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6
The Courtyard of Nimwarkinh

I’ve changed my mind about the spelling of some names. Later, I will go back to previous chapters to make the changes there, too. Until then, please bear with me.

Also, I know that in “The Web of Darkness”, the shieldmaidens of the East were called walkyrie. But that is a name given them by the people of Rhovanion. Neithan is how they call themselves.


~~~

CHAPTER FIVE: THE COURTYARD OF NIMWARKINH

In the next morn, both Elfhelm and the Ranger awoke in a sore state. Their limbs had lost feeling from the tight bounds, their backs hurt from having slept on the hard rock floor; and they were hungry. Beryl had been awake for some time already; now she loosened their bonds and they rubbed their stiff arms and legs vigorously to return circulation into the numb appendages.

“I shall have you something to eat,” told them Beryl. “You may remind unbound while you eat – but if you try to flee, I shall not only cut your throats but also pull every sinew from your body.”

Strider remained unimpressed, but Elfhelm could not resist the urge to tease the shieldmaiden a little.

“Why would you do that?” he asked with a smile.

Beryl stepped up close to him, so close that their bodies almost touched, and looked him in the eyes. Although a woman – and one of the Easterlings, at that – she was mere inches shorter than him.

“For my heart says that you were telling the truth,” she said, and a sudden, inexplicable sadness clouded her face, “and my heart is seldom wrong in these things. But woe him who manages to mislead me; I would know no mercy towards him, and my vengeance would find him, to the end of the world and beyond.”

Elfhelm knew he should stop this game – it could be dangerous, not like the teasing between the Riders of the Mark and the shieldmaidens of his own people – but he could not resist his playful mood. Where this mood had come, he had no idea, but he found he was enjoying himself immensely – more than he ought to, in truth.

“And what if you find proof of my honesty and trustworthiness?” he asked, unable to suppress a grin. “What would be my reward and my compensation for a very unpleasant night, spent tightly bound on the hard cave floor?”

“If you prove to be truthful, Ragnar the Smith will welcome you in his wide halls under the mountains and honour you before his entire court,” replied Beryl, “for he is a generous host. But if that all would seem not enough for you,” she added with a sultry smile, “I might think of something to reward you.”

The grin froze on Elfhelm’s face.

“Is that part of your duties, too?” he asked gravely, realizing that he might have gone too far with playing. To his surprise, though, Beryl laughed quietly.

“I shall not have any duties for the next moon,” she said. “I am going home now – to Nimvarkinh.”

Elfhelm frowned. “Then why would you…?”

But Beryl just laughed again and shook her head.

“You ask too many questions, stranger,” she said. “But the neithan of Rhûn are good at keeping secrets – before all else their own ones. Be ready now; eat and prepare yourselves for a long march. We are leaving, soon.”

She turned to leave but changed her mind in the last moment, grabbing Elfhelm’s face and kissing him on the mouth, long and hard, before whirling around and leaving with long, purposeful strides.

The two men stared after her, slightly dazzled. After a while, the Ranger shook off his surprise and said. “If I were you, Ossiach, I would watch my steps carefully. One does not play games with the shieldmaiden of the East.”

“’Twas not my intention,” assured him Elfhelm hurriedly, “though her actions do amaze me. Is this custom among Khimmerian women to act so freely around men, even strangers?”

Strider shook his shaggy head. “Nay, not usually. As a rule, Khimmer women never leave their homes, unless brought to the household of a powerful jarl in the hope that they might be chosen as his next wife – or bed mate. Shieldmaidens, however, have their privileges. One of those is to take a lover feely when they are at home between fights. ‘Tis considered an honour to be chosen by a neithan – a Khimmer warrior cannot refuse without being teased mercilessly about his manliness… or the lack thereof. Not man enough for a neithan is among the worst insults among them. Fortunately, they are more… forgiving towards strangers who are not bound by their customs,” he added with a faint smile.

“Has this happened to you at the time you visited here?” asked Elfhelm. The Ranger nodded.

“I was much younger and a lot less grave then,” he said, “and the shieldmaidens recognize a warrior when they see one. However, they accepted that my customs would not allow me to know any other woman than the one I was already spoken for.”

“You are wedded, then?” That surprised Elfhelm, for the Ranger seemed more a loner to him. He had difficulties to imagine the older man with a wife and a family.

“Still betrothed,” answered Strider with a wistful smile. “There were… complications. ‘Tis a long tale, and one I shall not bother you with. We should eat, though, for I doubt our capturers would leave us alone much longer. Young Ingolf seems to have taken a disliking to me.”

“I wonder why,” teased Elfhelm, but chomped down the dried meat and flat bread that had been left for them with little appetite. Both tasted like ashes. The long draught of mead could not wash the bitter taste away.

In the meantime, the Khimmer warriors had brought forth the horses from the other cave. There were only three steeds among them: for Ingolf and the two shieldmaidens. Khimmerian axe-men usually fought and travelled on foot, leading their pack-horses on rein. Big, raw-boned horses with rough, dun-coloured coats, both the steeds and the beasts of burden, heavy-set like their owners. The Khimmer were not horse-breeders. They used the beasts bred by their Mordvin subjects or took them when raiding the settlements of Gondor or the Mark.

As they had to ride slowly, so that the axe-men could keep up with them, Beryl ordered that the two prisoners should share Elfhelm’s steed, since Strider had no horse of his own.

“Bind their arms and legs,” she said; then, giving Elfhelm’s steed an envious glance, she added matter-of-factly. “Should you turn out a spy, it would still be my gain. I would get your weapons and horses.” She paused, then said with a somewhat brittle smile. “I would be glad if you cold prove your truthfulness, though.”

“Why would she say that?” wondered Elfhelm some time later, when Strider was already sitting pillion behind him on Hafoc’s back, both of them bound tightly with leather thongs.

“You have caught her eye,” although he could not see the Ranger’s face, the voice revealed that the older man was smiling.

“By Béma, I hope not!” exclaimed Elfhelm in honest panic. “I cannot claim to have a wife or a betrothed to evade her advances.”

The following short pause clearly showed the Ranger’s surprise.

“’Tis unusual for an Eorling of your age to be still unwed,” he finally said.

Elfhelm shrugged, as well as his bonds allowed it.

“Not if the one we have lost our heart to chooses someone else,” he said bitterly. “I shall not stay alone much longer, though. My father has given me an ultimatum.”

“Complete with the speech about tearing a hole into the cynn-fence?” There was a smile again in the Ranger’s voice, and Elfhelm laughed.

“You know our customs well.”

“As I told you, I used to live among your people during Thengel-king’s reign,” answered Strider.

“Under Thengel?” repeated Elfhelm, slightly baffled. “You must have been very young then.”

“I was younger,” agreed the Ranger, “but not as young as you might think. I am older than I look.”

“When I served in the garrison of Cair Andros, I heard that the nobles of Mundburg age very slowly,” said Elfhelm thoughtfully. “I knew not that it happens in the North, too.”

Especially in the North,” replied Strider,” and not just among the nobles. We have mingled less with other people than our cousins in the South.”

Elfhelm would have asked more questions, but he was distracted by the sudden argument between Ingolf and Beryl. He could not hear what they were saying, but the way they gestured into different directions made it clear that they were arguing about the possible route they should choose to reach their ultimate goal: the Mountains of Nimvarkinh and the halls of their Prince beneath the Mountains.

The argument went on for quite some time, ‘til Beryl gave up in obvious exasperation and stomped off to mount her steed. The other shieldmaiden wisely kept out of the fight, waiting patiently for the others to ready themselves. Finally everyone was mounted, the pack-horses on rein, the group formed the way the Khimmer preferred when travelling, and they could set off at last.

Elfhelm lost track of their route soon enough. He had never before forayed into Rhûn, and Aelfgifu’s map did not even show the steep, winding path they were following. He suspected that Strider might have recognized it, but if that was so, the Ranger gave no sign of recognition.

‘Twas a breakneck route, and not an easy one to follow, as the path forked at every hundred yards or so, sometimes in multiple directions. Even Ingolf, who knew the land like the back of his hand, had to be careful not to get lost. At one of those forks, Emerald and the rest of the patrol left them, turning to the North, where they had to relieve one of the hidden outposts. Ingolf, Beryl and the two prisoners, however, reached the South-Gate of Nimwarkinh at nightfall, on the fourth day.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
This is supposed to be the Gate?” Elfhelm eyed the entrance doubtfully. All he could see was a narrow crack in the side of a large, steeply rising rock wall. It seemed way too narrow for even a man to get through, and less so for a horse – not to mention the foot-long, needle-sharp dripstone formations hanging from above.

“It is the Gate,” answered Strider from behind his back, “but it is well hidden, of course. Only those who know the place well can find and open it.”

Ingolf wheeled his horse around and gave the Ranger a glare full of mistrust.

“You said you knew the Gate,” he retorted. “Well, let us see if there is anything behind your bold words. Free him, Beryl, but keep an eye on the other one.”

That was an unnecessary order, as the shieldmaiden had watched Elfhelm all the way like a kestrel its prey. Now she unbound Strider’s arms and legs, and after clenching and unclenching his hands a few times to fight off the numbness of his fingers, the Ranger reached into the crack – slowly and carefully, so that the dripstone needles would severe his hand. He tried to feel his way around, ‘til he finally found the shallow little dent meant for the fingertips. He pressed hard, repeating the opening spell thrice in the Khimmer tongue, for the Gates of Nimwarkinh could only be opened from the outside by multiple tricks.

As soon as he had spoken the last word, the stone gave way under his fingers, and his hand sank into the living rock to the wrist – or so it seemed to Elfhelm’s shocked eyes. He pressed even harder, and turned the invisible opening mechanism forcefully to the left. There was some faint creaking and rumbling within the rock, and then a large slab of stone – as big as the wall of a house – turned slowly inward. The Ranger barely had time to pull his hand back.

Behind the stone door, there was a dark, narrow gateway, with just enough room between the sheer, unhewn rock walls for a man to walk with outstretched arms. The horses became restless and frightened and had to be held on tight rein, or else they would have bolted and hurt themselves. Fortunately, the gateway was not long. When the Gate closed behind them with a small creak, they were already leading their beasts out at the far end.

And so they came to the highlands called the Courtyard of Nimwarkinh; an enormous rocky plateau, surrounded by high, steep mountains on every side. ‘Twas not a fertile land, barely good enough as grazing fields. But these were the only arable lands in Nimwarkinh, tended to by the back-breaking labour of Mordvin serfs that had been moved there by their Khimmer overlords generations ago. All they could produce was a little barley and some oats; and they kept some livestock, too: undemanding, stocky hill bisons, thickly-woolled sheep and half-wild goats whose large, curved horns were used to make drinking vessels and bows.

As there was not even enough clay to make sun-dried bricks for wattle houses – and besides, every handful of soil was precious and had to be used for growing food, no matter how meagre – the serfs lived in caves: natural ones, or ones cut into the rock wall by their own hands. Wood being just as rare and precious, the sheepfolds, too, were encircled by low stone walls, to keep the beasts out of the crop. The horses had their own cave-stables.

The Mordvin serfs, labouring on the fields in their drab, undyed homespun, did not as much as look up when Ingolf and Beryl rode by with their prisoners. The bare-footed women, who were carrying water to the fields in heavy leather buckets, also ignored them, all senses focused on balancing their burden, so that no precious water would be spilled or wasted. Elfhelm found it strange at first that no children were running up to great the newcomers with their merry noise, but he soon found out the reason. It seemed that even the smallest children, barely able to walk, were given small tasks, fitting their age and skills, to ease the workload of their parents.

Elfhelm remembered the merry, carefree life of the children of the Mark, their laughter and their sometimes too noisy playing and singing, and his heart went out for these quiet, subdued little creatures who had to learn hard work at such a tender age, when they should have been tolling around joyfully. They were his mother’s people, after all. Not cynn, but still the same folk. Children like these were swarming by the dozens in the farmsteads around Stowburg: round-faced, brown-eyed urchins with unruly mops of brown hair. Had his mother’s clan not risked the long and perilous journey through the Brown Lands, their children would be probably labouring on these meagre fields, too.

He was distracted from his thoughts by the guardians of the Gate – stocky, heavy-set Khimmer warriors in wolfskin tunics and girdled with richly ornated weapons belts, each at least a handspan broad – who came forth from their hidden watchposts to greet and question them. Recognizing Ingolf at once, they saluted him with their short, broad-leafed spears, their rough, bearded faces splitting in huge grins. The young warlord must have been well-loved by his people.

“Welcome back to the lands of your father, Ingolf Jarl,’ spoke the head guard, a stout, good-natured fellow, in their own tongue. “Did you have a good ride?”

“Greetings, brave Gunnar,” replied Ingolf, “’tis good to be back. Have any tidings come while I was away? Has Ingmar Karason returned from the other side of the border yet?”

Gunnar shook his shaggy head grimly. “Not through this Gate, he has not… and ‘tis unlikely that he would risk the other way. Either he was waylaid and slain in the Ash Mountains – or delayed, just as I am delaying you. Forgive me. May your journey to the Mead Hall be a joyful one,” then, turning to the prisoners, he added in thickly accented but acceptable Westron. “And may you win the favour of the Lord of the Deep Forges, strangers.”

Elfhelm exchanged a look with Strider; the Ranger’s face was grim. The Ered Lithui – the Ash Mountains – were the northern border of Mordor. If Ragnar the Smith had sent a messenger (or a spy) beyond that border, then his intentions were questionable at least. Unwillingly, the head guard – who could not know they both understood his language – had given them a most valuable piece of information.

Ingolf seemed not to realize this – or else he was confident enough that the strangers will never see the daylight again, once brought before his father’s throne. He clasped forearms with Gunnar – Beryl did not waste as much as a glance at the head guard – and they continued their journey in a hurry. This time on foot, with a Mordvin groom leading Elfhelm’s horses, as his and Strider’s arms were still bound to their backs. It felt good to be able to stretch their legs, at least, all the same.

To Elfhelm’s surprise, they were heading right to the nearest mountainside. There was a steep path between the bare rocks, leading upwards and to the North-East. After some five hundred yards of laboured climbing in the mercilessly burning sun that exhausted Elfhelm’s pack horse greatly, they turned onto an even narrower path, that led in a sweeping, unbroken arch to the North, where the mountainside was scattered with twisted, dark pine trees.

Beryl apparently did not like the route, and she made no secret of her reluctance to get under those trees. Their growth might not be dense, but they could still hide whole packs of hunting wolves – a frequent peril among the Mountains of Nimwarkinh, as she pointed out.

“Wargs, more likely, rather than ordinary wolves,” murmured Strider in Rohirric, audible only for Elfhelm’s ears. “She is right. We should not follow an unwatched path among the trees as long as there is any other way.”

But Ingolf swept aside the shieldmaiden’s concerns with the argument that he wanted the strangers to see as little of Nimwarkinh as possible. Needless to say that Beryl showed little understanding for that, too.

“At least the Ranger has proved his truthfulness already,” she said. “There is no denying that he knew the South-Gate… and how to open it.”

“That proves not his good intentions,” interrupted Ingolf. “We have seen skilled spies before; spies who had found out the secret of our Gates. They never lived long enough to tell it any-one, and I shall see that these,” he glanced at his prisoners with open hostility, “cannot do so, either.”

Beryl shrugged impatiently. In her eyes, the Ranger’s knowledge of the Gate and the opening spell were proof enough. One could not just find out the secret of Nimwarkinh’s Gates. Someone had to show where the opening mechanism was hidden. The opening spell had to be spoken correctly, which had to be taught, more so to a stranger. So nay, she did not believe that he Ranger was a spy, and that vouched for his travelling companion, too. But she was not the one to choose the route.

“Very well,” she said. “You are the warlord, and as long as I am with your troops, I have to accept your choices. Even if they are foolish; like now.”

Dark fury flashed across the broad, handsome face of the young warlord.

“Are you forgetting whom you are talking too?” he asked, with a clear hint of menace in his rough voice.

I am not,” replied Beryl coldly. “But it seems to have been too long since we last fought side by side. Otherwise you would not forget that there is no living thing that could frighten me; least of all you.”

For a moment, they glared at each other with unveiled wrath, and Elfhelm feared the shieldmaiden would pay for her reckless bravery dearly. Surprisingly enough, though, Ingolf Jarl backed off again. He reeled his horse and took the head without a further word.

“Go before me, Jouko,” Beryl waved at the groom who was leading Elfhelm’s horses. “I shall take the rear.”

The groom was a tall, big-boned young fellow, broad of shoulders but very spare of flesh, with a shock of straw-coloured hair that reached the open neck of his rough homespun shirt. He had, perhaps, some Northern blood in his veins – from the Woodmen of Southern Mirkwood, or perhaps he was a scion of some captured Rider or abducted woman of the Mark. That would explain why he had to do the lowly work of the serf, instead of being accepted as a warrior. He had an open, brave face, framed by a neatly trimmed beard of reddish hue, darker than his hair, and the piercing blue eyes of a woodman or a huntsman. Elfhelm liked him immediately; he seemed to have kept his spirit, and that was a rare thing here, unless the signs were misleading.

On they went, following Ingolf who was still riding his heavy-boned steed. The rocky path was smooth and almost entirely level, and yet it was hard to tread, for the sticky brown fog that was drifting over from the Ash Mountains all the time, even from such a great distance, lay heavily upon the Courtyard of Nimwarkinh. It made their breath laboured and their mouths dry.

Also, darkness was falling quickly, and wandering around at night was a perilous task, even within the more or less safe embrace of the Mountains of Nimwarkinh. For the wolves of Mordor – as Strider had said, more likely Wargs than ordinary wolves – always found a way along the hidden passes into the Courtyard. These fell beasts not only spied on the people of Rhûn; they also lived on man-flesh and hunted in large packs. Thus the serfs of the Courtyard returned to their fortified cave-dwellings at each nightfall, taking the livestock with them.

There was a good reason for Beryl to dislike this route so much. Even though the groom Jouko was one of the best wolf-hunters and lived with his family high up in the mountains, in a well-protected cave. Fortunately, he also knew the mountain paths like the back of his hand, and he brought them to his dwellings just before the world had sunk into the ink-black darkness of night.

Jouko’s ‘house’, as he called it, consisted of two spacious, dry caves: one for the family, one for the livestock, which, in his case, was a small flock of mountain goats. The two caves were connected by a low archway that allowed the family to get to the animals but kept the good beasts from getting into the living area. As soon as they arrived, they blocked both entrances with heavy boulders; after that, they could finally rest. Jouko’s wife, Maryatta – a young but already weary and used-up Mordvin woman – got them seated at a long, low stone table and offered them a meagre meal: fresh goat milk, cheese and some dry, hardened flatbread that was called flarn by the peoples of Rhûn.

The woman herself ate nothing, leaving their frugal meal to the three whipcord-thin, hungry-eyed children; she just sat on the stone bench lining the cave walls with a bent back, exhausted. She could not be much older than Elfhelm’s sister Osdhryd, but the thick, dark braid hanging over one shoulder was interwoven with grey already. The blue veins were swollen on her rough, reddened hands and her naked feet that lay flat upon the rocky floor of the cave. Her gaunt face mirrored past sufferings and wore the signs of a very hard life, but Elfhelm could still see the shadows of her now gone beauty lingering in her features; features that had aged before time. Unlike his Khimmer masters, though, who saw nought but cattle in their women, Jouko treated his wife with respect and tenderness.

“I assume his ancestors hailed from Laketown,” murmured Strider in Rohirric, “and he was taught to respect women the way the Lakemen do.”

“Why does he not return to his own people, then, and takes his family with him?” asked Elfhelm. Strider shrugged.

“That is a long way from here, full of perils, even for well-armed, strong men. Who would put his children to such risks in the wilderness between the Sea of Rhûn and Southern Mirkwood? ‘Tis full of Orcs, Wargs and other dangerous creatures. Those lands have become very dark since Dol Guldur come to new power. For though the Necromancer has been driven out quite a few years ago, his evil minions are still dwelling in the dark tower upon Amon Lanc, the Naked Hill and hold their reign of terror over the lands there.”

Elfhelm digested this for a while. Like the Marshals of the Mark usually, he knew very little of what was going on in the North, his main concern being the safety of their own borders, which was not an easy thing to achieve. Now that he had forayed deeper into the lordless lands east of Anduin farther than ever before, he began to understand the true extent of thereat not only from the raiding Khimmer parties but from all the strange, untamed creatures full of shrewd malevolence that dwelt in these huge, wild countries. The necessity of an alliance with the self-proclaimed Prince of Rhûn, the most powerful chieftain with the largest, best-trained army of the Easterlings, became abundantly clear for him.

And if I succeed to forge an alliance, then mayhap the life of the Mordvin serfs would become somewhat easier in time, he thought, glancing at the three children. The two boys, Matti and Leino, had outlandish names like their father; most likely inherited from their Northern ancestors. The little girl was called Jerne; ‘Twas a Mordvin name, Elfhelm knew, as it was used among his mother’s people as well. All three children wore rough homespun tunics and breeches of goat wool; only her thick, dark braid made the girl Jerne different from her straw-haired brothers.

Barely had they all surrounded the roughly-cut stone table, when the wolves began to howl in the outside. Their howling, high-pitched and long-drawn, could freeze the blood in a man’s veins. Even the boldest Khimmer axe-men were afraid of these wolves, as they had more than a little Warg blood in them, and had no qualms of attacking armed warriors if ravenous enough.

Elfhelm saw Beryl grab the hilt of her sword involuntarily, and Ingolf reached out for his axe, too. Jouko, however, kept gnawing on his stone-hard flatbread undisturbed, having left milk and cheese for the children.

“No need to fear,” he said. “They cannot get in. And by dawn, they will be gone, for the sunlight fills their black hearts with dread.”

He broke the flatbread in two, dipped the untouched half into the milk and handed it to his wife.

“You should eat at least a bite,” he said, “or else you will lose all your strength.”

Maryatta smiled tiredly, her eyes weary and resigned, but she began to nip on the meagre fare obediently. The children had long devoured their share, of course, and were now eyeing the rest greedily; Matti more than the others, as he was about twelve – an age in which boys are permanently hungry. His mother was visibly tempted to leave him what little had been saved for her by her husband, but Jouko would not have it.

“My son, you have nearly grown into manhood; you must learn that life is full of sacrifices,” he warned his firstborn sternly. “Your mother labours tirelessly from dawn till dusk for you and your siblings. She would deny herself each bite, just so that you can eat, if I let her. While you were but babes, I did let her do so; ‘tis the duty of parents to care for their children. But you area no longer a child. A lad who has already slain his first wolf cannot latch onto his mother for food.”

Elfhelm remembered the abundance of the Mark; that the crumbs falling from his father’s table could feed this entire family… and was ashamed. While no food was wasted in the house of Lord Hengest (his mother, a fugitive from Rhûn herself, felt very strongly about that), he felt bad at the sight of such poverty.

Jouko must have read the thoughts from the stranger’s face, for he turned to Elfhelm with a friendly smile.

“Think not, stranger, that our life is unbearably hard or that it lacks all joy. ’Tis hard and full of want, true. But there is peace in the protection of the Mountains; and safety that cannot be found anywhere else under the shadow of the Black Lands. What else could we wish for? So far, we have always had something to eat. Our children are healthy and obeying, and neither peril nor want can quench the love we feel for each other. Believe me: even though I wish an easier life for Maryatta and our children with all my heart, I would not change with any house where the table is laded but the hearts are full of hatred.”

“I readily believe that,” Elfhelm nodded. “Still, would it not be easier to forsake the Mountains and try your luck in the South or the West? Others have done so and found a better life.”

Jouko shook his head slowly, grimly.

“Nay, stranger. These lands, meagre and ungrateful though they may be, groaning under the shadow of Mordor, are our home. As long as we are here, the servants of the Dark Lord cannot take them as their own. And we shall defend these barren rocks to our last breath.” He stood. “’Tis growing late, though, and you wanted to leave with the first sunlight. I shall show you the sleeping chambers.”

Several small, dark holes opened from the main cave; narrow ones, with such a low ceiling that they had to bend low to get in in the first place. Each had enough room but for two people. Beryl, however, insisted on sleeping in the prisoner’s chamber to guard them, even though they could hardly escape from this place. Still, she was not willing to take any risks, Ingolf took the next chamber all for himself, and the children went into the third one.

Jouko and Maryatta retired to their own sleeping room. They called it their bedchamber, with the stubborn pride of the poor, even though their ‘bed’ consisted of a few wolfskins, piled atop each other. Taking off her rough garb, Maryatta cuddled to her husband under the thick skin, shivering with cold and concern.

“Are you going with them in the morn?” she asked worriedly.

Jouko was one of the best mountain scouts, thus he was often forced to leave his family alone. Maryatta always feared that he would not return one day. There were hidden perils, looming along the mountain paths that no-one could spy and avoid in time. Today, however, she needed not to worry.

“They shan’t need me,” her husband stroked her hair soothingly. “Ingolf Jarl wishes to use the Old Dwarf-Road to return.”

“Does he wish to break her neck?” she wondered, as she knew well enough the hidden paths of Nimwarkinh.

“’Tis not our concern,” she could hear the smile in Jouko’s voice. “He will manage somehow; he always does.”

“What about the strangers?” asked Maryatta. “Do you believe they are spies of the Horse-lords indeed? They do not look like spies.”

“Nay,” her husband agreed. “I am uncertain about the huntsman, but the other… I have heard about his kind from the Woodmen, evens aw one from afar, once when I had business to take care of in Rhovanion. They come from the West sometimes, from beyond the Misty Mountains. They are called Rangers; you can recognize them on the star-shaped pin that keeps their cloaks fastened. ‘Tis said that they are the last remnants of the Sea-kings’ people; though whether ‘tis true or not, I cannot tell.”

“Why did you not warn Ingolf Jar, then?”

“And get whipped for meddling with his business?” asked Jouko. “Nay, my word would have no weight in his eyes. So let him eat the soup he has cooked! The neithan will give him enough grief for two – for she shan’t like the road he has chosen.

~TBC~

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