“Can we go around?” asked Estarfin.
The hour was late and the hall quiet, except for the fire crackling in the fireplace and the rustling of dry leaves against the windows, heralding autumn rains. The dinner plates were cleared from the table and had been replaced by several large maps.
"Go around? Go around the pass?" said Parnard, his chin on his hands as his eyes roved across a map of Rhovanion.
Danel settled back in her chair as she contemplated the question. “Only by way of Redhorn, which can be equally challenging,” she answered, whisking the map out from under Parnard's nose. “Once we cross the mountains, we come to the Vales of the Andunë, a day or two ride from Forest Gate. Here we come nigh the Golden Wood,” her finger slowly tracing its way across the aged vellum, “but we pass Minas Elendúr, that place where Estarfin was…afflicted.”
“The white ruined towers? I would not enter that place. But you have been down that path before with us, Estarfin,” Parnard said, turning to his friend. “Do you recall the fields of Eregion, and all the orcs that laid in wait?”
Estarfin slowly nodded. “I do not wish to pass there again, but neither will I refuse it if you choose that path."
“Now the Pass of Rohan is a longer journey,” Danel said, pointing to another place on the map.
“I will not enter Khazad Dûm," said Estarfin.
Parnard murmured assent, saying, “I do not like to walk into an abandoned dwarf's mine. There is nothing good inside. I would rather perish above ground than below it."
"Dwarves build well,” said Danel, “but I would rather we did not perish at all!”
“We should not venture south. That is too far out of the way.”
“Menegroth, Nargothrond, Moria...we should leave such tombs dark and undisturbed,” said Estarfin.
“I will not pass through Khazad Dûm, either. I like not the notion of us walking underground. And Parnard is right: the pass of Rohan is too far south and it is guarded by many men.” Exasperated, Danel pushed the map away.
“And north?” said Estarfin. “I know little of that land.”
Danel reached for another map, crisply unrolling it to show a map rendered in red and black ink. “To the North lies the Frozen Path to Angmar, near Mount Gundabad.”
“No, we do not go that way! It is a rent ashen wasteland full of poisonous mists and foul creatures," said Parnard. He once ventured to that rocky and desolate land, and when his water failed on the journey, he began to be in danger, for in that place all is dry and there is no drinkable water except in the places where the hill-men build their huts, and he avoided all that folk. Parnard did not venture so far northward so that he could see the fortress of Carn Dûm, nestled deep within the teeth of the Mountains of Angmar, but he had heard many dark tales of the by-gone days of the Northern Kingdom of Men, the Black Kings as he called them, and the wood-elf had no desire to ever return there.
“I traveled that way once with a party from Imladris,” Danel said. “It was not easy. The path starts behind Carn Dûm and links both sides of the mountain. Through it we must traverse many caverns, not unlike Khazad Dûm.”
“Indeed. Goblins - and orcs and trolls, too,” she told Parnard.
“I tried to follow you,” Estarfin said to Danel. “I could not find your trail in the bare stone of the hills and turned back.”
“I looked for you," she whispered, her face blanching. “I was told you and Lord Tindir were hanged.”
“Hanged? Who told you that!"
“The Angmarrim told us our friends had been captured and slain. They lied," she explained to Parnard.
“So they will ever lie and lie again!" he cried.
“That is all Men know," said Estarfin. Firelight flickered red on their faces as the wind tossed shadows of tree branches around the room. "North, south, or under the mountains, all ways are perilous.”
“All ways have danger,” agreed Danel, “only Redhorn can be equally challenging. See the way through the Hithaeglir? Straightforward here until the Giant's Bridge. Roaming wargs, wolves, and goblins abound. The pass over the mountain is nigh the camps. When we last travelled we took the cliff path above them."
“We cannot fly over the mountains. We must pick a path. Of the two ways I think High Pass is the safer, although it is difficult, especially in winter. Yet the weather might provide cover to us as we cross the mountains, and it may keep some enemies away. If we are not careful we may lose the path and tumble off a mountain, and then there is always the risk of an avalanche if the snowfall is heavy; but what is a little snow and goblin blood and warg slaver?” Parnard said, and snapped his fingers dismissively in the air.
"Snowstorms are the principal danger there; the goblins are less active this time of year. There are guards on the far pass."
“Elven guards?” Parnard asked.
Danel shook her head. Of course they were not Elven guards! She spoke softly, pointing at the map. "It is close to the place where Estarfin and I were rescued. If we are spotted by the guards, and the goblin camp here is alerted, we are lost."
"We could drive them back," said Estarfin.
Danel regarded the tall, broad-shouldered Noldo for a moment. "Perhaps. I do not want to lose you, either of you."
"Do you believe we will have better luck?”
“Oh yes, I will be with you this time," said Parnard. "We will be wary, and not go about charging into places. But what does the eldest think? Which way should we go?"
"We should take the High Pass, unless the weather is against us," replied Estarfin. "Many furs will be needed, both for us and for the horses. They will have store in Imladris; we do not need to carry them from here."
"If the weather is very bad, we can sojourn in Imladris for a time," said Danel.
Parnard grinned. "Midwinter in Imladris is not so bad, after all. Sogadan will be mightily surprised to see us.”
“I still recall the harm he did,” said Danel. “Telling all about our fight so that half the Vale turned against Estarfin."
At this remark Parnard looked a little less happy. “He is a rascal, that one,” he observed, and sipped his wine.
“‘Rascal?’ That is not even the start. He loves gossip.”
“Well-l-l-l," drawled the wood-elf, "you know how he is cooped up all day in that stuffy Hall of Fire."
“Others believed his words,” said Estarfin, frowning. Danel reached out and placed a light hand on Estarfin’s arm.
“Are the Valley folk still against you, even now?”
Estarfin shrugged at Parnard. “They may have heard other tales to fill their ears.”
“It is likely long forgotten,” he reassured, waving a hand. “And if it is not, surely it will be when they see the both of you again - together,” Parnard emphasized. Estarfin smiled, despite himself.
“Indeed, it will be forgotten if it has not been already. But it should never have happened,” insisted Danel.
“Many things should never have happened. When we go to Imladris, I shall box Sogadan on the head. Will that suffice, cousin?”
Danel smiled. “I do not hold it against Sogadan - he simply did not think.”
“Truer words were never spoken. Sogadan is not a thinker. He listens and repeats whatever he hears.”
“It may be good to see him again, and give him some true tales to pass on.”
“His ears will fall off, he will be told so much,” said Parnard, as he thought of all that had transpired since he left the Valley, and secretly hoped to shock and delight the Vintner of Imladris with fresh tales of his adventures outside the hidden elvish refuge.