Author's Note: Unlike most of my other pieces, this will be fairly short -- less than 20,000 words, I think. I'm just breaking it into chapters for ease of uploading, but it's supposed to be all one piece. Also, I have rated it M for a reason, even though it may not seem like it in this first chapter. :-P
A darkness lived under the eaves of the forest. Lynneth felt it, could sense unfriendly eyes watching her as she returned to her home from gathering wood for the fire. She tried to tell herself that the skin prickling at the back of her neck was nothing more than the result of the foolish fancies of a woman alone, but somehow her internal scolding had no effect.
It should not have been so, almost half a year after the fall of Mordor and the ascension of the good King Elessar to the throne of Gondor. Word had been sent from Minas Tirith, even to a hamlet as isolated as Rinalduin, that the dark powers of Sauron and Saruman were no more, and with them had gone the evil things that had haunted the remote places of the world.
The woods should have held nothing more frightening than bears and wolves -- which, in lesser times, might have been of concern. But the summer that had followed Elessar's crowning had been the richest anyone could remember -- the woods were full of game, hives overflowed with honey, and the streams ran silver with fish. No one, not even the wolves, had any need to go hungry.
In the midst of the rejoicing Lynneth could feel nothing but sorrow. Her husband Timon had fallen before the gates of Minas Tirith in the defense of the city, and she had been left alone. Perhaps it was selfishness that made her harden her heart; what was one man when compared to the overthrow of the Dark Lord Sauron, after all? But she had loved him dearly and could not put aside her grief for the greater joy.
"The beautiful Redmill twins" was the local name given to Lynneth and her sister Mirwen. Their father had been the miller in the hamlet of Rinalduin, and prosperous as any in that tiny village could be. Mirwen had made a brilliant match, to the son of a merchant from Minas Tirith, and had gone to live in a fine house on a street paved with stone. But Lynneth had lost her heart to Timon, the handsome son of the village woodcarver, and had stayed in Rinalduin, whose small cluster of homes huddled against the borders of the great forest that hugged the southern reaches of the White Mountains. It was in a clearing in that forest that Timon had built Lynneth a snug little house, with a pen behind for the sheep whose wool she spun into fine cloth. And it was there she stayed after his death, despite her sister's entreaties to come live with her in Minas Tirith.
Lynneth hated the city, which felt dead and cold to her, even hung as it was with banners proclaiming the coronation of the first King of Gondor in a thousand years. She had gone at her sister's behest, to see Elessar receive the winged crown and take the hand of the elf princess Arwen in marriage, but she had looked on their radiant joy with only sorrow. And it was after the span of only a few days that she fled back to her home in the forest, to the little house with the stone fireplace and the careful carved molding Timon had made especially for her in a delicate pattern of twining leaves. How could she ever leave this place? Why would Mirwen not understand that this house was the last thing Lynneth had of her late husband?
She had hoped for children, but their marriage of barely two years had produced none. If she left this house, it would almost be as if their marriage had never been.
But it was at times like these that she would question herself, wonder if her stubbornness in remaining here did her more harm than good. Her home was isolated, located as it was a good mile from the tiny hamlet, which boasted no more than five hundred souls. Anything could happen to her, and no one would know. Summer had been long and warm and fruitful, but a bite had entered the air once more, and Lynneth knew that winter would soon be here.
All the more reason to stock the wood shed, she thought, and continued grimly on. It had been difficult at first to perform the tasks that had been Timon's: chopping wood, leading the sheep into the highland pasture they loved when before she had only needed to spin and weave the wool after their shearing. Doing the work of two people had one benefit at least; it left her little time to mourn.
Evening fell earlier and earlier these days, and Lynneth had taken to wearing a shawl of her own weaving when she went to gather the wood for her nightly fire. Oftentimes she didn't bother to cook but subsisted on bread and cheese made from sheep's milk, supplemented by smoked meat she and Timon had laid by the previous winter. In the village she traded her wool for the things she couldn't produce herself -- metal implements, fine sewing thread, carved wood buttons -- and tried to avoid the pitying stares of the other villagers or the speculative gaze of Thrandor, the blacksmith, who no doubt was counting on his fingers how many months it was appropriate to let lapse before he could try courting her.
But always before she had felt safe in her home and even in the woods, wild as they might seem to a stranger. The stands of oak and beech and elm had always seemed friendly and protective somehow, and Lynneth loved the shifting play of light and shadow beneath their leaves in the summer and the elegance of their bare branches in the winter. Her father had teased her that she must be part wood elf, to which she had replied solemnly that she couldn't be, since she didn't have golden hair. She and her sister had always been called almost Elven-fair, which Lynneth had thought a wild exaggeration, but if by some odd chance a strain of Elvish blood had found its way into this remote valley, then it would have to be of the same line as the Queen's, since Lynneth and her sister possesed the same dark hair and clear gray eyes. But Lynneth had always found that theory highly doubtful, and since much the same coloring could be found in the great families of Gondor it was far more likely that a scion of some noble house had amused himself with a local girl and spread his bloodlines in that manner. Certainly there was nothing fine about Lynneth's family -- save that Mirwen had had the great good luck to attract the notice of a traveler passing through who just happened to be the eldest son of a very old, very rich merchant clan.
Even at the height of the war, when she had seen the skies darken with the fumes of Mordor and the ground had shaken with the tromp of marching orc-feet, Lynneth had still felt herself protected by the sheltering woods. Of course, for the space of a month she had had her sister to keep her company; deeming Minas Tirith to be unsafe, Mirwen's husband had sent her to stay with her sister for a while. But Mirwen's presence had had little to do with Lynneth's feeling of safety. Somehow she had known that they would come to no harm, sheltered as they were in an arm of the White Mountains. Would that Timon had been able to stay there as well! But he had joined in with a levy of men from the vales of Lebennin, determined to strike a blow for Gondor against the might of the Dark Lord, and the last she had seen of him had been as he turned to wave once more before the curve in the mountain road took him forever from her sight.
She paused for a moment on the rough trail that led back to her home and let the evening wind catch at her loose hair. Still she had that feeling of eyes watching her, and suddenly Lynneth turned and ran the last quarter-mile, not caring if the unseen observer was simply someone else from the village gathering wood. Let them laugh at her. At least she was now home, and its familiar warmth surrounded her once more. Before she even placed her armload of wood into the basket by the hearth, she turned and resolutely latched the door.
Her fears were not allayed when Lynneth went down into Rinalduin the next day. Laragond, the man who had taken over the mill after her father's death, had promised her two sacks of flour and as much fresh meat as she could carry from the cow he had slaughtered the day before in exchange for lengths of wool for new winter cloaks for himself and his wife. With the greater part of autumn already behind her, Lynneth knew that she had to stock herself well for the coming winter. The miller's offer was a generous one. So even though the sky was lowering and a chill breeze blew from the east, bringing with it the scent of a coming rain, she set out to the village with her pony in tow. She hardly ever rode little Halfmoon, as she called him for the irregular blaze that ran the length of his nose, but he did well enough as a pack animal. And it was as Laragond fastened the sacks of flour to the pony's back that he cast sharp eyes on Lynneth, who had stood back to let the miller complete his task.
"Strange things about in that wood," he said, with a quick flicker of his gaze toward the dark marches of the forest, which began only a few hundred feet from the edge of the village.
"People have been saying that for years," she returned easily, vowing not to let the miller's gossip cast a pall on her return trip. Already the day was growing dark, and she did not need formless fears chasing her back down the forest path.
He lifted his thick eyebrows. "Aye, maybe, but Thrandor says there's something as steals the rabbits right from his snares, and Madoc vows he saw a huge shadow moving behind the trees as he went to gather honey two days ago." The miller turned shrewd dark eyes on Lynneth. "We've room and to spare in the house, girl. Are you sure you wouldn't rather winter with the wife and me?"
Lynneth considered the idea of spending the winter in close quarters with the overly inquisitive miller and his sharp-tongued wife and privately thought she'd rather bunk down with a Nazgûl than with that pair. But she put on a polite smile and replied, "I know I'm perfectly safe where I am, Laragond. No doubt a clever fox is raiding Thrandor's snares, and as for Madoc, he's afraid of his own shadow."
Her comment elicited a laugh, and a rather rough clap on the back. Possibly because he had taken on the mill -- and possibly because he had no children of his own -- Laragond had developed a paternal protectiveness toward Lynneth that she found endearing at times but mainly awkward and irritating. Could he not see that she was a woman grown, and a widow? Certainly achieving twenty-three summers should have gained her some sort of respect.
"I should know better than to talk you out of that house -- and a pretty piece of work it is that Timon made for you, I do admit." His smile faded. "But still -- if it should ever come to a point where you aren't comfortable there, you will always have a place here with us."
His clumsy kindness moved her, and Lynneth put a gentle hand on his arm. "I do thank you for that. But I know that I shall do well this winter -- how could I not, with the generosity of such neighbors?" She indicated the laden pony; she knew full well that what she carried back to her home far outvalued the lengths of cloth she had brought, no matter how well-woven they might be.
Color burned in his cheeks above his beard, and Laragond gave her a quick embarrassed nod. "It's as I told the wife -- it isn't right for you to be there alone, and your sister in that fine house in Minas Tirith. Folks should take care of their own."
She would, if I let her, Lynneth thought, but she knew better than to argue with Laragond. The house actually bore quite a few tokens of Mirwen's largesse: the fine embroidered counterpane on the bed, the beautiful cabinet of inlaid wood that held Lynneth's pewter ware, even the new set of iron cook pots. The one thing Lynneth knew she could never accept from Mirwen, though, was a place in her household. To live so far from where she was born, so far from the forest and the icy, quick-running streams of the highlands, seemed unbearable. Many was the time that Lynneth wondered how Mirwen could stand it, even though she lived in a beautiful house and dressed in silk and rich jewels.
But to the miller she only said, "I'm afraid a fine house in the city wouldn't suit me, Laragond."
"You always did have your queer notions, that's for certain," he replied, with a shake of his head. "But I can tell that you're as set in your ways as I am." Then he raised his head and looked at the darkening sky. "Best you be on your way, while there's still some light left to see."
He was right. Although the sun would not set for at least another hour, the approaching clouds had cast a pall on the day, and already the forest seemed shadowy and brooding, hiding its own secrets.
She murmured a few more words of thanks and set off, leading the resigned pony, who twitched his ears at the oversized load on his back but offered no other protest.
Even as she entered the wood it felt somehow wrong. Lynneth tried to tell herself that it was just the odd half-light cast by the approaching storm, but all her inner reassurances seemed to ring hollow. Odd shadows flitted behind the trees, catching at the very corners of her vision, but when she turned to see what might have cast them, nothing was there. The wind picked up, sighing through the remaining leaves and causing flurries of gold and yellow and red to fall all around, obscuring the path.
Lynneth hastened her steps, dragging the restive pony behind her. Suddenly it felt very cold, and she pulled her shawl more closely about her with one hand, resolutely keeping her eyes on the path in the hopes that if she looked straight ahead she would see nothing untoward. What could there be after all, with the Shadow vanquished and all fell things gone from the world? Why should she fear the wild creatures that lived in the woods, when she had shared the forest with them all her life?
The day edged toward darkness, and Lynneth knew that she would never reach her pretty cottage in the forest clearing before night fell. She had brought a lantern with her against such eventualities, but somehow the thought of stopping to light it caused her more worry than simply pressing ahead through the gloaming. So she kept on, telling herself that the dimness in the woods didn't matter, that she had walked this path a thousand times before and could do it blindfolded if need be.
A rustle sounded in the fallen leaves off to her left, and she whirled, straining her eyes in the heavy dusk. Only a fox, she thought, or perhaps a squirrel or rabbit, trying to get back to its burrow, just as you are. But then Lynneth saw a gleam of reddish eyes in the undergrowth, and it seemed as if the darkness gained form and substance, racing toward her even as Halfmoon reared and pulled the lead rope out of her hand. Lynneth could hear herself exclaim against the sudden burning of her palm, and then the shape raced toward her, knocking her to the ground.
She fell against a drift of half-decayed leaves, gasping to regain her breath. A high-pitched sound like a woman's cry came to her ears, and she almost screamed herself when she realized it must be Halfmoon. A guttural grunting followed, and then, suddenly, an even more frightening wail seemed to split the darkness. A huge shadow moved from out of the trees, leaning over her. Lynneth caught a brief nightmarish glimpse of the face of a monster, all fangs and red eyes even as it leaned toward her, reaching out for her limp form.
She felt a scream wrench its way out of her throat, and then the thing was upon her, taking her into its arms and lifting her up and out of the leaves, even as the darkness swirled down upon her and she suddenly knew no more...