In An Age Before – Part 58
From Tharbad the two ellith made their way southeast, following the Great South Road into Calenardhon by passing the Iách Angren¹ upon 1 Nórui. Thither a few horses only did they spy, and ‘naught of the Drúedain did they mark. Neither had they met any of those descendants of the Men of the Ered Nimrais, now called Dunlendings. These had migrated west into the lands once inhabited by the Enedwaith, who had been for the most part exterminated in the cataclysmic Whelming of Númenórë. Helluin and Beinvír soon marked Angrenost to the north, whereupon four sharp spires rose atop that ribbed and buttressed tower in its sheltered vale ‘neath the steep slopes of Methedras. Upon the trail leading east they found some evidence of errand riders and guard companies of Gondor, yet none did they meet upon that road. Another fortnight and five days did they continue their journey through Anórien, ‘twixt Sîr Onodló² and the Ered Nimrais. Slowly the Hithaeglir fell behind them as they crossed the rolling, open grasslands ‘neath the White Mountains’ shadows. Thankfully, all about them seemed at peace. ¹(Iách Angren, called by Men, The Fords of Isen, Iách(ford) + Angren(Isen) Sindarin) ²(Sîr Onodló, called by Men the River Entwash = Sîr(River) + Onod(Ent) + ló(swamp) Sindarin)
At last, upon 20 Nórui, (June 20th), Helluin and Beinvír came to a narrow, forested valley ‘twixt the range and its outlying hills. They had made their way towards the mountains, crossing the wagon road that ran thither and gaining the upslope. ‘Twas a shortcut they knew from long aforetime when all that land had been under the watch of the Guardians of Lebennin. Thence as evening drew down they repaired to their rest amidst dark and gnarled pines, wherein a watchful stillness lay o’er all as if the wood held its breath. The land lay tense as did Greenwood at times, and ere long Helluin and Beinvír both sensed that they were not alone.
“Feel thou not that someone hath cast their eyes upon thee, meldanya?” Beinvír asked that night as the two ellith sat beside the embers of their fire that glowed from its bed in a shallow trench. Dinner was’t past and the sky o’erhead fully dark.
“I hath indeed felt as one o’erseen,” Helluin agreed, “and that since we crossed yonder wain-road.”
“Yet none hath I marked either upon the road or amongst the trees,” the Green Elf said.
“’Tis surely some kind endowed with a practiced stealth. ‘Tis annoying and familiar. Thou hast felt such aforetime, hast thou not?”
“Indeed so, O Gôrgbu of Drúwaith Iaur.”
Helluin groaned. They had come to the same conclusion. She immediately sought the shadow of every rock, dim ‘neath Ithil’s crescent sheen, piercing them for to see a telltale glint reflected from an inquisitive eye. She spied ‘naught for evidence, nor had she expected to. With a sigh she shook her head and cast the remnants of tea from her cup. Beinvír stilled her own search, convinced of its futility.
“As aforetime, ‘naught shalt we see save by chance should our watcher seek not to be seen,” she said in resignation as she spread her ground cloth of many aardwolf pelts. “I am to my rest,” she announced, setting her bow and quiver near to hand.
The Green Elf curled up ‘neath her bedroll of felted cat hair and retired to her memories of a much earlier trip. Helluin watched o’er her for a while as she waited for the embers to die down, and then took up her own place upon a quilt of scrap pelts, reclining with one eye slitted open and still straining to catch any movement or change in the shadows. She lay with Anguirél’s hilt ‘neath one hand and the Sarchram ‘nigh the other. ‘Twas yet another vigil she would keep, for the thought of being watched while’st not being able to mark the watcher irked her.
Gôrgbu, bah! She thought. I shalt mark thee, O thou pug-faced nuithen laith¹, for none living can’st remain ever still. ¹(nuithen laith, stunted spirit = nuitho-(stunt) + -en(pass past part suff, -ed)+ laith(spirit) Sindarin)
O’erhead Ithil made his was ‘cross the heavens while’st familiar stars kept her company though the dark hours. Still as the mountain rocks lay Helluin, scarcely breathing, yet ever watchful did she remain, slowly scanning the dark night’s vista for some telltale clue to the identify spy whose presence she felt without a doubt.
Now perhaps ‘twas by some trick of the twinkling starlight, perhaps ‘twas a gift of the Lady Elbereth, but some hours ere dawn Helluin suddenly became aware of the presence of not one watcher, but rather a cadre of them. It seemed as though ‘twixt one moment and the next, she was’t able to see them, for suddenly figures, a shade of dark just barely less than the dark about them, became visible. They remained well ‘nigh motionless at first, but as all living things they breathed, they blinked, and ever, they watched. ‘Twas almost as if their expenditure of energy in watching made them paler shadows against their backgrounds. Helluin smiled.
O’er the course of an hour she marked the stealthy movement of one, then the equally stealthy movement of another as all advanced towards the ellith’s camp. Soon Helluin noted that each bore a short bow and had an arrow knocked upon the string. In the night she clasped more tightly Anguirél’s hilt and roused Beinvír.
Some come hither, beloved, the Noldo said silently eye to eye. They advance upon us with stealth and knocked arrows upon their bows much as I would expect of Yrch. Think thou that I should warn them off?
Thou means to cast thither thy Sarchram? I wager thereby shalt we not see ‘aught of them again for an Age save their arrows only.
I shalt await them a pace then, Helluin replied unhappily, but I shalt hail them ere they reach us, for such stalking I shalt not abide unchallenged.
I understand, Beinvír replied, very slowly grasping her bow. Her quiver stood but a hands breadth from her right hand and she could draw, aim, and fire in the blink of an eye.
Now when the stalkers had come ‘nigh and stood but a score of paces off, Helluin indeed challenged them in the Common Tongue, deeming such the most likely speech to be understood. She remained prone, but snapped her eyes open and fixed them upon the target most close ahead.
“Who be ye come silent as thieves to our camp with weapons drawn as if for murder? Answer me, I charge ye!” Blue fire lit her eyes as she pinned thus immobile with her will he who crouched before her.
At her words all the figures froze as one, and for some moments no answer was’t forthcoming. Helluin rose to a seated position and held the Grave Wing ready to cast.
“Answer me!” She demanded again, “or I shalt deem ye foes to be slain.”
At this the figures cast glances to each other and at a nod from one to the right, all sat upon the ground, holding their bows upright beside them. Then the figure who appeared to be the leader slowly set his own bow upon the ground and shuffled forward until he stood but a fathom from the fire, facing Helluin ‘cross its trench. Thither he took a seat, cross-legged upon the ground, and laid his open hands palms down upon his thighs. He was’t in all respects well ‘nigh identical to the Drúadan she had met in Drúwaith Iaur millennia aforetime; squat, flat-faced, thick-bodied, and for the most part bereft of expression. After a moment he spoke poorly in the Common Tongue with a low and grating voice, as if two boulders enchanted had been rubbed together to shed their muteness for the unpracticed art of speech.
“I Ghâr-buri-Ghâr,” he declared, thumping his chest with his open palm. “I lesser headman. Great headman tell do…watch valley,” he said while slowly sweeping an arm out to encompass the land about them. “Ye not of Stone Man’s city. Ye not horse. Ye not gorgûn¹. Bright eyes, like gôrgbu-kind in myth. Who ye? Why here?” He finished with a shrug and a grunt that sounded almost like a belch. ¹(gorgûn, Yrch, see LoTR, RotK, pg129. Drúedainic)
Helluin sighed. These were ‘naught but border guards, it seemed. As in Eriador, apparently several realms coexisted upon the same lands.
“I Helluin Maeg-mórmenel,” she said, thumping her chest, “she Beinvír Laiquende,” she continued, gesturing with a nod of her head to Beinvír. “We come from west and north. We journey south and east after many lives of Men. We seek friends of old in Cities of Stone.” Using the well ‘nigh barbaric Common Tongue was’t wearing upon her patience as if it left a bad taste upon her tongue.
“Ye gôrgbu-kind?” Ghâr-buri-Ghâr asked. His face shifted as if he were trying to raise one end of his heavy brow ridge with its attached eyebrow. Inwardly Helluin groaned.
“I not gôrgbu,” Helluin replied with irritation. “I Elf-kind. She Elf-kind. We live. We real. We breath, eat, thirst as ye do.”
“Unghhhhhhh,” Ghâr-buri-Ghâr mused, affecting a sagacious mien, (much like an ape contemplating his digestion, Helluin thought uncharitably). He hawked and spat to help his concentration, then finally nodded to himself at some decision reached. “Ye go in peace. Ware ye cats.”
With that pearl of wisdom he rose to his feet and gave the two ellith an awkward dip that passed for a bow, and then shuffled back to collect his bow. The other Drúedain also retreated, leaving Helluin and Beinvír alone.
Helluin raised a brow as she looked at her partner. What, pray tell, think thou he meant by his warning against cats?
I hath no idea, the Green Elf replied. She took a quick glance off into the shadows of the pine trees to see if the Drúedain had indeed left, then turned back. Perhaps ‘tis some newborn threat of Sauron’s malice, like unto his wolves, but of felid-kind?
Huh. T’would be not beyond him, I deem, to corrupt thus yet another kindred, may the Valar curse his name. She shook her head. I deem we shalt see soon enough.
Aye, no doubt, Beinvír sighed in resignation. For a moment she saw in her mind’s eye a great hissing cat well ‘nigh the size of a bull, with cruel scimitar’s curving from its upper jaw, a pink tongue dripping blood, and the light of mindless ferocity kindled in its eyes of yellow gold, wherein slitted black pupils opened upon the dark night of death, just like its master. She shivered. At the least it seemed her beloved’s suspicions of their enemy’s recovery were true. She wondered what the following days would bring.
When morning opened they set out again east. ‘Naught of the Drúedain did they see upon the way. The valley wound ‘twixt the slopes of the Ered Nimrais and a pair of steep, outlying hills ere it returned to the main track which curved south leading ‘nigh Mindolluin. Thither in the distance rose the city of Minas Anor, dazzling white in the sun, with the light of mid-morning full upon its walls, kindling a glint of silver, bright upon the spike of the tower. High above in the shimmering air their sight marked the banner of black emblazoned with a white tree in flower ‘neath seven stars, the heraldry of the House of Anárion.
Helluin and Beinvír left the valley behind and walked upon a wide dirt road whereupon the ruts of many wagon wheels ran in two parallel tracks, while’st beside it lay a grassy lane for the passage of riders. Thither at times they saw horsemen galloping, some in the livery of Gondor and some private couriers.
Now the road wound amongst pleasant orchards and farmlands green with crops. ‘Twas a bountiful land and much as they remembered, for it seemed little changed save that perhaps the trees and vines were older and more laden with fruit, and more homesteads stood in the hamlets off the road. All signs reported prosperity and this gladdened their hearts. Indeed the closer they trod to the cities, the more frequent traffic became.
‘Twas after an hour’s walk that they came to a crossroads whereat one way led west to Minas Arnor and the other east to Osgiliath upon Anduin. The road continued on straight as well, leading thence towards the southern fiefs, to Pelargir and Belfalas. Upon that way the track wound beside the great river, following its curve west about Emyn Arnen ere it swung back east and made its way at last down to the sea. The Elves turned east, towards Osgiliath, wherein the Dome of Stars was’t just visible amidst the towers and bridges of the city.
Now upon their trek thither, Helluin found herself helpless to ignore the memory of her ignominious arrival in the city aforetime, and her flight while’st a captive of Thorondor. Stupid buzzard, she thought, save for his meddling I should hath thrown down the Enemy once and for all. Thence this realm and all others should know peace. Verily I deem his wisdom proceeds from an addled egg. She huffed as she walked, while’st beside her Beinvír regarded her askance, unsure of the germ of her mood.
Helluin’s mood was’t no less dour when the two came upon a pair of soldiers of Gondor making their way from Osgiliath to Minas Anor. The Men were arguing in barely hushed tones which nevertheless came clearly to the Elves’ sharp ears.
“’Twas surely some slip of thy tongue as hast consigned us thither to stand guard upon yonder walls for a fortnight,” the taller of the two carped. He hefted his pack higher upon his stiff shoulders and fixed his companion with a bloodshot and scathing glance. The network of capillaries lacing his nose shone out against the pallor of his complexion.
“Nay, Glavrol¹,” the shorter Man replied. “No word hast passed my lips reporting thy snacking and thy drinking. Search elsewhere for thy culprit. Indeed I am saddled with guilt as art thou, and yet more unfairly, for I partook not.” ¹(glavrol(babbling) Sindarin)
“Bah! So thou say, Basthent¹. Yet if not from thou, then wherefrom came the Queen’s suspicions? None save thou was’t rationing from the casks upon the night watch at our company’s mess. Mayhaps thou too was’t besotted and through lips thus loosened spoke rash? I deem it just so.” Glavrol had stopped in his tracks and turned to face his comrade. ¹(Basthent, Shortbread = (bas(t)(bread) + thent(short) Sindarin)
The shorter Man had stopped now as well and faced his fellow soldier. His irritation at accusations heard aforetime was’t obvious to see upon his reddened face. He let fall his own pack and placed his hands upon his hips.
“And I should say thine own lips hath wagged, incriminating us both; thou rightly and I needlessly. If either of us hath been wronged, ‘tis I by thee, Glavrol. Thou can’st stay not thy hand from the wine even while’st upon duty. Now to thither walls we art both bound, and I should hath been the happier serving aboard ship!” He groaned and turned sharply back to the city, shaking his head and hoisting again his pack. His turn brought him ‘nigh face to face with Helluin and he halted abruptly to avoid a collision as did she. Neither were happy about it and grimaced at each other ere civility ruled them.
“Thy pardon, noble warrior,” Basthent said with a slight dip of his head after noting the long scabbard showing ‘neath her cloak.
“Thy pardon, good soldier of Gondor,” Helluin replied with equal deference.
Both took a half step to their right giving each other ample room to pass, and in so doing, Basthent espied the tip of a pointed ear amidst the inky fall of Helluin’s hair. Elves, he thought in shock, and ‘naught of the Elder kindred hath been seen in the southern kingdom in many lives of Men. Whence…? He was’t about to speak and all would hath been well save for the following discourteous comment from Glavrol.
“Basthent, thou conduct thyself ever as a milquetoast, yielding the way to such beggarly types. I deem thy spine be of soft leather and fit only for thy duty in the larder, indeed not even worthy of assignment to the walls of yonder tower in time of peace.”
“Peace, soldier of Gondor,” Beinvír said. She stood to Helluin’s right and therefore before Glavrol’s path. “Upbraid not thy companion for offering his fair words. They reflect goodly upon his character. Ever of old were the lords Isildur and Anárion courteous to us, and none questioned their courage.”
For a moment the tall soldier’s face registered shock at being lectured thus by what he took to be a lowborn young rustic of Calenardhon. The Green Elf was’t as ever cloaked in a patchwork cloak of mixed greens, a bow and quiver o’er her shoulder and worn boots upon her feet. She stood barely to his chin. He marked not that she was’t of the Eldar kindred, noting only her apparent youth and wild, travel smudged beauty. Then his expression turned to disbelief and dismissal as he reviewed her words. The founding rulers of the southern realm had died long ago.
“Not a beggar only, but mad as well I deem thee, little ragamuffin,” Glavrol sneered. “Isildur and Anárion art dead ‘nigh 870 years and none can know ‘aught of them save what is learnt from lore.” He gestured to Basthent with his thumb, saying, “While’st he hast ever been weak-willed and book-bound, thou art ‘naught but impudent. Now get thee hence from my way!”
He strode forward as if to force the Green Elf to yield to avoid being thrust aside.
“Be thee ware, Húchwest¹,” Helluin warned in a cold voice as he came abreast of her. Her words were loud enough for his ears alone, but bone-chilling with menace. “She hast seen more years than thy kingdom and Númenor before it.” ¹(húchwest, dog breath = hú(dog) + chwest(breath) Sindarin)
The soldier jerked to a halt and spun to face the dark Noldo, but looking thence into her eyes he was’t captured and constrained by Helluin’s will. Thither lay blue wells of ancientry and power such as could drown a mortal spirit, wherein ghostly flames of sapphire flickered, barely to be seen. All thought fled him in that moment and he was’t as one enthralled. Basthent watched wide-eyed. Thence Helluin assailed Glavrol’s mind with a short scene that her beloved had shown her long before.
From high upon the twisting stair that climbed the Ephel Duath ere it made its accursed way down to Mordor, the Green Elf loosed a flaming arrow and it heralded the flight of scores of others as it sped towards the breaking of the gates of Minas Ithil ‘neath the ram of Gondor. Fire and carnage and slaughter Helluin showed him, just as Beinvír had shown her. Thither had 30,000 of the enemy been put to the sword.
The whole exchange lasted but heartbeats and would hath gone unnoticed by most, but not by Basthent who stood ‘nigh. He stared at the frozen pair as they stood facing each other, immobile upon the road, and his eyes were clear and sharp. Then Helluin blinked, extinguishing the light of her eyes, and Glavrol swayed and shook himself, but now his complexion was’t ashen and damp from the horror of the violence he had seen. He stood in a daze, breathing fast and shallow as one stricken by nausea, while’st Beinvír walked ‘round him to Helluin’s other side.
“By Berúthiel’s cats…” the tall soldier choked out, shuddering.
Long he stood thither and long Basthent watched him, but his thoughtful glance strayed also to the two figures walking away from them towards Osgiliath. For a moment as she’d passed, he’d glimpsed black mail and a bright Ring at the taller warrior’s side ‘neath her ragged cloak. Familiar it seemed to him somehow, as some bit of lore from a childhood fairytale learnt and forgotten, but try as he might, he couldn’t place it. And yet, being gifted with dogged persistence in the face of a mystery, he would brood upon it in his idle moments until he understood just what he had seen.
“What made thou of his words,” Beinvír asked Helluin when they were out of earshot.
“I deem him full willing to provoke his own death o’er a trifle,” Helluin said grimly.
“Nay. I meant that which he said last …about Berúthiel’s cats.”
“Who is Berúthiel, pray tell?”
“I know not, Helluin. A figure of myth or lore perhaps? I wager someone in the city may tell us. I shalt certainly make it a point to ask.”
Helluin nodded at this. Ever did the Green Elf collect stories and folklore from those they met in their travels. Oft aforetime such knowledge had stood them in good stead.