Nyáréonié: The Fall of the North
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Questions Without Answers
For a moment Trotter could only gape in surprise. Although Falathor had obviously been considering something deeply for some time, this was the last result the Hobbit had expected. In fact, he had almost forgotten the presence of the young Guardsman who, now that he was no longer threatening, had little to do with Trotter’s own plans. He wondered briefly if it was a trick of some sort; but no, Falathor simply continued to sit on the ground with lowered eyes. The Man’s face was grieved and he knelt upon the ground, but there was still pride in his bearing.
“I’m afraid I don’t rightly understand,” Trotter said uncomfortably, “For what must I forgive you?”
Falathor now looked up at him. The sun still shone brightly around them, but the Man’s face was dark and clouded as the sky before a storm. For the first time, Trotter had a chance to examine him carefully close up, and the feeling of familiarity surged up in him again. It was almost eerie … who did Falathor remind him of? The Man’s eyes were grey, like those of most of the Dúnedain, but his hair was a light shade of strawberry blonde, reddish-golden and unusual for members of that people. His face was fair, but not cheery; he looked lonely and proud.
“For unjustly accusing you and attempting to take your life on a false charge,” Falathor said in reply to Trotter’s question, “I branded you as a traitor without knowing the truth. I heard you speaking now, and last night you saved my life, though I had threatened to kill you. The green fire of the barrow-wight would have struck me down had you not intervened. I acted rashly...”
“It is not you who are at fault here,” Trotter said, a bit impatiently, “But he who misled you.” He was rather flustered by Falathor’s deference. After all, Trotter was only a very young Hobbit, and certainly not used to having great tall Men kneel before him and ask his forgiveness.
“There is nothing to forgive,” he continued, “But if you wish my forgiveness I give it freely. As for your service, I want none of it. I am a Hobbit, not a leader of armies!”
“Good thing, too,” Anna noted. She was sitting cross-legged upon the still-green grass, and with her stained Dwarven garments and tangled locks she looked rather like an alley cat drying out after a long night of rain. Trotter doubted he looked much better himself. “With your height you’d disappear in a battle and the army would end up leaderless,” the girl added with a grin.
Falathor did not laugh, and if anything, he seemed even more troubled than before. He ran his hand through his hair, and once again memory tickled at Trotter’s mind. He wondered if he should ask Falathor if they had met before. To his surprise, however, the Man brought up the topic himself.
“You are not as I imagined you,” he said to Trotter, “I always thought of the Little People as well, stout and foolish and not much else. But to your credit, you seem every bit as extraordinary as Lomion always said.”
Trotter was absolutely dumbfounded. It took a moment before he could even speak. “Wh-what?” he stuttered, “You know of me? Lomion told you about me? Why?”
“Of course he told me about you,” Falathor said, “Lomion is my brother.”
At this revelation, Trotter felt roughly as if an oliphaunt had sat on his head. Lomion’s brother? He had a brother? And suddenly, it all made sense – why Falathor was so familiar to him. He looked like Lomion, only younger and less formidable. Still, he could hardly believe it. He had never considered the idea that Lomion might have siblings.
“He never mentioned you,” Trotter said finally, in some embarrassment. And he had openly accused Lomion of treachery … did Falathor believe him? The Man was certainly not thirsting after his blood anymore – had he been convinced, or was he merely biding his time and playing along for his own reasons?
Falathor shrugged. “We are not always on the best of terms,” he said drily, “I had not seen him for some years, and when I arrived in Bree, he was not there. I learned that he had gone on a mission to gather information about the actions of the Witch-King, so I decided to wait until he returned. I planned to remain in Bree for some time … but when Lomion returned, it was with an army of Orcs following on his heels. Then there was the battle, and the Gate, and your escape. When I met with him he asked me to lead one of the parties of riders sent after you, and I agreed, though I was surprised. The last time we had met, he had told me about you, and I found it difficult to believe that the friend he spoke of then could become a despised traitor.”
“No wonder,” Anna snorted, “It’s not true, anyway.”
“Yes, so you say,” Falathor agreed, “And I believe you, I think … but you have said more, and that is not so easy to believe. Do you seriously mean to tell me that my brother is guilty of treachery? That he purposefully lied in order to place blame on you, and was not merely mistaken? It is difficult enough to imagine Lomion making a mistake, and nearly impossible to picture him as a traitor.”
“I would say the same,” Trotter said, “Had I not seen it with my own eyes. Don’t think the fact brings me any joy! I still don’t understand – why did he do it?”
“I think you had better tell me everything you know,” Falathor said, “And perhaps I will be able to throw some light on the matter.” He listened carefully as Trotter recounted his confrontation with Lomion and his subsequent capture and escape. The opening of the Gate and seizing of Bree did not seem to disturb him, but when Trotter described the Starflower he looked thoughtful, though he did not interrupt.
“This is all very curious,” Falathor remarked, shaking his head after Trotter had finished his tale, “Almost impossible … but it fits, somehow. I feel that it is true. Do you ever have the sense that you have heard something that is absolutely true, no matter how strange it seems?”
Trotter had to admit that he had never felt anything of the sort. Anna did not reply at all, but looked at Falathor rather apprehensively. Trotter hoped she wouldn’t decide the Man was insane and refuse to deal with him any further; he himself had a multitude of questions, and hardly knew which to ask first.
“Then you believe Trotter’s story?” Bronweg asked Falathor. The Elfit had not spoken for sometime, merely listened contemplatively. Trotter wondered what Bronweg thought of the whole matter, and whether he was still eager to join them after it had come out that they were as good as outlaws.
“I’m afraid so,” Falathor answered reluctantly, “The tale is quite convincing, most of all the part about the Starflower. What did you say Lomion said when the lady touched it?”
“He said ‘they have claimed it’,” Trotter said, “Why? Does that mean something to you?”
“No,” Falathor admitted, “But the necklace … may I see it?”
Anna fished the silver chain out of her shirt and pulled the Starflower over her head. She did not give it to Falathor, and he did not ask for it, merely examining it from afar. The white and silver jewel gleamed innocently in the sunlight, unsullied by the shadowy mysteries enshrouding it.
“Well, do you know what it is?” Trotter asked.
“I don’t know anything,” Falathor said, “I might make a guess, but … it is safer not to. It could be any number of things. One thing is certain: if Lomion wants it, it must be important. Perhaps it has some hidden magical power. Such things were not always so uncommon as they are nowadays.”
Trotter looked at the necklace doubtfully. It was beautiful, yes, but it shown no sign of being magical – no shining lights or healing powers or any of the other things one usually associated with magic.
“In any case,” Falathor said to Anna, as she hung the jewel back around her neck, “I would suggest you keep it, and make sure my brother does not get his hands on it.”
“You think he will try to regain it even after the first attempt failed?” Bronweg asked, frowning.
“My orders specified that I was to kill Trotter and bring Anna back to Bree – paying special attention that anything she carried with her be returned as well. Supposedly she had robbed some personage of the town of valuable property. Now that Lomion’s first plan failed, he will only try harder.”
Trotter thought Falathor was probably right. Lomion would not give up so easily … it was a trait he had often admired about his friend. The idea occurred to him that Lomion might come after them himself, and he shuddered. He did not ever want to be in another situation like the night before.
“And still nothing is any clearer,” Bronweg said, “Why did this Man betray Bree? What does the Witch-King plan? And what part do you play in this – where do your loyalties lie?” He directed the last question at Falathor, who looked rather offended.
“And you, Master,” Falathor said without answering Bronweg’s question, “Who are you? You wander alone in the Tyrn Gorthad in dangerous times, and speak as one who knows much, or believes he does. I would say you are Elven, but you have not the lofty stature and mien of that fair people, nor would they a fear a barrow-wight, having themselves a magic stronger and brighter.”
“Nor would they be foolish enough to lead us into a barrow in the first place,” added Anna with obvious satisfaction.
Bronweg, surprisingly, said nothing. Trotter suspected that the Elfit wished to keep his secrets to himself, at least for the time being. Though Trotter was curious about Bronweg as well, he preferred to save his questions until later. He had not yet decided if he wanted the Elfit with them as a permanent companion. What, after all, was he? What was he doing alone in the wilderness? Why did he wish to join them? There was a strange air about Bronweg, of recklessness perhaps, or rebellion, or despair. In any case, there was still the matter of Falathor to settle.
“The sun climbs high,” Trotter said to his companions, “And it’s high time we left this place.” He turned to Falathor. “You have my forgiveness as you asked,” he said, feeling slightly silly speaking such solemn words, “Now what will you do? I am going to Fornost with Anna. If you wish, you may come with us to the King. We would welcome your company.”
Anna did not look at all as if she would welcome anyone’s company, but luckily said nothing. Falathor, in any case, shook his head.
“There are too many questions here,” he said, “Questions without answers. And there is only one way to be sure of the truth.” He picked up his sword and re-sheathed it, then stood up, brushing the dust off his clothes. Briefly, he shaded his eyes with his hand, gazing first toward the Old Forest and then back eastwards into the Barrow Downs.
“What are you going to do?” Trotter asked, a suspicion growing in his mind.
“You are right to go to King Arvedui,” Falathor said, avoiding the question, “He must know of the events that transpired here. But meanwhile Bree remains in the hands of a traitor, hard though it may be to believe him as such.”
Falathor whistled, and one of the horses, which had been grazing peacefully and enjoying some well-deserved rest, trotted to its master, neighing and tossing its head. It was a tall chestnut, and obviously it knew Falathor well; it stood patiently while the Man leaped easily onto its back.
“Wait a minute!” said Trotter, scrambling to his feet, “Where do you think you’re going?”
Falathor grinned with a gay recklessness. He spurred his horse once and it reared onto its hind legs, its long shadow wavering on the ground. Falathor’s red-gold hair and the animal’s bronze mane fanned out equally, halos against the sunlight.
“To talk to my brother!” Falathor cried as the horse’s hooves touched the ground and it bounded forward into a gallop. In moment it had carried its rider back into the lee of the downs, where the shadows swallowed them both. He did not look back once.
Trotter watched the figure of the lone rider until it disappeared completely. Then he turned back to his companions.
“It’s time we were going as well,” he said, “I want to reach Fornost as soon as possible. And I’m sure no one else wants to remain sitting here on the doorstep of the Downs.” He began to brush the dirt off his clothing, turning his face to the rays of the sun. It was late morning, and though he still felt somewhat tired, a restlessness was upon him to be on his way.
“What about him?” Anna said, standing also and jerking her head at Bronweg, “Is he coming with us?”
“What, so anxious for my company?” said Bronweg, rising lithely to his feet, “You could use my protection; in those clothes you’re likely to be mistaken for a scarecrow, and we wouldn’t want someone to tie you to a pole in a cornfield, would we?”
“It’d have to be a mighty short pole for you to rescue me off it,” Anna retorted.
“Who said I’d rescue you?” the Elfit smirked, “I usually rescue ladies in distress, not straw-headed strays.”
“Anyone passing will think you’re the lady in distress,” Anna replied with equal sarcasm, referring pointedly to Bronweg’s shoulder-length hair and typical Elf-like spotless appearance.
“Look! It’s Eärendil with the Silmaril on his brow!” Trotter suddenly yelled as loudly as he could, pointing wildly at the clear blue sky above. Bronweg and Anna both stared around with wide eyes, then looked at him with blank expressions on their faces.
“What?” said Anna.
“Really,” Trotter said, “If you two are going to go on like this the whole way to Fornost, I’ll just leave you both behind.”
“Then you accept my companionship?” Bronweg asked as if nothing had happened. He seemed to have forgotten Anna’s existence in the space of a second.
“Yes,” answered Trotter, “But you must tell us who you are and what you are doing here. We don’t have time to wait, so we will ride and you can tell your story on the road.”
Bronweg agreed to this and, surprisingly, Anna put up no objections either. Trotter suspected that she was rather enjoying the verbal sparring between herself and the Elfit. At least she had turned her attention and sharp tongue away from him; he was not particularly witty, and always fared badly in such banter.
The three travellers quickly packed what remained of their meal into the saddlebags of the horses they meant to ride. Bronweg choose a medium-sized grey to be his steed, after shortening the stirrups to fit him. Though smaller than Man or Elf, the Elfit seemed to be able to ride a normal horse comfortably, more so than Trotter at least. Anna, leaving Dapple to Trotter, also chose a new animal. It was a light-footed, spirited little black stallion whose name was Raven, or so Anna called him. She rode bareback, and Trotter thought she looked far more at home here, upon the back of a horse in the wilderness, than she ever had in Bree. He himself stuck with Dapple, the small Hobbit-horse they had rode from Bree.
“What about the others?” Anna asked with concern, meaning the other two horses, “We don’t need them, but I don’t want to leave them here in Tyrn Gorthad.”
“We don’t have much other choice,” Trotter shrugged, “Besides, I don’t think any harm will befall them. They will find their way to a safe place, perhaps in the Shire or in the Old Forest. But we must be going. I don’t want to take the path through the Downs again; it brought us only ill luck before. Let us go straight to the north. We will pass through the inhabited lands of Men that way, and stay off the North Road at the same time. And Fornost is almost a straight line to the north from here, if I remember correctly.”
With this decision, the small company set off northwards. The Downs rose up on their right, but they kept well away from the looming hills, travelling swiftly between them and the wild Forest on their left. The sun continued to shine pleasantly and birds sang from under the eaves of the trees, but Trotter still slumped tiredly in his saddle. He thought with longing of Bree and the hobbit-hole where he had lived with his father. The whole thing seemed rather vague now, as if once part of his life had been closed forever when he had left his hometown. He had no idea what waited for him now, and if he was glad about where the sudden turn in events had led him.
Trotter realized that he was not the only one sunk into gloomy thoughts. Anna rode at his side without a word, chin on her chest. What was on her mind was impossible to tell; Trotter doubted she was missing her former life, as he was. Though he felt he knew her as well as a sister – strange, as in truth he knew so little about her – he could not guess what thoughts were in her mind now.
In the end it was Bronweg who roused them from their silence.
“Come!” he said almost merrily, “Come out of your dismal thoughts! The sun is bright and the air is fresh. There is no shadow upon us! Let’s have a song then; songs go well with wandering, as I should know, and so should you, Trotter, if your name is any indication.” He looked with a twinkle in his eye at Trotter. “I have heard that Hobbits have a ready tongue with a tune, especially when they are on the road. Will you not sing for us?”
It was impossible not to be affected by the Elfit’s good mood, and Trotter found himself smiling in return.
“I am no poet!” he said, “I have no skill to match even the poorest of singers. But I do know a tune or two from the streets of Bree . . .” And to his own surprise, he began humming and then singing a song that he knew from his childhood days. It was a merry melody, and the words went something like this:
“Oh! Orald sits upon a tree
A merry old man is he!
Oh! Orald sits upon the willow
Yes, indeed, a merry old fellow!
The forest is his feasting hall
Hey! Merry derry dol!
The river is his foaming ale
Dol! Merry derry hey!
No Man is he, or mountain dweller
Nay, nor Hobbit, silly feller!
Though he sings, not an Elf
Perhaps he is a tree himself!
Oh! The forest heeds his tune
In cold December or bonnie June!
Oh! Orald sits upon a tree
A merry old man is he!
Oh! Orald sits upon the willow
Yes, indeed, a merry fellow!”
As Trotter finished the song, Bronweg sang the last few lines with him. The Elfit laughed merrily, his dark eyes twinkling as if with some mischievous secret. Shadow and sunlight fell across his face and he seemed a wild thing, belong to nature rather than civilization, like Orald of the song himself.
By this time, the way between the hills and the woods had grown narrow. They were travelling almost beneath the branches of the Old Forest, and the rustling of leaves had accompanied Trotter’s song at its end.
“Quite nice,” Anna commented, “Though a bit ambiguous. It doesn’t tell you much about Orald, in the end. Who was he?”
“Well, I can’t say,” Trotter admitted, “Frankly, I’ve no idea who Orald is. Sounds like a rather nice fellow, though - very ‘merry’ indeed! Although I don’t consider any river water to be a substitute for ale, no matter how foamy.”
“Yes, merry!” Bronweg agreed, “It does not do him justice, but he would like it still! I met him once just recently, you see, on my way here from Harlindon.”
“Met him?” Trotter cried, his spirit of adventure and his curiosity reviving. In his excitement, he did not even notice that Bronweg had for the first time mentioned something about his past.
“Then he’s real, and not merely a song!” the Hobbit continued, “Tell me, what is he like? Who is he? The song says he’s neither Man, Hobbit, Dwarf, nor Elf - so what is he?”
“That I can’t answer; in fact, I wonder if he knows himself,” Bronweg replied thoughtfully, “He’s a funny creature, all dressed up in a blue coat and yellow boots, and always singing. The trees do listen to him, as far as I could tell. He’s called Orald by the Northern Men, and Forn by the Dwarves, but to the Elves he is known as Iarwain Ben-adar. ‘Oldest and fatherless’ is how it would translate into Westron, but what that means, I couldn’t tell you.” Trotter grinned. “Ah,” he said, “But you can tell us of your meeting with him. I, for one, would be glad to hear of it!”
“Yes, tell us,” Anna agreed, seeming happy to have something to occupy her mind with as well, “If you end up being a good story-teller, I just might forgive you your other faults.”
So Bronweg began the tale of his meeting with Orald of the Woods, and as he spoke the trees beside them seemed to listen with approval.
“I had, as I said, left Harlindon, having tired of the lonely life I led there, which is a matter for another story which it seems I will have to tell as well quite soon,” he said, seeing Anna and Trotter’s curious glances.
“But first things first! We are now at the tale of Orald. I was following the Brandywine southwards, having come around from the north through the Emyn Uial where I had wished to gaze upon Lake Evendim. I had been thinking that I might come to the Shire and visit the homeland of my father, for he was a Hobbit, as you might have guessed, since it was apparent to you immediately that I am no true Elf.” Here he looked for a moment at Anna, but she did not interrupt, only looked back silently. After a moment, Bronweg continued his tale.
“But I had not yet decided if I wanted to set foot in the land of the Halflings, and so was walking by the side of the river. If you remember, the weather was stormy last week, and the day was a rather gloomy one; the sky was gray and clouds were moving in. The riverbank was steep and I was walking close to the edge beneath the eaves of the forest. I was rather tired, and I must admit that I was daydreaming a bit; in any case, my attention wavered from the path. I remember, I was thinking about the Shire and wondering if perhaps I could stay there for a while, if I would be at home among Hobbits as I was not among Elves. So there I was, my mind off in the green fields of the Shire and not at all on my surroundings, and before I knew what was happening I had tumbled off the path and straight into the waters of the Brandywine!
“Now, that water was shallow there by the bank, and I was in no danger; but I had gotten a good ducking and it was cold. Furthermore, I was angry at having become so distracted as to fall from the path. I struggled out of the water and back up the bank, cursing as only an Elfit can the whole way. The wind was chilly and I was shivering, berating myself for my own stupidity. I decided to make a fire, to warm myself. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be much dead wood about at all, and I was forced to go someway into the trees to even get out of the wind. Finally, I got tired of walking around shivering and decided to just break some wood off a tree. I stopped under a likely looking hazel and set down my pack, determined to make camp and warm myself up. Now, this may sound a bit odd, but I can assure you that it’s all perfectly true.
“I began to pull branches off the hazel, but I stopped almost immediately. It was the oddest thing: the tree was screaming! Not loudly like a person would or anything, but the rustling of its remaining leaves held a definite note of anguish. The branches seemed to bend away from me, shivering and shuddering and creaking in horror! It reminded me of nothing so much as a lady in distress. I felt very strange about it, but I was still freezing and determined to get warm, so I decided that it was just fancy and reached for the branches once more.
“It was then that I first heard the singing. It was actually very much like your song just now, Trotter, with lots of ‘merrys’ and ‘dols’ and such. It was coming from someway off in the trees. Of course, I wondered who would be out in the wilderness, and singing like that too!
“My question was answered soon enough, for a few moments later the strangest looking person I have ever seen bounded through the trees and to my potential campsite. Well, perhaps bounded isn’t quite the right word; danced might be more like it, or skipped, or frolicked. In any case, the person now before me was about my own height, with a long brown beard and merry twinkling eyes, a blue coat and yellow boots. He was still singing away - something like this:
‘Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!’
“I had heard stories of Iarwain Ben-adar, of course, and I was certain almost at once that this was he. I asked him, then, if he was the one known to the Elves as Iarwain Ben-adar, and Orald to the Northern Men.
“‘Orald! Iarwain! Many names for a merry old fellow!’ he laughed, ‘But what is your name, young wanderer, far from town and city?’
“I told him my name, naturally, and he seemed not at all surprised to see me, or to hear that I am an Elfit; in fact, he laughed again, and his eyes twinkled as if he knew some jolly secret.
“‘The Elfit wanderer from Harlindon,’ he sang, ‘Wishing now he had some sun, to warm his chilly path!’
“I agreed that I would like some sun, as it was indeed cold, but that I would make do with a fire if only this tree would let me use some of its branches.
“‘Aye! Burn the graceful hazel tree, to warm your lonely company! But see, she groans and creaks with fear; for she’ll be ash if you come near!’
“So saying, he danced off into the woods again, while I stood there staring after him. Let me tell you, I was completely dumbfounded! Presently I realized that the clouds had moved off and the sun was shining quite brightly. I was not even cold anymore, and barely damp. The hazel tree stood next to me, not making any noises now, and Iarwain, or Orald, was like a memory of a story already. It was like waking from a dream, and I decided that the best thing to do would be to continue on my way. So I turned and made my way back to the path along the river, wondering about my strange adventure. There, then, is my tale!”
“Well told!” said Trotter, “It seems you have some secrets, my friend, and I must admit I’m alive with curiosity. So you have come from Lindon, the land of the Elves? I think I understand now what you mean when you say ‘Elfit.’”
“Elf and Hobbit,” Anna said quietly, with a strange note in her voice, “And you thought of it yourself, did you? There aren’t any other Elfits, are there? Only the one, who wanders the wilderness alone and spends his time falling into rivers and rescuing ladies in distress.”
“And what are you?” Bronweg replied with a twisted smile, “Hobbit or Man or something in between? What is your tale, Manling? It seems that we have something besides a sharp wit in common after all, little scarecrow.”
“But it is you who must tell your tale now,” Anna said, “As you promised you would when you joined us. And I am sure you love to speak of yourself anyway.”
Bronweg looked at her long and steadily, but her green eyes did not flinch from his blue. Leaves waved above their heads, and the sun stood high in the sky, casting shadows on their faces in strange patterns.
“I will tell you my story,” Bronweg said finally, “If you agree to tell yours afterwards.” His words had the sound of a challenge, and his face was fierce.
“What, is no one interested in my tale?” Trotter asked with feigned exasperation. Both Anna and Bronweg laughed, partly out of surprise, but with genuine amusement as well.
“No doubt it is not nearly as interesting as either of yours,” the Hobbit continued, “In any case, I at least am interested in what both of you have to say. The road is long yet. Let us while it away with the telling of tales! If you both do well,” he added with a grin, “Maybe I will even sing another song.”
Anna rolled her eyes to the heavens in mock distress. “Then I fear even to begin!” she said.
“In that case,” said Bronweg, “I will begin.”
So he once more began to speak.
“I am the one and only Elfit in all of Middle Earth. My father was a Hobbit, and my mother was an Elf; hence, I am an Elfit!”
“We already know that part,” Anna interrupted.
“Patience, fair scarecrow!” said Bronweg, “Listen and learn the true art of the telling of tales. May I begin?” Neither Anna nor Trotter spoke, so the Elfit continued with his story.
“My father was Peric Deepdweller, a Fallohide from the banks of the Anduin. My mother’s name was Belafal. She was of the Avari – do you know of them? Others of the fair people call them “Dark Elves” or “Refusers,” for when the Valar came to lead the Elven people to the Blessed Realm, they refused and took to the wilds of Middle Earth, to wander. Their wisdom is not great, and they are smaller than the High Elves and the Grey Elves. Perhaps it was due to this that one of them fell in love with a Hobbit… They met when my father travelled west to the Shire, for he had heard of the settlements of his people there. My mother’s people accompanied them for some time. The Avari are secretive, but Belafal was less so than most, open and friendly. And Peric was unusual for a Hobbit, far bolder and more reckless than the Little People tend to be. Their love is a story for many evenings and some laughter, but I will not trouble you with that tale. Suffice it to say, my father was killed by a Warg when I was young - not just any Warg, but the Lord of the Wolves, Drekgreth, called the Iron Claw. He has upon his left paw a claw, not of iron, but of mithril, truesilver stolen from the Dwarves of Moria. It is unbreakable, and sharp as anything. My father died under its cruel bite. After that, the Silvan Elves of Lindon took me in, me and my mother both, for more than just my father died under that attack, and we were alone. I grew up there, under the eaves. Have you seen it, the woodland dwelling of the Westward Forest?”
“No, I’m sorry to say I have not,” said Trotter, and he meant it.
“Ah, it is beautiful!” Bronweg said. His tone was wistful and his eyes looked into the distance.
“Winter or summer, the land sings with loveliness, and the trees smile.” His eyes became sad. “There I lived for many years, and I learned many things: woodcraft and the High Language of the Elves, songs and stories, hunting and warcraft. My mother loved me, as did the wise among the Elves. But an Elfit is not the same as an Elf, after all. I loved laughter and food more than wisdom and craft, and playing in the forest more than singing. And I have not the immortality of the Elves. Nor may I pass upon the ships of the Grey Havens over the Sea to the Undying Lands, but am bound here in Middle-Earth like the people of my father. Ever when I lived in Lindon the sadness in my mother’s eyes when she knew that I must die while she would live on followed me. And so when I was no longer a child I left my home. For some time I dwelt alone in Harlindon, west of the Blue Mountains and south, where no one lives, but restlessness seized me, and I escaped to the wild once more. Now I travel whither a whim takes me, and answer to none but my own will, or so it was before I met you. So there is my tale! But now I have spoken enough, and it is the Manling’s turn.”
Bronweg looked expectantly at Anna, but Trotter doubted he would have much success in his wish for her story. He was right, of course.
“I have no tale,” Anna said flatly, “I know only this: my father was a Man, my mother a Hobbit. Her name was Hanna Applethorn, and I carry her name, for I do not know my father’s. We lived in Tharbad, and she died there when I was young. After that I lived in an orphanage until I came to Bree. I do not know where I was born or when. There is nothing else to tell.”
“There is always more to tell,” Bronweg replied, staring at her intently, “Why did you leave Tharbad? Why are you here now? I have told you my story, though I reveal my identity to few. Repay me in kind, as we agreed.”
But Anna was clearly unwilling to comply with the Elfit’s request. She stared back defiantly, and silently. Trotter sighed; once again the atmosphere had grown tense, and apparently it was up to him to smooth things over. He wondered briefly if he should attempt to tell a joke, but discarded the idea.
“If you are curious as to why Anna is here with me,” he said to Bronweg, “Or as to why I am here, for that matter, I will willingly tell you. You know some of it already, from listening to our conversation, but I will tell you the full story.”
So, beginning with the evening of the day of the attack on Bree, Trotter began to tell all that had befallen him: his sword, the death of his father, the betrayal of Lomion, the Starflower, his capture, and his and Anna’s escape from the town. Bronweg listened quietly without interruptions, but when Trotter finished, the Elfit asked to see both Morchaint and the Starflower.
“What do you wish it for?” Anna asked, reluctantly handing over the gem.
Bronweg turned it over in his hands several times, examining it closely as if he were reading a book.
“I know much Elf-lore,” he said absently, “I thought there might be some sign on it, some indication of what it is that is invisible to your eyes. But there is nothing.” Shaking his head, he handed the Starflower back to Anna, who hung it around her neck with a relieved look on her face.
“May I see your sword now?” Bronweg asked Trotter. The Hobbit handed over Morchaint, wondering what Bronweg might be able to tell him about the mysterious blade.
Bronweg looked at the sword for a longer time than he had at the Starflower. He examined the blade, and the hilt, and especially the misty stone set into it. Morchaint was dark as ever, untouched by its surroundings. Finally the Elfit looked back up at Trotter.
“It does not look like Elvish work,” he said, “But it is very old. You said its name was Morchaint – that is a word in Sindarin. It means shadow, the shadow cast by an object standing in the sun. It is strange… it’s only metal, but it looks so sorrowful. I do not wonder that it could carve steps out of a stone wall, for sorrow is a sharp blade indeed. I am very curious – did you father not say where he found the sword?”
Trotter shook his head, as he accepted Morchaint back from Bronweg.
“I do not know where it came from,” he said, “Perhaps someday I will be able to ask one of the Wise. But now it is of little importance. Look, there is the Crossway!”
Indeed, in front of them they could now see a thin line of trees running straight to the east and west. It was the Crossway; they had come beyond the Downs and, once they crossed the Road, would be well on their way through the half-wilderness to Fornost.
“Now our tale-telling must come to an end, I’m afraid,” Trotter said, “I think we ought to be rather careful and quiet here – we don’t want anyone to notice us. There are many miles yet to cover before we come to the King’s City, and I would like them to be a good deal less exciting than the Tyrn Gorthad was . . .”
Anna and Bronweg agreed with him readily, and so all three travellers sunk back into their private thoughts as they passed silently through the trees bordering the Crossway and headed towards the North.
King Arvedui of the Dúnedain was himself deep in thought, though he knew nothing of the three small fugitives hurrying towards him with their dire tidings. He strode softly down the Sunset Corridor in the Castle of the Thousand Windows in Fornost, a tall brooding figure troubled as a thunderous sky. No good news had come to him since he had sent his messengers on the road to Gondor, while around his kingdom the Enemy had closed in and his choices had grown limited. The Weather Hills had been assaulted once more, and though the forces of Arnor still held the range, many men had been lost – a loss the kingdom could ill afford. Ever it seemed to Arvedui that his own forces dwindled while the Enemy waxed, as if the Witch-king drew warriors from stone or gave pure darkness form to battle for him. And still the palantír remained dark.
Arnor had been a strong kingdom once, and might still have been so, had things taken a different turn. The blood of the Men of Númenor was great - but their number was few. And Arnor had been divided, its strength split by disagreements from within, and the East had fallen to the Witch-king in the end of that struggle years ago. The land was wide, and many evil things were created, or twisted into foul form by the Dark Powers, while the allies of Men were few; there were Elves, and Dwarves, and Hobbits, but cut off in islands of light and civilization amidst an ever-growing wilderness. Arvedui’s options were running out, and so he turned now to a last source of hope, seldom consulted and ambiguous at best.
The Sunset Corridor was so called because its windows faced to the West. The hall ran in a north-south direction, and its left-hand wall was lined with large glass windows looking out onto a distant view of the Emyn Uial, the Twilight Hills. The walls were of white stone, and when the sun sank behind the horizon, as it was doing now, the dying rays tinted cold stone a flaming golden colour. The hall glittered with bright light like a path of fire, but Arvedui could not appreciate the sight. For it seemed to him that this sunset was too much like the fate of Arnor; beautiful in death, yet dying nonetheless.
He stopped then, facing a door opposite the row of windows. It was plain and unremarkable, but it opened into a splendid room of pleasant size, neither large nor small, but lovely and comfortable as a childhood dream. Few knew the name of its resident, and fewer still in that day would have realized its significance had they known.
The King stepped into the room, his shadow starkly outlined on the floor by the burning light streaming through the door behind him.
The room was shaped like an octagon. Its three eastern sides bulged out beyond the wall and opened into a good-sized balcony above an inner courtyard of the castle. Each of the eastern sides was filled by one large window, which in the morning welcomed the sunrise into the room, but were now flooded with a twilight that flowed to meet the last rays of the sun in the middle of the room.
The courtyard below was small and unfrequented by members of the household. There was a small pond in the middle, and green grass around it, and rosebushes with white and red blossoms ringed the whole area. Next to the water was an empty space where nothing grew. It was a strange wound in the paradisiacal garden, the only bare spot.
The room itself was thoughtfully furnished; there was a bed, a table, some deep armchairs, a large hearth and many flowers that lent their sweet scent to the air. Every object in the room was of fine craftsmanship and high worth. And yet its inhabitant was no prince of Men or Elven-lord.
An old man sat there in an armchair with its back turned to the fireplace, facing the centre of the room. There was no fire burning, nor light besides that of the sun coming through the open door. For he had no need of light; he was blind and mute, helpless as a babe. And yet he commanded respect even from the King, and they called him Malbeth the Seer.
Ah! Malbeth the Tall, Malbeth the Strong! So they had called him many years ago, for he had been a great warrior, a pillar of strength for his people. He had bested many dark dangers and fell evils - but there comes a time when even the strongest fail. He had lost both sight and will in bitter battle with the Enemy when he was but a young man still in his prime, and his sinews had weakened and his strength faltered. Yet fate is kind to some; or perhaps one would say it was cruel, and the gift it gave was a cold one. For even as Malbeth lost the use of his eyes, a new sight was given to him. With a clear mind he looked ahead and saw what will be, or what might be. Though he spoke little, at times his tongue would regain its former surety, and he would cry out with cracked voice a glimpse of what was to come.
Standing there in silent doubt, Arvedui’s mind recalled unbidden the memory of the last time he had consulted the Seer. It had been twenty long years ago, and yet the bitter remembrance stood out in his mind sharp and chill as brittle frosted leaves in a winter wind.
… He knelt upon the ground before Malbeth, hands balled into white fists. His fingertips were bloody where they had dug into his palms. The seer could not see him, of course, but the old man could feel that something was not right; he stood uncertainly on his weak legs, turning his blind eyes this way and that like a flower searching for the light.
They were in the queen’s antechamber, and it was dark. A thin streak of light spilled onto the floor through the open door to the bedroom, but Arvedui did not look that way. He saw nothing but Malbeth’s face, as if somewhere on the white, wrinkled skin the answers to all his questions were written.
“Poison!” Arvedui gasped, “She was poisoned!”
Malbeth trembled like a leaf in the wind. His robe was white as well, and he looked like a ghost, glowing faintly in the darkness. Arvedui felt that if he spoke too loudly his breath would blow the old man away. He was too grief-stricken to care. If Malbeth could not tell him what he wished to know, then let him tremble! Let the wind tear him to pieces!
In the bedroom, Arvedui’s wife Fíriel lay dying, lips purple and heart faltering under the iron heel of poison. Their three sons and baby daughter had been sent away, and only the King and the physicians remained to watch the painful struggle, powerless. Arvedui had never felt so helpless, or so blindly furious. There was a murderer in the palace, and he would be found, he would pay! If the seer was the only person who could tell him the truth, then so be it.
“Who did it, Malbeth?” the King panted, “Who poisoned her? Will she live?” He grabbed the old man’s hand and held it tightly, eyes fixed rigidly to the ancient face. Malbeth did not answer; his lips moved, but he only mumbled unintelligibly, as the very old do in times of stress. Arvedui could have screamed in frustration.
The King dug his hand into his pocket and drew out something that glimmered in the stray light from the doorway. He clenched his fingers around it, then placed the object in Malbeth’s hand and closed the withered fingers around it.
“From the Queen,” he said, “Do you remember the Queen? Fíriel? She was always kind to you. For her sake, tell me what I need to know!”
Malbeth opened his hand, and a silver star tumbled from it, catching and spinning in mid-air as it dangled from the chain looped around the seer’s fingers. It was a necklace, Elellótë, an heirloom of the royal house of Gondor. Fíriel had brought it with her when she married Arvedui and took up residence in the North Kingdom, and always wore it. The necklace was silver in colour, but it was more than that in truth – it had been forged of mithril, the unbreakable metal. A single white stone adorned the centre. Malbeth lifted the jewel and laid it against his cheek, feeling the cool smoothness on his skin. He seemed to draw some strength or awareness from it; he stood up straighter and his cataract-covered eyes blinked repeatedly. Then the dried-out lips parted and he croaked in his hoarse, unused voice a few sparse words.
“The Queen is dead. The Elellótë has no bearer. When next a fair one places the silver chain about her neck, the doom of the North will be sealed. And when the North falls, the Queen’s murder will be avenged.”
Arvedui waited in vain for Malbeth to continue. The seer’s shoulders hunched again, and he closed his tired eyes, his hands curving into claws around the necklace.
“What?” Arvedui demanded, “Have you no more to say?”
The Queen is dead …
“No!” Arvedui cried, “You’re wrong! This time you’re wrong!” He grabbed the Elellótë out of Malbeth’s hands, ignoring the seer’s cringe of surprise, as if in taking back the necklace he could take back the prophecy. The silver flower slipped from his hands, bouncing over the floor as he reached after it. It came to a rest in front of the doorway, in front of two black-booted feet.
Arvedui looked up into the haggard face of his chief physician. The man looked grim, his black beard sticking out scruffily, matching the black circles beneath his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness …”
He did not have to hear more.
Arvedui took a deep breath, aware suddenly of where he was and what he had come to do. It was the present that needed his attention now; the past was long finished, and he had chosen then the only thing possible to do. Fíriel was long dead, though the pain of that loss had never left him. The murderer had never been found, and according to the verse would only come to light if Arnor fell … which he could not allow. If the bearer of the necklace heralded the end, then there was a simple answer: remove the necklace. All had been remedied those long years ago, and the Fall of Arnor forestalled, if the verse spoke truth. And yet, Arvedui could not but doubt; his kingdom seemed to be failing around him, and his own power waned. So he had come to Malbeth the Seer to ask one last time for a glimpse of the future.
He looked down at his shadow lying in grotesque size stretched in front of him on the floor. All was done and long over with.
The King turned to the Seer, aged by now to a mere husk of life.
“Malbeth,” he whispered, “What do you?”
The old man’s eyes were closed, and he did not stir at the sound of Arvedui’s voice. He seemed as fragile and ephemeral as a gleam of moonlight, glimmering out of the dusk. He spoke no word.
“Malbeth!” Arvedui cried in despair, “Tell me what you see!”
But this time there was no answer.
Trotter, Bronweg, and Anna travelled uneventfully for several days after leaving the Tyrn Gorthad. They passed the Crossway quickly, after making sure that there was no one within sight, and made their way steadily northwards. The arrow wound on Trotter’s neck healed swiftly, and apparently whatever poison had been in his blood had been slight, for he was not troubled by sickness. It was obvious that he would always bear a scar but at least, he reflected, he was alive, and things could have turned out much worse.
Trotter was not sure how many other parties from Bree might be searching for them, but he was not about to take any chances, and reminded his companions to keep a vigilant eye open.
Neither Bronweg nor Anna seemed particularly interested in keeping a watch, however – they were far too busy arguing. Trotter wondered in mild amazement how two apparent outcasts whom one would expect to be withdrawn and suspicious could have so much to say to each other. Not that it was a normal conversation; more like a series of verbal fencing matches. Neither of them seemed to be upset by this, however, and Trotter decided that it just went to show that some people have strange ideas of entertainment.
They were riding now through a lightly settled part of the kingdom. There were no large towns or cities in this part of Arnor, only villages and farms scattered at intervals throughout the hills. They stayed away from these when they saw them, keeping to the left of the King’s Road, which was a distant line far away on the eastern horizon when it was visible at all.
It was a lovely country, all valleys and little rolling hills. Despite the late season, grass as green as early spring carpeted the ground; small stands of trees marched along the ridges of the hills. The air smelled fresh and spicy with the odours of rain and wood. Many small streams leaped from springs in the hillsides to run down through the valleys, pooling for a time in one place, then swirling on again on their merry paths. Waterfalls cascaded over gleaming dark rocks, scattering rainbows upon the grass like many-coloured coins thrown by a king to his adoring populace. Trotter felt he could almost see the faces of the streams and understand their multi-noted language. The tiny waterfall dancing over a ridge in the hill could almost have been a small girl, calling with sweet voice to the older brother of a somewhat larger stream further down the valley.
Evening was falling, and the stars were beginning to come out in the night sky. The moon was waning and would not give much light after nightfall; they would have to halt soon and make camp before it became too dark to see. The cool evening air seemed to give the country around a softened feeling, like a slightly blurred painting.
Trotter thought sadly of long afternoons spent tramping through woods and fields much like these, with Lomion or his father or by himself at times. He wondered if Falathor had returned to Bree yet, and if so, what fate had befallen the Man. In any case, Bree would be safe again soon. In a few days they would reach Fornost and the King would put things to rights. Perhaps he would be able to return before a fortnight was over, or perhaps he would go to the Shire for a while; he had relatives there, of course …
“All I’m saying,” Trotter heard Anna say, interrupting his thoughts, “Is that spotless white blouses are usually considered feminine, and I assume you deny that title, although I suppose it could be open for discussion…”
“I am NOT wearing a spotless white feminine blouse!” Bronweg replied heatedly.
“Then what is that white material under your coat?” the girl countered.
“Wouldn’t you just love to know,” Bronweg smirked, “I must admit, I wasn’t expecting that warm of a reception when I joined you … but I suppose it’s desperation that leads you to such shameless displays of interest.”
“It would have to be,” Anna acknowledged, “Nothing less than last-ditch desperation could induce me to look at you.”
Trotter burst out laughing. He leaned forward on the neck of his horse, sides shaking and tears squeezing out of his eyes.
“Easy, friend,” Bronweg said, looking annoyed, “She isn’t that funny!”
Anna just looked triumphant. “Acknowledge my superiority,” she said.
“In what?” Bronweg asked, “Basic sentence construction? What other hidden talents to you have? Apparently buttoning your shirt properly is not one of them.”
“And what might you be staring at my shirt for, pray tell?” Anna said while covertly trying to fix her buttons, which were indeed fastened rather clumsily, not to mention that two of them were missing altogether.
“To see if it’s spotless, white, and feminine!” Trotter answered for the Elfit.
Bronweg and Anna groaned.
“What?” Trotter said indignantly, “It’s not funny when I say it?”
“Trotter, my friend,” Anna said, grinning at him, “I suggest you stick to leading armies and fighting barrow-wights and leave the wittiness to us. Or to me at least, since the Elfit couldn’t even by a long stretch of imagination be termed ‘witty.’”
Trotter rolled his eyes. “You two are worse than a pair of Hobbits in their tweens,” he said, reigning in his horse “And I’m tired. Let’s strike camp. Here is as good a place as any.”
They had stopped in a small dell between two hills. A tiny stream trickled along the bottom, but there was dry grass by the side of it. Towards the west the hills grew lower, flattening out to a long field that led to a small stand of trees. The Evening Star could be seen shining brightly in the sky. Trotter dismounted and began to break camp, followed by Anna and Bronweg.
If he thought manual labour would still their tongues for a time, Trotter was dead wrong. His companions continued to discuss proper travelling attire in a most irreverent manner and, being a generally merry and good-humoured person (like most Hobbits), Trotter could not keep himself from laughing at much of their dialogue. This, of course, slowed the rate of their camp-making enough that any true woodsman or ranger would have shaken his head sadly at their progress. It was already deep twilight when the horses were finally unsaddled, hobbled, and allowed to graze in the dell.
“Can’t we risk a fire?” Anna asked, hugging herself. It was autumn in the North, and the evening was chilly; nor did Anna have particularly warm clothing, and she was thin enough that Trotter sympathized with her in the cold air.
He hesitated. They had not dared to light a fire on the previous nights. Trotter feared that another roving party from Bree might spot them, and they could not count on escaping another such encounter. On the other hand, in this country any smoke would be taken to be coming from a farm or cottage hidden among the hills, and they were all cold and tired. Finally, he nodded.
“We’ll keep it small, though,” he said quickly, “And we need to gather some wood first. That small grove over there would be a good place to start, I think.” He waved vaguely off towards the westward stand of trees.
“Good!” Anna said, “I’m sure I’d freeze if I had to live through another night of cold wind, and the Elfit’s snoring doesn’t help much either.”
“You think I need to sleep?” Bronweg laughed sarcastically, “I’ve been keeping watch over your dreams every night. Last night I had to drive off a dragon too. It wasn’t so hard; he thought he would get a lovely maiden to eat, but when he saw you I think he lost his appetite. You’re lucky to have some one who doesn’t sink into slumber as soon as he stops moving to watch over you.”
“Great!” Trotter said, “If you’re not tired, you can go get some wood for us.”
Bronweg didn’t seemed to mind the idea, and after one more devilish grin at Anna, ran lightly into the falling dark towards the wood.
“Honestly,” Trotter said to Anna, “Must you two carry on like that? He’s really a very tolerable fellow.”
Anna shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said, sounding confused, “Something about him just, well, makes me nervous, and angry. He so, so . . . well, I don’t really know what I want to say!” she finished in a rush. “But he thinks he’s so high above me, with his Elvish knowledge and his tragic wanderings, I just can’t help getting angry!”
“Since when do you care what people think?” Trotter asked softly, “You never seemed to me like a person who would care about others’ opinions. You might not believe me either, but I admire you for it.”
“That’s because everyone has the same opinion of me, and if I let it bother me I should go mad,” Anna answered acidly, “No one else cares about me, and so I don’t care about them. It works out quite well that way for everyone involved. Perhaps I don’t even care about myself, for that matter; perhaps there is no worth in me that any but a fool could see.”
“Actually, I care,” Trotter said, trying to sound nonchalant.
Anna looked at him, and her gaze softened. The two of them stood on the grass in the starlight, a pair of small, shadowy forms that might have been invisible to any passers-by; but they were as clear to one another as if they stood in the light of the Two Trees themselves.
Anna tilted her head back to look at the stars slowly appearing in the sky. She sighed once, long and softly, and it seemed to Trotter that her whole soul was in that sound, gentle and lonely and hidden.
“You care,” she said. Her voice was a whisper like the turning of a leaf in the wind. “Why do you care? You are travelling in secret through danger of death to help people who would kill you and consider it a good deed. You care about me, and about Falathor though he tried to kill you, and about Lomion though he betrayed your home to the Witch-king. Why? We do not deserve it, you know. Anger and despair and arrogance and treachery … we do not deserve the love of some one like you.”
“By those standards I don’t deserve myself,” Trotter snorted, “And love exists to be given. Why do you look for the darkness in yourself? There is much to be seen there, much that is beautiful and joyful as well.”
Anna reached out slowly with one hand. It wavered there in the air between them, that small hand, unsure of what it reached for. She looked as though she might weep, or scream, or both at once.
Trotter caught her hand in his and held it; he could feel her cool skin trembling.
“And what do you see,” Anna asked, “When you look at me?”
He looked at her. She was pale and wreathed in shadow, her hair falling in wild twilit tangles beyond her shoulders, her clothes dark rags, her eyes dark, dark, with only the slightest gleaming of light in them. And as she watched him he felt that she waited for his words as for a pronouncement of doom, as if what he said now would reveal to her the Truth.
He covered her hand with both his own then and answered, smiling.
Then she did not weep, nor scream, but smiled back at him without irony or bitterness, with a simplicity that has no name. They stood there for a moment, hand in hand in a starlit dell, two fugitives who might find rest perhaps only with each other. Then the sound of footsteps came to their ears, running footsteps, and a shout of alarm.
It was Bronweg calling. Startled, Anna dropped Trotter’s hand and turned to stare towards the forest. Trotter gripped the hilt of his sword in sudden alarm, wondering what could have befallen the Elfit. It was not long before he found out.
Bronweg materialized from out of the shadows and stumbled into the dell. He was flushed and looked as if he had been running for quite some time.
“What is it?” Trotter cried, alarmed, “What’s wrong?”
Bronweg stood before him and Anna, panting heavily. He looked frightened, much more so than when they had been hunted by armed riders or when they faced the barrow-wight. Trotter feared to guess what evil thing they had stumbled across now; did the Witch-king somehow know of their errand to the King and seek to hinder them?
“We’ve been found!” the Elfit gasped, “They are coming now!”
“Who?” Trotter and Anna asked loudly at the same time.
Bronweg’s eyes were wide and all the blood had drained out of his face as he answered.
“The Elves!” he cried.