Trying to stay towards the back of the group of riders, Nessa nervously glanced around her, anxious not to be caught. Though for now she was being ignored – they had left the main city with no hitches and were currently cantering through the Morning Forest, carpeted in mist, so named as it faced the rising sun and its name in Nessa’s tongue was Neteni Fento.
Just as the Princess began to relax, thinking that she would be fine, Captain Lerron slowed his pace and came along side her. Fear-stricken, she spurred her own horse on, trying desperately to ignore him, but he merely caught her up.
Half-smiling, he said, “Who are you? You are not one of my own men and I do not recognize you as one of Alforn’s. You look young.”
“I-er-“, she began.
“Look at me when you’re speaking.” he cut in sharply. A flame rose in Nessa’s heart – him, order her around? She was a princess! – But she bit her tongue, slowly raised her head and looked him in the eye.
“I am, um, Daril, Captain,” she replied, trying to make her voice as deep as possible, “err-I’m a new recruit – newly joined Captain.” What a pathetic story, she thought. However it seemed good enough for Lerron.
“Well Daril, you should speed up a little. We don’t want you getting left behind now do we?” he laughed and headed back to the front. Nessa smirked at his back but was thoroughly relieved – that was a close one. She would have to be more careful than that if she was even going to get to these travelers! Whispering quietly to Elformen, she caught up as they left the misty forest and headed out into the clear barren plains.
“We’ll stop here for now.” said Gandalf as he sat upon a large boulder by the roadside. The hobbits all gratefully did likewise as they took long cool drinks of water to wet their dry and dusty throats. They were soon joined by Boromir. While Gimli went to talk to Gandalf about how they were to find the Gates of Moria, Aragorn and Legolas remained standing a little way from the group and Legolas in particular was feeling uneasy.
“There’s something not right,” he spoke quietly,” I can not name it, but it’s almost as if we are being watched. I’ve felt it for the past few days, but now it is stronger yet not so hostile – more curious.” His keen elven eyes surveyed the land where only the Misty Mountains could be seen, a mist enshrouded forest nestled between two.
Aragorn nodded his head in silent agreement. “We should not stay here long, but we had to stop or the hobbits would have collapsed with exhaustion.” Legolas smiled and looked over at them fondly, head tilted to one side.
“They’re such an innocent people. So trusting and easily delighted.”
“Yet so stout-hearted and enduring.” added Aragorn, smiling one of his rare face-enlightening smiles.
Meanwhile the hobbits themselves chatted merrily about, well, the things that hobbits chat about I suppose – Pipe weed, events at home and most important of all, the quality of the food. This to Merry and Pippen’s dismay in particularly, was not that good. Occasionally, Boromir would make a passing comment but he seemed merely content with listening to them talk of their peaceful land far away and the people living there.
Suddenly, Legolas cried out, “Ai! Ai! There is movement down there! The trees rustle with more than just wind; I can hear horses! At least 50 by the sounds of it, not moving to fast, but headed our way. Look!” Sure enough, a company of riders had erupted from the forest, some carrying streaming banners bearing a rearing black horse, others blowing on mighty horns. Shielding his eyes from the sun with his slender hand, Legolas counted 52 riders, fully armed and cantering towards them.
“What do we do?” cried Pippen.
“We don’t lose our sense you fool,” snapped Gandalf, ” there is no point running – they have already seen us.”
“Quick!” shouted Aragorn,” Draw your weapons and circle the hobbits!”
They could not have been more than 10 paces out of the forest when the horns began to blow.
“Ahead, ahead!” cried a voice, “The travelers!” Nessa’s gaze followed the pointed finger of the rider. There were the people with whom her fate had now been so heavily woven.
“Forward!” called Captain Lerron and the made for the company. They, however, didn’t seem to keen on the idea of having 50 horsemen charging at them and at once they began shouting and drawing swords. When the riders reached them, they had surrounded the four small children and a pony in a circle. The men all had swords out, while the dwarf swung a heavy axe around and the elf stood perfectly still, arrow fitted to bow.
“Greetings travelers!” said Captain Alforn warmly, “Please, lay aside your weapons. We mean you no harm.” Nervous and suspicious glances were exchanged among the nine on foot.
“Who are you?” called the dwarf gruffly.
“I would have thought it polite for a stranger to introduce himself first if he is in foreign lands. However, I am Captain Lerron; this is Captain Alforn and our men. We are the knights of King Othan of the Hidden Kingdom of Leithen.”
“Well,” said the dwarf, rather taken aback,”That’s quite a title you’ve got there.” He lowered his axe. “I am Gimli, son of Glóin, at your service and your family’s.”
“And I and mine at yours.” smiled Lerron.
The rest of the company lowered their swords.
“I am Gandalf,” introduced the wizard,”these are my friends; Aragorn, son of Arathorn; Boromir of Gondor; Legolas of the Woodland Realm,”- at this the eyes of the men became wide and amazed – none of them had ever before seen an elf,-” and these are Hobbits, Halflings of the Shire.” Murmurs went through the riders like wildfire. Halflings? That was something they had never heard of before.
“So they are not children?” asked a puzzled Alforn.
“Heavens no!” Pippen suddenly jumped out from behind Aragorn, closely followed by the others, taking the Captain quite by surprise. “Peregrin Took is my name, Pippen for short.” he said cheerily.
“Indeed! And who might your fellows be?” laughed Lerron. “I am Meriadoc Brandybuck, Merry to most, at your service.” replied the plucky hobbit and he bowed low.
“Samwise Gamgee, sir.” said Sam rather shyly as he twiddled his thumbs behind his back as Bill nudged him.
“Very good, very good…and the last?” beamed Alforn, his eyes alight with joy at their presence.
“Frodo Baggins of Bag End.” replied Frodo. “Well well! What a company!” laughed Alforn, “We find it rare for birds to travel through these lands…but an assortment such as your own! Its quite self-explanatory, I’m sure you can tell.”
Meanwhile, as the Captains began offering food and other such things to the delighted strangers, Nessa hung around nervously at the back. How was she going to get to them? There was no way she could slip off unseen, the land was too barren. Besides, Lerron knew she – or rather Daril – was there now, so try as she might, nothing occurred to her as the Captains prepared to leave.
“Joyous has been this meeting,” said Lerron as he remounted his stallion,” I only regret that you cannot return with us to Leithen, but our law say that is forbidden.”
“Even were we welcome, we would have to decline such an offer. Our journey takes us far beyond your own lands.” remarked Boromir.
“May I be so bold as to ask where it is you are going? Why do you go?” The strangers fell silent, once again exchanging nervous glances. There was unbroken silence for a while until Lerron shattered it.
“Well we must be leaving,” he sighed,” our King expects us back before nightfall. May the wind speed you along in your travels and may the stars watch over and protect you.” He bowed and signaled for the riders to turn.
Nessa panicked. She didn’t know what she was going to do – but she had come this far and she wasn’t giving up that easily….