Haleth peered into the surrounding darkness of the forest. The trees soared far above her head, their canopies high over the forest floor. A narrow path ran from east to west. At least she assumed it ran from east to west. With no sun or stars to guide her, it was impossible to know the direction it ran in.
The trail was just wide enough for two people to walk abreast if they didn't mind being close together. Haleth glanced over her shoulder at Inglor, her unwanted minder, and decided they would be walking single file.
It was a pity for he was very easy to look at. He was in deep conversation with the leader of the raftsmen. Haleth shuffled closer, hoping to catch at least part of what they were saying. She could make herself understood in Sindarin, when she absolutely had to, but found it difficult to understand then there was more than one conversation going on. The Wood Elves were singing as they made preparations complete their journey. It had been nice to have company, she would not miss listening to that particular song. It seemed to be a rowing song, for they sang it whenever they rowed. As they had been going upstream, they rowed the entire time.
There was a splash followed by a chorus of merry laughter and a merciful pause in the singing.
"It is my hope that you will not regret your hospitality," she heard Inglor say. "If it were earlier in the year, there would not be in such a rush to pass through your realm."
Haleth's breath caught in her throat. If he hadn't been right, she would have turned around and punched him. Actually, she was tempted to punch him in any case. The fact that he had even suggested she was too slow to make it to the Misty Mountains before the snow made her blood boil. They would definitely not be walking side by side up the forest path.
"I do not believe the King will overly object to my granting you passage through the Woodland Realm," said the leader of the raftsmen. "He may regret not having the opportunity to great a kinsman of…." Haleth leaned closer, hoping for a clue as to Inglor's identity. The words were drowned out be a yelp of rage and an enormous splash followed by more laughter.
The next bit of the conversation was completely unintelligible.
"If your King ordains otherwise, it will be a simple matter to find us," said Inglor. He was looking directly at Haleth when he said it.
Haleth's eyes narrowed dangerously.
Inglor noticed her attention and raised his hand, presumably in greeting.
Haleth bared her teeth and waved back.
"You have my thanks for the supplies, the advice and the right of passage," he said, bowing deeply.
"You are more than welcome," the leader bowed. "I believe I am needed elsewhere."
Inglor shouldered his pack and began draping the water skins around himself.
Haleth examined the water skins with a critical eye; there were an awful lot of them. She took one of the skins and draped it over her shoulder, staggering under its weight. Why did water have to be so heavy? She was going to list heavily to port under the load.
"You may leave those for me," said Inglor. "I can bear the weight."
"So can I," said Haleth, taking another skin and placing it over her opposite shoulder. It was terribly heavy, but at least she was balanced.
She reached for a third water skin and discovered that Inglor had already picked up all those that had remained. Darned those elves anyways; they were known to have fast reflexes, but this was ridiculous.
"You look twice your size. Here, I can take some of those," she said, suppressing a smile.
"It is nothing," he said. "Shall we go?"
"Very well. Let me know if you need to rest," she said. She tried to shrug, but the water skins dug into her shoulders before she could raise them.
Inglor started down the pathway. Haleth quickly discovered that she need not have worried about their walking side by side. With the extra bulk of the baggage, they could not both fit onto the trail at the same time.
Soon the sound of the river was behind them, swallowed up by the gloomy forest. It was a bit eerie, but at least she didn't have to listen to that infuriating rowing song anymore.
No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than Inglor burst into song.
"Why do we have to carry so much water?" she shouted to interrupt him. She spoke Sindarin. It seemed the only way get a better grasp of the language.
"Did you not hear when our host explained that there is no safe source of water between here and the western edge of the forest?" he asked, speaking over his shoulder.
"I must have been somewhere else when he mentioned it," she said, flushing.
"No. You were right beside me. I am certain of it," Inglor insisted.
"Well, maybe I wasn't paying attention," said Haleth. She had found the forest stuffy before. Now it was becoming stifling.
Inglor considered. "You were sharpening your knife at the time," he finally said.
Haleth grunted and didn't comment. The knife seemed like a pretty good idea, now that he mentioned it. Except that she'd have to lift her arm to reach it and her shoulders were starting to ache. She had to content herself with pulling the strap of the water skins off of her shoulders.
"I can carry those if the burden is too heavy," said Inglor.
Haleth glared at the back of his head. How had he seen that? He was facing the other way.
"I'm fine," she growled. "What was all this about no safe water?"
"The forest has fallen under the Shadow these past decades," said Inglor.
Well, that certainly cleared things up. It was a forest. There were shadows all over the place. It went hand in hand with being in a forest.
There was something more than the ordinary gloom to these woods, though. There was an oppressive, almost stifling quality to the air. It wasn't made any better by having to carry two large water skins.
"I guess that would explain why things are so dark," she said.
"It is not just the dark. There are unspeakable horrors in these woods," he said.
"Oh?" Haleth asked. She looked upwards. A large, black squirrel was sitting on an overhead branch, holding a pinecone. It threw the pinecone at Haleth the moment it noticed her looking at it.
"Hey!" she cried. She bent to pick up the cone and throw it back at the squirrel, but in her hurry she overbalanced. She had a brief vision of herself lying on her back like a turtle, unable to get up, at the mercy of any passing black squirrel who chose to use her for target practice.
A strong hand grasped her by the arm and helped her back onto her feet.
"It is best to ignore the black squirrels. They are little but pests," said Inglor gravely.
"That pest just hit me with a pinecone," she sputtered.
"Then they are pests with unusually good aim," said Inglor calmly.
"Two or three of them would make a passing dinner," she said, glaring into the tree branches. The squirrel, sensing her hostility, chattered at her.
"No. Our hosts say they are lightning quick; too fast, almost, for their arrows. And even if you could bring one down, the meat is far too bitter to eat. It is far better to leave them alone."
Haleth glared at the back of Inglor's head, seething. Were all elves this insulting? She was beginning to wonder if some of the things she had heard about them were true, that they were demeaning and overbearing as a matter of course. Inglor did not seem to even realize he had insulted her. He walked nonchalantly along, making light of his burden even though he was carrying five skins to Haleth's two. She wished she had managed to pick up that pinecone. There might not have been any use throwing it at the squirrel, but she had found a more deserving target.
She stomped after him in stormy silence, willing herself to be calm.
Just when she had reached the point where she didn't want to throttle him, he began to sing the rowing song.