“Lalaith,” Elrohir muttered, shooting a nervous glance upward at a thick, sticky looking cord of cobweb that had been draped above their heads, hanging lazily between two trees like a loose strand of rope, “remind me again why we are doing this?”
Lalaith blew a long sigh out through her lips, and shook her head to herself as she answered in return, “Legolas invited us. For their autumn Festival. It will not be so bad once we are nearer to King Thranduil’s caves.”
Elrohir groaned softly to himself and muttered, “This path is more like a cave than King Thranduil’s palace. At least that place has some light in it. Though I still prefer to sleep on a talan. Their treetops are brighter. Not so enclosed.”
Lalaith sighed again in wordless agreement as the two trotted along upon their mounts, Elrohir in the lead as they made their narrow way along the dim path through the trees. Like a dim, cheerless Dwarf cave would be, Lalaith thought to herself, grateful that she had brought along her quiver that lay lightly against her back, and her bow, smooth and cool beneath the fingers of her left hand where it rested upon the skirts of her thick grey riding cloak. Like a great endless cave it was, dipping and turning through the trees, gloomy and reek with dark trees dripping with mats of black moss, and here and there, an occasional thick rope of cobweb flung over their trail between trees. It was far more narrow and confining than the path they had left behind, the dim forest road that stretched away into the murky distance, both before them and behind them. The winding path they traversed had turned off from that long unending road far behind them, and the path was narrow and hard to read; one they would have missed had they not known where they were going. It had been once green and bright, or so Elrond had taught her, before the darkness and the evil came to it.
Yet this was Legolas’ home, and that of his kin. Her heart twinged as the memory of his face wavered before her own, his eyes teasing her with their depth; innocent, and wise they were, within an achingly fair face, a tantalizing phantom flitting through her mind before the image of him wavered and faded. It had been nigh unto a century and a half since she had seen him last, and she wondered sadly, why that was so. He had not lost his affection for her, she assured herself, or else he would never have bothered writing to her. And he would surely not have so unexpectedly invited her here. She had been to Thranduil’s realm before, but not as often as Legolas came to Imladris, so the invitation had come as an unexpected, though pleasant surprise, and as a relief as well. Legolas still cared for her. Though he had told her often enough in his many letters over the long decades he had stayed away from Imladris, letters alone could not feel the void. She longed again to see him, to feel the warmth of his smile, as tangible as the warmth of sun upon her skin. She longed for the touch of his hand within hers. She wanted Legolas beside her.
Lalaith smiled softly to herself, and his name sang through her like a hymn as she worked over the syllables silently with her lips, forgetting for a moment the crushed, suffocating feeling that pressed down on her.
Lalaith was uncomfortably jolted back to the present at the sudden alarm within Elrohir’s voice as he called out to her.
“What is it?” She asked as he shot a glance filled with concern over his shoulder, then glanced again at the ground before him.
Nudging her own mount closer, Lalaith strained to see what was upon the ground, half blocked by Elrohir’s horse which took up most of the narrow trail.
“A foot print.” Elrohir breathed softly.
Lalaith paused. A footprint would not be anything to grow worried over, for the Wood Elves traveled often in this part of the forest. However this booted print, pressed into the center of a dried patch upon the trail, and appearing to be untouched, though it was several days old, bore a thicker sole than an Elf’s boot, and was shorter than an Elf’s foot, almost like a child’s print. This boot, however, was wider than a child’s could have ever been, and crushed far deeper into the soil than a small, light child’s foot could press, even into soft ground. Further ahead was another one, and another, several crossing one over the other.
“Dwarves.” Elrohir muttered, an almost sickened tone carried in his voice. “Several of them. It is hard to say. Between seven and fourteen, I would guess. They don’t usually go about in groups of any other number.”
Lalaith caught a frightened gasp in her throat. “Here? In Thranduil’s kingdom?” She choked, desperately trying to keep the fear out of her voice as she glanced furtively about her in the trees as if she suddenly expected to see one of the squat, hairy faced creatures she had learned about, leering out at her from the shadows of the trees. “What in Arda would they be doing here?”
“Filthy spies, most likely.” Elrohir grumbled. “But look here. They’ve already been found. See? An Elf’s print. Here and here. And over there. They’re surrounded, and traveling in mostly a straight line, though it deviates slightly, as if they can’t see at all where they’re going. They’re probably tied together and blindfolded. So they’ve been taken captive. No need to worry.”
He flashed Lalaith a casual half grin, and she drew in a softened breath, smiling in relief. Elrohir was a far better tracker than she could hope to be, and she was glad she could trust him in this.
“Well, let us go on, then.” He said, and nudged his own copper coated mount ahead as Lalaith followed behind on her cream colored horse. The tracks, both of Dwarves and Elves continued along ahead upon the same path, and Lalaith smiled with relief. She’d never seen one of the filthy creatures her people called Dwarves before, and she did not want to now, not from the terrible stories Elladan and Elrohir used to tell her as a child.
But her smile faltered for a moment as a print right in the center of the trail passed beneath the hooves of Elrohir’s mount, and was scuffed into oblivion with the horse’s back hooves before she could get a better look at it. Unmarred it had been, before being crushed away, as if that particular creature, Dwarf, if it was, had come along behind the main body of Elves and Dwarves, its print left untouched until the horse’s hooves had crushed it.
“Elrohir?” She called out to him, hearing again, worry within her voice.
“Yes?” He asked, glancing back over his shoulder.
“Is it usual for Dwarves to go about, ah, barefoot?”
“By Arda, no.” He snorted. “They wear thick soled leather boots wherever they go. Clomping about noisily like a herd of angry, undersized bulls. Elladan and I both think it helps to compensate for their lack of-,” he cleared his throat hastily, “height.”
“But-,” she began softly.
“The only free people who can stand to go about barefoot, at least in woods such as this, would be the tough footed little Pheriannath that you’ve read about, the ones Mithrandir is so fond of.” Elrohir said. “Peaceful for the most part, but there have been a few hardy enough to go with him on some of his adventures.”
“And do they have dealings, often, with Dwarves?” She gulped.
Again Elrohir snorted. “I doubt it.” He glanced at her again over his shoulder, and shook his head. “No Pheriain would ever stoop that low.”
Elrohir smirked and chuckled softly at his unintended pun. “Of course, they’re actually shorter than Dwarves, so-,” he left off chuckling again, and Lalaith sighed with tentative relief. Perhaps, she reasoned, she had not seen what she thought she had seen, then. After all, Elrohir surely would not have missed it. She relaxed at this knowledge, and as the trees parted and the wide wooden bridge that led to the king’s doors came into view, arching over the dark river that flowed with a whispering clatter beneath it, she smiled remembering again Legolas, and let the thought slip from her mind.
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