Author's note: Yes, I know that this theme (Strange encounter) has been used on Teitho contest; but when choosing the theme for our last contest (on Croatian Tolkien forum), this one sounded really good and funny, and we (moderators-organizers) just couldn't resist it. Besides, Teitho contest with that theme was already over a few months ago; an also, stories in our contest are written in Croatian and comprise all characters and ages.
So, we borrowed the idea; and yes, Teitho-moderators have been informed about this and asked for permission. ;)
Thanks to Scarlett for translating and to Calenlass Greenleaf for beta-reading. *hugs*
Of course, Middle-earth does not belong to me.
- - -
He was walking through the bare forest that was still shackled in ice and deep snow. Although April was already at its end, blizzards and chilling northern winds had yet to abate. Winter reigned like a cruel ruler that would never abdicate, and spring was waiting it out, overpowered and fettered. He looked up at the sky. Bulging lead-grey clouds were promising nothing good.
The elf was one of the few Noldor still living in Dor-Lómin. Many had left, especially after Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Some had joined Orodreth's people in Nargothrond; others had ventured further south and south-west and mixed with Teleri who lived by the coast. Dor-Lómin had turned into a desolate land that was ravaged by Orcs and Easterlings. The remaining Elves and Edain found it harder and harder to defend the last free corners of this wounded land.
Nirnaeth Arnoediad had taken the life of his eldest son, a young elf at the brink of adulthood. He was there himself, among Fingon's troops. He had fought the hordes of Orcs and looked into death's eye, seeing the rivers of blood and hearing the cries of the wounded and their dying breaths. He had cursed his fate countless times, wishing he was one of the deceased as well, if only it could mean to exchange places with his son – to give his own life to save his son's. But he couldn't change destiny; he returned home alone, with a bleeding heart.
Now – at the end of a winter so long and cold, it seemed to him at moments he was back at Helcaraxë – languishing in this land tormented by the evil that spread from the North, and he wondered why he hadn't left south with his family earlier. What was keeping him here? Devotion to that small piece of land that he and his wife had called their own ever since they came to Middle-earth? Hope that someday evil would be defeated? The half-frozen land in the gardens hardly bore fruit. For the last few weeks, his children were more often hungry than full. If we survive this winter, the moment the roads are clear of the snow, we're leaving this land, he promised himself. They would go anywhere south, the furthest they could from this cold and this frozen land.
He was going through the forest in search for a quarry. More and more often, he kept coming back from hunting empty-handed. The day was at its end and he feared his endeavours would end up as unsuccessfully as they did the previous two days. It was becoming darker and the temperature was getting lower; more than once, he saw Orc footprints in the snow as well. It was dangerous to wander alone. But what kept him going wasn't a spasm of hunger in his own stomach – at Helcaraxë, he had lived through much worse than one skipped meal – but the thought of his children and their suffering.
He paused for breath and leaned against a large tree. His fëa was touched by a wave of sorrow: the trees were suffering at the Dark Lord's evil hand, too. He could feel the suffering of the forest that was dying from winter sent by Morgoth and the axing of the Orcs. Many trees were withering. The entire land was moaning under Morgoth's heel.
Listening to the sounds of the forest, he caught a hidden movement with the corner of his eye. He became still and peeped from behind the tree. Further away, among the trees, he saw a roe-deer. The animal was small and skinny, but it meant a salvation for his family for the next few days. Noiselessly he took out the arrow from his quiver and carefully aimed. The roe raised its head and smelled the air – maybe the wind brought a trace of a new, dangerous scent – but her turn and attempt of escape was too slow. A whistle ripped the air and the small animal dropped to the ground. A crimson stain began to soak the white ground. Seeing his arrow successfully hit the mark, the elf felt a well-known jab of sadness. He never liked killing animals, not even when it was absolutely necessary. He closed his eyes. Eru, thank you for this gift. Thank you that my children will live. Please save the soul of this animal and lead it on its way to the other world. His inner prayer was never a mere repetition of memorized words, he always meant with all his being what his thoughts had said.
But when he opened his eyes and made his way towards the prey, he realised he was no longer alone.
Next to the roe stood a grey wolf. The elf quickly pulled out another arrow from his quiver and carefully moved ahead, bow half-drawn, ready to pull the arrow if necessary. The wolf didn't move; he only stared at him unblinkingly. No, not a wolf, he realised as he came a few steps closer and saw the teats on her stomach. A she-wolf. He could almost make out the ribs on her skinny body despite her winter fur. Oddly enough, while he was approaching, she didn't growl at him, she only stood above the dead roe and stared at him constantly.
He blinked, surprised. Yes, he knew animals had feelings. And yes, he knew the Elves were more connected to nature than Men and could often sense the feelings of the forest and animals inside it; but was it possible to make out the thoughts of the wolf so clearly? Hear her voice so distinctly – a voice that spoke in his language? And yet he did hear it perfectly, he could've sworn it. Her large eyes that kept watching him were almost human. And they were full of sorrow.
Please, she repeated.
Even before he had time to think about answers to his questions, he heard a noise behind her back. Out of the cleft in the rock, almost hidden behind intertwined bush branches, came a feeble wail. Then, two pups appeared in the snow. One was grey like his mother while the other had streaks of black fur. They were even skinnier than their mother, still very tiny and insecure on their feet.
Just one look at them was enough to realise what they were going through. He didn't have to be an animal expert to know that she probably didn't have enough milk, being starved herself. He didn't have to be experienced or wise to realise that the pups would die soon if she wasn't able to feed them. Even though food was scarce and inexistent at the end of this long, cursed winter – he couldn't close his eyes to what he just saw. He couldn't save those he didn't see. But those two pups...
Then he remembered his family. He wasn't allowed to miss this opportunity; the roe meant food for the next few days. When would he be this lucky again? At the thought of his children, tears welled up in his eyes. He had lost one child already; kneeling at the Hill of Slain on the charred desert of Anfauglith, he had sworn that he would never lose another one.
He looked at the wolf again, determined to take the roe he had killed. With regret, he tightened the grip of his hand around the bow, getting ready to use it. But she locked his gaze and he was taken aback in surprise for the second time in just a few moments. Could animals cry? Even though the early evening dimmed the grey light of a winter day, not for a moment he doubted what he saw. A tear rolled from her sad eye down her fur and into the snow. A silent whine escaped her throat, sounding like a mournful lament. The pups snuggled up to their mother's back legs. Although only a month old, they could instinctively sense their mother's anxiety. They were hungry and their squeaks gave away their fear. He could clearly sense their pain and fear. One of them took a step forward and gave him a look of despair, a look that was expecting a death sentence. The pup whined and the elf's grip to his bow loosened.
"I have children," he whispered to the wolf, feeling confused for a moment. He had never attempted to speak to an animal before. He never thought it was possible.
The smallest of my children has already died, and so will those two in a few days, he heard her voice in his mind. I'm losing milk, every day I get weaker to hunt, and this winter has no end.
As if confirming her last words, a forceful blow of icy wind blew through the forest, bending tree branches, pinching through heavy winter clothing as well. He wasn't able to control the quiver caused by the cold. The whirling frost and snow tangled in the wolf's fur. One pup lost his balance under the wild blow. And then the elf made his decision.
He put down his bow next to the roe and took out his long hunting knife. With trained and skilful movements, he started to skin the animal. He would dress it, and with some luck, if someone would need something made out of leather, he would manage to exchange it for some food. Of course, he'd take the larger part of the roe for himself. Because of his children, he wasn't allowed to act differently. But he'd make up somehow for the part he was leaving now; he would go hunting every free moment, go even further, and search more persistently. But now he wasn't taking the whole roe. He would leave a part to this wolf. It wasn't a guarantee that she and her pups would survive – none of them could know how long this winter would last – but at least it was something. The least he could do.
By the time he finished cutting and packing the meat and leather, it was almost night. Finally, he laid a part of his prey in front of the grey wolf who was patiently waiting, and then he stood up. In spite of the thickening darkness, he could see gratitude in her eyes.
"Good luck," he said quietly. And as he was turning, he saw another tear rolling down her grey fur.
Thank you. Then she took her part of the roe and went inside the hidden den. The pups disappeared behind her.
He looked after them for a while, thinking. In a world where the Dark Lord was tightening his noose and many innocents had died, but in which a song of an Elven maid could still overcome a Vala, at least for a short while... in a world marred and filled with corrupted creatures of the Dark, but also a world so special that he could talk to a being so different from himself and so beautiful as this wolf was – could even greater and more unusual things happen in such world? Could Morgoth someday be overthrown and all that was fair and green rule Middle-earth again?
Knowing he did the right thing, he went home. And even though it was dark and cold, for the first time after a long time, he felt hope.