11

Dreams are strange things to start with, but when one is dreaming in Middle Earth, they can get extremely strange.

So the particular dream image I am alluding to was a green face---of what I am not sure, but vaguely humanoid: a nose and a thin slash of mouth where all should be. But mostly, it was just green light glowing every where. The face grew so close to mine that I could no longer see the features and it felt as if my head was going to explode. I tried to force the feeling out, but nothing happened.

I suddenly saw Lord Elrond in his study, sitting behind the large table that functioned as his desk. He was talking to me, as he so frequently does, but I could not read his lips nor hear his words. Okay, admittedly, trying to lip-read Sindarin would not be easy for me under any circumstances. But it was the elf lord. I tried to say something, but he went right on talking. Then suddenly, it changed to a picture of his face close to mine. Ah, he was giving me a goblet of some no doubt nasty tasting medicine…but I could not taste it. Or actually feel it go down my throat.

I swallowed anyway.

The image changed to the elf lord in sparkling white and silver robes that he had worn in honor of Yule. He had officiated at a wonderful candle lighting and singing ceremony, radiating energy and power. It took my breath away.

Though, come to think of it, I was not real certain I was really breathing.

Elrond was suddenly smiling at me and then his form faded away from me. I tried to reach out, but he got smaller and fainter until the darkness was total.

It felt as if my whole body was tingling. Sharp prickles and stabs of pain crawled all over me.

I thought my eyes were open, but if they were, I could see nothing. It was darkness complete, no matter how hard I strained my eyes. I opened my mouth to yell, screech, whatever my throat would allow, but I heard no sound.

I stopped struggling and assessed myself. Surely I was not dead. I wouldn't be all prickly and strange feeling.

But what was the matter?

The last thing I could remember was the cave and the acid green light.

Yes! That's right! I was looking for halenmyr for Lord Elrond. For a Yule gift.

Cold pressure punctuated my thoughts. At first it was on my face and feet and then, it spread through me, replacing the prickles and sharp pains.

I was so unsure of myself, I could not tell whether I was flailing about or not.

Aha. The black around me was beginning to dull to a twilight gray. Yes. I was sure it was. I strained my eyes to make it brighter, but the gray reached a certain level and then held steady.

I could feel nothing further.

Hey, but I certainly felt that wet, slobbery kiss.

I opened my eyes to find myself on the ground outside the cave. The moon was high, and Carenloth was snuffling in my hair. She had given me that slobbery lick. I tried to sit up, but I was so weak and disoriented, I didn't get an inch or two off the ground before I sank to the cold, lightly snow covered rock beneath me.

I just lay there doing some serious…feeling. The cold, the smell of slightly damp horse, the sound of the wind in the pines nearby.

The vivid green radiating from the cave.

Weak as a baby bird, there was no way I could struggle away---but the green did not leave the cave, thankfully. I heard a breathy voice say in Quenya…"Go!' and then "Elrond will find."

Confused, I finally found some adrenaline and pushed myself to my knees. Okay, I got it; I had to leave. Now.

I pulled myself upright by Carenloth's front left leg and then collapsed against the saddle. I sort of pushed on the mare to get her to move towards a boulder so I could inelegantly drag myself into the saddle.

I was so glad I didn't fall. I am not sure I would have gotten up.

Half-draped over Carenloth, we made our way down through the mountains.

After about an hour, I was able to sort of sit up for brief moments. I felt so weak and stiff. My water bottle still hung off the pommel of the saddle and I slobbered enough water to rid myself of my dry throat. But not permanently. I was SOOO thirsty. And it was winter and it was beginning to snow again. It was hardly the desert here in the heights.

I did not have the energy to camp so we just kept going. And going. I did not push Carenloth, but luckily she was as anxious to reach Rivendell as I was. I slept in the saddle some, but when Carenloth stumbled or a drift of snow shook free and hit my shoulder or something, I would wake up briefly. It was a cold, slow ride.

I am not sure how long it took us to get there. A couple of days, I think. Carenloth stopped walking when she needed to eat, so when she did, I fumbled in my rucksack and pulled out some lembas. They helped me think more clearly for awhile. I'd lost my bottle of miruvor somewhere.

But even with marginally clearer thinking, I still had no idea what had happened to me.

Though I could see the green---whatever it was, I had no idea what it had done to me. I was certainly hoping Lord Elrond knew. It had to be some kind of magic ensorcellment. And I was not sure if the spell had left completely or just faded off some. or not.

Finally of course, we reached the high pasture. I was pretty sure it was the pasture, because the thin stallion we had met earlier was still there, still favoring his hoof. But now, there was a mare and a shaggy, thin foal with him as well. He laid his ears back as we went past his tree. But I was too anxious to get back to the House.

Poor Carenloth, she was pretty wobbly by the time we took the path past the sheep station and were passing the stark, gnarled branches of the apple orchards. And I was exhausted, too. Numb and feeling duller by the minute. Passing the apple trees made me think of hot apple cider and my mouth watered. I took a swig of melted snow water and then tipped the waterskin up and over my face. It stung very briefly, but then, my face was even number. I cracked off what ice I could reach.

It took me a while to realize that Carenloth had stopped. I blinked and looked about me. The snow was falling thick and fast now and I could no longer see the path. I could feel Carenloth trembling beneath me.

We had reached the end of our tethers.

I slid off Carenloth and stumbled up to her head on numb feet. I pulled her down so I could rest my face along her nose. I rubbed tiredly between her ears and she made a thin wicker in my hair. With a tired moan, my legs gave out and I collapsed at her feet. She followed me a few minutes later. I held onto her around the neck and huddled close for warmth.

"View Halloooo!" I croaked out once as loudly as I could.

But the snow just fell covering everything.

Spluttering, I spit miruvor out of my mouth and looked up through ice-encrusted eyelashes to find Hesthryn, an elf I had seen frequently in the stables, looking down at me with a frown. Even with his hood up, strands of his long dark hair whipped about his face like excited snakes in the high wind blowing around us.

"Carenloth." I croaked. He nodded. "She has been led with care back to the stables. Cerwal is tending to her."

Sighing, I closed my eyes and let darkness take me.

I hate waking up to pins and needles and heat---but there was the elf lord! I was just being lifted out of the natural hot bath water in my bathing room and wrapped in a quilt. I hurt every where.

But Elrond was there, smiling at me. I hissed at the pain as I lifted my hand to touch his face. He showed no signs of having gone through the tragedy of losing Rhean. There wasn't even a bandage around his head.

"Ah, there's Marie. Back once again from wandering in strange places and dreams, I do not doubt."

"Yes, my lord." My eyes went unfocused as I thought back to the cave. "I have no idea what happened." I looked up at him as he set me in my bed and then I asked with a rush, my voice dry as sand. "Carenloth? Is she all right? She was so worn out."

"Cerwal says she is improving slowly. She just needs rest and food."

"My poor, sweet mare. It was a rough ride for her." (Duhhh—you think?)

Okay, okay.

Of course, I had to explain what I was doing up in the Misty Mountains in such a storm (without the sense God gave a goose I am sure he wanted to say. Or something like that!). I tiredly told him about his Yule gift. The Yule gift he wasn't going to get now.

Ivy came up to me and crawled up the quilt and placed herself on my chest to purr. Happy to see her, I trailed my hand down her smooth black fur.

Elrond offered me a goblet which I drank quickly with a smile, grateful some things didn't change.

When I was finished, he sat on the edge of the bed and just looked at me in silence, his eyes warm with candlelight. "Marie. I am astonished and grateful that you took it upon yourself to go up into the mountains and finish culling the halenmyr for me. That was a very brave thing to do." He reached out and pushed a tangle of wet hair out of my face. He sat back with a sigh, adding quietly, "And I see you met the Guardian of the Cave."

I looked at him with a slight frown as I was still feeling woolly headed. Then I knew: the green thing. "The Guardian was the glowing green thing that sent me out."

Elrond nodded. "But not before turning you to stone, I'm afraid."

"Stone?"

"Indeed. That is why you have trouble with feeling in your extremities. The Guardian strikes those who invade its domain by casting them into stone. Halenmyr is protected throughout Middle Earth by a Guardian of one sort or another because it is so very potent and rare. You are the first I have heard that escaped from being a permanent outcropping in its cave."

"I was calling to you, my lord. The feeling of being trapped was so awful."

"Marie, I had a very strong sense of you one night. Your image woke me, but because all was darkness around you, I could not determine where you were."

"I thought I'd never see you again." My voice dropped and I shivered, wrapping my arms around myself. Lord, I still was a stiff as a board and I ached everywhere.

I petted Ivy some more, thinking about the faint Quenya I had heard outside the cave. "The Guardian told me to go and then "Elrond will find." And as always, my lord, I am so glad you did."

"We have been looking for some time, Marie as we did not know at first which direction you went. The snow obliterated Carenloth's footfalls."

He leaned forward and laid his warm hand on my brow. "No more terrors, Marie. You are home."

My eyes were drooping and I smiled slightly as I slid down into my quilt. One can always count on the elf lord for healing sleep.

The next morning I awoke, still feeling a bit stiff. Ah, but I was back in my room. I glanced out to my patio and saw that the snow still fell. Ivy lay curled against my hip, though one eye was open watching me. I lay there, trying to decide what to do.

Reluctantly, with much groaning and grunting, I got up and stiffly made my way to my bathing room.

Once finished I decided I should probably try to walk around a bit to loosen up. I went out towards my patio and leaned against the central arch that led out to the fountain. Watching the snow swirl about like feathers after a pillow fight, I found I could relax. Even though I had (once again) gone through something way outside my experience, it wasn't as horrifying as the Nazgul or dealing with Yko. Those things made me shudder in terror. And though being turned to stone was pretty darn awful, it didn't leave me with the lingering horror of my other dark escapades. The Guardian of the Cave was just doing its job.

But it was interesting it had let me loose.

I wrapped my arms around myself and limped across the floor to my bed. My big familiar bed with Ivy stretching in a curl of quilt.

Before I reached the said item of furniture, Elrond strolled in. He stopped in the middle of the room, arms akimbo with a smile. "It is certainly good to see you up and about. Moving is the best thing for your muscles and bones." He went to my armoire and pulled out a deep blue shawl I had. Wrapping it around me, he took me by one arm and we slowly went out into the corridor for a stroll.

I had to give my walking a good part of my concentration because I did not want to slip and do something ridiculously, well, Marie-like in front of the elf lord. But still, I did have a few questions.

"So, why DID the Guardian let me go?"

"Based on what you told me last evening, it read your mind and knew that you were under my protection. And though I did not send you to the cave, the creature knew enough to let you go."

"Because you have had a relationship with this creature for some time, I take it?"

"Indeed. From the founding of Imladris."

I'll just bet.

I bit my lip and the looked at him sidewise. "So, I missed Yule, didn't I?"

He turned and smiled at me, his eyes warm. "It was five days ago."

I sighed heavily. All that AND I missed Yule. Darn it!

He clasped my arm and gently turned me to face him. "Do not worry about it, Marie. It is gift enough that you have returned and are all right."

I hugged him quickly and my stiff muscles protested. "I am sorry nevertheless." I looked at him ruefully. "So, you will have to return to the cave again."

He nodded. "In a week or so, when I am certain you have recovered." He paused and looked out over the Valley of Rivendell, white with blowing snow. "This storm will move on in a few days and the weather should remain clear for awhile. Riding will be easier."

Riding! But still, Rhean was gone!

"Of course." I could not even ask about his injuries because I did not want to remind him of Rhean.

Our stroll had led us to his study, into which I followed him with a deep sigh. Time for a nasty flavored cordial, I guess.

We went into his surgery and he patted the top of his examination table. I awkwardly tried to hop up, but before I could get myself situated, he had lifted me and sat me on the edge. "Why are we here?" I said puzzled. "Nothing feels badly wrong with me. You know, no cuts or broken bones or-or frostbitten toes." I scrunched my toes reflexively, remembering another winter…

"No surgery, Marie. And your bones are fine. As are your toes. It is just the lingering stiffness in your muscles I am concerned with." He picked up my dangling legs and I lay back on the table slowly.

What could he do?

Ohhh, bless the elf lord, he gave me a massage.

Before you get all perky and wacky out there, let me tell you, the first half an hour was very painful. It was as if he was rubbing needles and bits of glass into me.

I had just turned over on my stomach, and my body was tingling painfully when he walked out of the surgery telling me he would return shortly.

I closed my eyes, but as I said, I was not very comfortable. I lay there just inhaling the clean linen smell and the faint herbal smell of the salve he had been using.

When he returned, he held up a large stoppered jar with a flourish. "This is Cerwal's special liniment for injured horses."

I reared off the table with a loud groan saying indignantly, "Wait a minute! I am no horse!"

"Of course not, Marie. But this liniment is for the deep muscle pains of an injured horse and so will be excellent for reaching all the way to your bones. The Guardian's touch is an old, complicated magic."

With an exasperated sigh, I nodded and lay down carefully. I swear if he had made any more "horse" comments, I was going to throw the pillow under my head at him.

Oh, but I will admit, that the liniment smelled wonderful, not at all rank or really strange. Nevertheless, as skilled as Elrond is, the deep massaging was pretty painful. And no sleep at the end of it. But as he rubbed me down, I began to think about horses, and my mind wandered to the scraggly stallion in the upper pasture and his mare and foal. Perhaps the stallion, after filling out some, might be a replacement for Rhean? I mean, I knew no one could really replace Rhean, but you know what I mean. And I still wanted to give Elrond something for Yule. He deserved it!

I was pretty rubbery and achey when he was done, but he sat me up and helped me off the table. "I know you probably do not want to do any walking right now, but you need to move about to limber up your muscles. I will make you a cordial to help with the pain."

I nodded and stiffly followed him into his study and flopped on the couch beneath the big window.

I heard him clinking and clanking in his stillroom, and then he brought me a goblet which I drank quickly. A bit sour, that one.

"Now, let us walk about." He took me by my left arm. "Are you warm enough?"

"Yes, thanks." I concentrated on not making too many faces. Didn't want anymore of that cordial.

Of course, he was right. By the time we reached the front courtyard and sat on a bench by the doors, I was feeling a lot less stiff. I indicated the weather. "So, this will be gone in a few days?"

"Yes. Perhaps sooner. The wind is a bit stronger than it was this morning."

"Maybe I could do a little riding then? Nothing too far? Just to loosen up?" I needed to check up on that stallion.

He nodded. "That would be all right." He turned to me and pulled me around to face him. "You will promise not to go off and do anything dangerous, correct?"

I nodded. What could be dangerous about a skinny stallion and his family?

Well, plenty of course. But this time I lucked out when I returned to the high pasture two and a half days later.

I had had one more rub down from Lord Elrond with the horse liniment (and a couple more goblets of that cordial at night to help me sleep). So I was pretty much ready to go, only marginally stiff. I suspected the cold weather had a lot to do with that.

However, when I reached the pasture, I found the stallion was a mighty individual horse and had no interest in coming down to the stables.

Every time I got near him, of course, he would sidle away always keeping between me and his family.

Trust me, the fumbling around I did in the snow to get him to leave his place under the oak tree he and his family sheltered under helped to loosen me up quite a bit.

After an hour or more of this, Carenloth and I went back down to the stables. Okay, well now I was going to try a little fodder and see if that wouldn't work. I could see that the wound on the stallion's leg was still oozing and shiny. Poor lad and he was being such a good father!

I got the elven equivalent of a burlap bag and stuffed it full of sweet smelling hay as well as grabbing a smaller bag of grain. I even took a few dried apples.

I was going to entice his skinny butt down to Cerwal if it was the last thing I did.

And I brought a rope too.

It had indeed stopped snowing as Elrond had said. (You know he just knew weather; that whole Ring of the Air thing.) But it was still bitterly cold, my breath steamed in big clouds, as did the horses.

I got as close as I could with an armload of hay and then I threw it about three feet from me. And just waited.

It didn't take long for the mare to come up to it, her little foal a shadow behind her rump. The little one experimented with the hay, lipping it, but he was too small to eat it yet.

The stallion nervously paced behind the eating mare. I carefully walked away and got more hay and threw it down. Poor guy, he could not resist and he began to eat as well. Don't worry I did not give them too much, either.

But now, I needed them to follow me down to the stables. I slowly walked back to Carenloth who was watching this all, ears pricked forward. Because she was being such a good woman, I gave her one of the apples. But I brought the bag of grain with me and held out my hand, determined to wait until I froze solid if I had to.

Again, the stallion paced away from me, ears slightly back. But the mare, which must have been less feral than he, stretched her thin neck out until her lips touched my gloved hand. Holding my breath, I watched as she cautiously sank her mouth into my palm and ate the grain. The foal came closer but mostly crowded under his mother's thin, ribbed belly.

Daddy still hung back. I stepped back towards Carenloth, slowly getting more grain out. Momma horse followed me and the foal let out a tiny whinny and followed the mare.

I passed Carenloth, who laid her ears back at the strange mare, but didn't bite or nip her.

Soon, both mares were following me down the path towards the stables. I kept dribbling grain on the ground to keep the mare going (and giving some to Carenloth too).

The stallion buggled behind us and then, limping as fast as he could he came up to us, ears back. He too, did not strike at us, but he danced around his mare, ears back, snorting and making worried noises. But even he could not refuse the lure of the grain and/or hay I dribbled behind me and he delicately lipped the goodies off the snow.

We got a little more than half way back and I realized I was almost out of bribes. I had one more apple. Staring at it, I mounted Carenloth and then held out my hand to the mare. Just as she got closer, I urged Carenloth forward and the mare followed. I worked carefully to keep the apple just out of reach and keep the mare inquisitive.

But as I reached the part of the path that split to go to the cider press from the path to the stables, both adult horses jerked up their heads. I saw two riders coming towards us. Not fast, but their presence made the feral horses nervous.

I could suddenly see all my careful work gone in a flurry of hooves back up the path.

I knew if I waved my arms at the elves the horses behind me would bolt.

However, I did wave my hand in a quick back and forth motion below Carenloth's neck and out of view of the mare and stallion.

The riders stopped.

But then, they dismounted and began to come up the path.

I glanced down at the rope still wrapped around the pommel of my saddle. Maybe, if I roped the little one, the parents would follow?

The foal, though still crowding its mother, was more inquisitive and I held out the apple and then let it drop near me as I slowly unwound the rope. The mare ducked down to retrieve the fruit, and the foal moved up level with the mare's nose to investigate with its mother.

Biting my lip, I called out and the foal lifted its head and as quick as I could, I threw the loop over his head (I had made a loop while going up to the pasture. Cerwal had showed me some time ago). The baby bolted back, of course, rearing in fright. The mare and stallion both rolled their eyes back and reared up. Carenloth side-stepped quickly from their flailing hooves.

While I struggled with the suddenly wildly bucking foal, the two elves joined me. One was Elrond and the other Cerwal. I smiled as I yanked back again on the tightening rope. "Look what I found on my wandering! Three horses! And look at that stallion, my lords! Look at the wonderful hank of white hair in his mane!"

Grinning, both elves went up to the frightened mare and stallion and only, as elves can do, calmed them with soft words and touches. It was amazing to watch.

Cerwal was able to even get close enough to look at the stallion's wound.

I, still being Calamity Jane, was trying to control the wild pullings of the foal. Just as I was a bout to take a deep breath and yank back, the foal rushed towards me making the rope slack.

I inelegantly fell out of the saddle and on to the ground. Thank Illuvatar it was a deep drift of snow with no rocks hiding beneath it. But I had dropped the rope as I fell.

Lord Elrond called out, "Marie, are you all right?"

"Yes," I said floundering in the snow. I got up and ran stiffly after the foal that had run pall mall down the path to the stables.

"Let him go, Marie!" Cerwal called out. "His parents will follow!"

I stumbled to a stop as the baby continued running.

Adjusting my stiff shoulders, I turned to the two elves and grinned. They had quieted down the horses enough to where Elrond let the mare follow the foal and finally, Cerwal did the same to the stallion. Cerwal quickly grabbed Carenloth and followed the horses down the Valley.

Elrond stood in the middle of the snowy path, an open field of white behind him. His face had a blush of red on it from the cold and his dark brown leather trews and cloak made him look very no nonsense. He held out a gloved hand to me and we walked back slowly to the horses he and Cerwal had been riding.

"Where did you discover this little family, Marie?" He asked me as he lifted me onto Cerwal's horse. He slowly mounted his own and we headed back.

"Up in the high sheep pasture on my way to the Guardian's cave. He was alone when I came across him first. Isn't his mane something? I have never seen that before."

"Yes, it is quite unusual coloring for a bay."

"But how did he get up there? Surely all the horses are accounted for?"

"There have been wild horses hereabouts for almost an Age, Marie. An occasional steer as well. Wanderers from ancient battles, escaped animals from the lonely homesteads that dot the Wild. The Valley has ever been a refuge, Marie. For four-legged, as well as two-legged souls."

I nodded slowly and then straightened in the saddle to pull a kink out of my back. No matter what, rounding up the horses had certainly gotten me moving. But a long soak in a hot bath was going to be so very welcome.

As we approached the stables, I pulled up and just sat on the horse, watching the elves dealing with the mare and foal. The stallion had already been brought inside.

I was suddenly very tired. About to dismount, I felt myself lifted out of the saddle and set carefully down. I noticed that concerned healer's look in the elf lord's eyes. Trying to forestall a quick trip back to the House, I asked, "Can I see them settled at least?" He nodded and we went into the warm, fragrant stable. The nervous whinnying and rustling of the other horses surrounded us as Elrond and I went to the back of the stables where the largest box stalls were.

"Did you follow me, my lord?"

"Not exactly," he said, hands clasped behind his back. "I wanted to ride and Cerwal and I were discussing the merits of the gelding I rode."

Right. Sure. Just happened to want to take a ride when I did. I didn't just fall into Middle Earth yesterday, my lord.

I glanced quickly at him, but his eyes, though faintly smiling, were focused ahead towards the back of the stables.

Ah, there they were; the little family. The mare already had her head in the manger, pulling at the fresh hay and the baby was nursing, his little tail flicking back and forth. Cerwal was gently tending to the stallion's leg. He stood still for the elf's ministrations, though his ears were back.

"It looks as if you have some new refugees to care for, my lord." I said with a smile.

"Indeed, Marie. And I am sure they will be lively additions to my Household."

Elrond came up to the carved wood railing and the stallion lifted his head and snorted. Cerwal stepped away from the horse who then limped slowly towards us.

I held my breath. The stallion, his eyes slightly dilated, put his head over the railing. Lord Elrond slowly lifted his hand and laid it on the forehead of the skinny horse. He closed his eyes and whuffled a deep sigh, lowering his head. Elrond gently stroked his long nose.

I picked up the elf's hand hanging at his side and squeezed it. "I know I am a little late, my lord, but, "Happy Yule!"

He squeezed it back.

The End