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4
Chapter 3 - The Huntsman

Elfhelm's practices to remain hidden from the wolves have been conceived years ago. I realize that they might be a bit complicated to carry out, but, well, we are in an imaginary world, so I just left it that way.


~~~

The lonely traveller had been wandering between the thick, dark forests of Southern Mirkwood and the Brown Lands for days by now. He tried no to look at the brown and withered slopes that stretched up and away towards the sky to his right. They looked as if fire had passed over them, leaving no living blade of green, despite the spring that was blooming all over the rest of Middle-earth.

‘Twas like a living nightmare of his childhood. Like the ghostly tales his mother and her kin had told on long winter evenings. An unfriendly waste it was, without even a broken hill or a bold stone to relieve the emptiness. A place where the houseless spirits of vengeful Elves, slain in the Battle upon Dagorlad, might haunt the hills, while their bodies lay slowly rotting under the Dead Marshes.

The traveller was a tall, strong man with powerful shoulders and a broad chest. He wore a knee-length tunic of rough, brown wool, with a broad weapon-belt and a leaf-green, woollen hood. His leather breeches and soft, high boots revealed him as one of the Woodmen. On his back he had a great bow with a full quiver. From his belt, in a nicely-embroidered sheet, a short, two-edged hunting knife hung, a small pouch with flint and steel for fire-making and a short drinking horn. Another horn, this one larger and nicely carved, in the fashion hunters used, hung from his shoulder. He carried a short hunting spear, the point of which was board and leaf-shaped and obviously the work of a very skilled blacksmith. He travelled on foot, leading his steed and a well-packed, heavy-limbed mare on the bridle.

This alone would not have raised any suspicions. In spite of the increasingly dangerous roads, wandering Woodmen without a permanent home often travelled across the lordless lands between the free realms and the Black Lands, seeking out game to hunt or some merchant who could need another good archer to keep his wares safe. But rarely did the Woodmen cross the imaginary borders of Rhûn, unless they had a death wish – or some important business with one of the Khimmer jarls.

This particular Woodman did not seem to have a death wish. On the contrary, he seemed quite determined to bring whatever business had brought him to these forbidding lands, to a satisfying end. His tanned face revealed that he spent most of his days outdoors, exposed to the sun and the wind. His hair, thick and dark and a little coarse like that of the people of Rhûn, he wore in one tight braid on the nape of his neck, while the rest of it was held together by a thin copper circlet upon his brow. But his cheekbones were higher than usually seen in Rhûn, and his eyes were wide and deep blue, revealing him as a half-bred from the Riddermark. Not that his horses would not have given him away first.

Elfhelm – for he was the lonely traveller – had debated the matter of the horses with himself and the old tracker of his father ere he had left for Rhûn. The Woodmen did not have such great horses as were bred in the Lord Hengest’s lands, nor did the Easterlings, as a rule. But in the end Elfhelm decided that the advantages of having two horses raised by his father and bound to him outweighed the risk of raising suspicions. The gelding, Hafoc (Hawk) was almost as fast as the mearas, and for a pack animal, Shebna, the mare, could move surprisingly quickly, too. As all horses of the Mark, they followed obediently when called by their names, and Elfhelm never needed a whip or spores. The braided-together strands of his hair and Hafoc’s mane he wore on his wrist as a bracelet reminded both him and the horse of their unique bond.

Elfhelm had crossed the Great River over the North Undeeps several days earlier and had been travelling along the northern border of the Brown Lands ever since. He had already come deeper than he had ever been before, as his first journey to Rhûn only served the purpose of looking out for any possible intrusions from the Brown Lands. Back then, he had found none. But now it seemed that things had changed since his last visit, and that these lands were not quite as abandoned as everyone in the Mark would have liked to believe.

He had seen no living creature since crossing the Anduin, not even birds or small beasts. But it seemed as if the wood would have wandered south in the recent years, almost but not quite reaching the border of the Brown Lands. The nights were full of noises, none of them very trustworthy, unless one liked the company of wolves (which he did not), and in the side of the one or other low, rocky hill he found shallow caves, not all of them made by nature. Sometimes there was even a small storage of firewood.

Elfhelm had not lit any fire, of course. That would have been foolish for someone who wanted to cross the lordless lands unnoticed. In truth, he had gone great lengths to remain unnoticed. He had covered the hooves of his horses with thick woollen cloths, so that they would make less noise and their footprints would be harder to recognize. They also were covered with shadowy-grey blankets, which gave them excellent disguise among the crippled firs that grew in small, irregular groups between the bizarre rock formations rising up unexpectedly.

The weather here was surprisingly chill and damp, despite the warm spring elsewhere, the rocks and boulders lying around and over the almost invisible path were slick and covered by rotting moss. Elfhelm had to be very careful, as a wrong step could have caused one of his horses to slip and break a leg.

Finally, after several days – he lost count on the time – he left that stretch behind him and reached a more or less regular forest, dark and dense and full of unknown perils, stretching out before his eyes for many, many miles in width and length. At the horizon, above the black treetops, the destination of his journey was looming. A long chain of very high, steep mountains rose almost vertically towards the sky, from the North to the South, as an immense wall. The three highest peaks were flattened, as if cut off by the hands of some mythical giant, and an ancient, crumbled ring of stones crowned each of them – the broken remnants of once strong watchtowers. Those were the high peaks of the Mountains of Nimvarkinh, named in the legends Falûn, Grenaar and Skâgen.

The legends told that once there had been one of the greatest underground cities of the Dwarves – not as huge and famous as Moria, but just as old, and at least as grand as Govedar had been, where the Dwarves of the Grey Mountains tried to slay Fram, the Dragon Slayer for the hoard of the worm. The Watchful Towers, now broken and empty, had been strong and proud back then, Dwarven warriors keeping a sharp eye on the lands below.

Elfhelm knew that the emptiness of those watchposts could be naught but a dangerous illusion, given that the Khimmer warlords had taken up residence under the Mountains of Nimvarkinh at least four generations ago. Just as the seeming closeness of the high peaks to each other was an illusion. In truth, there was a journey of several days between them.

The surroundings seemed quiet at the moment, thus Elfhelm decided to begin the most dangerous part of his journey so far: the crossing of the woods. In this dense forest, where the narrow paths were covered with a thick layer of slippery, rotten leaves, his horses would be of no use for him; nor would his great bow.

There was a constant twilight under the trees, the air was heavy and moist and full of the stench of mould. There were no safe hiding places, either. Elfhelm sought refuge among the huge roots of a large oak or beech when the shadows began to deepen, for not even his sharp eyes could penetrate the ink-black night in these dark woods.

Besides, the wild wolves were on the hunt during the night, and they were said to be able to see even the wind in this darkness, not to speak of their sense of smell. And as moving increased the smell of every living body, the best way to fool their noses for a man was to lie, unmoving, in a shallow dent on the forest floor, to keep out the way of the thin, chilly wind that blew low along the tree-roots every night and made the chillness even more unpleasant after the dampness of the day.

Elfhelm had little previous experience with the weather of Rhûn, but he thought of something to keep the wolves away. He made the horses lie down with him in the dent, covered with wet wolfskins that fooled the beasts’ noses, while remaining quiet and motionless fooled their eyes and ears. First he was a little afraid that the horses might bolt, crazed with fear. For even if he managed to save his own hide, what could he do alone, without his supplies in these evil woods?

But the good, faithful beasts did not abandon him and he had travelled through the woods, unharmed, for five days. A few starving wolves found him during the fourth night, despite all precautions, but he was able to slay the lead wolf, and the others fled in terror. The stench of fresh wolfskin scared other predators away after this encounter.

Thus he reached, in the morn of the sixth day, the low limestone hills east from the woods. These led to the shallow, uneven valley between the two nearest chains of the Mountains of Nimvarkinh, the ones watched by the peak of Skâgen and leading to the ones under Grenaar. No trees were there, just stunted grey grass and bramble bushes with hideous, foot-long thorns, as barbed and sharp as the daggers of Orcs – twisted bushes that had sprawled over from Mordor in the recent years, like coils of steel wire.

These lands were barely able to offer the horses some food, but this was where Elfhelm had to continue his journey northwards, straight as the crow flies. According to the King’s spies, there, under the slopes of Falûn, lay the underground halls of Ragnar the Smith. He calculated that it would take him another five days to reach his destination, if everything went well. Probably even more. There was no way to tell what the paths among the mountain chains might be like.

The journey across such open lands was just as dangerous as that in the woods had been, thus he began to look out for a hiding place already when the shadows started to deepen. It took him quite some time, and it happened almost by accident, but he did find a well-hidden, dry cave, big enough for even his horses to spend the night there.

The cave seemed abandoned, but Elfhelm knew that appearances could be deceiving. And indeed, when he walked around to check out the place, he discovered hidden niches, carved by skilled hands in the back wall of the cave, and in the niches stood leather sacks with dried and grated meat, dried mushrooms, fruits and berries and other, less appealing but well-preserved food. There were a few wolf- and bearskins that could be used as bedrolls or blankets, too, and in a dark corner he found a small store of firewood, neatly stocked.

Elfhelm knew he was taking a great risk by staying in this obviously well-known and frequently used hideout. But it was too late already to start looking for another resting place. Darkness was falling quickly outside, and to spend the night under the free sky would be even more dangerous. The best choice was to keep as close to the entrance of the cave as possible, to have his weapons in reach and to hope that he would not get any company during this night. Mayhap he would be lucky enough to remain undiscovered.

Under these circumstances he found little sleep, of course, just as in the nights before, and he asked himself how long he would be able to go on like this. But he could spend the night in the cave undisturbed, aside from the ever-present howling of wolves. The company he did hope to avoid had not arrived ‘til before sunrise.

The two man-shaped shadows appeared as noiselessly as ghosts, seemingly out of nowhere. They seemed very alike in the slowly vanishing darkness – tall, long-limbed and agile – and they descended the rocky hillsides without disturbing the loose stones and causing any noise. They seemed to follow the same direction Elfhelm had followed so far, but turning to the East shortly after they had reached the valley.

As they came closer, Elfhelm saw that the first one was a tall, weather-beaten man, wearing a travel-stained cloak of heavy, dark-green cloth. The hood of the cloth was overshadowing his face. Elfhelm wondered how the man was able to see properly, with that hood pulled into his face, but it seemed not to disturb the stranger. He was wrapped into his cloak so tightly that only his high boots of supple leather – well-worn and caked with mud – could be seen.

His companion, following him from a distance of a few steps, was only an inch or two shorter. He wore a cloak, too, but one of a lighter cloth, and only casually fastened on his shoulders. Under the cloak he had a short-sleeved jerkin made of soft, moss-green leather, breaches of rough, brown linen and a surprisingly fine-looking, silvery grey undershirt. His wrist-guards would have given him away as an archer, even without the great bow and the full quiver strapped to his back. He had auburn hair, worn in an intricate, coronet-like five-strand braid, and very bright, slightly slanted green eyes.

His face was fair beyond anything Elfhelm had seen before, but what caught the Marshal’s eyes were his ears. His delicately-curved, leaf-shaped ears that ended in fine points. There could be no doubt about it – the second traveller was an Elf.

Elfhelm had never seen an Elf in his whole life – no-one in the Mark had, as long as the Elders could remember – not even during his years of service in the garrison of Cair Andros. Elves did not come to Gondor anymore, ‘twas said, although there had been rumours about an ancient haven of theirs near Dol Amroth, and that the Princes of that mighty fief still had some contact to them. But those were just that – rumours.

Nonetheless, there still existed ancient legends among the Men of the Mark, too, about the old times when the Éothéod had dwelt in the far North, at the sources of the Great River. Legends about the beautiful, elusive and dangerous creatures that had lived in the trees of the great forest and sometimes lured the careless into their dark woods with magnificent songs and bewitching dances, only to leave them behind, somewhere from where they could not find the way back on their own.

And there were other legends, darker and even more malevolent ones, about the Elves slain in the Last Battle upon Dagorlad. About Elves, whose houseless spirits could not find peace and haunted the lands of the living, looking for a host body. If some unfortunate fool was careless enough to invite them in, ‘twas said, they would take over his body, forcing him out of it, so that he would never find his way to the afterlife. The Elven spirit, though, would switch from host body to host body, wreaking havoc on everyone who would stand in its way.

Elfhelm was not certain whether to believe these legends – or the even more disturbing tales about the Lady of the Golden Wood – or not. At least it seemed that the legends had described the looks of Elves truthfully. They were beyond fair. He could not help but stare from his hiding place at this mysterious creature that had just walked out of the legends of his people into the bright daylight.

Which was a mistake, apparently. The Elf must have felt the watching eyes upon himself, for he gave his companion some sign Elfhelm could not quite notice. They both dropped to the ground noiselessly, merging with the grass and the shadows so seamlessly that though Elfhelm knew where they should be, he could not see them anymore.

He realized he was sitting in a trap but could not – would not – leave his horses behind. All he could perhaps do was to lure these two away and return for the faithful beasts later. The choice to leave the cave without getting caught was slim – unlike him, these two obviously were experienced woodmen, more skilled in tracking and hiding – but he had to try, at the very least.

About twenty feet had he been able to crawl from the cave when a hand grabbed his shoulder, immobilizing him with an iron grip. He looked up in defeat – right into the bright eyes of the Elf. It surprised him to no end, to find such strength in the slender, graceful creature.

“What have we found?” a deep voice asked from his other side. ‘Twas the Man, obviously. The Elf shrugged.

“He does not look like one of the Woodmen,” he answered in Westron, the same tongue the question had been asked. “Nor seems he to be one of the Khimmer people – or one of their subjects. You have more frequent dealings with your own kind – you tell me.”

The Man threw back his hood, revealing a shaggy head of dark hair, stroked with grey that tumbled over his shoulder. His face was pale and stern and strangely noble; the sharp features and keen grey eyes reminded Elfhelm of the Men of Gondor he had served with.

“Strange,” the Man said in a low voice. “The hair and the features of one of the Erza, but the stature and the eyes of a Man of Rohan.”

“A spy?” asked the Elf, his bright eyes narrowing.

The Man shrugged. “Or a messenger. ‘Tis hard to tell.”

The Elf frowned. “Since when do the Riders of Rohan have any business with the Easterlings?”

“Other than fighting them?” asked the Man with a faint smile. “I know not. They had none when I lived among them – but times change. And so do people.”

“Mortal people, perhaps,” replied the Elf with a dismissive shrug. “Can I let go of him now? He cannot run from us; not here.”

“Nor would he try and leave his horses behind,” said the Man. “Not if he has any blood of the Mark in his veins.”

“So, you have felt them, too?” asked the Elf with a broad grin. “They are still in the cave, I deem.”

“They are remarkably quiet,” replied the Man. “Had we not known of the cave already, we might have overlooked them.”

You perhaps,” the Elf gave a derisive snort but let go of Elfhelm. “Talk to this Man; I shall keep watch.”

Without waiting for an answer, he run up the closest hill with an almost feline grace and became one with his surroundings. The Man squatted down next to Elfhelm and gave the young Marshal a good, hard look.

“So... we are among us Men now. ‘Tis time for open speech. Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“My name is Ossiach,” replied Elfhelm; which was the truth. It was his name – his Erza name, given him and used by his mother alone. All his siblings had two names, one in the tongue of the Mark and one in the tongue of their mother’s people. “I am a messenger, as you have already guessed.”

“Whose message are you carrying, and to whom?” asked the Man.

“That,” answered Elfhelm coldly, “is my business alone. And I shall not tell anyone of it but those who are concerned. You are not.”

The Man raised an eyebrow and a slight smile appeared on his face again. “Mayhap so. I assume you are oath-bound to this quest of yours. I know the Rohirrim well enough not to waste my time trying to ask questions you would not answer.”

“And who are you to pretend knowing so much about the Mark and its people?” asked Elfhelm, a little annoyed by this interrogation. He was used to do the interrogating, not to be the subject of it.

“I am called Strider,” said the other calmly. “I am a Ranger of the North, and I am looking for a creature that might cause great trouble; for he is small, but full of mischief.”

“An Orc?”

“Nay; I know not for sure what he is; only what he could do.”

“Which is...?”

“None of your concern,” said Strider. “I think not you would ever cross his way, and even if you did, he would hide from you. It takes the eyes of a huntsman – or that of a Wood-Elf,” he added, nodding towards his unseen companion, “to spot him, and even for us, ‘tis not easy to follow his trail.”

“So you lost him and asked the Elf to help you find him again?” asked Elfhelm. “’Tis strange that he would help you. Elves are said to be unfriendly to Men.”

“This might be said among your people, who chose to forget all about their past dealings with the Elves of the Greenwood,” said Strider. “But I am an Elf-friend, as have been all my forefathers, and no-one of us has ever regretted it. To answer your question, though: yea, I have lost the trail of my prey, and the Elf is helping me. He was coming upon a different errand, and we met by accident. And this choice meeting made me very glad, for I have known him for many long years and trust him with my life.”

Elfhelm shrugged, not quite convinced. “’Tis your life you are putting at risk. Can we go our separate ways now?”

“I fear not,” replied Strider with a grim smile. “Firstly, I need a safe hideout for the night myself, and you have already taken the place I had in my mind. Like it or not, you will have to share.”

Elfhelm glared daggers at the stranger, but he had to admit that Strider was right. Unless he wanted to fight both the Ranger and the Elf for the cave – a fight he was not certain he could win – he had to share it with them. No-one in their right mind would spend the night outside, with the wolves, if they could avoid it.

“What else?” he asked morosely.

“I might trust you that you are an honest messenger,” said Strider, “but leaving you in my back, unwatched, would be foolish. I shall accompany you on the rest of your journey. Have you been honest, it will be beneficial for you, as my skills in woodcraft are doubtlessly better than yours. Should you have lied to me... well, that would be unfortunate.”

“The Men of the Mark do not lie,” replied Elfhelm indignantly, instinct winning over carefulness for a moment. Strider smiled.

“Indeed, they do not. But I still cannot be certain who – or what – you are. Thus I choose to err on the safe side and go with you.”

“What if I do not want you to come with me?” snapped Elfhelm angrily.

The smile vanished from the older man’s face. “I think not that you have a choice in this, messenger... unless you want to kill me. You are welcome to try, of course. You will fail.”

There was no threat in the Ranger’s voice, no arrogance, only the calm certainty in his own abilities. Elfhelm mumbled something in his own tongue but stopped arguing. He was angry, but he was no fool. On the open battlefield, on horseback, he could probably beat this man... it depended on the horses. But there was little hope to shake off a Ranger in the woods or in the mountains. If the Rangers of the North were half as skilled as the ones in Ithilien, he truly had no chance against this man out in the wilderness.

The Ranger apparently did not expect any answer. He whistled softly, and the Elf returned to them, quickly and noiselessly like some big, hunting cat.

“What have you learned?” asked Strider. The Elf shrugged.

“Not much. There are no trees to talk to, and the heart of the bramble bushes is black. They wrap themselves in malevolent silence. The rocks here have long forgotten how to speak with an Elf, if indeed they had ever known. I doubt that many of my kind would have come here in this Age... save from some houseless spirits of those slain in the Battle upon Dagorlad,” he added with a grin; obviously, he had heard about the ghost stories of Men before. “But I cannot sense any of those, either.”

“What about the wolves?” asked the Ranger.

“Their howling comes from the North, but it is faint now and I could only hear it from a great distance,” said the Elf. “They will not bother you for days yet, if nothing unexpected happens. Besides, they sound like ordinary wolves, although one cannot tell the presence of a Warg by hearing alone. You will have to be careful.”

“Does it mean you are not coming with us any longer?” Strider frowned slightly. The Elf shook his head.

“Nay, I must meet our trackers at the ford in four days’ time. ‘Twould be a tough journey, even for me. I shall part company with you at daybreak.”

“Ai,” the news seemed to sadden the Ranger. “I will miss the company.”

“So will I,” smiled the Elf, for the first time since they met, and Elfhelm had the feeling as if spring had suddenly arrived to these bleak lands, “yet we shall meet again, my friend. We have promised Mithrandir to take custody of the creature once you caught him, have we not?”

“You have,” agreed Strider, “and never have I heard that the Elves of Mirkwood would have failed to keep their promises. Let us return to the cave now. I know you would prefer a treetop, my friend, but the cave is safer.”

The Elf laughed. ‘Twas a light, peeling laughter, refreshing like the spring rain.

“You seem to forget where I dwell at home. This modest little cave would make me no more uncomfortable than any house of Men might. Besides, can you see here any trees in which I could sleep?”

They both laughed now, and the Ranger looked much, much younger in his mirth than he had earlier.

“Let us rest,” he then said, “for we shall have a long and arduous journey before us. The paths are not pleasant among the Mountains of Nimvarkinh.”

“Have you been there before?” asked Elfhelm, following them into the cave, where his horses greeted him with a happy neigh.

The Elf went to the good beasts at once, singing to them softly in his own, strange tongue, and the horses, to Elfhelm’s surprise, allowed him to stroke their necks and flanks. Mayhap it was true that Elves could become friends with all good beasts... or bewitch them with their songs.

“I have been to Rhûn once, long ago,” answered Strider, “in the days of Hademar, the father of Ragnar the Smith. He was a great Warlord among the Easterlings, but also a wise leader, who kept good contacts to the Dwarves of the Iron Hills and to the Men of Esgaroth, in the far North, at the Long Lake by Mirkwood. ‘Twas under his rule that the Deep Forges under the Mountains became strong and the smiths numerous, so that they could forge more and stronger weapons. While his forefathers had been mere warlords, Hademar was a prince already, in all but the title itself.”

“Did you meet him in person?” asked Elfhelm, and the Ranger nodded.

“Him, and Ragnar in his youth, too. Hademar’s rule was less disturbed than Ragnar’s is, for in those times Dol Guldur was quiet and empty, and the Orcs less numerous, after having been beaten in the Battle of the Five Armies. But ever since the power in the Black Lands is moving again, the fate of the Easterlings has become a grim one, and Rhûn suffers greatly under the yoke of Mordor.”

“Are they not the allies of the Dark Lord, then?” Elfhelm frowned. “Why have they not broken free while the enemy was still weak?”

Strider gave him a surprised glance. “Have you been sent forth without being taught anything about these lands and the peoples who dwell here? Gondor and the Mark had peace from the Dark Lord for a while, however short it might have been, but the North was less fortunate. For during that time of peace, the Enemy dwelt in Dol Guldur, poisoning Southern Mirkwood with darkness and fell creatures, and tightening his iron grip on the peoples of Rhûn.”

“They say that a house which is divided unto itself cannot stand forth,” added the Elf softly, “and the Khimmer jarls are known to fight each other all the time.”

“Fortunately for us,” replied Elfhelm dryly, but Strider shook that shaggy head of his a little impatiently.

“Nay, ‘tis where you are wrong. Truly, a united Rhûn under the rule of a strong warlord could be a threat for the Mark. But only a strong Warlord, supported by all the lesser jarls, can hope to break free from Mordor. Why can you not see this?”

He took a deep breath, calming himself, and continued. “Ragnar the Smith has a very narrow path to walk. As long as his people are starving, he cannot keep the jarls from raiding the more fortunate lands. He does not have the title or the power of a King; his people will only follow him as long as he can provide them with what they need. And he cannot turn against Sauron openly while his warriors are raiding the free people of Middle-earth, for that would mean fighting a war on two fronts, neither of which he could truly hope to win. Few of the Easterlings serve Mordor by choice. Most of them serve it out of fear.”

“And even so, they are not spared,” added the Elf. “The Orcs and other fell creatures make no difference between friend and foe when they are hungry, unless told so. And why would Sauron tell them to spare the Easterlings? Fear is his mightiest weapon; it keeps his reluctant allies on the short leash.”

“What if the Khimmer warlord tried to find new alliances?” asked Elfhelm carefully, for these two seemed to know a lot more about the affairs of Rhûn than anyone in the Mark. “What if he sought out a truce with some of the lands his jarls used to raid? Could he be trusted?”

The Ranger and the Elf exchanged a look of sudden understanding.

“I would say, one can trust Ragnar the Smith to choose whatever might serve his people’s best interests,” replied Strider, just as carefully. “He would choose it above his own flesh and blood, if he had to. ‘Tis said he was made to wrestle with bear cubs as a child, to make him hard and strong – I know not if that is true. But he will show no mercy towards anyone when it comes to defend his people – not even towards himself.”

“Would he find a truce beneficial for his people?” wondered Elfhelm.

“He might,” said the Ranger, “but not all the mighty jarls would agree with him. ‘Tis in the nature of the Khimmer warriors to rather take what they want by force than to ask for it. But if Ragnar is willing, he will find a way to negotiate for a truce. Though you might not find that way to your liking.”

Elfhelm remained silent for a while, pondering over possible choices. Aelfgifu had provided him with so little knowledge – as she had not had more to her disposal – that he was in dire need of help. Strangely enough, even though the company of the Elf made him uncomfortable, Elfhelm had the feeling that he could trust this Ranger.

“I cannot do this alone,” he admitted freely. “I know nigh to nothing of these people, and what I do know is thrice ten years old. Would you come with me to Ragnar the Smith and help me in this battle of wits and will for peace? I can offer you some modest reward after my return home. My family does have the means to pay for your help. With coin if you want; in horses, if that is what you prefer.”

Strider looked into his eyes for an endless moment, and Elfhelm felt as if the older man could read his mind and his heart like an open scroll. He did not try to resist – this was about trust, and he was the one who needed to prove trustworthy first, if he wanted the Ranger’s help.

“I have no need for your coin or your horses,” Strider finally said. “But I can see that you are honest and truly need my help. I will show you the way to the West-gate of Nimvarkinh, and I will accompany you into the presence of Ragnar the Smith. With your quest I cannot help much, aside from offering my advice. ‘Tis you who must decide to follow it – or not, if that seems more suitable for you.”

“I am grateful for that,” said Elfhelm. “At the very least this gives me the hope to get to Ragnar the Smith in the first place. And who knows, mayhap you will find a trace of the creature you are hunting, too.”

“I doubt it,” replied Strider. “The Deep Furnaces would be too hot and too bright for him – he would never go there. But the Khimmer patrols stray far into the East – someone might have useful tidings. Let us rest ‘till daybreak, and then go on swiftly. For time is something neither of us has aplenty right now.”

The others followed his advice and lay down on their makeshift bedrolls. Elfhelm tried to sleep but his heart was too much in unease. He rolled from one side to the other several times, feeling bad about disturbing the sleep of his companions – if the Elf’s standing motionlessly and humming in a low, barely audible voice at the cavern’s mouth could be called sleep.

After a while, though, weariness overwhelmed even Elfhelm’s mind, and he fell into a deep sleep, one deeper and more peaceful than he ever had since he had left the Mark.

~~~

Visuals to this story can be found in the Photos section of the Gildor's Library Yahoo Group.


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