To Overcome the Shadow - Chapter 7 -- Stowaways
The day of departure arrived. Two hooded and cloaked figures carrying knapsacks crept through the gray light of morning. Slipping into the stables, they held a whispered conference in a dark corner before heading towards the back of the barn. Two male elves named Falchion and Arnel were busy feeding the horses. Two knocks on the head later the elves were on the ground. The girls threw back their hoods and dragged the senseless victims into a nearby feed room. Binding and gagging the male elves, they propped them up in a corner and moved some bags of feed in front of them.
"They should be found in a few days," Ninque whispered, closing and snapping the padlock usually kept on the door. Some of the more hungry horses had been known to escape their stalls and break into the feed room before.
"Thankfully we timed it right," Tanie said. "They had just finished feeding." Ninque removed her ring from its chain and slipped it on her finger. A few moments later, two male elves left the stables, leading their tacked and ready horses. They passed others of the company heading to tack up their own steeds.
"Horses all fed?" one asked as he passed.
"We must stay close." she whispered urgently to Tanie as they made their way to the courtyard. "Get too far from the ring and it gets harder to stand up against wills as strong as I will be facing."
Tanie nodded slightly. The girls entered the courtyard and stood by their mounts impatiently, wanting to get on the road and see their deception on its way to completion. Finally, all the company was mounted and ready when the twins and Legolas finally rode into the yard. As Elrohir swept his eyes over the company, Tanie gave a small gasp and turned her head, averting her eyes from his gaze. Ninque kept her face straight ahead. Even now she could feel his strong will, sweeping over her, sensing for anything out of place. Apparently he suspected some trickery since the girls had not showed up to wish them farewell. Ninque glanced over at her friend. Tanie was shifting nervously. Her hands were visibly shaking.
"Easy, mellon nín. Calm down. Look up before he suspects anything." Ninque whispered encouragingly. Tanie raised her eyes slowly. The twins and Legolas passed on and rode out the gate, followed by the elven company. Both she-elves let out sighs of relief. They had done it. The first hurdle had been overcome.
They rode at an easy pace, stopping whenever darkness fell, and rising with the Sun. As the miles increased between them and home, so did their confidence. Tanie was still getting used to the idea that she was a male elf. She almost yelped in surprise whenever she heard herself talking in the deep, masculine voice belonging to Arnel, and she tried to avoid the twins' gazes as much as possible, which was quite hard as there were only a dozen elves in the company.
"Falchion! Arnel!" a voice rang out. Both elves turned and looked at the group gathered around the fire. It was the third night into the journey. The land was starting to slope upwards into the Hithaeglir. "Come over here and join the fellowship!" Falchion and Arnel silently joined their comrades around the fire. The group was laughing uproariously at a story Egladhon had just finished telling. The same elf addressed them again as they made their way to empty places around the fire.
"Arnel, have you any tales worth telling? You always seem to end up in the most amusing situations!" Arnel shifted nervously.
"Well, I don't know any..." his excuses were drowned out in the exclamation of encouragement. "Very well! I suppose it is customary for you children to need a bed time story while away from your nenith*!" said Arnel, rolling his eyes. Sporadic laughter was heard throughout the group, along with a few comments on the rather young age of Arnel himself. He shifted around until he found a comfortable position.
"This is a true story of a certain elf, who will remain anonymous for now, and his experience with two cunning she-elves and their pursuit of revenge." Snickers passed throughout the audience as they nudged each other and nodded at poor Legolas.
"Oh, no!" he exclaimed. "No one needs to hear that story again!"
"I have never heard it!" a younger member of the company piped up. This was his first expedition.
"Now, see, Legolas!" Arnel continued, gesturing towards the youngster. "We should never deprive the younger generation of such traditional practices as fire-side storytelling! What would happen to the elven culture if we did not pass on our vast knowledge of stories and tales that instruct and instill wisdom to our future warriors?"
"Many a rumour and exaggeration would be put to death." Legolas answered sulkily, quite aware he had lost the argument.
"Now," Arnel began, "as I was saying, this elf was staying as an honoured guest here in Imladris on an errand from his father. He was a handsome fellow, smart, quick-witted, almost...prince-like in fact..." More snickers. A glare from Legolas. He considered leaving the group to their fun and retiring, but he knew that would only give them something else to tease him about tomorrow. "This prince had made the mistake of setting his wits against two of the most dangerous she-elves in all the land. The day after a most successful prank on one of them, princeling woke up, just like any other day, and went to join the young lords of Imladris, Elrohir and Elladan, for breakfast, just like any other day. Yet as he made his regal way through the many halls and passageways, he noticed that his presence was having a rather strange effect on the elves he was passing."
Grins spread on every face. Legolas rolled his eyes and rested his chin on his hands.
"She-elves would gasp and giggle, and the male elves would smile broadly and avoid his gaze. Being the somewhat naïve person he sometimes was, he merely assumed that everyone was delighted at his staying at Imladris for a time. As he neared the Hall of Fire, the looks of embarrassed glee continued, giving him a very strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. Finally, he ran into Elladan, who was just exiting his father's study. `Elladan! I have had the strangest morning! I have never seen so many people so joyful at my presence!' Elladan started as if he did not recognize the prince. Then a huge grin spread across his face."
A few elves, unable to contain their mirth, let loose a few lusty guffaws at the anticipated punch line.
" `Perhaps, mellon nín, I can unravel the mystery for you.' Elladan answered with a grin. Leading the prince to a nearby mirror, the twin pointed at his reflection. The prince's mouth hung open as he observed an almost unrecognizable face staring back at him! Black paint was plastered all over his right eye, giving the appearance of a huge shiner. A delicate mustache and beard covered his lower face and chin. A grimace revealed a few of his pearly whites blacked out. `Well, Legolas,' Elladan remarked. `It seems you have been given a make-over. As a badly beaten mortal.'"
The company rolled with laughter, pointing at the sour face of Legolas. After totally expelling their glee, the elves wiped their eyes, took a drink from their wine flasks, and began to tease each other as well about various things, including she-elves. Ninque joined in as best as she could, but Tanie clearly was in her element. They laughed along with everyone else and even threw a comment in here and there. After a while Ninque began to relax.
"Well, I've always wanted to know what hunting parties are like," thought Ninque. "Now I get to see first hand." Suddenly, her laughter quieted as she heard Arodion speak to Elladan.
"So, Elladan, speaking of the cunning Ninquetolliel, has she fallen for your charms yet? It seems as though she would be a difficult maiden to woo! Though she is a pretty little thing."
"What do you mean?" asked Elladan with a frown.
"Oh come, Elladan! Do not deny it! Ninquetolliel has captured your fancy. You even carried her to bed the other night!" he replied.
"Ninque is a dear friend, Arodion. Nothing more," said Elladan somewhat sharply.
"Nay," said Egladhon, nudging Legolas with his elbow, "I believe it is Legolas, not Elladan, who is quite taken with the fiery little maiden. Did you tame her when you locked yourselves in her room, Prince?"
Legolas threw him an annoyed look and opened his mouth to speak when Elladan cut in angrily. "I will not have you taint Ninquetolliel's honor, Egladhon! She is a noble lady and deserves your respect!"
"Forgive me, Elladan. I should not have said such things," he replied, somewhat abashed at the twin's response.
The company was silent. Elrohir thought Falchion's eyes glimmered strangely as the young elf stared at Elladan. "Perhaps it is just the firelight," he thought. Aloud he spoke, "We should all rest. Falchion and I will take first watch."
Ninque sat beside Elrohir, their backs to the fire. Both were hooded and cloaked, as it was a cool night. Elrohir sat silently, watching Falchion out of the corner of his eye. Falchion sat very still, only the slight rise and fall of his chest betraying his being alive. Suddenly, Elrohir heard him begin to sing softly to himself. It was the Fall of Gil-galad, sung by Ninque only six days earlier.
"You know that song?"
Falchion stopped and shifted. "It was sung at the last Feast, was it not?"
"Yes." Elrohir said slowly. "By Ninquetolliel."
Falchion shrugged. "It is nigh impossible to keep track of every she-elf in Imladris."
Elrohir gave a low laugh in agreement. "But did you not leave early with your brother to tend to the horses?" he asked, throwing a keen glance at Falchion.
Ninque's heart stopped, her mind working quickly. Then she laughed. "What? Am I on trial here, Elrohir? You know as well as I do how songs are continually circulated throughout Imladris! Especially when the performers are as gifted as Ninque and Tanie!" Falchion paused. "Or so I have heard." He added hurriedly.
"Indeed." Elrohir replied, still staring at his companion. Ninque mentally kicked herself. She sat quietly for several minutes, then got up and added some more wood to the fire. Elrohir dropt his eyes to the ground and rubbed his temples. Why did Falchion's actions lately make him feel so...uneasy? He finally attributed it to his weariness of the road. He was feeling a rather strange longing for home, or rather, for someone at home.
After several minutes of silence, Ninque decided to take advantage of being a fellow male companion. "Your brother seems to have a fancy towards Ninque. But what about you? Has any maiden yet caught your eye?" Elrohir looked at Falchion.
"Perhaps." He answered cautiously. "But what of yourself? I hardly heard your usually active voice tonight. Has the boisterous master of flirtation finally become mature enough to accept marital responsibility?" Ninque was treading on dangerous ground and she immediately regretted her curiosity.
"Do not speak to me of responsibility, Elrohir." Falchion accused. "This is your first real journey in two years! How you have managed to get out of so many scouting parties I will never know." Elrohir did not answer. The second watch came to replace them and Ninque hurried to her bed before Elrohir could continue the conversation.
"Tanie, are you awake?" she asked, her voice barely rising below a whisper.
"I think Elrohir suspects something."
"But how? He does not know of the ring, does he?"
"No. I do not know. Just a feeling I have."
"I think what you are feeling is the wine and lembas mixing in your stomach." Tanie muttered sleepily, turning over and falling back to sleep.
Ninque lay awake for awhile, staring up at the stars. They were so much brighter out here in the wilderness than at home. I would give anything to be able to sleep like this, under the stars, in good company, for the rest of my life. With a sigh Ninque closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
The next morning as they continued their ascent into the lower foothills of the Hithaeglir, Elrohir approached his brother.
"Have you noticed Falchion's unusual behaviour?"
"He seems a little preoccupied, nothing too irregular." Elladan replied. "What are you talking about?"
"It is hard to explain. It's like..." Elrohir struggled for the right words. "Like he is still Falchion, yet he is not himself."
Elladan shook his head in confusion. "What?"
"It looks and sounds like Falchion, but with little things, like how he eats, or rides, or walks, or speaks, he doesn't act like Falcion. He is making me uneasy."
"Hmm." Elladan responded, seriously considering the state of his brother's mental health.
"What of Falchion's close friend, Arnel? Has he given you any uneasiness?" he asked suddenly.
"No, but why would that matter?" Elrohir asked with a strange glance at his brother.
Elladan shrugged, dismissing his impulsive thought. She would never come alone. Yet, maybe she was just not as good of an actor as her friend. Tanie always had seemed to have more of a knack for drama than Ninque. But would they really be so stupid? How much would they risk to obtain what they so greatly desired?
"You know," he began off-handedly, "Ninque possesses a ring with peculiar properties."
"A ring?" Elrohir asked. "Many elves possess rings."
"No." Elladan explained. "With her ring she can change her shape to look like whomever she chooses."
His brother looked at him incredulously.
"I have seen it with my own eyes."
Elrohir shared a meaningful look with his brother as the pieces came together in his mind. Signaling for his brother and Legolas to wait there, he turned and cantered back to the rear of the company. Scanning quickly, he soon found the elf he was seeking, Falchion. Riding up, he stopped directly in front of Falchion and his friend, Arnel, blocking their way. Falchion lifted his head. Elrohir saw a glint in his grey-green eyes. "Fear?" he thought. Meeting the elf's gaze, Elrohir directed his will against him.
Ninque breathed in sharply at the sheer force of Elrohir's will on her mind. Even with Tanie right beside her, she could already feel the disguises begin to dissolve. She resisted, singing the words of her spell over and over in her mind. Her will strengthened. Elrohir felt her resistance and began to sing a few spells of his own. Back and forth swayed their silent song as Tanie looked on, trying to hide her growing fear. Falchion sat with closed eyes and face hardened in concentration. Tanie glanced at Elrohir. He stared piercingly at Falchion, an impassive look on his face. Ninque felt his will slowly begin to grow and overpower hers. She grasped at her horse's mane as a wave of diseasiness hit her. With a mental rending she felt the disguises drop. She faintly heard Tanie cry, "Stop it!" before sliding off her horse and blacking out.
Elrohir, seeing Ninque begin to fall, leaped off his horse and caught her, laying her gently on the ground. He did not even notice Tanie until she knelt by her fallen friend, roughly pushing him aside. He stared at her with open mouth.
"You also were part of this madness?"
Tanie only glared at him and lifted Ninque's head into her lap. By this time the whole company had halted and was gathered around the trio. Murmurs of marvel and disbelief swept throughout the group. Elladan and Legolas burst into the center, both stopping dead in their tracks at the sight of the two she-elves. Elrohir stared at Tanie with confusion.
"You promised you would not attempt anything like this, Tanie."
She glanced at him then continued to bathe Ninque's brow with water from her canteen. "I said I would not do anything rash." She replied curtly. She kept her attention on Ninque and so did not see the look of frank admiration that shown out from Elrohir's eyes for a brief moment.
Ninque moaned and sat up, holding her head. "Elrohir, you Orc." she complained. "Now you have given me a headache. It has been tiring enough to keep these disguises up without you breaking into my head."
Elrohir gave a slight chuckle. "You will be calling me worse things than that after I tell you all of your cunning is to no avail. You are going home right now." One of the other elves stepped forward. "We have already lost two warriors to these she-elves' foolhardy escapade..."
Ninque and Tanie both rolled their eyes.
"To lose more to take them back home would only make the escort worthless if we should be sighted by Orcs. We would not have enough left to adequately defend ourselves."
Elrohir nodded. "Yes. I see your point."
"And besides," Tanie said stubbornly, "we would not go willingly."
Elrohir looked from one she-elf's face to the other's. Both were hardened with feminine stubbornness. He sighed wearily.
"Speaking of headaches," he muttered. "You do realize that Father is going to kill both of you when he finds out you are here instead of at Imladris?" Tanie and Ninque exchanged glances. "And me also when he finds out I let you accompany us for the rest of the trip." Both she-elves broke out into grins.
"Just try not to go looking for trouble and get yourselves' killed, alright?" Elladan put in with a smile. "Becaue I would hate to miss the looks on your faces when Father assigns you both stable chores for the rest of your immortal lives!"
* nenith -- mother