“My Cernan is a watchful man, Vilthavia,” said Elendis, “and little escapes his wandering eye in his protection of me, bless him, despite his many years. Therefore, I must assume that there is some merit in his observations of you.”
Seeing the look of confusion upon the young Rhovanion’s face she frowned slightly and offered further clarification.
“For example, how did you learn my name and for what reason?”
“Your name has been uttered many times by the folk in this company since we left the vales, lady.”
Vilthavia hesitated, realizing that his answer possessed a conspiratorial air to it. The frown deepened upon the girl’s face at this so Vilthavia quickly amended his explanation and tried to sound more confident.
“That is to say, since you are the only lady among all us men the name of one so,” once again he paused clumsily with a grin, “so – fair and feminine may be easily plucked from the air in the overbearing company of so many masculine brutes.”
Elendis narrowed her brow for a moment at this before allowing a sudden giggle to escape her lips. She smiled as she brushed back a stray column of hair that peeped out beneath the front of her white shawl and hung loosely over her brow. Vilthavia quickly became aware of how lame his attempt at being coy and clever must have come off to her. He felt the urge to once again improve upon his failing attempt to sound intelligent in his flattery of her.
“It is not that I find the company of these men irksome, of course, yet you must admit that one such as myself might hardly be blamed by becoming somewhat – intrigued by your situation.”
“Do I have a ‘situation’, as you say?” she asked him, her smile slowly disappearing. “If so I was not aware of it.”
“A young woman alone among a company of grim and older men would be considered as such by many, I would guess. You will forgive me if I seem curious, I hope.”
The horse that stood next to her was begining to get impatient with idleness by now, and began to snort loudly as it bobbed its head up and down three times. Elendis uttered a few brief calming words into the beast’s ear as she patted him softly.
“I may forgive you, assuming you continue to speak fairly of me, Vilthavia,” she said as she turned back to him. “At least you are more modest than the other young men who seek an audience with me.”
Vilthavia began to realize that she had misinterpreted his introduction as an attempt at flirtation. He had certainly not meant to do so before he had approached her, but knew it must have seemed so to her. She went on.
“The others were more direct and even uncouth. None of them hold my interest anyway. Yet even had they swayed me, this is a most unsuitable place and circumstance for courtship. I told them so straight away. I think it best if I proclaim that fact right now. The road ahead shall prove trying for most of us who are as yet a novice at traversing such a road as this.”
Elendis fell silent for a moment as she awaited a response from Vilthavia, who simply nodded and said nothing. Off to their right they could hear ther voice of Wildaria speaking privately to Vilthavia’s uncle and Vidui, who also stood by. Vilthavia turned his head and looked in their direction but could not make out their words. He guessed that they were dicussing himself and his decision to abandon the journey and return to the Anduin vales.
“What, may I ask,” inquired Elendis again, “seems to be ailing you, Vilthavia? It must be serious for you to hike all the way back down the mountain side alone.”
“By body is not adapted for such high elevations, alas,” he replied, glancing back at her but avoiding her eyes for embarrassment. “I feel like my abdomen shall come up through my throat the higher up we go.”
“I am sorry for you. Yet are there not herbal concoctions that may be consumed to remedy such illnesses? I am sure that our men travel with such things, for you are not the only one among us who suffers thus.”
“I know it well. I have just finished drinking just such a medicine and am beginning to feel its effect. Yet one can only consume so much medicinal tea before exhausting one’s supply. They say that the journey is long and everyone must conserve what they have in their baggage in case of emergencies. Besides, the tea that I drank was not my own.”
“I could instruct Cernan to give you some of what we possess if it would sustain you long enough to cross these mountains,” offered Elendis. “He looks large and threatening but it is mostly a ruse, really. He will do what I ask of him.”
Vilthavia looked again into her eyes and at length ventured to offer Elendis a warming smile in return for her kindly offer. He was a little susrpised to see her crook her lip slightly in token of a brief grin. Vilthavia felt a stab of tenderness emerging through the girl’s tough-seeming countenance.
“You are kind to be sure,” said Vitlhavia, “but I must return home. I am afraid that I joined this expedition on a bit of an immature whim and now I ought to go back and fulfill my obligations at home while I still can. I have had my opportunity to see the wide world and now it is over. Yet, as I mentioned a few moments ago, I did want to extend my humble good wishes to you and the others for a safe and uneventful trip into Eriador.”
“Very well,” replied Elendis with a shrugg of her shoulders. Her brief glimpse of tenderness was again replaced by a more remote indifference; almost as if it were a well practiced technique she had mastered to shield her from emotional harm. “I thank you, Vilthavia. Yet let our errand be not too uneventful. I want to see more of what these mountains may offer in terms of excitement and wildlife. Do you know that the rare red-horned mountain stag inhabits some of the highest elevations of these high passes? Cernan says that the females are in heat at this time of year and climb up to the upper paths of the mountains where the males do battle with their horns with one another in competition. They are among the largest beasts of their kind and tis said that their meat is a delicacy among the folk on the other side of the mountains. A pity that you shall miss it.”
These last words were nearly drowned out by a sudden gust of wind that swirled through the campsite and made both Elendis and Vilthavia shudder. Elendis winced at the high-pitched windy howl. One of the men in the company cursed loud enough for Vilthavia to hear him as the man’s hat got away from him and bounced across the stones before plummeting over a steep drop. There would be no retrieving it now.
Vilthavia was about to make his final comments to Elendis before taking his leave from her when he suddenly heard the angry voice of his uncle nearby. Vitlhavia and Elendis turned to see the burly Urlavia striding over towards them with a dark scowl upon his face.
“What is this I hear about you, nephew?” Vilthavia knew the man was wroth with him, for he always called him by his familial title as opposed to his name when he became angry.
“What is wrong with you now?” Urlavia came up towards Vilthavia now with Vidui close behind him. “It is always something with you! What disordered malady do you suffer from today? Stubbed your toes on the rocks? Sore feet? Maybe you caught a whiff of cold and can’t breathe through one of your nostrils? Blast it, boy! You must learn to endure such discomfortures in order to achieve your manhood. Now I hear that you desire that I escort you back down the mountainside so you can take your leisure along the banks of the Anduin? Is that true?”
Vilthavia was shocked at his uncle’s angry tone and felt a renewed sense of embarrassment at this sudden chastisement by him in front of Elendis. Many others among the company had paused in their taveling preparations to observe the angry scene.
“Uncle,” began Vilthavia nervously, “I am stricken with the altitude sickness. The leech men have already proclaimed it as such. Two others also have the same illness it seems.”
“I warned you that things were different up here, did I not? Before we left the vales I told you what to expect. Yet you insisted that your consitution would endure it. Now it is time for you to live up to your word – for once in your life.”
“Urlavia!” protested Vidui, who had come up beside Vilthavia in his defense. “Your tongue wags before your head has the chance to comunicate to it! I was the one who counceled Vitlhavia to reconsider the journey forward and return home. The boy wanted to remain with the company and I found it difficult to persuade him. Therefore do not slight him his bravery!”
Urlavia, who was himself somewhat of a hulking figure in stature, turned his gaze to Vidui and frowned at him.
“Silence, young Vidui! I have not addressed you. You interfere with a private matter here – as is your wont. Yet I might have expected it. If you think it better that the lad abandons the journey now than it should be you, not I, who must escort him back down the mountain. I shall not turn back at this point. I shall not suffer myself to be so punished by his errors!”
“Uncle Urlavia,” intervened Vilthavia hastily, “You are my mother’s brother! Did you not openly promise in my mother’s presence to accompany me and look after me on so long a road? Would you break such a promise to her now?”
“Would that you had heeded her council to remain in Rhovanion! Yet I promised your mother that I would see you safely through the Misties and into Eriador. We have yet to embark upon that stage of the quest. But not unknown to you at the time of our agreement was the fact that I am obliged to come into Rhudaur at a predetermined date – no later than the first half of the ninth month of the year, as the men of Rhudaur reckon it. I would be risking much to turn around now simply to accomodate your exagerated ailments. Such a backwards path might cost me my position with the king of Rhudaur himself! Nay! I will not have it! Let Vidui escort you back down to the vales if he will, but I cannot.”
All eyes then turned to Vidui, who stood uneasily alongside Vilthavia. Though no one spoke it aloud it was plain that they awaited his reply to Urlavia’s last suggestion. Knowing his friend’s heart-felt desire to come into Eriador, Vilthavia spoke for him.
“It is not the place of Vidui to do such a thing when a family guardian – such as yourself, uncle – is present. You dishonor my mother by abandoning me.”
These words struck deep into the well of anger that seethed inside of Urlavia, and as a result the uncle sought to increase the growing abashment that the nephew was experiencing before so many of his onlooking companions.
“What is it that really ails you, Vilthavia?” asked his uncle with deliberate suspicion. “Is it your fear of high places again? Aye! that is it, is it not? Your feet will not willingly tread the high passes without shaking at the knees. I had thought that you had conquered this old fear of yours by now. Well, I fear it is a little late for such second thoughts, nephew.”
“Nay, you mistake me,” chimed Vilthavia quickly. His uncle ignored the protestation.
“Will you always be subject to this obstinate and irrational fear? You should have told me of it ere we left Rhovanion and saved both of us much trouble.”
“I do not deny that I take no joy in high places, uncle. Yet I would not allow such a petty obstacle alone prevent me from continuing forward and inconveniencing the entire company. I had no clear idea that my body would react so violently to these altitudes.”
“We here possess among us herbal remedies that forbear such ailments that you describe. You know this well enough. I, for one, will donate my current stock of them to you right now, for I need them not. Others, too, might be induced to give you theirs as well, no doubt.”
A scattering of nearby voices, men who had been listening to the words between uncle and nephew, called out that they would lend Vilthavia whatever medicinal needs he might require in order to sustain himself long enough to cross the mountains. Urlavia nodded his head in affirmattion of this.
“There it is, Vilthavia,” he said to his nephew with a grunt of finality. “You have the support and sympathy of many of your companions – some of whom I doubt you have even bothered to acquaint yourself with yet. Now you may go forward with one care the less to fret about. Yet as for your fear of high places…”
“Urlavia!” interceded Vidui again. “A private word with you aside, if you please.”
Vidui stepped up to Urlavia and made a gesture with a crook of his head for Urlavia to speak with him behind a pair of lonely evergreens nearby. Urlavia shook his head in denial at first, saying that time did not allow it, but eventually relented at Vidui’s urging. The two men then spoke together alone behind the trees, leaving Vilthavia quite alone for the moment, as Elendis, not wishing to add to Vilthavia’s embarrassment, had withdrawn with her horse to rejoin Cernan. All others were now nearly ready to depart for their morning hike up into the high passes.
“Urlavia,” spoke Vidui seriously, “it is not the boy’s fear of heights that lends weight to his desire to return home, but rather the fulfillment of his obligations to his family at home. He and his mother, as you may know it, parted on sour terms. She did not wish for Vilthavia to depart as such. It is a hard thing for a mother of an only child to do, as you must understand.”
“You dare lecture me on the merits of parenthood, Vidui; you who have born no children of your own? I have two sons of my own. By the time that they reached the same age as Vilthavia – nay, even younger – I had already sent them out into the world at large. My oldest boy is now a successful rancher with a lucrative farming family nigh the lakelands of dale in the north. Two years have come and gone since we have last seen one another, yet I do not regret it. My younger boy shall soon begin his training as a page with a Gondorian man-at-arms and will relocate to the city of Osgiliath in the far south. It may be years more ere I see him again. Yet neither he nor me would have it otherwise. It is good for youths of their age to make these long journeys; to bring out the man in them that so longs to come out from inside them. I believe the same thing here in my nephew’s case. He is soft – too soft for his own good. I do not think that this so-called ‘ailment’ of his, which I guess to be little more than aggravated nausea, will hold for long. He is merely uneasy about all of it. This mountain hike will strengthen him, Vidui. It is for his own good, I say.”
“I, too, willingly left my home in Rhovanion to travel early, Urlavia,” explained Vidui, “yet not all youths come of age in such parallel courses. I know not your two boys nor how they bear themselves in such curcimstances. But Vilthavia is not ready for this quest yet; to search and roam the wilds of Eriador in search of his lost father – who may or may not even be alive by now; to say nothing of traversing the heights of the Misty Mountains. Frankly, I am shocked that you would so willingly assist him in so hopeless an endeavor.”
“Is it for me to dash to pieces the boy’s fondest desires? He longs for his father! Can one blame him for that? Yet you speak as if Eriador is teeming with wild enemies and villains just awaiting the opportunity to snatch up the boy forever and send him some place far away to wither away in a state of thralldom. Rhudaur is governed by a respected and well-intentioned king. Denethil still holds his kingdom in a state of peace.”
“I speak not of Rhudaur in particular,” argued Vidui, “but of the whole of Eriador, which, if the tidings be accurate, has begun to fall into decline as it experiences further infiltrations of foreign incendiaries harassing unsuspecting folk on the roads. I am sure you have heard of such reports yourself.”
“The same may be said,” replied Urlavia with a dismissive wave of his hand, “of our native Rhovanion. Yea, for several years now the unruly Easterlings nigh Rhun and south of there have been conducting their raids upon us with deadly effect. Yet where is your call of alarm in this? Indeed, I think it safe to proclaim Eriador safer than Rhovanion by far, for at least the Dunedain still thrive in the lands that once made up old Arnor and strive to keep evil at bay with mostly successful results. Therefore, your logic is flawed.”
“Urlavia! The boy misses his father, no doubt, but he does not truly long for him. Nay, rather he genuinely longs for a reunification with his mother, who is, as it seems to me, Vilthavia’s only true parent. It is she whom he truly loves, not his absent father.”
“My sister entrusted me to look after her son on his journey to locate his father and I shall do so. She will thank me upon our return for it, you shall see. All shall be well.”
“What is it that truly drives you so, Urlavia?” Vidui deliberately spiked the question with an air of suspicion. “You and I go to the same place once we arrive in Rhudaur: to Cameth Brin and the court of King Denethil. Yet vague have you been thus far with your reasoning. You already know that I have prearranged business with the prince Ermegil and will serve under his employ. I have the official papers to prove it. But what about yourself? You have stated that you seek to buy and trade in horses, and that may be so, but why such haste? You could escort Vilthavia back down into the vales and then hire more men to accompany you back up the mountain again. There are always men enough that seek to cross the mountains on various errands.”
“No I may not!” exclaimed Urlavia with a scowl. “The weather shall not permit it! Winter arrives early in the high passes. Such a delay as you suggest might cost me fifty gold crowns in hiring enough men to do the return job. That is to say nothing of what it would cost me in lost revenue with this present stock of mares that we have here. Many of these beasts are already spoken for even as we speak by the kings men in Rhudaur. I cannot afford such a loss, Vidui, and I will not stand for it.”
“I will personally compensate you for any loss that you might experience once we are settled in at Cameth Brin. You have my word on it, Urlavia.”
Even as he spoke they heard the last call for marching orders by the chieftain and his bodyguards. Nearly all else were packed up and ready to depart on the next stage of their lofty journey. Urlavia shook his head at Vidui and scoffed at his offer.
“You shall repay me? Ha! With what? Nay, stay your wagging tongue, Vidui. Do not go on. Vilthavia shall complete the journey over the mountains and be quite safe. There! I have done with it. You have delayed me long enough with this. I must speak with Wildaria regarding other matters now. Get yourself and, since his welfare concerns you so, get my nephew ready to leave at once, or you shall both be left behind. I will speak with him later.”
There was nothing else to be done about it. Vilthavia would have to endure whatever illness or inner fears that plagued him now and face the crossing of the Misty mountains.