In a quiet valley nestled in the vast lands north and west of the Shire, the sun of the Fourth Age stretched sleepily across the sky. Birds and small beasts – the only visible inhabitants of the valley – scurried toward their homes at the end of another day. Bænde-hullow vale was settling to rest as day waned.
A falcon hunting quarry for the evening soared high above that valley, gliding effortlessly in slow circles. As it hunted, it wavered and suddenly veered steeply downward, as if startled. A shrill cry pierced the silence in the valley. The falcon checked its descent and sped away, disappearing against the sky.
As another cry echoed in the vale, the wind changed course, and a black shadow passed swiftly over the sun. As quick as it had come, the dark form vanished over the horizon.
Billowing shapes in the distance slowly enveloped the sunlight and splayed sooty fingers over the valley. The sky darkened as far-away lightening crackled. A mist of rain fell on the horizon, like an inky blanket covering the valley as the storm unfurled. As if summoned, a late summer thunderstorm was gathering its dark forces over the edge of the dale.
A roadway wound carefully through the valley under the brewing storm – over hillock and through the meadows. A few yards from both sides of the passage ran two short walls of stacked rock – moss-covered, crumbling, and in disarray. On the road, patches of grass pushed through cracked stones and worn gravel to welcome the spell of rain.
Years had passed since men had walked the stones of that ancient road. Greater and nobler men than now had laid it – stone by stone – in long lost times. It was once a proud way traveled by mighty men, Dwarves, even Elves, during the Yárë-Vanya, the Fair Days, in the years that followed the destruction of the One Ring and the ruin of the foul servant of Morgoth. The High King of Númenor had once graced its cobbled way; his great-grandsons now long passed and his dictates near forgotten. The path now lay lonely through the lush valley, a silent reminder of a grander age of grander men.
And now its course was quiet. Rarely did any save bird or beast walk upon it. But today, as dreary shadows covered the path, a lone figure trudged over its stones.
He walked hurriedly as he moved southward on the road. He wore a dullish cloak, stained and tattered in places, and his hair was coal black in the shaded sun. He held a short-bow in his left hand, and a quiver of arrows hung across his back. Riding boots reached his knees, and he donned worn leather breeches. As he walked, three times he paused in mid-step, crouched to the ground, and peered this way and that, surveying the road.
To the north another shrill cry sounded, this time closer. The traveler drew himself to full height in the middle of the roadway. He turned his head to the left, listening intently. Then quickly he leapt to the roadside and darted behind the rock wall. He unsheathed a long knife, then hastily drew the hood of his cloak over his head, lay flat upon the ground, and disappeared amidst the tall grass.
Thunder rumbled. Far away, behind the traveler, dark shapes appeared on the road. To the south down the road in the direction the traveler walked, a faint howl rang out across the valley.
Thunder boomed again, and the light mist mingled with heavy drops falling from the darkening sky. The shadows on the road to the north took shape as hooves pounded the roadway. North of the makeshift hideaway, several horsemen were galloping full speed down the passage toward the traveler. Five wore patterned green cloaks, which flapped behind them in the wind, exposing leather jerkins with mail coverlinks. Each carried a halberd or spear in one hand. Shields were strapped to their saddles. Their horses were sixteen hands each, with ginger coats speckled dirty-white. These horses were armored for battle; heavy leather covered their flanks. The steeds were wide-eyed as in fear, and sweat dimmed their sides as if they had spent leagues in full gallop.
Another rider, on a horse black as ebony, ran fifty yards in front of the group of five. The rider donned a cap helm atop silvery-white hair. He wore black chain mail, and no cloak covered his armor. His buckler hung on his saddlebag, a blood-red hand, palm outward, emblazoned on its front. A long sword was sheathed below the saddle. He hunched forward, gripping the reins tightly as he gazed up and down the road and across the valley. About a furlong from the traveler’s hiding, he checked his horse, stood up in the stirrups and raised his gauntleted hand to slow the others.
The stallion whinnied and shook its head as the leader pulled the reins back. “Whoa, Shaele,” commanded the man with a gruff voice, thick with a Northland accent. Shaele slowed to a walk, stopped abruptly, and shook his mane wildly. He stood a stone’s throw from the hiding traveler.
The rider scanned the ground before him. Then, as quick as a cat, he dismounted the horse. The reins hung loosely to the ground as he espied the road and crumbling wall. Bending over, he brushed a clump of grass growing through the stones.
“Hae’s been here, n’doubt,” the man muttered. An angry sneer crossed his face, fading into lines of worry and pity. He furrowed his brow and viewed the road to the south.
The other riders approached. One of them, young with piercing blue eyes, dismounted and walked toward Shaele and the older man.
He spoke halteringly, through quick breaths. “Confound it, Caedron! We ayre no gonna find `em now. Gone fayr good, says I.” He eyed the first rider. “And we canna go fayrther.” He turned to the other riders, all breathing heavily and leaning against the necks of their horses. “We ayre to the aends of the Wlaker, and the men ayre afeared.”
Caedron ignored these pleas, and continued his inspection of the road and surrounding area. He lifted his hand to his forehead and scanned the horizon to the east.
Lightning shot through the south sky. Rain was now drizzling steadily. Caedron had once wandered into this land, but that was in a different time, when he was young and craved adventure. His knees ached more now, and though he loved his long-held post as Tracker Guard for the Vlarid Dundar, as these men from the northlands called themselves, he had far less love now for wandering. The vale Bænde-hullow was indeed on the edge of the Wlaker Vurl, the Lands of Sorrow, and few had roamed through its many rolling hills and deep caverns and returned home in right mind.
Caedron turned slowly to the others. He was raised a huntsman, it was in his blood, and he prided himself as the best in the land. He would not tarry on this trail. “We must goe fayrward, Dalënor.” His eyes squinted as he looked at the young man. “We canna bring ayrselves back wid’ naught to show. His boots’ve waelked hayre, see?” Caedron pointed to an impression in a weedy clump on the road.
Dalënor stepped closer to look at the signage. The wind whipped his cloak about as he crouched down. Rain fell harder as he wiped the ground, searching for a hint of bootstep. He could see nothing.
“Ahhrg,” he grunted. “Thaer’s naught haer. Yer eyes be gettn’ dim.” Dalënor stood up and tapped his chest. “I faer one says we g’back to Lettleton. We can pick up `is trail thaer, I reckon.”
“By Kaer’s ale, ya would nae know boot mark `f ye saw it in full light! Hae walked this road not an hour agae. Less `n that, I’ll wayger.” Caedron scratched the bristle on his chin as he glared at Dalënor.
The wind swept the drizzly rain in circles round the company. The other men atop their mounts glanced back and forth at each other. They had ridden many leagues, with only four brief stops. Their journey began three days ago – a mission quest from the Vlarid council in the town of Celderin, forty leagues northeast as the crow flies. They knew little, except they sought an elusive thief. None save Caedron knew the deeper purposes of their quest.
They had set out from Lettleton north of the Shire at dawn this morning, on word from a pubmaster that the one they hunted had eaten at the local inn two nights ago. “He dinna spake,” the rotund innkeeper had said. “Seated `msaelf at the corner table `n ate me mutton. Left haer quick as he come. A curious tall fellow he was.” They had followed the road from Lettleton with nothing but this innkeeper’s words (and Caedron’s quick eye) to guide them.
The miserable weather had begun as soon as they entered Bænde-hullow, as had the strange cries in the distance. The men – now wet, cold, and travel-worn – yearned to leave this queer place. Old grandmother yarns of the Baende-hullow Cairns and the Barrow-wights of the south valleys, foolish enough in Celderin under sunny skies, now seemed all too real in this dark hollow.
Young Dalënor stepped toward his horse and grabbed the reins, preparing to hoist himself back atop the tired steed. He would ride no further south. As far as he knew, the thief lay hidden in a cairn’s hole now. With one boot in the stirrup, he reached for his saddle. His horse snorted and stamped the ground nervously.
“Easae, Brille!” Dalënor stroked his horse’s neck and side as he attempted to mount. The mare continued stamping, and lowered its head anxiously. “Whoae girl!” The horse had shifted its weight and now sidestepped to the edge of the road. Unexpectedly, it reared back on its hind legs, eyes wide with terror. Dalënor, whose foot was still stirruped, crashed to the ground and yelled in pain. He gripped his ankle and writhed on the roadside.
The other men’s horses panicked and swaggered uneasily. Caedron first gripped his horse Shaele’s bridle and calmed him, then ran to Dalënor’s side as Brille the mare leaped over the rock wall and dashed westward. “To the wind; Jaele, Brinton!” Caedron shouted. “After `er quick!”
Two of the riders fought to control their steeds and set off after the alarmed mare. Shaele stood, snorting and watching the mare disappear westward. Caedron tended to Dalënor as the other two men laboured to dismount their anxious horses.
Muddy water was running hard down the gullies on the roadside. Dalënor again shouted as Caedron lifted his boot from the ground. He glowered and gritted his teeth in agony. “Ae fine mess now,” Dalënor spoke through his teeth. “Wae’ve lost her fer good.”
“Ye’ve got ae right nasty break,” said Caedron, “but `tis clean.” He pulled out a short blade to cut the breeches around Dalënor’s ankle. “Men, keep yer mounts still!”
The horses would not calm, as the two men struggled to control them. They neighed and snorted and turned around wildly.
To the west, in the direction Brille had run, a blood-curdling howl sounded. It chilled the air. Caedron suddenly stopped nursing Dalënor’s wound, and stood up quickly. He turned to look toward the sound, his eyes filled with dread.
Other howls, closer and to the north, answered the first.
Caedron stood frozen on the roadside. Then suddenly, as if awakening from a dream, he cried, “Ride, men! Back to Lettleton while ye can! Wargs be upon us!”
The two men on their horses bolted, each in a different direction. Caedron lifted Dalënor to his feet. “Wae must get ye on Shaele! Ye must ride!”
Dalënor, pale with fright and pain, shook his head and grimaced. “Lift mae, I canna pull maeself upon him!” Caedron heaved the man and helped him as he frantically grabbed Shaele’s mane and saddle. He pulled himself to lay sideways on the stallion’s back, and then righted himself. He clutched the reins.
Caedron still gripped Shaele’s bridle. He pulled a chain from underneath his jerkin and slipped it into a side pouch on the horse. Then he drew his long sword from the sheath strapped below the saddle. Pointing the horse northward, he whispered in Shaele’s ear, “Run, lad. Speede away with yer fastest gallop to whence ye were sired.” He then slapped the horse on its backside and shouted, “Make haste to Celderin. Away wid ye both!” Shaele sprang to gallop and Dalënor’s frightened pleas were carried away by the wind.
Caedron stood in the road, gripping his long sword firmly, listening and waiting. He braced himself for the worst as rain fell in sheets.
The traveler hid behind the rock wall as the riders approached. He knew they were close, for he could hear their coarse words broken by the singing wind. He strained to filter the Common Speech through their thick Northland accents.
He had also heard the screeching cries, then the howls, and knew that Wargs and perhaps worse were near.
This wanderer had entered this land before, ages ago, when men were less uncouth and shared it with Grey-Elves and Dwarves – and others – without spite. He knew the old road well, for he had ridden upon it when its stones were smooth. Now he had returned, not as much by choice as by design, and he wished the days were bright as the last time he walked this way.
Alas, the storm had come. The traveler heard the men, confused and travel-weary, driven hither and thither by fear and the wind. He waited face down behind the rock wall until Caedron stood alone.
Still camouflaged by the wall and the driving rain, he slowly raised himself into a crouching position behind the wall. In the same move, he effortlessly reached into his quiver and fitted an arrow to his bowstring.
Caedron, though alarmed by the echoing howls, was battle-savvy enough to prepare for a wolf attack. He knew the pack would circle first, and, if these were indeed Wargs, they would call their leader to draw first blood. His only hope was to strike the leader down. He knew he had moments before they would track his scent to this point. He could only pray that the other men’s horses would sense the danger and flee the valley.
The Wargs howled around him, and now he could see shapes slinking on the hillocks. He looked to both sides of the road, searching for an escape. He faced south, then north. To the east, Caedron saw a gap in the wall where the stones had tumbled into the roadway.
His mind raced back to sword-school in Celderin, where he had mock-fought packs of white wolves years ago. Never before had he faced Wargs. He crouched down with sword point out, both hands on the hilt.
A low growl sounded behind him. A sneaking shadow approached as Caedron turned his sword point to face it. A huge wolfkin Warg, eyes red as blaze, bared its curved blood-drenched fangs.
Caedron drew his longknife from its scabbard. “Yer a fool, dog, to crosse m’blades.”
The Warg leader snarled fiercely. Two … five … now seven more creatures slunk behind him. Each bared dripping fangs, and stared with crimson eyes hungry.
They had found Brille, it seemed. Their necks were blood-soaked and their eyes glinted with blood-fury.
Suddenly, to Caedron’s right, a wolfkin bounded over the rock wall and charged Caedron for the kill. It jumped to the roadside and rushed upon him. He swung his sword in a silent arc through the air as the creature leaped towards him. The sword sang in the air cleanly, but met neither hide nor bone. The wolfkin dashed behind its leader.
Another sailed over the wall and charged him – this time from behind. He thrust his longknife toward its hirsute throat and braced himself for blood. The Warg darted around him neatly and sneaked behind his pack leader – unscathed.
Then Caedron knew. These were not tamed white wolves of the Northlands. These Wargs had been bred by evil to evil. They knew only one purpose – kill for blood. They were toying with him, wearing him down for the leader to take first blood. His mind now raced with panic as cold sweat dotted his brow.
Two of the creatures edged forward, snarling menacingly. The yellow in their eyes glazed with hollow rage as they advanced. Caedron retreated backward toward the gap in the rock wall. He cautiously stepped back foot-by-foot – his eyes fixed on the leader. Then, without warning, Caedron charged forward and screamed, “Yer blood be upon mae!”
He waved both his sword and longknife in deadly curves as he ran toward the two advancing Wargs. Whether by some trick of the rain or by reflexes clouded by wrath and the taste of blood, the two Wargs were caught off their guard. One swerved to its side, meeting the tip-point of Caedron’s knife, which plunged into the joint of its shoulder and tore a cruel mark down its flank. The Warg yelped in frenzied agony as Caedron withdrew the blade quickly and readied it for a deeper thrust. His sword had grazed the other Warg as it dashed frightfully out of the way, and it sat nursing the cut on its hindquarters.
Ceadron retreated back towards the gap again, battle-rage surging through his veins. “How d’ye like it, foul dog? Yer cronies will die before ye!”
The great Warg waited as the wounded wolf dragged itself toward him. Dark blood trailed its path. Its tail was tucked as it approached the leader. Labouring to the huge Warg’s feet, it groveled and whimpered, exposing its neck. The Warg leader glared at Caedron. Then, baring its fangs, the leader bit the neck of the wounded wolfkin, crushing its throat. The hapless wolf did not struggle as the other Wargs raced to devour it. The Warg leader lifted its head and stared cruelly at Caedron.
The rain slacked somewhat as Caedron stepped back. There would be no draw in this battle. He and the Warg leader would fight to the death. Caedron swallowed.
As the dark wolves ravaged their dead comrade, the Warg leader turned to face Caedron squarely. It well knew the smell of fear. But it did not attack. It sat down, raised its snout into the air, and howled woefully. The wind whined, and, like an answer to the Warg’s howl, a baleful shriek sounded southward down the valley.
Caedron felt a shiver run down his spine at this inhuman cry. Down the southern end of the road, a black-cloaked figure was walking the passage towards the pack.
The Warg leader sat silently and watched Caedron as he eyed the approaching figure. It glided over the road-stones. It had no face, or rather, the dark folds of its hood hid its face, but its two eyes gleamed ghoul-white behind dark shadows. The hunched figure grasped a tall ashen staff with a wolf skull carved into its top. Caedron looked, but could see no hand holding the staff, only a shifting shadow between the staff and its robes.
As the figure approached the Warg leader, the Warg bowed its great head. The others cowered and gathered behind their pack leader. The figure looked down at the great Warg as it lay down and bared its throat.
The shadow creature drifted over the roadway. Slowly it turned and stretched its staff toward Caedron. Its high shrill voice cut the air and pierced Caedron’s heart like an icy knifepoint.
Burzum uzgh thrat izhrakg ûg-ghâsh!
The shadow figure hissed a hideous curse in ancient Black Speech. Caedron gazed at the pale points of light under the creature’s hood – and suddenly a chill wind struck his face. He braced himself for battle. An icy wave hit him square in the chest, and he drew a quick breath as he felt his legs anchor to the road-stones. He strove to lift his long blade, but his hands would not obey his will. His sword and longknife dropped from his fingers as the blanket of cold embraced him. As consciousness left him, his thoughts turned to night.
The traveler crouched behind the wall not twenty yards to Caedron’s left. His arrow still rested on its taut bowstring. His blood had also chilled when the dark words spilled from the figure’s mouth. He had heard such words before – ages before it seemed. They reminded him of days past … of his wandering in darker years near the Misty Mountains far away … and when, in his travels, he had reached the edge of vile Mirkwood. He had heard such foul cries before. But never in this age; since the defeat of the Evil One and his servants; since the Age of Men began.
This was the language of darkness and death. Neither cursed cairn nor doomed Barrow-Wight could scream such horror. This curse was the banshee-call of a Wither-Ceil – a spirit-servant of darkness itself.
The Wither raised its staff higher into the air and screeched again. The carven wolf skull glowed red as he held it aloft. The Wargs shrank back, ears flattened, as they watched their master prepare the prey.
Caedron stood motionless. His thoughts had frozen as he blankly stared into the glowing eyes of the Wither-Ceil. His hands, clammy and cool, drooped at his sides.
The rain fell silently, now mixed with sleet. All seemed breathless, awaiting the finality of the Wither’s touch. Slowly, the Wither pulled a wickedly curved dagger from the folds of its cloak. Its edges gleamed as the Wither hissed over it. Then, raising the death-dagger like a striking snake, it swooped toward Caedron.
Drego, gwath e daw; ú-charnathach nan gûl i adan!
The music of this voice shattered the icy silence. The Wither halted at the sound. The Wargs’ ears perked and their leader growled. The lilting elf-speech of the traveler seemed to thwart this concentrated evil. With quickness rivaling the lightening in the air above, the traveler sent an arrow whistling into the throat of the nearest Warg. Then, in one blurring move, he shot another shaft toward the Wither’s cruel blade. The arrow struck the curve of the knife! It leapt from the hand of the Wither and plunged into the soft earth.
The Wither-Ceil turned to face this new enemy, and for a moment faltered. Its pallid eye lights glowed with frustrated rage. Then, regaining composure, the Wither raised its staff towards the elf-traveler. The red wolf skull again glowed crimson.
The Elf, taking full advantage of his surprise, had silenced three more Wargs with speedy arrowpoints. All but the Warg leader had now scattered. The Warg stood by its master, bristling. Never before had such an enemy threatened its master – and lived.
With haste the Elf-archer shot an arrow toward the Wither, but its staff glowed brightly and the arrow froze in mid-air. Encased in ice, the arrow dropped to the ground and burst into blue flame.
As the Elf let another arrow fly, the Warg darted forward and lunged for his throat, growling. In one quick move the Elf dropped his bow, sidestepped the bounding wolfkin, and plunged his knife into its neck. The Warg howled as it fell struggling. It raised itself to its feet, then collapsed gasping.
The Elf had instinctively dashed sideways to avoid the impending icy blow from the Wither’s staff. If his arrow aim was true, he hoped that the arrow would knock the staff from the Wither’s grasp. Holding his dagger, he turned to face the foul creature.
Where it had stood was only wind-swept sleet and mist. The shadowy Wither had disappeared into emptiness.
The Elf squinted and grimaced as he looked down the roadway for a sign of the dark creature, but the way was empty. The Wither-Ceil had vanished.
The wind hissed over the road as the Elf gathered his arrows from the necks of the scattered dead wolfkin. The Warg leader, still gasping, snarled bitterly as its life ebbed. The Elf wiped his dagger on the grass beside the road. “You have battled your last, beast,” he said, “though your death grieves me. You possess but a shadow of your ancient father’s nobility.” The Elf sighed, then turned from the dying Warg and approached Caedron.
Caedron stood still. His eyes were wide and his mouth still hung agape as he stared vacantly southward. A thin layer of ice glazed his forehead and covered his chain mail. Peering into Caedron’s eyes, the Elf exclaimed, “Ahh, now the hunted is the rescuer! What a strange game this is indeed. We stand against a common enemy, but whether you know it remains yet to be seen.” He reached into the folds of his cloak and pulled out a small silver flask. “You are sleeping peacefully, friend, but the world has no time for peace. A quick draught of the fair Lady’s mithsiril will rekindle your flame.”
The Elf poured a drop of silvery liquid from the flask into Caedron’s open mouth. Almost instantly, the thin layer of ice melted on Caedron’s face and clothes, and Caedron blinked. Then his eyes closed tightly and his face wrinkled. Suddenly, he burst into violent coughing spasms as the mist deep in his eyes cleared.
“Whoe … what? Where am I?” He sputtered as the spasms continued. Then, as if awakening from a nightmare, he suddenly remembered. “Tha shadowe? Tha wulfken?” Caedron looked down at the dead Wargs and the dying Warg leader on the road, then shook his head. He shuddered with cold.
“You may consider yourself rescued from death … or worse.” The Elf, standing in front of Caedron, crossed his arms. He was still gripping the dagger in his hand. Caedron glanced down at the knife, and his eyes narrowed.
“Rescued? Yer a thief; warse n’doubt.” The elvish liquid, or perhaps the gleaming dagger point, had awakened him quickly. His eyes shot down to his own longknife and sword with desperation.
“You should have no fear, friend. My name is Fendolas, and I am no thief, nor am I `warse,’ as you may think.” Fendolas sheathed his dagger. “You will remain frozen for a few moments. The ice words were strong.”
Caedron realized that he could feel neither his hands nor his legs. He was still petrified in the roadway.
Fendolas reached for his bow and shouldered it. “We haven’t much time,” he said slowly. “They will return … with others. We must away.”
Caedron looked hard at Fendolas. His fingers and toes were beginning to tingle. “Yer a thief, and an outlander at that,” he said with resolve. “Ya took the treysured Ondol from the Vlaridim. And I must take ye back.”
Fendolas laughed, a musical trill that warmed even the chill in that valley. “Surely you jest, my friend. I will not go. You will not make it back even to Lettleton alive. And …” he lowered his voice, “one cannot thieve what is rightfully his own.” His eyes glinted as he spoke.
Puzzled, Caedron thought for a moment. The Vlarid council had given strict orders to use every means necessary to retrieve the stolen items. Although he had not considered death by Warg or Wither part of the bargain, his loyalty to the Vlarid Dundar ran deep. This thief’s words were strange, but perhaps he could fain friendship to further the goal. Two warriors were better than one against Wargs anyway, he thought. “I have no choice but to goe wid ye,” he said with deliberation.
“A better choice, though not without danger,” said Fendolas. “Get your weapons. You will need them shortly.”
Caedron found that he could move his arms and wiggle his toes, though not without intense determination. He slowly bent down and retrieved his sword and longknife. He thought for a moment that he felt Fendolas watching him intently; but as he grabbed the familiar hilt of his sword, he noticed that he had scaled the rock wall and was walking eastward.
“Well,” he thought. “I’ve got m’sword. And I’ve still got me wits. It’ll take more `n his arrowpoints to stop tha dark creature.”
As if reading Caedron’s mind, Fendolas said, “Follow me quickly. The Wither is still about. And yrch will soon come.”
“What? Orcs?” Puzzled, Caedron sheathed his longknife and began slowly after Fendolas. “What d’ye mean? No orcs have been saen `n years.” He said this confidently; though his brush with the Wither made other fairy tale creatures seem all too possible.
“Ah, friend. Too long have you lived in these Northlands. Your people are now too quick to judge, too slow to understand, and too soon to forget. Alas, this Age of Men has brought shadows upon Middle-earth far longer than the reach of the accursed one.” Fendolas paused with thought. “Still,” he spoke thoughtfully as if to himself, “perhaps `tis better to forget and be merry than to know and suffer in worry.”
Caedron shook his head. He did not fully understand the musings of this strange outlander. Sword in hand, he stepped over the crumbling rocks in the wall. The mist blurred his vision as he looked ahead. Fendolas was about ten yards in front, walking briskly eastward.
Caedron started after Fendolas, anxious to avoid another encounter. He watched the Elf intently as he followed. Fendolas was tall, and walked quickly with long strides. With his bow shouldered, he seemed resolute – yet almost carefree – in the face of grave danger. Caedron sensed that Fendolas possessed perhaps even more wisdom than the old men who sat in secret counsel on the Vlarid Dundar. Fendolas seemed youthful, walking steadily but calmly through the valley. But his eyes were deep with experience and understanding.
Behind Caedron a howl sounded in the mist. Fendolas turned quickly and motioned to Caedron. “On! Go ahead, quickly now!”
Caedron shuffled as quickly as his near frozen legs could carry him over the field. The weeds and grass had here grown untamed for years, and they grasped at his ankles to slow him. He stumbled and tripped over the weeds and bramble.
“Run with haste! They will soon discover us!” With new energy Caedron sprinted away from the road. Fendolas readied his bow and took up the rear. The two now were running quickly through the field. Caedron looked ahead, and through the rain he saw a grey mass of trees two furlongs or so away, standing like sentinels defending the shadowed vale.
Behind him, Caedron could hear fierce howls of angry Wargs. Then, from the south, battle shouts answered. Fendolas turned as he ran and looked southward.
“We must get to the forest,” he cried. “There are only a few orcs, but many Wargs!” He spoke with urgency, and Caedron knew he could trust the keen eyesight of this Elf.
They headed toward the trees as a mist fell further upon the field, covering it in heavy fog.
Though shrouded by fog, blackish shapes gathered near the road in the south of the vale. Several had crossed over the stone wall and were winding about, searching for the trail of their prey.
Caedron and Fendolas were running eastward towards the Finterwood, a forest of elm trees, oaks, and aspen which spilled down from the sides of the Celmadin hills towards the valley of Bænde-hullow. This ancient forest spread several leagues north and south, covering burial hills and silent abandoned villages with a blanket of whispering trees. Through its center a small stream flowed which the Elves had named Lannaníel, the Hushed Water. Snowmelt from the Celmadin range trickled down the mountains and gained momentum in the northern Finterwood. Lannaníel flowed through the Vladarim northlands beyond the town Celderin and met further south with the Westlode which flowed into the Western Sea.
Rain was falling steadily as the mist thickened. “We must speed to the cover of that wood,” cried Fendolas. “There at least we may find a hiding place.”
“Perhaps thae will mistake us for trees?” Caedron thought cynically to himself as he ran. But the battle cries were growing louder behind them, and he had no better plan. So Caedron ran blindly toward the shelter of the trees. “Can ye sae tha Wither?” Caedron gasped.
“Nay. But I think we should fear orc blades and warg teeth now. They know we are running eastward, but it seems they have yet to fix our trail. Hurry!”
They were now almost two hundred yards from the edge of the woods. More shouts sounded. Looking over his shoulder, Fendolas cried, “Our trail is found! Be wary, there are orc bowmen!” More black shapes converged at the breach in the wall and hastened into the field behind them.
Projectiles whistled and plunked harmlessly to the ground behind them. “We are yet still out of range,” Fendolas said. “Hurry, straight for that grove.” He pointed eastward towards the forest, but Caedron only saw a blurry darkness of trees and mist where he had pointed.
Caedron’s heart pumped as he raced closer to the grey-cloaked Finterwood. He remembered fabled stories of orc-archers in ancient battles, and the skill with which they wielded their cruel weapons. He shuddered. Surely the cover of the woods would not stop the vicious orcs and their wargs from pursuing them. He whispered a prayer of thanksgiving for the heavy fog.
Fendolas stopped abruptly. “Go on ahead into the wood. I will catch up shortly.” Caedron continued on course. Fendolas paused, looking back towards the roadway, and then reached into his cloak and pulled out a vial. He opened it, and quickly poured its contents on the ground in front of him. He shook the liquid onto the ground, then slipped the vial back into his cloak.
The liquid hissed where it hit the grass, and white smoke rose up where it touched the ground. Whether by illusion or by some trick of elf-lore, the grass seemed greener where the liquid fell. The white smoke blended with the mist in the air as it dissipated.
As the smoke was rising, Fendolas ran toward the orcs a short way, then turned southwards and ran about twenty yards before sprinting back to follow Caedron toward the grove.
He caught up to Caedron quickly. They were almost to the Finterwood, and as they approached, Caedron noticed a thick mantle of vines spreading out from the forest floor over the brush and growth and into the field before them.
“What were ye doing?” Caedron asked.
“Distracting our enemies, I hope,” answered Fendolas. “We shall soon see. Quickly, into the forest.”
The two sorted through a tangle of underbrush, prickleberry and ivy as they made their way carefully into the Finterwood. The overhanging branches of the trees at the outskirts of the forest sagged under the weight of rainwater. Fendolas pushed ahead, with Caedron close behind. They heard shouting through the mist as their enemies approached.
They moved further into the thicket, careful not to create a trail that could be easily seen. As they passed through its bristling edge, the Finterwood opened to them. Ivy draped here and there upon sad oaks and elms like a tattered blanket, and a thick underbrush of dead wood and young saplings seemed to bar their course. Upon the disheveled forest floor leaves, moss, and lichen-covered fallen branches were strewn about. Although rain was falling steadily on the valley, the canopy of leaves and branches permitted only an occasional drip, drip on the ground underneath.
Caedron and Fendolas wound their way cautiously through the thicket into the forest shade. Heavy mist and thick undergrowth met in a blinding grey soup.
About sixty yards into the wood, Fendolas stopped abruptly and motioned Caedron down. Caedron loosened his sword and strained his ears as he knelt down behind a wizened stump.
“We’re too close to the edge to stop,” Caedron whispered quietly to himself. Fendolas still stood, now facing the direction of their pursuers, listening intently. A haunting cry disturbed the saturated silence under the trees.
From the edge of the forest, a piercing howl answered a reply!
Fendolas crouched down and set an arrow, peering towards the howl. They now heard another answer, further away in the field. Their hunters were closing in.
They waited for sound, and Caedron looked intently at his companion. Fendolas was crouched on one knee, his bow grasped tightly in his left hand. His face reflected no fear or anxiety, only intensity and keen experience. His eyes narrowed as he scanned the woods for the nearest enemy.
A crash! in the woods interrupted Caedron’s thoughts. Fendolas turned to face the sound, and motioned Caedron to ready himself for battle. He unsheathed his longsword quickly. They crouched behind a fallen elm whose leafless branches spread down a sloping gully. Caedron was stooped beside the broken stump of the tree, listening.
Blurred by the mist, a shadowy shape meandering their direction. It ambled from tree to tree through the tangle of underbrush. The figure was large, about seven feet tall, and rocked from side to side as it walked. Caedron strained to get a better glimpse – to no avail. The fog sat thick in the forest. Then, about forty yards from them, the bulky figure stopped. Caedron gasped as its upper half fell from its lower half and began moving toward them!
Fendolas saw the figure too, and drew his bow. He waited. The two shapes were now five or so yards apart, and were plunging deeper into the thicket. They stopped twenty yards from the elm hideout.
As the misty blanket drifted, Caedron saw clearer. A man, shrouded by the mist … or was it a man? It was hunched over, searching the ground. No, it was not as tall as a man, he thought. The mist enveloped it again. Caedron saw the other shape, smaller and shorter, moving closer. A brisk wind cleared the air.
Now he understood! What he had thought was one creature had been an orc atop his wolfkin steed. The orc had dismounted to scout and its warg was now sniffing the air feverishly.
“Azg! C’mere, snivelin’ dog!” The orc whispered gruffly in Common Speech. He spit at the warg. Azg snarled. “What? You don’t smell nuthin’.” said the orc. “I’ll break yer neck!”
The orc was muscular and squatty, almost five feet tall. He wore crude leather armor with hobnail boots and a chain mail shirt. A golden ring encircling a red eye marked its front. He wielded a broad double axe, and a small spiked buckler was attached to his arm. He hunched over as he walked, gripping the axe tightly with his clawed fingers.
“`Stick together,’ Durzbakh said, `tha cursed Elf warrior’s dangerous! `E’s got somethin’ the High One needs, `n he needs it quick.’ That’s what he said, `n that’s what we’re gonna do.” The orc glared evilly at Azg, and scanned the forest back and forth.
Caedron held his breath and pressed against the stump. Thunder growled in the distance. Rain dripped through the forest canopy, and the fog swirled through the undergrowth. The orc scout stepped closer, and was now staring directly at the fallen elm where Caedron and Fendolas crouched. He leaned forward, and his eyes squinted. “Azg? … … look …”
Whoosh! Fendolas’ bow twanged, and an arrow zipped through the mist, striking the orc in the throat. His warning cry silenced, he gurgled and fell to his knees, grasping the shaft. He twisted sideways to the ground, his eyes wide with fear and surprise.
Azg turned immediately at the sound and saw his orc partner fall. Fendolas readied another arrow, but Caedron had blocked his view. The rush of battle had swept through Caedron’s blood, and he was already rushing the wolfkin. At five strides away, the dark wolf yelped and turned to face him. But Azg was too late. Caedron swung his longsword and cleanly beheaded the brute with one stroke.
The body collapsed, still twitching. Caedron leaned against a tree, panting. The orc and warg both lay dead beside him.
Fendolas looked westward, towards the edge of the Finterwood. Then quickly he stood up and walked toward Caedron. He nodded, “Friend, you are faster than you seem. I am grateful.” Caedron looked up at his new companion defensively. “Faster than I seem?” He frowned, but Fendolas smiled pleasantly, and Caedron suddenly felt foolish. He realized that he had not formally introduced himself. “Mae name’s Caedron … of the Vlaridim,” he said, and reached out his hand in Vlarid fashion. “And I am grateful for your marksmanship.”
Fendolas grasped Caedron’s forearm, also in Vlarid fashion. “Well met, indeed, Caedron. But we have no time to celebrate. Orcs have sharp ears, and warg’s even sharper. We must continue eastward.”
Fendolas first knelt beside the body of the Orc. He plucked his arrow from its throat and examined the mark on its mail shirt. His brow furrowed. “Strange,” he murmured. The two turned and wandered eastward deeper into the forest.
They moved as quickly as possible through the undergrowth. They had not much time, for as Fendolas knew, the acute ears of wargs had heard the cry of their scout, and howls and shouts sounded clearer behind them. Fendolas led the way.
They ran without a path, ever eastward through the Finterwood. “We should be travelin’ north, to throw `m off,” thought Caedron as he followed behind Fendolas. Though Fendolas was only a few paces in front of him, he could barely see him. The combination of fog and Fendolas’ elfin cloak camouflaged him well. Caedron could barely keep up with his taller companion. But the sounds of pursuit drove him on.
After minutes of running, the forest floor sloped downward and the undergrowth grew thin. They were running slightly downhill into a small ravine “Ahh,” said Fendolas, and he looked side to side as if looking for something. He slowed and motioned for Caedron to follow closely.
“They will likely follow us here,” he whispered. As he spoke, he pointed down the gully, “They have surely lost neither our scent nor our trail. And their blood will boil with the loss of two of their kind. But they shall soon end their pursuit.” Caedron looked, and at the bottom of the ravine a small stream bubbled southward.
“Lannaníel! Could it be?” Caedron cried with surprise, as a new hope welled within him. “Have we come this far?”
“No. But the silent stream has many children in this old forest, and this young creek is one.” Fendolas spoke as if the water could hear him. “I am grateful to find her.”
Ugly shouts sounded behind them and southward. Their pursuers had found the dead orc and warg. “Shall we cross?” Caedron asked.
“Yes, and in crossing we shall be rescued, at least for a time.” Fendolas shuffled down the steeper sides of the ravine and stepped upon the creek edge. Roots, like twisting fingers, erupted from the sides of the gully; pebbles and broken twigs lay strewn upon the creek side. Caedron followed and half-slid down to the creek. The creek ranged between seven and ten feet across, and its water was crystal clear. Caedron could see round stones and river weeds on the stream bed. It looked only a few inches deep.
Fendolas had bent down beside the creek. He was filling a small vial with water. “Wait before you cross,” Fendolas commanded. Caedron, however, had already stepped into the water.
To his surprise, his foot could not reach the creekbed! He lost balance, fell forward into the water, and splashed wildly as he tried to tread water and regain his footing. “Help!” he sputtered.
Fendolas nimbly leapt across the stream at its narrowest place and grabbed a fallen branch. “Here!” He pushed it toward Caedron, who was spluttering and gasping. Caedron reached for the branch, and Fendolas heaved him toward the shore.
He pulled himself up onto the shore. Confused and out of breath, he wheezed, “That is no creek! I could not reach tha bottom!”
“The ancient Lannaníel has many tricks – deception of sight is a favorite,” chuckled Fendolas. “This small stream is surely a daughter of the Hushed. See how she laughs quietly! But quickly, yrch are close behind!”
Caedron wiped his face and followed Fendolas. He was drenched from head to toe, clammy and cold from his unexpected swim. Together they trudged up the eastern side of the gully.
As they walked from the stream, the water shimmered and gleamed with glee as it gurgled downstream.
They pushed further into the woods as the rain fell heavier. The drip, drip through the canopy teased Caedron – obscuring the noises of their pursuers. He looked over his shoulder expecting a horde of wolf-riding Orcs fast approaching. He shuddered, “I do not care how much magic that water bears, `t will not stop those monsters.” As he followed Fendolas, he debated in his mind this new friendship, and thought back to his mission – to retrieve the stolen Ondol. It seemed months past that he had met with the Vlarid Dundar and they had commissioned him for this task. He counted in his mind the days. It had only been a fortnight since his meeting with the sacred council. “I must not forget mae duty,” he thought to himself, “but I must save mae own hide befayr I reclaim it. The time will come soon enough.” He trudged on.
Several minutes beyond the creek, they came to a clearing in the midst of the trees. Fendolas pulled aside several low-hanging branches to reveal a small open area. The underbrush gave way to green grass, and rain poured onto the ground. Heavy grey clouds billowed overhead.
In the middle of the clearing stood a huge tree of a kind Caedron had never seen. Its bark was smooth and light in color like a sycamore, but did not separate from the trunk; its leaves were deep green with a golden tint. It grew like an oak, its branches like strong arms lifting the weight of rain-drenched leaves. Those broad leaves stretched defiantly toward the threatening sky. Clover grew at the base of the tree, and lichen covered knotty roots intertwining with the ground. The tree was at least a man’s stature in diameter at eye level.
“We can stop here,” said Fendolas quietly.
“With orcs in pursuit? Are ye mad?” said Caedron. He stared at Fendolas inquisitively.
“Friend Caedron,” Fendolas looked at him shrewdly. “I would venture that we are safer here than anywhere else in this dark valley. We have nothing to fear here but each other.” He smiled. Fendolas’ tone conveyed knowledge of a deep and longstanding mystery, and Caedron noted his last statement carefully. He scratched his head and looked away.
Fendolas stepped closer to the tree, and reached out to touch a leaf. He then ducked under a branch and felt the bark on its trunk. Whether Caedron’s eyes tricked him, he did not know, but the tree seemed to vibrate at Fendolas’ touch.
Caedron now noticed that the ground sloped steeply upward five paces or so behind the tree. The odd tree stood in the middle of the clearing, at the foot of a huge mound that rose and disappeared into the depths of the Finterwood. Trees and vines covered the hill.
Clover grew thick about the tree and spread for several yards up the hill like a deep blanket of green. A thicket of holly, overrun with vines, encircled a portion of the clearing. Caedron had not noticed the thicket when they had entered the draw, but now looked at it closely. It stretched around the edge of the quiet area, almost like a hedge deliberately planted years ago, which had lost its purpose and now grew spindly and wild. He noticed large stones along the holly hedge protruding from the ground. Some leaned this way and that; all with strange carvings – odd lettering and faded outlines of trees. He looked at Fendolas, who was leaning against the tree and looking up in thought.
“What is this place?” he asked.
Fendolas sighed, then answered slowly. “This is one of many ancient hallows in the Finterwood. Few men of your kind have stood where you stand now. Many, many years ago a high king claimed this land and his subjects settled south and east of this wood. Halflings and men lived together in villages throughout this area, some of which the Finterwood has overtaken. A great garden once grew here … with flowers and many orchards. The Finter-Fälien were skilled in herb and tree lore. They planted these gardens and guarded them wisely. This is an old place, forgotten by most, even of my kind.” Fendolas turned toward the tree. “Tis good to know that a part of the Third Age still remains in these sad times.” He seemed to be addressing the tree more than his companion.
Caedron moved under the shelter of the tree limbs and stared at a leaf. “Tis like no tree I have seen,” he marveled. “It shifts colors.” He had picked up a leaf from the ground and was examining it. As he twirled it round, the green hues deepened and the gold tint changed to silver. “No record of the Vlarid speaks of tha Bænde-hullow valley as a garden.” He turned toward Fendolas. “Who was this king, and what …”
He stopped in mid-sentence, as Fendolas had lifted his hand and motioned for him to be silent. Fendolas stood in rapt attention, his eyes closed, listening. “Wait here,” he whispered. Pulling his bow from his shoulder, he vanished into the forest.
Caedron could do nothing but wait. He cautiously moved around the tree trunk and crouched down. He strained his ears, but he heard nothing but dripping rain and an occasional bird.
The birds suddenly stopped calling. Caedron thought he heard a stirring in the woods. It sounded close, perhaps near the creek they had crossed. He sneaked closer to the edge of the woods and bent down behind a tree, listening carefully.
Distant shouts echoed under the forest canopy. He heard barked orders, and a yelp, and a far away howling. He thought he heard gruff voices shouting again. Then all was silent.
The rain pattered around him as he listened. Nothing. Caedron sat straining his ears for five … now fifteen minutes, quietly attentive to the sounds around him. He heard no sounds of battle. The forest creatures were still silent as well. Then, ever so faint, a twig snapped behind him. With sword drawn, Caedron stood up and turned to face the grove and the tree.
Fendolas was standing under the tree. His bow leaned against it, and he was wiping his knife on a rag. “The danger has passed, for the moment,” he said. He slid the knife back into its hidden sheath under his cloak.
Caedron stared at the elf. “Are ye hurt?” he asked.
“No. I merely watched while another fought for me … for us, perhaps.” He stared back at Caedron, who was still gripping his sword tightly. “I think we no longer have cause to fear yrch now. The silent stream has never taken kindly to them. They will report their findings to their masters. We should rest here for a while … while we have time.”
Caedron stood, thinking. He had experienced the wiles of the small stream, but he did not know how its childish cunning could stop a horde of blood-thirsty orcs and wargs! There was more to this thief than at first he had thought.
At Fendolas’ urging, they sheltered under the tree and awaited twilight. Caedron refused to dare a campfire, despite his encounter with the stream and the constant rain that had left him wet and chilled, even though Fendolas assured him they were quite safe. “Ae won’t be havin’ orcs cut mah throat in the night,” Caedron huffed. He was also contemplating the night watch, and vowed not to sleep so as to keep an eye on Fendolas. Though Fendolas had single-handedly rescued Caedron from the wargs, Caedron’s thoughts had returned to the deeper purpose of his quest given by the Vlarid council. He must retrieve the Ondol. Perhaps tonight the opportunity would arise.
Night fell, and the rain slackened to a steady drizzle. Fendolas began searching the clearing and hill behind the tree. Caedron sat huddled beside the tree, listening to the chirping and calling of strange crickets and other animals in the Finterwood. He was exhausted, but resolute. “Ae’ll take the fayrst watch,” he said to Fendolas.
“There is no need to watch, friend Caedron, but if you insist, so be it.” Fendolas called from behind the tree. “Ahhh. Look at this!”
“What is it?” Caedron yawned. He turned to look at Fendolas, who had walked into the forest a few yards up the hill, and was crouching down beside several low bushes. “What do ya see?”
“There is an opening here. A small cave in the side of the hill.” Fendolas swept the ground beside the brushes and motioned to Caedron. Caedron stood and walked toward Fendolas, his curiosity overcoming sleepiness. The hill rose steeply at the bushes, and vines and roots spread over its side near a thorny prickleberry bush. Fendolas reached up to the vines and pulled several aside, exposing a craggy opening. Wet leaves and dirt fell as Fendolas grasped the vines.
“Perhaps `tis drier under the hill,” said Caedron excitedly. They pushed the vines and roots aside and Caedron squinted as he peered into the hillside. The cave looked to be a small indention in the steepening hill.
“It’s perfect to shelter us from this blasted rain,” Caedron thought aloud. The cavern was small, merely a few feet wide at the opening, but seemed to broaden to a cozy den. Without light, he could not see how far it went into the hill.
“You may shelter here for the night, if you wish, Caedron,” said Fendolas. “I much prefer rain in the night air to such a stuffy bedroom.” Fendolas laughed.
“So be it,” said Caedron. “Ae’ll sleep here, but ae’ll still take the first watch,” he repeated.
“Whatever you prefer, friend,” Fendolas smiled, and walked the few short steps down the mound towards the tree. As he sat down under the tree, he pulled his cloak from his shoulders and stared through the branches, lost in thought.
Caedron settled at the mouth of the cave, with his longknife resting across his knees. The council had warned him to be wary – this thief was no ordinary man. He could see that. He glared across the grove at Fendolas. This thief certainly had fought well in the valley. He watched as Fendolas stared into the night sky through the branches of that strange tree. Caedron could now make out his high cheekbones and piercing eyes in the moonlight. He wondered for a moment. Could Fendolas be no man at all? He paused. Could he be Ælfan? Impossible. Ælfan inhabited only stories of bygone days – echoed by the scratchy voices of old widows. They did not exist. “Ae’ll trust the Council’s wisdom,” he determined silently, “and keep my wits about mae.” But he hesitated as he watched Fendolas under the tree.
For a moment, he stared at the curious tree in front of him. It was surely unlike any he had seen before. Its silvery bark ran smooth, and its leaves shivered softly in the windless evening air. It almost seemed to sing softly as it swayed in the cool night air. It stood mysteriously, like a guardian of this sacred grove.
Caedron leaned against the side of the cave opening and closed his eyes, thinking. He wondered if any of his men had returned safely to Lettleton. Images of orcs and wargs chasing, catching, and torturing his men and horses plagued his mind. He doubted any had survived. Shuddering, he turned again toward the tree.
Fendolas rested on the ground, his bow and quiver beside him. He had pulled his cloak about his body. As rain fell lightly and the tree whispered, Caedron heard him singing softly, his voice joining the whispering of the tree.
O gwaith Finter-Fäli, cuine eimas
Tü mele bein an eryn, i glinn.
Sil mallorn firin maras!
O gwaith Finter-Fäli, cuine elenath
Te mithril ane sithindriel, a thamas.
Sil mallorn firin maras!
The song, like silvery thread, twined with the pitter-pattering of the drizzle on the leaves of the tree. Caedron heard glory, peace, and deep sadness in the wind. He thought of battle, then of rest, and then of the sky and his home in the faraway Vlaridim Northlands. His head nodded, and he fell deeply into dreamless sleep.
Hours later, Caedron stirred and woke with a start. The rain had stopped, and quiet clouds had blanketed the light of the half-moon. Sleep-weary and confused, he looked around from his sitting position. The night air was cool and silent. Fendolas was nowhere to be seen.
“Argh!” thought Caedron, as he blinked and stretched. “Where did he goe?” He had fallen asleep seated leaning against the side of the cavern, and his body was stiff. He contorted his back in an uncomfortable stretch.
As he was twisting, a pale white light glimmered on the other side of the tree. “What’s that?” he thought to himself. Squinting his eyes, he watched the light as it flickered and brightened. The light pulsated, glowing stronger, then fainter, then strong again. It flashed, then sank behind dim shadows. He leaned forward to get a better glimpse.
At the base of the strange tree, Caedron saw a twisted figure crouching, holding his hands together in front of him and staring down at them. The glowing light seemed to spill from his hands. It shrouded his face briefly, then retreated into his hands again. The light flashed again, glowed for a moment, then sharply went out. Caedron, now wide awake, rubbed his eyes, looking again. He stood up.
He saw nothing but shifting shadows cast by the moonlight against tree limbs. The figure and the mysterious light had vanished.
“What’s this?” thought Caedron. He looked left and right, peering in the shadow of the trees for any movement. “Where’s Fendolas?” Grasping for his sword, he walked cautiously toward the tree.
Suddenly, a bright light blasted around the tree, as if a thousand lightening strikes had united in the weald. Crackling white light engulfed Caedron and his surroundings. The blinding force swept him back. He fell to the ground under the tree, hit his head upon a root, and lost consciousness.
All fell silent and dark. As the night air whisked around the tree like breath in cool autumn, a figure, hidden behind the hedges, moved quickly toward Caedron. It stooped near his unconscious body, paused, then turned and disappeared into the outskirts of the grove.
In the night sky, grey clouds groped toward the retreating moon and shaded its light.