Only a Game
14. Dark Thoughts
We stopped twice to give the horses some rest, but did not talk to each other, musing over the things the headman had told us.
Finally the sun set in a huge blood red ball of fire, colouring the waving sea of grass in the most beautiful shades of violet and orange. The wind was cool and smelled of rain, and it was strong, rustling the grasses of the plains until they sounded almost like waves rushing to a distant shore.
We had no wood to make a fire from, but Elrohir gathered a heap of grass and icky brown stuff, some dried up waste of steppe animals. But I did not know what kind of animal had dropped them; we had not seen any large animals up until now, only birds of prey wheeling high above us. The fire stank with the burned dung, but it was warm in the cold of the night.
And in the wee hours of the morning a blood curdling scream disturbed the silence of the plains. I woke with my heart racing, trying to see where the scream had come from, to locate the danger… But Elrohir put his arm around me and drew me finally into a close embrace. "Don't be afraid", he whispered. "That was only a sabre tooth tiger. His hunt was successful, he won't come for us."
I let out my breath somewhat shakily, trying no to think of any hungry brothers or sisters the sabre tooth might have. But before I could worry any more about wild beasts gathering around us, the elf gathered me against his chest, and as I inhaled the spicy scent of his skin, all other thoughts were driven from my mind…
When I woke early in the morning, Elrohir was already up. He was sitting a few feet away, caressing the soft nose of his stallion, which had stepped up behind the elf and was now hanging his large grey head across Elrohir's shoulder. It almost looked as if they were deep in conversation. And perhaps they were; elves, after all, were known for talking to all living things – be they tree, animal or little folk.
Elrohir appeared to be much more relaxed than the day before, but his eyes were the dark, dark shade I had learned to link with inner turmoil and anguish.
I got up and scrubbed myself with an edge of a wetted towel, using the precious water sparingly. Then I took up the cup of tea Elrohir had set aside for me and slowly walked up towards the elf and his horse. Lightning snorted at my approach, spitting in my direction, but he did not try to bite me. I sat down across from Elrohir and sipped at my tea.
"Hey." I finally said softly.
Elrohir raised an amused eyebrow. "Hey?"
"You seem so far away. Do you want to talk?" I crossed my legs and crouched down more comfortably, crunching down on a piece of lembas. It still tasted good, melting on the tongue. The wind picked up the broad Western leaf and hurled it up and away.
Elrohir sighed. "Not really. Do you want to talk?"
I considered his question. If I had any notion where to begin… But it did not seem the right moment… to discuss… whatever. In the middle of nowhere and not yet any sign of either Elrohir's brother or the mysterious elves of the East.
I smiled hesitantly at the elf. "Not really."
I finished my tea and the piece of lembas and got up. Cloud was already waiting for her morning treat, careful brushing and a small lump of lembas I always kept for her.
I touched the soft fur and warm skin of the horse, inhaling the comfortable horse smell of grass and dust and animal. The mare whickered softly and thudded her nose softly against my shoulder, as if she sensed my moodiness and wanted to comfort me. Her liquid dark eyes seemed to ask, "Hey, human, what's the matter?"
It would be easier to say what was not the matter.
I saddled Cloud and packed my things back in my pack, securing the pack and the carefully rolled sleeping bag to my saddle.
"I'm ready", I called out to Elrohir, who had been patiently waiting for me – being, as usual, much swifter at everything.
We rode on.
Three days later I looked at dark clouds obscuring the north-eastern horizon. Elrohir halted his horse and followed my gaze. "Those mountains are even higher than the Misty Mountains." Elrohir commented, staring off into the distance. "Mountains?" I asked, turning in the saddle. "Those Elvish eyes of yours are really keen! I thought those dark shapes were merely clouds, bad weather to make travelling more fun."
"No, those are mountains, very high and cleft mountains. They are the Orocarni, the forgotten mountains of the East. There were some Elves in Rivendell, when I was younger, who thought the East had drowned in the upheavals preceding the third age, turning the Orocarni into islands. Elladan never believed that. He always wanted to go and discover whether this tale was true or not." Elrohir fell silent, his eyes dark with memories of his brother.
"We could stop here for the night." I suggested. Apart from the shadowy forms to the North-East, the landscape had not changed at all during the last days, rolling green and grey plains as far as my mortal eyes could see.
Elrohir did not respond but slid off his horse, then tugging loose the saddle. I raised my eyebrows slightly, but did not comment on his behaviour.
I dismounted and unsaddled Cloud. Then I cleaned her hooves and brushed her until her fur shone almost like porcelain. Finally I fastened a long rope to her tether and secured it with a stake hammered into the ground. Lightning was already prevented from running off in a similar fashion. Although the stallion did return, when the Elf called him in the morning, Lightning took his own sweet time doing so – reducing the Elf lord to more human methods to control his mounts whereabouts.
A few yards off the crippled remains of tree were visible in a slight hollow of the plains and promised a real fire for tonight. Elrohir was already walking towards the hollow, his pack slung across his shoulders, a certain tension to his movements. Three days of barely speaking and brooding had not helped. All this time to think had not soothed my mind either.
I had begun to have dreams for the first time in Middle-earth. Every night I dreamed almost the same thing, over and over and over again. I was walking away from darkness, towards a white, glowing light, a light, which reminded me of the white light of love, which surrounded me when Elrohir and I were making love. I was walking or running towards the light, fleeing from grabbing tentacles of darkness, when I would suddenly stumble and fall into a hole, falling and falling and when I hit the ground, I would wake, drenched in sweat.
The depression in the level ground of the plains was a good place for a camp. It provided at least some shelter from the icy winds of the plains, which penetrated even the magical cloaks of Lorien. With the branches of the dead tree Elrohir got a real fire going, not the stinking, smoking excuses of fire we had had during the last days.
Under a rock Elrohir had even discovered a trickle of water. A spring surfaced here, which explained the sunken in formation of the ground and the presence of the dead tree. There was more water here than for miles around, enough for a tree to grow and die. I shook my head against my morose thoughts. There was no reason for me to feel so blue.
It was only Elrohir's worries rubbing off on me. I sighed and decided to start with dinner, just to get my mind off things. Elrohir was off surveying the area – making sure no evil surprises lurked in close proximity of our camp. I got out our pot and filled it with water from the spring. The water was not really clear, so it would have to be boiled thoroughly to be safely consumed by a human being. Then I rummaged through our packs and set out the other supplies necessary to cook a thick, hearty soup: a cloth wrapped ball of dried broth and vegetables, dried noodles and dried strips of venison. The strips of dried meat did not look very appealing, more like something a dog would like to chew upon, but Elrohir had shown me how to soak them and cut them into small pieces to add to a soup or something. The result was – if not exactly nouvelle cuisine – quite enjoyable.
When Elrohir finally returned from looking at the area, the soup was almost ready and smelling very nice at least. I had added some herbs I liked, savoury and a touch of rosemary.
"Hey", Elrohir said softly, smiling at me with a somehow sad and wistful smile, in one word telling me about his sadness and his fading hopes.
"Hey", I answered. I knew he could read my heart without even this tiny word, but he would not, respecting my privacy. And how could I ever explain? How could I prevent the inevitable? "Soup's on." I said, trying to sound cheerfully.
Soon we were spooning up the thick soup in companionable silence. The spicy warmth of the soup dispelled much of the worry and uneasiness, which had accompanied me during the last few days. In some ways, we are only animals, after all; even the darkest day looks up with something warm and comforting in the stomach.
I cleaned our bowls and the pot and stacked everything together again, to pack away quickly in the morning.
Then I returned to the fire, sitting down cross legged on my sleeping bag, pulling my cloak around me. I was warm and comfortable, the taste of herbs still in my mouth. The dancing flames of the fire did not fail to soothe me even further. Probably early childhood conditioning, I grinned at myself. When I was a little child, my parents had sometimes gone camping with me and my brother on weekends in the summer. We had always had a great fire in the evenings, watching the flames, telling stories and jokes, singing songs to the bad guitar playing of my mother. Or a primeval instinct of my ancestors, the cavemen, the knowledge of fire and safety encoded in our very genes.
Whatever the reason, the tension I had been feeling drained away, my mind growing calm.
Elrohir seemed to have regained some measure of calm, too. He was sitting on the other side of the fire, his eyes dark, but filled with the dancing shadows of the flames.
Suddenly he spoke, his voice dark and husky. "It's the choice of the half-elven. A gift of the Valar to Luthien's kin. We may choose between mortal life and death and Elvish immortality. Now is the time for my brother and me to make this choice. This earth is changing, the firstborn are gone from this world, and its magic is fading." He sighed. "My father and his brother had to choose, too. You know, his brother chose to become a mortal. Even though Elros grew very old, and my father and his brother met often, their bond was broken by the choice, their roads for ever parted. And I know that there never was a day my father did not remember his brother and grieve for him. I remember, when Aragorn was very young, a boy still, how my father used to look at him, seeing the shadow of his brother in Aragorn. And although this comforted him, it was also painful to him."
He fell silent again, looking away from the fire into the darkness gathering around us.
"When Elladan told me he had to go away to clear his mind, I think I knew what this meant, deep in my heart. But I could not believe he would go without telling me, without even saying good-bye… Jarro, we were born in Middle-earth. This is our home, not Aman. We have never been there, and it is here our sister is buried, here where our nieces and nephew were born and died. Oh, Valar, I won't even be able to see his grave!" His voice broke, and there were tears like drops of crystal running down his cheek.
I could not think of anything to say. I remained sitting there, looking at the lonely Elf grieving for a brother he would perhaps never see again. Who was it, who had said that immortality offered a very long time for grief and regrets?
Some time later I rose from my seat and walked around the fire to Elrohir. I slid down to the ground next to him and wordlessly put my arm around him. I felt the strange connection between us flare to life, creating a bond of comfort and warmth between us. I felt Elrohir slowly relax against me.
We remained like that until the fire had burned to glowing embers, leaning against each other, comforting each other, keeping away the darkness from our souls.
We started out early the next morning, riding towards the shadows of the forgotten mountains.
Elrohir had given me a great gift of trust, telling me the troubles of his heart last night.
I felt I should do the same. But what could I tell him?
Something like "I come from another world and this is only a game and you are not real and I am not real either"? This did not only sound ridiculous to me, and would make a mockery of him trusting me with his pain, I did not really believe it anymore myself. I was slowly losing the sense of the Jarro McCourt I had been in London weeks and weeks ago.
One reason was, of course, this amazing feeling I shared with Elrohir. It was… magical. It was more than the sexual aspects of love, although I had never known love and desire like that. It was a bond. With every day that passed, I felt closer to his soul, his mind.
But it was this place, too. Not only these wild, free plains, but all of Middle-earth I had seen so far. The mountains, rivers and forests, the silence, which was never disturbed by the noise of a car or a plane, the brightness of the stars… In England I had never felt any desire to go back to the roots, to go back to nature. My brother had been the one to go trekking and hiking, to do real live role playing games. I had tugged along. Although I had always loved to read fantasy novels, and had accompanied my brother on more than one of his stranger outings, I had always been quite content with the real world.
I sighed, softly nudging Cloud to speed up behind Lightning.
Quite content. Perhaps that was the reason. I had always been only quite content. I had never felt truly happy, I had never felt any calling, and I had been so easily bored and disgusted with everything I had done and everyone I had been with.
But here, I felt alive. More alive than ever before.
I could never explain all of this. And explaining would not help, either.
The game would soon be over.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.