I know some of you are waiting for the new chapter of "Light My Path" - real life can get in your way, I´m telling you, but the chapter should be out this weekend.
In the meantime I hope you all enjoy this little tale. It was written for the "Teitho" contest of the MC group, and this time´s challenge was called "Games People Play".
When the fog began to rise, Estel knew he had lost his bet. The fact did nothing to lift his gloomy mood, and he gazed at the nimble elf before him with am annoyance he had not felt this distinctly for a while. It was the annoyance of inferiority.
He quickly realized that his anger was falsely placed though, and decided to turn it towards a more suitable opponent.
"I should have known!" he berated himself, not bothering whether the elf could hear him, "I should have known that the darn weather would finally bring me down. Who can trust the weather so close to the mountains?" The young man threw a hateful glare into the direction of the mountain range he knew to be to his right, even though it had long been swallowed by the grey shadows that now closed in on the two wanderers.
"Cowards!" he snorted, "first turning my luck and then hiding from me. What sorry foes you make!" Not to his surprise, the rocky giants made no reply, and neither did the elf who kept a steady pace ahead of him.
With the white mist that crept up from the damp ground, an icy cold began to seep into the young man's bones, and the lack of sleep he had endured for the better part of three days only increased the chill. Defiantly clenching his jaw, Estel forced his feet to stumble on, refusing to give in just yet. He wanted to make it past sunset to at least get closer to the aim he had so foolishly set for himself.
Five days and nights of travel with rests only to eat and freshen up. Five days of steady movement only to show his elven friend that he could keep up. Not that Legolas had asked such a feat of him. Nay, he seemed to have been perfectly content with the pace the human dictated for their journey. It had been the young man who had been restless; pointing out that at some point it might become crucial for him to move with a speed equal to that of an elf.
Legolas had objected with the calm, reasonable voice that had infuriated Estel more than once of late, pointing out that certain challenges should be met only when they arose. Nevertheless he had allowed the young man his game, insisting only that he would not retreat to the elven realms of rest either. He had meant to share the load, and the subtle signs of exhaustion that had been evident in the elf's behaviour had indeed given Estel some satisfaction.
Now, however, he knew that he would not make it. The damp cold of the fog would soon turn his tired limbs to lead, and he would have to admit defeat. He dreaded the moment, and the small victory he meant to gain by making it to sunset would do little to ease the pain.
Keeping a few paces ahead of his human friend, Legolas could tell that Estel was getting agitated. There was no need to turn and see the angry crease that had no doubt formed between the young man's eyebrows. It was enough to hear his breathing becoming unsteady, and then mingling with grunted words of annoyance that had been directed against the mountains first but now made no sense at all. Most likely they were not meant to, either.
The elf sighed inwardly. He had known that this moment would come, and truth be told, he was impressed by how long Estel had held his ground. For three nights and days they had travelled without any sleep, a time span that was beginning to wear down even the wood-elf. He had been true to his word and had denied himself the respite of elven dreams, and the results were beginning to show in light trips and slowed reflexes.
Estel´s trips had been less than light, and Legolas had deliberately chosen another route than he had intended, keeping them out of the more rocky areas at the foot of the Misty Mountains. They had been travelling north from Imladris, not heading for a specific destination but simply enjoying their time together.
For Legolas, Estel´s challenge had taken a lot of the happiness out of the trip, but he had seen the human's need for exploring his limits more than once and knew that there was little sense in denying this part of his friend's nature.
Behind him, a curse and a thump announced the third time this day that Estel had not been able to catch himself after a stumble, and Legolas decided that he had heard enough.
Turning slowly to give the human time to get back onto his feet, the elf faced his friend. The sight he was greeted with would have made him chuckle had the circumstances been different.
Estel had obviously fallen into the thick underbrush beside their path, and the low plants that crawled against the rocks there had entangled themselves into the young man's hair and clothes. Even though he furiously tried to brush them off, he rather spread the sticky leaves all over himself. His usually ruthless dark curls stuck out in all directions, giving him the impression of someone who had just arisen from a long sleep. One held in a bed of weeds, haunted by nightmares.
Although the human was now fifteen summers old and had almost grown to the size of a full man, his limbs still showed the distinctive lankiness that Legolas would usually associate with a foal. Even so, he could not help being impressed with the way Estel´s mind had been able to catch up with his maturing body, and he found that his conversations with the young man were turning more fascinating with the passage of time.
Tonight, though, the elf did not expect any discussions on history and literature. In fact, he would be lucky to be graced with anything but grunted curses.
Deciding to be as tactful as possible, the elf did not comment on his friend's attire and said instead: "The mist begins to hinder our journey, Estel. I would advise that we search for shelter this night."
"Why would you have to stop now!" the human burst out furiously. The sun was already beginning to turn red behind its veil of grey. Only an hour more, nay, less than that, and he would have at least made it into the next night. "There is no need for me to stop, thank you very much, but if you want to, suit yourself!"
Estel brushed past his elven friend, and seeing the perplexed expression on the fair face, he added: "It is not your people's urge to give advice anyhow, if I recall correctly. So do not trouble yourself with the fact that I will not heed yours."
Shaking his head at the irritated reaction, Legolas followed Estel in silence. The absence of a reply served to bring home just how childish his outburst had been, and Estel felt his cheeks colour. He had meant to prove himself a worthy travelling companion, but the more he pushed himself, the less worthy he seemed to become.
When the sun had turned the fog a bloody shade of red, a dark shape towards their left caught Estel´s attention. Turning his head, he squinted his tired eyes and finally stopped in his effort to find out what he was looking at. Feeling the elf step up at his side, he was strangely grateful that Legolas did not tell him what his superior sight had no doubt revealed to him already.
"There seems to be a house", the young man finally said, "but no smoke rises from it in this chilly weather. It must be deserted."
"Aye", Legolas agreed, "maybe the family who lived here was driven off by the barren grounds in this area."
To the elf´s surprise, Estel chuckled at this. "Nay, my friend, more likely they did not wish to endure this terrible weather any more."
Catching on to the human's train of thought, Legolas seriously agreed. "Forgive me my foolishness; how could I not have thought of this? Fogs trapping fresh and eager travellers, keeping them from covering their ground – that is a foul trick indeed. Who would want to live in a place like this?"
The young man nodded furiously, the glint in his grey eyes the only sign of his mirth. "So true, but at least we can make use of this poor family's misfortune and seek shelter in their home. I am sure they would have wanted to aid wanderers in these Valar-forsaken lands."
"No doubt", Legolas supported, and together they turned to close in on the house.
Even though the darkness around them grew rapidly now that the sun was setting, Legolas could sense that Estel´s mood had lifted slightly. He was grateful for that, for after the man´s previous display of foul temper he had wondered how to make him see reason. It was far better not to discuss the matter of failure at all, for Estel felt its sting badly enough already. The elf seriously hoped that after getting some decent sleep, his friend would be able to see that what he had accomplished already was no small feat at all.
The house turned out to be more of a hut, a rackety one-room building that leaned towards one side as if ready to topple over. Only the equally shaky stable that tilted the other way against one wall seemed to keep the building from instant collapse.
"Pretty", Estel commented dryly, "let us hope it at least has a hearth."
"Let us hope that the crackling of a fire in said hearth will warm the house and not bring it down," Legolas added, and they entered the hut with a shared chuckle.
Once the two pairs of tired feet had crossed the threshold, a sigh shivered on the cold air. The last rays of the dying sun shimmering red amongst the grey, the fog began to dense. Moving slowly but surely, the wisps of mist moved towards each other and curled together. Where a wavering curtain had been, a wall of cloud began to rise, inviting darkness to grow more quickly than it should have to shroud the hut in shadow.
For all passing by only a few feet away, the house had vanished, and all who had entered it were lost with it.
The fire threw flickering shadows across Estel´s tired face, enhancing the dark circles that now trapped his dulled grey eyes. He sat turned towards the flames upon one of the rackety chairs they had found and ate with the air of one dreaming already, making Legolas wonder how his hand even managed to direct the food towards his mouth.
The elf ate in silence, not wanting to stir his young friend's anger again. He knew that despite Estel´s now calm mood, it would not take much to make his temper flare. Even though by far the human's senior, Legolas understood what feeling raked the man's heart. Pride could hurt if bent or broken.
"We should turn towards the mountains tomorrow", Estel spoke up, not seeming to notice the slight blur of exhaustion in his voice, "For I hope to make the acquaintance of some dwarves there."
Legolas could not help the annoyed snort that escaped him. "Whatever makes you wish to meet such greedy creatures? They would not even notice you, most likely, as their eyes are ever fixed upon the ground in their hopes to catch sight of gold."
Estel took a sip of water, still not looking at his friend. "Aye, but I am sure your presence would get their attention. The string of curses that would no doubt spring forth from you at their sight would be bound to be noticed. And in any case, you should encourage me to meet foreign races, master elf."
The young man turned a little, still pretending not to look but clearly eager to monitor his friend from the corner of his eye as he continued: "Are you not appointed my teacher on this journey, now that I am forced to miss master Erestor´s lectures? It makes a poor teacher to avoid fresh knowledge."
Despite his initial annoyance, Legolas burst out in pearly laughter at this. By the Valar, this boy could pull a prank even when he was almost asleep on his feet! It was a talent one had to admire.
"I might just sent you into a dwarven cave by yourself, then," the elf quipped, "for then you could learn several things at once, such as not falling into a sudden abyss and at the same time dodging flying axes thrown at intruders. But for now, your teacher is sending you to bed, child. One more minute of eating and you will choke because you will forget to chew."
Estel laughed as well. He did not argue however, but retrieved his blanket and settled down on the floor close to the fire. Even though they had been blessed with finding a working hearth and even some wood stacked beside it, there had been no furniture in the small room beside the chairs and a table.
Stretching out with a groan, the young man turned his head to look at the elf once more. Legolas had pulled his chair to one of the windows and now sat looking outside. Not that there was much to see. The thin layer of leather that served to keep out rain and cold only allowed light and shadow through at the best of times, and now in night and fog there was surely nothing to detect.
Returning to his jest once more despite the darkness of sleep that rapidly closed in on him, Estel mumbled: "If you want to make a decent teacher, never forget Erestor´s words – in learning you will teach and in teaching you will learn."
Legolas´ mirthful words reached him even as his eyes closed, and he fell asleep with a smile on his lips when he took them in. "I am learning aplenty at your side, Estel, about the human gift of stubbornness."
Legolas listened to the young man's even breaths. They were the only sounds about. Not a breeze stirred the dark world outside. Not a gentle touch of wind along the wooden walls. Not the single beat of a bird's wings. Not even the rustling of a mouse that went out for food. Only breaths and silence. The elf felt himself strain in an effort to sense anything outside the hut.
Not for the first time this night, he got up and noiselessly crossed the room towards the other window, only to find nothing changed there either. No call of an owl. No distant howling of wolves. No sign of life. His heart beginning to beat faster, the elf closed his eyes and silently berated himself for his growing unease. There was no cause for it, and he valiantly fought it back.
Keeping his eyes closed, he allowed his other senses to take over. The smell of burning wood from the fire filled his nostrils, mingled with the clear cold of the fog that crept in through the chimney and the cracks in the wood. But apart form that – no more. Legolas frowned. Where was the damp smell of the wet earth? Where the green tingling of the grass that he had walked across on his way here?
Even though he could not even see them, the walls of the hut suddenly seemed to close in on him. Gazing about, he let out a shaky breath when he found there was still space around him, but an urge for more drew him towards the door.
Opening it, he found himself faced with a wall. A wall of fog. It stood almost solid, the only movement some slow wafting of denser clouds amidst the lighter ones. Reaching out tentatively, he felt the cold of the fog engulf his hand in an icy grip. When he moved his fingers, their play caused a slight current to swirl through the mist.
Behind him, he heard Estel grunt and turn, pulling his blanket closer around him. Suddenly realizing that he allowed cold air to seep into the hut, Legolas closed the door once more and settled back down onto his chair.
There was nothing wrong but his own exhaustion. Nothing but the lead that seemed to fill his limbs, nothing but the slight scarping at the walls…
Legolas stood, knives in his hands, even before the thought had finished itself in his mind. For long heartbeats there was nothing, but then it came again. The sound of something dragging across the wooden walls from the outside. Locating the spot where the movement had stopped, the elf crept next to it, and when it began again, he moved with it. Slowly, as if the person making the sounds took small steps. But there were not steps. Just the sound of wood on uneven wood – like a stick drawn along the wall.
Legolas held his breath when he followed the sounds towards one of the windows. Fixing all his concentration on the thin layer of leather that was nailed to the wall… There it was. A small shadow, moving along the lower part of the window, following the sounds that did not cease.
His decision quickly made, the elf silently sped for the door, opening it once more and leaning against its frame. Waiting. Waiting for the shadow to complete its circle around the house and come to him.
It never did.
The sounds stopped and were replaced by the eerie silence once more, a silence that settled over the elf like a suffocating blanket. Nothing stirred. Nothing moved. Nothing could be heard but the even breaths of the young human behind him.
Estel awoke to no sound. He blinked at the rackety wooden ceiling above him, momentarily at a loss as to where he was. When the memory came back to him, he let out a silent groan. All the effort in vain, all the trips and falls for nothing – nothing except the memory of travelling three full days and nights without rest. Three days that he had efficiently moved besides the elf, never slowing them down much.
The sting of failure burning a little less brightly, Estel turned his head towards the window where Legolas had settled the night before. The elf still sat there as if gazing outside. The light that seeped through the leather told the young man that it had to be day already. The dulled glow reflected off his friend's white skin, creating the impression that the immortal actually shone from within.
When he had been younger, Estel had wondered how Elves could feel so cool to the touch when they obviously burned from within. His questions had greatly amused his eleven brothers, but the mystery had remained for him until Lord Elrond had explained to him how elves reacted differently to light. Their eyes could see with far less of it than needed for a human, and their skins reflected even the smallest rays, making it seem to glow.
Very quietly, Estel sat up. To his surprise, there was no response from Legolas. Squinting to see better, the young man made out the slight glaze that covered his friend´s eyes. A look of disbelief crossed the human´s face, and then a wide smile spread across it. This was the first time he had ever experienced the wood elf falling asleep on a watch! He held no doubt in his heart that should a danger approach, the prince would be wide awake in a matter of a heartbeat, but this obvious display of exhaustion further lessened the feeling of failure the young man had harboured.
Moving with utmost care, Estel picked up a chip of wood that had fallen out of the fireplace and quickly threw it at his friend.
The result was one the human had not reckoned with. Before he even knew it, the elf was on his feet, both knives in his hands. Estel gasped in surprise. He had not noticed the weapons the elf had held in his lap, and immediate worry replaced the joy he had felt.
Legolas slowly registered that no danger was at hand and he lowered his knives, breathing heavily. He knew he had fallen asleep when he should not have, and the anger that flared up in him turned his usually blue eyes a dark shade of green.
Estel rushed up to the elf, taking him by the shoulders. "What is it? What happened? Why did you not wake me? Why did you draw your knives? What…"
"Peace, Estel!" Legolas sheathed his weapons with a sigh and was grateful when the flow of questions stopped. "I was – concerned at night that something crept around the house, but I must have been mistaken. Do not trouble yourself." Truth be told, now that light flooded the hut, his nightly adventure seemed like a dream to him, and a childish one at that.
Estel, however, was not calmed so easily. "Since when do you hear things that are not there? We should at least go to investigate…" The young man stopped himself suddenly. He cocked his head and frowned. Had he just heard a voice from outside?
No more but a mere breath on the wind – or was it the wood groaning?
"Estel?" Legolas looked at the human questioningly. When he received nothing for an answer but a shaking head, the elf bent down and began to pick up their possessions. "We should leave now", he said, keeping his tone light, "we may have outstayed this hut's welcome."
Shrugging, the young man helped his friend. "I was not aware that there was a welcome", he joked, but seeing the elf´s drawn features he said more seriously, "Should we not stay a bit longer? You look like you could do with some rest yourself."
Legolas shouldered his quiver with a determined look on his face. "I will take my rest once we are back outside", he announced, "for this place takes my breath away."
No sooner where these words spoken than a stone hit the hut's back wall. The sound was distinctive, a clanging impact followed by a soft thud when the small rock fell to the grassy ground.
Come to us…
The human turned towards the sound uncertainly. "What was that?" he asked, not even aware of the quiver in his voice.
"An animal must have kicked loose a rock", Legolas reasoned tensely. He was only too aware that he did not hear a beast roaming about. He should have heard it, had it been close enough to cause this disturbance. "We should leave."
A second rock hit the wall. A third and a fourth. The strength of the impacts grew.
"Legolas, wait." Estel caught his friend by the shoulder. "Maybe we should wait a little. Allow this animal to pass."
The elf shook his head. One knife was back in his hand. "Nay, Estel, this is no good place to be. We will leave now."
He opened the door.
The sight the friends were greeted with was one even the elf had never beheld before. The fog had not lifted. It was so thick that its presence was physical, pressing against them as if attempting to push them back into the hut. The daylight that now filled the world did nothing to aid their vision, for all it had done to the fog was turn it a bright white.
A white that threatened to trap them.
"Estel, place your hand on my shoulder", the elf cut in sternly while he sliced his knife through his cloak, cutting off a strand of fabric. He tied it to his own belt, then the human's. Even though he worked with quick efficiency, there was no mistaking his discomfort.
Another stone flew, this time hitting the front of the hut. It cut through the mist unseen, its presence only announced when it collided with the wall.
Stay and play…
"Stay close to me." Legolas voice carried more calm than he could have felt. "We will make for the mountains. The fog cannot stay this dense forever. We shall soon be free of it."
All Estel could do was nod. His throat had gone dry and was filled with furious heartbeat. The hand on the elf´s shoulder tightened its grip when they stepped out into the void.
Immediately, they were swallowed. Estel swayed, suddenly uncertain of his footing as his sight was taken away from him. He felt Legolas´ free hand reaching back for him and he took it, grateful to elf for being his anchor in this blinding nothing.
The fog bit into the young man's clothes, soaking them with icy hands. With every step he took the cold grew as if seeking to paralyse him. Freeze him here. Keep him here.
Stay and play...
"Lhuim!" (Shadows!) The hissed word drew Estel´s attention into the whiteness. At first he could not tell what his elven friend had detected, but then he saw them, too.
The small shapes seemed to be all around them, only barely visible when the white light outlined them before they melted back into the great void. The disembodied whispers suddenly having a source, Estel felt his heart grow cold. Even though he was shrouded in white, the darkness of hatred that seemed to spill forth of these dashing figures clouded his mind.
You will stay and play with us…
Icy fingers suddenly wrapped themselves around both of Estel´s ankles, tugging sharply. With a cry of both surprise and pain, the human stumbled and fell forward. The hand that had held on to the elf´s shoulder tightened, and he could feel Legolas turn to catch him. Slender arms wrapped around him, and there was a small thud that no doubt meant the elf had dropped his knife.
"Estel." The hushed word seemed far away even though the young man could feel his friend´s breath brush past his cheek. "Are you…"
The sentence was cut short by a sharp outcry of pain. Estel let out a gasp when he felt Legolas suddenly grow limp against him, and they both sagged to the ground. The grip on the young man's ankles broke, and a small hand brushed past his back, leaving a trail of goose bumps behind.
Holding onto Legolas in a sudden desperation to lose him, the human sat back heavily. He could feel the moisture that had gathered on the grass soak him even further, but he was beyond caring. Pulling the elf closer against him with one hand, the other sought out a pulse. When his fingers brushed the hair at the back of Legolas´ head, he could feel warm liquid coating his hand.
"Please", the human whispered urgently, "please be alive…"
"Please", his words were echoed back to him mockingly, "please, please stay and play with us…"
His fingers shaking, Estel finally managed to feel his way to the elf's throat and seek out his heartbeat. To his immense relief it was there, weak but steady.
Sitting back with a sigh, the young man looked up to take in his surroundings once more. The fog had not lifted. Dark shapes approached him from the void, the outline of a head showing here, a ghostly hand reaching out there.
"Leave the old one be", a voice whispered into his ear, its owner close now. Very close. "Leave him and play with us. Or we shall play with your friend some more."
Before Estel could even begin to comprehend these words, a stone hit the ground next to him, Then another. And another. A third found its mark against Legolas´ chest, close to the human´s hand, and he could feel the small shock of pain run through the unconscious body. With an angry curse, Estel rolled the elf over and tried to cover him against the rain of stones that began to pound down on them.
Snickers travelled on the icy wisps of fog that graced his cheek.
"Come, Estel. Come and play. Come and stay."
"Stop it, stop!" Estel grew desperate when the rocks did not cease to fly. As if by some miracle, he had not been hit by a single one, but Legolas had to be covered in bruises by now. There was no way he would be able to bring the elf to safety like this.
At his shout, the stones stopped to rain down on them.
"Will you play? Will you stay?"
Eagerness was woven into the voice now. It was a light voice, the young man suddenly noticed. A soft voice, a pretty one even now that the threat had gone from it. A girl´s voice.
"Please", a second voice chimed in, light too, but even younger. A little boy. "Please stay."
"Yes", a third youth pleaded, "stay."
"Join us", a fourth urged, young and female, "we are cold. We are weary of playing alone."
Estel shivered. He could see them now. Four shapes circling him. It choked his heart that he could see them when he was unable to even make out Legolas´ head that he held cradled against his chest.
It was the darkness, he suddenly realized. He could see them not because they threw shadows in the fog, but because they were shadows. Pure, waving darkness that cut the white light around them. Mere shapes of the human voices they bore.
One shadow stepped closer. Had Estel held out his hand, he would have been able to reach it. What he would have touched, though, he was unsure and he was not eager to find out.
Being so close, the shape became more distinct. The young man saw wisps of darkness twist about the head, not unlike long hair floating in water. A shimmering dress of pure black played upon the empty frame.
"Estel?" It was the older girl again, the one who had addressed him from the start. "What will the game be? What will you play with us?"
His mind racing, the human sought to find an answer that would suit the shadow children and would still allow him to bring Legolas to safety.
"Why do we not play a game of seek?" he asked, forcing his tone to remain calm. "We shall seek the edges of this fog, and the one who steps out first shall win."
For a moment there was silence, and then the oldest girl bore down upon him with the speed of a hawk. Moving so fast her shape blurred even more, her face was suddenly right in front of Estel´s. And a face she had. Red eyes burned brightly, wispy skin of white illuminated by the glow. The skin was so thin that the skull beneath shone through, freezing a perpetual grin onto her features even when they were drawn in anger - such as now.
"Do not", she rasped, "play for time. Do not play jokes on us. Do not take me for a silly fool. For if you do, I have a game of my own to play with your friend." A transparent hand reached out and almost gently graced Legolas´ chest.
"It is called: Save your Breath."
Estel could feel the elf freeze beneath the icy touch. He could feel the muscles strain as his unconscious friend tried to draw breath and could not, his chest unable to push up against the tiny fingers that held it down.
A smile formed above the grinning skull and the girl leaned close to whisper into Estel´s ear: "I win. I always do."
"I am sorry!" The young man tried to push the white hand away, but it was nothing but a cold spot of icy air, something he was unable to touch, let alone move. "Please, I will think of a better game."
The girl raised a transparent eyebrow, her eyes still glowing. With agonising reluctance, she withdrew her hand. She inclined her head at Estel, smiling, and floated back to join the others, a faceless shadow yet again. Her grip gone, Legolas drew in a deep, gasping breath, as if he has just broken through the surface of a river he had almost drowned in.
The human lowered his forehead to gently place it upon his friend's hair, desperate to at least feel what he could not see. He had chosen a dangerous road. A shortcut that his impatience had dictated him and that had almost lead to disaster. He would have to tread far more carefully, for if he broke through the thin ice of the game, he would pull Legolas down with him.
Taking a deep breath, he addressed the girl once more. "I will play with you", he promised, "but since you do not want my friend to play with us I would like bring him to your home first. Then I will play."
"Ah." He could sense the skull smiling. "So you will be truthful now? Very well then, if my siblings agree…"
"No!" a small voice piped up. Estel was glad he did not have to see the youthful face up close as it turned into a skeletal mask of anger. "I want to play NOW!"
"You can play now", the human quickly cut in, "we shall play ´lead the blind."
The thought had come to him as he spoke, and he felt relief wash over him when he recalled the game his brothers had invented for him. As a child, he had hurt his eyes playing with a stick and had been forced to walk blindfolded for more than a week. It had taken some effort back then to keep him a moderately happy boy.
Warmth flooded him with the memory of his brothers, and he stood up carefully. He had no trouble lifting the still unconscious elf as he was light in his arms. "I am the blind one", the young man called out to the shadows, "and you shall lead me to your home. You may not touch me, or show yourself to me. You may only give directions."
A happy chuckle filled the air, and four heads bobbed in agreement with his game, then the shadows withdrew and melted into the white fog.
Estel stood waiting. No sound was to be heard except for Legolas´ light breathing. The young man shifted uneasily, adjusting his grip on his friend. It worried him that the elf had not shown any sign of waking yet. Ruefully, he admitted to himself that only part of the worry was directed at the other's health. A small portion was also for his own well-being. He felt utterly alone. Utterly lost. He truly was a blind man. He could not have found the hut if a horde of orcs had been at his heels.
The word floated towards him from his right. Very carefully, the young man began the walk. He could feel his arms tighten around Legolas. Moving through a white void that never changed, neither seeing where he placed his feet, nor how his friend fared in his arms, he felt strangely detached.
Was he walking at all? Was the weight he held against him truly his friend, or was it only his imagination?
More towards his left now. A small chuckle had accompanied the word this time, quickly muffled as if a child had clasped his hands in front of his mouth.
Idly, the young man wondered were the ghostly children were leading him. He was at their mercy to a degree that made him both angry and frightened, but he knew well that there was no other option but to play by their rules.
As he walked, he could not help but wonder. Who were these children? What had brought them here, into this shape and form? Or were they no children at all but spirits that enjoyed taking this appearance?
"Here, little Estel." The oldest girl´s voice, straight ahead of him, and very close.
He took one more step – two – and almost tripped as his foot collided with something solid. It was not wood. It was stone.
Brow creasing in annoyance, he asked: "Where did you lead me? This is not the hut."
"No." The girl appeared before him again in the mist, hair floating about her. "You said to guide you to our home. We did so. We did not break the rules of your game."
She sounded reproachful, almost saddened. Carefully, Estel knelt to set Legolas down on the ground. He could feel grass yet again, and he was sure they could not have gone far.When he laid the elf down, a small moan escaped him, signalling that he was slowly returning to consciousness.
Estel could feel more than see the annoyance of the children around him. Well aware of his promise, he quickly shed his cloak to spread over his friend and untied the strip of cloth that still connected them.
"Dînen, mellon-nîn" (Silent, my friend), he urged in a low voice, "dînen."
Hoping that the elf would remain lying on the ground even if he woke, Estel reached out for the object he had walked against. Running his hands over the rough surface, allowing them to see what his eyes could not, he found his suspicions proven right. He had heard tales of lost souls before but had paid them little heed. How wrong he had been.
He stood and turned to face the shadows once more. He was not surprised to find them gathered near to him, and he forced himself to move closer and not flinch at the four deathly faces that regarded him solemnly.
"I have found a game for you", Estel announced, "but for each time I win I shall ask something in return from you."
"That is well", the oldest girl agreed, "but know also that if we should win, your everlasting company shall be our price."
Swallowing his fear, the young man returned: "If everlasting company was what you desired, you should have chosen my friend over me."
The girl´s forehead creased in annoyance. "He is too old", she said, "He is one of them. One of the ones who betrayed us. One of the ones who never came back for us, not in time. You are still one of us. You can play with us and lighten our times in the shadow."
Suddenly realizing that it was his youth, not his race that had drawn the ghosts to him, Estel nodded to himself. What he was about to do could be considered cheating, but he hoped that with the help of the Valar it would work.
He turned to the girl once more. "Here are the rules", he said, "I will pose each of you a riddle. If you cannot solve it, you shall give me your name in return. Do you agree to these terms?"
The girl´s brow wrinkled, ghostly skin moving over bare bone. She glared at Estel suspiciously. "The questions shall be suitable for the age of the child you ask", she declared, "that you have to promise. Else I agree."
Estel nodded. "I promise", he said and turned towards the youngest of the four. The little girl could have been no older than four years in life. Eyes that seemed far too big for her filled both her ghostly face and the skull beneath.
"Well, little one, here is your question." He bent down towards her and took a deep breath to steady his voice. "Man guino di nen a lhoda?" (What lives in the water and swims?) The small child turned towards the older girl, and expression of incomprehension on her small features.
"You are cheating!" The older one´s eyes were ablaze again, but she did not approach Estel. Nor did she make a move on Legolas. The rules had been set.
"The question is an easy one to answer", the young man said calmly, turning back to the youngest. "So? What do you say?"
The only response he received was a shake of the head. He smiled at the girl. "This is not bad at all. Now what is your name, little one?"
"What a pretty name." He turned to the second youngest, a boy. "Honeo annûn aur?" (Does sunset begin the day?) A pair of shrugging shoulders indicated another game won. "And your name?" "Borman."
Estel faced the third child. "Na maew a roch gwanyr?" (Are seagull and horse brothers?) "Yes?" the boy tried, and Estel shook his head with a smile. "And your name?" "Marwan."
The young man turned towards the oldest girl. He could still see annoyance in her face. But also something else. Hope.
"Trevedi lhim dor?" (Does a fish walk on land?)
She gave no answer at first. Her eyes bore into him, demanding an answer of her own. Estel´s heart began to race. He was aware that he might still lose his gamble if she by chance answered correctly.
"Your name, Estel", she whispered, "What does it mean?"
The young man smiled at her. "Hope", he answered, and she smiled back at him. Her eyes did no longer burn in anger. Very slowly, she shrugged her shoulders. "Fram", she said, not waiting for his question, "my name is Fram, and my mother said that it meant valiant."
Estel nodded. "So it does", he agreed, "and it was wisely chosen."
Without further ado, Estel took out his dagger and knelt in front of the tombstone he had walked against earlier. His fingers sought out the surface, and tears began to flow when he deciphered the weathered words that had been carved in by a shaky hand.
"Taken from me by illness and death
here lie my beloved wife
And my children
Lifting his dagger, Estel began to carve.
At first, he had to work by touch alone, again and again making sure he would not leave out a letter. The ghostly shapes of the children stood gathered around him in silence. Once the first name was completed, he heard a sigh behind him. It was soft, like a breeze gently rippling through a tree in spring. And when he turned, the youngest child had gone.
The fog began to lift, and as he continued to work, he could see his hands again. He saw the bloody scratches he had received when he had slipped with his dagger, but he did not care that he smeared the grey stone in red as he worked.
On and on he carved. He did not know when Legolas began to sing, ever so softly, from where he lay behind the young human. He sang a lullaby, words Estel knew well. The human began to hum along. He felt soothed by the promise of love that radiated from the gentle melody.
Thus, the returning warmth of the sun that began to caress his back as shadows and fog withdrew were mirrored by a glow from within that lifted his heart despite the grim task he had to perform.
When the dulled blade of his dagger carved out the final letter, he once again felt a small hand brush his back. Now, however, the touch did not hold cold hatred. Only relief.
Estel sat still for a long while. The sun chased away the last wisps of fog and dried off the remainders of dew. Its light was golden and bathed the small hut in a soft light, reflecting off the still stone that rose only a few feet behind it.
"What kept him?" the young man finally said. He turned, regarding the elf who sat with his back against the hut. Legolas had shut his eyes against the sun-rays. He looked at peace despite the paleness of his features.
"The father died as well", the elf answered, "too weak to end the task he had set himself to do. I could hear him weep when you talked to his children. I heard him pray to the Valar to help you."
"Why could I not hear him?" Estel wondered as he sat down next to his friend. The weariness he felt was soothing.
"Your ears were for the children only", Legolas replied, "for the pleas that I could not hear. Nor could anyone who passed here since this tragedy."
They sat silently, both lost in their own thoughts. Suddenly, Estel felt a smile spread over his face. "The shadows", he said, "they are gone."
"Nay, my friend", Legolas replied, "not merely gone. Replaced with light by you."