Dusk fell upon the land of Anórien, and the shadows of the Drúedain Forest deepened. As they traveled along the eaves of the wood, Tarlanc grew increasingly fearful, listening intently for the first tell-tale drumbeat of the Wild Men. When the forest remained quiet, he breathed more easily. The old miller could not help being apprehensive, for he had grown up hearing tales of the Wild Men and their deadly poison-tipped arrows. He would do nothing to alarm the sisters, though, and so he told them nothing of the stories surrounding this elusive people. The girls were in a perilous enough situation as it was, and they needed no frightening tales that might unsettle them even more.
The elation he had felt when he resolved to lead the sisters away from Ivrenlaer was rapidly fading away. Thoughts of the unknown dangers that might lie before them and the ever-present threat of being overtaken by their pursuers added to the growing sense of despair that had been steadily creeping over him. Though he would no longer suffer the bitter sting of humiliation at the knowledge that he was considered as nothing but a cowardly worm, at least he had been safe under the tyranny of the Easterlings. He had done more than well through the largess of their general, never having to worry about starvation, and often having the pleasure of being gifted with an occasional bottle of the finest Eastern wine. Now, though, he was just as wanted as the sisters, and if he were captured, the penalty for him would be death. Tarlanc kept his gloomy thoughts to himself, even managing to joke as they set up their camp.
With the coming of night, the melancholy returned. This was Midsummer Eve, and there would be no brightly burning bonfires to celebrate the night of magic. The old miller did not dare to light a small campfire, for even an humble blaze might be seen or smelled by their pursuers. The only allowance that Tarlanc would make for a light of any kind was the candle lantern which he had lighted and set on a nearby rock.
As he stared mournfully into the flickering flame, he thought, "What is Midsummer Eve without the feasting, the merrymaking and revelry, the stealing of kisses from pretty maidens, and the knowing smiles as lovers steal away among the trees? Even an old man can feel young again on such a night when the fires glow brightly! But there will be no blaze tonight to drive away the shadows, no merry tunes to quicken the heart, and no deceiving myself that I am young again. What am I but a foolish old man?"
Instead of a feast, the three had eaten a frugal supper of salted beef, which was stringy but filling; bread which was almost too dry to eat; and sour pickles which had been processed by Tarlanc himself last autumn. Their supper was washed down by Elf's Ale, which the old miller had told the sisters was a common expression for the life-giving liquid. "Better than calling it plain old water, do you not think?" Tarlanc had asked them mischievously.
Even though Tarlanc always insisted that they be attended to before their riders had eaten so much as a bite, the horses had not fared much better than their human companions. Accustomed to eating hay in their stalls, they had been put on scant rations of only oats, and both their bodies and spirits missed the abundant provender. Their halter lines secured to iron pegs driven into the ground, they tugged at their ropes, pawing to show their displeasure. Perhaps they wondered why their kind master no longer provided for them as he once had. "Poor beasts," Tarlanc muttered under his breath, "they do not understand why there is no grass upon the ground."
The old man and his two young companions had made themselves as comfortable as they could on oilskins and blankets. Once again, the old miller had brought out a wineskin, to "bring a little comfort," as he called it, and the three of them passed the wineskin amongst themselves as they gazed into the candle. For a while, none of them spoke, and the only sounds were the soft noises of the horses and Haun's noisy panting. Tarlanc sighed, cupping his hand over the bowl of his pipe as he lit the weed with a pine splinter.
"At least we have wine," he chuckled ruefully, but his heart was not in his words. "I know, lasses, we have little with which to celebrate Midsummer Eve. Perhaps I can think of a tale or two to help us pass the hours." He brightened a little at that thought, but the sisters could tell from his voice that his heart was heavy.
"Oh, sir, we forgot to tell you, but today is our birthday," Elffled spoke up, attempting to lighten the gloomy mood which had settled over the camp.
"Your birthday, lass!" His face lit up, and he puffed his pipe with new vigor, sending up a rapid succession of smoky gray puffs, mixed with flaming red embers. "When you are old, no one much pays attention to your birthday, but when you are young, birthdays are always cause for celebration. Why did you not tell me sooner?" he asked, disappointment thick in his voice.
"We have known you only two days, sir," Elffled giggled, a soft blush coloring her cheeks.
"Ah, lass, what an old fool I am! What a silly question to ask! But as foolish I am, I know better than to ask a lady her age," Tarlanc chuckled.
Elffled smiled to herself; sometimes this old man acted as flustered and bashful as any youth. "Perhaps older ladies might be insulted if you inquired of their age, but I do not feel any chagrin at telling you that we have just turned seventeen."
"So young," Tarlanc murmured, shaking his head. "You are only a few years older than I was when my father gave me the soundest trouncing of my life! I can still hear his words as he took the strap to me." The touch of a smile edged up the corners of his mouth.
Elffled gave him a playfully skeptic look. "What did you do to get into so much trouble?"
"Lass, it is a long tale, and I will not tell it until I have given the two of you a surprise for your birthday."
"Oh, what is it?" Elffled asked eagerly, her eyes brightening.
A very curious Elfhild looked to his beaming face and smiled back. "A surprise?" she queried. "I cannot imagine what it could be."
"What would you like for your birthday, lasses? That is, if you had some choice in the matter," he hastened to clarify his question.
"Oh, sir, if I could have anything that I wanted?" Elffled exclaimed, clapping her hands together.
"Anything at all, girl!" Tarlanc chuckled, amused at the unmistakable avarice in the girl's eager response. "Such tender years... So innocent, yet so greedy. She has a thirst for life. Would that she realize her hopes while still retaining her artless simplicity. If I am successful in escorting them safely back to Rohan, perhaps she will."
"Well, if I could have anything--" she stretched the word out dramatically, clasping her hands together and bringing them to her cheek as she looked up with wide eyes at the night sky, "--I would want a dress made of the finest material, like a rich lady would wear, and many fine jewels." Pausing, she looked around dolefully. "Of course, it would do me little good out here in the middle of this wilderness."
"The wild swan in the splendor of its natural setting needs no adornment, and neither does the white rose, pure and lovely in its simplicity. But lasses always want some embellishment to highlight their natural beauty, do they not?" His eyes crinkled up into a teasing smile.
"Is that so bad?" Elffled's face colored slightly at the old man's reference to the swan and the rose, feeling that it was a compliment to her.
"Nay, lass, there is no evil in your wanting pretty things. And you, Elfhild," he turned his face towards her sister, "what might you be wanting? Elegant dresses of fine fabrics, resplendent jewels in rich settings displayed in wondrously designed chests? Mayhap some rarity such as the dwarves have skill in making - boxes which play music and display moving figures when you wind them up? Clocks which not only tell accurate time, but which give you the day, week, month, and year, and even a prediction of the weather! Ah, I have it!" An especially flamboyant puff poured from the bowl of his pipe as he came to his conclusion. "A spirited horse, its beauty, speed and endurance like no other?"
"Oh, Tarlanc, while all those things sound wonderful - and I am sure I would love all of them very much - what I would like the most is for the world to look as it once did... for the grass to be green once again, for the flowers to bloom, and the fireflies to fill the night like magic little lights." Though what Elfhild said was a reflection of her true feelings, smug piety tinged her words. This was the sort of thing which her elders would expect her to say. She raised her chin slightly and regarded her sister with a haughty air, for while Elffled had given an adequate response, she had given the better.
"Lass, what you really mean is that you wish that Yavanna would hurry in delivering her gifts this year. I would expect that she is as impatient as you are to cover the north in her verdant green cloak. I would not be surprised if, at the moment we speak, she is complaining to her spouse Aulë of how her plans were thwarted by the petulant Lord in His Dark Tower. Be patient with the mighty Valië, for she might hear you and become angry if you think ill of her. She will green the earth in her own good time. Now while we wait for the goddess' pleasure, let us sweeten our time." He grinned mischievously.
"How will we do that?" Elfhild asked, intrigued by the prospect.
"You will see." Tarlanc rose to his feet and went to his pack, which had been stored beside a tree near where the horses were tethered. The sisters could hear him rummaging about and muttering to himself, "Damn! Cannot see in this darkness! Where did I put that?" When he returned, he brought with him a crockery jar of quince jam and a loaf of bread. Breaking the bread, he handed the sisters each a piece and tossed one to Haun, who caught it in mid-air.
"I was saving this for a special occasion, such as when we arrive in Rohan," he explained as he opened the jar and spooned a generous dab over their portions. "Then I started thinking what could be more special than a birthday! I believe you will find these quince preserves made by boiling the fruit with honey to be delicious. After all," he winked, "I made them myself." Then he smoothed out the blanket and sat down beside Haun.
"Mmm, the jam is delicious," Elffled praised, determined to give the old miller a compliment before her sister had the chance.
"Aye," Elfhild agreed, "I have had none better." Irritated at her twin, she had to bite her lip to keep from saying something snide. Why did her sister always outdo herself in trying to impress others?
"Plenty more in the jar," Tarlanc added before he put a piece of dried bread, heavily drenched with jam, into his mouth. "Makes even a stale crust taste better." He smacked his lips happily, and then muttered as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, "'Tis a damn curse when I get jam in my beard. Have no fear, such is not the case." He tore another piece off and offered it to Haun, who had curled up comfortably at his feet. "There is more, lass. Though you would not have believed it, this will make the night much sweeter. I have another surprise, which you could never guess. When you have finished dining, would you like to see it?"
Unable to hide their delight at another surprise, the girls eagerly gave their affirmations, excited to see what other surprises the miller had in store for them. How he gave the wilderness a touch of home! How fortunate they were to have met this kindly old gentleman!
"Here, you girls finish this wee bit of jam left in the jar while I go to my pack and fetch my surprise." He smiled enigmatically as he placed the jar and spoon in Elfhild's hands. When he returned, he took a place on the other side of the lantern, and unwrapped a piece of cloth from a very curious looking device crafted of wood. It resembled a horseshoe with built in rods which extended from the ends of the shoe and then narrowed, forming a small channel. Extending from the middle to the end was a wooden shaft. Baffled by the strange object, the sisters stared at it in amazement.
"Mouth trump," he explained crisply. "Never heard of it, I am sure. Maybe you know it by one of its many other names - 'Juice harp,' an appropriate description, lasses, if I ever heard one, for when the unskilled attempt to play it, they exude spittle like a rabid dog."
"Play it, play it, Tarlanc!" Elfhild excitedly encouraged, clapping her hands. "It has been so long since we have heard any music!"
"Do you forget, sister, the strange melodies played by the unknown musician along the banks of the Anduin? When I think about them, I can still hear them in my mind. They were so hauntingly lovely," Elffled sighed dreamily, hearing the exotic music once again.
"How can I ever forget them?" Elfhild retorted dryly. "Though the instrument sounded much like a lute, the melody was discordant, and the singer sounded as though he were a dying animal that should be taken out of its misery as quickly as possible. I hope I never hear such barbaric wailings again in my life!" She shuddered in pain at the memory.
Tarlanc coughed. "Shall I begin?" And at the pleadings of the girls, he took a deep breath and put the strange instrument to his lips. Hoping to hear some lovely and exotic tune such as might be played upon the reed pipes, the girls were startled when they first heard strange, short pops emitting from the trump. Then, as the melody sped up, it sounded almost like the strings of a harp being plucked rapidly.
Occasionally, he would make a whirring noise that sounded like loose lute strings being plucked. As he kept changing the shape of his mouth and varying the quantity of air as he held the trump to his lips or his teeth, he could create overtones of melodies. Sometimes he would add percussion that resembled soft beats upon a tiny drum. Sometimes the sounds would seem to mimic the trotting of horses' hooves, or with increased tempo, the drumming hoof beats of a galloping horse. He sped up the rhythm, making the instrument whir and pound intermittently. Then with a rapid conclusion of whirrings, poundings, drumming, twangs, and squeals, he suddenly stopped playing and took the juice harp from his lips, bowing with a sweeping flourish.
"That, lasses, concludes the performance, unless, of course," he added impishly, "you would like another dose." His eyebrows arched skeptically. "I can see that you do not."
"No, no, Tarlanc!" Elffled exclaimed, trying to think of something complimentary. "Please play another! I thought it was rather... haunting!"
"Indeed, it was unusual." Elfhild gnawed on her lower lip. "Unusual" was all she could think of to say. Actually, it was the most horrible music she had ever heard in her life, far worse even than the Southron's bizarre singing style and discordant melody. She wondered if the hearing of it might bring about another night of nightmares, or even worse, sleepwalking.
Tarlanc made his next serenade mercifully short, content with a soft mixture of whirling, popping, drumming, twanging, squealing, and strumming. At the conclusion, he bowed again, wrapped the instrument in its covering, and took it back to his pack. When he returned and took his seat, he did not seem at all insulted that the sisters had not been impressed with the playing. Actually, he seemed as though he had expected, if not an overtly unfavorable response from them, then either a neutral or a patiently indulgent one.
"Pass me the wineskin, if you would be so kind, Elfhild," he requested. Licking his lips, he took the container from her hand as she passed it to him. "Gives one a powerful thirst to play one of these little beauties. A few swallows of the general's wine, and I will be in a good mood to tell you that tale that I promised."
"Yes, I was wondering when you would tell us about the worst whipping of your life," Elfhild suggested eagerly, her eyes alight with excitement.
"Oh, tell us a story!" Elffled exclaimed. Leaning forward, she placed her elbows upon her knees and rested her chin in her cupped hands.