Grief of the North Kingdom (a novel)

by Jul 12, 2010Stories

CHAPTER SIX

Vilthavia sat huddled against a cold wall of stone and contemplated the fragility of life and death. It seemed to him that every member of the race of the Edain in the world walked a slender cord of rope that spanned a vast gulf of death; lose your balance but for an instant and you perish. There are no second chances. It seemed a bitter fate, wrested upon Men out of jest by the lords of the west. It was surely otherwise with the Eldar. Vilthavia had never known anyone from that mysterious race before. He had met two or three once while trekking through the eaves of the forest of Mirkwood with some companions but he had not even spoken to them. How very fortunate they were! They were immortal and, if the old legends concerning them be true, they did indeed have a second chance at life after their demise. Not so for Men. In the event of their death all was over. Their ethereal souls then traveled to the Halls of Mandos to await there their judgment. He wondered how long such an inconceivable flight might take. Perhaps poor Harbrad and Brandon were there already. It was still hard to believe that they were gone. They were both such amicable young men. One moment they were part of the world and one moment later they were not. He himself had very nearly joined them in their doom. The thought that he might just have easily have perished as well had he been standing only a few paces further down the hillside filled Vilthavia with fear and consternation. Twice now he had flirted with death since he entered into the high passes of the Misty Mountains and had, so far, eluded its grasp. He dared not tempt fate a third time. He had no wish to die, for in truth he dearly loved life. He was still very young and had so many things to see and do before he took his leave of the world. Therefore Vilthavia decided then and there that from that time on he would take no chances in tempting fate and would live out his life in a sort of calm and tranquil peace somewhere in Eriador for a while and allow himself to mature for a while. If he could find no peace in Rhudaur without his father than he would travel to Arthedain, or perhaps Cardolan in the south. All he had to do was find a way out of these accursed mountains. If he could achieve this one difficult task he vowed silently to himself that he would never willingly travel here again, for he hated mountains. To be sure he would find a way back home again some day, yet he would venture southwards and go by way of the great gap of Calenardhon and not risk the perils of the mountains, even if that meant years of weary travel.

Vilthavia sighed heavily with his thoughts. The longing for sleep stirred within him as it did for his companions who also sat nearby in dejected misery. Yet somehow that alluring state of blessed forgetfulness and relaxation would not come to him then despite his need for it. Perhaps he ought not to sleep. He was now very cold. He might not ever wake up again! He could not shake off the horrific sensation that he had very nearly been killed up on that mountainside only an hour or so ago. He supposed he ought to feel thankful for his preservation but he was not. They were all lost – lost and alone without any promise of aid of any kind as far as any of them knew it. They had very little food or dry clothing by now, most of these being lost in the chaos of the avalanche, nor did they have any way to make a fire for warmth. Water, too, was wanting, for though there was snow and ice aplenty they had no way to melt either one unless the necessary material to create a fire could be found. Merely cramming the cold white powder in one’s mouth and holding it there until it melted offered little relief from thirst, for it froze the inner mouth and created a dead numbness. Their situation was quite hopeless; of this there could be little doubt.

The only positive aspect of their escape from the icy hillside just now was the discovery of the small cave entrance that Urlavia had descried from above. But even this was of little consolation for it was barely large enough inside to accommodate the remaining fourteen Rhovanions that yet lived from the original number of fifty-five. Judging by its smooth inner walls and lofty proximity (the mouth of the ‘cave’ stood over twenty feet above the floor of the little valley) it seemed easily apparent that this was no random natural cave entrance but one that had been fashioned by the hands of intelligent beings some time long ago. Whether it was constructed by men or dwarves could not be ascertained by any of the inexperienced Rhovanions that now sat huddled together inside the entrance trying to ward off the cold in the darkness. There was a set of haggard and uneven stairs that had been chiseled by ancient masons into the face of the rock that led up to the mouth but they had been largely worn away by wind and time. Yet they were at least stable enough to allow the group to climb them in order to gain access to the newly discovered cave and remove themselves from the night breezes.

There they sat and brooded together – inside the entrance way. They were largely silent as dusk receded outside and made way for a starry bitter night. By the white light of the moon Vidui and Ningavia, the two men who now jointly ruled the remnant of the lost Rhovanion mountaineers, had departed and went out to make a brief reconnaissance of the valley and search for signs of a road or, if luck favored them again, the main pass they had formerly lost. All else remained back inside the cave entrance and did whatever they could in order to prevent themselves from freezing to death. Sleep was discouraged, for if the sleeper’s body heat decreased while asleep it would be unlikely they would ever see the dawn. If they had not been so stricken with sadness and melancholy they might have appreciated their situation a little more, for if it had at present been a time of winter, or even that of late autumn they would surely have all been long dead by now. Yet in the world outside the highlands of the Misty Mountains the calendar still showed that summer would not give way to autumn proper for another two weeks. Most knew this but were either too weary or witless to take it into consideration by now.

Vilthavia lifted his head from his bent knees and looked about him in the darkness. He had eyes now for only Elendis. Yet he could not locate her for some moments as he gazed wearily around the little cave entrance. Back and forth he looked until he began to grow alarmed and feared she might be absent. But no. There she was, laying prostrate on the floor of the back of the cave by herself with various articles of clothing piled on her body from to toe in order to warm her. These items were given her by some of the men in the group – for it was only right that, as the only woman in the party (and a young one at that) she ought to be the last one to freeze to death. She now also wore a makeshift sling around her neck and injured arm that was made out of a few scraps of miscellaneous pieces of fabric that had been fastened together. He could not see her there at first, it being dark and the shadowy forms of the men blocking his view. He slowly rose up and walked over to her. One of the men called out to him in a loud whisper and told him to let her rest, but Vilthavia ignored the man.

“Elendis,” said Vilthavia softly, bending down next to her on his knees. He reached out one of his increasingly numb hands and touched her on her shoulder. She was lying with her face toward the stone wall so that none could see her face, needless as this was in the darkness of night.

“Elendis, I trust you have not fallen asleep! It is I – Vilthavia. I thought I might come and sit by you for a while. Elendis?’

At first she said nothing in reply and merely took a deep breath before exhaling. Vilthavia was not sure but he thought that she might be silently weeping to herself. Once more he said her name to alert her to his presence but one of the men again called out to him to let her be. Vilthavia turned and looked back at the speaker but could only see the man’s dark silhouette.

“I am awake,” replied Elendis at last to Vilthavia, who now went so far as to bend over her more closely to see the expression on her face.

“How could I sleep like this anyway?”

“May I come and sit beside you for a while, Elendis?’ he asked her in a whisper.

“Will my presence lend you some comfort now, Vilthavia? If so then you may sit, yet pray do not take it amiss if I lay here as I am.”

“I will not. Yet I think that you would benefit from some companionship for a while, for if your despair flows on unchecked you will fall into a darkness too deep.”

“What of it? Darkness awaits us all ere long. We will not escape these mountains with our lives intact. I feel this is true in my heart and I grieve that I shall never again see my family or my home.”

Vilthavia took his seat next to her against the wall so that her small lithe body now faced him at an angle. He tried to place her legs across his lap but she recoiled her knees and went on lying there in a fetal position. Vilthavia moved himself close to her again so that physical contact between them could no longer be avoided. He stared intently at her face now but could still see little in the darkness.

“You think that we will all die up here?” Vilthavia waited for her to reply but she merely shrugged her covered shoulders in silence – a gesture that remained unseen by Vilthavia.

“I admit that it is a possibility that some here may perish ere we reach the safety of the lower foothills,” said Vilthavia. “Perhaps I, too, may perish ere the end. But somehow I do not believe so. I am going to escape these accursed mountains one way or another; as will you, my dear Elendis. Us men will stop at nothing to see that, at the very least, you shall be preserved in the end.”

Elendis turned her head slightly so that she might look at Vilthavia’s shadowed face. He could not make out her facial expression very well in the darkness but he plainly heard her scoff softly at his hopeful predictions.

“Vilthavia, I think that you must walk through life in a sort of dreamlike trance,” she said in a more solid tone. “To place trust in mere faith without credentiality is the stuff of fools. Do not deceive yourself! Did you not see the vast expanse of white peeks stretched far out into the western horizon when we were back up on that mountainside? It is in that direction that we must go – or at least that is what poor Wildaria and your uncle have stated. Our bodies are mortaly weary with cold and fatigue already, for we have sufferd much. My arm is lame and well nigh useless with pain. Nor have we any food. There is nothing, barring some unforeseen or miraculous chance, that any of us can do now. I am trying to make peace with myself now and beg the Valar that await us to forgive me my transgressions and take us all in peaceful sleep.”

“So you want to die in your sleep?” asked Vilthavia in a raised voice. “Is that right?”

One or more of their huddled companions overheard these last words from Vilthavia and one man offered his reply instead.

“Would you rather die in another avalanche, lad? Eh? Or perhaps you would rather fall from the height of a cliff?”

Another man grunted in agreement, saying, “Aye, death by snow-sleep is the way for us, alas, for die we must, seemingly.”

“Curse you and your foul brooding!” snapped another man, who Vilthavia recognized by the voice as Vinya, a sturdy warrior type. “I, for one, shall not seek the ignoble death by exposure and snow-sleep! You cast a pall over us with your black thoughts. Shut up, you fools!”

No one offered Vinya any rebuke for his words, for no one had the strength to do so even if they had wanted to. But Vilthavia turned his attention back to Elendis, saying to her that he would not allow her to seek solace in a premature death.

“How will you stop me, Vilthavia?” she asked him almost in a sort of amused tone. “Will you set me in bonds or perhaps set a guard on me while you sleep? You must sleep eventually, you know. We all must, and without food or fire for warmth the snow-sleep awaits us all.”

Vilthavia grew impatient with Elendis’ determination to remain glib and he could not restrain himself from uttering a frustrated curse under his breath. He was tempted to rise up and walk away but he checked himself and instead, much to her surprise, forced his own weight between the wall that Elendis was facing and her own bulk so that they now lay facing one another on the floor of the cave. By accident Vilthavia bumped her wounded arm and she grimaced with the pain of it. He immediately apologized for his clumsiness. To his surprise (and secret delight) Elendis did not shrug away from him but instead continued to lay there facing him, their noses only inches apart now.

“Lady Elendis,” said Vilthavia seriously after they had lain there in silence for several minutes. “We have been through much together in so short a time, you and I.”

“You and me along with everyone else, you mean.” These words were spoken by her surely to keep a bit of distance between the two of them, but Vilthavia was not deterred and went on with his thoughts.

“Elendis, I wanted to offer you my sincere gratitude for coming to my aid back up on that mountainside when the avalanche fell upon us. It was a courageous and heartfelt act to perform in the midst of such a tempest – especially for a young woman. I might have followed the course of many of our doomed companions by taking flight to the trees if you had not come to me at that moment. I shall always be eternally grateful to you for it.”

“You should not doubt the courage of women, young or old, Vilthavia.”

“I do not.”

“If deeds of heroism are more plentiful in men,” continued Elendis, taking little notice of Vilthavia’s reply, “it is only because men are wary of our inner strength, which they fear is superior to their own – therefore they have always felt the need to supress us in order to check this imbalance.”

Vilthavia said nothing to this. He had no desire to enter into a debate with this headstrong young lady regarding the merits of the two sexes – especially when they were all teetering on the edge of life and death in the wilds of the Misty Mountains. He sighed loud enough so that she could hear his exhalation plainly. She seemed to take the hint well enough, for she softened her words now.

“Forgive me,” she said to him at last. “I often have a tendency to become callous and defensive when I am given to grief or hardship. Yet I, too, must express my thanks to you for attempting to retrieve poor Cernan’s amulet. Your act of goodwill almost became your undoing, though, my friend! Though I lament the deaths of Harbrad and Brandon I also thank the Valar for preserving your life. My grief would have been nearly overwhelming should you have fallen into darkness as well.”

Despite the cold that clung to him Vilthavia felt a little wave of warmth rush through him at her kind and affectionate words then. He smiled at her and hoped that she could see his face in the darkness. He thought that he, in turn, saw a tiny smile emanate from her lips, though of course he could not be sure. He could think of nothing else to say to this except a brief, “You are more than welcome, my lady.”

More silence ensued following this, the only sound they could hear was a few of the men up towards the front of the cave entrance murmuring softly together. Far off in the outer distance of their proximity the sound of a shrill wolf cry pierced the cold night of the mountains. Another howl from a neighboring wolf, or perhaps the same wolf howling twice, answered it. Elendis raised her head up slightly at this sound in uneasiness, but Vilthavia assured her that no wolves were nearby and that wherever they might be out there they were too far away to trouble them tonight. He had no way of knowing this for certain but he desired to put Elendis at ease nonetheless.

“Vilthavia?” said Elendis after another silent spell between them.

“Yes?”

What was it you said to me back up on that terrible mountain, just before we succumbed to the falling snow?”

The answer to this question was obvious by the tone in her voice, which was, oddly enough, spiked with a touch of suspicious humor. Vilthavia left the open air hanging quietly between them for a few passing seconds before venturing to reply.

“My lady?” he asked evasively.

“‘My lady’?” she mimicked him. “Am I ‘your lady’?” Another silent pause here. “Perhaps I ought to be. Would you like me to be ‘your lady’, Vilthavia?”

“Elendis, I think you are growing very weary,” replied Vilthavia woodenly. “You speak in clouded riddles.”

“Fye upon you, Vilthavia! My words and wits are perfectly clear, though perhaps my tongue grows ever more numb in this cold. Yet I asked you if you wanted me to become your ‘lady’ or not.”

Vilthavia heard one or more of their companions shift their weight around as they sat huddled together at the words of Elendis. He felt sure that they overheard her last question to him and he could feel their eyes upon them now. He shifted his weight back up on his elbow so that he could catch a glimpse of them. It was difficult to make them out in such dark shadow but most of them had their backs to them now. Yet he was sure that they were trying to eavesdrop on them. The only pair of eyes he could honestly make out from his position towards the back of the cave were those of his Uncle Urlavia’s. He was the closest to the outer edge of the cave mouth and could partially be seen in the white moonlight shining down from above. Urlavia was looking directly over at the two laying, prostrate sillouettes of Vilthavia and Elendis by now. When it became obvious to him that his young nephew was gazing at him he turned away again and stared out across the frozen white valley below.

“They are trying to listen to our speech,” commented Vilthavia to Elendis in a whisper.

“I don’t care,” she replied. “I have nothing to hide from anyone anymore, for what difference does it make now?”

“If you are once again eluding to our inevitable demise I again insist to you that we shall escape these mountains one way or another.”

“To perish here is the easiest way I fear,” answered Elendis calmly. “Yet, all the same, I have no wish to die yet.”

“We shall not,” he replied more sternly now. “I swear to you!”

“Do you know, I am not supposed to fear death as keenly as I do, for I am Dunedan. Cernan always taught me and my sister not to fear death, for Eru looks more kindly upon us Edain than upon others. He proclaims that the ancient gift of Numenor was proof enough of this fact.”

“Perhaps he was right,” said Vilthavia meekly, not knowing what else to say.

“I do not believe it,” she said firmly. “I believe all such affirmations of self righteousness dignity to be nonsense. Why do men say such things? I loved Cernan dearly but I often found that I disagreed with many of his opinions. I believe that we are all the same. I do not think that ‘The One’ looks any more kindly upon me than he does you, Dunedan though I may be.”

Vilthavia thought fleetingly about revealing his own partial claim to Dunedain blood as well, but feared he might come off sounding too pleading and indignant. He remained silent instead.

“Was Cernan full Dunadan as well?” he asked her.

“Indeed not. Who nowadays can rightfully claim such a thing anyway? The bloodlines of the Edain are by now so entertwined with that of other men that such a distinction can rarely be proven, save, of course, by the royal lines in Arthedain where the bloodline of Isildur runs true. My homeland of Rhudaur turns ever more foul with the passing of the years. The true Dunedain, or at least those that are as of yet uncorrupt, continue to dwindle away.”

She lapsed into silence here as she readjusted herself upon her makeshift blankets upon the stone floor.

“Elendis,” said Vilthavia, “why are you here? What cause of yours possessed you to take up with us – vagabonds – to begin with? Whatever it was it must be important.”

“Vilthavia, I think the cold is beginning to affect your mind as much as mine now,” she replied. “The only way to get back home again to Rhudaur was to cross the mountains, naturally. There was only me and Cernan and two of his companions to start with. We needed a company of mountaineers to join up with who knew something of the area, so fate led us to you and your companions.”

“A lamentable fate for you, alas,” interrupted Vilthavia. Elendis offered no comment to this remark and went on.

“Hold me closer to you, Vilthavia,” requested Elendis as she shuffled her weight right up next to him so that their cheeks touched one another. Any bystander who might have looked on them in any other time and place would have taken them for young lovers. “That’s right. Wrap your ankles around mine and share these garments here with me as a blanket. If I am your ‘lass’ then you must warm me with your body. I think I am beginning to go numb in the feet!”

Vilthavia offered to reverse his position so that he might rub her feet for warmth but she declined, fearing to remiove her footwear until a fire could be made, which seemed unlikely to happen by now. Instead she instructed Vilthavia to place his hand with the frozen fingertips between her thighs with the aim of preventing all out frostbite from setting in on them. He accepted her offer gladly.

“How is your arm feeling?” he asked her.

“It hurts. How the pain of it throbs so! I fear that it is broken, Vilthavia. How shall I escape these mountains with such an injury? I don’t know if I can hold onto ropes and cords long enough to make it down from this place, for the pain is great whenever I raise it upwards. What if I stumble on the way down? I shall be forced to raise my arm to break my fall. I fear to imagine the intensity of the pain in such an instance. I am strong enough for a young maiden but I do not know if I could bear such agony. Then there is this incesant cold and snow to contend with as well. Perhaps this little cave shall be my tomb in the end.”

“Dearest Elendis!” exclaimed Vilthavia softly. “Do not say such things, I beg you! I shall carry you down this mountain in my very arms if necessary! We all would. Pray, stop talking nonsense. Let us talk about something else in order to take our minds away from thoughts of gloom and cold.”

Elendis stared blithely into his eyes but said nothing. Vilthavia felt her gaze in the cold shadows of the cave and returned it with a forced slender smile. He reached over to test the strength of the tied knot of her makeshift sling for her arm and decided that it needed to be tightened some more. He carefully sat up and made the necessary adjustments to it and laid down with her again.

“I will tell you the purpose of my errand for what it is worth now,” said Elendis quitely and into his ear so that none of the men who might be eavesdropping on them might overhear. “I did not desire to leave Rhudaur at all, but my father insisted that I go. He thought Rhudaur had become too dangerous for my sister and me and desired us to depart our homeland in order to preserve our family line from destruction. He wanted us both to cross the mountains together and assured us that if matters grew worse at home he and my mother would follow us as soon as chance allowed. Yet I have dwelt in the vales of the Anduin among the northmen for almost three years now and have received no word from my parents in all that time. I began to fear for their safety and would wait no longer for them. My loyal Cernan has been my guardian in all this time and he too feared for his kin back home. It was not difficult to persuade him of the urgency of returning to Rhudaur to locate our family again. My dear sweet Cernan! Alas for my friend!”

Vilthavia gazed at this sorowful fair-haired young woman who now lay so very close beside him upon the ground. He thought Elendis had begun to cry again as she lingered on the death of Cernan but the darkness around them prevented him from being sure.

“My tears will not come to me!” she remarked wryly. “I am that numb! Hold me tighter, Vilthavia.”

“What happened to your sister?” he asked her after another pause in which he attempted to squeeze her waist more firmly. “Did she come with you into exile?”

“She did not,” answered Elendis rather stiffly. “She refused to leave her homeland on the grounds of her innate fear of the mountains. She professed a strong aversion to high places – much like yourself, Vilthavia. that is why I started when you first revealed your old fear to me; it reminded me of my sister. But I believe the true reason for her refusal to leave was because she did not want to leave her man whom she loved. He is not a Dunadan by blood, but rather something else.”

“Something else?”

“I know not what sort of folk he comes from but it certainly is not that of our bloodline. I have seen him only once before. Yet she keeps her relationship with this man secret. Certainly my father has no knowledge of him – he would become wrathful if he discovered his oldest daughter with a man from Denethil’s court.”

“Your sister’s man works for the king?”

“Yes – or at least that is what Calime has told me.”

“‘Calime’?” asked Vilthavia dumbly.

“My sister, of course,” Elendis quipped impatiently. She went on.

“She has sworn me to silence regarding her secret lover, of which I often repent. I believe this man is an ill omen; not just for Calime but for us as well. Indeed, I have often been tempted to take this man as a spy of the king’s councilmen. My father was a reputable man in Cameth Brin before the ascendancy of Denethil and the beginning of his reign and often voiced his disapproval of him, though many bade him to put a check on his unguarded tongue. I think the king would like nothing better than to see my father disgraced before the court and evicted from the realm for good – or even worse!”

“So your sister resides still in Rhudaur?”

“Yes, as far as I know it. Her refusal to come with me into exile proved a strain on our relationship and I fear we quarreled the day before I was to set out. In my anger I even threatened to reveal her secret love for Bruffad, the name of her lover, to our parents if she would not follow me into exile. But three years of the sun has come and gone since I have last seen any of my family, nor have I received any tidings of them. I fear what might have happened since my departure.”

Silence ensued after she had spoken. Vilthavia wondered thoughtfully to himself. Knowing of her flight into voluntary exile made him feel a sense of warm familiarity with Elendis, and he pitied her present plight as he also pitied himself. It almost seemed as if fate had deliberately thrown them together out of sympathy (or was it cruelty?). Each could offer the other genuine empathy in their predicaments and could speak words of hopeful encouragement in regards to their destinies.

“I hope I do not trouble you overmuch with my story,” commented Elendis softly. “I find it somehow comforting to talk to you about this here in our frozen wilderness together.”

“No indeed!” said Vilthavia. “In fact, I marvel at what you tell me, as my predicament is remarkably similar to yours, seemingly.”

Then Vilthavia went on to tell Elendis in brief as to his own errand on so long a journey and his unwavering hope to locate his missing father in Rhudaur. When asked if she had ever heard the name of Hunthor Elendis shook her head.

“I no longer know many of the men at Cameth Brin. I suppose I never really knew any of them very well, me being much younger at the time. Yet many of the king’s men do not go by their proper name but tend to use false ones instead. But hearing you speak, Vilthavia, I would urge you not to travel to Cameth Brin for any reason. The folk there are not to be trusted anymore. The king has many spies and agents who deal with hostile people from abroad. Before I departed it was well known that Denethil favored employing Dunlendings from the south as well as ordinary northmen of mixed blood from all corners of Eriador.”

“I cannot turn back at this point, Elendis,” replied Vilthavia sternly. “I tried to turn back when we were still in the eastern foothills but was refused an escort, if you recall. Yet now that I have no choice but to go forward I would that I may find my father – or at least receive tidings of him. How can I do otherwise?”

“It is folly.”

“How can I do otherwise?”

“Then I fear for you already. Where will you go? Who will you stay with? You have already stated that you are a stranger in these lands.”

“Perhaps I will seek lodgings with Vidui. He already has room and board arranged for him with the prince Ermegil, who in turn serves the king.”

“Who?” asked Elendis in confusion.

“I think he said the name of the said prince is ‘Ermegil’.”

“I am not familiar with that name. Yet I hope that you will reconsider your decision, Vilthavia. If you do not wish to leave the company of your new ‘woman’,” she suggested coyly despite her phyiscal discomfort, “then you will take my advice.”

“What then would you have me do, dear Elendis?”

She fell silent again for several moments at this. Vilthavia wondered if she was falling asleep when she did not respond to his suggestion of them both sitting upwards again. At length she sighed and spoke again in a resolute tone.

“Very well, Vilthavia. I think you ought to come with me – of we ever escape these dreadful mountains, which is yet doubtful.”

“My lady?”

“You should come with me and prove your intentions towards me. You do want me for your own, do you not?”

Vilthavia hesitated. Not out of uncertainty, for he had already grown quite attatched as well as attracted to this bold and beautiful young lady in so short a time. Yet he felt reluctant to commit to anything outside of searching for his father whom he had come so very far to find again. How could he simply give up on his quest after all this time? To abandon his search and go traveling away with this young lovely maiden whom he had only known for a mere fortnight seemed untamed and unwise: wisdom giving way to feckless hedonism without forethought – an impulsive act of youth and contrary to his new determination to lead a safe and cautious life. But this delay of response to her question was taken amiss by Elendis and he felt her turn away from him to face the opposite direction. When he laid his hand upon her shoulder she recoiled slightly.

“Such a long pause before replying to this?” she said suddenly now aloof and distant. “Thank you for providing me with your warmth, Vilthavia. I shall be alright now.”

“Elendis,” he said, trying to reclaim that tender warm closeness they had been sharing.

“I would like to be alone for a while, I believe.”

“Elendis! I fear you misunderstand me. My hesitation was not out of a refusal of your affections. I was merely lost in reflection…”

“You may go now, Vilthavia. Please let me be.”

Feeling confused and a bit wounded to heart Vilthavia sat up again and sighed. He looked down at Elendis once more before slowly rising to his frozen feet. He staggered back to his former spot near the mouth of the cave entrance, shuffling around the bulk of the men who were still sitting in huddled mass together in order to keep warm. As the air of the mountain valley grew slowly colder with the ageing darkness even this was becoming more and more futile. Would they all freeze to death? Perhaps Elendis was right after all. Perhaps it would be less cruel for all of them to merely seek the fatal snow-sleep and save themselves what might likely be profitless toil and hardship as they desperately sought a way down into the foothills of the western Misty Mountains.

He sat down again and leaned back against the cave wall with closed eyes. His mind raced to and fro as he pondered on their fate and all that had befallen them all since the dreadful winter tempest had fell upon them. Yet he mostly dwelt on Elendis. Did he really love her? He had openly proclaimed as much with those very words just before the two of them had been buried beneath the falling mass of snow that made up the bulk of the avalanche. Yet did he utter these words out of a dread fear of death and the untimely end to his mortality on earth – or did he truly love this young woman from Rhudaur? He had never loved a girl before. Had the sudden mutual kiss between them at the time been an act of love or merely an invlountary response or reflex in a situation of imminent peril? Thinking about it now the latter seemed more likely. Yet he could not deny that it had given him pleasure and comfort at that very moment. Did he or did he not love Elendis?

When he opened eyes again he knew instinctively that he had fallen asleep. This alarmed him exceedingly, and he immediately sat up straight and looked about him. He could see that the men who had been huddling closely together were still there but most of them were laying down by now. Two men only had remained in a seated position through the night. Vilthavia looked at them and tried to speak but somehow could only manage a hoarse whisper. One of the men who had been sitting upright moved his head upwards slightly and gazed over at Vilthavia with a blank look upon his face. It was a look of hopelessness tinged with carelessness. The man, whom Vilthavia knew well enough by now but could not recall his name, said nothing to him but instead simply shook his head silently as if to say, ‘all is lost, we are all doomed.’

Vilthavia looked across the entranceway and gazed blankly at his uncle, who seemed to have fallen asleep. Vilthavia thought briefly about rousing him awake but suddenly realized that the cave was no longer masked in utter darkness. Dawn was slowly approaching in the world away to the east and an unclouded sky hung over the silent and hidden valley below them like a frozen but invisible canopy. Vilthavia slowly and rather painfully rose to his feet and stepped over to the cave mouth and stood outside the entrance as he looked down and out over the long and frozen tree-studded valley. All was quiet. Only the sound of a distant woodpecker busily hammering away at some random evergreen pierced the air.

He was amazed to find himself alive. He had never meant to fall asleep as he did. Yet he had been so very weary. They were all well beyond ordinary weariness by now. They had well nigh completely exhausted themselves in both body and mind. Small wonder he had fallen asleep despite the cold. Yet he knew that in doing so he had already violated his new will and determination to live life as safely and cautiously as possible. For the third time in less than a week he had tempted fate and had risked death: by way of avalanche, hidden crevasse and now risking the snow-sleep.

Then he thought of Elendis. He abandoned his thoughts and turned to retrace his steps back into the cave to go and check on Elendis as quickly as possible. He stepped around the sleeping men on the floor of the cave (some of whom he feared might not ever wake up again) and came to Elendis, who was now sitting upright against the wall with closed eyes. She was not moving, and Vilthavia called out her name in a croaking, strained voice that was barely audible even to himself. She did not move at this and he immediately feared that she had died in the night with no one to even hold her close to fend off the cold.

Vilthavia bent down upon his knees before her and called her name again, this time more loudly. Yet still there was no sign of life, and straightaway Vilthavia felt a stab of inner pain go into him and he felt the sobs of sorrow well up inside him. He slowly began to fear that she was gone now and had went to the appointed waiting place for all the Edain beyond the circles of the world. He felt tears swelling up in his eyes and begin to roll down his frozen cheeks. With the half-light of dawn now filtering its way into the cave he could see her more clearly now. Her blonde hair was ragged and unkempt as it hung limply down from her head and partially covered her lifeless face. Her cheeks were deathly white and her lips tinged with pale blue. He stared at her for a few passing moments. not wanting to believe that this lovely and brave young woman could truly be dead after coming so far. His vision became blurred by tears (which was in itself amazing considering the cold environment) and he cuffed them away. He sobbed again and rwached out to cup her cheeks in his palms, uttering softly to himself and to her form, “Yes! Yes, I do love you, Elendis! I love you! do not leave me!”

Then lo! Elendis slowly opened her eyes and looked palely into his own. Then Vilthavia breathed a sigh of relief and sought to stifle another sob that welled up in him. He felt a flood of new joy run through him at the knowledge that Elendis yet lived. She lived! They might still forge a future together in the end!

“Do you love me?” she asked him after a long pause. Vilthavia nodded with a painful smile. Yes, he told her now openly. He did indeed love her and would follow her wherever she desired to go after they escaped the mountains. To this Elendis did not smile, for she was too spent in body, but nodded her approval. But Vilthavia knew that their future together now depended entirely upon their leaving this little cave and finding a way down the mountainside at all costs. Another night up here and they would all surely perish. They must not tempt fate again. Vilthavia bent over her and gently kissed her on her frozen and chapped lips. She tried to respond to his kiss but was too weary and cold.

“The dawn is coming, dearest Elendis!” said Vilthavia in his hoarse voice. Speaking was now painfully difficult for him since waking up from his sleep. “Soon the sun will rise unshrouded and we shall benefit from its warmth. Yet we must move you over to the cave mouth.”

His instructions to her was interrupted by a low and trailing moan from one of the men. Vilthavia turned to see one of the sitting men leaning over one of his companions, saying, “They are dead! Dead! They have fallen to the snow-sleep!”

Vilthavia rose to his feet and was about to go over to the man when he heard his name called out in a fierce whisper. It was the voice of his uncle Urlavia.

“They are coming,” said his uncle woodenly.

“Who is coming?” asked Vilthavia with his strained voice. “Vidui? Ningavia? Is it them at last?”

Urlavia, who was now sitting upright and gazing down into the long length of the valley, shook his head in reply.

“Nay, it is not them. Your friends have abandoned us, seemingly, curse them! A fine pair of leaders they have made!”

“Who is coming?”

“Come and see for yourself, lad!”

Vilthavia strode quickly over to the cave mouth and looked out upon the outside world below – and there they were. Men. A score of men dressed in heavy winter-gear all armed with spears and helms. There looked to be at least two dozen of them, perhaps more. They were very far away but were all walking in an orderly fashion through the snow towards the direction of the cave. This fact, once heralded to the rest of the group, was received with cautious optimism. Yet no one desired to spend another night up in this frozen icebox and there seemed little choice but to take up the risk of alerting them to their presence and begging, on bent knees if necessary, for their much needed assistance.

“We are rescued!” cried one of the men, coming to look down at the advancing new-comers.

“Who shall go down to them?” asked another.

“I will go,” replied Vilthavia, amazed to hear himself say such a thing. To volunteer such a thing was hardly in keeping with his new life plan of safety and caution first. Yet he desired to show his bravery to Elendis.

“No,” said Urlavia, now rising to his feet. ” I will go to them.”

Yet when Vilthavia’s uncle struggled to his feet he staggered as he did so and a dull and metallic object fell out of one of his torn pockets upon his ragged pantaloons. The little object struck the floor of the cave with a dull thud and lay at the feet of Urlavia. Vilthavia looked down at what had fallen from his uncle’s pocket and lo! There was Cernan’s amulet and gold chain! Vilthavia stared down at it for a brief second trying to comprehend what he had just witnessed before Urlavia quickly bent over and seized it in his hands before striding out of the cave and down the stone steps without a word.

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Found in Home 5 Reading Room 5 Stories 5 Grief of the North Kingdom (a novel)

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