Ignoring her sister's pleading cries, Elfhild marched forward, weaving a meandering course through the trees which grew along the bank of the Anduin. Why should she even bother to talk with a girl who had been so cruel and insulting? Though usually quiet and reserved, Elffled had a mean streak which sometimes reared its ugly head. Well, Elfhild was not going to stay around and allow her sister to abuse her. Let her remain behind and sulk! A malicious thought offered wicked temptation: she should leave the whining Elffled in the dust and journey to the Mark without her. If Elffled wanted to go back with the slavers so badly, then let her! But, no, that would be cruel, and, besides, Elfhild was too frightened to travel alone.
The shadowy forms of trees loomed up all about her, their black boles like columns which supported the roof of spidery branches above. The moon shone as half a silver coin in a sky of dusty bluish sable, its pale light aiding her in choosing her course through the gloaming. A vaporous cloud of mist hung low about the trees like gossamer tatters of wispy cloth which lay forgotten upon the ground.
The evening was turning chill, and Elfhild clutched her cloak tightly about her throat. When the clouds of woe had been driven away and the sun had begun to sear the denuded land with her brilliant light, Elfhild had cursed her cloak, for the thick wool had been a torment in the heat. Still she had refused to part with the garment despite the warm weather, for her mother had made it for her. Now the old brown cloak was a blessing, for it lessened the bite of the damp air and reminded her of home.
"Elfhild!" Elffled was calling to her again. Her voice was an annoying dissonance which was grating to Elfhild's ears. Gritting her teeth, she clenched her fists and walked faster. Behind her, she heard the sounds of running feet and heavy breathing.
"Elfhild!" the other girl gasped, out of breath. Elfhild felt fingers clasp themselves about her shoulder; the air stirred as her sister skirted around her side to stand in front of her. "What are you doing?" she panted, her eyes wild. "It is far too dangerous to be out here wandering in the darkness with not even a candle to light your way!"
"As you know, we of the people of Eorl are renowned for our excellent night vision, and, besides, several months spent in darkness does wonders to strengthen the eyes," Elfhild remarked sardonically as she smoothly sidestepped her sister and continued on her way.
Elffled allowed her hands to fall heavily to her sides as she growled in frustration. "Elfhild, please! I am sorry for saying those mean things about you! Please do not be angry at me!"
Spinning around to face her twin, Elfhild glared into the face which was identical to her own. "What ever would cause you to think that I might be angry?" she asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Ah, it could have something to do with the fact you ran away with tears in your eyes," Elffled replied dryly. "But perhaps I was mistaken..."
"Oh, shut your impertinent little mouth."
Elffled sighed heavily, her shoulders slumping. "Listen, I said a lot of hateful things, which was very unkind of me. But I was hungry and cross, and had just seen the remains of a woman who had been killed by the orcs. When you are surrounded by death, it has a tendency to make you feel rather hopeless and out of sorts... and, so, I said things I should not have said. I am sorry. Please forgive me." She looked to Elfhild, the expression on her face speaking only of regret and repentance.
Elfhild was silent for a long moment. She would not meet her sister's gaze and instead stared at some obscure point in the distance. The dim evening had turned into the dark night, and the mists began to deepen, rising from the ground like ghostly waters. Gradually the fog began to pass by them in cool, wet sheets, like the fleeting forms of wraiths. As Elfhild watched the eerie mists creep over the landscape, a nasty idea came to her, and she decided to have some amusement at her sister's expense.
"I wonder if these woods are haunted," Elfhild murmured softly, turning back to look at Elffled.
"You are changing the subject, Hilde." Elffled's eyes narrowed.
Elfhild shrugged. "Perhaps. But, as you say, when one is surrounded by death..." A wry little smile crossed her lips, a twisted shade of mirth.
Shivering, Elffled pulled the edges of her cloak forward, shifting the woolen garment so that it gave her shoulders more coverage. "The humor of the barrow is best shared in the light of day," she grumbled.
The gloom of the night hid Elfhild's devilish smile. "Ah, but I was being serious. What if from out of the mists there appeared some dread spectre, moaning and wailing out some lonesome dirge?" She pointed to two almost identical trees which seemed to stand like doorposts surrounding some dark doorway to realms of the unknown. Heavy with age, their gnarled branches drooped down, resembling arms beckoning the traveler to venture within. "What if the spectre appeared there between those trees, an eerie wind billowing out its pale shroud?"
"Oh, Elfhild, do not talk about such things!" Elffled cried out in alarm. "You could summon forth phantoms, and I do not wish to meet any on such a dark and foggy night!"
"Very well then... I will not speak of ghosts..." Elfhild paused briefly to allow her sister to calm somewhat. "But what if... what if..." her eyes glittered and her voice rose in intensity, "what if in this mist, we were to chance upon a coven of elves dancing in a magic circle?"
"I did not wish to hear of elf circles, either," moaned Elffled.
A smirk upon her face, Elfhild laughed gaily and began dancing about the grove, delighting in the torment which she was inflicting upon her sister. Served her right! Elfhild would have a little amusement at the other girl's expense. Suddenly she stopped within her tracks and began speaking in a deep, melodramatic voice, much like a storyteller at a mummer's fair.
"'Tis said they tryst in secret moots on hazy nights like these, gathering about in wide circles." She stretched out the word "wide" and flung her arms far apart to demonstrate. "Deep within the forest, they feast and revel, playing strange yet beautiful music and singing songs so lovely that all who hear them are utterly bewitched." Closing her eyes and tilting her head to the side as though caught in a beautiful daydream, she pretended to pluck the strings of an imaginary harp. "'Round their rings are flickering flames wrought of glamoury, and 'tis said that strange magick lingers in those places." She paused for emphasis and then stared straight at her sister before intoning a grave warning, "You know what happens if a careless foot should chance to step inside..."
"Oh yes, I know!" Elffled whimpered. "You do not need to tell me!" Fearfully she looked about, half expecting some fell spirit or an elf witch to emerge from the gloom and drag them into the evil night.
"Few can escape the snares which they weave about their lairs like spider webs of the gloaming," Elfhild whispered darkly, circling her sister as though she were an elf witch herself. "If you were to fall under their power, Elffled, the elves would capture you and no one would ever see you again." Coming up behind the other girl, Elfhild grabbed her shoulder roughly, taking her by surprise. "You would be spirited away to the Haunted Forest where dwells the Elf Queen, and there you would remain as her slave..." she rasped out a whisper into Elffled's ear, "forever!"
Gasping, Elffled twisted out of her sister's grasp and spun around to face her. "Oh, why are you tormenting me?"
"I only seek to warn you," Elfhild replied sweetly, the perfect picture of feigned innocence with heavenward looking eyes and hands clasped beneath her chin.
Elffled scowled. "Somehow, I do not quite believe that."
"Ah, but perhaps we shall be fortunate and not see anything at all," Elfhild offered in sugary consolation.
"That sounds much better."
"--Naught save a ring of mushrooms which have sprung up from the magick drenched soil, the only memory of the elves who gathered once in these woods."
"Do not start that up again!"
Elffled's pleas once again went unheeded, for Elfhild was enjoying taunting her sister too much to take pity upon her. "Oh, I hope that we do not see a male elf! Oh, truly then we would be undone! We would be besmitten the moment our eyes beheld him, ensorcelled by a spell of love! And, ohh, if he did not take us with him to his magical land, we would spend our days in woeful pining, weeping out the anguish of our broken hearts!"
"It is more likely that we would meet a man of the enemy," Elffled growled, trying to bring her sister back to earth.
"It is said that to fall in love with an elf is an evil doom, but, really, would it be so terrible to be whisked away to some fair realm, far away from this dreadful place?" Her eyelashes fluttering, Elfhild sighed dreamily. "Mayhap two of their princes shall take a fancy to us... Oh, could you imagine that, Elffled?" She giggled. "Midsummer is coming... Perhaps we shall celebrate it with the elves. Just think of it!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands together. "We shall disappear into the mists and forget all of our worries and cares... the fragrance of the pine woods all about us, the stars burning brightly overhead... the moon a lantern to light our way as we dance merrily throughout the night..."
Grumbling under her breath, Elffled bore her sister's silly ramblings. So this taunting was how Elfhild was achieving her revenge. She should have known! Ah, well, she probably deserved it anyway.
While Elfhild was playing her childish games, the night had grown more chill. The mists deepened, swirling before their eyes in billowy clouds. What if the fog indeed had some supernatural cause? Now Elfhild was scaring herself! She was starting to feel just as frightened as her sister. Not just of phantoms or spectres, though - there were other evils of which to be afraid. The search parties of the slavers and the military patrols - just the thoughts of being found by the enemy were enough to make her quake in terror. Suddenly her amusement had ended.
Their imaginations already a fertile field for fear, the twins became increasingly uneasy. Black trees with skeletal limbs loomed high above them and sheltered the heavens from their sight. They imagined all sorts of evil creatures lurking in the shadows and peering out at them. In the periphery of their vision, they thought they could see red eyes which shone brightly and then quickly vanished. Their thoughts became wild, and they saw in their mind horrible monsters running forked tongues over fangs sharp and deadly, waiting with hungry anticipation.
The fog deepened still further until the twins were enclosed in a wall of wet, clutching water which swirled about them. The twisting fingers of the clouds seemed to reach out and paw at their faces, running clammy hands over mind and body. All was still and deathly quiet; not even the call of a night bird broke the ringing, expectant silence.
A twig snapped and Elffled instinctively clutched at her sister's arm, her fingers clamping down like a vice. Suddenly before them, shadowy forms threw themselves out of the darkness and hurled, snorting, across their path.
The shrill screams of both Elfhild and Elffled rang out into the night. There was a flash or two of white fading into the fog, and then the intruders were gone.
"What was that?!" Elfhild panted, trembling.
"Only deer," Elffled breathed in relief, waiting for her heart to stop pounding so hard and fast. "We probably frightened them," she gasped, "or they were making their way across our paths to procure a drink for themselves from the River."
"Aye, that sounds reasonable," Elfhild remarked, gathering her wits about her. "Only deer," she assured herself, "and nothing more." She hoped their presence was the cause of the fright of the animals, and not something else which might be lurking about deeper in the woods.
They ventured forward but they did not go far, for the fog was too thick. They were stumbling blindly now in a pale, damp world of heavy, bilious clouds, and the trees around them appeared as little more than dim places of shadow. Beneath their feet, the ground seemed possessed of the chill, and the vapors whirled about them, leaving tiny droplets of their wet kisses behind.
"We must stop," Elfhild moaned wretchedly. "I can barely see where I am going!"
"I hope you did not get us lost," Elffled muttered.
"Have a little faith in me!" Elfhild snapped churlishly. "Of course, we are not lost, but it is foolish to venture forth in this dismal fog. Let us lie down and rest until the dawn bids us rise."
A flutter of the breeze stirred the mist and caused the dry leaves on the ground to rattle.