Vilthavia looked on his uncle Urlavia with a most unkind eye at the unexpected discovery of the late Cernan’s missing amulet. He watched it fall from his uncle’s pocket and fall with a thud to the rocky floor in near disbelief. He always knew that his mother’s brother was prone to acts of selfishness an unkindness but it seems he was also a common thief at heart. His uncle had quite obviously lifted the golden piece of family jewelry off of the body of the deceased Rhudauran when he had come across Cernan’s frozen corpse laying submerged in the deep snow back on the slope of the mountain. Elendis had called down to Urlavia from above upon hearing of the discovery of her old friend’s body and had asked Urlavia to recover Cernan’s amulet off of his neck and kindly bring it back to her so that she might one day return it to the old man’s family. But Urlavia had claimed that he could find no such amulet.
“So,” thought Vilthavia in silence as he watched the receding figure of his uncle make his way down the rock stairs nigh the entrance way and wade through the snowdrifts down in the valley, “not only are you a selfish and greedy b*%#@*d, but a bear-faced liar as well! Well may you rue the day you stole that amulet, Urlavia, brother of Yavinia! Yet I foretell that you have only begun to harbor malicious misdeeds in your black heart.”
Vilthavia could not decide whether or not he should disclose the theft of the necklace to Elendis for fear of further darkening her already tender spirits all the more. If she slipped farther down into the well of her despair she might give up on life altogether and ready herself for a needless and premature death. He had heard legends before that the Eldar were susceptible to such untimely fates. It was said that in times of extreme grief or hardship that the elves were capable of willingly laying down their life and succumbing to death even though they suffered no material bodily injuries. They might give up their lives to excessive grief and simply die. How could such a thing be possible, though? Could the race of Men do such a thing? Perhaps the high Dunedain could do so? Vilthavia did not know for sure but had his doubts about that. Even still, Elendis could inwardly decide without revealing her mind to any that there was no longer any hope of survival up in these cursed snowy mountains and, instead of slowly freezing or starving, death would come faster by simply taking the deer’s leap over the edge of some random cliff face. It would be virtually painless and quite quick in the end.
Vilthavia shook his head in absolute refusal of such a dreadful ending to so lovely a girl as ‘his Elendis’, as he already lay claim to her. He watched his miserable uncle walk out of view far down in the valley beneath the shadows of tall evergreens before making to turn away and return to the side of Elendis where she sat back at the rear end of the cave. But was checked in his stride by a sudden ray of yellow and orange sunlight that filtered through a wisp of patchy cloud above the distant mountain tops in the east. The light shone lazily into the mouth of the frozen cave entrance where the survivors of the mountaineering party languished in misery as each of them fought with their inner fears and gloomy spirits in silence. But many of them blinked repeatedly at this sudden dispersal of new morning light.
“The dawn has arrived at last,” uttered Vilthavia as he stopped and looked out onto a brighter landscape. “We have made it through another night! How I welcome it so!”
“May it give you at least a little joy, master Vilthavia!” spoke a voice further back in the shadows of the cave. The tone of the speaker was laced with mockery and Vilthavia looked round and saw that it was the voice of Ulric, the man whom had plucked Vilthavia out of the deep snow following the effects of the avalanche and had given him the drought from the medicinal opiate mixture. He had been the assistant of the company’s primary healer before the latter was killed in the avalanche. He went on again in a gloomy demeanor.
“But to me it means nothing more than an errant shaft of sunlight has mistakenly cast its beams our way for no good purpose. It shall not warm us back into health, alas. Yet perhaps it presents itslef to us this morning in order to mock our plight.”
“Nay, Ulric!” replied Vilthavia, coming closer to him. “Say not so, I beg you. You must try and turn away from such black thoughts now, for not only will the sun grace us with her presence this day but her beams shall diminish the effects of the snow the further down we go.”
“You think that any of us are in condition to climb down this mountain, Vilthavia?” asked Ulric sharply, his voice rising now. “Even the mere attempt of such a thing would finish us.”
“Silence your tongue, Ulric!” interrupted one of the other Rhovanion suffers in the cave. Urlic ignored him.
“Here is another thing, my fellows,” he went on more animatedly, “a band of wandering mountain-men from foreign parts at last grace us with their presence here in the very hour of our need! Yet what sort of folk are they? Shall they prove to be virtuous or shall they prove villainous? I do not trust strangers in this part of the world, I tell you. Perhaps they shall come among us and set us in bonds? Or maybe they will be more merciful and slay us all before looting our dead bodies before they leave us all to rot!”
“It will not be so, Ulric,” assured Vilthavia in a more calming tone. “At least I think not that we shall be slain now – not after all we have gone through by now. A foresight has come upon me this morning. We shall live through this day and the one after that as well. We shall all come into Eriador in tact – at least those of us who do not despair shall.”
“Don’t be a fool, boy!” exclaimed Ulric laughing bitterly. “One man’s foresight may be another man’s pipe dream. You sound more and more like that idiot uncle of yours every day. I, for one, welcomed his decision to go down and confront this new menace that had come upon us. Let a fool be true to his nature and get himself killed in the process! It shall be one less fool in the world to bear!”
“I told you to shut up your mouth, Ulric!” cried out one of the men, a certain Rangar who had come all the way from eastern territories of Rhovanion where the mountains that encompass the inland sea of Rhun can be descried. “If you say anymore I shall silence you myself! I swear I shall!”
Ulric scoffed openly at Rangar’s bravado and even went so far to spit at the man’s feet in anger. The demeanor of Ulric had changed noticably in the last three days since his miraculous survival (as he reckoned it to himself) from the avalanche. In the early stages of the mountainous expedition he had been a beacon of hope among the company. Now all hope and good will had quite departed from him and was instead replaced by a sort of venomous gloom and fatefulness which he now openly voiced among the few survivors that were left.
“High words from the mouth of such a scrawny tanner from the Eastlands,” retorted Ulric to his challenger, for Rangar had never been a man of bulk even in the bloom of health, and by now was nearly as thin as a withered branch. “I do not fear you any more than I might a toothless wolf that is more bark than bite. But your empty threats to me might very well purchase you a hefty box on the ear that you won’t soon forget!”
Vilthavia sighed at the hostile exchange between the two witless men. He wanted nothing to do with this dispute. He was cold, hungry and weary like his companions but seemed to be one of the few left among them that still retained a relative grip on his senses. He therefore begged the two men to drop their grievances and refrain from further insults ‘for the common good and preservance of the group’. To this Ulric reluctantly agreed but Ragnar would reply nothing then and instead turned his attention to the lifeless bodies of the two men that had died in their sleep overnight. He began to strip them of what little items of worth they had left to them by then, which amounted to little more than a small leather purse of eastern coinage, a silver bracelet, a leather belt with a small buckle of gold and a few incidental rings which were mostly plain bands of gold or silver, though one did in fact contain two parallel lines of tiny inlaid white gems of unknown make. Rangar laid claim to this one straight away but was again contested by Ulric and and Barden, the latter of whom had nearly fallen to his death up on the former slope and had for long refused to proceed. Thus another quarrel was born and the three Rhovanions set to hurling insults and accusations at one another.
“You are all a sorry lot of blaggards, you are!” cried Elendis suddenly at the men and their foul curses at one another. “Stop it, I say! What a display you men put on! How dare you display such brutish behavior before a young woman, regardless of her lineage! Had I any inkling that this company possessed thieves and villainous recreants among its number I should never have agreed to leave the Anduin vales with you!”
She had remained relatively quiet since awakening with the first light of the dawn, for her injured arm throbbed dully without cessation and pain of it was becomming a slow torment for her. Yet her anger and hopeless frustration at their woeful predicament coupled with the callousness displayed by her companions at the sudden death of two more among their group had frayed her nerves. Now they were quarreling over who should lay claim to the possessions of the deceased and seemed to care nothing for the dead men’s honor in death. It was more than she could bear and she sought to upbraid the three of them for their behavior.
“Lo! Behold, for the Dunedan maiden speaketh!” this was cried out by Rangar the Tanner, who, like Ulric, bore no great love for the race of the Dunedain folk. “Your tongue-lashing would have more effect if you were backed up by your dead man-friends, dame! You have lain under the blanket of our protection for many days now and you still live! We could have left you behind up in the passes as cumbersome baggage but we did not. So I would silence that noble tongue of yours, your ‘highness’! Be thankful that you have us ‘blaggards’ to pluck you out of an untimely doom!”
“Aye!” agreed another man who sat thus far idly by. It was the voice of Vinya who was, as his wont, a man of few words. He had gradually become a sort of ally with Urlavia, Vilthavia’s uncle, and had come to think of Vilthavia as an ungrateful brat towards his uncle. Of Elendis he bore no specific grudge but saw no reason why she should garner any preferential treatment merely for being a young girl who had joined their party of her own freewill.
“Young woman,” he continued, “you have no right to refer to any of us here as villains or recreants! Is that how the father’s of the Dunedain instruct their children to speak to their elders? Yet but for us ‘blaggards’ you’d be dead and buried beneath a wave of snow and ice alongside that old Dunedan fellow of yours you came with. What else do you want from us? Is it not enough that you have already been given all of the warmest and driest clothing that remains to us? We are all numb with cold here. You had better choose your words more carefully from here on out else you shall find yourself cast alone and adrift in the frozen wild.”
“Not alone!” retorted Vilthavia suddenly and with great vehemence. “I stand with her regardless of the peril!”
This reply turned a few heads and even caused Vinya, who was by now the eldest among the survivors, to emit a quick exhalation of laughter, despite his chapped and frozen lips.
“Then may the pair of you find solace in each others company alone out there!” he replied to Vilthavia, gesturing with a nod of his head towards the wild outside. “No one here will stop you leaving, I think, boy. You will get no more help from us! The time for deeds of virtue has nearly passed by now. You look to your own life and we shall each look to our own. It is the only way of it out here!”
Both Rangar and Barden murmurred their approval at the last words of Vinya, adding that apparently Vidui and Ningavia had already done the same and were most likely half way down the western foothills of the mountains by now and would soon be up to their knees in grassy meadows and wildflowers.
“In all likelihood,” argued Rangar, “they met up with this lot of spear-wielding strangers headed our way now further down the mountain and ransomed all of us for their own skins.”
Both Vilthavia and Elendis, who was already seen by the rest as a pair of would-be young lovers, called the two men misguided fools if they truly believed that Vidui and Ningavia had betrayed them all to whomever these men turned out to be.
“If these lads prove to be a band of Hillmen, which they probably are,” Vinya chimed in, “then Rangar’s theory might very well be true enough, for I have heard many grim tales of that people. They are said to be a ferocious and treacherous lot.”
“Vidui would never betray us!” snarled Vilthavia in defense of his absent friend. “He would gladly die before he would commit such a immoral crime!”
“Tis easy to proclaim such a thing before it happens thus,” replied Rangar. “Yet one may do otherwise perforce when one’s body is put to the agony of torture!”
“You do not know Vidui as I do!” cried Vilthavia again, finding new life in defense of Vidui. “I take offense at the slander of his character during his absense!”
“Damn your Vidui, boy! And dam n you and your little woman here to boot!”
Vilthavia stood and stared at Rangar in a new-found fury as he trembled with anger at the man’s words. He saw little use in prolonging the quarrel any longer and opted to say nothing at first. He felt a surge of animosity well up inside himself towards these men whom he had once called his reliable companions. For Rangar he felt a special loathing and contempt. He had a momentary vision of strangling the wretch with his bare hands. As the morning light of the cold dawn gradually filtered into the recesses of the little cave entrance Vilthavia could see the eyes of Rangar gleam with a queer sparkle in them – like a cat’s eyes might look just before it pounces upon its unsuspecting prey in the dark. He knew Rangar was several years older than himself and probably had been in a brawl or two in his day. But he could also see that Rangar had suffered most cruelly from the effects of winter exposure, for his lips and earlobes were turning a pale shade of blue while his bodily weight had dropped at least a good four stone since the day of the avalanche. Knowing that Rangar had suffered more than himself thus far Vilthavia wondered if he might be able to hold his own if the two of them were to become embroiled in a sudden wrathful melee.
One look over at Elendis quenched this idea almost at once. Elendis, who had by now sat up upon her knees in her corner as she wrapped her blankets tightly around herself, gazed fixedly into the eyes of Vilthavia, as if she were silently imploring him not to risk his life in a meaningless brawl. Vilthavia took her meaning to heart and sighed.
“This man is not worth it, Vilthavia,” said Elendis in a compassionate tone.
Vilthavia nodded after a brief pause for thought and made to step away from Rangar, who was by now a mere five feet away from him. But a sudden impulse to release his buried wrathful tension overcame him then, and he made the grievous error of turning his back on the skinny tanner from the eastlands while quietly calling him a “fool-of-a-leather making whelp.” This insult was spoken mainly to himself as he turned away, but not softly enough, alas. Without warning, Rangar unhitched his leather belt and seized both ends of it in either hand as he sprang at the unsuspecting Vilthavia. Before the young Vilthavia was aware of it he quickly found himself shoved up against the cold stone surface of one of the cave walls with his nose bent sideways upon it, so intense was the pressure he felt from behind him. The leather belt of Rangar clenched tightly around his throat and was clasped from behind in his assailant’s fists. Rangar cursed Vilthavia loudly into the boy’s ear as he tightened the belt around his neck so that Vilthavia was choking for breath.
“What have you to say to me now, you insolent boy? You dare call me a ‘whelp’?” cried Rangar scornfully. “I’ll tan your arse with this leather of mine!”
Rangar, though weakened considerably in body and limb over the last seven days, still possessed a remarkable hidden strength inside him as many laborers who have toiled their whole lives with their hands often do. Vilthavia knew instinctively that he had erred in underestimating this lithe tanner from the countryside and most likely would have suffered severely had he directly challenged Rangar in a confrontation. A brief flash of himself being forcibly evicted from the cave and down into the valley below at the hands of Rangar and the others entered his mind and a sudden panic seized him. He sought to get a hand free from his pinioned position against the wall so he might reach down below and behind himself in order to grab hold of Rangar’s groin where he was presently vulnerable. But Rangar must have guessed at Vilthavia’s intent and instead forced the boy down to his knees while still against the wall. A scream from Elendis echoed in the chamber as she then begged Rangar to release Vilthavia. When her plea failed to move Rangar she immediately pleaded with the others to intervene without success.
“He will come to no great harm, girl!” exclaimed Vinya, rising to his feet. “He will not be slain, I assure you. But he must suffer a reprimand for his slight of character to Rangar. Tis only fair, lady!”
Meanwhile Vilthavia was by now quite helpless beneath the weight of Rangar who was on his knees looking directly down upon Vilthavia’s back beneath him. He tightened his grip on both ends of the belt around Vilthavia’s neck a little more, all the while demanding an apology from the son of Hunthor for slandering his character or else suffer the painful strokes of his belt to his buttocks. Vilthavia turned his head this way and that in a vain attempt to alleviate some of the pressure around his throat but quickly gave that up. He was quite willing to apologize for his insult to Rangar but could not speak. When Elendis cried out that this was the reason Vilthavia was silent Rangar spat out to her that she had better silence herself or she would be next in line for his ‘medicine’.
With this Elendis rose and strode passed the men and stood outside the cave entrance and screamed down into the valley for help. She needn’t have screamed at all, however, for even before the echoes of her cry had had time to permeate the silence of the snowy valley she beheld a troupe of burly, long-haired, spear-wielding invaders hastening their way up the rocky steps of hillside towards the mouth of the cave where she stood rooted in a sort of wondrous terror as she stared at them transfixed.
The Hillmen of Broggha were coming.