"Tarlanc," Elfhild murmured softly as she studied the old man’s weary face, "perhaps we all should go to bed. You have been telling stories for a very long time."
"No, lass, no." Tarlanc's head shot up. "I must finish this first." He cleared his throat. "As Dezi and I stood looking down into the gorge and listening to the sounds of the churning waters far below, neither of us had any fight remaining in us. The shock of Tabahanza's death had left the fierce giant as docile as a small child. Both of us were shaken by the memory of her screams, which still seemed to reverberate from the walls of the canyon. Dezi could only gape into the darkness where she had fallen, his great, broad frame racked with shuddering sobs of despair. Neither of us spoke as we stood there. There were no words of comfort or blame. We both knew in our hearts that we were equally guilty. There was no need to say anything anyway. Our shared misery had brought an unspoken truce and forged between us a comradeship of the damned.
"It was far too dark to permit a descent down the treacherous face of the cliff without risking certain death. Both of us knew that there was no hope anyway that Tabahanza could have survived that dreadful fall. However, with the dawn, we climbed down the unforgiving wall and into the gorge below, where the malevolent waters surged dark and deadly towards the sea. Though we searched up and down the banks of the river, we found nothing, and with an overpowering sorrow in our hearts, we said our farewells to our beloved Tabahanza and made our way back to the top.
"Upon our return, we found Wedri, his two sons, and a number of the men of the tribe. They knew by our tense and strained faces that something terrible had happened. I could not control my sobs as Wedri searched my face. 'Where is my daughter, Tarlanc?' he asked me.
"'She has perished, sir.' My pain was so intense that I could barely speak.
"'How?' His face was stony, but I sensed that he already knew the answer.
"'The cliff gave way, and she fell to her death,' I mumbled out the answer.
"'Why was she there?' Wedri grated out. 'Just tell me why was she ever there?'
"'She was lost, sir, and Dezi found her.' I looked to the giant, but he was still staring slack-jawed into the chasm. I never told of the terrible fight on the edge of the cliff and how Dezi had tried to kill me. What good would it have done? I told Wedri as much of the truth as I could, and by then we were both weeping unashamedly. I do not think he really believed me, but what could he say? Tabahanza was lost forever." Tarlanc fell silent, bowing his head in shame and sorrow.
"Oh, Tarlanc, that is one of the saddest stories I have ever heard in my life!" Elfhild dabbed at the tears which trickled down her cheeks.
"How heartbreaking to think of that poor girl and her unborn child dying in that deep and dismal gorge!" Elffled exclaimed, sniffling.
Reaching for the wineskin, Tarlanc drank long and deeply before he put it back on the blanket. He stared into the light of the candle and rubbed the pale scar on his cheek where Dezi had sliced his face so long ago. "During the intervening years, I have wondered if I should have killed Dezi, though he was innocent of kidnapping my wife. By not slaying him, I broke the vow that I had made to the Valar. But what is worse? Breaking an oath or seeking revenge? Revenge can never restore that which is lost, and in the final accounting, it reaps only bitter rewards."
"Did Dezi and you ever make peace between yourselves?" Elffled asked, uncomfortable discussing such weighty matters.
"Well, if you are thinking that Dezi and I somehow became friends, that did not happen. Though we never came to blows again, we gave each other a wide berth. Seldom did we even speak, unless we met face to face, and that suited me just fine."
"After all that heartache and sorrow, did you leave the tribe?" Elfhild inquired softly.
"Even though I continued living amongst the Randirrim, I never again felt like one of the tribe after Tabahanza and the child had perished. As each year passed, I became more and more restless, feeling myself a stranger among my wife's people. My thoughts often turned to the village where I was born and my father's mill."
"What became of Pere and Meri?" Elfhild asked, somewhat sleepily. It had been a long night, after all.
"'Eventually, Meri and Pere married - two very lovely girls, I might say - and when their wives gave them two fine sons, at least poor Ahãma knew some joy again. She and I both remained close, since there was a great bond between us."
Tarlanc's voice had become remote and detached, with long pauses between the words. Perhaps the rigors of the trip and his long night of storytelling had fatigued the old man, or else he was remembering his doomed love. Reliving scenes from long ago, perchance he did not wish to return.
"What happened to Dezi?" Elfhild ventured. She was hesitant to break the silence, wondering if it would be kinder to let the old man wander through the fields of remembrance, or bring him back to the present.
"Oh, Dezi," Tarlanc chuckled, his eyes brightening as his mind snapped back to the present. "Though Dezi's comprehension was too sluggish for anything more complicated than caring for livestock and performing simple tasks, his mother was quite a shrewd lady, well-versed in business. While she still plied the family trade of jewelry making, she did far better at horse trading. Hebeli was not above applying her feminine wiles to convince a buyer that the nag which she was attempting to sell was a noble steed. Through these endeavors, she was able to accumulate a good amount of money. She saved these funds until she had enough to pay the bride price of a beautiful young lass for whom Dezi had been burning hot for several years. When the girl delivered a daughter the next year, Dezi named her Tabahanza. It was after this that I thought the time for me to ride back north had come at last." The old miller smiled ruefully.
"I doubted any would miss me save perhaps Ahãma. When I went to tell her farewell, she had insisted that she read my palm and look into the crystal one last time. Though I thought better of it, remembering as I did how easily it is to be led astray by these prognostications, I allowed her to have her way and divine my future once again. Perhaps that was a mistake," he chuckled dryly.
"Why? Did she predict something dreadful?" Elffled leaned forward slightly.
"No, lass, nothing to fear. She said that my life would be spent in peace, but to beware when I met a woman who dwelt within a man's body. What ridiculous nonsense! Who ever heard of such a thing?" Tarlanc scratched his head.
The twins giggled at the absurdity of such a prophecy. "A woman in a man's body?" Elfhild raised an eyebrow. "How is that even possible?"
"Perhaps Ahãma meant a disguise?" Elffled suggested, taking a more practical interpretation of the strange prediction.
"Perhaps Ahãma had seen so much sadness that her powers were failing. Who knows?" Tarlanc shrugged. "Now we near the end of my tale. After nine years of living amongst the Randirrim and wandering with them on their journeys, I rode north to the village of my birth. You can imagine my many doubts and uncertainties as I rode over the bridge and beheld the mill pond for the first time in many years. Would my father be willing to accept me, or would he still be so enraged at my rebellion that he would forbid me to step foot in his house?" He looked to the two sleepy girls and smiled when he saw they were still awake.
"As I reined in my horse and gazed at the swans gracefully swimming over the serene waters, I noticed a lad standing by the mill-race. The boy was regulating the flow of water from the sluice gate to the mill wheel. As I remembered the hours I had spent at that very task when I was a boy, I smiled. Lasses," Tarlanc explained as an aside, "this is a very important task, because if too much water is allowed to hit the wheel, the millstone can spin and vibrate far too quickly. I am sure you can conjecture what problems might be caused if such a thing happens."
"The wheel would be damaged," Elfhild offered, remembering the times she had visited her dear friend Swithwyn, the miller's daughter, back in Rohan.
"I watched the boy for a while. At last he noticed me. 'Hullo, sir, would you be looking for the miller?' came the cheerful inquiry.
"'Aye, lad, that I would,' I answered. 'Is he in the mill?'
"'Nay, sir. Galon the miller has ridden off to the village on business, but he should be coming back soon.' The boy smiled shyly before a more serious expression came over his face. 'Sir, if you would not be taking offense at my words, I could not help noticing that you have the look of the trail about you. Have you traveled a great distance?'
"'Aye, lad,' I dismissed his inquiry with a nod, for though he did not know it, his words had filled me with dread. A premonition clutched my heart with an icy chill. I hoped I had misunderstood his words. 'Is not Saelon yet the miller?' I asked him.
"'Nay, sir,' he shook his head sadly, his brows knitted together. 'Two years ago this winter, a grievous fever beset the good miller, and he died a few days later. It was very sad, sir; he was just in the prime of life when he was struck down, leaving this world of tears and sorrow.' The boy took off his cap and held it respectfully in front of him. 'I should hope his spirit is in a better place.'
"Lasses, I am sure that my expression must have given me away, for the boy looked at me strangely. I was unable to speak for the hard lump which constricted my throat. I rode slowly along the edge of the mill pond, and by the time I came to the yard in front of the building, I had composed myself. 'And now Galon grinds the grain in his father's stead. What of the other sons?' I questioned him.
"Then, sir, you must have known the old miller!' A surprised look came over the boy's face. 'They are well, last I heard, all of them serving Lord Caun as men-at-arms at his hall,' he replied. The boy smiled broadly, as rural lads do when they think that they have impressed a stranger.
"'And Miller Saelon's wife - what of her?' I inquired.
"'She prospers in good health and keeps house for her son.' The boy beamed, sure that he was the first one to regale the stranger with his vast store of local lore. 'Sir,' he cocked his head, at last realizing that for a stranger, I knew a remarkable amount of information, 'did you know them?'
"'You could say that, lad.' Taking a few copper coins from my purse, I tossed them over the mill trace, laughing as he scrambled to catch them before they fell in the water.
"'I am beholden to you, sir, for your generosity. Thank you most kindly!' he exclaimed as he pocketed the coins. 'Sir, if you do not mind me saying this, but you look to have come from a long way, and you and your steed must be thirsty. There is a well by the cottage over yonder.' He pointed to the familiar path through the woods, and I felt the constriction return to my throat. 'I would be pleased to take you there.'
"'Come, lad, and show me the way,' I replied.
"'Fine horse you have there, sir,' he told me as he walked by the side of my mount and touched his long, black mane.
"'Aye, lad, he is that,' I replied. 'I came by him in Southern Gondor.'
"'Oh, sir,' the lad gazed up at me with awe written in his eyes, 'I never saw one quite like him, both black and white as he is, and with the long, uncut hair feathering from his knees down to his hooves. Is he a war horse?'
"I shook my head and chuckled. 'Nay, lad. His breed was developed by the Randirrim to pull their wains. One of their chieftains owned both his sire and dam.'
"The boy's eyes grew even wider, and I supposed that he was thinking the same thing that most Gondorians believed, 'dirty, lying thieves!' He was silent the rest of the way to the cottage, and I knew that he was mulling over what I had just related to him.
"'Well, sir, I must be leaving you and get back to my work,' he told me right before we reached the cottage. I threw him another coin and he seemed pleased, bidding me farewell before he left.
"My thoughts were a jumble when I came to my old home." Tarlanc looked down at the hound that lay at his feet and he scratched gently behind Haun's ears. "I discovered that little had changed since the night so long ago when I had stolen away. I had just dismounted my horse and was looking around when the door of the cottage opened and my mother stepped through the doorway.
"'Sir, if you are looking for the miller, he is not here.' She gazed at me intently, and I wondered if she could recognize me. I did not think that possible, for I was a man grown now with a mustache and beard. She bowed. 'Welcome, stranger. You will find the water from that well to be the purest and most refreshing in all the lord's lands.'
"'My lady,' I bowed, 'I am sure I will, and I thank you for allowing a weary traveler to enjoy a draught of its sweetness.'
"A strange, uncertain expression came over her face, and she cocked her head to one side. 'That voice,' she gasped as she clutched her heart. 'Do I know you?'
"'I am Tarlanc, your son,' I whispered.
"'My darling!' she cried as she rushed to me and enveloped me in her arms. 'You have come back to us!'
"'Yes, Mother. I have indeed returned at last,' I replied as we stood there, hugging each other as we laughed and cried.
"Well, I suppose that is about all." Tarlanc stood up and smiled down at Haun, who had risen to his feet and was nuzzling his master's hand. "We should all retire to our bedrolls and find whatever sleep we can in what is left of the night." The sisters rose to their feet and looked at the old man and his faithful companion.
"Tarlanc, I have a question," Elfhild spoke up.
"I suppose we do not have to go to bed at this very moment," Tarlanc laughed amiably. "What is it, lass?"
"Since your brother was operating the mill when you returned, how did it ever come into your hands?"
"My younger brothers did not have much interest in running the mill, and they found employment in the service of Lord Caun as men-at-arms. They did quite well there, I must say, eventually saving enough money so that they could afford to get married. Galon, who ran the mill, died when he was fairly young from an injury received when some equipment fell upon him and crushed him. Poor fellow, he never married, though he was betrothed. Then when he was gone, I secured the lease from Lord Caun, and, well, that is what I was doing when two young thieves broke into my cottage." He smiled mischievously.
"And then you married Galwen?"
"Aye, yes, but not immediately. That happened a few years later after I had returned. We never should have married, for we never got along. I think Galwen realized that no one would ever replace the Randirric girl in my affections. Now my lovely lasses, I am going to bed. Come along, Haun!" Whistling a mournful tune, the old man went to his bedroll. That was all the girls saw of him until the next morning.
Lying upon her blanket, Elfhild gazed up at the stars and the silvery light of the almost full moon. Her mind kept revisiting the tale which she had heard. How tragic it had been! "Yet not every story has a happy ending," she reflected. Did that mean that those tales were somehow deficient because the endings were not all smiles and laughter? "No," she concluded wryly, "because, unfortunately, they are much more realistic than those with pleasant endings."
That day had certainly been the most unusual birthday that she and her sister had ever had. In the past, they had celebrated their special day with a party attended by relatives and friends, or a trip to the Midsummer fair in the village. But, even though Elfhild mourned for the happy times of the past, she could not complain about the companionship of the old miller... even though he was a bit long winded at times.
She had been horribly mistaken ever to think that this kindly old man meant them any harm. They were so lucky to have met him! If the Gods truly cared about lowly peasants, then they had granted the sisters' prayers for aid. Oh, if only they had met under different circumstances -- Elfhild thought, but then reflected that they never would have met at all had it not been for the war, for it was highly unlikely that either she or her sister would have ever traveled so far east.
Closing her eyes, she turned over on her side. It was already so late, and she needed her sleep for the long journey tomorrow. She smiled softly to herself, for she could sleep peacefully this night. Though she had kept up a cheerful front and tried to convince herself that no evils would come to them on their journey, a sliver of doubt had begun to vex her mind like a thorn lodged deep within the skin. She did not like to admit it, even to herself, but all of her sister's fretful complaints had been justified. Could they have survived out here in the wilderness with very little food and naught but two stout sticks for weapons? Now they did not have to worry so much, for they had horses and a wise, old guide.
Far beyond the darkness behind her eyelids, she could almost see her old village before her, though the mists of time were starting to gather around the buildings and imbue them with the rosy glow of nostalgia. It was strange, but sometimes she could not remember the exact appearance of her village before the war broke out. These were the last thoughts upon her mind as she drifted off to sleep.
Elffled's late night ruminations were much the same as those of her sister. Ever since Goldwyn had proposed her escape plan to the women, she had been against the idea. Though she was just as fearful of the Haradrim as the other women, still they gave the captives food and saw to their needs. To oppose them seemed dangerous and foolhardy, and the consequences of such an action were too frightening even to consider. Then, too, where could they go? Their homes had been burnt, their villages destroyed, and their crops had all withered away in the drought. Surely they would starve to death along the way if they were not recaptured first!
But now the sisters had Tarlanc. May the Powers that be and the spirits of the ancestors bless him; he would help them get back home! Perhaps their tale would yet have a happy ending. For the first time since they were captured by the orcs, Elffled allowed a spark of hope to be kindled within her heart, and it shone brightly, illuminating all the dreams which she had once held.
Irish Gypsy Cob Horse by Michelle Spaulding