The Maiden and the Star - Part Six
"You seem quite happy to leave these lands, Grimm."
They were descending from the eastern bank of the river, where the path took them over many bridges and brooks, down into the next vale. Already the spring of the Elvish places seemed only a memory, giving way to bare branches and brown grass. Still, the sky was blue and the land seemed bright and hopeful in the low sunlight. Grimm was riding in his usual taciturn way, interrupting his silence only when they had passed the Elvish bridge to break out in more riding songs. This time the songs were sounding homely and joyful though, and speaking of things of little importance.
At her words he interrupted his song, turning back and chuckling. "Happy...?"
She grinned back, taking pleasure in his smile.
"Ah, my lady Arodiel, I told you. I am happiest on the road, where the wind is free and so am I."
She laughed. "I like you better that way, I believe."
"The lands of the Eldar are fine and the homestead and hearth is warm, but in neither am I as glad as where I have no bounds save my own needs of survival."
He interrupted himself, pointing out a gate set into a hedge further down the road, suddenly serious again.
"But now. No word of Eldar and of dreams while we are in this land, understood?"
She looked at him, surprised at the sudden change. "Very well, Grimm."
"Good." He turned around and continued his song joyfully, as if nothing had happened.
At leaving the Elven lands, a change had come into the dark man. He was now noticeably slouching in his seat, looking less and less like a solemn wanderer and more and more like a jovial commoner every minute. She eyed him curiously, not sure what to make of it.
As they passed the gate, he nodded to a small person guarding it. Arodiel had not noticed him until they almost passed him - he seemed almost like a chld, but was clad in leather armour, a hat with a large feather sitting on his head.
She looked at him curiously as they rode past.
When they were a safe distance off, she motioned to Grimm. "What are these creatures? I have not seem them before - they almost appear like children to me."
He did not look up from his slouch.
"They are Hobbits, and you better not call them children or creatures to their faces! They own this land."
"They do? I knew not..."
"Few do. They trade little, and travel even less. But at times they welcome Men, or Dwarves to trade with. And a trader I am!" He laughed.
After a while, the road ended in a small village, lined by hedges, the low houses thatched with grass. Below the village, the terrain seemed to flatten out into a swampy lowland lining the edge of the mountains. She peered curiously at the strange landscape.
Grimm led them into the village, nodding jovially at the inhabitants. A few looked up from their daily chores with various degrees of interest, but most seemed to be determined to ignore the strangers. The man steered them to a small market, in which a few dwarves seemed to have taken up stalls.
"Wait here." He unmounted, held out his hand to help her down. "Do not talk to anyone or touch anything."
The man led the horse and mule up to the stall by the bridles, leaving the woman behind.
"Ah, Master Jafet!" He hailed the merchant with all signs of recognition. "How's business?"
The dwarf nodded curtly at him. "Grimm."
Soon, they were talking jovially about things Arodiel neither knew nor cared about. She turned and strayed a bit off, looking at the wares the merchants had to offer to pass the time.
A few snatches of conversation drifted by her from time to time. Suddenly, a word made her listen up.
"...bandit groups, preying on the unwitting who stray from the paths down in the swamps. Ah, Master Grimm, times are hard."
She looked over, not able to explain to herself why her attention was grabbed by this. As she did so, she saw a strange change in Grimm's face. Suddenly a shadow seemed to be passing over it, his eyes becoming more attentive and his stance less slouching than before. It only lasted for a sliver of a moment before he fell back into his rural drawl, asking the dwarf a question.
The dwarf, oblivious, chatted on, pointing into different directions further down in the vale.
Arodiel noticed the stallkeeper was frowning at her. She quickly put down the piece of wood she had picked up unconsciously and walked on, losing track of the conversation.
She had already rounded the small market for what felt like a hundred times when he returned, stowing a coinpurse into his robes. He bent over her shoulder, eyeing the piece of merchandise she was looking at.
"Ah, yew wood. A nice supply, too. - No, we're not buying anything today, Sir, I'm afraid. The mule's packed to exhaustion as it is." He tipped two fingers to his temple, put the other hand on the maiden's shoulder and moved her onwards, aiming back towards the pack animals.
"Are we leaving?"
He shrugged. "No. I have an errand, if you can wait here?"
"I..." She looked up at him.
"It would be quicker for me if you stayed here. I shall not be long." He rummaged in his robe and pulled out a few coins which he handed to her. "Buy food, or drink if you prefer it."
She eyed the strange coins with mistrust. "Are you sure?"
He nodded, mounting the Elven horse. "Expect me in a few hours."
She looked thoughtfully after him as he rode out of the village, down the dusty small road and into the swamps.