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The caterpillar inched towards him with a total disregard of the foul creatures searching the woodland below the spreading branches. He watched it, remaining motionless and hoping against hope that it would decide to stop before it reached him. Brown-tail moth, he thought resentfully. It would be – and the things came in colonies, so where there was one, there were likely to be hundreds. And merely breathing in the hairs was enough to cause problems. But if he brushed this one off the branch … orcs were stupid, but not that stupid. Even a single caterpillar could draw their attention to the trees and, if they found him here, he was dead.
A harsh-voiced exchange of words distressingly close to his hiding place sounded likely to escalate into blows and he seized the opportunity to flick the black and red creature away. At the best of times, it was hard for anyone not to look at those who seemed likely to be at each other’s throats – and he would hardly call this the best of times. Not for him, certainly, but not for the orcs seeking him, either. For some reason, they seemed to be searching with an almost obsessive dedication – one that he might admire more were he not its object. Their leader was taller than most, and not above making an example of anyone who displeased it. Of course, that redoubled the underlings’ desperation to please it – while, at the same time, it made their quarry even more reluctant, were that possible, to fall into their hands.
The man calmed his breathing and remained motionless on the broad branch. He doubted it they could smell him. He doubted, in truth, if they could smell anything other than their own sour stench, but he had no wish to challenge this belief. Keep calm and he was less likely to give off the odour of a prey animal, trapped where he could be tormented and weakened into eventual surrender. Eventually they would move on. They knew enough to be sure that trees would not hide the Secondborn – and that deluded certainty might just be enough to give him the edge.
His injured calf began to ache and he was finding it increasingly difficult to remain still. He closed his eyes briefly, seeking the stillness inside him and reminding himself that pain was nothing more than a phantom of the brain, designed to offer warning. He tried sending a deliberate message to his leg, assuring it he would deal with the matter as soon as he could, but the attempt tickled his sense of the ridiculous and he was hard put not to laugh.
The snarling conversation ended in a blow and the tree trembled faintly as a bulky body cracked into the solid trunk. He hoped the orc had not been incapacitated and that it would be able to drag itself to its feet to follow its leader along the trail he had so carefully laid out for them. Either that or that it had been killed. An injured orc keen to reinstate itself in its leader’s good graces would not be the best of companions right now.
He had managed to reduce the odds against him. A party of fifteen had been cut down to a mere seven – but that was seven more than he felt he could deal with right now … And he was out of arrows, and he doubted if he could stand long enough to make much impression with his sword. Surprise would be his best tactic – and how could he possibly surprise seven of them long enough to effect any real damage?
Dropping his head, he listened as he had been taught – as he had learned over the years – searching out the sounds of the forest to discover what was moving and what still hid from the unwelcome visitors. The birds had started to stir, but those creatures that walked the forest floor were still notable for their absence. He leaned his head on his arm. He would give it a little longer before he left this refuge. His pursuers were likely to take shelter once the sun rose above the trees – and he could not go on any longer without a brief rest.
He jerked awake to feel a firm hand on his back as he both remembered why he needed to be cautious in his movement and began simultaneously to slide from the branch. A pain-filled scrambling wrapped his legs round his support and his stiff arms clutched the ridged bark as he steadied his breathing. Fortunately, he thought, remaining in the tree had taken his attention, and, by the time he was able to seek one of the razor-edged knives he carried, he was awake enough to be aware that the hand on his back belonged to an elf – and that reaching for a weapon would be, at the very least, unwise.
‘Very sensible, mortal,’ a voice said in slow but unaccented Westron. ‘We do not appreciate finding intruders in our woods – particularly not intruders who arrive with a party of orcs in pursuit. Orcs they then guide towards our villages.’
The man attempted a glance over his shoulder to see who pinned him down, but he could not catch more than an impression of dark hair and pale skin. ‘It was not my intention,’ he gasped.
Above him, now that he seemed less likely to slip from his perch, the elf eased off the pressure on the man’s back. There was no point in inhibiting the mortal’s ability to breathe. The elf could not but be intrigued by how at ease his … guest … appeared to be in the presence of the rather hostile patrol, many of whom were fingering their blades warily.
The man switched to an oddly-accented Sindarin – a language with which he seemed more familiar than his captor was with Westron. ‘I hope my attempts to evade the creatures have not placed anyone in danger.’
‘No.’ The elf gazed at him curiously. ‘We have … eliminated any threat.’ The man endured his inspection as one accustomed to the penetrating stare of elves. ‘You are hurt.’ It was not a question.
‘Not badly. I will soon recover now that I am no longer trying to run.’
‘Perhaps you should leave the tree’s shelter and let us judge that.’
The man moved stiffly to sit up as the elf stepped back. ‘As you wish,’ he said, flexing his back and trying to ease the ache in his limbs. He really did not wish to fall out of a tree under the amused eyes of a party of elves. Although it would, of course, reduce the tension considerably, he was high enough above the ground that the effects were likely to prove serious. He eased himself from branch to branch rather more cautiously than the elf, but confidently enough to make the elf raise a supercilious eyebrow, before making a rather awkward landing as he attempted to keep his weight off his injured leg.
One of the waiting elves obeyed his leader’s gesture and collected a neatly-tied pack, which he opened to reveal a collection of bandages and ointments, together with packages of what smelled like dried herbs and powders. He approached the man cautiously, much as he might an injured wolf that might turn and bite him at any moment.
The man grinned and bent forward to bare the wound on his calf, picking the knot loose and unwinding the wrapping to reveal a dressing coated with the remnants of an astringent-smelling paste. ‘Arrow wound,’ he said. ‘Not poisoned, Valar be thanked, and not deep, or I would not be here. I cut the head out and spread it with a marigold ointment.’
The young-seeming elf sniffed it and looked at him dubiously before turning to his captain. ‘It is clean,’ he said. ‘No sign of infection, but he needs rest to if the flesh is to knit properly.’
‘You appear to have some skill in treating injury.’ The leader addressed the man directly.
‘My captain insists.’ He shrugged. ‘He takes losing men to infection as a personal insult. I have heard him on the subject often enough to make sure of carrying a few things, even though I would much rather not have to use them.’
‘If your captain is so careful with his men, what are you doing here in the first place?’ the elf asked. ‘Only a fool travels alone in days such as these – and you do not look to be a fool.’
The man flicked a swift glance at him. ‘Needs must,’ he said uninformatively.
‘But if those needs drive you into our territory,’ the elf said pleasantly enough, ‘you must expect to be interrogated on them.’
‘Fifteen orcs and a dead horse do not count as extenuating circumstances?’
The elf folded his arms and the man debated with himself. Imparting information to anyone went against the grain – but he had no desire to waste time in a diversion to face less amiable enquiries. ‘Mithrandir – do you know Mithrandir?’ He stopped and stared at the elf in authority until a brief nod acknowledged acquaintance with the bearded wanderer. ‘He came upon my captain and me as we were heading home and …’ he grinned wryly. ‘If you know Mithrandir at all, you know how high-handed he can be. He stopped us and demanded that my captain follow him – at once, offering no answers that made any sense to me – and commanded me to act as his messenger.’ He met the elf’s eyes and held them. ‘I was headed for Rhosgobel,’ he said.
The elf raised a slow eyebrow and looked down his nose at the mortal. ‘Your message?’ he demanded.
‘In here.’ The man tapped his forehead. ‘And meaningless to anybody but the one for whom it is intended, if you ask me.’ He shook his head. ‘Mithrandir may be a lot of things,’ he said, ‘but he is not going to commit to paper anything that might offer assistance to his enemies.’
‘Mithrandir,’ the elf pronounced, exasperated, ‘is far too good at manoeuvring all those around him into doing his bidding – whether they will or no.’
‘I picked up my escort no more that a day or two after parting from Mithrandir and my captain,’ the man said. ‘And was fairly sure who it was the orcs were seeking. I did my best to lead them away – and then to lose them, but …’ He shrugged. ‘They were determined. More determined by far than orcs usually are.’
Cool grey eyes judged the man. ‘I am surprised you coped as well as you did.’
‘Perhaps you underestimate me,’ the man said. ‘Perhaps you underestimate men as a whole.’
‘Your accent is atrocious,’ the elf complained.
‘Where you come from, maybe! My friends would say the same of yours.’ The man smiled slightly. ‘If you are reduced to carping about my pronunciation, can I take it that you have decided I am no threat?’
‘Please!’ The elf held up a slender hand and looked pained. ‘One man in the midst of a patrol of elven warriors? You never were a threat!’
The man’s grin tightened, but he remained silent. Elves were undoubtedly arrogant – but those he knew had reason for their confidence, and, most likely, these were no different.
‘Imladris?’ the elf asked suddenly.
‘I have been there,’ the man granted.
The elf nodded, as if he had made connections between thoughts that the man preferred to remain … separate. ‘We will escort you to Rhosgobel,’ he said.
His immediate reaction was to protest, but he clamped his mouth shut before his objections voiced themselves. ‘My thanks,’ he said stiffly.
The elf was undoubtedly amused – which made it worse. ‘We have no spare horses,’ he said, ‘but you may ride with one of us. The wizard might persuade one of his creatures to carry you home – I can make no promises.’
‘My daughter will mourn Gruin’s passing,’ he winced, reminded of his mount’s fate. ‘She was fond of the gelding – and she had known him since she was first able to walk.’
The elf blinked. ‘She would doubtless have missed her adar more.’
He paused. ‘Aye, you are right there.’ The man sighed. ‘Although every return home presages another parting.’
‘You sound … most philosophical.’
The man smiled wryly. ‘Too much time spent among your kind, elf,’ he said. ‘I shall fight against it.’ Again, he had the impression that the elf was dredging long-buried information from his memory and piecing it together. Wrongly, in all likelihood – but if the warrior failed to mention his conclusions, the man could scarcely tell him of his errors. He finished applying the goldenseal paste the makeshift healer had offered and put a clean dressing on the wound before binding it in place.
A tremor in the ground and a stirring of the trees suggested that some of the missing patrol members were returning with horses they generally left to graze some considerable distance from their own activities – a swift arrival that suggested that, although their leader appeared to have accepted the mortal’s presence, they would not mind handing him over to someone else’s authority as swiftly as possible. None of his party questioned the elf’s decision, though – not even the one whose eyes were everywhere except on the man sitting among them.
He recognised that role immediately – and warmed towards the watcher. The risk did not come from the danger you could see – the man knew that, should he be so foolish as to go for his weapons, the warriors around him would be jostling for space to eliminate the threat he posed. The greater peril came from behind, while your attention was elsewhere. The elves’ leader showed an implicit trust in his guardian, too. The sort of trust that came from years of relying on each other and knowing each other’s every move.
‘Come,’ the elf commanded. ‘You will ride with Edennil.’
The reluctant healer glanced reproachfully in his leader’s direction, but came to help the man to his feet. ‘She will be skittish,’ he said. ‘She does not like men.’
‘Has she ever met one?’ the man asked.
The elf sighed as he offered the man his hand to help him mount. ‘She has now,’ he said. ‘She is unimpressed.’
It was so easy, the man sighed. The forest went out of its way to facilitate their passage – and a dozen mounted, armed and dangerous elves had little to worry about at any rate. Although, he noticed, the captain ensured that his scouts fanned out to travel ahead and watch for anything that might be out of place – clearly believing that suspicion was a much safer state of mind than cheerful optimism.
He could, he thought, come to like these elves.
Not that he had anything against the elves of Imladris. They had, after all, offered centuries of support to his people. But … He sought to pin down his feelings, but could come no closer than to decide that these elves were more … real. Closer to the things that mattered to him. Less … perfect.
As they stopped to eat and he rested his aching body – what did they have against saddles? – he watched the leader circulating to talk to each of his patrol. Offering a touch on the shoulder, a smile, an intent ear. Good captains were good captains, whether they were men or elves. Or dwarves, he supposed, or whatever else might gather groups of warriors together to defend what was theirs against the encroaching evil.
‘Tomorrow,’ the elf said in his ear.
He did not jump. Elrond’s sons had trained him out of that when he was still young enough to care about being embarrassed in front of them. ‘I thank you for your aid,’ he said.
‘Although you would rather have managed your task without it.’
He shrugged. ‘Well …’ he grinned ruefully. ‘Would you not feel the same way?’
‘I would doubtless show more resentment than you have,’ the elf admitted.
‘Getting the task done, that is the important thing. And if we need the help of our allies along the way …’ The man stopped. ‘Well …’ he said again.
‘The message?’ the elf prodded.
‘If the wizard wants you to know, he will tell you.’
‘At least we will be there to remind him of the wisdom of sharing information.’
‘And the Grey Pilgrim has business with your captain,’ the elf mused. ‘Business he did not want to share with you.’
The man remained silent. He was now long past the colourful and foul-tempered mutterings that had made his horse twitch his ears nervously as he left his captain in the care of one whose motives did not appear to include keeping safe one whose line stretched unbroken to Númenor and beyond.
‘I will be sending a report,’ the elf warned.
‘Reports,’ the man said in disgust. ‘They give an occupation to those who are reluctant to take the risks involved in being where it counts.’
‘I will be sure to tell my brother your feelings on the matter.’ The elf kept his face completely impassive, but the man could not miss the spark of amusement in his eyes. ‘I am sure he will appreciate the message.’ He looked round the camp, taking in the quiet efficiency of the organisation. ‘Meanwhile – eat. Sleep. We will be safe enough here. The wizard keeps most evil away from his home, even if he can do little to banish it altogether.’
Loud birdsong roused the man even before the steel-grey of the dawn sky began to lighten. He blinked himself awake to see the trees around the glade full of little birds, all of them gossiping excitedly until small flocks took off to disappear into the woods.
‘We are expected,’ the elf said.
‘Have you been sitting there all night?’ the man snapped. ‘Do you have nothing better to do?’
‘Than keep an eye on a heavily-armed intruder with a secret mission? No.’
The man rubbed his hands over his face and scratched his beard. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I am not good in the mornings. And,’ he yawned, ‘the morning is very young.’
‘Take your time in readying yourself.’ The elf rose. ‘We will eat before we leave. I daresay you would prefer our offerings to the wizard’s. He is too fond of his creatures to eat any of them.’
The wood became greener – and its inhabitants noisier – as they approached the wizard’s domain. Even deer, cautious as they were, merely paused in their feeding to inspect the passage of elves in the company of one man.
‘We do not hunt here.’ The elf remained close to the man, clearly determined to ensure that he heard the message as it was spoken. ‘And the creatures know it.’
‘He has power, then, this wizard.’
‘Of a sort.’ The elf looked round. ‘He takes little notice of those he feels can care for themselves, but prefers to protect the … disregarded.’
The wizard was waiting for them at the entrance to his small dwelling. He seemed – simple. One who was content to dwell in this remote spot and let the world pass him by – but his eyes were as intelligent as they were kind. He nodded at the elves, but his attention was focused on the man. ‘My brother sent you?’ he asked.
The man swung down from his position behind the elf and limped over, the elf at his shoulder. ‘Mithrandir is your brother?’
‘In the ways that count.’ The wizard smiled at the warriors’ leader and shook his head in mild disapproval at his proximity to the man, but did not tell him to leave. Instead, he took the man’s chin in his work-worn hand and looked in his eyes, gazing intently as if reading something important. ‘Is he expecting you to bear him my answer?’ he asked finally.
As the man lifted his shoulders, the wizard’s smile widened. ‘No matter,’ he said, dismissing the enquiry. ‘My friends will find him.’ He looked from one to the other, his eyes bright and enquiring, but he refused to elaborate. ‘Remain here until you are healed, my friend.’ He spoke gently, but his words were nonetheless a command. ‘You are welcome among us.’
‘In your head?’ the elf said indignantly as they stepped back.
The man shrugged. ‘What you do not know, you cannot tell,’ he said. ‘I have no idea what was important enough to drag me so far from my own lands – so I am afraid I cannot help you.’
Grey eyes stared at him reproachfully. ‘And I doubt the wizard will tell me. I would have been better keeping my patrol on our planned schedule – we will be hard-pushed, now, to make up the time.’
‘My apologies.’ The man sighed. ‘You have your revenge – it will take me months to get home without my horse. Longer, if I am dodging orcs all the way.’
‘You could come north with us – meet the brother with the taste for full reports,’ the elf proposed, his eyes following the path of a hawk as it flew north-east, its passage intimidating the small birds beneath it to silence. The message – whichever parts of it Mithrandir wished spread – would be with Thranduil before dusk. ‘He would see you mounted for your journey home. It would save you more time than it took.’
The man considered the suggestion briefly. ‘No,’ he decided. ‘Better to head west along the Old Forest Road. And I can keep out of sight more certainly on foot – which might be as well in the long run.’
‘We will leave you then, Dúnadan,’ the elf said. He turned and offered a respectful bow to the wizard, who raised a hand in silent farewell. ‘It has been … interesting.’ He smiled suddenly. ‘Irritating,’ he added, ‘but interesting. Next time you visit,’ he suggested, ‘you might, perhaps, leave the escort behind.’
‘I doubt I will be back.’ The man looked the captain over. ‘But … I will not forget you, elf.’
The elf’s smile widened. ‘Nor I you,’ he said. He looked at the man for a final moment before springing on his horse and leading the way back into the trees. Within a few moments, all sign of the party had gone, and there was nothing to be heard but the chirruping of the birds and the whisper of a curious wind in the trees.
The man sighed. He was accustomed, these days, to solitude, to labouring through an indifferent wild in the service of his captain and his people, but … It had been good, for a brief while, to be in the company of others whose similarities to himself seemed, in a way, to outweigh their differences. But it could not, of course, last.
He turned away to inspect the domain of this lesser-known brother to Mithrandir and begin an attempt to discover just what the subtle sharpness of his scrutiny portended. Then, he determined, no matter what difficulties wizards might put in his way, he was going to find his captain and do his best to take him home – before his people forgot what he looked like. The man squared his shoulders and stepped forward. Duty – as it always did – called.
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