The Circles - Book One - Chapter Eighteen - Lorien's Gifts

The Circles - Book One - The Triumph of the Shadow
Chapter Eighteen
Lórien's Gifts
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The clouds of darkness grew ragged here so far to the West, and so a little more light could be seen in the hours of day, and the watches of the night were not quite so evil. The evening before, the Riders of Rohan and the Cavalry of Dol Amroth had at last crossed the White Mountains, venturing into Drúwaith Iaur, the wastes of a land nearly forgotten. Men had once lived here, but now few dwelt in the grasslands and scattered forests. The land lay undisturbed in its austerity, but though birds would sing and insects would hum, a heavy, foreboding silence seemed to lie over the desolate territory.

Though they were alone, sometimes the cavalrymen thought they felt unseen eyes peering at them from among the shadows of the trees. Stranger still, sometimes they thought they could hear the distant pounding of muffled drums... Could it be that some remnant of the legendary Púkel men still dwelt here? Yet the men's better judgment deemed that no one was there and 'twas but a trick of the imagination. Surely such imaginings were caused by the rigors of the trail and were nothing more...

Ten days ago, a host comprised of both Gondorians and Rohirrim departed from the city of Dol Amroth. A sizable force had been left behind to defend Dol-en-Ernil and the provinces of western Gondor from the advance of the enemy. After the long and bloody siege of Dol Amroth, the forces of Mordor had given up the fight, running like cringing dogs with their tails tucked between their legs, and for a time western Gondor was secure. While the threat of Mordor had been diminished in the South, the North was left with but a small defense. If the enemy gained a foothold in Rohan and controlled the Fords of Isen, the black flood would sweep northward through Eriador. The commanders of the West were loath to let this happen, so a combined host of cavalry led by Éomer and Prince Imrahil galloped northeast towards the western passes of the White Mountains, while Gondorian foot-soldiers commanded by Aragorn and Faramir dared the rugged foothills to the north. Both forces, though they were leagues and leagues apart, wondered what their eyes would behold when they once again looked upon the darkened plains of Rohan.

The cavalry host would halt this late afternoon, having traveled seven leagues from the mountain pass that day. Tomorrow the men would ride again, heading northeast towards the River Adorn, every day shortening the distance between them and the beleaguered land of Rohan. When the Riders had made early camp, King Éomer had issued orders that any who wished might take their bows and quivers and set off to hunt the wild harts and other game which roamed the brushy grasslands. The larders of the host had grown sparse during the long ride from the South, and though he did not wish to delay, Éomer knew that a brief respite from the grueling journey would prove beneficial to all the men.

Though the hours between halting and evening did not provide much opportunity for the men to hunt, still many of the warriors had returned with braces of birds and coneys and fat bucks and does. Venison stew, roast venison, and other fresh meats, along with such herbs as some of the men had gathered, would provide a most welcome repast after the dry trail bread, wine and water of the wearisome ride. Hunting would bring relief from the monotony of the long journey. Though the stay was a brief one, still spirits would be strengthened and men could set about the doubtful quest of returning home, if indeed there was any home to which to return.

The soft sounds of tethered horses nickering and stamping their hooves, men talking in quiet tones and the strains of songs sung in rich voices mingled with the chirpings of insects. The ground was lit with the flickering light of campfires, casting a cheerful glow in the soft, peaceful gloom of dusk. King Éomer was well pleased with the brief leave he had granted to the men, for he knew that their spirits had dampened over the many miles, and the hunting forays aided greatly in filling their stomachs and brightening their mood.

The original éored which had set off from Grenefeld that March had seen much combat. Many were the men who fell bravely fighting the foe in the South and would never return to their beloved fields and hills. Over the bloody passage of time, survivors from éoreds devastated in the fighting had added to that battle-hardened number. Not one man in the combined host of Rohan and Dol Amroth was free of the sorrow and anger caused by death's heavy hand. Everyone had lost kinsmen and friends from the merciless blows of the enemy. Many had been slain upon the field, a number had died from their wounds after battles, some had been captured, and what had befallen others no one knew.

In the camp of the men of Grenefeld, Osric the Isensmith's son, his brother Oslaf, and Swithulf the Miller's son sat about their fire and dined upon the fruits of the day's labor.

"You did well in the hunt this afternoon," Osric complimented Swithulf. "That was a fine doe you brought down with your arrow!"

"And you did not fare so poorly yourself," commented Swithulf. "Those were quite tender partridges that you flushed out. No more skillful shots have I seen than that in many a day! Right through the heart."

"The éored certainly enjoyed the venison, and it was only right that it be shared with everyone. What could we have done with a whole carcass of hart, unless, of course," Swithulf looked at Osric, who was a great giant of a man who was proud of his bulging muscles earned from long hours at the blacksmith's forge, "you could eat the whole beast!"

Beaming broadly, Osric exclaimed, "If I had enough of an appetite, I think I could have, but," he grinned, "I did not want to be selfish and let you poor, thin lads go in want!"

Oslaf, the younger brother, was only thirteen. He was not so proficient with the bow as the other two, who were in their late teens. He felt that his contributions to the larder had been overlooked during the jesting banter of the others.

"I thought those fish I caught were quite pleasant to eat," he added, a slight look of hurt upon his face.

"Aye," laughed his brother, always taking delight in teasing him, "but you were the only one who ate them!"

"I was quite satisfied with the fish," Oslaf defended his hunting, "and I might add that I found the strawberries growing down near the small brook to be very tasty. After so long with nothing sweet to put in my mouth, I found them a most tempting dessert. Now if there had only been fresh milk, I would lie here the rest of the evening, content with the memories of a most delightful supper."

"In your imagination you may drink the warm, sweet milk fresh from the cow, but my taste runs to buttermilk, sour and rich," commented Osric.

"Buttermilk and strawberries do not mix," Oslaf exclaimed, joking.

"They mix better than fish and strawberries!" scoffed his brother.

"I am very fond of fish," replied Oslaf, defending his choice of game.

"You are, are you?" Osric winked at Swithulf.

"Aye, quite," replied Oslaf. "I must say I would rather eat that than venison any day. Fish have a light, delicate flavor, whereas venison is often a bit too gamy and strong for me."

"Too gamy?" exclaimed Osric, pretending wounded dignity. "You like the weak taste of fish when you could have deer meat?"

"Aye, I do!"

"Well, then, perhaps you would like to catch some more!"

With that remark, Osric and Swithulf rushed Oslaf, pinning him to the ground where he lay. Then laughing, their faces contorted in mirth, they picked him up, and carried him to the stream nearby. After swinging him back and forth, they cast him out into the pool cut by the water.

"You are villains, cowards and knaves!" Oslaf sputtered. "You dogs! You tossed me in boots and all! When I get out of here, there will be trouble!"

"Trouble for you, my lad, for we will simply toss you back in again," replied Osric. "You smell as bad as your fish!" Both Osric and Swithulf roared in laughter.

"So you think I smell like fish. Neither of you smell so good yourselves! Perhaps you would care to join me and wash some of your stench off."

"Only if you drive away the fish!" laughed Osric.

"I think, older brother, that your loud mouth has done that for me!"

"I hope so," said he, "for, younger brother, though your tastes in dining are lacking, you are right about my smell, for I do stink, covered with trail dust and sweat. Come, Swithulf, let us first wash our clothing and then go for a swim with my brother and his fish."

"Would you please allow me to come out of the water now? I think my boots are ruined," complained Oslaf.

"Only if you ask me as would a squire to a knight, which is what you still are, my lad."

Oslaf got to his feet and then knelt again in the water, beginning to speak in grand terms of mock humility. "O most gracious liege, would you grant your humble squire leave to remove his presence from this watery trough and walk once more upon dry land?"

"Your boon is granted." Osric feigned a solemn expression. "Get your wet pelt out now! Your clothes have already been laundered. Let them hang upon the bushes, and even though they will not be dry by morning and will be wet when we put them back on, at least they will be clean."

"It would be well for us to wash ours, too," suggested Swithulf.

After washing their clothing in the stream and hanging them on bushes to dry, the three Riders all had soapless baths and then swam and splashed in the deep pool beneath sheltering trees. "Oh no!" cried Oslaf when at last they came upon the bank. "Worms! Worms! They are crawling all over me!"

"They are not crawling," exclaimed Osric, looking down at the creatures, some as long as two inches. "They are leeches and have set their suckers upon us!"

"Leeches!" Swithulf scowled in disgust as he looked down and beheld a number of dark shapes attached to his legs. "They seek a meal without paying for it!"

"Brother! Why did I feel nothing when they attached themselves so unwelcome to my body?" Oslaf asked.

Osric reached down and touched the slug-like body of one of the leeches. "They are much like a spider when she goes after her prey. They pierce the skin with their teeth and extrude some mild numbing poison into the wound, and," he laughed, "we do not feel a thing."

"What do we do, brother? How will we ever get them off?"

"Well, if you wish," Osric teased, "you could leave them on until they have had their fill and then they will drop off. That is what many healers recommend doing when sickness befalls."

"Get them off of me!" Oslaf shouted, both frightened and angry.

Osric and Swithulf laughed. "Unless you want to stay here all night and shriek like a maid, you will come back to our camp. A little salt will dampen the spirits of our slimy friends the leeches."

"They are no friends of mine!" Oslaf protested.

"Oh?" Osric remarked, raising an eyebrow. "I thought you liked all creatures of the water." He turned and then he and Swithulf began walking back to the camp.

"Osric!" cried Oslaf plaintively. "OSRIC!" he wailed.

"Sleep with the fish and the leeches!" Osric laughed.

Oslaf walked to where his boots sat near the stream, and after picking one of them up, he threw it, striking his brother squarely across the back.

After returning to the camp, Osric showed his brother how to use salt to remove the leeches and all three rid themselves of the troublesome creatures. Then, taking clean breeches from their saddle bags, they dressed and sat around the campfire.

"You owe me a pair of boots, Osric. I will tell Father what you did to me and he will be very angry."

"Always crying to him like a little whelp, you are," Osric grumbled. He loved his younger brother dearly, but he loved to torment him just as well. "But I will repay you." His voice grew grim. "Poor Cuthwine, ere he was dragged beneath the hordes, slew five orcs at the Battle of the Fords of Ethring. As he lay dying, I found him, and he entrusted me with his boots right before he died. He said that he no longer needed them. They are yours now. Remember they belonged to a brave man and do him honor by trying to walk in his footsteps." He tried to hide the emotion he felt about Cuthwine's death behind a jest. "Your feet are certainly large enough!"

"While it is true that my feet are as big as his were, I can only hope my spirit will someday match his." Greatly moved by the gift, Oslaf murmured softly, "I doubt that I can ever walk in Cuthwine's footsteps, brother, but I will try."

All the men felt both grieved at thoughts of their fallen comrade and deep pride at the gallantry he had displayed ere he was slain. Osric was proud of his younger brother. Still he had laughed when, only two months before, the youth had been almost beside himself with joy at the sight of two light blond hairs on his chin. How proud Oslaf had been at these first heralds of a beard!

Gruffly, Osric ordered, "Go to sleep, boy. It will be time to show that soon enough." Sleep was swift to come to Oslaf, but Osric and Swithulf sat talking quietly about the fire.

"You are very proud of your brother and you have good reason to be," said Swithulf. "He did not shirk his duty in the South."

"Aye, the lad fought nobly and bravely, but he has much yet to learn of war. Ere we left for Pelennor, I thought of him still as a lad, but I find that in spite of his boyishness, he has learned too soon the bitter harshness of battle. Father did not want him to go, but Oslaf insisted and Father could not deny him that request. Whether his decision was for good or for ill, I cannot say, only that I wish to see my brother live. Whether I survive or not is not so important, for Oslaf is the apple of his father's eye. Father is on picket duty tonight, a lonely vigil, but one that is necessary. He depends upon me to watch after the boy when we go into battle."

"Osric, I know the pride your father has for the lad and I know that it is well-placed." He grew silent a while and commented sadly, "The nights are especially bad. I worry about my mother and Swithwyn my sister, and I fear greatly when I remember our families, loved ones and friends back at home. When I lie down to sleep, I will look up at the stars and take comfort thinking of all the bright stars whom we have left at home. Their devotion is as constant as the lights in the heavens."

"I think of many," Osric mused, and both men grew sad and quiet, each man lost in his own thoughts. Throughout all the time that the éored had been gone, Osric had been able to gain strength by thinking of sunshine and green fields and his village back in the Eastfold. He grinned as he envisioned Elfhild running towards him across a daisy-filled meadow: her smiling face, the tawny dust of freckles upon her cheeks, eyes half-open, long lashes shielding them from the blazing summer sun. Her hair glistened, the yellow of its fire lightening to pale cream as it reflected the light.

And then from a jetty dark pit where fear and torment are birthed in the minds of all men came an ugly vision. Sorrowfully looking into his eyes, Elfhild pushed a dirty lock of hair from her face as she pled with him to rescue her from an unspeakable torment. Crouching on the floor of a filthy shed, she clutched the torn remains of her dress to her bosom. Blotches of blue and black mottled her swollen face. Streaks of blood oozed down her back from where she had been whipped. He groaned at the horrible vision. What foul portent of doom had he beheld? Never could such a thing be true!

Little did he know that on the same day when the forces of the West had left Dol Amroth, the village of Grenefeld had been raided and sacked in the wee hours of morning. All that the people had ever known had been destroyed in less than an hour. The women and children - save for Swithwyn and a few others who had managed to escape - had been led off by the cruel hand of slavery.

Swithulf coughed and brought Osric out of his black reverie. "You seem grievously troubled tonight."

Osric stared into the fire, his face a shadowy mask. "Aye, I am. My thoughts have been dark." He would say nothing of the gloomy portent which he had seen in his mind, for no doubt it meant nothing.

A moment of silence passed, and then Swithulf spoke again. "Soon we shall come once again to our own land, but what we shall find there, we know not. Perhaps we shall find the Mark utterly engulfed by the hosts of the enemy."

"I do not like to think of that, though it is a most grievous possibility," sighed Osric. "However, perhaps we dare yet to hope. Maybe we shall return in time to stay the enemy host and drive them back ere they thrust too deeply into the Mark. But even then, things might go ill for us, for our village would be in the path of the advancing foe marching through the Eastfold."

"Perhaps help will come from unexpected places," Swithulf suggested hopefully. "Remember those rumors we heard back in the South that Aragorn was going to send messengers upon swift horses to the Elvish lands in the North. The riders were to go through the same mountain pass that we did yesterday and make haste to the Elves, bearing tidings of the war and urgent appeals for aid. Though these messengers were sent ere the siege of Dol Amroth and the great victory there, still we could most desperately use the assistance of the Elves. I only hope that, should they answer the summons, that they will not arrive after it is too late."

Osric laughed derisively. "I do not believe every rumor that flies through the wind. Besides, Elves do not join with men to fight their battles. They keep to their own haunted forests and have no concern with what happens to anyone other than themselves. They are strange folk, devious sorcerers skilled in magick, and to be avoided at all cost."

"That is true," said Swithulf, remembering the legends of Dwimordene and the webs of misty enchantment that were said to be spun by the Sorceress of the Golden Wood. "But surely not even they would be so callous as to abandon the West to darkness."

"We can hope, for hope is as cheap as are rumors," Osric laughed bitterly. "But as to whether they will come to our aid yet remains to be seen. I will trust more in my own stout spear and sharp sword, not to those of the Elves!"

"War has changed us all," lamented Swithulf.

Later Oslaf awakened from his sleep with a loud scream, escaping into wakefulness from a nightmare in which he had been caught in the jaws of some great black monster in the distant and unknown Sea. As he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, he sat up. "Osric! Osric! You missed a leech on my leg! Come get it off!" he cried, still half asleep.

"Well, maybe war has not changed all of us yet," Osric laughed grimly. After walking over to his brother, he turned and called back to Swithulf. "'Tis only a stick that bore into his leg as he slept." Looking to Oslaf, he assured, "Go back to sleep, brother. All is well."

At last slumber came upon the three of them and most all of the camp, save for the pickets and the officers, who still sat around their campfires, deliberating strategy and tactics. Far away, many leagues to the east, Elfhild had cried herself to sleep and now lay tossing and turning upon her worn brown cloak. Her dream-thoughts were filled with the faces of friends and kin, which flitted through her mind like faintly luminescent ghost-moths. Then, mingling with the memories, came wistful fantasies of dates, figs and sweet tea, and she imagined a myriad of delicacies and sweetmeats which lay spread out on a table before her. It was a most frustrating plight, for she could only choose one thing to eat, and the dream changed again ere she was able to make up her mind.

Elffled lay beside her, dreaming of being rescued from an evil, leering orc by a tall, blonde Rohirric warrior wielding a great sword. Slowly the handsome Rider turned into a tawny-faced Easterling who kissed her long and slowly, and the kiss was much more passionate and appealing than those bestowed upon her in the past by the many nameless men in her world of dreams. She moaned softly in her sleep, the corners of her lips twitching up in the faintest of smiles as the Easterling's strong hands clasped the sides of her face in the gentlest of embraces. Like two leaves in the breeze, she and her lover swayed together, their forms caught in the currents of passion. His hands drifting to the back of her head, his fingers wove themselves under and over her tresses, the subtle stirring of her hair tickling her scalp and causing her to sigh into his mouth...

The next morning when Elffled awoke, she hated herself for the dream she had the night before, but still she could not help a tiny, wayward smile when she thought of the imaginary Easterling’s warm, eager lips upon hers. She would never tell her sister, though, about the phantom who had intruded upon her dreams, for she was far too ashamed to admit that her sleeping mind had fantasized about one of the enemy.