That afternoon the rangers’ patrol had unexpectedly met up with Gildor’s company of wanderers, and the dismal evening had turned to one of celebration, music and storytelling around the campfires. Voices, laugher and song filled the air, dispelling the gloom.
Elrohir took a sip of wine and raised his cup in salute as Estel appeared out of the darkness and dropped to the ground beside his brothers. “They’re telling ghost stories over there,” Estel said, pointing with his thumb to one of the other groups. “I would join in, but I don’t know any.”
Elrohir grinned. “I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts?”
“I don’t, but on a night like this it makes you wonder.” He glanced at the mist-shrouded trees. “I’m glad we met with Gildor’s folk. Some of the tales they tell are very eerie – and some are terrifying!”
“You should not fear the unknown,” said a voice by Elrohir’s side. One of the wanderers had joined them, appearing silently in the firelight. He sat, accepting a cup of wine which he cradled in one hand. Smiling, he took a sip. “I am Halthor,” he introduced himself. “There are no such things as ghosts, and you know the dead cannot harm you.”
“No, but …” Estel still sounded uncertain.
“I will tell you a tale I was told, when I was just a young warrior,” Elladan announced. He glanced at his brother and grinned. “El and I were on our very first patrol, and desperately disappointed that we had not encountered any orcs or trolls or dragons, and had not even fought a single battle. If I am honest, we were bored with the monotony. So, on the last night, we began sharing tales. This is the story Rimmon told us.”
He paused, waiting until his audience fell silent. Then he began, his voice pitched low. “It was a long, long time ago. An elven patrol was making its way through a deep, dense forest. The trees were crowded closely together, and what pathways there were, were narrow and overgrown. As night approached, it grew darker than ever beneath the trees. Darker than it should have been, for there was a full moon and a cloudless sky, but beneath the trees the moon was hidden. The patrol kept going, walking in single file along the tracks, pushing through undergrowth and stumbling over roots. At last they reached a wider part of the path and decided to stop for the night. It was then that they found …”
“What?” Estel breathed.
“The elf who had been at the back … was gone. Just gone. He had vanished without trace.”
“What befell him?” Halthor asked.
“No one knows,” Elladan said. “They searched and called, but never found any sign of him. That night they built a bright fire to keep the darkness at bay, and in the hope that the missing elf might see it and find them, but he never returned.”
“Nobody slept that night. Everyone kept watch, sitting in a circle with their backs to the fire, staring into the shadows and the darkness. The night was utterly silent. Nobody heard or saw anything but no one dared to close their eyes or sleep. At last dawn broke, but in the cold, grey light they found that another elf was missing. No one saw him go; no one saw what took him. No one heard him cry out – but he too had vanished into thin air. They searched again in pairs, so that none would be alone in that shadowed forest. They found nothing, no tracks, no sign that anyone or anything had passed through the forest. When at last they returned to the clearing they found they were six, for one of the search teams had vanished as well."
Elrohir watched as Estel edged a little closer. He vividly recalled hearing the tale for the first time himself, and being profoundly glad that Elladan was at his side. “And what happened then?” he prompted, though he knew the story well.
“Well, after that there was no question of them continuing the patrol. They abandoned the idea and headed back to Imladris as quickly as they could. They set off through the forest, keeping as close together as they could – and yet, when they halted at noon, there was another missing. Of course, after that no one wanted to be at the rear of the patrol. In the end they drew lots. The one who drew the short straw was just a novice, on his first patrol; but he was very brave. He was white with fear, and his hand shook as he picked up his bow, but he moved to the end of the line without a word.” Elladan paused, and his voice dropped to a whisper. “He was very young.”
“What happened to him?” Estel asked. His voice cracked.
“The captain of the patrol took pity on him and took his place – and he was never seen again. That young warrior was one of just two elves who 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 be out there – somewhere.”
There was silence. Halthor smiled into his cup. Then Estel took a deep gulp of his wine. “Curse you, Elladan! I shall never sleep tonight. I will be looking over my shoulder the whole time.”
“Then I will tell you another tale,” said Elrohir. “A true tale. It happened to me, some years ago. You were just a babe, Estel, less than a year old. We were on patrol with your father. It was a cold winter that year, bitter; with hard frosts and snow that settled and stayed on the ground for months. We were riding – well, I was riding, for Elladan had been injured and remained behind – and returning to your village. It was dark; starless and moonless; and the snow was falling thickly. The wind blew, driving the snow into deep drifts. I was riding at the back of the column, watching for attack from behind, but none of us could see more than a few feet ahead. Anyway, I became separated from the rest of the company and soon realised I was hopelessly lost. I was in a part of the forest I had never seen before. The blizzard was growing worse, and I could hear wolves howling in the distance."
"Wolves can be a great danger for a solitary traveller," Halthor agreed. "In dense forest, they can even outrun a horse, for they are more surefooted."
Elrohir nodded. "Yes. And I was on foot, leading Mithrilyn in case he stumbled and fell into a rabbit hole. Beneath the snow we could not see our footing. Anyway, through the driving snow it seemed I could see lights, though I knew that there was no-one living in the deep forest. I thought I had lost my mind!"
Elladan shook his head. "That is impossible."
"That was my thought, but I know what I saw," Elrohir insisted.
"You misunderstand me, little brother. I say impossible, for you have no mind to lose!"
Elrohir opened his mouth for an automatic retort, but Estel and the stranger were laughing at them. He swallowed his reply and continued, ignoring Elladan. "I found a small house, with lamps burning brightly and a fire in the hearth. The woman there was very kind, but she seemed to me to be a little odd. She kept asking 'Have you seen my husband? Have you seen my Tom?' I told her I had seen no sign of him, but a few minutes later she would ask again. I think he had perhaps died years before, for the only trace of him in the house was an old pair of boots, dry and cracked. And his work shed where I stabled Mithrilyn was cobwebby and dusty. It was clear no one had used it for years."
"Anyway, I slept by the fire that night, and in the morning I cut some firewood for her, and gave her a coin for her kindness. And then I left her."
Estel snorted. "And that's it? That's not a ghost story, Elrohir! It's just you meeting some lonely old woman." He grinned. "She must have been lonely indeed to welcome you in!"
"You have not heard the end of my tale," Elrohir said quietly. "I found El, who had come out searching for me with the Rangers. They laughed at my story, saying no one had lived in the forest for years, so I led them back to her house." He fell silent, remembering.
"Well?" Estel prompted, curious now.
"I found a ruin," Elrohir said at last. "The roof had collapsed, and a tree grew through it. It was overgrown with ivy. The windows were broken. Yet when we pushed our way inside I found the same chair by the fire, though the ashes were grey and cold. By the back door was a stack of firewood. And on the table ..." he stopped again.
"On the table," Elladan said, continuing the tale, "There was an old, tarnished coin. It looked years old."
"It was the same coin I had given Sarra that very morning," Elrohir ended. "Whether she was a ghost, or whether to her I was a ghost, I shall never know."
"There are no ghosts," Halthor said again. "They are only lonely spirits who cannot rest, and seek companionship at times. But I thank you for your tales, my friends. Listen now, while I share a story of my own." He took another sip of wine and began, his voice pitched low and quiet.
"Of a time, a stranger joined a band of wandering elves. The roads were less dangerous then, but a chance-met traveller is always welcomed. He was invited to share their fire and their food, and in return he gave them a song; the only payment he had. Odd he seemed, for they said his speech was strange to them, and he knew naught of recent doings in the lands. He spent a night and a day with them, but as dusk drew on of the second night, the weather changed and snow began to fall. The company hurried on to reach shelter, but as they came to a river the stranger halted. ‘I can go no further,’ he said. ‘I must turn back. But if you come this way again, I will join you once more.’ With that he turned away, and within two steps he had vanished. And it was then that they saw he left no footprints in the snow. Their own tracks were clear to see, but where the traveller had walked there was no sign to be seen."
"It was many years and more before the elves returned to that region. And true to his word, the stranger joined them again, sharing their fire and their song. He stayed with them for a day and a night, but when dawn came the blankets they had lent him were empty, the grass beneath unbruised. The night's watch had not seen him go, and when in the morning they discussed the stranger's disappearance, none could recall quite when he had joined them."
"Who was he?" Elrohir asked.
Halthor shook his head sadly. "An elf who died long ages ago, who loved the lands he roamed so much he could not bear to leave. He foolishly refused the call of Námo, and wanders the hills and woods still, restless and alone. Of times his loneliness becomes too great, and he seeks to find companionship to ease his solitude, hearing their tales and sharing in their songs. He may join with a group for a day, a night, or a week and more, but no longer. Soon he will go back to his lonely wanderings and take the hidden paths once more, leaving behind nothing but a fading memory and a story of his own."
“What is the story?” Estel asked.
Halthor stood, looking down at him. “Why, the one I have just told you,” he said. He stepped away from the circle of firelight, seeming to melt into the night.
Estel swallowed an oath. “Where did he go?”
“He must have joined one of the other groups,” Elrohir said, peering into the darkness.
Laughing, Elladan shook his head. “You are getting nervous! You know what showmen Gildor’s folk are. Halthor can tell a good tale, but he cannot match your story, Elrohir.”
“Yours was better,” Estel agreed. “For a moment I almost believed it! The rusty coin was a nice touch."
“It is true!” Elrohir protested. “Every word. It was the most eerie thing that has ever happened to me.”
Elladan nodded. “I saw the ruin of the house. I saw the coin. It was old, Estel. Your father was there too.”
“Hmm. If you say so," Estel said, still disbelieving. "I enjoyed Halthor's tale too. The mysterious traveller who appears, joins his companions for a while, and then just as mysteriously disappears."
Elrohir laughed. "Just like Halthor himself! He must have practised that many times." He got to his feet, taking the wine skin with him. "Gildor's group is singing some tavern songs from Bree. You should come, Estel. A few bawdy songs will serve you well when you encounter the lands of men!"
"I know them already. You taught me, if you remember," Estel muttered as he followed his brothers across the glade.
Gildor greeted them with a smile. "I wondered when you would join us! Come, share our fire."
"We were exchanging tales with Halthor," Elladan explained.
"He gave a very chilling account of a lost, houseless elf who seeks the company of others when his loneliness becomes too much to bear. It was a rather sad tale."
"Halthor," Gildor repeated. He shook his head. "I do not know him. I know the story, of course - there has long been a legend of a mysterious traveller who appears at times, spends a night or a day with one of the wandering companies, and then disappears just as suddenly. Some even claim to have seen him. But I still do not understand."
Elrohir glanced at him, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"There is no one called Halthor in my company. The three of you were sitting alone all evening," Gildor explained. "There was no-one else. You were alone."top