The last few remaining orcs squealed and fled, spurring the wargs up a near sheer cliff face. With a cry of fury, Elladan turned to follow them – and without a moment’s hesitation, so did Elrohir. The wargs seemed able to scramble up the almost vertical hillside with ease, but horses were less agile. The track Elladan and Elrohir were forced to follow twisted and turned across the rock face, and the wargs climbed steadily higher and further away.
Elladan paused on the narrow, precipitous track, and turned to glance over his shoulder, his hair whipping about his face. “We keep going!” he shouted over the rising wind. Elrohir gave a nod of agreement as he followed his brother.
The sky darkened as they climbed, and the wind rose to a shrieking gale. Snow began to fall, whirling and swirling in thick eddying gusts that stung Elrohir’s eyes. He squinted through the blinding whiteness as the wind tried to pluck him from the path, down into the unseen chasm below. He could barely make out the dark shape of Elladan’s horse before him, and urged his own horse forward – they could not risk becoming separated. The blizzard worsened, but with a grim determination they pressed on – the orcs were ahead of them somewhere, they both knew it.
As Elladan rounded a spur of rock, the wind shrieked again, and the full fury of the blizzard broke upon them. Without warning, a shadow of darkness leapt out at Elladan with a ferocious snarl. A blade slashed out, then another dark shape fell upon Elrohir. The mixed stench of orc and warg made him reel, but a combination of instinct and long, merciless training made him whirl to face the attackers, sword and dagger both drawn. A swing of his sword took the orc’s head from its shoulders, then he dug his dagger deep into the warg’s throat and twisted it, dodging the spray of blood.
There was a low, savage growl, and another warg flew at him, knocking him from his horse. Elrohir hit the ground and rolled, keeping low as the warg attacked again. He waited until it launched itself at him, then rose to his knees and caught the creature in midair, hurling both beast and rider over the edge of the precipice. There was a long howl, blended with a scream of fury, quickly muffled by the howl of the wind.
Shuddering – that had been too close an escape – Elrohir struggled to his feet and ran forward through the deep drifts. “Elladan!” he shouted, the words ripped away by the blizzard.
Although he could not possibly hear, Elladan raised his head and nodded as he dispatched the last orc. Kicking the body over the cliff edge, he wiped his sword in the snow.
Elrohir floundered closer, tugging at his brother’s arm. “Elladan! Are you injured?”
Elladan shook his head. “No. You?”
The wind buffeted at them again, catching Elladan’s cloak like a sail, and nearly carrying him off the path. Elrohir grabbed at him. “We need to find shelter!” he shouted.
Elladan nodded again, and pointed. “This way!”
Dragging the horses with them, they floundered through the snow to the shallow cave where the orcs had lain hidden. By now it was impossible to even see each other, but Elrohir trusted to their bond, and followed Elladan. As he stepped across an unseen boundary, the howl of the wind lessened, and the blinding swirl of snow died away. The cave was a mere hollow in the cliff, scoured by bitter winds, but at least now it was sheltered from the biting north wind that whistled and howled outside. Safe and sheltered for now, they waited for the blizzard to ease.
The storm raged for three long days. Finally, towards dusk on the third day, the wind dropped and the snow eased.
Elrohir tended to the fire, adding a stick from their rapidly dwindling supply. The crackle and hiss of the flames sounded loud in the unfamiliar silence. Behind him, Elladan stood at the mouth of the cave, lost in his own thoughts. “They will be celebrating Midwinter at home,” he said suddenly.
Elrohir added another small stick to the fire before replying. “I know.” He crossed the cave, and stood with Elladan looking out over the silent, snow-covered landscape. As dusk fell there was no colour in the world apart from the bright glow of the fire behind them, reflecting jewelled glints of amber and topaz on the snow. Beyond that circle of light there was just the stark black and white of snow and ice, shadows and darkness.
There was a harsh beauty to the scene – but it was wrong. There should have been snow dusted lawns, the bare branches of trees silhouetted against the sky, light pouring from every door and window. There should have been the resinous scent of pine branches draping the doors and windows, the sweet spicy smell of gingerbread, and a cup of hot spiced wine warming his hands. There should have been the excited shouts and laughter of children, and the murmur of conversation around him as all of Imladris waited for the Midwinter festival to begin. He longed to be there, and suddenly he missed his home, his family and his father with an intensity that startled him.
He sighed, resting one hand on Elladan’s shoulder. “We should be at home, El.”
Elladan drew a deep breath and released it slowly. “I know. If we had not pursued those orcs, we would be.”
They stood in silence, together as always, drawing strength from each other. In the bitter, blood-soaked years since their mother’s departure they had needed nothing else. For too long Imladris had felt smothering, the atmosphere too heavy with grief and memories for them to bear. Instead they had turned inward, never alone, but excluding the family and friends who loved them – and needed them.
“Next year, come what may – we will be there,” Elladan continued softly.
Elrohir nodded. “Yes.”
As dusk deepened the shadows merged into night, and the sky darkened. The night was clear, still, and piercingly cold. High above a faint glimmer of light caught his eye.
“Look – the first star!”
His voice, as always, was echoed by Elladan, and they exchanged a glance of shared memories of happier times. Elrohir grinned.
“Happy Midwinter, El.”