" . . . for there were certain Woodmen who got news to Thranduil by runners . . ."
JRR Tolkien, The Unfinished Tales, Disaster of the Gladden Fields
Breathe. Keep going. Breathe. The words rang through Faran's head to the accompaniment of the steady thud of his footfalls on the soft earth. Torval had given out just before the path branched off eastward toward the Elf-king's realm, sinking to his knees in the dirt and the drifts of autumn leaves, just panting and waving a hand in silence to indicate that Faran should go on without him.
Torval was old. He'd seen more than thirty summers, Faran reckoned. Faran had just tossed a quick nod back over his shoulder and gone on running, not wanting to waste his air by answering. The task was important. One of them had to make it.
He remembered what old Ormod had told them, the bunch of them staring down from their hiding place among the trees at the trouble unfolding below, down the slope on the west side of the road, and Faran had never been so happy to be on the east side of it. "Those are Westmen, the ones the Elves call the Dúnedain. I know it from the way they're dressed. The Westmen dress more like Elves than they dress like Men. I saw their king riding south eight years ago. Big tall fellow he was."
Ormod would know, Faran supposed. He couldn't remember it very well himself. He'd been only a boy barely past hanging on his mother's skirts when the armies had marched past heading south: Men and Elves in all kinds of strange glittering armor, strung out in columns that took days to pass. His Da had taken him to watch one afternoon, but Faran didn't think he'd seen any kings.
"I don't see him now," Ormod added.
"You won't," said Bana, probably the best fighter among them, in a village more inclined to hunting and hardscrabble farming than fighting. "He died in the south, along with the High King of the Elves from across the mountains. I learnt it from one of the Wood-elf soldiers when they came back north last year. Their own king is dead too. It was his son leading them, and he's ruling in the forest now."
"Lot of 'em died in that war," Ormod said.
"And a good lot more of 'em going to die if we don't do something right quick," Bana muttered.
It was trouble all right. There must have been about two hundred of the Westmen. Their leader, a tall man, but not so tall as the dead king as Ormod had described him, was shouting orders, lining them up in two jagged ranks facing uphill. They looked deadly with their long spears and sharp swords and their gleaming armor, but all of that wasn't going to do them much good against what looked to be ten times as many orcs just waiting at the top of the slope.
"Can we take 'em?" Ormod asked.
Bana just gave him a look. "Don't be daft. Even if we rounded up every fighting man from the village, we wouldn't make a dent. You want to leave your wife a widow, old man?"
Faran knew Ormod's wife pretty well. The entire village had to listen to her scolding tongue when the mood took her, and maybe getting cut down by an orc might be an easier road for the old fellow than ten more winters with that she-dragon. But he kept his mouth shut.
"Here's what we'll do then," Ormod said, not at all bothered. "We'll get help." He pointed at Faran. "You, lad - you've got a good pair of legs on you. And Torval, here, he's the next youngest of us. You both run as fast as you can north to this new Elf-king. What's his name . . .?"
"Thranduil," Bana said.
"Yes, Thranduil," Ormod went on, "and tell him one of his fancy friends is in trouble. He doesn't have near as many soldiers as he and his father took south, but he has more than we do. Can you do that?"
They both nodded. Faran, just happy to be running in the opposite direction from the fight, took off through the trees without any more backchat, Torval keeping him pace. Behind them, they heard the first rough screams as the orcs began to charge the men down below. They ran faster.
It had been grey and threatening rain all that afternoon, but right at sunset the clouds parted, giving them pinkish light to run by. At first, they stuck to the trees, wanting to skirt any bands of orcs that might be hiding there, but just as the last sliver of sun went down behind the peaks of the Misty Mountains in the west, they were able to come back down onto the old Elven road, easy to keep to even in the dark.
The night was done, and it had turned light again. With Torval left behind, Faran ran on alone. The weather was still overcast, and a fine chilly rain hit him in the cheeks. The trail went uphill now, twisting through the trees, and even his young strong body had begun to tire.
His long strides took on a hypnotic rhythm. He let his mind drift and saw another face in his mind: Deira, writhing beneath him, letting out little gasps, the two of them drunk on the mead from the mid-summer feast, the smell of the old grain-dust in Bron's shed and the musk of their mingled sweat filling his nose. And then the picture in his head changed. Deira again, her face puffy and blotched with tears, but pale underneath the red of the crying. A little bubble of snot grew at one side of her nose and burst as she wailed. 'Of course I'm sure! Three months now and no sign of my courses. You have to make this right, Faran. You have to make it right!'
Make it right. Breathe. Make it right. Breathe . . .
Too much duty on young shoulders just heading into their eighteenth winter. Faran thought that once he'd given his message to the Elf-king, kept his promise to Ormod and those cursed Westmen, he might just keep on running.
Could you fall asleep on your feet and still keep running? Faran didn't know, but he supposed that was what had happened. One minute, the trail up ahead was empty, and then the next the Wood-elf was standing there right in front of him, holding one of the biggest bows he'd ever seen.
"Halt. What are you doing on our path and in our realm?" The elf's speech had a strange lilt to it, but he spoke in the Common tongue and Faran understood him well enough.
Faran stopped dead. The elf didn't have his arrow nocked, but Faran heard the creaking of bows behind him that told him others did. Now that he was no longer running, his muscles wanted to cramp up on him, and he shifted from foot to foot as slowly and carefully as he could, not wanting to spook these fey creatures with a sudden movement. When he tried to speak, his words came out in broken gasps, as much from fear as lack of wind. "Your king . . . I've a message for your king."
The elf gave a quick nod, and Faran heard creaking again as the unseen ones behind him relaxed their bows. "Go on, explain," the elf said.
"There's a band of soldiers - Men - on their way headed north, set upon by orcs. It'll go badly for them unless they get some help."
"Where?" A little crinkle sprang up between the elf's dark eyebrows, the only thing marking that smooth face.
Faran wheezed out the name of his village, as if the place would mean anything to these forest folk. When the elf shook his head, Faran continued, "Less than a day's run south of here, right before the Great River turns marshy." His breath was coming back to him slowly.
"Ai!" the elf exclaimed softly. "Fefelas, Pallanen, you stay and guard the path. I'll take him on from here." He gestured at Faran. "Come."
Faran started to follow and then let out a yelp as his right thigh seized up, collapsing the leg out from under him. He almost went down, before the elf reached out and caught him underneath the elbows in a grip that was surprisingly strong for such a reedy fellow.
"Sorry, cramp," Faran muttered. "I've been going all night."
"Don't sit down, then; you'll never get back up." The elf held out a waterskin. "Here; drink this. Not too much."
It tasted just like spring water, but one sip and the griping pain in his leg began to ease up. He wanted to drain the whole thing, but he knew it would make him sick if he did. He handed the skin back reluctantly.
"Good, now take a few bites of this," the elf said, unwrapping a leaf covered packet and holding out a gold-colored chunk of biscuit.
Faran sighed. Cram! He'd seen too much of cram and would just as soon let his stomach growl than choke down that tasteless stuff, but he did as he was told. Right away, his face broke out in a smile. It was just like honey on his tongue, and the weariness seemed to drain out of his body. He felt like he could run on for another day without rest.
"Are we good then?"
Faran nodded. "What are we waiting for?"
Off they went, with Faran feeling like he had wings on his feet, and he didn't even mind it when the path got even steeper. The air smelled like pines, but the trail was bordered by oaks and beeches, mostly bare now. His guide wasn't even breathing hard, and his feet in their light leather shoes made almost no noise on the drifts of dry leaves. He just bounded along like a deer, his green cloak and his dark hair streaming out behind him, making Faran feel clumsy in comparison.
Faran didn't know how long it was, but all on a sudden, the path widened and turned and there it stood: the grandest building he'd ever seen, rising up some three and four stories to a sharply pitched roof of slate. Arched windows, some of them filled with real glass, twinkled back at him like a crowd of bright eyes. What sort of people lived in such a place?
Elves, of course, all of them tall and thin with deep eyes in their pale faces. After Faran had stammered out his story about a message for the Elf-king, his guide handed him off to two guards on the wide stone steps of the palace and headed back down the trail without Faran ever learning his name. The two guards patted him down and took away his pocket knife, promising to return it later. A footman in a green tunic that looked like it belonged on a village headman rather than a servant took him to a room paneled in wood, with a fire burning in the stone grate and tall thin windows that looked out into the trees.
Faran stood there fidgeting until a light-haired elf in robes that put the servant's tunic to shame came into the room. He looked so grand that Faran wondered if he should bow. "King Thranduil is . . . otherwise engaged," the elf said. "I am his chief advisor, Séregon. You may deliver your message to me."
As Faran told his tale of the Westmen attacked by orcs the elf began to frown, and the more Faran said, the deeper that frown got. At the end, Séregon tugged a cord on the wall and off in the distance a bell tinkled. After while another elf came in, this time a dark-headed one. This one's clothes weren't quite so grand, but Faran could tell he was important just the same. The two of them spoke in words that sounded like wind through the trees before the dark one made an unhappy face and went off again.
The elf-noble motioned Faran to a chair and indicated he should sit. Faran did as he was told, glad to have the load off his tired feet at last. He didn't know how long it took - not very long, probably - but it seemed that way with the pale-haired fellow eyeing him up and down and saying nothing, just standing there at attention with his arms crossed over his chest. At last, Faran heard voices outside the door, one soft, the other deep and not too happy from the tone.
Faran made out scattered words: "den rhacho," and "haust."
In the two of them came, the dark-haired elf from before and another one. At first, Faran didn't realize who it was until the noble, Séregon, uncrossed his arms and made a quick shooing motion for Faran to stand up. Faran all but jumped out of the chair and then had to keep from saying a bad word, because this time it was his calf cramping on him.
The Elf-king didn't look like Faran had expected at all, once he could pay attention again. He was barefoot and had on a dressing robe over a pair of loose trousers. Faran thought a king would be wearing a crown or something, but all this one had was a mass of yellow hair all down over his shoulders. It kept falling into his face until he shoved it back behind one ear.
Down low on his neck, right near to the collar bone, there was a dark reddish bruise on the Elf-king's skin. When he caught Faran staring, he looked away quickly and pulled the neck of his robe closed a little tighter, and two spots on his cheekbones turned pinkish. It couldn't be, Faran thought, not on an elf, but it looked just like one of the marks Deira used to leave on him when the two of them were getting along better.
"All right, what is so cursed important that you have to disturb me at my rest?"
"Forgive me, my Lord Thranduil," Séregon said, "but this young adan has a message you need to hear."
"Very well," the King said, looking Faran in the eye. "Make it quick. I have better places to be."
For yet another time, and he'd forgotten how many already, Faran rattled out his story about the soldiers and the attacking orcs, and as he did it, he watched the impatient look wipe off the Elf-king's face. "You're sure these are Men, not Elves?"
Faran nodded. "Not Elves, Your Greatness. They're Men. Big tall men in metal armor and they have wings on their helmets." He held up his hands to the sides of his head to indicate designs like a bird's wings above each ear.
King Thranduil's face was looking right pale now. All the earlier color was gone. "Tell me, lad. This is important. Were they carrying any kind of banner?"
Faran searched his memory. What had they looked like, down the hillside, bunching up into ranks against the orcs? "Yes, they had a standard. Black, with the white branches of a tree. And some stars."
The King turned to his advisor. "Ai, nuath . . . Isildur!" Then he took a breath and pulled himself together. "Séregon, summon Magorion and have him assemble the men at arms."
"How many, my Lord?"
"One hundred. No, make it two hundred . . . no make it as many as he can round up in an hour. We must be quick to Isildur's aid. Galion, come with me and get me into my armor. And someone feed Master . . .?" He gave Faran a look, one eyebrow raised.
"My name is Faran, Your Greatness."
The Elf-king managed a wan smile. "My lord Thranduil will do nicely, young Faran. I'm not exactly the High King of the Golodhrim. Séregon, see that someone feeds Master Faran and that he gets some rest. He'll need to be ready to travel with the rest of us."
"But, King Thranduil, sir . . ." Faran didn't even stop to think that he was questioning the orders of a king. That would take him right back south again, where he didn't want to go.
"I know you are tired, and I'm sorry for that, but we need you to lead us up close to the spot." He turned his attention to the dark-haired one, who had muttered a question. "Of course you're coming too, Galion. I need an esquire. That is, unless your wife can't spare you."
"But . . ."
"Go on, now," the King said back over his shoulder. "Food. Sleep. We haven't much time to waste."
Faran sighed as the Elf-king swept from the room. He supposed he did have to lead them back. He could always slip away and head north again when it was all over.
A servant came and took Faran to the kitchens, where they gave him a meal. It wasn't more of that wonderful cram liked he'd hoped for, but it was still some of the finest food he'd ever eaten. When he'd had his fill - he'd worked up quite an appetite running so far - they took him to a room with a single bed, motioned him to lie down and left him alone. It was only a servant's room, but it was still grander than even the headman's hut at home. Faran lay down atop the covers, not liking to dirty the sheets with his clothes, and he wasn't about to take them off among strange folk. He wrapped himself in a blanket he found folded at the foot of the bed, thinking he'd never sleep a wink. The minute he shut his eyes he was out like a snuffed candle.
A delicate hand as soft as a woman's shook his shoulder.
Faran rolled over and opened his eyes. He found himself staring into the face of an Elven servant and blushed. He'd been dreaming about Deira, and he'd woken up stiff. He hoped the fellow hadn't noticed.
"Time to get up. The men at arms are assembled, and our King summons you. It is time to leave."
Faran shook his head and blinked the last of the sleep out of his eyes. It was still bright daylight. He couldn't have slept very long at all, but he felt better rested than after a night of sleep in his own bed at home. "Coming," he mumbled.
Out in the courtyard everyone was milling around while a tall elf in leather armor shouted orders and waved foot soldiers into neat ranks. Grooms had brought round a group of horses, who stood swishing their tails and tossing their heads in the general excitement. Some of the men had a sleepy, sour look about them as if they had been 'called away from their rest' just like their King.
King Thranduil himself, wearing the same sort of leather armor as the Elven general and with his hair pulled back into two tight braids along the side of his head, was at the top of the stone steps, hugging a pretty dark-haired woman. The two of them were kissing in front of everybody, just like they were two normal people.
The Elf-king spied him and waved. "You're awake. Good. Galion, show Master Faran which horse is his.
"Horse . . .?" Faran gulped. "My Lord Thranduil, I can march with the rest. It's no trouble."
"No, I won't have you walking." Thranduil whispered something in the pretty woman's ear that made her giggle and plant a kiss on the right side of his chin. He gave her a parting pat on the backside and came over. "I saw a mortal runner who'd just taken a message from our siege post at Barad-dur to the Morannon and back clutch his chest and drop down dead. He was a young, strong fellow just like you. We'll be moving fast. I want you alive at the end of it."
"But, sir, I've never ridden a horse."
"Oh, don't be silly. I've given you a docile beast. She won't let you fall. Get along with you. It's time to set out."
Faran took a look at the waiting horses. These weren't the small sturdy horses with brushy manes and tails he'd once or twice seen running loose on the plain leading to the Great River. These were long-legged beasts with delicate muzzles and gently pointed ears. The important thing was they were big. Even worse, the saddles were not much more than a simple leather pad with a stirrup on either side. They had a little rise in the back - not enough to keep a fellow from slipping off to the rear - and nothing to hang onto in the front.
The esquire, Galion, also dressed in leather armor and tight braids, pointed to a reddish brown horse at the end of the line. When Faran approached her she swung her head around and regarded him with an expression of mild interest. Perhaps it was the white strip that ran down the front of her face from just underneath her chestnut forelock to the tip of her nose that gave her the sly look, but Faran could almost swear he saw a glint in those liquid brown eyes that said she was thinking about dumping him into a bush the first chance she got. She looked anything but docile.
The leather-armored nobles - leader types, Faran assumed - began to mount their horses. The Elf-king grabbed a handful of mane and sprang up into his saddle as lightly as a housecat leaping onto a high cupboard back at home. He gave Faran a look. "Well?"
"Just hold onto the mane, put your foot in the stirrup and swing yourself up," whispered the groom at his side.
Faran tried to do as he was told. Even raised as high as it would go, his left foot barely reached the stirrup. These elven folk and their horses were cursedly tall. He latched onto the hair right in front of the saddle, thinking that it felt as soft against his palm as Deira's. He hoped that the mare wouldn't take it as badly as Deira usually did when he accidentally pulled her hair. He pushed off with his right foot and tried to pull himself up, but he only made it about three-quarters of the way. There he stuck for one humiliating moment until he felt a hand on his bum - the groom, boosting him the rest of the way.
Oh, Bema - he'd never been this high up unless he'd climbed a tree, and trees don't have a mind of their own. He heard a voice yelling, "Wait . . .!" and a footman came running down the palace steps. "Your knife, young adan."
Faran reached down to reclaim it, nodding his thanks as he stowed it in his pocket. "Are we good, then?" King Thranduil said, and before Faran could reply no, he raised his hand and yelled, "Keep your heels down and your back straight." Off they went at a trot. Behind them, the pretty lady stood on the steps of the palace with her hand raised in a gesture of farewell.
At the bend in the trail, the palace disappeared like a dream on a cold morning, and for Faran there was only the forest, the creak of saddle leather, and the sound of running feet.
They had been riding for about five hours by Faran's reckoning and were getting near to the edge of the forest when the Elf-king held up a hand and brought the column to a halt.
Faran leaned over close to the esquire Galion's ear. "I thought we were in a hurry."
"We are, but if we're to have anything left for a fight at the end, we'll need to take a rest now. The men need it and the horses even more."
He couldn't complain about that, Faran decided. They had been traveling at the quick march - a trot for the horses - and his arse hurt him something fierce. And his balls! Did these elves even have balls? His own felt like two squashed apples for all the bouncing. He leaned forward, sneaked his right leg back over to the other side, and dropped to the ground.
The jolt of landing made him wince. First thing he needed to do was take a piss.
The sun had sunk low in the sky from what little he could see of it, and twilight was setting in, but there was still enough light to make his way through the trees to get out of sight of the group. He spotted a likely looking oak and began to work at his lacings when he spied another figure part way round the huge trunk.
"Oh . . . I'm sorry."
"That's quite all right." King Thranduil was fumbling with the ties of his codpiece. "It's not my tree. Well, to be precise, it is my tree, but I'm happy to share it with you. King and commoner alike, we all have to make water. I don't mind if the oak does not."
"Thank you, my Lord Thranduil," Faran murmured, thinking that a tree ought to be honored to have a king pee on it. He stared straight ahead and shifted his feet, planting them firmly in the carpet of autumn leaves. He waited. He shifted his feet and waited some more.
"In the north," the King began, "just a short distance from the eastern edge of the forest, there is a long lake which ends at a mighty waterfall." His tone was quiet and conversational. "I saw it once, when I was much younger than I am now. The falls are very wide, and the water pours over them with a loud roar, sending up a white mist -"
Faran gave out a sigh of relief as his bladder let loose. "Thank you, my lord."
Thranduil waved his free hand airily. "Think nothing of it."
Now that he'd gotten started, Faran couldn't help but sneak a sidelong glance for curiosity's sake. Yes, the Elf-king was just like any other man, that is, accounting for his height. It was a good thing these Elf-folk kept to themselves, because Faran didn't fancy competing for the village girls with pretty, big fellows like that. Or maybe not, he told himself, thinking of the trouble his own pintel had got him into lately.
By the time Faran had shaken off and put himself away, the Elf-king had already finished re-tying his cod. Without another word, the two of them went back to the others. The short rest time seemed to be over. The foot soldiers were reassembling into their lines, and the nobles were collecting their horses.
"Does she have a name?" Faran asked, jerking his chin in the direction of the red mare, who was standing head to head with King Thranduil's bay stallion. The two of them were blowing air into each other's nostrils.
"Her name is Rocharan," the King muttered, rushing to grab his own horse's reins. "Hsst, Gaeroch, you know better than that."
"It means 'Red'," said Galion. He offered Faran a tiny chunk of that wonderful golden biscuit on a flat leaf and seemed to be hiding a smirk with his other hand. "You'd best have a bite to eat. It's almost time to get moving again."
"Rocharan," Faran whispered. The mare cocked one ear and watched him with eyes as deep and as brown as a peat bog. He could still swear that she was laughing at him.
The others were beginning to mount up. Faran swallowed the last of his biscuit and led Rocharan over to a big rock. He didn't fancy another elf-hand on his arse. It was humiliating. The mare stood still while he hopped up on top of the rock and managed to haul himself onto her back.
"Good job, lad!" said Thranduil, trotting past. And again they were off.
Full darkness had fallen by the time the column reached the old Elven road outside the forest eaves and turned south. The night was cool, and the thin sliver of a waxing crescent moon cut the clouds like the blade of Bema's great plow. The elves seemed to be able to see just fine, and they kept up a good pace. Faran let the rhythm of the hoofbeats and marching feet lull him and remind him of the steady thump of his own heart in his ears as he lay on his hard mattress in the little sleeping loft of his parents' hut, listening to the sounds of his family around him. He was really going to miss them once he'd run off for parts unknown.
He had no idea he'd begun to drift until an iron hand clamped on his shoulder and he snapped awake again.
"You were about to topple off your horse," the Elf-king said. "It's four hours past midnight. Time for another rest stop."
"I can go on. I was just resting my eyes," Faran said, not liking to look weak in front of these fair folk, although truth be told he ached for a bed - even the cold ground if that was all that was available.
King Thranduil gave a snort. "We can sleep on our feet, running if need be, but you Secondborn cannot. Neither can our horses. We stop here."
He dismounted and motioned Faran toward one of the many large rocks that lined the edges of the north-south road. "Come, lad. Sit with me and share my way bread."
Faran followed, still having to tell himself this all was real. Who would have thought three days ago that he'd be dining with a king? They sat themselves down, and King Thranduil broke off half his biscuit.
"Eat more of it this time. And have some of the cordial. It will keep you awake."
Faran accepted both the way bread and the waterskin, mumbling his thanks. The drink warmed him and chased the weariness, and the biscuit went down as easy as ever.
"Tell me, Master Faran, about your life at home and your family."
"Nothing much to tell. There's just me, my Ma and my Da, and seven brothers and sisters - five of 'em still alive." He said this last with some pride. It was a good record in the village.
"And do you have a sweetheart then?"
"Aye," said Faran. "There's a girl I fancied." He handed back the waterskin.
The Elf-king must have heard the unhappy tone in his voice at the thought of Deira. "And she doesn't fancy you in return?"
Faran sighed and shook his head. "It isn't like that. We've always gotten on well, ever since we were little ones. Too well. She's . . ." Maybe it was the drink loosening his tongue, but the King did sound truly kind. "She's going to have a baby."
Thranduil's answer surprised him. "Ah, that's wonderful. I envy you, lad."
A fragment of biscuit went down the wrong way, and Faran choked a little. "Envy me? Why ever?" What was to envy about a lad who's got his girl into trouble?
But the King nodded. "My lady queen and I desire children above all things. In the early days of our marriage, I was called off to the war, so of course children were out of the question. Seven long years, I was gone from her. I am only now this year returned, and I am finding that this business of begetting is not so easy as I had supposed."
"I don't understand," Faran said. "If you were going away, wouldn't you want to leave your wife a little one to keep her company while you were gone, or something to remember you by if you got yourself killed? Women have babies by themselves all the time. Men aren't really needed."
"With my people, they are needed," the King replied. "Much of our spirit goes into the making of children. A father gives his strength to both his wife and his child as it grows. For that reason, among my folk, it is considered a grievous thing if a man is taken from his family when a child is in the womb. Even worse if he has young ones coming up."
"You mean, you could have got out of going for a soldier just by . . .?"
"I suppose I could have - had I not been my father's son. I wonder . . . I wonder if it would have made any difference?" The Elf-king's profile, seen dimly in the starlight, was so blank that Faran couldn't guess what he was thinking. Then, he drew himself up and took a deep breath. "Ah, well, it's early days yet. What's a year? Such a short time. I'm sure I'll have a house full of fine sons before long."
All around them, the others were stirring, tossing aside the empty leaves that had wrapped the biscuit and brushing away the crumbs. It was time to be moving again. Faran made as if to rise too, but King Thranduil stopped him by laying a hand on his shoulder. Again, he held out the waterskin. "Have another sip. I want you sharp for the rest of the night."
Faran did as he was told. He took two careful sips, and each sent a wave of warmth through his tired limbs. "Thank you, my lord."
The Elf-king nodded. "I want you to ride next to me now. Pay attention, and let me know when we're getting close."
Faran picked Rocharan out of the darkness by the bright white stripe on her nose. Once more, the King's horse stood next to her. Thranduil collected his mount's reins and swung lightly up into the saddle. Faran sighed and began to look around for a rock or stump to help him get on.
"Just grab the mane and leap," the King said.
Faran shook his head. "I can't." As if to drive the point home, the mare swung her head around and looked at him mildly.
"Oh, go on, give it a try. The cordial will lighten your heart and your feet."
This was going to be a bad idea, Faran thought as he took a handful of thick hair and launched his body with an upward twist. Much to his surprise, his right leg hooked over the mare's back and he had only a little bit of an awkward scramble to pull himself the rest of the way. It hadn't been the most graceful of mounts for sure, but he was aboard by his own efforts. He smiled, pleased with himself as the column moved southward.
He no longer felt the need for sleep. As he bounced on through the night, Faran thought on the strangeness of life. He might be just a simple Woodman, but he had something that a great King, for all his riches and his power, wanted and could not get. And to him, it was a sorrow and a trouble.
He supposed it was all well and good if you were a king and had a crowd of elf-washerwomen, or whatever these folk called them, to deal with the napcloths instead of them hanging all over the place, and a nurse to deal with a baby that cried at all hours of the night, and a rich hoard of gold to feed its hungry mouth, and a beautiful lady for a wife, who would always stay young and whose arse wouldn't grow with each babe until it was as wide as his Ma's.
But Faran would surely have none of those things. Best to leave it all behind and start afresh.
Little by little, the sky lightened around him. The forest and the heights of the Emyn Duir on his left were still a dark mass, but far off to his right, across the wide river plain, the Misty Mountains towered, their snow-clad peaks turned a brilliant pink by the rising sun. Always, in his short life, Faran had met the day inside the cover of the trees. The spectacle of dawn on the Anduin plain took his breath away.
Then it popped into his head - he'd like to share the sight with Deira. The thought surprised him, and he had to admit it. He'd miss her. Not the Deira of the past weeks, puffy and demanding, looking for all the world like she'd turn into Ormod's wife in a matter of years, but the laughing Deira of his childhood, when the two of them had been the best of friends.
The sun continued to rise until it was halfway between the eastern horizon and the noontime zenith, and Faran thought that Thranduil would soon have to call for another rest. But then he began to spy familiar landmarks beside the road. He cleared his throat in order to be heard over the monotonous tramp of the running feet. "My lord, we're getting close."
"Another league. No more."
When they reached the final rise in the road, the circling birds - ravens, carrion crows, and a few even larger ones - told the story before Faran could give his warning. One of the larger birds seemed to dip its wings to them, and Thranduil let out a growl. "Filthy bird. I'll spoil your feast."
He raised his hand in a wave, and the foot soldiers broke ranks and began to melt into the forest, spreading out in a thin line as they did so. "Stay next to me, lad, and you should be all right."
"But, we came too late," Faran said, feeling as heartsick as the King's face looked.
Thranduil stopped him. "We will find more than birds at work. The orcs will be at the bodies, and it is imperative that we stop them. I don't expect much of a fight - they're all born cowards - but it's best to be prepared."
Faran didn't know what 'imperative' meant. The Elf-king used big words. But he caught the meaning well enough: it had to be done. He nodded.
Again Faran nodded without even stopping to think that he was armed with nothing more than a pocket knife. King Thranduil threw back his head and let out a piercing yell, not a scream of fear but a battle-cry. Around them, the mounted Elf-lords joined in, and the sound echoed from the woods beyond, multiplied many times. It made the hairs on the back of Faran's neck stand up, and he felt right glad he was not one of those orcs that the King had told him lay waiting over the next rise, about to be interrupted at their nasty business.
Thranduil kicked his horse, and it sprang away. Faran felt the mare's muscles bunch up between his legs, and then he too was off at a gallop. There was no way to steer, but he had no need. Rocharan ran along with the others, and all he could do was hang onto her mane with both hands and pray to the Allfather that he didn't fall off.
The Elf-king was right; it wasn't much of a fight. At the first battle cry, more crows and ravens burst up in a huge cloud, and by the time they'd crested the hill the orcs were in full retreat, running for their lives. They left the road and charged down the slope flanked by elves from the woods. Out of the corner of his eye, Faran saw Bana and Ormod and a goodly number of the men from the village joining them, full of courage now that reinforcements had arrived. He watched as King Thranduil drew his sword and cut down an unlucky straggler. The look of terror stayed on the orc's face even as its head flew ten feet through the air and rolled. The other orcs ran even faster.
There was a bad moment when Rocharan leapt over the sprawled body of a dead Westman and Faran had to lean forward and put his hands around her beck to keep from going off. He kept his eyes shut while he felt her begin to wheel around in a gentle circle and slow down. When she came to a halt, Faran slid from her back and stood on trembling knees, burying his face against her heaving flank.
"This is Aratan, the King's son!" The voice brought Faran out of his trance of dizziness and horse sweat. Thranduil was kneeling next to a body he'd just turned over. He rose and ran to another.
"Sire!" Faran recognized the voice of the esquire, Galion. "Here is Ciryon!"
The King shook his head. "Isildur! We must find Isildur!"
Then a shout rose from a group searching a pile of fallen soldiers a little ways down the slope. "A live one! We've one alive!"
Thranduil sprinted over, and Faran followed. He saw a pale-skinned boy, not much older than he was, being hauled from beneath the bodies of his comrades. The boy had a nasty purple bruise on his temple, and he blinked up into the sky with the confused look of a newborn babe.
"Get Nestalinde!" Thranduil yelled. "Fetch the healer!"
"Right here, Sire." One of the nobles pulled off a helm, and Faran realized for the first time that what he had thought to be an Elf-lord was really an Elf-lady. She knelt beside the boy and peered intently into his eyes, while gently probing the lump on his head. "He is merely stunned. His injuries are not mortal."
"The orcs," the young man groaned. "So many. They kept coming."
"There, lad. The orcs are fled now," Thranduil said. "But you must tell me if you can, and this is important - what became of your King?"
"Gone," the boy muttered. "Gone into the west. 'Atarinya,' my noble lord said, 'you must use it. You must take it and go.' The King, he didn't want to, but finally he kissed my lord and said, 'Forgive me.' Then he reached into that wallet he carried around his neck, and I heard him scream in pain, but we couldn't see him anymore. For a while a red light bounded away, like an angry star and the orcs screamed and fell back. But then . . . nothing. And then the orcs came again and . . . I can't remember. Master Elf, where is Lord Elendur? I'm his esquire, you know, and he will need me."
The Elf-king squeezed the boy's shoulder but rose to his feet without a word. While the healer lady gave the injured esquire a few drops of the cordial, Thranduil stood gazing out across the plain to the west, looking every bit as stunned as that boy who'd just been hit in the head.
"He is lost. And It is lost with him. May Elbereth have mercy on us all."
Then he made a strangled noise that was halfway between a sigh and a growl, whirled and stalked off. Faran stared after him a bit, puzzled. Sure, it was sad that the king of the Westmen was lost, and another king would be bound to take it hard, but he didn't understand why the Lady Starkindler would come into it. He decided to follow.
The Wood-elves had been busy, laying out the bodies of the dead Westmen in neat rows and dragging the corpses of the orcs off to the sides. The crows still circled lazily, kept off by spear points. Faran found the Elf-king staring down at the two men they'd identified as the King's sons, now laid side by side with a third Faran didn't recognize. He figured it was the Elendur fellow the injured esquire kept asking about.
King Thranduil's face looked blank, confused, almost like he was walking in his sleep, and this puzzled Faran too. Surely the King would have seen enough dead men before during that big war in the south. Faran held his peace.
"He left them. How could he leave them?"
"They were his sons. His posterity. How could he desert them like that?"
The tone in the King's voice made Faran think there was something more to it, but he concentrated on the problem at hand. "I don't understand, sir. What's posterity?"
"It's what we leave behind us," the Elf-king said kindly, in a way that didn't try to make Faran feel stupid for not knowing the big word. "What we send into the future. We Firstborn live forever, unless we fall to some mischance. You Secondborn do not. Your children should be even more precious to you."
"Why do you Elves have children, then?" Faran asked.
"To love, of course. What other reason is there?"
Before Faran could answer, the dark-haired elf who had been directing the soldiers back in the courtyard came up and bent his lips to the King's ear.
"Sire, we can do nothing more here, and we would do well to be on our way. Who knows what further mischief those orcs will get up to if left unharried?"
"Mischief indeed," Thranduil agreed, with a dubious glance to the west, in the direction the king of the Westman was supposed to have run. "Yet I hate to leave the fallen to the birds. Will the Woodmen see to this?"
"Oh, aye," said old Ormod, who had limped up. "Westmen under a cairn of rocks; orcs to the pyre, just like your healer told us. And that young fella you dragged out of the pile can stay and rest up with my wife and me until he's fit to head for home."
Faran bit his lip. Time spent under the care of Ormod's wife was one of the best reasons to get well in a hurry he could think of.
"Good job, Faran lad," Ormod continued. "You brought help right quick. That girl of yours has been asking after you, by the by. She seemed kinda worried."
Faran winced. There would be no slipping away now.
"Master Faran is a fine young man," King Thranduil said. "I would be pleased to have him come with us while we pursue these murdering cravens. What say you, lad?"
Here it was - his last chance to leave it all behind and escape to freedom. No more Deira, no more baby, just a chance at another life. And yet he remembered the look on the King's face as he said, 'How could he leave them?' Yes, how could he? Posterity was much more than a pretty new word he'd learned today.
He shook his head. "I think I'll stay behind if it's all the same to you, my lord. I'm needed here."
"Young man indeed," the King said, with a smile that crinkled his eyes. One of the other elves had brought his horse around and he turned and leapt onto its back. "I do not think my own lady wife will see me before the first snow flies. I'm off to hunt orcs."
The King's esquire, the one called Galion, rode beside him, holding the reins of the now riderless chestnut mare. When they began to move away she stopped dead. Galion, his arm wrenched at the shoulder, mumbled a curse.
Slowly, Rocharan turned her head around to stare in Faran's direction. She looked at Thranduil her ears pricked forward, then back at Faran again.
Galion tugged at her reins. "Come on, curse you, you stubborn beast." But she stayed put, with her feet planted in the brown grass of the meadow.
The Elf-king let out a laugh. "Well, it seems that is settled whether I will or no. One thing life has taught me is never to gainsay a female when she has her mind made up. You have a horse, Master Faran, and I wish you joy of her. May she bear you long and well. And whether or not she will pull a plow for you - well, that is between the two of you."
He kicked his bay stallion into a trot, and the army of Wood-elves marched away. They disappeared over the rise of the hill and were gone like a dream.
In the years to come, Faran never saw another elf. But neither did he see an orc. Both faded into memory.
Faran took Deira to wife in the last week of Narbeleth, and their first child, a girl with her father's dark hair, was born in the spring. Any folk who counted on their fingers, as people are wont to do, and came up lacking the full nine were kind enough to hold their tongues. Faran and Deira weren't the first young village couple to have their first child arrive a few months early, and they surely wouldn't be the last.
When he looked down into wide trusting eyes that his mother assured him would turn as brown as his own, and his daughter gripped his finger in her tiny fist, Faran knew a heart-piercing love like none other. 'Oh, King Thranduil,' he thought, 'you were so right!'
In the fall of that year, the generosity of the Elf-king's gift manifested itself when one morning Faran came out to find that Rocharan had dropped a foal, a bright bay stud colt who looked suspiciously like the King's big charger, but with his dam's four white socks and a white snip on his little nose.
The following summer, Faran and Deira had their first son, a lusty babe with his mother's yellow hair, and the year after that, another boy. The children seemed to come as regular as the seasons themselves, and in time Faran moved his growing family into a hut out on the plain in order to be closer to the fields he planted. The mare allowed him to harness her to a plow, just as she allowed him to hunt from her back or simply gallop across the wide plain atop her for the wild joy of freedom. There were times she'd disappear for a week or so, either to seek out her Elvish kind or the sturdy wild stallions of the plain. She always returned with her belly full to augment his growing herd, and likewise, her son brought home wild fillies to bear his seed. And at the end of her long days, she laid herself down for the last time, and her bones and body went to feed the grass that nurtured her progeny.
The years passed. Faran's sons took wives, and his daughters took husbands. Sometimes, toward the end of the day, Faran would sit out on the westward facing porch of his hut while Deira sang at her housework inside, watching his grandchildren play and his horses graze while the sun sank lower toward the peaks of the Misty Mountains and think what a lucky man he was and how close he had come to losing it all. And at those times he wondered about the Elf-king, if he ever had gotten that house full of children he so much wanted. He hoped that he had.
Deira's arse got big, but Faran didn't mind, because she was nice enough not to mention how his hair had gotten thin at the top. And when a nasty bout of the grippe finally carried him off at the end of his seventy-third winter, her face was the last sight he saw, holding his hand and smiling through her tears. They buried him near the crumbling mound that covered the Westmen, and his bones fed the grasses.
Faran's sons begat sons, who begat sons in turn, until the legend that their distant sire had walked with kings made them men of great renown. And one day one of them, a man named Lèod, attempted to ride a wild white horse he'd been trying to tame. But that is a tale for another day. . .