shining his knives, oiling his armour, always practicing with me and Fían. Silly boy. He’s not even been out of Aldon for five years.”

 Thorin drained his third mug and followed it with a rinse of cold well water, and arose.
Dáin followed him and then a few others, at their own pace. The rest of the table looked up expectantly at their respective leaders.

 “A hearty thanks to you and our family for your hospitality, Lady Dána,” Thorin bowed low. “I’m afraid we must take out leave. Home calls us.”
 Dána bowed respectfully back, “It was good to make your acquaintance, Lord Thorin, and that of your people. You all are welcome here any time. Lord Dáin,” she nodded also to his cousin.

 Wooden plates and bowls, metal tankards, rustic iron cutlery began to clink and clack together as the table was rapidly cleared and the hall restored to proper order.

 The aged Thaneling, Thorin was told, would not be awake and ready for an audience until a few hours later. Dána promised to give him the Dwarf lords’ regards. And relay thanks to her strangely absent brother.
 “It’s quite possible that he over slept, drunk too much, or something of the like. Could be in town, too, with his lady friend,” she shrugged.
 Thorin took her small, white hand and pressed it gently to his bristling moustache. “Take care. We will probably never meet again.”
 The warmth in his deep, smoky voice was like a thrilling caress to her smooth cheek. She blushed the colour of musk rose, but nodded, a little sadly, at his words.
“And you take care, too. Eru keep you.”

 And leaving the proud daughter of Aldon on the steps of the longhouse, he joined his cousin and followers at the gates of the town.

 On approaching, Thorin was met by his wild-maned, broad cousin with outstretched arms and a metallic grin.
 As the tree-trunk thick arms of both men slapped familiarly on each other’s backs, Dáin chuckled, “Well cous, I’m glad you managed to live through my visit. You’ve gotten grumpier since last winter. And worse since the winter before!”
 “And you’ve gotten fatter and uglier,” Thorin tugged his cousin’s white braid back and received a playful punch in the stomach.
 “You get back to that long-legs of yours and tell Bridi there’s still room for two on my throne. I’m not that fat yet.”
 “I can only imagine what she’d say to that,” snorted Thorin and motioned for Gormna and Gorlath to get the others ready.
 Newly laden packs were slung over shoulders and belts loosened for walking with full bellies.

 “You send me word if anything shows up along the way,” Thorin told his cousin seriously. “Anything.”
 “Ah, even, say- a little, white rabbit or something?”
Tossing his black head of hair behind him, Thorin grunted and beckoned for his men to follow him Northward; homeward.
 Dáin and his retinue headed southeast, towards the Old Forest Road and began their long march to the Iron Hills and other stops along the way.

 Gorlath the Scout’s jogging footsteps were much springier than the day before as their sound slowly disappeared ahead.
 Hopefully they would all reach the mountains in good speed and unscathed- no surprises along the way or when they arrived.

 But just as Gorlath’s quicker pace drew out of earshot, a longer stride behind him and the Dwarves caught Thorin’s ears. He whirled around, hair on end, to see a very slim figure with long, lanky legs and the sun blazing on a bright copper head. The satchel at his side bounced wildly as he jogged to catch up, breath puffing away in the frigid morning air.
The others stopped and turned, surprised at their sudden halt.

 Steam puffed violently from Thorin’s flared nostrils as he folded his arms across his thick chest and waited, stoically, for their pursuant.
 Drawing closer to the Dwarf lord, Rúan slowed to a lope and then a walk.
Lungs filled with the nipping cold, he panted a bit to catch his breath, grinning widely, pink cheeks spread with excitement.
 “I didn’t think you’d get far,” he laughed in between breaths.
Thorin eyed him suspiciously, “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.
  “Did we forget something?” put in Gormna, helpfully.
“Or did you?” Thorin raised his eyebrows.

 The young man was in fur-lined leather armour, very new and very clean looking, gird with a matching brace of daggers and some throwing implements jangling from his belt.
“I am headed to- ah- Old Estenna- to see my sister. Maybe to find our missing hawk, too. So- I thought I could travel with you.” He glanced around, a little less comfortably than before.

 “Is that so?” Thorin said measuredly, “And leave your father?”
Rúan shook his head, “Oh, he’s in the best of hands with Dána. We don’t get many- or any- visitors, anyways.”

“And what about the strange man from the inn? What if he comes back?”

 Rúan’s already pale face blanched from beneath his cold cheeks, and he nodded. “That’s why I want to come.”
 Thorin’s black brows lowered darkly and he huffed, “Very well. To Estenna, then we part ways.” The smile returned to the young man’s face and he gladly fell in line next to Gormna.
 Only one or two Dwarves muttered or grumbled at having the tall, trim fellow obscuring their view.
 His good-natured and genuine excitement was rather infectious, however, and Gormna queried, “So…where were you, lad?”
 “Who, me?” the Thaneling’s son glanced around.
“Nah, him,” Gormna sarcastically nosed towards Thorin in front of him.
 Rúan grinned, “Eh…giving farewells.”
Gormna nodded knowingly, “I see. So…she’s heartbroken now?”
 To his surprise, Rúan threw back his head and chuckled. “Actually she took it quite well…along with the key.”
 “Oh?”
“Had someone else to give it to, I suppose,” Rúan shrugged.
 “You don’t seem too worried about that, lad.”
Rúan’s dark blue eyes twinkled, “I’m not. I’m gone.”

  And so began Thorin’s long walk ahead of a young, energetic human who hadn’t been away for a half a decade.

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 33 ~Captain Alcarin~

Chapter 33
Captain Alcarín

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “You could always-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alcarín was lying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Tairiel.

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 32 ~False Alarm~

Chapter 32
~False Alarm~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was this an apology? Thorin was shocked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any visitors to the town lately?”

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

“Foreign, odd-looking…male?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 30 ~ Not Alone~

Chapter 30
~Not Alone~

  The welcoming chirps and rustling forest calm was all but lost on Vaenomar as she crashed through the underbrush like the same mother boar she’d so lately been pursued by. The feverish heat in her head obscured the other sensations of her body and mind. Her legs throbbed violently from an intense march of nearly five hours. Locked and firm, her jaw was set in an angry scowl, eyes straight ahead, only barely seeing what was there through the fiery haze fueled by one man: Dáin.
  Her small vocabulary of curses didn’t suffice to describe him so she left off trying. Branbur, the man she trusted most, was gone forever. Thorin had done next to nothing to stop Dáin’s abuse and Bridi even less. They actually were listening to him!!
She was disgusted.
 They took his word over months and months of her unfailing loyalty?! How could Thorin? If a guest at her pleasure had insulted one she professed to love, she knew, most definitely, she would never sit by and watch them so rankly offended!
   Dáin’s words rang through her ears like giant bells clanging overhead, making her unsteady.
A large bank into a brook sloped down, littered with rocks and loose soil. Carelessly Vaenomar jumped onto the slope and began to slide, losing her balance and tumbling down with a splash, feet first into the water. Without hesitation she got back up, tears of fury welling up in her eyes, and climbed up the other side. Teeth grinding fitfully, she thought to herself, “Perhaps I’ll just not go back for a long time. I’ll do my duty as flawlessly as ever and go back when I please. That should teach them.”
Just maybe Thorin would feel bad; heartless man!
   Dark clouds were high above the trees while smaller wisps floated just over the tallest branches. The air was chill but damp and in the forest dank and muggy. A warm spell in the middle of the winter had awoken a few Northern creatures, but still the woods were quiet. Quiet, but for the plodding footsteps that traversed the Western edge.

  The trees were less dense and the underbrush leafless and sleeping from the cool winds that penetrated the edge of the woods for about a half mile. Vaenomar’s aimless marching led her just out of the warmth of the inner woods and into the realm of winter. But she noticed it not. Nor did her clouded eyes perceive the broken branches and stirred leaves that under more normal circumstances would’ve been picked up immediately.

  A stronger anger she had never felt in her life, at least that she could remember. The Elves had taught by example to be patient, caring and above such base feelings. The Elves: why were the Dwarves so suspicious of them? Her past association with them was the main source of her problems and her own upbringing left her unable, or unwilling, to address such insults as Dáin’s.  Picturing Thorin’s grisly, rasping relative beside her, she lashed out with a wayward punch, her fist colliding with a rough tree trunk. That, of course, had a jarring effect on her knuckles and she recoiled her hand. Sucking the numbing scrapes, she looked up at what she’d struck. Dead leaves rustled as if unhappily disturbed and the dormant beech’s branches swayed in a breeze.
Vaenomar stepped back, muttering, “I’m sorry…” Then a clang echoed through the forest and searing pain shot up her leg as cruel, iron jaws sank into the flesh high above her ankle.
Her body collapsed in utter shock and she heard her throat utter a wailing cry. With grinding teeth and bated breath the trapped creature pulled her throbbing leg out from under her to find an iron contraption as long as her forearm and hand, piercing, with long, evil teeth, latched on either side of her leg.
  She gasped for breath, squeezing tight the blood flow on her calf and closed tight her eyes.
As she tried with trembling hands to pry off the clamped fangs, the blood left her face and raced to her leg. It wasn’t budging, despite all the strength she forced into it. Blackness hovered around her sight, replacing the haze of frustration, and it closed in.
“This is what I get for running off?” she muttered through clenched teeth, “I’m sorry Thorin…”
Her arms went limp and she keeled backwards, head landing on a soft bed of lichen, while the malicious row of metal spikes remained locked on its prey.

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

    The last several hours Thorin had spent chastising Dáin at the top of his lungs, and arguing and calling for Vaenomar in and on the outskirts of town.
 She had been seen leaving by the gate, confirmed by the half awake gate-guards, and, according to Bridi, had brought her fresh filled, supply bag along with her.
Bridi had assured him that the girl needed only to let off a lot of steam, and, being a well-mannered thing, preferred to do so without the company of others.

  “When have you ever seen her lose her temper?” she had encouraged, “And let met tell you- doubt not that she has one.”
 She’d simply returned to the woods, to her post; her duty. She’d return soon and make amends. It was her way. With a magma-filled glare at Dáin, “If there are amends to be made,” she said.

  Thorin’s throat was sore and his head ached. As he stared at the cracks and uneven shelves in the flagstone floor, his eyes saw only Vaenomar, abused and offended beyond measure. He should have done more. Not in his wildest dreams did he think his cousin would go that far.
Thorin bore no love for Elven-kind, but Dáin’s dislike seemed to have turned into an extreme hatred. Not only had he accused his cousin’s adopted lover of being a sympathizer, but had argued for that being as bad as a goblin-chief or such. Since when had Elves and goblins been simultaneous in a Dwarf mind?! Not in Thorin’s long life time.
Branbur had always a good opinion of most pointy-ears, Bridi was neutral, and both were, and had been, trusted opinions.
  Dáin and Thorin and all of Durin’s line from under Erebor had good reason to be at odds with the folk of the realm of the Greenwood, but all Elves?
Vaenomar would never truly understand, and she shouldn’t have to. As he told himself often: it wasn’t her burden to bear.
 Through shouting, threats, curses, and a bit of blood-drawing punches Thorin and his newfound ally, Bridi, had mostly successfully driven that point like a spike in Dáin’s thick, rocky skull. Not that he apologized- but he would have to.
 If she ever came back…
Bridi’s firm hand rested on his shoulder, as he hunched over in a chair.
“She’ll come back, my lord. If I know her at all, she’ll come back. Just give her time.”

   He glanced at Dáin, who was sitting sullenly in a corner, sharpening a few axe-blades to pass the time.
Thorin’s eyes turned back to the floor.
“I shouldn’t have made her come…”
“It’s not your fault.”
“It could’ve been avoided… My own failure to see things the way they are-“
“My lord, it’s not your fault. Believe me- I’d tell you if it was.”
He managed a chuckle, “Oh Bridi, you’re worth more gold than was ever in my father’s coffers.”
“I hope so,” she replied dryly. “You could never have anticipated such a row, so don’t blame yourself. There are more important things to deal with at hand.”
He nodded solemnly, but his mind still lingered on Vaenomar. Her sudden absence had struck him like a ballista bolt. He hadn’t even been able to-
 Startling Bridi and his cousin, he stood up. With Vaenomar not around his restless spirit awoke and tormented him. He had half a mind to follow her…
 If Darzûn hadn’t found her though, there wasn’t much of a chance he could. Especially if she didn’t want to be.

   Passing out of the postern door, he made his way in the clear air to the bulwark walls.
In the gloaming light of evening he peered into the dark mass of forest far below and hoped somewhere in their midst a young woman, wronged in her own home, lay at rest with a forgiving heart and peaceful mind. Comfortable on a pillow of soft leaves, enmeshed deep in her soft woolen blankets. Someday he would hold her in his arms, kiss the tender skin of her neck, and enjoy the peace and innocence of young life, as he had none.
Always, it was someday.
 Thorin realized then- if he’d actually been worried, or doubted her, he would’ve immediately given chase. But he didn’t. Now he must sit and rot with his accursed cousin, waiting for news from her or others to call him away.
 Bridi was always right, there was no reason to doubt her now. In matters of female emotions she was a good one to trust. If he’d been insulted in such a way he simply would’ve broken the insulter’s nose.
 So why hadn’t he…before Vaen got incensed and ran away? Back in a circle! Confound it all!
He slapped the stone and looked East, letting the cool wind whip his worn, stately face.
A small, black silhouette soared high above the base of the mountain against the remnants of an orange and violet sunset. He thought of Vaenomar’s friend, Grimsvodn the Young.
  “Take care of her… where ever you are… where ever she is.”

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

   They had been tramping for two hours now, though probably only an hour in distance from camp, and had found nothing unusual. Not even the beasts were about, and the only tracks they found were very few by river banks in the barely thawed mud and silt.
  The two men that followed him kept a constant quiet babble, mostly coming from Rumil, as they endeavored to keep up with his vigorous pace. Though a large frame was less agile and maneuverable in tight branches, Eärón’s solid thighs provided him with all the stamina of a horse. Or a mûmak, as his friends called him.
   As usual, the day was uneventful. Not that he minded being sent into the woods on seeming pointless rounds. Anything to get out of camp. Captain Alcarín grew on his nerves daily; the more he saw Eärón the worse he liked him as well. Despite his rather fruitless returns from scouting, however, Eärón had retained his promotion to lieutenant. It didn’t really mean much, but that he got to ‘head’ the small groups of Glade-keepers that accompanied him. He didn’t even get to choose who went along.
  On the last few outings the timid, clingy Nurtalië had come. He always seemed so nervous, never looking in the eye and watching his back as if something pursued him, walking just at Eärón’s heels. He was too young, Eärón thought, and scared. It was infectious, making Eärón nervous too when he was around.
So thin and frail, like a little girl, almost. He made Eärón, in all his broad bulk, feel so big and clumsy.
But at least Nurtalië was quiet.
 He threw a stern glance behind him, as a signal for the lads to pipe down. Earlier he’d been more polite about it, but one too many times had exhausted that.
   Up ahead a brook rushed loudly, the ice melted as the day warmed considerably. He turned, walking backwards for a moment, and, with a nod to either side, he jogged off.
Morcion stood in his tracks, confused, but Rumil explained, “Split up!”

  Eärón gripped a thick branch and pulled himself up onto a massive fallen tree that spanned the width of the stream. They always crossed separately, if possible: scouting tactics.
The mud below looked particularly soft and so he decided to inspect, in hopes of finding signs of any sort of life. Plus, he didn’t mind having a moment of quiet to himself now and again. Ever since he left Tauremith the first time, he had, with much forcing of his willpower, tried to block Tairiel from his mind’s eye and rid his memory of her precious torment.
 However unsuccessful this had really resulted, at least now he had things to distract him, tedious though they be.
  As he inspected the river bank he felt the icy water with the tips of his fingers and shivered. The air was much more chill here than closer to Tauremith. Barely two months ago he’d been hot at night even without a shirt, now two blankets was just enough out in the woods. Last time they’d slept outside of camp while on a ranging party, the little Nurtalië had been so cold that he, in his sleep, had snuggled up to Eärón’s back for warmth. Out of pity, he didn’t complain, despite how awkward it had been, but the poor boy had apologized so profusely that Eärón chose to forget it all.
 “Who needs a fire with Mûmak around,” Tethrin had joked, tugging the big Elf’s long black braid.
   Eärón smiled to himself and looked into the ripples and courses of the clear brook flowing happily over smooth pebbles.
  His reflection was distorted as he watched it shimmer and fragment, but his face changed quickly from placid expression. The water was tinged red! Just slightly tinted in ribbons of colour, but there was no doubt. Blood in the stream.
He jumped up and listened. Only the hum of his companions a few metres off.
They could wait; not as if it was possible to lose them.
 With only the strength of his arms he hauled himself back up onto the natural bridge and moved upstream in the brush. Stopping to inspect further, he found no tracks, but a more dense stream of red liquid in the water. He was close.

 “Eärón?” his heart thumped hard on hearing Rumil’s hushed voice behind him.
So they could be quiet if they wanted.
“Have you found something,” the other whispered.
Eärón held his finger to his lips, “Spread out in silence. One eye on me and the other on the river,” he said as simply and quietly as he could.
Rumil leapt nimbly over a narrow opening of the brook, while Morcion moved away from the bank and disappeared in the forest.
 Their leader melted with the underbrush, his dark leather armour and black hair camoflauging well with the wintering woods.
  As he crept up the hill, slowly moving through the undergrowth along the gradual waterfalls, he heard one splash, followed by the rustling of dead leaves underfoot, and froze. Upstream about twenty feet.
   Silently he picked up his pace and came within five feet of where the movement have been. A quick glance showed him no less than a boot print on the opposite side of the bank of him. It was large enough for a small man, squared and light. A dark mass flashed ahead and he jumped to the pursuit.
  The other two had seen only the action of their leader and moved to keep up with him. He was obviously on the trail of something.
 The few broken twigs and boot prints left by his quarry made it clear that whatever he was after was a very clever woodsman. He didn’t move quickly, as one would if they knew they were being pursued, but it kept Eärón on his toes to stay apace. On Elven soil, outsiders were as uncommon as natural death and nearly as unwelcome, unless by invitation. He seemed to be oblivious to Eärón’s and the other’s presence, and so too, probably that these woods were in Elvish keeping.

  Eärón skidded to a halt. A dozen or so paces ahead stood a tall, broad, and darkly cloaked form, with a mask and large woolen hood that obscure the rest of the face. Eärón watched as the figure turned away and a white hand pulled down the mask a little to free the nose.
He sniffed the air, replaced the mask and shot a penetrating glance in Eärón’s direction before starting off into a lope.
 He did know they were there, though not precisely where they were. He couldn’t let him disappear now.
 Eärón kept up the chase, moving stealthily from one tree to the next, with both eyes on his quarry and ears on his companions. He couldn’t hear them and didn’t want to.
The outlander woodsman stopped again only briefly, to shift the pack on his shoulders and continued on. The pursuing Elf peeped out from behind the towering mallorn to see the draped figure pull his long, elegantly carved bow off his back in a calm, measured manner, more in defense than attack. He resumed his quick walk and pulled the cover off his quiver.
  Perhaps no mere woodsman, thought Eärón. A muffled whistle of a pine thrush broke the peaceful quiet, but didn’t seem to disturb the cloaked traveller. Eärón called back to Rumil in a similar call and was answered by the croak of a raven.
 That wasn’t Morcion’s call!
It came again and the quarry looked about and kept moving. The warble of a bullfinch came from Eärón’s right hand side and set him more at ease.
They were both there; not as incompetent as they seemed.
 Several paces more and the Elf lieutenant gave his thrush call again. The mysterious figure came into a long, narrow clearing and Eärón hid himself behind another giant mallorn. Taking in a deep breath, he readied a warning speech.
  But the crunching of leaves stopped and a low, but not at all masculine voice demanded:
“What do you want, Elf?”

  Thrown completely off his guard, Eärón started and peeped slowly around the white trunk.
She, for it definitely was no man, hadn’t turned to face him, though she seemed to know where he was.
 He left his hiding place and came into the clearing. With a frame like his, weapons were often unnecessary for intimidation effects. But his tone was mellow and resonant.
“I wish only to learn your business in the forest?”
  Curtly she replied, turning around to face him, “None of yours. Why are you following me?”
She was very tall and appeared strong and possessed a calm and cool that unsettled Eärón.
“I protect and patrol these woods. State your business and if it be peaceful I will gladly let you to it, friend.” He didn’t come any closer than seven long paces.
“Friend?” her masked voice scoffed, holding her bow limp at arm’s length. “Well, friend, you may as well call off your men…”
 After a tell tale pause he stammered, “My men?”
She didn’t miss a thing.
 “The one there,” she nodded to his right, “is so loud I could have hit him with a stone…blindfolded. He’s quiet enough,” she gestured to the other side, “In comparison. But you- I could’ve smelled you from miles off- with a cold.”
  Her tone was serious, but he caught the sarcasm and smiled: he could appreciate humour, even coming from a stranger who had completely foiled his stalking attempts. A word in Elvish from their lieutenant brought Rumil and Morcion out of their hiding places, albeit a bit timidly, and they fell into form behind him.

  The woman smirked aloud at her own exactitude and she turned and resumed her walk, to Eärón’s surprise. Her aura of confidence only intrigued him more. Cold and aloof, she was ready for anything: just as he would need to be in dealing with her.

  “Who are you?” he asked, keeping close behind her, though he knew not what he expected to learn.
“What’s it to you?”
 “I ask only for your purpose here. If you are a friend, then you may pass freely in these lands.” He hoped his voice was as convincing as his words.
 “These lands?”
By her accent, he couldn’t tell her race or homeland, but in size and bearing she suggested a very tall and noble culture.
“You are on Elvish soil,” he said, lengthening his strides to gain the space between them.
 “I am on soil. And you are an Elf.”
Eärón sighed; the masked intruder was a tough nut to crack.

 “Do you really think you own the soil?” she threw a glance over her shoulder, measuring her followers’ decreasing distance.
“Ah- no,” he mumbled. Such an unexpected situation was getting the better of him, “But,- we are charged with the safe keeping of these woods. You’ve crossed into our territory and you must declare your intentions.”
 She whirled around and glared at him from under hood and mask, “Oh must I?”
Behind Eärón, the two others, tense and skittish, glued their hands to their sheathed weapons and bow and arrow hand ready to nock.

  “A friend to these lands can go free. If you pose a threat, however, you will be taken captive.” There wasn’t a chance this would end nicely if she saw his uncertainty. He heard his father’s stern, warlike voice in his own.
 She cocked her head thoughtfully, “So, would taking a deer for food be posing a threat?”
He hesitated and then answered quickly, “No.”
 “Then you really wish to gauge how dangerous I am.”
Eärón cleared his throat, “I guess…”
 She was making him dance around like a fool in front of the others; he could feel their nervous fidgeting behind him, just waiting for any sudden movement.
 “Say- then,” she continued, not slackening her pace in the least, “I could slay all of you before the third could draw his sword.”
 Eärón put his hand on Morcion’s sword arm as Rumil soundlessly reached for an arrow.
  Again she whipped around, showering ice down on Rumil with her glare, “And you’ll be first!…But would I? No. Not unless you attacked me.”
 Calmly she turned back around and moved on.

  The terrain was more level and easy now. At Eärón’s bidding, hoping to avoid further incident, the two others hung back and he jogged to catch up.
“Are you a mercenary?”
 More patiently than expected, she shrugged, “Something like that. I live in the forest. Eat what I need to survive and nothing more. I leave no marks where I go and only kill those who make themselves my enemy. Dangerous? Yes. Trouble? No.”

  There was no doubt that she was a skilled combatant as well as a ranger, but the stony exterior aside, Eärón sensed something far deeper and infinitely more personable within.
 “Then you are free to roam as you will…”
Somehow, he believed her. Despite the looks from his companions suggesting their feelings to the contrary, in Elvish, true to his word, he sent them back to camp. “I’ll join you soon and make a report to the Captain.”
  As was evident by her familiarity with the woods and lifestyle she had dwelt her for some time.  To Eärón’s peaceful logic what harm was there in letting her be? His conscience spoke otherwise. “You can’t trust her,” Rumil’s wary eyes had said before he left.
“I can fend for myself,” the lieutenant assured him in muttered Quenya.
The other two Glade-keepers vanished into the brush and Eärón continued to follow her, unwelcomed.

   Hearing the large feet in soft boots crunching behind her and a little to the side, she sighed, “And yet you still follow me?”
Without the others tagging behind him Eärón felt his confidence returning. He wasn’t completely sure if he still pursued her for the sake of sating his curiosity or actually out of duty.
 “We’re going the same way.” He could almost hear her roll her eyes. “Nice try, Eärón,” he thought.
  “Ah, and you actually sent them off,” she observed, pretending not to have understood his Elvish. “Good,” she added in a purr that arrested Eärón’s pulse like a bolt of hoarfrost.

  The ground grew uneven as her path led them downhill towards a watery ravine. Thousands of questions chased each other through his mind and her every step, quickening with the descent, increased his wariness of her and made him doubt the soundness of his judgment to follow her alone. Not that he doubted his ability to match her in combat, only he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. His unease only grew the longer he followed her.
 The forest began to feel chill, despite there being no wind. His heartbeat raced and all his sensed tuned to their sharpest. The croak of a large bird sounded ominously again a ways off and the mercenary began to move faster and less casually. Cold instinct made Eärón silently unsheathe a long hunting knife. The clouds darkened overhead and he could see their fitful forms through the canopy. Amid her hasty footsteps he thought she gave a short, grim chuckle.
She slowed on coming to a steep incline and Eärón stopped a few paces behind her.
“What’s happening?” he demanded breathlessly, more from apprehension than exertion.
    She halted and turned slowly. Seeing his weapon at the ready she unflinchingly approached him. “You know… it’s dangerous threatening someone on their home ground.”
 Before he could step away she was there, and two sudden pricks in his throat and below the ribs arrested him.
  Her dual blades pressed harder against his skin and thin leather doublet, forcing his steps backwards until he was backed against a broad tree.
  Blue eyes flickered beneath the dark hood. His heart beat so loud he was sure even she could hear it. The cold steel moved up and down with his larynx with a gulp. As the sellsword gave no signs of letting him go, Eärón threw down his knife. “I’m sorry,” he said earnestly, his handsome features respectful and pleading. “I was jumpy, that’s all. Please- I mean you no harm. Forgive me.”
  Still the whetted blades hovered about his vitals and a fell blaze lingered in her icy glare. The mask covering her mouth and nose moved in and out with measured breath.
“Please,” he insisted in as suave and calm a tone as he could muster, ” I’ve disarmed, and apologized- What more do you want?”
 With a guttural rumble she rolled her eyes and released him, sheathing both her dagger and an arm’s length scimitar of unique fashion. The quick flash he saw it Eärón thought it looked familiar, but wasn’t sure. Rubbing his throat, he let her retrieve his knife and get a head start before resuming his shadowing.
 She was dangerous, that much was undoubted, but she was only as wary of him as he was of her. Perhaps he was being paranoid. After all, she was the first sign of two-legged, non-feathered life anyone had seen in this forest for a long while. He couldn’t leave her now. and she did nothing to deter him. The curiosity was on both sides.

 “‘On their own turf'”, she had said. And was right. The mallyrn were nowhere to be seen. They moving just along the border of Elven lands. “You are a much keener forester than I,” he called good-naturedly, as he caught up, “One could almost take you for an Elf.”
“Oh really,” he heard her grumble back, obviously not taking his well-meant words as much of a compliment.
 There was much more to this self-professed mercenary than she revealed. Something drew him to her, and it definitely wasn’t his tired, trudging feet. She was deeply suspicious, but more trusting than reason would dictate. Both pairs of eyes and ears kept close mark on each other.
A certain fate was engraved in the depths of her glacial eyes and their sad, knowing aura. She seemed lonely, yet peaceful enough with her life. How he could know so much from a look, feel so much from just being near her…he had no idea.
 As if she could read his prying thoughts, she broke the silence, “What is your name, Elf?”
 They waded through an icy stream, the ground uneven with rocks and fallen timber and he caught up close behind her.
He knew not why, but he answered her falsely, “I am called Eöl.”
 She snorted, “Oh? And I go by Beruthiel, Queen of Cats.”
Eärón, off his guard again, found himself unable to reply.
 “Just as well, then, Eöl Moriquen, as I wouldn’t have given you my name either.”

 There was nothing distinct about her garb: she was wrapped in a wide, slate, woolen cloak and hood, without adornment. Her boots of simple, worn leather. She walked with the steady, powerful gait of a noble, well-trained person. Until after they reached the top of the craggy hillock on the other side of the stream.

 Before his conscience could stop him, his tongue wagged, “Why are you walking like that?”
He wanted to slap himself.
“Like what?” snapped the defensive voice of one who knows they’re being observed.
It reminded him of Tairiel, only lower and more reserved.
“You’re walking different…” he tried to explain.
But she was. Her lower leg or foot seemed suddenly in great pain, despite her efforts to hide it.

  Ignoring him, she pushed on. As the water from the stream eventually dried from the tracks left by her boots there appeared another dark substance. Blood! More blood!
“You’re bleeding!” he caught up to her side, “What happened?”
“Nothing!” she hissed and pushed him away, charging ahead.
 The facade of ruthlessness and stern cool originally put on by the female forester ceased to play on Eärón’s honest personality. It didn’t make her any less formidable, though. “You’re wounded! Wait,” he placed a firm hand on her shoulder, but was violently shaken off.
“I don’t need help- especially from you! Leave me alone,” she said angrily and took off in a laboured lope.
 It was no trouble keeping up now, “Please! You must let people help you every now and then!”
     How could he possibly know that?
She shook her head and growled angrily, “No, no I don’t.”

  He brushed past something white and it drew his eyes upwards. Mallorn bark.

 “We’re on my ground now. Stop or I’ll shoot.” He held his bow at arm’s length and an arrow loosely nocked.
 She stopped in her tracks, but didn’t turn around. “You’re catching on, then. And it’s only been fifteen paces.”
“Go no further,” he ignored her sarcasm, “I order you on pain of death.”
 Exhaling through flared nostrils, “You won’t do it.” She took one step forward.
The wood of the bow now creaked under pressure.
“Disarm yourself. Quiver first.” Along the route of gaining her trust, this was probably one of the worst shortcuts he could’ve taken. Who knows what was going through her mind now. Again, he wanted badly to bang his head against a tree, but he couldn’t turn back.
 After a long stubborn pause, she actually obeyed.
Her quiver clattered to the ground a few feet away from her.
“Now the daggers and your sword.” All three clanged as they fell atop each other.
Arrow drawn to his ear, bowstring held firm in place by large, strong hands, he asked, “Anything else?”
 “Oh, of course not,” came her sarcastic tone.
“Throw it to the side,” he ordered sternly.
 With a defiant snort she drew a hatchet from beneath her cloak, and two boot knives and tossed them to the side. She unstrapped a hand blade from her thigh and pulled off another throwing axe from the small of her back.
 The growing heap of weapons made a slight shiver run down Eärón’s spine. Still feeling the prick of her dagger in his throat, he wanted badly to see the face of this mercenary.
“Now step away from them.”
 She acquiesced, leaving a larger print of blood where her right foot had been.
 “I know you’re not going to shoot me.”
“I will if you don’t do as I say,” he lied convincingly.
 She scoffed, “What are you going to have me do? Strip?”
“I could,” and then to himself, “Idiot!!
 “I’d rather be shot.”
“Sit down on the patch of moss over there.”
 “No.”
He steadied his voice, “Do it.”
 “I don’t want help.”
“I’m not going to hurt you. Just do as I say.”
 “You are threatening to shoot me. Are you suggesting that is painless?”
He growled, “This is your last warning. Do as I say.” Harsh as his threat sounded, he relaxed his bowstring.
It was all she needed.
 The captive ducked and whirled around, knocking the bow out of his hand with a wild blow. A quick reactor, Eärón seized her wrists and used his massive body to knock her onto the soft moss. She planted a knee in his gut, sending all air from his lungs, but he didn’t let go. Taking both her wrists in one hand and turning on her stomach, while anchoring the writhing body with his own weight, he bound her hands behind her back and lashed her to a tree.

  An Elf with that kind of brute strength was not what she expected. He stepped back and all colour drained from her cheeks as he stripped off his belt. He buckled it behind her, strapping her throat to the tree. She couldn’t move without hurting herself so she eventually quit struggling. Heart thumping wildly against her chest she ground her teeth in anticipation of his next move.
 “Get off me!” she hissed like a cornered snake.
“Relax,” he tried to calm her, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
 “Don’t touch me.”
After securing the buckle, he sat back on his heels, “Please. You’re hurt and bleeding. I saw the blood in the stream, too. I’m going to look at your leg.”
 “You will not!”
“I’m a healer-“
 “So am I. Get away from me!”
“Obviously.” His smile was so genuine and calming that she relaxed just a bit.
 “I can take care of myself,” she squirmed.
“But you’re not. Just hold still.”
 “Let me go, now!”
Patiently, he promised, “If it’s nothing, I give you my word I’ll leave it alone and let you go, alright?”
 The same bear-like gurgle issued from her throat and she banged her head against the birch she was bound to.
 Removing his kneeling leg from her lap, a rather compromising position to be sure, Eärón gently took her foot in his hand, staying clear of a kick in the face.
He slipped off the muddied boot and unwrapped the bloody stockings from her solid calves. On finding her cold, pale skin he began to wish he had Nurtalië’s gentle touch. He’d watched him handle a nasty gash on a fellow keeper’s arm recently without so much as a groan from the wounded party.
  She didn’t move as his sturdy fingers examined her wound. It was clean, but very deep and looked incredibly painful. He glanced up at her wan face, “Was it a boar?”
 In silence she watched him from beneath thick eyelashes.
“Was it?”
 “Why do you care?”
“Just tell me- please.”
 She sighed and leaned her head back, “No, it wasn’t.”
His brow furrowed on looking more closely. “What was it?” he asked almost to himself.
 “Some sort of trap. The one time I wasn’t paying attention, I stepped directly into it…”
He grimaced, “How long before you got it off?”
 Her head fell back again, “Too long.”
Realizing the pain that must have caused he shuddered, “How long ago?”
 “Why so many questions?” she demanded.
“I need to know if there’s rust in it.”
 There was a quiet pause of terse breathing and she answered, “Five days ago. I cleaned it well.”
 “That you did.” He hesitated briefly, “I’m going to have to sew it up.
 “What?” For the first time she jerked, “No!”
“It’s the only way it will heal,” he pleaded.
 The slightest tremble moved in her voice, “No.”
He placed his hand on her knee and used the intimate tone he might ask a very personal favour in, “Please?”
 Eyes shut tight, she refused to answer. There was only fear now. A male stranger, threatening to shoot her if she didn’t obey, forcing her to the ground, tying her up, now asking to stick a sharp object into her flesh… What else could he expect? He began to feel sick , realizing what she must be going through. He couldn’t just leave her though, and her wound needed tending to. Now, it was far, far too late to turn back.
 He dug into the pack at his side and produced a small satchel. At the sight of the long, curved needle she pulled back her legs, and groaned.
While readying the thread his voice was soft, and caressing, “Have you ever seen a wound sewn up?”
 “I’ve closed one before…but not on myself.”
“Well, you don’t need to watch. Here,” he rolled up a piece of bandage and offered it to her for between her teeth, which she refused. “It won’t be too bad. Just relax.”
From a small brook nearby, he scooped up the icy cold water and rubbed it onto her leg to numb and clean the wound. It ran off streaked red.
 The last thing she saw was him readying the needle.
She shut her eyes and looked away.
  For the best angle and least possible movement Eärón straddled her legs, backwards, putting the least amount of weight on them as possible. Her entire body stiffened and he heard her breath shorten. Pulling off his cloak, he bundled it up and placed it over her knees and between his legs. He didn’t want any…injuries.
 Without further hesitation he deftly pierced skin and flesh and began to close up the bloody gash.

 Why he was forcing help onto a complete stranger he couldn’t explain.
She seemed a woman with a strong heart and body, but Eru knows what she was thinking as he, virile and very male, tied her to a tree and straddled her.
 “Think before you act,” Vilenas had encouraged with endless patience, apparently to no avail. Eärón wasn’t used to thinking in such…country matters. Until his encounter with Belrien, at least.
He tied the knot and began to bandage her clammy leg.
With a long held exhalation, he relaxed his clenched stomach muscles. Lifting his weight off her legs, he knelt softly by her side.
 “I’ve finished,” his smooth, dark voice said softly.
 She didn’t stir.
“It’s over…” Her shaded eyelids took on a bluish hue beneath her hood and her chest didn’t appear to move.
 He hesitated then touched her arm, “Wake up…please.”
Still nothing.
 Acting, once again, before thinking, Eärón reached for her throat to feel her pulse.
The second she felt his fingers crawling on her chest trying to find her bare throat, she jerked out of the stupour. Eärón shrunk back with a hiccup-like breath and gave a nervous laugh, “Ah, there you are. I was afraid you’d-“
 “What have you done to me?”
He cleared his throat then smiled, “I put a clean bandage on. Left it a bit loose so when you stand it should fit perfectly. The salve will help it heal fast and keep it from bleeding.”
 Suspicion still hovered in her manner, but she inspected his work with a nod. “Well done. They taught you well.”
 Humbly he bowed his head again, “I can see why you had trouble with keeping it closed. It must have been a strange metal and-” He realized he was attempting to make conversation with a stranger belted to a tree.
 “Oh, let me-” he leaned forward to remove the strap from her neck, but she shied away from his hand and instead he took hold of the cloth and the belt and off came the mask.

  After a frozen moment of shock and surprise, the captive woman screeched, “No!! How could you?!”
Eärón shrunk back as if bitten by a snake, “No, no! I’m sorry! You- you don’t understand! I didn’t mean to- at all! Please!”
 Betrayal, fury and terror raged across her revealed, handsome features. Her savage aspect was like to a wounded wolf.
 “Lying, cheating son of a whore! Come here! You untie me and I’m going to rip off your manhood with my teeth!” She was hysterical.
Eärón didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t leave her, but had no intention of risking any part of his body to her teeth. Her features were unfamiliar to him, though very lovely even in their current savageness. He couldn’t imagine a reason for her to hide from him, save, perhaps, that she was a criminal or fugitive…
 “Please stop! You’re going to hurt yourself! Tairiel- uh-no- stop!”
Feverishly she writhed against the unforgiving bonds, while the towering, flustered Elf stood frantically by, begging her forgiveness.
“I’ll-get-out-of-here- if it’s the last thing I do!”
 Tears streamed down her impassioned face as she struggled to no avail and her throat muscles bulged and purpled against the tight belt.
 “Do your folk know what kind of Elf you are? Bet they like having one so pure around their women-” she spat, in desperate indignation.
 Looking down at his feet to gather presence of mind, he noticed, to his embarrassment, that his doublet had, unbelted, unlatched itself, revealing a bit of tunic and a lot of skin beneath. He shoved the clasps back together, threw the loose wisps of raven hair out of his face and knelt next to her. With powerful hands he ceased her head’s thrashing, holding her skull firmly in a soft, but steel grip.
  Their bodies were so close he could feel her heart throbbing. The tension between them crackled and hissed like fire on ice. She was lovely, he was handsome, both powerful and very opposite. Her body stiffened and trembled, and she stared straight ahead at his chest, panting through her teeth.
 His hands relaxed and left her head slowly, moving down her neck and onto the belt.
Closing her eyes, she felt her nose nudge into his partially bared chest as the belt was removed.
His calloused palms worked ever so tenderly on her smooth wrists and soon her hands were unbound.
 He squatted to the side and stared at the ground.
“My name is Eärón,” he said at long last.
 “I know,” came her reply a moment later. “Mine is Savone. I’m from Esgaroth.”
“Savone?” he tried to hide his surprise, “That’s- a beautiful name.”
   The storm passed as quickly as it had arisen. Out of the sparking mistrust from before had come a peaceful wariness of each other. What had doused the fire or calmed the waves, neither could tell, but Eärón offered her a hand and she took it. She steadied herself on her feet and he gathered up the panoply of weapons nearby. Handing her the excellently crafted pieces, he asked, “So…you speak Elvish?”
 “A very little.”
She strapped on her knives. “These are very beautiful,” he remarked, genuinely impressed as he handed her a long-shafted axe with a unique blade shaped like an angular rune.
 A grunt sufficed to answer the compliment.
“Are they Dwarf-make?” Eärón asked with piqued interest.
 Her cheeks drained and coloured just as quickly, but she answered without hesitation,  “Probably. Found some in an old riverbed and bought the others on the road. All that matters to me is that they’re good quality and won’t fail me in a tight spot. No dragon curses on them or anything.”
 Eärón agreed with a nod, but found himself unconvinced of her non-caring attitude towards these works of such artistry.

  Here they were, holding conversation as if they had shared the forest for months, when only moments ago escaping unscathed, sans violence, seemed a luxury on both parts. Whatever had transpired between them had happened so subtly that neither was sure of it.
  As she shifted the strap of her quiver more comfortably, Eärón took up her last weapon, hilt in one hand. Something about the grip was so familiar he almost didn’t think twice.
Before she reached for it, he glanced at the handle. It was wrapped in soft, black leather and decorated with a pair of onyx on the elegantly formed pommel.
Almost identical to his own sword- save his had sapphires!
 The scabbard was beautiful in it’s simple elegance, but the shape- there was no other pair of hilts so alike.
“Where did you get this?” he asked energetically.
 Taking it from him she hastily gird it on, “Why?”
In explanation, he drew his own, holding forward carefully by the blade for her to see.
Something in her bright eyes flashed a remembrance…or a realization?
“Similar, eh? Fancy that.” Her words were forced.
“My father gave me this sword, telling me that its twin lived in the hands of a friend, somewhere far away. That Dwarf forged my sword and my father its twin.”
He could see her hands tremble as they fingered her pommel. “I think you’re mistaken,” she said and took a step back.
 “And Savone was my mother’s name,” he added, his tone more grave and looks more in wonder every moment. “Who are you really?”
 “Believe me, sir, I do not know you. I got this sword from Dwarven merchants near Jarlich on their way to Esgaroth. As your build would suggest, you are not of purely Elven blood. Your mother, I might guess, was of Mankind. My name isn’t uncommon- and you are quite fortunate to have a father with good Dwarven relations. Too few of his kind left in the world…”
There seemed to be something else in her words, something that revealed too much, but nothing. Too many coincidences. And it wasn’t called Esgaroth anymore.
 She was greatly affected. Her eye lids were red and the corners of her eyes slightly moist.
 “Is there an inscription in Elvish?” he persisted.
She gave an exasperated sigh; he wasn’t giving up. “Yes.”
“Don’t you want to know the other half?”
She couldn’t hide it: yes, terribly.
It rang out into the trees as she pulled the twin from its sheath. As the two, shining, curved blades neared each other for the first time in over a hundred years, a pure, blue glow began to emanate from the etched inscription.
  Completely mesmerized, he read aloud in his smooth, musical tongue, “Alliances may be sundered,” and she finished, her own voice beautifying the earthy Dwarvish, “But Friends are fast as Steel.
 He raised his head slowly to meet her eyes. Both pairs, deep onyx and glowing sapphire, glistened in memory of the swords’ makers.

  A muffled croak sounded high above from the same watchful raven. The young woman glanced up. There were very few ways this could end.
 Eärón, enrapt in the moment, gazed at her now resolved features, highlighted by the moon-like glow of the enchanted weapons.
 Then he felt her hand on his bare chest, soft as a lover’s caress, and he melted. His sword fell to the ground as her face neared his and she pressed her warm, wet mouth onto his. The last thing he heard from her, was:
“Forgive me, Tairiel.”

   The two hundred pounds of solid Elf body slumped to the ground, back against the same tree.
Vaenomar dusted her fingers and replaced the powdered mushroom mixture in the herb satchel at her side.
Being the first time she’d used that concoction, she was quite relieved it worked. She made quick work of binding him to the tree, his beautiful Elven twine was effortless to tie. Was a shame he’d have to cut it, though.
  Despite what he had unwittingly put her through, she felt a strong affinity and warmth for this kind, slightly clumsy man. How could she not? Long before she was even born, dear Branbur had held this baby in his arms and shielded him from dragon fire, while his father searched in vain for the poor child’s mother.
 Not five days earlier she had cursed every one of the First-born in her anger. Then the name Tairiel had accidentally escaped his lips. And then Bran’s sword.
 Holding both scimitars side by side she admired them with a full heart. She sighed and stuck Branbur’s blade in the ground between Hallacar’s son’s legs, very near his armoured codpiece.
“Farewell, Khuzd-friend. Maybe some day we will meet as friends…”
 And after a nudge to ensure his unconscious state, she trotted off.

   “One Elf amid all those trees and he happens to be in love with Tairiel. What are the chances,” she murmured to Grimsvodn, who kept a watchful eye on her while hopping about on the branches above. He simply cocked an eye down in silence.
 In her heart she knew Elves and Dwarves would never truly get along,…but she wished ever so deeply to see such a phenomenon. Being away from the Eldar for so long had made her forget her love for them- getting away from the Dwarven family for a few days helped quench the anger. Now she saw things from a more calming, even perspective. She only wondered if Thorin could ever see in the same light…

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 29 ~Dáin~

Chapter 29 ~Dáin~

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Branbur?”

~~~~~~~

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

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

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

~~~~~~~~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lord Thorin… Vaenomar is gone.”

 

 

quendil: Elf-friend

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

 

The Saga of Vaenomar- Chapter 28 ~Reporting In~

Chapter 28
~ Reporting In~

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

Something was not right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~~~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

Image

Pen sketch of Bridi’s ‘gown’ design.