Storm Front - Chapter 6
A young rabbit appeared from its burrow, intent on seeking out its morning meal. The little creature took no heed of the horses as it wandered toward a thick clump of reeds, nibbling contentedly on the plants it passed along the way. The horses watched, ears pressed down, waiting for the inevitable.
The rabbit suddenly lifted its head, staring towards the reeds. With a sudden flurry of movement, it turned and started running back to its burrow. It didn't make three strides before the shadow that had sprung from the reeds was upon it. The horses snorted, tossing their heads wildly as the shadow lifted its head, the rabbit dangling limply from its mouth.
Faye watched as the horses scattered, galloping off into the distance. Sitting back, she drained the rabbit of what little blood it had, growling hungrily. She was started to regret not taking more blood than she had from the men she had slain back at the plantation. In her blind fury, she had not felt her hunger, but only her need to gain revenge upon those that had tormented her. Everything and everyone was an enemy in her eyes now.
But Faye was weak, and a few mouthfuls of mortal and rabbit blood was going to do her little good. She needed more from something large and powerful. One of the horses would have sufficed, but she knew she would not have been able to run one down in her condition. Turning, she looked back the way she had come. She knew a particularly determined was following her--she could see it even now--but for some reason she felt no desire to attack this particular beast. Every time she looked at it, all predatory instinct dulled until she turned away again.
Perhaps it was because the horse had helped her escape. Thought the details were still very fuzzy, Faye remembered how the horse had fought with the overseers, smashing the plow she was harnessed to and allowing her time to pull herself free.
No. . .she hadn't pulled herself free. Another creature had been there, a large bird. The bird had helped to pull the leather harness off her body. Slowly she touched the skin of her shoulder, feeling the scars where the straps had once rubbed it raw. From this side of freedom, Faye was starting to wonder why she had ever allowed herself to sink so low. She had always had strength enough to fight, but what had happened to the desire? She pounded a fist into the soft ground. She just could not remember.
Faye paused. She did remember something. The little boy from the plantation. There was something in his eyes that she had vaguely recognized. His eyes, and the amulet that twisted into the delicate shape of a glistening star. She knew she should remember these things from somewhere, that they were important, but she could not.
"Where did the horses go?"
Faye turned sharply. Two forms had appeared in the mist, a man and a small girl. Anger boiled inside her, and she hissed, her eyes narrowing. How dare they interrupt her thoughts. How dare they exist!
"Papa, what is that noise?" the girl asked, sounding afraid. "It's coming from over there."
Faye knew she had been noticed, but she did not stop growling. She wanted them to come closer.
"Stay here," the man said. "It might be a wolf."
The man began approaching her, a staff raised. Faye crouched low, crawling back into the reeds. There was water here, but she moved silently, crawling with the ease of a cat. The mist was beginning to disappear, but there was still enough to conceal her presence. The man appeared, stopping and crouching over the remains of the rabbit.
"What did this?" he murmured, examining the puncture wounds on its neck.
"Papa, what is it?" the little girl called.
"Stay where you are!" he called back. "There's something here. It must have spooked the horses."
Faye moved closer, her muscles flexing for the pounce. She could feel her mouth watering in anticipation, her eyes sharply focused on the man's throat. One leap, that was all she needed. One hard leap and the man would be hers.
"Who are you?"
Faye stopped. The man was staring right at her, the mist having become too thin to conceal her in the reeds. She looked back at him, seeing no fear in his eyes. He crouched down, attempting to get a better look.
"Who are you?" he repeated. "Are you hurt?"
"Papa!" the girl cried suddenly. "Papa, what's taking so long?"
Faye growled again, stepping out of the reeds, her almost useless left leg dragging slightly before she could shift her weight. The man continued to stare, worry now forming on his features.
"What happened to your leg?" he asked.
He stepped forward, reaching out for her. Faye snarled and swiped at him, her fingernails leaving deep gashes in his outstretched arm. The man yelled in pain, stumbling backward. Faye forced herself to stand, roaring loudly. She dimly heard the little girl scream.
Seconds from pouncing on the injured man, she was suddenly thrown aside, landing with a wet splat onto the water-soaked ground. She turned to face her attacker, fury boiling within her, but she froze when she met gazes with the horse that had been following her, standing now only feet from her, its nostrils flared. It pawed the ground violently, throwing its head and whinnying loudly. As before, the fury burned away almost immediately, and Faye relaxed into a crouch. The man was already moving away, apparently convinced of the danger. She tried to follow, but the horse blocked her path, then kicked out its front legs at her. She growled deeply, but despite the horse's attempts to keep her away from her potential prey, she still did not feel the desire to attack it.
Snarling in exasperation, Faye turned and began to run as fast as she could, bounding across the flooded plains. She heard the horse start to follow again, but she ignored it.
If she could not attack it, the next best thing was to make it lose her trail.
* * * * * *
Arwen sighed as she looked down upon the small village. They were in Rohan now, the eagle having guided them quickly over the expanse of the mountains, and Eowyn seemed happy to be back in her homeland. The eagle was settled on the crest of a low boulder nearby, also looking down at the village. Maida was arguing with Eowyn about who would go down into the village to gather information from the inhabitants.
The crossing of the mountains, though relatively quick, had not been easy. In the high altitudes, the temperatures had plummeted at night, even to the point where the liquid in their water-skins had frozen. For Maida and Arwen, this was of little concern, for Elves had a natural protection from weather extremes. The eagle seemed immune to the weather, and the horses were easily protected by the blankets that were draped over their backs after the saddles were removed.
For Eowyn, however, the cold had been harsh. Sitting as close to the fire as she possibly could without getting burned, Eowyn had been quiet throughout, but Arwen had noticed how pale her skin had turned. Both she and Maida had taken pity on the shieldmaiden, offering her their spare cloaks. All had pulled through the crossing fairly unharmed, and now Arwen sighed as she listened to them argue.
"I know these people," Eowyn protested firmly. "They will answer me when I ask them questions."
"They will recognize you," Maida replied. "There could be a soldier from Edoras down there, and if they see you, they will report your presence to your brother. Nobody in Rohan knows me. My presence will come and go without question."
"Maida has a point," Arwen said quickly, for she could see Eowyn was about to respond. "Eowyn, we cannot afford you being recognized. It'll raise too many questions." She nodded to Maida. "Let her go."
Eowyn glanced coldly at Maida, but the point seemed to have finally sunk in, for she nodded. Maida turned Canassa around and cantered away, soon disappearing into the village. The eagle ruffled its feathers, looking out to the horizon, where the dim outlines of the Misty Mountains were starting to become visible.
"How long have we been journeying?" Arwen asked, looking at Eowyn.
"Little over a week, I'd guess," Eowyn replied. "I cannot see how the menfolk would have been able to follow us over the mountains. I think we are safe from pursuit now."
Bregan lowered his head to nibble at the grass, but Eowyn jerked on the reins, and he straightened up. Arwen smiled. Atego was standing relaxed underneath her, and she guessed he was napping. Bregan snorted, but did not try to eat again.
"How far behind are we?" Eowyn asked suddenly, looking to the horizon.
The eagle ruffled its feathers again, blinking as it glanced at them. A soft warm breeze blew over them, and it unfolded its wings, stretching.
"The flood plains are near here," Eowyn continued, looking to the northwest. "If we keep heading that way, we'll have to cross the Anduin."
"Does Bregan know how to swim?" Arwen asked, smiling slightly.
"He will cross the river whether he knows how or not," Eowyn replied, also starting to smile. Bregan snorted. "I am not worried." She turned her gaze to Arwen, studying her. "I do not think you have anything to worry about either. You'll just float across."
Arwen laughed lightly, rubbing her swollen belly. Atego shook his head and shifted his weight, and she leaned over slightly to pat his neck. She sighed softly, closing her eyes. She would never admit that she had been feeling distinctly uncomfortable for the last few days, but that did not discount her budding worry. What if she did give birth while on this trip? What would she do if something went wrong?
Arwen had no chance to think over these questions, for suddenly she noticed Maida riding towards them, pushing Canassa in a hard gallop. Eowyn and the eagle had also noticed, and all watched her approach eagerly. Maida pulled Canassa to a halt, grinning excitedly.
"Amazing," she breathed. "A father and daughter just returned to the village not an hour ago. The father claims he found a woman hiding in the reeds out on the flood plains, a woman with fangs as long as that of a snake. He claimed she tried to attack him, but a stocky pony drove her away."
"There was a pony at the plantation," Eowyn commented thoughtfully.
Arwen's heart jumped. She looked out to the horizon again, almost expecting to see Faye. The eagle had started to grow restless, eager to resume the journey.
"She ran in that direction," Maida continued, pointing towards the northwest. "Come on. We can't be half a day behind."
The eagle spread its wings and flew off, soaring low overhead. Arwen spurred Atego onward, hope, for the moment, masking her worries. She could hear the hoofbeats of Bregan and Canassa behind her, but her attention was set forward.
Two hours steady ride brought them to the flood plains, an obstacle of knee-deep water, bog, and patches of reeds and water grasses. The horses did not seem heavily deterred, but Arwen kept an extra tight grip on the saddle all the same. The footing was treacherous, and she did not feel like taking an unwarranted fall.
Atego stepped up on to a patch of muddy soil, and Arwen looked down. Her sharp eyes soon spotted a footprint in the soil, and she pulled the horse to a halt.
"Maida! Eowyn!" she called. "Look!"
Her companions quickly gathered around her, the eagle circling around to settle on Arwen's shoulder. They studied the footprint for a moment, then Eowyn looked up at her.
"What about it?" she asked. "This footprint could have been made by anyone."
"No," Arwen replied, shaking her head. "Faye left this."
It may have seemed particularly odd to them that Arwen could recognize Faye's presence by her footprints, but she could. Many years ago, when Faye had been teaching her the finer points of tracking, she had often made Arwen track her through the woods around Rivendell. She had grown to recognize Faye's footprint very well. Time did not erase that knowledge.
"She's been here," Arwen said after explaining this. She looked around, trying to find more evidence of Faye's passing. She soon noticed bent reeds, more footprints, and the general environmental clues that signaled the passing of a large creature. More fast searching revealed hoof prints that had not come from any of their beasts. "The pony is still following her."
The eagle trilled and spread its wings, and Arwen felt the rush of air as it took flight again. She turned Atego in the direction the trail was heading, spurring him into a trot that splashed water onto the hem of her skirt.
"Are you sure she knows where she is going?" she heard Eowyn ask Maida.
"She is the best tracker I know of," Maida replied. "Plus, she knows Faye better than anyone else. If anyone can find her, it's Arwen."
* * * * * *
"No, my King. There hasn't been any word at all."
Aragorn stared at Gandin. He had once again journeyed across Gondor, arriving at Gandin's plantation in hopes of finding out where Arwen had gone. However, if Gandin was to be believed, there had been no sighting of her anywhere in the region.
"I can start a search for her if you wish it," Gandin continued. "If she is seeking the Wild One, I feel your worry for her safety is justified."
Aragorn turned to look at Faramir, who was standing by his side. Legolas and Gimli were behind them. This time, he had ordered Eldarion and Eomala to remain in Minas Tirith.
"I do not know what else we can do to find them," Faramir said, shaking his head grimly.
"Do you think the creature would really hurt them?" Gimli asked gruffly, turning to Legolas. "You said you knew her."
"The Faye I knew was a good and kind woman," Legolas replied. "She loved Arwen and Maida with all her heart, and even called them her daughters. But I did not see her in that creature. I saw a monster." He shook his fair head. "In my heart, I fear for them. I only pray that Faye regains her mind before they catch up with her."
Aragorn frowned, turning back to Gandin. The plantation owner had become much more agreeable since that day, and he could see that the slaves had experienced a drastic improvement in their quality of life. The few children that lived there were no longer working, and Aragorn could see a small group of them playing with a scruffy dog. Gandin followed his line of sight.
"We're trying, my King," he said. "I have seen now the consequences of keeping an unwilling slave in chains." He sighed. "I have never been a friendly man, but it was never my intention to bring anybody so close to death." He turned, and Aragorn gazed into his eyes. He saw remorse there, something he had not seen before. "I am sorry for what happened to your son."
Aragorn nodded, accepting the man's apology. His worry for his wife was driving all other concerns to the back of his head, and he couldn't bring himself to be angry at Gandin for breaking the law. Instead, he turned to him.
"Gather your men and begin the search," he said. "If you find anything, report to me at once."
"Right away, my King," Gandin replied, bowing.
Once Gandin had departed, Faramir cleared his throat.
"I think we should send the word north," he suggested. "Inform Eomer and the Mirkwood Elves."
Though distracted by his thoughts, Aragorn nodded. Sighing heavily, he turned to Legolas and Gimli.
"So we're back to waiting?" Gimli said, sounding disappointed. "That Elf-witch Maida is more trouble than she's worth."