Trees rose gracefully aloft, spreading their boughs to catch the sunlight. Their leaves seemed to whisper in the light breeze. A few, having turned golden brown, floated silently to the forest floor. There was a chill in the air, not present when Aladriel had left. Autumn had come early in these parts.
She shivered, wishing for a traveller’s cloak and hood to keep the cold out. She had been rash to leave without taking time to prepare for a long journey. Having left in haste she had forgotten that Summer must turn to Autumn, and with it came Snell winds.
Having travelled hard for some days now, Aladriel was weary of forest fare and longed for some warm and hearty, and perhaps abed with which she would not have to share with the troublesome creatures of the forest floor.
Her feet were blistered and hurting, although the leather boots were no longer as stiff and unyielding as they had been when she left. She had worn them in well, but walked barefoot this morning, relishing this way the cool dampness of the leaf strewn path soothed her sores.
She hoped to find a stream in which she could bathe away the dirt and grime that had found it’s way onto every part of her body.
“I am lucky I have met no one on this path, for I fear they would run at the very sight of me,” she said herself, running her fingers through her knotted hair.
“I look like a scarecrow, escaped from my field, covered in dirt, with my hair going every which way.”
Aloud, Aladriel made merry of the fact that she had not seen a living soul in days, but inside she was lonely for company. She missed the people of Ethilwyn and their good-natured ways.
Ethilwyn was all she had known. Bordered on one side by the sea and on the other by the thickly forested mountains she climbed at this moment, there had not been many travellers. Life had been pleasant, but sedate. The farmers farmed and the fishermen fished.
Rosy-cheeked children had rolled in the hay and paddled in the rock pools by the sea. Aladriel had played with them as a child, but formed no lasting friendships. She had been different from the other children, able to learn her letters and quick minded when it came to additions and multiplications.
Aladriel felt herself struggle slightly for breath as the path became noticeably steeper.
How much longer must she climb this mountain before she reached the top, she wondered, I have been climbing for days and still the path goes ever upwards.
She sighed, setting her jaw obstinately, this mountain would not stop her.
Some hours later Aladriel heard the faint sound of water running over rocks.
At last a chance to bathe her tired body.
She listened hard, setting out in the general direction through trees and underbrush, not heeding the briar thorns catching at her exposed shins.
She came into a clearing some fifty metres from the path and caught her breath. She had hoped for a stream, but this was magnificent.
To the north of the clearing a cliff face rose sharply upwards. A waterfall came down its mossy face like a shimmering curtain, widening to a large pool, surfaced with white lilies. Shafts of sunlight filtered through the green canopy, creating a shifting rainbow over the water.
Aladriel stripped quickly, struggling with her leather trousers, which she had rolled to above her knees earlier. Naked, she waded into the water slowly, checking the depth. It was deep, and Aladriel swam to reach the shifting curtain of water at the far side of the pool.
Letting the water was over her face, and using a twig to unsnarl the tangles in her hair, Aladriel laughed. Life on the road was hard, but it only made her appreciate simple pleasures more.
” Do mine eyes deceive me? Or is this a water nymph I see before me?
There was laughter in the stranger’s voice.
Aladriel jumped, rudely awakened from another daydream of elves and magic. She searched for the owner to the voice; belatedly remembering her state of undress and trying to retain what modesty she had left with her hands. There was a lot to cover with only two hands.
“Who has so rudely spoken? Can’t a girl have any privacy! Show yourself, so I might know the fork tongued knave who takes such advantage of me.”
Wishing she felt as brave as she had sounded, Aladriel scanned the trees and undergrowth.
A man stepped out from behind the trunk of a massive ivy clad tree. At least she believed it to be a man. His face was hidden in the hood of a grey travel stained cloak. He was tall and broad of shoulder, but she could discern nothing else from a distance.
“Turn around, so I might at least dress in privacy, although it seems I cannot bathe without your unwanted company,” she snapped, embarrassed to have been caught so unaware.
“If my company is indeed so unwanted, perhaps you wish me to leave.”
“No! I wish for your company, although I also wish you would turn away.”
The stranger turned, allowing her to dress.
“Why are you so far from home, maiden-of-the-water. It can be dangerous in these hills, especially so close to the borders. Sometime Orcs may wonder this far.”
“I am not maiden-of-the-water, I’m Aladriel. And to answer your question, I am returning to my mother’s homelands, which are over these godforsaken mountains. I am weary after many days travel and this pool offered me a most welcome comfort.”
She paused to tie her boots, struggling with the complicated laces. Looking up, she brazenly added,
“Perhaps there is somewhere we can go, sit and rest, maybe even eat a bite or two, and you could introduce yourself properly, man-whose-face-is-hidden.”