"Now, lasses," Tarlanc told them, "I come to the part in my recounting that brings the greatest grief to my old heart. Even the passage of long years does not lessen my sorrow." Wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, the old miller cleared his throat.
Elfhild gently touched his shoulder. "You do not have to tell us if the memory pains you too greatly."
"No," Tarlanc assured her with a wan smile. "I will continue. Somehow... I feel that I must.
"After I heard the voices, I turned off the main road. Forest lay on both sides of me, the trees black shadows against the dim of night. The trunks of young trees rose up like poles, straight and tall, while here and there older, thicker ones stood like barriers of darkness. Meandering through the woods, I found a narrow path and turned down its course.
"Rounding a wide bend in the trail, I could see the ruddy glow of a campfire through the woods. My heart hammered in my chest, and my hands startled to tremble on the reins. Halting my horse in a woody copse, I strained my eyes to peer through the darkness. Could I have found the secret hideaway of my enemy? Was he holding my wife there? Had he harmed her? Too far away to see anything other than the flickering campfire, I dismounted and tied my good beast to a bush. With no sound of hooves to betray me, I could steal through the dark woods and spy upon the occupants of the camp.
"Though my anger was great, I still was afraid of Dezi, for I knew that he was strong enough to kill a man with his bare hands. I am not a brave man, and the thought of facing the giant alone was a sobering one. Then a revelation dawned upon me that was every bit as chilling. Perhaps those voices that I had heard belonged to brigands, desperate, bloodthirsty men who preyed upon travelers on the Gilrain Road. I almost laughed when I thought what irony it would be if I, the adopted son of the 'thieving Randirrim,' were killed by robbers! Shuddering with apprehension at these dismal thoughts, I tried to reassure myself by rubbing the hilt of my dagger.
"Keeping as quiet as I could, I moved closer, careful to stay in the shadows beyond the fire. I reasoned that if they were robbers, I would quickly retreat back to where I had tied my horse. Hiding in the protective shelter of the woods, I looked ahead, and there before me I saw... no one!"
"No one?" Elffled asked, suddenly left feeling confused.
"Just what I said, lass... no signs that anyone had been there except for the campfire glowing brightly, casting its amber light upon the rocky, frost-covered ground. I can remember that place as well as if I were seeing it right before my eyes. The river was below the camp, and I can still hear the thunder of the water at the bottom of the cliff as it churned and tossed on its way to the bay... Whenever I think of that night, I can always see the image of the great dead pine which jutted precariously over the craggy prominence of the cliff. Damaged during a storm, the rotting tree had been partially torn from the ground, the bottom half of its roots still clutching desperately at the rocky earth. From where I viewed the toppled giant, I wondered what kept it from sliding from its precarious position and plunging over the brink of the abyss."
"Tarlanc, how scary!" Elffled shivered, little quivers of fear making her shoulders shake.
"Aye, lass, it was a frightening place. This whole stretch of the riverbank was a long section of cliffs and steep, rocky slopes which were being undermined by the river."
"And there was no one near the campfire?" Elfhild queried, her mind trying to unravel this mystery.
"None - that I could see," answered Tarlanc, looking directly at her. "However, I spied a cloak spread out upon the ground near the fire. There was even a jug of wine close by the garment. A man would have to be a fool not to know that whoever had left those things there would be coming back for them when it was safe. I froze where I stood, hardly daring to move, my eyes scanning the clearing and my ears straining to hear the slightest noise. They were out there somewhere, but where, I did not know. They might even be sneaking up upon me at that very moment!" Suddenly he wondered if the orcs were sneaking up on him and the twins even as he told his story. He felt a shudder of fear race down his spine. "I am an old fool," he told himself, "to be frightened by memories!"
"What happened?" Elffled gasped as she nervously twisted the material of her skirt in her hands.
"Well, lass, while I was pondering these things, I heard a horse neighing from deep in the woods. Soon my own mount answered its anxious whinnies. Any hope of secrecy had been dashed, and I knew that my unknown host had been alerted to the presence of an intruder. I considered running."
"Oh, Tarlanc!" Elffled clutched her sister's hand tightly. "I would have been terrified!"
"So was I, lass, but at least now I was sure of one thing. Whoever owned the horse, it could not be Dezi, for since his crippling fall, he had never ridden. I reasoned that if this had been an outlaw camp, I would have already been ambushed and murdered. I decided to take the chance that the occupants were probably travelers who had run when they heard me coming. 'Hail! Is anyone here?' I called out and waited for an answer. Suddenly it seemed that the woods were filled with eyes and they were all directed at me. 'Hail!' I cried again, my heart pounding in my chest. Then, suddenly, I heard the booming challenge of a familiar voice - Dezi!
"'Tarlanc!' he shouted as he hobbled out of the trees and came into the circle of the firelight. 'I wondered how long you would hide in there before you mustered up the courage to show yourself! You always were a coward!'
"'Where is my wife?' I demanded, not having the patience to play his game. 'I know you have taken her!'
"'Safe, little man, she is safe.' The light of the flame cast every detail of his leering face into stark outlines of ridges and hollows, and his ugly countenance resembled that of a monster.
"'I knew it was you all along who had stolen Tabahanza! What have you done with my wife?" I demanded, my anger burning hot.
"'Taking better care of her than you ever did,' he laughed, a nasty, ugly sound.
"As we confronted each other, Tabahanza slipped out of the trees and into the clearing. 'Tarlanc, I am sorry!' she cried, her voice high and shrill with emotion. She tried to rush to me, but Dezi caught her arm and held her back. She looked up at him with an unreadable expression on her face, and then her eyes turned back to me. 'Oh, Tarlanc, I can explain everything! When we heard you approach, we hid in the woods, thinking you were a robber! Everything is all a misunderstanding, and nothing is what you might think!'
"The two of them stood close together, Tabahanza clutching his arm. From the guilty look in her eyes, I was sure that I had caught them in the very act of love. I could feel my fury pounding in my skull, throbbing in my temples. 'Why were you ever out here in the first place?' I almost shouted, my rage close to getting the better of me.
"Stepping away from Tabahanza, Dezi hobbled closer to the fire and rested his weight upon his unneeded crutch. No king upon his throne or victorious general upon the field of battle could have looked more arrogant and sure of himself than did Dezi as he curled up his lips and sneered at me.
"'Oh, Tarlanc, it is not as you think! Oh, by the Gods, no!' Tabahanza cried, stepping towards me.
"'Tabahanza, perhaps you should let me tell this,' Dezi chortled. She opened her mouth as though to speak, but then fell silent and dropped her eyes to the ground. 'Tarlanc, you weakling! You never should have tried to keep her in a cage--' Dezi began, but Tabahanza cut him off.
"'Oh, darling Tarlanc, you must understand!' she cried out desperately, suddenly regaining her voice. 'I have felt so watched and closed in, like a bird in a cage. If I had not gotten away, I feared that soon the very walls of the wain would close in upon me and I would go mad! I had to go out and walk about the camp for a while. You must understand, my beloved husband, that I was born of a people who value freedom above everything, and to pen them in is to destroy their spirit.' She gazed at me, her eyes begging for understanding, but my expression was stern as I waited for her to continue.
"'This afternoon, I could bear it no longer, and so I dressed in my warmest clothing. I planned only to stroll about the camp for a while...' Her voice broke and she looked down at the ground. 'I visited with my parents for a while, and then bidding them goodbye, I started back to our wain. Then, as I stood at the door, I thought how simple it would be just to - to walk away. Our wain is the last in the line, and the door opens to the woods. Knowing that no one could see me, I slipped into the sanctuary of the forest.' Her large, dark eyes framed by long lashes looked shyly into mine. 'I - I do not know what came over me. I never meant anything wrong!' Her voice was piteous, and I thought I heard the sound of shame in it.
"'Go on!' I snapped.
"Closing her eyes, she worried her bottom lip between her teeth, hesitating as though she were having to plan her words more carefully before she spoke them. When those long eyelashes fluttered open again, her eyes were sad. 'How wonderful it felt to be away from the chattering and constant surveillance of my relatives! I felt free again, for the first time in weeks! Is it so wrong to want to be by yourself if only for a little while?' she asked imploringly, but I did not answer. 'Caught up in the pure joy of walking in the brisk air, I lost track of time. I had wandered far away from the camp when I realized that it was growing late in the afternoon. I confess, my beloved Tarlanc, that I feared I was lost, for I had walked farther than I had planned, and I was in a section of the forest that was unfamiliar. I decided my best course was to follow the sinking sun, since I was sure the camp lay in that direction, and so I turned around and tried to trace my steps back.
"'I had just passed through a tall grove of trees when I heard Dezi's voice... he was singing a merry little tune to himself, and it made me smile. I came into the small clearing where he was gathering firewood and loading it into the baskets on the back of his mother's gentle old mare. Though he did not ask for it, I offered to help him, and - and - I suppose we began talking.' She started to weep again, and Dezi's repulsive dark face grew gentle as he looked at her with deep concern, placing his huge hand tenderly upon her shoulder.
"Though I was moved by her distress, I was determined not to show it, for I was convinced by now that she had been unfaithful to me. I only stared at her with features harsh and rigid. I wondered if she would be able to go on, but after a choking sob, she spoke up in a tremulous, halting voice. 'My cousin and I talked so long, and I suppose we forgot the time. And since it had grown so terribly cold, Dezi built the fire. And - and - and you know the rest, my darling.' She sighed heavily, her shoulders slumping in defeat.
"'Obviously, my beloved wife, neither you nor Dezi have any comprehension of the passage of time.' Her words had condemned her in my mind. I wondered if she and Dezi had planned all along to tryst in the woods as soon as I was away. She was lying and attempting to hide her infidelity with a ridiculous story about being lost. Enraged now, my mind engulfed with anger, frustration and jealousy, I decided that when I took her back to the camp, she would pay, for I would whip her through the streets like the adulteress she was.
"'You do believe me, do you not, Tarlanc?' She dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hand.
"'Of course, I believe you... I believe you pulled up your skirts and cavorted with a simpleton," I taunted, not caring now how bitingly caustic my words sounded.
"Tabahanza cried out as though I had slapped her in the face. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she glared at me through blazing, tear-filled eyes. 'How could you say such things to me, Tarlanc? Did you ever think how unfair you were to forbid me even to speak to my own cousin?' The tears streamed down her face and she stomped her foot angrily. 'Dezi and I have been companions since childhood - friends and companions, Tarlanc, not lovers!
"'Lovers, Tabahanza? Perhaps not in childhood... I would not be so low as to suggest such a thing. But now I wonder if you have allowed yourself to be seduced by him, committing the sins of incest and adultery.' As my voice rose, I pointed wildly in Dezi's direction. 'Perhaps you were blinded by passion and did not realize how dangerous this man is! He hates me and would like to see me dead! I have tried to protect you from him all this time, and as soon as I am away, you rushed straight into his arms!'
"'What?' an indignant Tabahanza exclaimed. 'Dezi would never hurt me! I do not know why everyone is so protective of me all of a sudden. It is like everyone thinks I am about to die!'
"'Tarlanc,' Dezi's voice rumbled as he stepped closer to me, 'I think you have said enough! Not only have you insulted me by accusing me of adultery with my own cousin, but you have hurt poor Tabahanza deeply! You are a very mean, petty, selfish man!'
"'And you are the dim-witted bastard who has cuckolded me!' I shouted as I drew my knife and rushed at him. A sneer on his face, he tossed his crutch away and stood there, waiting for me, unmoving, as steady as a rock. Furious, all reason having left me, I saw Dezi through a red haze of madness. Aiming at his throat, I struck out at him with my knife, realizing far too late the stupidity of my move. His left hand snaked out with the speed of an adder, blocking my thrust and seizing my wrist before my knife could come in contact with his body. His right hand roughly pushed my shoulder back as he jerked my knife hand towards him. Before I knew what was happening, he had thrown me over his left hip and onto the ground. With a great whoop, he pounced on me, slamming his immense weight onto me and pinning me to the ground.
"Laughing uproariously at me, he clenched my wrist in his powerful grasp, twisting it with a pressure that I thought would crush every bone. As we struggled for control of the dagger, our eyes met, and instantly I knew that Dezi was playing his old games, enjoying prolonging my pain and humiliation. Though I bit my lip until I tasted blood, I could not repress the groans of agony which tore from my throat, and I whimpered like a child. The knife slid from my hand, and grabbing the hilt, Dezi put the blade to my throat.
"'Want to die now?' he asked cheerfully as he looked into my eyes. 'Or do you want to continue the game with Dezi?'
"'I do not consider a knife at my throat my idea of 'game,'' I remarked dryly, remaining perfectly motionless, convinced that Dezi would cut my throat if I moved even a finger.
"'Little fellow, I am not through playing!' he giggled as he brought the knife up to my cheek and slowly sliced across the skin. Sucking in air, I filled my lungs, holding my breath as I forced myself not to give into the pain and satisfy Dezi's cruel sense of humor. Looking up into his crazed eyes, I braced myself and waited for the death stroke.
"I heard the frantic shrieks of Tabahanza above us. 'Stop it! Stop it! Oh, stop it now!' she cried, her hands tearing at her hair.
"'This scum was never good enough for you, Tabahanza! You should have stayed with me!' He looked up at her and seemed to forget the knife in his hand, which was still poised over my cheek. 'You will be much better off after he is dead!' Dezi chortled as he pursed his lips together and then launched a stream of spittle in my face. 'He is bad, Tabahanza! You should know that! I am punishing him for his meanness!' Studying my face, Dezi touched my bloodied cheek with a finger. 'We play a new game now, weakling! Maybe you will enjoy it as much as the last one!' He pinched my cheek savagely as he lifted his massive bulk off my body and lurched to his feet.
"'No! No!' Tabahanza cried, gripping his arm. 'Dezi, he is bleeding! Do not hurt him any more!'
"'Tabahanza,' he softened his voice to a gentle entreaty, 'Tarlanc was never my friend, and he hurt Dezi's feelings! He was always hurting Dezi's feelings! I always wanted him to play with me, but he thought he was too good. You know how those Gondorians are! They are the high and mighty because their ancestors went to some island in the sea, while ours stayed home. You know it is true, Tabahanza!' Dezi's voice was whining, like a small child who wanted his way. 'I will not take that treatment from anyone, Tabahanza! He has treated poor, crippled Dezi like dirt long enough!'
"'Oh, no, Dezi, Tarlanc was never like that!' Tabahanza tried to reason with him. 'He always liked you. He told me so! Please let us go back to the camp, Dezi. I have the cake that you like, and some apples. We can have a party! Would you not like that? Remember how we had parties and fetes when we were children? I know you do! I can see you are smiling. After we eat, I will sing to you, all the songs that you love so much!'"
Tarlanc halted in telling his tale, and much to the irritation of the sisters, he leaned his head back and gazed up into the sky.
"Oh, Tarlanc," Elfhild groaned, "why are you stopping? You just do that to prolong the suspense!"
"No, indeed I did not, Elfhild. I saw a beautiful bright red shooting star streak quickly across the horizon, pulling behind it a great tail of orange fire." He gestured with his hand to where he had last seen the shooting star. "Forgive me the delay."
"That is quite all right," Elffled told him, smiling. She made a note to herself that, should she make the journey back to Rohan, she should never fall in love with a Gondorian man, for they could be suspicious and prone to jealous rages. So much for all her girlish fantasies of the dark-haired men from across the border!
"Ahem," Tarlanc cleared his throat and launched back into the tale. "Lasses, I knew what Tabahanza was trying to do. She was attempting to cajole the giant into letting me go. While Dezi was a dim-wit, I knew he was never that gullible.
"'Let me loose, Tabahanza!' He shook his arm free of her as though she had been a kitten. 'Now you go over there and watch us. Tarlanc and I are going to play a new kind of game!' A wide smile upon his bloated face, the monster tossed the knife into the darkness. 'Come now, Tarlanc, get on your feet so we can play!' He giggled like a lad, a very incongruous sound coming from the throat of a man of his great bulk and strength.
"'Dezi, what kind of trick is this now?' I grated out at him, all the rage and hatred dripping like acid from my tongue. Suddenly Dezi was upon me, wrapping his powerful arms around my middle and forcing the air from my lungs. He squeezed my ribs until I thought they would break. I brought my fist back and struck him a weak jab in the chin, but it was like hitting a wall of stone, and Dezi only grunted. I thought perhaps I had done some damage, though, for I felt his hold on me loosening. Yet it was only so that he could slide his hand between my legs and grasp me tightly. His other arm moved to my shoulder and seized the muscles in a killer hold. The bastard must have been enjoying the pain he was inflicting to my loins, because he squeezed even tighter. With a strange gurgling sound deep in his throat that appeared to be a demented laugh, he bent his head down, slamming it into my chest. Close to fainting now, I heard him grunt as he lifted me upon his shoulders as though I were a child.
"'No! No!' Tabahanza screamed, beating at his chest with her small fists.
"'Please get back, Tabahanza, lest harm come to you!' came his strident voice, the sharpness seasoned with his love and regard for her. Ignoring her feeble blows, he turned from her and strengthened his hold on me. My added weight made it more difficult for him to walk on his injured leg, and he limped towards the craggy cliff that loomed over the Gilrain far below. With each stride of his unsteady gait, I was tossed back and forth like a ship on the sea. In his mighty grasp, I was as helpless as a suckling babe. Deep in pain, I closed my eyes and groaned.
"'Little man,' came his triumphant words as he bore me towards the precipice, 'this is a good time for you to learn how to fly before your guts get smashed out on the rocks below!'
"My eyes flew open. 'Dezi,' I hissed through my pain, 'let us learn to fly together! We can play all the way down!'
"'Too late, little man! You lost your opportunity long ago! Dezi does not like you anymore!'
"From my miserable position high over Dezi's head, I saw Tabahanza pick up something from the ground and follow behind us. Nearing the brink of the cliff, I could hear far below the tumultuous waters of the river, and wondered if I had any chance at all of surviving such a fall. Choking back her sobs, Tabahanza moved behind Dezi. He turned his head as though to say something to her, but before the words could be spoken, she swung the crutch back like a club and caught him across his injured leg. Disbelief painfully etched on his face, Dezi gasped out, 'Tabahanza! Why did you hurt Dezi?' He toppled to the ground like a mighty tree hewn down by the woodsmen, sending me hurtling against the capsized base of the tree.
"'Come, my darling, we must flee,' she called to me desperately. Dazed with pain and the impact of my fall, I could only stare at her and shake my head groggily. Finally my vision cleared enough so that I could make out images, and I staggered to my feet. Dezi still lay upon the ground cursing and groaning, his rage burning hotter than the fires of my forge. I knew that if he laid hands upon me, he would tear me to small, bloody pieces. I stumbled towards Tabahanza, but before I could reach her, Dezi lurched forward, grabbing me by the ankle and throwing me to the ground. Bellowing like a wounded bull, he rose to his knees and then struggled painfully to his feet. Reaching down for me, he grasped the shoulders of my tunic and lifted me up to face him.
"'I want you to beg me for mercy before I tear your tongue from your mouth! I want to see the blood burst from your eyes as I tear them from their sockets!' Sobbing, his repulsive face as red as a spanked baby's bottom, Dezi sniffed and blinked away the tears which flowed down his face like endless springs.
"'Go to hell!' I spat in his face. His great brutish hands went around my throat, and I grabbed his wrists to force him away, but it was no use. He was as strong as a young bull.
"'No!' Tabahanza shrieked and threw herself against Dezi's weak side, knocking him off balance, forcing him to release his hold on my neck. Tabahanza's hands fastened on his huge muscled forearm and she pulled against him with all her weight. While he tried to disentangle himself, I drew my fist back and hit him in the nose, sending a stream of blood splattering in showers over the three of us.
"'The bad man hurt Dezi again!' he whimpered as he stared at me in disbelief. 'You play mean games, Tarlanc, but Dezi will not let you get away with it!' Jerking his arm away from Tabahanza, he threw her to the ground and looked at me with eyes full of twisted hate. I tried to kick him in the crotch but he blocked me with his leg. Grabbing the neck of my tunic, he began dragging me back towards the cliff.
"No! No!' On her hands and knees on the ground, Tabahanza screamed as she struggled to her feet. 'I will not let you do this terrible thing!' She moved between us and the edge.
"'Tabahanza! No! Get back!' I warned her.
"'Tabahanza, Tabahanza, we are still playing the game!' He turned to me and snarled in my face. 'Like to make fun of Dezi and hurt him, do you? You will play some more before Dezi finally throws you over the cliff!' He held my tunic with one hand and struck me on the chin, knocking me almost senseless and once more sending me reeling against the leaning trunk. As Dezi's fingers tightened around my throat, I could feel the rough bark scraping against my spine. Screaming, Tabahanza clawed at Dezi's back and shoulders, trying to pull him away from me. In a moment of blind rage, he kicked out at her with his foot, sending her stumbling towards the edge.
"At that moment, the great trunk shifted under our combined weight and began tilting even more towards the chasm. The roots creaked as some were torn from the soil. Dezi looked up in fear, momentarily loosening his hold around my neck. Managing to tear a hand free, I brought it back, striking him in the mouth and hearing with satisfaction the crunch of teeth. Dezi screamed and stumbled backward. I looked around for Tabahanza and saw her near the edge of the cliff. Suddenly, to my horror, a great crack appeared across the ground at the base of the tree, and I was knocked to my feet. 'Tabahanza!' I screamed as the immense pine ripped from the earth and began to topple downward. I crawled towards her, reaching out my hand for her to grab, but she was frozen with terror.
"'Tarlanc!' she shrieked, her fear paralyzing her. 'Help me! Help me!'
"'Grab my hand!' I begged her, but it was too late. The fissure in the ground widened, separating us. As the earth shook and rumbled, the tree plunged over the cliff, carrying with it a mass of rock and earth and - and," Tarlanc choked out a sob, "my beloved Tabahanza and our unborn child.
"Lasses, the tale is finished." Tarlanc's voice was husky with sorrow as he reached down and patted Haun, who looked up at him sympathetically. Neither girl made any attempt to hide her crying. Elfhild's slender hand crept up and took the old man's gnarled hand in her own. "Ah, lass," he finally managed to speak, "the time for weeping is over. All this happened many years ago." He turned his head and the light of the lantern caught the tears that slid down his wrinkled cheeks. Sighing heavily, he wiped his eyes and looked at the sisters. "Ah, but there is a bit more, if you would care to hear it..."