Grief of the North Kingdom (a novel)

by May 26, 2010Stories

CHAPTER FOUR

Silence permeated the upper mountain passes. The malevolent winds that had so violently churned through the rocky saddle point where the company of Rhovanion travelers had foundered had all but ceased now; they being naturally replaced by a more lazy variety of breezes that often immediately proceeded the more fierce and brutal winds of such tempests. The mountain path that they had all been following through the highlands was no longer to be seen, it being completely submerged beneath several feet of ice and snow. The force of the avalanche had subsided, leaving in its wake little that remained unaltered. What few trees that had been growing in the immediate area had been toppled and taken away by the momentum of the sliding snow where they and those men that clung so desperately to them for their salvation had been swept away, either further down the mountain, where it may be hoped that some few of them now lingered still alive, or swept down the steep grade that had caught Vilthavia’s eye before the storm and plunged to their deaths down in the abyss. In short it was a wintry death scene.

Yet not all had perished – indeed, far from it. The unfortunate Vilthavia had no where to flee as the deadly avalanche struck, he being frozen with terror as he sat huddled against the sheer wall of the overhanging rock wall amid the hounding winds; nor did his fair-haired companion, Elendis of Rhudaur who cowered beside him. But it was this simple reason; their decision not to attempt a desperate flight at the last moment and instead to remain rooted in place where they sat that had ultimately preserved them from a certain death. They did not escape the effects of the avalanche, however. As the weight of the cascading debris from above had reached them and swept over them and such a terrifying speed, the overhang of the rock wall far above their heads had forced much of the snow, ice and frozen rocks to fly past them well behind their bowed backs. The last thing that Vilthavia saw before snow and ice fell down on them both like rain at the tail end of the disaster – for he had dared to look behind him to see why death had not taken them yet – was a monstrous wave of snow and rock falling down in a nearly uninterrupted sheet like some oceanic wave amid the sea. Yet he and Elendis were momentarily untouched by its fury as it slid down the mountains. Despite the horror of that moment this miraculous and terrifying sight would stick in the mind of Vilthavia for years to come as one of his grandest and horrific memories.

Then the rain of snow and ice fell down on them. He would not have imagined such a feeling of frozen burial could be possible. Both he and Elendis cried aloud in horror as they felt themselves quickly become entirely submerged beneath the weight of the snow. They had been holding each other so very tightly before the avalanche had reached them but the force of the falling columns of wintry mix had forced them apart, with Vilthavia suddenly feeling himself pulled outwards from the wall of rock with a sort of violent undertow caused by the momentum of the sliding snow. Had either one of them been so unfortunate as to have been struck by any one of a multitude of falling stones or chunks of jagged ice they would almost surely have perished. But their dooms were not so luckless as that of some of their companions who also found themselves trapped against the wall and unable to flee out of the path of the avalanche. The lovable, but somewhat over-protective Cernan, who was Elendis’ temporary guardian over the mountains, was slain alongside his faithful yet venerable baggage pony, Clipper, who also perished beneath the force of the falling white wave of death from above. Two other men who were companions of Elendis and Cernan also perished in this manner. In all, of the fifty or so men from who had made up the ranks of the traveling party from Rhovanion, nearly half had been killed by the avalanche itself or were swept off of the mountainside to their deaths. Among these unfortunate souls was Wildaria, their leader and highly-valued chieftain, who died as he strove to save some of the horses by cutting lose the bonds that hobbled their legs together. In was a valiant but failed effort, alas.

None of this, however, was known to Vilthavia, who lay still as stone beneath a grey and oblivious weight of snow and debris. He felt nothing for what seemed a long while; only a sense of ethereal calm in both body and mind. Was he dead? Is this what it felt like to be trapped in the unknown life after death? His father used to speak to him of the Valar that dwell in the western heavens and would watch the unfolding of the world far removed from both sight and sound of men and elves. Had he himself died and was now waiting in the Halls of Mandos to be read his judgment? While in this bizarre and mysterious state of frozen contemplation Vilthavia’s mind began to race quickly from one random thought to another: one moment he was thinking about his mother and their little homestead back home and then the next moment he realized he was pondering the absurd complexities of defensive Chess. Then his thoughts drifted to visions of frozen white waves of foam falling down from sky above before, just as briefly, turning to thoughts of warm embraces and the tender lips of Elendis, who he was sure he would have gone on to wed one day had he lived long enough to do so.

As instantaneous as a flash of lightning off in the distance, Vilthavia suddenly realized that he was not dead! How could he be if he was capable of controlling his thoughts as he now did? He was still alive. He had survived the deadly avalanche! Elendis had been right – the Valar were watching over them and protecting them after all! Yet despite this new and hopeful realization came that familiar sense of fear and dread that he had felt before being buried alive. Then the more physical aspects of his plight struck him, and he knew that his limbs were now painfully sore, bruised and well-nigh frozen to the bone. Breathing was difficult beneath so much snow and ice. He felt his pulse quicken as panic overcame him now. He could see nothing save a dim whiteness. In which direction did he lay in? Which way was up? It all looked the same to him. How much snow lay above his head? Was he buried deep? He had no answers for any of these desperate questions. He tried to move his arms and succeeded in only doing so by a few laborious inches. His legs also seemed immobile. His sense of dread doubled now, for if he had broken his legs then he would surely die a slower and more agonizing death than those of his companions did. Or were some of them still alive? He tried shouting for help. The words seemed to fall dead at once, so he tried again and again. There was no response.

He then thought of Elendis. If he himself yet lived then so might Elendis. She could have very well survived just as he had done! This thought, more than any other at the moment, was what instilled Vilthavia with the necessary desire to emerge from his present state of icy entombment and rescue that lovely fair-haired young woman from a similar fate. Anger began to gain the mastery over his fear and he began to scream as hard as his weary and painful lungs would allow him to, all the while attempting to flail his arms wildly in whatever direction the weight of the heavy wet snow would yield to him.

At length his efforts began to see some success. He suddenly felt some of the cold weight on his right begin to lessen. He went on again and before long he began to wonder if his right hand had managed to pierce open an air pocket through the rough icy snow. If his fingers had not been so cold he would have felt the outside breeze on the tips of them. But at least two of his fingers were completely numb by now on that hand. Why was this effort so difficult? It was only snow, for God’s sake!

Wrath overcame him. Vilthavia, who rarely ever cursed in any of the tongues that he was fluent in – it being deeply frowned upon by his mother, who was a strict disciplinarian by nature – could no longer keep his temper in check, and thus he screamed out some of the foulest and brutish obscenities that he could recall hearing from some of the younger men back home. Yet he did not regret this, for lo! A voice seemed to answer him from far off. It sounded strangely muffled and muted in its timber, the words unintelligible. Probably another poor wretch who had suffered a similar fate as himself, thought Vilthavia. If so he could not hope for any aid from whomever that man might be.

Vilthavia tried flailing his legs again. After a few frustratingly failed efforts he at least managed to kick a chunk of stubborn ice free from its grip upon his ankle deep down in the snow. He kicked again and felt something hard and sturdy beneath his left foot. Would that it would be the hard ground! Yet it was not. Most likely it was a stone or rock of some kind, for when he tried to use it as leverage by raising himself up upon it Vilthavia felt it give way and become too lose to be of much use.

The rage he had quickly felt in his overwhelming desire to be free from this disastrous live burial and entombment now began to once again give way to despair again. Vilthavia felt a throbbing in his head and, despite his near complete lack of vision beneath the snow, suddenly became aware that some of the snow by his left cheek had turned red. He was bleeding, to be sure. Somewhere upon his frozen face he was oozing blood – not much, by the look of it, but this was most likely because the snow and ice was acting to slow the blood loss. He would probably never be freed from his present state of helplessness and would slowly bleed to death. An inglorious end was his fate to be after all.

Just as he had decided it would be better to cease in his efforts and succumb peacefully to the fate that awaited him he heard a voice quite near at hand. It was a man’s voice, and it was coming closer! In a last ditch effort of will Vilthavia, having no longer enough strength in his lungs to call aloud for rescue, waved his right hand back and forth and hoped that it just might be seen by the man who owned that hopeful voice. Little did he realize that his entire arm below the elbow had managed to punch open a pocket of snow and ice upon the surface of the debris and was now in full view of any would-be rescuer.

The next thing he knew Vilthavia felt his entire body slowly being raised upwards – or it might have been sideways, for he had lost all sense of direction beneath the deep snow. Then he was free. Free and alive! He had been rescued in the end. With one of his hands he sought to wipe away all of the crusty snow and ice from his eyes so that he could see the world around him. Little of what had been before the avalanche remained unaltered. It seemed that the entire landscape of the saddle point where the high pass snake its way through two rocky peaks had been well nigh swallowed up. He assumed it must have been past the mid-day hour by now but he could not be sure. All was grey and dim but the horrendous, almost supernatural, churning winds were now gone. Only a moderate breeze blew through the area presently.

“Glad am I to see you among the living, boy! It seems likely that we are among the few, alas.”

Vilthavia crooked his throbbing head upwards to see the haggard figure of a man half covered by snow standing above him. He was grim to look upon, for he suffered from a cut to his forehead and a laceration upon his thigh. His reddish hair hung long and wet upon his cheeks and he held a scarred round gourd that he held out to Vilthavia. Vitlhavia did not take the gourd that was offered from him at once, and instead simply stared dumbly up at the man, trying to recall him.

“Do you thirst, son?” the strange man asked him. “Here! Take it and drink from it. It will lessen your pain, for I can see that you too are wounded.”

Vilthavia continued to gaze up at the man as he sat there in the snow. After a few more moments had passed he thought he remembered the man, though he was at a loss as to what his name might be. Again, the man held the gourd out to him.

“Come now, son,” the man said again with a frown. “I urge you to drink this, for what you are now experiencing is a delayed sense of shock at what has befallen us just now. Furthermore, you are shivering with cold, as might be expected. This beverage will slow the effects of cold, I assure you.”

Vilthavia tried to stand up and found that even this was challenging. The red-haired man reached out his hand to steady him as he did so. For a third time he gestured for Vilthavia to drink from the gourd and Vilthavia did so. The liquid that flowed down from inside the gourd and into his mouth made him suddenly screw up his eyes in revulsion. It tasted something like a combination of sour milk with sweetener and wild rum, which he also disliked. He hastily spat out the beverage and wiped his mouth. The man’s frown deepened at this and he shook his head.

“Do not do that again! This is a rare liquid opiate mixture that I obtained with great effort during my travels in the east. It’s taste is strange at first to those who are unaccustomed to it, yet its restorative and healing properties are beyond question! If you will not indulge in its benefits than pray do not waste it, for there are others here beside you that shall not scorn it.”

Vilthavia said nothing at first, but after sensing that the man’s intentions were sincere, he slowly relented by nodding his head. He accepted the round gourd and squinted his eyes as he took a full drought of the liquid. It did not taste any better the second time around. He forced himself to quickly swallow the medicinal concoction in one heaving gulp and quickly handed the container back to the man. A silence ensued thereafter.

“There you are now. You are welcome,” quipped the tall lanky man, not waiting for any open sign of gratitude from the boy. “Give it a moment or two. You shall feel its effect. I must move on and try and assist those who I may while I still can. If you are able to walk I would urge you to do the same.”

The man began to turn away, but Vilthavia checked him by asking him his name.

“I am Ulric,” he replied as he paused in his retreat. “I am the healer’s helper and assistant – or least ways I was up until a short while ago. Our medicinal men are probably dead now; I don’t know. Yet I shall not hold out much hope.”

He went off to offer his aid to a man who had just called his name off in the distance. Ulric waved in acknowledgment as he quickly made his way through the high snowbanks towards the voice. Vilthavia knew that far off voice well enough, and did not need to turn his head and strain his sight in that direction to confirm the identity. It was his Uncle Urlavia, who had quite obviously managed to survive the avalanche somehow. Vilthavia felt a brief pang of disappointment that his uncle was not among those who were still missing and unaccounted for, and this feeling made him ashamed. Though he had no genuine love for his estranged uncle, he did not actually hate him. What reason had he for hatred? None at all, really. He was his beloved mother’s older brother, after all. Like it or not he was family. And had Urlavia not openly offered to look after his sister’s only son on his own expense of labor and coinage? True, Urlavia did scorn his plea to be excused from the expedition and was denied an escort back down the mountain, but to profess true hatred for the man was, to say the least, extreme.

He thought he heard Urlavia call out his name from off in the distance. He had obviously caught sight of Vilthavia and was shouting out at him to come down to his present location. Knowing that his uncle knew well enough by now that Vilthavia was aware of his presence, Vilthavia knew it would cause more problems for him in the long run if he were to ignore his uncle now and refuse to go to him. Yet, this he would not do – not until he had found his Elendis – that precious angelic beauty (as he was already calling her to himself) who might still be languishing beneath the fallen debris of snow and ice. He turned toward his uncle, who was now standing in waist-deep snow further down the terrain of the saddle point, and waved his hand at him in acknowledgement. But then Vilthavia turned, gathered his strength and ran through the snow up towards the rock wall where he and Elendis had been sheltering together.

It took several minutes of strenuous walking and striding through deep snow – it sometimes coming up to his neck – but at length he arrived to the place where he thought he had been before he became separated from Elendis. He did not have to look very long. There she was now- alive and well, thankfully, though she looked to be in pain by the grimace on her face. There too was his friend Vidui, who was stooped to his knees as he tended on the injured Elendis. Overjoyed to see both of them still alive Vilthavia called out to them, repeating the name of Elendis for emphasis. He waded through the cold snow banks in haste.

“Vidui! Elendis! What has happened? Elendis! you are hurt!”

Elendis, who had her back to Vilthavia at the moment, did not turn towards him at these words, but Vidui hailed him wearily. After much toil and labor, much more than he expected to encounter on his way up the covered hillside, Vilthavia pushed his way through the final mound of heavy snow and collapsed at their feet with heavy panting. He was physically exhausted in every limb now but, though he did not fully realize it at present, it was the cold effects of being submerged head to toe in so much snow and ice that was beginning to present the most danger to him. Vidui realized it by his first glance at his young friend.

“Vilthavia! I rejoice to see you, yet I see that you are in a bad way. Get over here close to the wall where the drifts are small. Quickly now! Yes, that it. You and Elendis must huddle close together in order to remain warm while I go about and look for survivors. I shall return as I may!”

With these few words Vidui rose and left them both much as they were before the impending arrival of the avalanche, save both were now wounded and suffering badly from exposure – particularly Vitlhavia, who seemed not to notice this much. He hunched down next to Elendis and wrapped his arms around her and would have embraced her tightly but for the obvious pain she seemed to be in. He looked down at where she was tenderly nursing her left arm. The sleeve of her coat and the fabric beneath it was ripped open and smeared blood was visible therein.

“Elendis, dear,” said Vilthavia tenderly, “you have taken a grievous hurt! What happened?”

Elendis, who had not yet reciprocated Vilthavia’s joy at being alive, did not answer him at once but rather cocked her head sideways and shot him an insipid glance of incomprehension, as if the answer to the question should be obvious under such circumstances. Vilthavia read her meaning in her eyes and immediately regretted the foolish question.

“Forgive me,” he added quickly, hoping to brush over his untimely question. “It makes no difference now. My head is still clouded over, I’m afraid. Yet I would like to see your wounded arm if you can bear it.”

“Why?” asked Elendis through her pain and clenched teeth. “Do you possess skill as a healer? If not, then of what avail shall it prove if you see it or not? It is maimed, suffice it to say! I am in pain and wish not to move it unnecessarily until it can be cast up somehow.”

Vilthavia felt a trifle stung by the relative severity of her harsh reply but decided to dismiss it as a result of the shock of surviving an avalanche in the Misty Mountains – for how many others had succeeded in doing so and still lived to tell the tale?

“Elendis, at least try and stay close to me and absorb what bodily heat I still retain in me until Vidui or one of the others return to us. At least we are still alive! You and I! Take heart if you can, my dear, for we live! There is hope for us yet, for what other ill omen may assail us now after so evil a storm? I suspect the worst is now behind us, though I shall grieve to know the death count from all this. Yet we shall prevail, I assure you.”

“‘Death count’?” Elendis repeated his words. “You make the consequences of life and death sound callously cold.”

“I am cold,” replied Vilthavia with a shrug.

“Many of our companions are surely dead now, Vilthavia, as are our precious horses! Even the loss of one life alone is cause for mourning, that is to say nothing of many more than that. To simply make a running list of the dead and move on with the errand at hand is akin to…” she paused here as she shuddered, trying to think of the missing words she needed for her comparision. “It is akin to – to carrying out the heartless ways of the orcs of ancient Mordor in their ruthless wars against my people in the old days of the world.”

Vilthavia wondered to hear her speak in such terms and again began to feel the bite of her chastisement of him at this vulnerable time. He had expected to be reunited with Elendis in a state of mutual elation, not arbitrament. Yet he swallowed his pride and forced himself to endure her fey mood, though it grieved him.

“I beg pardon, my lady,” he replied meekly. “I meant nothing unkind by my words just now. Yet, I would still urge you to stay very close to me – like we were doing ere the white thunder of the mountain came down on us,” these last words were spoken more tenderly, as if he sought to resurrect the memory and, albeit, brief passion of their magnetic kiss and embrace just as the avalanche fell down on them all. Elendis caught his meaning plain enough, and she again turned her head to look briefly into his eyes as she huddled so close to him. Vilthavia met her gaze and offered her a faint closed-mouth smile at the memory. But Elendis did not return the smile this time, and instead simply held his gaze and said nothing. It seemed to Vilthavia that those lovely eyes of grey that looked back at him strove to contain a sort of regret she now felt; perhaps even embarrasment or even worse still – shame. She shuddered again from cold and pain and winced, closing her eyes for a moment. Whether or not the actual pain she felt at that very instant was genuine or else an excuse to dissrupt the tender moment which now passed between them Vilthavia could not be sure of. Yet it wounded him all the same. Nevertheless, he did not loosen his embrace of her.

“Vilthavia!” said Elendis with a touch of urgency in her voice. “Your fingers! Two of them are turning blue! You are succumbing to the effects of frostbite, alas!”

Vilthavia looked down at the two smaller fingers of his left hand. They were indeed beginning to change color from a pale white to a paler shade of blue. Why had he not noticed this yet, he wondered? He reached down and cupped them in his right palm. He scarcely felt any pressure in them now as his other hand worked on them roughly. If his hands were beginning to freeze he dared not think of what his toes might be like now. Yet they, too, did not seem to bother him at present, though he knew they must also be frozen. Then he remembered that vile opiate mixture offered him by the red-haired man a short while ago. Despite its horrible taste it seemed to be working on him now. He knew his body was suffering from exposure but all the same it did not seem to weigh on him much now. Perhaps that fellow might have some more of that medicine that he could administer to Elendis in order to remove some of the pain she now felt from what was likely to be a broken arm.

“Alas, it seems so,” replied Vilthavia without much emotion. “Yet what can be done about it now? I hardly noticed until just now, to tell you the truth. I shall have to endure it until help can arrive. But likely the medicinal beverage I was given after being pulled free from the snow has somehow muffled the effects of the pain. Perhaps I should go and fetch him in order for you to receive the same benefit from it as I am!”

“No!” said Elendis suddenly. “Do not go yet! Do not leave me here alone! It is getting dark now and I fear that you will not be able to return. Vidui will come back presently with more aid. Will you not wait here with me, I beg?”

“I might be able to find your Cernan out there,” offered Vilthavia. “Doubtless he will be looking for you by now, my dear.”

Again, Elendis looked crossly at him at these words.

“My Cernan is dead, Vilthavia! Why else would he have not come to me by now? He is buried deep along with the others and shall not return.”

Vilthavia did not release his hold on her at this retort but did turn his eyes to the cold ground, not knowing what else to do or say by now. Elendis relented after a moment of silence ensued and softened her tone.

“Forgive me, my friend,” she apologized to him, placing extra emphasis of the word ‘friend’. “Forgive me, for I do not mean to be cross with you. But I feel like I now strive desperately with despair for mastery of my lingering spirit. Yet I have little doubt that Cernan, my old protector of old – a close friend of my father – has perished. Look out down that icy slope there.” At this she gestured with a nod of her head back down where Vidui and a few others, no more than five or six fortunate souls thus far, were looking and calling out for survivors. “How many of those that fled that way, and of these there were many, might have survived such a terrible fury from above? Pray do not hold out much hope for many of our friends, for I have none.”

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