As their horses splashed across the river that marked the northern boundary, Elladan leaned back in the saddle and stretched his legs with a sigh.
“Glad to be back?” Elrohir asked. He too stretched, easing the knots out of his shoulders and neck.
“Nearly back,” Elladan corrected. “But yes, very glad.”
It was good to be so nearly home. They were returning to Imladris after two weeks on their first real patrol – two weeks spent riding north and east along the banks of the Mitheithel, then south again through the foothills of the Misty Mountains. Two weeks of scorchingly hot weather, two weeks of sleeping on the hard, sun-baked ground. Two weeks of dull, routine, boring riding, with no hint of any excitement to relieve the monotony.
Elrohir sighed. “I know. I expected … oh, I don’t know. Something more.”
After years of training and practice, excursions with other novices within the boundaries of Imladris and intensive drilling with weapons and in unarmed combat, he and Elrohir had been excited by the prospect of their first real patrol. He was grateful that Glorfindel had at least allowed them to undertake it together, for he knew that would not always be the case. It had been made very clear that they should expect no special treatment.
While he was not precisely disappointed with the way it had gone, after all the preparation and anticipation they had both expected it to be more eventful, more dangerous, more … challenging. He could see the same sense of anticlimax in Elrohir. “Something more exciting, you mean.”
One of the older warriors glanced back at them with a laugh. “You will soon find more than enough excitement on patrol! Believe me, a quiet duty like this is rare – and welcome.”
Elladan knew enough about the life of a warrior to know that Eilenach was right, but if he was entirely honest with himself, he knew he had entertained some immature fantasies of performing heroic deeds and proving his worth to the rest of the patrol by saving them all from some hideous, unspecified fate. He caught Elrohir’s eye and shared a grin, then looked away from Glorfindel’s knowing smile. The golden haired warrior knew them both far too well. He had known them since birth, and had always been a friend, advisor and confidant – and, when the twins were younger, the instigator of a certain amount of elfling mischief as well. Here on patrol though, or when they were training, he was a strict and exacting superior officer, and Elladan was careful not to forget it.
With a glance at Glorfindel for permission, Elladan slid off his horse’s back and knelt by the river. He was hot, sweaty and dusty, and the water felt deliciously cool and refreshing as he splashed it over his face and head. He drank deeply, then let Gilfein drink as well. The river was the last boundary, and they were now within the borders of Imladris itself – though it would be another day before they reached home.
It was cooler beneath the pines that bordered the river. The dark boughs blocked the sun, and fallen needles formed a thick, silent carpet under the horses’ hooves that was a welcome change from the dry and dusty land they had been crossing. Thick, lush grass grew along the banks, and the horses eyed it eagerly as it was the first grass they had seen since leaving the Hoarwell.
Glorfindel looked up at the late afternoon sun, shading his eyes with a long hand. He gave a single nod. “We will camp here,” he announced, to a general murmur of approval from the other warriors. “Then it will be a half-day’s easy ride down to Imladris tomorrow. Ilmarin, it is your turn to prepare supper. Rimmon, you help him – see what you can catch.”
Elladan and Elrohir immediately began the necessary tasks of setting camp with the ease of an already familiar routine – gathering pine cones and fallen branches for the fire; collecting water from the river as it splashed over rocks and moss before disappearing into a deep gulley; setting out bedrolls and blankets in the most comfortable spots. As he spread the last bedroll on a thick cushion of pine needles, Elladan could feel a spot between his shoulder blades itching as Glorfindel watched them, and tried not to look up as the captain approached them.
“Elladan, you will take the first watch, then Ilmarin. Elrohir, you have the final watch – the last one of this patrol!” Glorfindel regarded the twins, and then nodded. “You have done well, both of you.”
Elladan tried to hide his surprise at this unexpected comment. Glorfindel gave praise rarely, and never where it was unwarranted. To have earned it now meant they had done something right in the Captain’s eyes. Unable to prevent a pleased smile, he glanced at Elrohir, and saw a similar expression mirrored there. “Thank you, Captain,” they both responded.
“Well,” Elrohir whispered as Glorfindel turned away to his horse, “I wonder what prompted that?”
Elladan groped beneath the bedroll and removed a stray pine cone which would dig into someone’s back if left. Throwing it onto the pile for the fire he shrugged. “I have no idea,” he confessed, “but it was certainly a surprise.”
Rimmon soon reappeared with a brace and a half of rabbits, and was greeted with a cheer. Game had been scarce in the bare foothills of the mountains, where the only signs of life had been an occasional eagle soaring overhead – and no elf would dream of hunting the great birds. Instead they had existed on carefully rationed dried meat, grain and waybread. Here in the sanctuary of Imladris – even on its northernmost border – game was more plentiful. Rimmon presented the rabbits to Ilmarin with a bow. “Here you are – though with your cooking, the dried meat might be preferable!”
Ilmarin grinned, quite unoffended. “You go ahead and finish the travel rations, then – there will be more fresh meat for the rest of us.”
Despite Rimmon’s teasing, the rabbit was roasted to perfection, flavoured with a handful of aromatic cresses and herbs Elrohir had found growing beside the river. With the last of the waybread and cool, fresh water to drink it seemed a feast equal to anything they might find in Imladris on their return.
Supper was a lively meal. Here within the borders of Imladris discipline was relaxed a little, and Eilenach and Rimmon vied with each other to tell ever more hair-raising tales of patrols they had experienced.
“You think this patrol was uncomfortable?” Eilenach asked. “Just wait until you see the cold desert above the Ettenmoors!”
“Or the marshlands between the Hoarwell and the Bruinen. The midges – ”
“ – and the mud – ”
“ – get everywhere.”
“At least it stayed dry this time,” Eilenach continued. “I have been on patrols where we rode through a deluge for the whole month, when the rain got into everything. I can still remember having to sleep in wet bedding.”
“But the worst,” Rimmon said in a low voice, “was the patrol my first Captain told me about, when he was just a novice.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “It was a long time ago. They were on foot patrol through a dense, dark forest, walking in single file along the narrow pathways. And when they halted for the night, the elf who had been at the back … was gone. Just gone. They searched and called, but never found any trace of him.”
The others fell silent as Rimmon settled into his tale. “No one slept that night. They all kept watch, sitting with their backs to the fire and staring out into the darkness. There was nothing to be seen, and not a sound was heard, but when morning came …” Rimmon gave a dramatic pause.
“What?” Elrohir asked in a hushed voice.
“Another elf was missing. No one saw him go; no one saw what took him. No one heard him cry out – but he had vanished into thin air.”
Elladan caught himself looking over his shoulder into the shadows beneath the trees and cursed. Elrohir stretched as if to ease a cramp in his leg and edged a little closer to Elladan. Even Ilmarin looked rather pale. Only Eilenach and Glorfindel appeared unmoved by the story.
“After that, of course, they abandoned the patrol and decided to return to Imladris with all haste. They set off through the forest, keeping close together – and yet, when they halted at noon, there was another missing. As you can imagine, no-one wanted to be at the rear of the patrol – so they drew lots. My Captain, who was a novice then, drew the short straw. But his Captain changed places with him – and he was never seen again.”
Rimmon paused again. “Only two ever returned to Imladris. What happened to the others, no one knows. Nothing was ever found. No trace. No tracks. And no one ever had any idea as to who – or what – was responsible. But whatever it was, it may still out there – somewhere.”
Silence fell as Rimmon ended his story. Elladan was not the only one who jumped as a pine cone gave a sudden crack as it split open in the dying embers of the fire.
Glorfindel stirred and got to his feet. “Thank you for terrifying everyone, Rimmon,” he said in a dry tone. “If the elflings have nightmares tonight I shall be holding you responsible.”
Elladan bit back the automatic protest that he and Elrohir were not elflings. He was not going to rise to Glorfindel’s bait. Elrohir twitched at his side, but he too remained silent.
Glorfindel glanced at the twins and then smiled. “We should rest now,” he said. “The sooner we set out tomorrow, the sooner we shall be home. Elladan, you have the first watch.”
As the other members of the patrol settled down to sleep, Elladan damped down the fire. The night was warm, and they would have no need for it, and it would be easier to see into the deep pools of shadow beneath the pines without its distracting glow. He told himself he did not need its comforting flicker to ward off the horrors of Rimmon’s tale.
Ilmarin nodded at Elladan as he pulled off his boots. “I will see you later, young one. Remember to wake me – though I for one will be glad to sleep undisturbed once we get back home! I hate the middle watch,” he grumbled. “I cannot sleep properly before, and I cannot get back to sleep after! Curse Rimmon anyway – if I do sleep I shall have nightmares.” He settled down with his back to Elladan; and despite his complaints and fears soon seemed to fall asleep.
Elrohir yawned and stretched. “I cannot wait for tomorrow,” he said. “I cannot wait to bathe and finally be free of this clinging dust, and to have an unbroken night’s sleep in a real bed!” He lay down on top of his blankets, head pillowed on his arm. “Goodnight, El. I will see you in the morning. Do not fall asleep!”
Elladan threw a pine cone at him in reply. As the camp settled around him, he sat quietly, listening to the silence. The terrors of Rimmon’s tall tale faded with the peace of the night. It was warm and still, and a crescent moon shone down through the pines, casting dim shadows on the ground. As he waited and watched he began to hear the soft noises of the night – the faint splash and gurgle of the stream; the hoot of an owl, distantly answered by another: the eerie bark of a fox.
He never minded taking a night watch duty, and in fact relished the time alone. The two weeks of the patrol had been spent in the close company of his companions – riding together, eating together, sleeping together; and while it was pleasant company, he had never spent so much time so intensively with anyone else apart from Elrohir – and anyway, his twin’s constant presence was different. Always in Imladris there was space to wander and be alone, and his own room to retire to at the end of the day. This peaceful time to himself was a blessed relief, and he wished he could spend the rest of the night in solitude and quiet contemplation.
He paused, considering. Why not? There was no need to disturb the others and wake them for their watches – he could do it alone. They were all tired at the end of the patrol and the long, sticky days. Why not leave Ilmarin and Elrohir to sleep? He could easily stay awake all night, and would enjoy the solitude – and Ilmarin would enjoy the unexpected rest.
His mind made up, he sat down on a boulder at the edge of the campsite as the owl drifted overhead on silent wings. The peace of the warm, sultry night seeped into him, and he began to relax after two weeks of being constantly alert. His senses told him that no danger threatened, and he knew nothing evil could cross the river into the valley.
The silence deepened. The owls had flown elsewhere, and the fox, with a last triumphant bark, had gone back to its den after a successful night’s hunt. Midnight passed, and with it the time when he should have woken Ilmarin. He wondered if the other warrior would wake instinctively, but Ilmarin did not stir. Elladan rose to his feet with a yawn and stretched, then paced around the perimeter of their camp. The other members of the patrol still slept – Elrohir sprawled face down, one arm embracing his pillow; while Glorfindel lay on his back where it looked like he had fallen asleep while contemplating the heavens.
Elrohir should be waking for his own watch now, and he muttered something in his sleep, whispering into his pillow. Elladan crept closer; silent on the soft, thick pine needles and knelt next to his brother with a grin. Elrohir often talked in his sleep, semi-coherent mutterings that usually made no sense at all. One of the most enigmatic had been the previous night’s bizarre comment, ‘But the cat was blue.’ Elladan hoped he would again hear something he could tease his brother about later, but with a final indecipherable mumble Elrohir subsided into sleep again.
Disappointed, Elladan returned to his perch on the boulder. Dawn was not far off now, and he watched the fading stars move overhead in a slow, mesmerising dance as they dipped towards the horizon. Gradually the hypnotic movement of the stars, his weariness, and the quiet balm of the night crept up on him in a subtle assault, and he slid into sleep.Stories > Next