We turned the horses back the way we came for a few hundred yards, then took the turning to the right; the long and winding path along the side of the mountain. It was very narrow in places that I knew we would need to be cautious, but the main thought in my mind was how would Estarfin react to being so very close to the place he almost perished? Already I could ‘see’ the moment I came upon him, wounded from his long fight with many goblins, broken from his fall from the heights, and with that warg crushing his boot into his leg, while its rider poked a spear through the rends in his armour.
That was the past. It would not happen again. Had he not said nigh the outset of our journey, ‘I shall not fall again?” Nor would he. That time before, he had been one against hundreds. I had no illusions that I could sway a fight in our favour, but I knew we could avoid the goblin hoard’s notice, if we tried.
And other thoughts came also. That while he had worn the ring I made him we did have a slight link of spirits. No true osanwe,(a) but an awareness of threat and danger. At least, I had felt that from him. That ring had been lost in the snow, along with his shield and spear. I knew the latter were replaced, but the ring…..it was not the time nor place to give great consideration to possibilities, nor did I know if he would want or accept such an item from me again. But perhaps….one day?
The camps were already visible far below, and even in the cold, a stench arose. We needed to ride close to the mountain side rather than anywhere near the edge. It would not do to be spotted by scouts, nor to set even a small snow fall in motion. I took the lead again, forcing my focus on the path ahead. Slowly, a step at a time. I placed a reassuring hand on Pelorian’s withers, and whispered in Quenya ‘Silence now, my friend. We must give no sign of our presence.’ Her ears flickered back and forth a few times. She understood.
There came a place where the trail was wide enough to take six horses abreast. There were several large, grey boulders at that spot, and a warg came at me from behind one of them. Pelorian stood her ground, neither rearing nor screaming. But she turned so I could draw Sarphir and take a good swing at the beast. And within seconds another sword swing decapitated it.
It fell silently on the ground. I turned to see Estarfin alongside me, lowering his own weapon. He nodded to me. I nodded back. Pelorian and I were unharmed.
There were several places where Pines grew nearer the edge to the camps. We rode behind them whenever possible. That stretch of the journey seemed to take forever. The path turned and twisted, rose and fell, as we moved above the largest of the goblin camps. Only a low murmuring arose from them. The occasional bark or curse as they squabbled.
Then ahead loomed a high rock formation. I could not quite recall it, though I had a suspicion the path twisted sharply, and that to ride ahead would place us in a camp. I glanced back, and indicated that we need turn. Estarfin nodded, but looked wary. He made a gesture that there was a steep decline at that spot.
‘With care’, I thought.
The path became very narrow, that I dismounted. The ground we trod upon was like thick sheets of ice, that I hoped our passage did not crack it, nor send it or us tumbling into the goblins midst. Thankfully, the snow was still falling and it muffled sound and sight alike. For them, more so than for us.
And my thoughts had been wrong. The path ahead led to a sheer drop, not a camp. We turned left, down the slope between the high rocks. This was the closest point to the camps.
Down past several of the goblins' hideous totems, I looked back again, to see Estarfin now leading Gilastor. I wondered how he was enduring? But this was no place to ask. We moved on.
Soon enough we came to the bottom of the slope, and a well worn path. That alone was cause for concern, as not that many travellers ventured this way. I lay a hand reassuringly on Sarphir, and thought of the way ahead. And we turned left around a jutting rock, to see much snow covered land ahead, but no tents.
I halted a moment, looking to Estarfin as he drew alongside me. His sea-grey eyes were shadowed, as if this was something he must do almost to test his own resolve. He had nothing to prove, I thought, save possibly to himself.
He sighed. “We have made good progress, Danel.”
I nodded up at him, though I was also mightily pleased to be past that place.
His eyes lit briefly, touched by the warmth of success I suspected, but he was still focused of course.
Then he pointed to the large valley that stretched out below. “That is our destination?” he asked.
I nodded. “In a roundabout way. It should take us around another hour before we reach the last pass, and the decline to a more clement climate. It is a lot milder in the Vales.”
He looked me in the eyes.
“You have used this path before then?”
I hesitated, thinking he would not approve of my reply.
It was three years ago. I crossed this way but returned through the Redhorn pass. I travelled alone.”
He frowned. “To what end?”
It was not easy to answer him. It was not easy to answer myself. “To see what I could find.”
He did not look satisfied with my response, but nodded all the same. I tried again. “I wander because I oft feel something is missing. I suspect that ‘something’ is Thargelion, though I know I will not find home lurking in Rhovanion.”
“You feel it is missing now?” he asked of a sudden.
“This is not the time nor place to speak of it.” I turned my head aside as, in truth, I did not. “Come, let us make progress before the night is upon us again.”
We mounted the horses again, as the path widened. In several spots the way forward was over sheets of thick ice, that slowed us considerably. There was no sound but the biting wind, no more stench. We found ourselves on a long and winding decline. At one turn we could just make out distant ruins on a huge scale.
“Giants?” I asked, suspecting it was so.
Estarfin shrugged. “Maybe. Whatever they are, they do not affect us.”
I sincerely hoped they would not.
Then we came to what seemed to be a valley floor, with thick snow and many fir trees. There were foxes and deer a plenty, roaming freely that we knew no pack of predators was nearby. We saw an occasional wolf or two, but they gave us a wide berth. A few more twists to the trail and a shallow decline, and we were back near the far edge of the goblin camps.
I halted. Recognising exactly where we were.
‘I do not like this place,’ I thought.
Estarfin looked around. I doubted he cared much for it either.
“The final ascent to the pass is not far.” I whispered.
“We kept as far away from the tents and fires as we could, moving slowly and steadily north. I could see the path we needed to take in the distance. Now we could only hope the snow and poor vision would mask our passing.
As we began to ride uphill again, I could see more towering ruins to the East.
“Giants!” I said again. Though I had seen them on my previous journey, I had passed by swiftly. “Those are no construction of elf or dwarf.
The path narrowed and grew even steeper that we both dismounted to lead our horses. We were not far enough from the Goblins still for my liking. “I didn’t like this place when I passed before.” I spoke softly. “The pass to the Vale isn’t that much further ahead. I must tell you now though, it is likely guarded by the bear-men.”
Estarfin looked at me with a frown. “Are there no places in this world that are free of men?”
I sighed. “I spent a little time in one of their villages when I came last. They are a strange folk, the Men of the Vale. Some are much like those we know of, but some are…well..huge of stature. There were once many actual bear–men in that land I believe, most captured and slain by orcs that only one remained. But many Men still remember. They are fierce, but not …unkindly when humoured.”
Estarfin’s expression had darkened as I spoke. “They are Men. No other distinction is important.”
I tried to lighten what was a matter most serious to him. “Estarfin, please. These are guards who work with our people. They keep the way to the Vale of the Andune open for our travellers. We should not…attack them.”
He seemed to think for a moment, then shook his head.
“Why did you not tell me. Why keep it a secret unto yourself?” He sounded upset, disappointed with me.
That hurt like a knife. I lowered my head, feeling shame. I wanted no secrets between us. “I was focused on us getting past the goblins with few memories and no mishaps. I did not want to distract you in any way.” That was truth, but i knew then I should have told him. It was not as if he would have deserted me.
“I am sorry, Estarfin,” I said, looking him in the eye that he could see my remorse. He nodded.
After a short while longer, the path leveled out. Still there was a cliff to one side and a steep drop to the other, but it was not as tiring to us or the horses. Then we were walking above the ruins of what once must have been a settlement, maybe even a town, but of huge proportions. I pointed down at the ruins, and Estarfin nodded. A Giants’ city?
Of a sudden, something huge and hairy was charging down the path at me. Pelorian stifled a cry and tried to turn side on to block it. There was a crashing sound, as Estarfin rushed past me and collided with it. They both rolled down the slope a little distance, in the snow.
“No, no!” I cried in distress. Although I also had thought it initially an attack, I knew now it was one of the guards. He was not trying to harm either of us. I could see it was a bear-man. Estarfin probably only saw the man.
“Down, elves” the Man grunted, swiping Estarfin’s belt knife out his hand and moving to toss aside his own large knife to show he meant no harm. Then Estarfin had his boot knife drawn, his sword still being on Gilastor. He struggled to get the man on his back, and drove the knife into his chest, putting his own weight behind it.
“Down, goblin archers,” the man managed to utter between gasps, as he raised a huge hand to try and knock Estarfin to the ground.
I looked around…and from the heights on the left came a chorus of cackling. Over a dozen amused Goblins waved their bows at us.
“Estarfin!” I cried out, rushing to get between them. “He is a friend. The enemy is above.” But Estarfin seemed to hear me not. He would finish the enemy before us first, then deal with any goblins. I tried to push him away, knowing I was not strong enough. He removed his knife and tried to cut the Man’s throat, while in turn the man tried to break his wrist.
A restless Gilastor saw the real threat, and moved swiftly to block any shots at his master. Thank Tintalle, Estarfin understood. He disentangled himself from the huge man, and ran to take his sword from the scabbard.
The man had halted but a second to check his wound, then was climbing the rocks with a swiftness that belied his size and any injury. I made to the side of the cliff, so the archers would have a bad angle to shoot down from. The horses were still trying to shield us. I saw one of the filth thrown down by the man to crash on the rocks below. Estarfin had climbed alongside two others. They fell by his strike, even with so little room to maneuver.
I climbed too, stretching for the handholds, until I was close enough to throw a dagger effectively. It lodged in the skull of another goblin.
The Man was climbing along the ridge, and he tossed a second off the ledge. Now down to less than half their numbers, the goblins did what they do best. They climbed up higher and ran away.
“Are you hurt?” I called quickly to Estarfin, looking to see if there was any sign of injury. He shook his head.
“You?” he asked.
“No, I am uninjured.”
We all descended the cliffs, with Estarfin looking to the slain, then recovering and cleaning his knives. The bear-man checked for himself that the fallen were dead, then turned to us. He was rubbing his shoulder.
I knew Estarfin was watching him closely still. He was not an Elf to do half a job. If the Man offered threat or insult …
I stepped forward. “Are you injured badly?”
“Damn strong elf nearly broke my shoulder,” the Man said in a thick accent. He frowned at my companion. “Then stick me with blade. Bah..only a scratch. But I heal quick. I try to get you out of range of bows, elf lady, and him too. Know friend from enemy. Is important.”
Estarfin looked at him, still angry, but he said nothing.
“It is not always easy, friend. But I thank you for your actions and your help.” I bowed.
“We go,”Estarfin said to me.
I knew he sometimes found it hard to tell friend from foe. I understood why, in that situation, he had thought I was being attacked. But I still thanked the man.
We walked the horses on a little further.
“Now you in Vale of Anduin, elves.” the guard called after us. “We not harm elves, unless they seek to harm us.”
And so we entered the Vale, though for a few miles there was no change to the lands or snow, save we could see a thick mist below us. Mirkwood lay to the North East.
(a) Osanwe. Interchange of thought.