"You play games with us, sir," Elfhild proclaimed in sullen rejoinder. "I suppose you are deriving some sort of pleasure in doing this before you take us prisoner."
"Aye, sir, indeed you do play games, and play them most outrageously," Elffled ventured, attempting a winsome smile. Though Elfhild would be appalled by the idea, perhaps if she flirted with the scout, he might be more disposed to treat them kindly.
"From the king upon his gilded throne to the lowest swineherd in a filthy sty, we all play games," the tall stranger replied. "Even the daughters of Eadbald play games."
Eadbald! This strange man of the enemy had spoken their father's name! Gasping in astonishment, Elfhild took a step backwards. "How - how do you know our father's name?" she demanded, her voice tense with fear.
"Quite simply, my dear. The name of your father has been inscribed upon your collars."
"Oh." Elfhild looked down, blushing at her own foolishness. Then, raising her head, she cocked a suspicious eyebrow. "Wait - you mean you can see in this darkness?"
"Darkness?" the man asked, as though pondering some great complexity. "Can you truly fathom the nature of darkness? Do objects disappear when they are covered by its mantle? No, they are there just the same as they are when the light is shining upon them." A cloud passed over the moon, casting the landscape into total darkness. He paused, and when he spoke again, they both started at his voice. "Being of the Rohirrim, you both should know that there are some who have exceptionally good vision when there is no light. I am one of them," he laughed dryly. Though they could not see his face, the sisters sensed that he was grinning at them.
Elffled was not certain what the strange man meant exactly, but his voice was seductive, hypnotic even, and so unbearably captivating that perhaps it did not matter what he said. The idea of flirting with him to gain his favor seemed more and more appealing by the second. She wondered what sort of face was hidden beneath the hood – was it breathtakingly handsome, plain and ordinary, or grotesquely ugly? More importantly, what did he think of her? She hoped that he would ignore her ragged clothing and the grime and the stench of her filthy body and find her, if not beautiful, then at least pretty.
Attempting to win his favor, Elffled smiled and giggled in what she hoped was a flirtatious manner. "You have amazing eyes, sir. 'Tis a pity we cannot see them in this darkness."
"What charming sweetness lies in the merry laughter of innocent maids! I have had daughters of my own." He paused, and his next words were bitter. "Alas! They are no more!"
The deep sadness in his voice caused Elffled's heart to stir with pity for the man. "Oh, sir, I am sorry to know that," she murmured sympathetically. "Have they been gone from you long?"
"Almost eight decades... but since neither of you can read, write, or cipher, perhaps such a number is incomprehensible to you. Nearly four generations - seventy-seven long years have come and gone - each year falling with grim finality and striking the death bell in my soul. And, to answer your question before you can find the courage to ask it... How old am I? How old, you ask?" Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed, the sound filled not with merriment but sorrow unending, a bitter protest against some unutterable sacrilege. "You do not want to know the answer to that question, and even should I tell you, you would not believe me. Not yet, anyway."
"This man is mad!" Elfhild's terrified mind screamed, and she fought to control her rising panic. She must keep her head at all costs! "Who are you?" she choked out, her throat constricting with fear and anger. "What do you want from us? Are you one of the slaver's men?" Oh, they had to escape from this fiend! But how?
"The question of who I am is inconsequential to our discussion. Neither is the question of what I am. Such small matters fade to insignificance after a while." His words were precise, flat, mere dry declarations of immutable fact. "What is more important is what do you want from me?" He chuckled mirthlessly, icicles crackling and falling to break into nothingness.
"What do I want from you?" Elfhild gasped, almost panting with fear. "I want to be left alone! Why do you waylay us, only to pester us with nonsensical questions? Capture us and be done with it, if you be one of the slaver's men! Otherwise leave us be and allow us to be on our way!"
He moved in front of Elfhild, so close that the material of his cloak brushed against her arms. His head towering above her, he gazed down into her frightened eyes and reached a hand forward to brush over her cheek. The leather of his gloves was soft and cool against her skin. Even though she felt like fleeing far away, still she held her ground, gritting her teeth to keep them from chattering. Swallowing hard and clenching her fists, she tried to bolster up her courage. She would not let this impertinent riddler turn her into a coward!
"I knew you were bold," he whispered softly, "but you are far bolder than I had ever expected. Your coquettish younger sister, however, comes as an unexpected - and thoroughly delightful - surprise."
Elffled giggled again, far more nervously this time. "I am glad you think so, sir. I must say that you come as quite a surprise yourself..." Flushing in embarrassment, she tittered and brought a hand to her mouth. "Oh! How impertinent of me! Please do not take offense! I am terribly sorry!"
"Sorry that I am such an unexpected surprise... or sorry that you have flirted like the silly girl that you are and not like the beguiling woman you long to be?" His hand crawled slowly, agonizingly away from Elfhild's hot, burning cheek and then shot out like a serpent, capturing her sister's chin in a firm grasp.
Looking up at him uncertainly, Elffled searched for his eyes, but she could not find them in the darkness of his hood. "Oh, sir, I hardly know any more what I am saying, or even what I mean! The things you say confuse me terribly," she stammered, a flush coloring her cheeks. "But a silly girl, sir?" Her voice sounded hurt and her lower lip quivered in a pout. "Surely you do not consider me that! Though I am young, I am a woman, not a child. Many girls my age are already married." The flush on her face deepened.
"Laurelissë, my pretty little maid, there is such a demure coyness in your words! Lá, but I do not think you are quite so innocent as you would wish to make yourself appear. Do you understand the implications of what you have just said?"
"Sir, the implications?" Elffled asked innocently. Then in a dawning flash of painful realization, she understood exactly what he meant! "What an absolute dolt I am!" she condemned herself, greatly abashed at her scandalous behavior. "Have I encouraged this strange man? Yes, I have! But who could blame me? He is like no one whom I have ever met before!"
"Yes, the implications," the mysterious rogue chuckled, and in the next instant caught Elffled up in his strong arms. “You still have not told me what you want from me.”
Elffled's thoughts swirled through her mind like hapless leaves driven before the storm, twisting and turning before fluttering to the ground. "It is hopeless ever to think that I will marry a man whom I truly love and who truly loves me. Why not a harmless flirtation with this exciting stranger?" The very thought thrilled her in a delightfully naughty way. "Who will ever know except the three of us? Why not a little frivolity before I am sold to some man who is probably fat, ugly, and cruel!"
“What do I want from you?” Elffled’s voice was barely a whisper. “Perhaps a kiss from my lord’s lips?” These men of the enemy were always forcing their kisses upon her – but what if she made the first move? As she dared to look up at the man, she found that her heart was pounding so hard and fast that she feared for a moment that it might explode within her chest.
“Ah, Laurelissë, perhaps you are even bolder than your sister!” The tall man chuckled, and Elffled sensed that he was smiling. “But your request is a simple one, which I shall grant.”
He bent his hooded head down, his hard, cool mouth pressing a demanding kiss upon her soft lips. Giving herself completely to the passion of the kiss, Elfhild clung to the material of his tunic as she pushed her body closer to his. The wolf renewed its keening, shrieking out a long, forlorn, agonizing wail that dwindled off into a gargled groan, and the owl only nodded its head, hinting at some arcane secret that it was unwilling to divulge.
A reluctant voyeur, Elfhild gawked at this scene of torrid passion, her eyes transfixed by the gentle, swaying motions of her sister's hips, her ears filled with the sounds of Elffled's whimpers and moans of pleasure. Oh, this was horrible! She should protect her sister from this dangerous, eccentric man! But, oh, merely watching them kiss was doing strange things to her, and her cheeks burned with a flush which seemed to spread like wildfire through the rest of her body. She forced her eyes to look away, but she was not strong enough to fight her morbid curiosity. When she again gazed in horror at the scene, he was still holding Elffled, who was wiggling against his body in a most provocative way. Though Elfhild could not see everything in total detail, she could hear the man's heavy, laboring breathing and her sister's desperate gasps.
"By Béma! This beast must be draining the air from her lungs and the life from her body!" Elfhild's heart throbbed beat by beat in time with his heavy, rasping breaths. With a satisfied growl, he released Elffled, and slowly her limp form slipped to the ground.
Elfhild gasped in horror, her hands flying to her mouth. Her gaze darted from her sister's slumped form and then back to the man. "You - you - have killed my sister!"
"Faandrûk, you misjudge me," he murmured quietly, gently. "She is merely asleep, deeply, in calm, sedate tranquility, knowing more peace than you do at this present moment. Why would you deny her that comfort?"
"You monster!" Screaming, Elfhild lunged at him, but he moved quickly and caught her by the wrists. Holding both of them together in one of his large hands, he pulled her arms painfully high above her head, his fingers digging into her tender flesh like the cold clench of steel. His hood obscured his features as he bent his head down to hers. Upon her face, she felt his cool, slow breaths coming in such long intervals that she wondered whether he was breathing at all.
He lifted her higher, his strong hands raising her until her toes no longer touched the ground. Her arms ached from the strain. A ghastly thought possessed her mind. As he had done so cruelly to her sister, he would do to her! He would steal her breath away, draining it from her lungs and sucking her life out like a leech, forcing her into a preternatural slumber! He was incredibly strong and there was no way she could fight against him! "Please, please, do not hurt me!" Elfhild begged, sobbing hysterically. "Have mercy!"
"You are mine, mine to do with as I please," he hissed into her face, his voice tinged with anger… and hurt. “But it is not my intention to harm either you or your sister, so refrain from attacking me and accusing me of murder, a crime which I most certainly have not committed this eve.” He slowly lowered her back to the ground and released her wrists from his strong grasp.
“W-what do you want from me?” Elfhild whimpered, tears streaming down her face as she rubbed her aching wrists. She could barely believe this was happening. Maybe none of this was real, and she was having a nightmare from which she would wake soon.
“Only a kiss from lips so fair,” he murmured gently, the anger gone from his voice, replaced by a melancholy yearning. "It is your lips that I long to kiss, not those of your sister, although she is quite charming. All I desire is a memory of this night… a memory that I can cherish always… for soon I must take my leave of you.”
“Wait – you mean you do not intend to recapture us?” Elfhild felt stunned. If this man was not one of the slaver’s men or an enemy scout, then who was he?
“Ah, Faandrûk, you presume much, and oft are mistaken in your presumptions. All I want is a kiss, a memento of this night of mists and moonlight, magic and mystery, and chance meetings upon the riverbank… That is all I ask of you, and nothing more.”
Elfhild considered his request. A kiss was harmless enough, and he had assured her that he had not hurt her sister. So why not indulge him? Maybe if she gave him what he wanted, he would leave them in peace.
“Very well, lord, I shall grant your request.” She bowed her head humbly.
The mysterious stranger gently cupped her chin in his hand and tilted her head up as his lips came down upon hers. His powerful arms surrounded her, holding her prisoner against the wall of his muscular chest.
“Is it so dreadful for a man to want a maiden?” he murmured against the side of her face, his lips tickling her cheek and causing her to blush most furiously. “An innocent, lovely creature to bring some semblance of light to his darkened world? And after knowing that he desires her - to think about her, aye, and to lust for her?”
Elfhild looked up into the darkness of his hood and beheld a soft ruddy glow that faded quickly, as though its presence was out of place. Her breath caught in her throat. This was no ordinary man, but some fell creature of the dark and lonely night!
And then - oh Gods - his head was bent over her neck, his lips probing, licking over her throat! Whimpering, she attempted to push him away, to escape, but she discovered that instead her arms went up to clutch him about his neck. The nightmare continued - but now it had exploded into a coruscating phantasmagoria of seething, throbbing desires which both tempted and repelled her with their terrifying implications. She clung to the passionate demon who had become both her lover and her tormentor, holding onto him desperately, while all her instincts commanded her to flee from this unholy abomination.
Unseen visions written in a strange music, teardrops of crystallized blood hung like jewels from ghastly white branches, unknown words repeating, their sounds intermingling with the music, the melody fearful, then consoling, lowering, murmuring, then rising, until at last a sighing exaltation escaped his throat and caressed the pink shell of her ear. What was he whispering, his lips so close to her face? Elfhild sensed his unseen eyes upon her, holding her in their thrall. Then relentless lips were against her throbbing bosom, suckling and searing her flesh. Shuddering, she closed her eyes tightly as the world began to fade away.
"The blood of an innocent... so pure... so untainted... how it calls to me! How I desire it!" the dark being sighed. "And how I despise such heady wine!" he groaned. "Ahh, sweet maiden..."
Was there to be no end of this outrage, of this abhorrent disgrace? But did she want it to stop? His tongue was soft and his grip upon her body was steady, comforting, protecting, somehow... loving in some bittersweet way. Fear was gradually being replaced by a warm sense of safety and security, something she had not felt for so long. Moaning, Elfhild arched her back and nestled into his powerful chest. Her body yearned for his touch and craved his kisses like a dying person thirsting for water. Deep needs which she never known that she possessed rose to the surface, compelling her to surrender to him. Perhaps this was what her sister had experienced. Had they both been bewitched by some spell? Yes, that was the only thing that could explain the wondrous sensations which converged deep within her secret places... But yet she did not care! Oh, she wanted this moment to last forever!
Her passion escalating unbelievably, almost out of control, Elfhild cried out in pain as his mouth at last left her bosom. Then, sighing, murmuring, she delighted when she felt his ardent lips possessing hers once again. Willingly she parted her lips to him, and her senses were met with a sudden jolt of shock when his tongue met hers. But her alarm soon turned into ecstasy as the titillating instrument of delightful torture probed deep within her mouth, and she melted into his arms, her body molding to his.
"Please, please, do not leave me!" she thought desperately, fretting in her mind that he would consider her only a passing fancy, some poor foolish peasant girl whom he would use quickly and just as quickly cast aside and forget. Oh, but could any other kiss be like this, piercing the soul, the mind - she blushed, panting - even the body? But, yes, even that!
With a deep chuckle, he released her from his embrace. "Little girls ought not venture into the woods alone. They should wait until they have ripened and are ready for the touch of the Reaper."
A piercing sorrow rent Elfhild's soul and she sank to her knees in agony. Clinging desperately to his strong, muscular thighs, she began to weep. "Please do not leave me," she sobbed, resting her cheek against the supple leather of his boot.
Gazing down at her, he placed his large hand upon her head and sighed. "To see through the eyes of a mortal is, in its way, a gift, but it is just as much a curse. I am a warrior and I cannot stay... not while battles rage... while death is all around me... while the dogs of war lick the blood from the faces of dying men... while the carrion birds tear the putrefying flesh from the bones of the noble... Can you not hear the wolves calling?" His words stilled and he lifted his head, listening for some sound above him, a sound which her ears could not catch, but which was perceived by her soul.
"I do not understand what you mean, my lord, only that you plan to leave me!" she answered, dazed and bewildered, both from his words and the fierceness of his passion.
"I must depart from you!" he exclaimed harshly. "But..." Did he hesitate? His fingers gently stroked her hair. From far away across the mountains, beyond the valleys, upon the red plains of death, the wolf began to sing a song she knew was meant only for her. "No!" he shouted into the night, and the trees bent down their heads in despair. The sorrow in that one word would take lifetimes to comprehend, but was understood in just a moment. "Do not torment me with things that cannot be... that might never be! Join your sister in the cool sweetness of blessed slumber!"
"No, lord! Not sleep! Not that!" Elfhild grasped him desperately, clutching his legs as dreaded sleep ripped her away from him and cast her back into the realm of mortals, into a world of desolate oblivion. She was dying, oh, Gods, she was dying!