The Maiden and the Star - Part Three
Just past the noon hour, the maid Arodiel strolled up to the docks, leading an Elven horse by the bridle. For a moment she did not spot the man she was looking for, and a cold shock ran through her - had he spoken in jest, after all? - but then she spotted him loading furs and wares onto a vicious-looking mule. She walked up to him.
"Lord Grimm. Hail."
He cringed a little at the address. "When we are travelling, it is just Grimm, lady."
"As you wish. Grimm it is then." She gestured to the horse trotting beside her. "The Elves gifted me a horse."
He looked it over. "Generous people, the Elves."
She shifted uneasily. "Aye - too generous. And the Lady Noruihel - she smiled at me, as if almost... almost as if she was not telling me something."
He laughed. "Ah, Elves."
This was all he would say before continuing to load his mule. She sensed a change in attitude in him this afternoon - the graceful charm giving way to a more matter-of-factly demeanour. But at the same time as his look became wilder, his laughter had seemed more free. She decided she liked it.
He finished tightening the last belt and looked at her. "You feel strong enough to ride, then?"
She nodded. "But I am unsure how to."
He sighed. "We shall have to see. Did you get a saddle with the horse, or will you ride elf-style?"
"They... they have no saddles here, they told me."
He rolled his eyes. "Of course, how could I forget. Wait here."
He took a blanket and a belt from the mule's packing and put it on the back of the Elven horse.
"You will sit on the mule. The saddle is too heavy for this horse. Give me your hand."
He held out his hand, supporting her and directing her how to mount up. The mule twitched its ears grumpily but held surprisingly still at the man's touch.
"I have no side-saddle, I am afraid. You will have to ride as a man."
She swung her leg over with ease, surprised at her own deftness. "It is... all right." She shifted in the saddle tentatively. "That was easy."
He grinned wryly. "Good. We shall keep to the road and ride slowly. Tell me if you feel any discomfort and we shall take a rest. You understand?"
"Good." He hooked a leg into the Elven horse's belt and swung himself up on its back. "Then we ride."
She looked back to the haven as they rode the long slope upwards, feeling a sudden pain to leave the place behind. "It saddens me to leave this place, Grimm."
The man did not turn around, leading horse and mule up the slope in stoic silence. He had not spoken or looked behind to check on his companion since they had left the dock a few hours ago.
After a while he answered, still looking straight ahead.
"We will pass another Elven place before we leave this land. You can decide then if you wish to remain."
She frowned, annoyed at his silence. "Very well."
The road wound up the mountains, swiftly rising above the river-valley. They crossed Elven bridges and waterfalls, their spray golden in the light of the afternoon sun.
After a while, he began to sing softly.
She leaned back in her saddle, feeling supported by the bales of fur behind her, and closed her eyes for a moment. The melodies seemed Elvish and ancient, stirring something in her she had thought forgotten. She did not know how long she had sat listening and dozing when the words of the melody made her listen up. It was Westron, not Elvish, the melody hauntingly familiar:
"Tall ships and tall kings three times three,
What bought they from the foundered land over the flowing sea?"
She opened her eyes with a start. The winter sun was already setting, and in the east a few first stars blinked in the dusky sky. "I---"
She finished the stanza, whispering in time with his singing. "Seven stars and seven stones and one white tree."
She gasped, almost losing balance in her saddle. "How can I know that?"
Grimm slowed, bringing his horse around. He looked at her thoughtfully.
"It is just an old song."
She shook her head to remove her dizzyness. "No, I..." Her temples hurt as if in a vice. "Please. My head hurts. Let us ride on..."
He stopped, reaching out to her. "We are not in a hurry, my lady. Do you need a rest?"
"I do not wish to be a burden..."
"We are not in a hurry." He gestured to a meadow up ahead, looking out over the vale. "Worry not. It has been a long ride, and we can rest for the night if you wish."
He untangled his legs from the belt and slid off the horse, leading both horse and mule to the meadow and helping her to unmount.
"You can rest in the grass while I unburden the beasts." He spread a blanket for her on the ground. It smelled of horse, but she accepted it gladly.
"Here. Cover yourself with this, or you will get cold." He unclasped the fur on his shoulders and let it slide down. Without it he seemed less threatening, smaller. Then he turned to take care of the beasts.