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Chapter 1. The Wind Is Rising.
Eglarest, Autumn 473; First Age.
Ereinion ran without pause in the even lope he had learnt from the hunters. Despite the practice, his heart pounded wildly in his chest and his lungs burnt as he struggled for air in the hot, early autumn afternoon. After a few hours of chase he was beginning to tire out. Reluctantly, he allowed himself a brief rest while checking his prey’s tracks.
“That piece of orc-dung thinks he can deceive me,” he chuckled with evil glee as he discovered the place where his quarry had doubled back on his own trail and had then changed direction for some distance, before resuming his initial course across the trees for a while. With the same certainty with which Arien set up on her trail every morning, Ereinion found the place where his prey had descended again from the trees –and scrapped his calf on the process- and had resumed fleeing northeast at a slower pace.
“He is tired as well,” he realized, studying the depth of the almost invisible tracks. The thought somehow comforted him, since his target was older than himself by a score –and stronger as well. After taking several steadying breaths he uncorked his waterskin and drank down in little gulps, then poured some water over his head and let it roll down his neck and face.
The sharp sting in his left cheek brought back fresh memories of anger and shame.
He gingerly felt the tender area where a mighty bruise was surely forming and resisted the urge of scratching the crust of dried blood that sealed the cut caused by Hathol’s fist.
His pride hurt even more than his cheek, as he remembered the insulting words the other elf had so carelessly let spill over, mindless of Ereinion’s presence. “…The Valiant? A coward, who hid in his stone fortress and allowed orcs to roam free and ravage Beleriand!” Hathol had been claiming as Ereinion arrived for sword practice.
The fist fight had stopped only with the arrival of the blade master, but the proud young guard had goaded Ereinion into tracking and catching him if he wanted his revenge, and he had of course accepted the challenge without hesitation. The pursuit had started right after weapon training, while Ereinion was supposed to be practicing his knots down at the docks with the younger children.
His anger rekindled by the memory of the recent humiliation, Ereinion started on again, firmly set on cornering his prey. He cast a quick glance to check the position of the sun and then looked around and noticed with surprise that they had already strayed well beyond sight of Eglarest.
He would not give up the hunt, even if Hathol wanted to run all the way to Nargothrond.
It did not get to that. Earlier than he had expected he caught up with the annoying guard, half-hidden behind an outcrop of mossy stones beside the trail. The terrain there climbed steadily towards the row of low hills that separated the Falas from the higher grasslands and plains of West Beleriand.
“I got you!” he shouted as he approached the crouching elf, who was watching something beyond Ereinion’s sight.
“I let you catch up,” the other whispered, casting a disdainful look at the exultant youngster and returning his attention to the dense grove that swallowed the trail before them, the threshold of Taur-en-Faroth’s westernmost marches and the Falathrim’s Círorne, the forest area where they carefully grew the best trees for shipbuilding.
Hathol’s condescending attitude fuelled Ereinion’s rage.
“So you say,” he claimed angrily, striding purposefully to the other elf and shaking him unceremoniously. “I caught you. You shall now take back your words and apologize, I demand it!” he insisted loudly.
The shove came so unexpectedly that Ereinion lost his balance and fell back heavily, banging his head on the ground. Before he could blink away unwanted tears Hathol was on him, an angry scowl on his face as he placed a large, calloused hand on Ereinion’s mouth.
“Shut up or I am going to gag you, you little runt! I am not playing your childish games any more!” the other murmured hoarsely. Since he could do anything else, Ereinion nodded once. Hathol studied him through narrowed eyes briefly and then released him and returned in one swift motion to his position behind the line of boulders.
“What is going on?” Ereinion had the good sense of keeping his voice down to a low whisper as he crouched beside the other elf, curiosity overcoming his anger. Hathol shook his head.
“Are you deaf?”
“I hear nothing…”
“And does that seem normal to you, Noldo?”
Ereinion bit his lip. After all those years it still hurt when they called him by the name of his people. He knew he had to be proud of his lineage, he wanted to, but it was somewhat difficult when they managed to spit the word with such scorn and contempt. He sighed.
“The trees?” he offered. Even as he spoke he knew he was right. The tree song was dull, muffled, mournful, but it also had a tinge of warning that echoed ominously in the otherwise unnaturally silent area.
“We strayed too far beyond the safe boundary,” Hathol complained darkly, frowning at Ereinion as if it was his fault. “And I hear no birds at all. That is not a good sign…”
A soft breeze awoke then from the trees before them, and the mournful tones became more urgent. Ereinion could not hold back a shiver.
“There is something in there,” he whispered excitedly, pointing ahead. “A wounded animal?”
“Or an orc laying in ambush, stay down, you fool!” Hathol grunted, grabbing his arm and pulling him back into hiding brusquely when he was about to start towards the thicker copse.
Ereinion glared at him, half-annoyed and half-surprised by the very idea.
“We are at war,” the other reminded him harshly. “Nothing stands now between Morgoth’s orcs and the Falas, you should know that better than anyone!”
“That’s not true!” thought Ereinion, breathing rapidly against the wave of sorrow that tightened his chest every time he remembered his father’s demise. “Nargothrond still stands!”
“I will go and have a look, and I will signal to you if it is safe,” Hathol continued, studying him intently. “Are you scared?” he asked then, the slightest tinge of concern in his voice.
Ereinion shook his head while struggling to still his breathing, forcing thoughts of his father to the back of his mind. “I will watch your back,” he managed in a voice that sounded almost indifferent to his ears. “But we should tarry not here,” he added, nodding at the position of the sun, who was already half way into her long descent. Suddenly, the prospect of being alone in that silent and mournful land looked unappealing.
Hathol seemed to agree.
“I will not take long,” he promised in an almost reassuring voice. In the swift, silent manner of their kin, he slid from behind their shelter and crossed towards the edge of the grove, then disappeared up into the trees.
Ereinion waited in growing trepidation, straining to catch the smallest sound in that disturbing stillness. He barely heard the soft rustling of bark as his companion made his way across the branches, and the hushed voices of the leaves: puzzled, distressed and grieving. Studying the signs on the ground around him he could tell that it was some time, maybe even a day, since an animal had last trodden that area.
Surely that copse was a preferred shelter for all kind of creatures while the sun speared the land at her highest? Something wrong was going on in there; he could feel it in his bones. He changed position twice behind the boulder, stretching his long legs that now weighed like stones. Twice he got up, chafing to go after Hathol, and twice he crouched back again, grudgingly surrendering to his better sense.
When the signal came, Ereinion’s uneasiness had become almost unbearable. The trill of a robin broke the laden silence with a discordant note that made him wince, as if Hathol had, somehow, given away their presence to a hidden observer.
Without answering, he scurried along the boulders and searched for the cover of the bushes, taking a long detour to the edge of the forest to avoid walking into open view, the feeling of being watched growing steadily inside him.
“What were you doing? Why didn’t you answer?” The hushed tones did nothing to conceal Hathol’s impatience as Ereinion reached his side and peered around from behind the knotty willow that hid them.
“I was being cautious. Did you find anything?”
Hathol shook his head, but there was a worried expression on his face as he pointed away.
“Only that,” he whispered in a glum voice.
Following his pointing arm, Ereinion felt a sudden surge of relief. Less than three hundred paces from them and reclining against a mighty oak lay an elf he knew well.
“Lagortâl!” he greeted merrily, and without thinking he started running towards the familiar figure, deaf to Hathol’s warning calls behind him. “Lagortâl!” he cried as he got closer. “I was chasing Hathol and we strayed this far…”
Perhaps it was the strangeness of Hathol calling him by his name, perhaps the odd stillness in the elf that finally got into Ereinion, but he stopped abruptly, less than twenty paces from the recumbent figure. “Lagortâl?” he called again, uncertainty creeping into his voice as he noticed the black-feathered shaft protruding from the Elf’s side.
“He is dead; can’t you see that?!” Hathol caught up with him and placed a restraining –or was it comforting? - hand on his shoulder.
“Dead?” Ereinion shook his head in bewilderment, voices crowding in his mind in numbing confusion. “Gone to Mandos. In Mandos’ keep. In the care of Lord Námo…” In his short life he had heard all those expressions only too often.
Actually, and despite his father’s efforts to conceal it from him, he had even heard the tale of how Thorondor had braved Morgoth’s wrath and had carried Fingolfin’s body away. For all he knew, Manwë kept an army of his eagles ready to come and pick up all dying elven warriors and fly them gently to their comfortable dwellings in Mandos. Never before had he been confronted with –or had even guessed- the true nature of death; the sight of the hapless, powerless, vulnerable condition of a hröa deprived of its fëa and subjected to all kind of marring shocked him deeply.
“Dead?” he whispered in disbelief, feeling a lump form in his throat. Did my father lie thus in the battlefield, then? he could not help wondering, and his eyes welled up at the very thought.
“His faer has gone to Mandos,” Hathol whispered, crossing the distance to the corpse. “May he find peace there.” He knelt down beside the lying elf and searched his wounds. He pushed gently and the unresisting body fell down heavily. Craning his neck behind his broad-shouldered companion, Ereinion could see another arrow on Lagortâl’s back.
“They must have caught him while he hunted, perhaps a day ago,” Hathol sighed, bringing a dead rabbit out of the unfortunate elf’s pack. “See if you can find tracks around us,” he commanded, “but stray not from sight!”
Jostled from the sad contemplation of the remains of an elf who had been a good friend of Círdan’s and glad that he had something to occupy his mind with, Ereinion devoted himself to searching the ground beyond the tree, grimacing at the bloody trail that stretched away. The tree song was sad and mournful there. Ereinion lifted teary eyes in gratitude for the comfort that they had no doubt offered to the dying elf.
“Nothing except for his tracks, coming from the east,” he whispered, squatting beside his companion and carefully avoiding the dead elf’s face.
Hathol nodded sadly, busy sorting out through Lagortâl’s possessions. “He must have been shot a few miles from here…it must have taken him some hours before…bleeding to death,” he ended lamely. “And that was not so long ago, judging by the body…We cannot stay here long,” he sighed. “Surely they must be looking for him. Get this,” he prompted, thrusting Lagortâl’s short bow and quiver and his bloodied pack into Ereinion’s hands. “You should be able to draw. I am taking these,” he said then to the lying body, picking up the leather belt with the two long knives in their engraved scabbards. “I will make good use of them, Lagortâl,” he vowed in a hoarse whisper, placing his hands to his heart and bowing his head briefly in sign of grief. “Let’s go,” he grunted then to Ereinion, who looked up at him in surprise.
“But we cannot leave him here!” he cried aloud in distress. Hathol shook his head and sighed in exasperation.
“I like the idea no more than you, but we have neither the time to build a cairn nor even find a hollow trunk, and surely the owners of those arrows must be looking for their prey! The trees will take care of him,” he added in a softer manner, pointing at the merciful oak that had held their friend through his dying. “Come, let’s go, we must search the surroundings before the sun sets…”
Biting back an anguished sigh, Ereinion leaned towards the lying elf. “I am sorry, friend Lagortâl, that we must leave you here,” he whispered softly, bowing his head as he had seen Hathol do before. Still confused, he extended a hesitant finger and touched the dead elf’s temple. It was cold, and he did not move. And where was his fëa? “When you get to Mandos, will you please tell my father that I miss him?” he asked pleadingly to the air around him. He waited in silence for a brief while and then, shouldering bow, quiver, and blood-stained pack he stood up and ran after Hathol, furiously wiping off stubborn tears that insisted on trickling down his face.
“Where are we going?” he asked, scrambling to keep up with the taller elf’s stride. He had noticed that they were still heading north, instead of returning towards the shelter of the walls Finrod had erected long before he was born.
“We are looking for a safe place to hide you in, while I climb the Barad Hen. I need to find traces of the orcs that killed Lagortâl and raise the alarm,” Hathol explained not too kindly, pointing north to where Ereinion guessed the watchtower stood.
“Orcs?” The word sent a shiver down Ereinion’s spine, whether fear or anticipation he was not wholly sure. He had never seen one, except what he thought was a stray one at a distance from the walls of Barad Eithel, but he had pictured orcs in his mind and drawn them clumsily in his parchments -after the reluctant descriptions that he had wrenched from Fingon’s guards. Now they were real threats, they had killed a friend of his and they were perhaps in that very same forest, hunting them. “Do you think we will find them?” he asked in a small voice.
Hathol barely looked back to cast him a sardonic smile. “I hope we do before they find us, yes!” he explained seriously. “If they come upon us first I will have to throw you at them, so they are busy eating up your sorry bones while I go and raise the alarm, so you better pay attention!” he added so grimly that Ereinion could not hold back a shiver, wondering whether it would actually get to that.
“Do you really think I would do that?” the annoying guard sniggered. Ereinion blushed. He did not like it when they laughed at him; and laughing at the solemn young Noldo and taking advantage of his seriousness had become a favored pastime among the youngest inhabitants of the Falas since his arrival some ten sun-rounds ago.
“If it gets to that, I think you would be the better choice,” he retorted, pretending lightness. “After all, there is much more of you to pick at.” With that he took a few steps away from Hathol and went to search a denser area to their left, followed by the other’s quiet chuckle. Biting back his annoyance, Ereinion crashed angrily through the overgrown bushes and came to a clearing with several old oaks and a bunch of chestnuts crowning a small knoll.
The trees were more silent there than in the rest of the groove –and tenser. Cautiously, he walked over a carpet of shredded bark, surely the work of an anxious woodpecker, and took notice of a mound of autumn leaves packed around a particularly large oak, as if a small whirlwind had piled them there. He took a couple of cautious steps towards the tree, not sure of what could be hiding under that blanket of crumpled leaves. He looked around carefully for traces of hideous, iron-shod, stomping feet, but could find no signs at all.
A branch snapped behind him.
The clearing stared back, expectant.
Another branch snapped, closer.
Without thinking, Ereinion lunged behind the large oak as a black-feathered arrow hit its trunk. All of a sudden, the thicket exploded around him in hoarse grunts and cold sounds of iron being unsheathed.
Círorne: Literally, ship forest, a forest where Círdan’s shipwrights and foresters would grow the trees for shipbuilding.
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