The Isla Ford
Written for the Teitho Contest prompt: "Takes place in one location"
Summary: Moonlight on the river with a little skullduggery, a little singing, and a little reminiscing.
A/N (Isla is pronounced eye'-lah)
It is called the Isla river. It is a pretty poor excuse for a river, but quite a nice stream. It is about twenty-five feet wide, with sharply sloping banks that descend from old growth forest on each side, and are crowded with rushes, cattails, and the short, weedy willows that foresters scorn. It is waist deep for most of the year, drying to a trickle in the heat of high summer, but swirling dark and dangerous in the floods of late winter. It runs for miles, bisecting the forest and making travel difficult for those on foot, for its current looks deceptively placid. Paths are shaped to cross at those few places where the banks ease to a gentle slope and a ford can be created. One particular ford, in the deepest part of the forest, was simply known as the Isla Ford. Its stones were laid and maintained by elves, and their workmanship lay smooth and strong. On each side of the ford the water was deep and swirling due to the turbulence caused by the enforced shallow draft where the stream crossed the stonework. The elves worked stone with skill, but they had little use for drays and carts, so this ford was narrower than most, allowing only one man or horse to cross at a time, at least in reasonable safety. There was a fine covered bridge only a few miles downstream, so only those seeking the fastest trail, solitude, or those who lived close by ever used the Isla Ford.
The sun was just drawing close to the horizon when two riders paused to let their horses lower their muzzles to the water at the edge of the ford. One horse sipped delicately, barely touching her lips to the surface. The other plunged his head in nearly up to his eyes, small bubbles rising from the fine, arched nostrils.
"Your mare is such a princess!"
A hand smoothed over the lowered neck. "Well, at least she does not act the fool, and near drown herself in a foot of water!"
"He likes to get his nose under any scum or nastiness on the surface. Shows how intelligent he is!"
As the intelligent horse in question was now dragging his muzzle forcefully back and forth under the water, as if to splash his accuser, the two identical looking riders began to laugh.
The rider of the mare controlled himself quickly, and raised an eyebrow. "Intelligent? If you say so..."
Ignoring the smirk that allowed straight white teeth to gleam softly in the gathering twilight, the second rider stretched his arms up high, grunting a little as knots released in tired muscles. His companion sighed, "Almost home – another day or two will see us in our own beds again."
The horses raised their heads, muzzles dripping, and their riders signaled them to continue. The gelding led, showing the mare the way across the ford. He picked his way carefully, snorting at the water that swirled around his legs. The mare followed on his heels without urging, and they were soon on the other side. Her rider gave a last look at the ford and called to his brother, "I wonder why we maintain this ford when the two of us are the only ones to use it."
As the first rider disappeared into the deep darkness of the dense forest, his voice trailed back over his shoulder. "I suppose because we always have."
The second rider muttered as he, too, disappeared. "Waste of time if you ask me..."
The full moon had barely risen, and was still hidden behind the trees when three men came out of the wood and made their way down to the ford. Two struggled as they carried a small but lumpy sack between them, and the third carried another sack slung over his shoulder. Just before the first man stepped into the water of the ford, all three froze, listening intently.
"Do ya hear anything?"
"No, I told you, they'll follow the road to the bridge. Hardly anyone remembers this ford, and it's miles out of the way. They'll think we would take the fastest route away from their village."
"Village! Just a huddle of huts on the very edge of the elven lands."
"Well, that huddle of huts held a treasure store, didn't it, just as I said!"
The second man, trying to juggle his end of the burden to a better hold, whispered fearfully, "I don't want no trouble with elves! If I'd known you were going to take their goods, I woulda never agreed to help you!"
"The stuff was just sittin' there, waiting to pay the traders that come through this week with the pack train. A little conk on the heads of the guards, and we have a fortune. The elves won't hear of it for days; besides, we're in no real danger—elves won't kill over gold and silver. We didn't hurt nobody, not permanently, which is what they won't stand for."
"Yeah, well the villagers aint got them kinda scruples!"
"For the hundredth time, that's why we're usin' this ford, and if I hafta say it again, you won't hafta worry 'bout no villagers!"
The third man shifted his burden again, swearing when a sharp edge stabbed his shoulder. "What I'd like to know is why they use plate, chains, cloak pins, and such. Why not coin like everyone else in these parts?"
The first man spoke disdainfully, "They make gold outta more common metals—everyone knows that! It must be easier to make, I dunno, things, rather than coin. That's why they won't kill over this stuff; they can make as much as they want."
The nervous second man pleaded, "Can we jes' get goin'?"
Suddenly all three were in agreement, and without another word the third man made his way quickly across the ford, with the other two shambling and splashing in his wake.
The moon was at its zenith when an eerie sound wafted from the depth of the wood. It soared and quavered, hiccoughed and wavered, then sounded like a dying cow. With a great snapping and rustling, roosting birds burst from the tree-tops, startled and confused. A patch of deep shadow heaved and jerked, becoming the staggering figure of a man, weaving and stumbling down the southern bank to the ford.
"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, ye canna tell a naigy fra' a coo,
when yer muckle fu' of whuskey.
But, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, yer nethers will let you knoo
if ye ride the wrong one hame!
Oh hame, ohhhhh hame,
If from the ale-hoose, ye ride hame-oh!
The man lifted one foot into the air, hovering it over the water like a stork, his arms wide and swinging for balance. The foot came down with a heavy splash and the man swore, then began to carefully cross the ford, placing one foot delicately in front of the other, as if the stone surface was only a few inches wide. The chill of the stream seemed to have a slightly sobering effect, for the man began to chide himself. "Noo, tak it easy, Cal, or they'll find ye floatin' downstream." As a wave of dizziness hit him, his arms flung wide again. When he regained his balance, he smacked his lips with satisfaction. "But that were the best batch Aelwen's made yet!" He finally made the bank on the other side, and continued to stagger and sing his way home.
"I knew they would come this way!"
"What way is that, Estel? Your secret ford?" The lithe figure stood aside from the main path, glaring at its disturbed surface. "It appears—even to so humble a tracker as myself—that most of the population for miles around has ridden or walked through your secret ford this night."
The man crouching over the soft mud that edged the ford's stones turned his head to look up at his companion. He said loftily, "I never said it was secret, merely that few use it in these days." He glanced down at the churned earth that his fingertips were lightly exploring. "Although, it does seem…." His voice trailed away as he suddenly became very, very intent on the depression his fingers had gently slipped into. He breathed in joyous wonder, "Legolas! Look here! No, wait – stay back! I must be sure…." As his friend watched in amusement, the man named Estel swiveled on the balls of his feet, examining every inch of ground that he could see from his position. The light of the full moon still riding high in the sky allowed him to see nearly as well as on a cloudy day. Slowly the man rose, took one step, and resumed his hunched crouch.
Legolas stood, arms crossed over his chest, waiting for the tracker's judgment. When the man again raised his face, the elf was taken aback by the gleeful amazement that glistened in eyes that were exposed when an impatient toss cleared them of an unruly fall of dark hair.
Estel quickly rose again to his feet, stepped to his friend and gripped both shoulders. "Legolas, it is nearly too good to be true! See there –" He removed one hand to point down to the path. "-those are the tracks of the thieves, carrying away the trade payment sent by Elrond."
Legolas nodded. "That is what we expected; you assured me they would take this path. We have been waiting for days to apprehend the men who have plagued Imladris this past year. Why does that cause you mirth?"
Almost beside himself, Estel forced out between gasps of laughter, "Because…because…this same night…my…oh Valar!...my brothers….passed through this ford!"
"Yes, yes, do you not see the jest?! Some time before the thieves came through! We expected them home next week, but they must have completed their mission early! They are on their way to the Valley, and passed here just before the thieves did!"
A gentler, but no less delighted, laugh shook the elf. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, there is Elladan's horse—you cannot miss her print! When she was a foal, she took a wound to the coronet band of her hoof. The wall that grew out was weaker there, and has been ever since. The edge of it crumbles on long journeys and leaves this 1/2 inch gap—just here, just like this. Legolas, can you not see the possibilities?"
It was the elf's turn to speak through laughter. "So they….and then the thieves….it is a wonder they did not run into each other!"
"You know Elrohir—truly he is a chivalrous 'knight'—he might well have carried their burden a short way for them! We will tease them for years!"
"Come, let us waste no more time in catching those thieves, and then we will hurry home as fast as we can! Why did we not bring mounts on this quest? We will be days behind them!"
Legolas strode into the water, thrusting against the moderate current and calling back to the man, "It was indeed very short-sighted of us! Hurry, Estel!"
Four days after they crossed the Isla Ford, the twin sons of Elrond sat at ease in his study. As soon as they had arrived home, they had spoken with their father of their journey and the completion of the task Elrond had set them. The next day, in the Hall of Fire, they had assured their friends that they were well, and had caught up with all the news and gossip. Now it was evening, and they were alone with Elrond as they spoke in tired voices of nothing of importance, simply content to be home. Their father, long satisfied that both were in need of nothing more than a good rest, sipped the dark red port the twins favored, hiding his grimace at what to him was an overly sweet taste. He felt the deep satisfaction that quiet time spent with his family always brought him. He realized with a start that while his mind had idled in contentment, Elrohir had called his name.
"…Ada? Are you listening?"
"Of course, my son. You said something about the Isla ford."
"I said that we were wondering why we still maintain it. It is a long way from the Valley, and no one uses it but us."
"It is true that it is little used. But –" The elf lord smiled. "-it is maintained for a reason." He sipped again, one finger lightly tapping the bowl of the crystal goblet he held. His eyes appeared fixed on the wine, but in truth they saw something else entirely….
The third quarter moon shed a soft light that glittered and flashed on the water that swirled angrily as it met the obstruction of the ford. The thwarted water hissed and frothed against the stonework, but could not cover the sound of a rapidly approaching horse. The rider pulled to a halt, staring dismayed at the swollen river. He dismounted and led his horse off the path, tethering him to a bush that held leaves that would keep his mount occupied for some time. As the rider turned away, he lifted a hand to pat the glossy hindquarters. He barked an angry laugh to see that his hand shook like the leaves on the quaking trees that grew high on the mountains. He began to pace back and forth before the ford, hands clasped tightly behind him, teeth worrying his thin lower lip. He presented a strange appearance, here in these dark woods in the middle of nowhere. He was an elf, tall and broad-shouldered, with hair as dark as a raven's wing. His eyes were gray as summer storm clouds, and in his rightful place they were cold and stern as he commanded the armies of a king. His clothing, though dark as the night's shadows, was covered with a tabard richly embroidered with symbols that declared this elf the Herald of Gil-Galad. He had faced uncounted dangers as bravely as the fabled heroes of olden times, yet here he paced, as nervous as a warrior at first blooding.
As time passed, he paused again and again in his pacing to stride to the edge of the ford, his eyes trying to pierce the wood on the other side. His left hand clenched on his sword hilt as he debated crossing the river. The water was high, but no danger to an elf in good health and of mature years. He placed one boot in the lapping waves, then pulled it back. They were to meet here. If he went off in search, they might miss each other. Suddenly he caught a brief glimmer of light, far back in the wood on the other side of the ford. As quickly as it appeared it was gone, and the elf leaned forward, desperately seeking another glimpse. There! It flashed again, then again disappeared. He did not wait for further confirmation, but plunged into the swiftly flowing current, trying to run but slowed by the water that flowed above his knees. He half-fell, staggering like a drunken man, but the wild pulse that beat in his throat had nothing to do with exertion, and all to do with blood that sang with eagerness. He gained the opposite shore, and then stood waiting, dripping like a swamp rat, as the silver flash in the dark cover of the wood became first an ethereal glow, and then a figure that stole away his voice and breath.
She walked out of the wood as though in careless attendance at some rout or gala, so assured was she. Her hair seemed formed from Ithil's rays, with wispy tendrils that escaped the loosely woven braid that fell down her back. She gazed upon the waiting elf and smiled demurely as she approached him. She walked to within a few feet of the herald before dropping her eyes, veiling a blue so vivid that the color could be discerned by moonlight. She waited long moments before questioning sweetly, "My lord?"
The warrior swallowed a third time before he managed to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth. Suddenly aware of his absurd appearance and manner, he struggled to regain control over voice and body. His tone was cool and abrupt as he demanded, "My lady, why are you alone? Where is your escort?"
The long lashes lifted to reveal a flash of amusement. "It is generally considered that a group of edgy warriors undermines the –" A small, graceful hand lifted and slowly pressed itself against the device embroidered over the warrior's heart. The lady smiled to feel the sudden thump beneath her fingertips. "- atmosphere of a meeting like this one."
"It is not safe! I would never have agreed –"
"Peace. Peace, my lord, for my escort waits at discretion's length within the wood. They are my own guard, chosen by my father, and will keep my secrets as well as protect me on the road." She swayed slightly toward the herald, who took an abrupt step backward.
"This meeting was unwise. I should not have allowed myself to be distracted from my duties. The armies gather and I should not have left my king, even for a few days."
The lady became serious at once. "Then why have you come, Elrond?"
He turned sharply away, striding some distance to stand with his back to her. She followed, then eased around to face him, careful now not to provoke him by standing too closely. She sighed wistfully at the sight of him, fully revealed in the moonlight. His hair was loose, confined to narrow braids only at his temples. The dark strands rose and fell fitfully, tugged by the breeze that rustled the leaves around them. The moonlight was not kind to his face, mercilessly revealing the lines etched by a life of responsibility, pain, and hardship, as well as the human blood in his veins. His body was comely, formed of the long smooth muscles generated by the elven manner of wielding a sword—more a dance than the jerking thrust and chop of men. He had a good length of leg, balanced by powerful shoulders. His hands were callused, the fingers long and deft in their movements, whether with mortar and pestle, quill, or weapons. Her father desired for her a scholar, or a courtier with a smooth tongue and considered courtesy, but her mother understood her fascination with Gil-Galad's reserved herald. As he stood, gazing pointedly away from her, she was filled with longing to be in this stalwart elf's embrace, to yield willingly to those clever hands. She found in him the embodiment of masculinity, honor, courage, and strength, and she believed that he loved her, despite his often cold demeanor. She gathered her own courage—she was not her mother's daughter for nothing—and asked again. "Why did you come?"
"I was a fool to ask to meet with you!"
"Then why did you?"
When the only answer was a jumping muscle along the elf's jaw, the lady once again drew her fingers over the tabard. "This is new, I think; the colors are almost garish, and the stitches tight and smooth. What are these symbols, my lord? Some I know, but others are unfamiliar to me."
Taking refuge in a topic that did not touch upon his froward heart, the warrior replied, "There are more kindreds who flock to our banners than men and elves. It seems every creature is choosing upon which side they will stand. Our flags and Colors must not insult those who have recently joined us, so their badges have been added to our blazonry."
"The war will begin soon, then."
He did not spare her. "Yes."
Something hard and cold like an iron band shortened the lady's breath. "Is that why you desired this meeting?"
Surrendering, at least momentarily, the warrior whispered, "Yes. I did not…I wanted…in case I…"
She smiled. "You wanted to tell me something?"
"Nay, Lady, for I have not the right, nor have I hope to gain such a right. I wanted to see you again, before the war begins, so that I might have one bright memory to light me through the darkness to come."
A gentle blush rose to the lady's cheeks. "You speak me very fair, my lord. But though this conflict may long overshadow our world, an end will come. When you are victorious, as I know you will be, what then?"
"After the war, my lord. What then?"
"After the war?"
The lady was beginning to understand why her happily married mother occasionally felt the need to walk alone, deep into the woods of Lorien, and….scream.
"Will you not wish to speak with my father?"
"I would not so presume."
"Very few fathers would find such a visit from the king's herald a presumption."
"My blood is tainted. Your mother is of the highest nobility of the Noldor."
"Some say my mother stooped low to wed my father, but she considers herself the most fortunate of women. That is beside the point, however, for the cases are in nowise the same: you hold the second highest rank in the elven lands."
"I think that is precisely the point. I would not sully you. It is not only my blood that is tainted, but my very faer. My nightmares wake the camps. I deal in death; my spirit is black with it, while yours shines bright and immaculate."
The lady Celebrian hesitated, then stepped boldly outside the role prescribed for elven maidens of high degree. Such an elleth does not, after all, wear her heart upon her sleeve, nor does she pursue where she had rather be pursued. She lifted her hand and tenderly drew her fingertips down the herald's clenching cheek. "I would say you have stolen my heart, but I cannot, for I have given it freely. There is no one I honor above you, no one I cherish more than you, no one else to whom I would give all that I am. None but you, Elrond. My dark paladin. If you will not have me for your own, then I go bereft all my days."
With a groan the warrior pressed his cheek against her hand. He whispered hoarsely, "I am undone. I am slain, though I breathe. What sorcery do you possess, that I am vanquished so easily? That I was lost when first I beheld you?"
"Is it so terrible to care for me? I wish to bring you joy, not pain."
He did not answer, which was answer enough. Celebrian knew that Elrond could not love nor trust easily; his life had taught him the folly of leaving himself open and vulnerable. There are those who live in the sunshine, regardless of the stony paths they tread, and then there are those who are ever shadowed. Elrond had been so shadowed from the day of his birth. She desired with all her heart to lighten his burden, to bring a smile to his somber mien. But for the first time, she began to fear that her own ardor was not enough to breach the stout walls he had erected to shield his heart. That he loved was no longer in doubt. That he would claim what he had won, seemed suddenly less certain.
He felt her fingers like a brand against his cold cheek, and her eyes accused him. They were filled with a deep sadness, and as he watched, a tear gathered and fell. He reached for and clasped her other hand, holding it in a bruising grip. How was it possible such a wondrous creature had come to care for him? How was it possible that he – he – could cause her to weep? The tear was his undoing, for he could not bear to cause her pain, and a sudden rush of tenderness overcame his unwillingness to brave the perils of loving. He husked lowly, "I know not why you should choose me, but I can no longer deny my own heart. Long have I watched you, long have I loved you. I would have you for my own, Celebrian."
As a strong arm wrapped around her shoulders, Celebrian closed her eyes and gave thanks to Elbereth, then yielded to Elrond's embrace with joy. "Then I am yours, my love, now and forever."
Wanting all to be crystal clear, he demanded, "You would bind with me?"
Both hands now cupped his face as she vowed, "Yes, Elrond, I would bind with you."
A blazing light filled Elrond's eyes, and the austere, reserved herald was gone. Both arms now wrapped tightly around his lady, and his lips sought hers for the first time.
Elladan and Elrohir sat respectfully silent, knowing that their father was lost in the past. At length he raised his head and turned to them, his eyes glistening with both sorrow and love. He spoke firmly, "So long as there is one elf in Imladris, that ford will be maintained."
Having a sudden suspicion why the ford was so important to his father, Elladan glanced at his brother to find the same understanding. "If it is that important, we will pledge to see it done."
"That is well. Now, I think perhaps we should retire – what is that?" The sounds of a late arrival carried through the halls of the Last Homely House; a sudden bustle of voices and laughter. Elrond stood, smiling. "It is Estel! He and Legolas have returned."
Elrohir said, relieved, "Since they are laughing, they must have apprehended the thieves without difficulty."
His brother agreed. "Listen to them! Perhaps there is an amusing story involved. You know those two and the trouble they get into."
The study door opened suddenly, and the youngest son of the house stood on its threshold. With a warm smile he stepped within, followed by the Prince of Mirkwood. He first offered his father a respectful greeting, then turned to his brothers.
"Elladan! Elrohir! How good it is to see you! Tell me, did you meet anyone on your homeward journey? Say somewhere near the Isla Ford?"
A/N The name is from a real river in Scotland. Neither the river nor the wood actually exist in ME. But they could….
Froward: froh'-erd old English; willfully contrary (one of my favorite words!)
I have no idea why the drunken man speaks in a Scottish highland dialect. He just does.
"You cannot tell a horse from a cow,
when you are very full of whiskey.
But oh, your backside will let you know,
if you ride the wrong one home!"