Two hours after dawn on June 20th, four horsemen, their burnooses billowing behind them in the morning breeze, thundered up the path to the old miller's cottage. Drawing rein outside his door, the Haradric slaver, Esarhaddon uHuzziya, scowled when he saw that there were no trails of smoke rising from the vent holes in the eaves. All was silent. The two orc trackers caught up with them a few minutes later and waited impatiently, their hands lightly resting upon the hilts of their scimitars.
"See to it, Ubri," the slaver gruffly ordered.
Dismounting, Captain Ubri walked to the door and knocked heavily upon it, each successive knock louder than the previous one. "Open, by the order of the authorized agents of Mordor!" Receiving no answer, he turned back to the slaver. "Shakh," he proclaimed irritably, "it appears that no one is home, or they are cowering inside. Shall I have the men break down the door?"
His eyes dark under heavy lids, the slaver nodded his head. "Break down the door and drag the infidel dog out by his beard! The gates of hell are about to open wide and receive him!"
Frowning, Ubri stepped away from the door as the two uruks moved forward. Thrusting their broad shoulders against the wooden barrier, they hurled themselves against it with powerful, furious lunges. The door tore away from its hinges, slamming to the floor inside with a heavy crash. Swords and scimitars drawn, the uruks and Haradrim surged inside with a mighty cry. His dark eyes glittering with anticipation, the slaver waited for his men to bring out the lying Gondorian and the two beauteous slave wenches. The chase had been a long and frustrating one, but perhaps now it was almost over.
A few minutes later, a scowling Ubri, his tawny face livid with rage, led his men back out the ruined door and into the yard where Esarhaddon awaited them. "By the reeking ballocks of Melkor the Black-hearted! The old Gondorian bastard has taken the girls and made good his escape!" Ubri cursed. "Men," he directed them angrily, "search the mill, the barn and all the outbuildings until you find them and bring them before the great shakh! Handle the maids carefully... it matters not what harm comes to the old man!"
"Wait!" the slaver exclaimed, holding up his hand to halt the men. "A purse of ten silver coins to the one who finds the women!" Excited, the men and orcs raised their swords in salute to Esarhaddon. "Then after you have finished with the search, loot all that you can lay your hands upon and torch the rest!" Esarhaddon commanded them. Gritting his teeth, he tried to control the dark rage which had possessed him. "Now, go, men, and find the prizes!"
With a great cheer, the men and orcs ran to carry out the slaver's orders, all except for Ubri. The Captain fell to his knees beside the Shakh's stirrup, reversed his sword and held it hilt-first up to his lord. He bowed his head. "By the Gods of the South! I did not mean for this to happen! Either forgive your servant or accept his sword and slay him with the blade!" His honor tarnished, he was filled with shame and regret, for he had been outwitted by an old man and two peasant girls.
Esarhaddon stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Ubri, you are far too valuable a man to lose over an honest mistake! Sheath your sword! My forgiveness is extended to you eagerly and ungrudgingly. Your only error was in being so gullible that you let yourself be deceived and betrayed by this treacherous Gondorian. Now rise to your feet and face me as a proud man of my own tribe! May peace be upon you!"
"Most esteemed and praiseworthy shakh, may you be blessed by the Gods and live forever and a day!" Ubri exclaimed gratefully, kissing the sleeve of the slaver's tunic before sheathing his sword. Rising to his feet, he bowed to the Shakh and then went to his horse, which he had left tethered to the front fence. He swung up into the saddle and guided the beast beside Esarhaddon as they turned their horses and rode away from the farm. Silently, they looked back towards the east, where they could see the black smoke from the burning mill, barn, and other outbuildings mounting into the morning sky.
"Shakh, when we catch up with them, I beg you to let me have the pleasure of torturing him to death!" Ubri exclaimed, raising his fist and shaking it in the air. "The dog deserves everything he has coming to him!"
"Perhaps I will turn him over to you, but in the meantime, we have other matters to discuss," the slaver told him quietly. "Earlier today, you reported to me that the old scoundrel swore that when the women came to his house begging for food, he drove them away. Obviously, he had been hiding them all along and was waiting only for you to leave before he fled with them!"
"Aye, my lord," Ubri nodded his head in agreement. “The old miller has proved himself to be a liar and a thief! He will pay for his crimes with his death!”
As the two men looked through the trees where the smoke boiled up in billows of black fury, they could see the men and orcs returning. Their arms were filled with loot, but there was no sign of the twins or the old Gondorian.
"Rejoice, Ubri, and do not look so downcast!" the slaver told him as he reached across the gap between him and placed his right hand on Ubri's forearm. "With this loot to placate them, the orcs will lose some of their restlessness, becoming more enthusiastic to stalk their prey. The women are as good as in our hands already!" Esarhaddon smiled his heavy-lidded smile.
When the skies unleashed a torrent of rain that afternoon, Tarlanc led the sisters deeper into the wet, dripping branches of the forest. Although the canopy of barren limbs did little to shelter them from the pounding rain, the girls had no choice except to follow him. The old miller and the twins had been traveling along the northern eaves of the Drúedain Forest since early that morning. Tarlanc gave them little time to rest, and their weariness combined with their now sodden clothing did little to sweeten their tempers. Even Elffled, who had been sympathetic and amiable towards the old man, was complaining nearly as loudly as her sister.
"Oh, please, let us rest," she begged him after the rain had slowed to a drizzle and then stopped altogether. Now the sun began to peep out from behind the clouds, spreading a balmy, hazy warmth upon the land.
"I am tired and wet, and my muscles are so cramped that I can barely move," Elfhild grumbled. Adding to her discomfort was the lingering weakness caused by the heat exhaustion which she had experienced the day before.
"Oh, all right," Tarlanc muttered, shaking his head. "For two lasses who risked escape just to get back to their homeland, you certainly are in no hurry to return." Still, he halted his horse and called for a brief rest.
With a skill which amazed the sisters, the old miller had guided them across the lonely countryside from the village to the Great West Road the night before. Only once had he led them astray, and that was when his exhausted mind and body had given into fatigue, and he had fallen asleep in the saddle.
Sparrow, left to his own devices without his master's guidance, had wandered back towards the mill, leading the gray mare with him for nearly a quarter of a mile. The twins, almost asleep themselves, had not noticed that anything was amiss at first. Then when they had come to a small stream, Tarlanc's horses halted and plunged their muzzles into the water. The movement of the mare had awakened Elffled, and she rubbed her sleepy eyes. Espying Tarlanc asleep and slumped over his horse, she gently tugged his sleeve.
He had awakened with a start, blustering and cursing. "Damned Southrons! Where are they?" Dazed and confused, he looked around and then straightened himself in the saddle, almost dropping the lantern from his hand. "How in thunder did we get here?"
"Tarlanc," Elffled asked softly, "is all well?"
"No, all is not well! When I fell asleep, old Sparrow pulled a dastardly trick on me, and it caused us to lose valuable time. Now we will have to make up for the delay by pushing the horses harder." He reined Sparrow back towards the west. "Lasses, do not think now that I am lost; I know exactly where we are, but it will take us a while to get back to the main road."
Backtracking, they finally reached the Great West Road an hour before dawn. Drawing to a halt in a grove of trees which edged along the road, Tarlanc sat on his horse, watching for the sight of torches and listening for the sound of marching feet. When he deemed it safe, he motioned them forward. Although all three of them were apprehensive of the great dangers they faced and eager to be over the road and into the relative safety of the forest, Tarlanc did not lead them directly across. Instead, he called for them to follow him down the road towards Minas Tirith for almost a mile before turning off to the west.
"Think I am mad, do you not, lasses?" he shouted as he kicked his horse into a trot. "My figuring is that with all the smell of men, orcs and animals upon the road, the trackers will lose our scents. The stench of orc excrement should hide anything, no matter how strong!" Laughing, his beard bobbing up and down with each step of his horse, he made a wild sight as he rode westward with Haun racing along behind.
Soon they had reached the scattered growth of brush and thinly spaced trees which marked the eastern edge of the Drúedain Forest. A league to the south rose the rocky summit of Amon Dîn, standing tall above the surrounding countryside. Riding on to where the trees grew closer together, Tarlanc called a few hours' halt so that they could receive some much needed rest.
It was mid-morning when they set off again, journeying deeper into the forest. Tarlanc was ill at ease in these woods, for they were said to be inhabited by the Wild Men, a race of small people who dwelt in secrecy, disappearing and melting into the trees like spirits. Few ever saw them, but their drums could sometimes be heard, coming deep from within the forest like the heartbeat of some great beast.
Now the sisters sat upon a long fallen tree, their drenched clothing drying in the sun which filtered down through the leafless trees. They watched Tarlanc as he fed the horses scraps of bread. Sparrow and Mithril had long since finished the grain in their oat sacks and dispiritedly mouthed the dry tufts of grass that had clung tenaciously to the soil since last autumn.
"Poor beasts," Tarlanc muttered sympathetically as he ran a hand along Sparrow's neck. He fed the gelding a crust which had been torn off the piece of bread that he had just eaten. Mithril nudged him in the back, pushing her muzzle against him and whickering softly. "Old girl, do not be so greedy!" he laughingly admonished. "You already had your share! Patience, my darlings. The rain and sun will soon summon the grass and herb from the earth once again." As the twins caught his gaze, they noticed that the crows' feet around his eyes seemed to have edged deeper furrows during the night. "The poor beasts depend upon us for our largess, and they do not understand when we cannot provide." Extending his hands towards the horses, he let their velvet muzzles caress his palms before he turned to walk over and sit beside the sisters.
"Tarlanc, I feel so sorry for them," Elfhild sighed.
Rising to her feet, Elffled moved over to Mithril's side, held her halter, and offered the mare her outstretched hand to sniff. "They look in surprisingly good health after what they have gone through." She looked back at Tarlanc and smiled. "How did you care for them through the days of darkness?"
"Ah, lass," he beamed as he reached down and scratched behind Haun's ears, "that was not so difficult to do. Faced with the dilemma of how Haun and I were to survive, I butchered the oxen this spring and smoked and salted the meat. The oxen's undoing was the horses' salvation, for after the cattle were gone, the horses ate what hay was remaining and had plenty of grain. "Do not grieve for the oxen," he chuckled. "Their meat is very good, as you have learned."
"What will you do without oxen when it comes time for the fall ploughing?" Elfhild questioned, her brow furrowed in puzzlement. "Use the horses?"
"Lass," his eyes crinkled, "I do not know if I will be going back to the mill or not. Perhaps I might find Rohan so much to my liking that I will decide to stay there." He paused and looked down at Haun, who had flopped against his master's legs and lay sleeping at his feet. "Now it does none of us any good to talk about sad things." He opened the pouch at his belt, took out a small object wrapped in muslin, and drew away the cloth to reveal a small miniature. "Come over here, girl," he called to Elffled, "and see if you can tell me who this is."
Leaving the side of the mare, Elffled walked back to the old man and looked down at the portrait. Studying the painting of the stern looking young woman, she offered tentatively, "Is she your wife?"
"Exactly!" he exclaimed. "You are very discerning, my lass. Now if you are truly astute, you know me well enough to realize that a tale is coming. Fetch one of the wineskins from the pack, and we will share a draught as I tell you."
Returning quickly with the requested wine, Elffled sat down beside Tarlanc and handed him the vessel. "Exceptional vintage," he remarked after taking a large swallow. He passed the skin to Elfhild, who thanked him with a nod and a polite word. Haun began to groan and thrash in his sleep, mumbling barks and growls, his legs jerking spasmodically as he dreamed of chasing away an intruder prowling about the mill.
"Your wife was lovely," Elfhild murmured as she took a sip and passed the skin across to Elffled.
"Lass, I always thought her more pretty than lovely; more melancholy than cheerful; more parsimonious than generous. Why, she looks as solemn as a barrister in this portrait!" His exuberant, merry cackle took the sisters by surprise. "If I had known that the miniature would render her likeness so accurately, I never would have commissioned the painter in the first place!"
"Why do you think that the painting does not do your wife justice?" Elffled ventured hesitantly. She was not about to say anything unkind about Tarlanc's deceased wife.
"That is the problem, lass! The portrait does Galwen justice far too well; it looks exactly like her!" Tarlanc was enjoying the effects his words had upon the sisters, and the corners of his mouth turned up mischievously. "When the itinerant painter drove his wain up to the door of my cottage one day, he offered to paint our portraits for a modest fee. Since I had no desire to have mine done, I agreed to allow him to paint my wife's," he chuckled. "She was opposed to the idea from the very beginning, and now in retrospect, I know she was right. All during the time she sat for the painting, she was angry at me, and her feelings show in the portrait."
"She was upset at getting her picture painted?" Elfhild's eyebrows raised in surprise. "I would think she would be flattered!"
"Nay, lass. She was not flattered at all." Tarlanc gazed down at the portrait, lost in bittersweet memories. "On the contrary, she was enraged."
The sound of Elfhild's voice stirred him from his reverie. "Why was she angry?"
"As chance would have it, the very day that the painter arrived was the anniversary of the day that we had wed three weeks prior. Making matters even worse, this was the very same date that she discovered that she was with child, two months along the way!"
"Oh!" Elfhild exclaimed, color rising to her cheeks as she realized that back in his youth Tarlanc must have been an amorous young fellow.
Embarrassed by the awkward situation, Elffled lowered her gaze and scratched behind Haun's ears. The mastiff had just awakened from his restless slumbers, and was hungry for some attention.
"I did not mean to distress you, lasses, but the fact that there was a babe in her belly made her enraged at me. You see, she never wanted to be my wife in the first place. She had her sights set upon the cobbler's son, who proved in the end to be a ne'er-do-well and wastrel. Though I suspect that she finally realized his true nature, that knowledge never improved her regard of me in all of the forty years of our marriage."
"Then why did you marry her?" asked a puzzled Elffled, who could scarcely bring herself to believe that Tarlanc's wife had married the kindly old fellow for reasons other than love. "Such a sweet old gentleman, so caring and generous to all," she thought as her heart warmed towards him.
"Her father was far more sagacious than my wife ever was. Her sire much preferred me since I was already a prosperous and successful man by that time. Finding reasons to discourage every other suitor, he rejected all the young men who came to his door save me. Galwen never liked her father's high methods, of course, for she had her heart set on the cobbler's son, and she had fond attachments for a couple of others, too." A distant look came into the old miller's dimming eyes, and he studied one of the care-worn hands in his lap.
"At last, after several years of my wooing her, she finally consented to be my wife. I loved her very much." His eyes slightly moist, Tarlanc looked down at the miniature of Galwen. "I think we have seen enough of this portrait to last a while. I only showed it to you because I thought you might have seen it when you were ransacking my house and wondered who she was." He laughed wistfully as he wrapped the portrait back up and slid it into the pouch at his belt. Taking out his pipe, he packed the bowl, and, striking flint to tinder, he ignited a small stick of pinewood dipped with sulfur and held it to the bowl of his pipe.
Elffled took another sip of her wine and looked into his sad eyes. "Surely later she came to care for you as much as you did for her?"
"You are a gentle and tenderhearted lass, Elffled." The old miller put his hand upon the girl's arm. "But, nay, she never did. Whenever I look at the portrait, I never fail to be reminded of her annoyance at finding herself with child."
"But she did grow to love the child, I hope?" Elfhild asked, concerned.
"Aye, lass, indeed she did. She loved him - for the child was a son - every bit as much as she did his father." His eyes crinkled up in a wry smile. "The joke, however, was to be upon me. On her deathbed, she confessed that our firstborn son was not mine, but rather the cobbler's son." Bursting out into laughter, he did not seem able to contain himself, and laughed as the tears rolled down his cheeks in rivulets.
Haun padded over, and, laying his massive head upon his master's knee, the dog turned soulful eyes up to gaze lovingly at Tarlanc. "An outrageously humorous joke, do you not agree, Haun, sir? Well, perhaps you do not, but others might find it hilarious!" he exclaimed, wiping tears from his eyes with the back of his hand. Neither sister considered Tarlanc's tale humorous at all, but very sad, and each girl felt sorry for him, and even the long dead Galwen.
"Now, lasses, we have sat here far too long, enjoying ourselves while we shared a skin of wine. I must saddle and bridle the horses and have everything in readiness to leave. I hope to cover many miles before dusk." He stood to his feet, tapped his pipe ashes out on his heel, and headed towards the horses.
"Tarlanc," Elffled called as she scampered after him, "let me help you!"
"Aye, lass, a bit of help would be appreciated. You saddle the mare while I take care of Sparrow," he told her as he put the saddle blanket on the gelding's back.
“I will assist you in this task as well.” Elfhild, not to be outdone by her sister’s courtesy, walked over to the horses, where she helped Elffled smooth out the blanket over Mithril’s back before going to fetch the saddle.