Only a Game
8. The Misty Mountains
And towering above us were jagged mountain peaks with their white glacial summits barely visible through the clouds of mist and fog swirling around them. A cold wind was blowing across the mountainsides, and the only creatures I could see were black jackdaws and mountain crows. Their cawing raucous cries echoed from the rocks and sent shivers down my spine.
Elrohir was unfazed by this gloomy atmosphere. He waited a moment until I had caught up with him. "I have not seen any orcs in the Misty Mountains for more than a hundred years. But that does not mean that there aren't any. And at the end of the third age there were one or two orc tunnels leading up to the High Pass. Keep your eyes open and your sword ready."
With that he strode on swiftly, leaving me a few paces behind him, hard put to keep up his pace. My heart was pounding madly and I kept gripping for the hilt of my sword. I swallowed hard. Now I did not feel quite as proud anymore about having a real sword at my belt. A hundred years was a long time. Perhaps there weren't any orcs left. Without Sauron's power they might have dwindled and died, slowly becoming an extinct species, like dinosaurs on earth.
And anyway, it was only a game. Only a game. But there was a nasty little voice deep inside my mind whispering of programme errors and what a computer freak would enjoy putting into a test run of any game. Action, probably. A lot of action. And up until now this had been a very relaxing holiday.
During my trek to Rivendell I had thought myself quite the ranger, admiring how far I had been able to walk each day. Elrohir had obviously a different opinion on how far a ranger could walk a day and how much time should be spent resting than I had.
I did not complain. I kept silent and I kept up. Get real, would you act like the ultimate Mary-Sue and ask the most handsome male creature you ever laid eyes on to slow down, because you – self-proclaimed ranger of the North – had blisters on your feet and only wanted to sit down? Surely not. I did not say a word and walked as fast as I could manage. Lingering thoughts of orcs crouching behind boulder on either side of the road sped me on well past what I thought my limit of endurance.
When I was tired enough to stumble every three steps, Elrohir finally slowed down.
"We did not get quite as far as I wanted to get today, but I can see that you are very tired. I think we should stay here for the night." He moved to the left of the trail, leading me into a hollow below a huge boulder. At the bottom of the hollow was the dark mark of old fires lit there. "Rangers and Elves have used this place for hundreds of years. We will be as safe here as we can possibly be."
I just nodded mutely at him, slumping to the ground, too tired to even take off my backpack. I dozed off at once, and in my restless dreams I kept on walking, looking at the ground before my feet, and watching my steps, losing myself in the rhythm.
Suddenly I jerked awake. A soft touch had scared me out of my dreams. My heart racing I stared wildly about me. A fire had been lit, and Elrohir knelt on the ground next to me, having slid my pack off my back. His eyes were gleaming like grey stars in the light of the fire. "Sorry, I did not want to wake you. But you did not seem very comfortable with the backpack dragging you down."
I stretched and felt several kinks in my spine crack softly. I groaned lowly. "I guess I am not a really good ranger."
Elrohir grinned at me. "But you did keep up."
I felt myself grinning back. "I did, didn't I?"
Suddenly my look-out at the world had acquired a much more cheerful note.
Elrohir turned back to the fire, fiddling around with it to prevent it from smoking or something. I bent down and took off my shoes and socks. Oh my… that did not look really pretty. Apparently my trip to Rivendell had been something of a Sunday's walk.
I contemplated the raw flesh at my feet. Tomorrow would be literally bloody hell on two feet.
I sighed. Could not be helped. Others had done stunts like that, so I could do it, too.
A fragrant smell tickled my nostrils and made me look up. Elrohir had suspended a kettle from three long branches crossed above the fire. Tea or something. The sweet and pungent fragrance was refreshing in itself and I inhaled it deeply, feeling the pain in my back recede, and the rugged beauty of the landscape returning to my eyes.
"This smells like heaven", I said. "What is it?"
Elrohir turned to me and favoured me with one of his penetrating stares. "It's athelas. In past ages all rangers knew about its healing powers."
I grimaced. This was why in real life none of those Mary-Sue stories floating around the internet would ever work. A normal twenty-first century person was not used to walking either the distance or at the kind of speed and Elf or a ranger needed, and even the most ferocious fan would not remember all the little details of every day life to make it as a tenth walker.
And why did I have this absurd feeling that Elrohir knew exactly what and who I was? Damn it, the only one who was supposed to really know about things was me! This was my game, only a game. And what the hell did anyone play at including bleeding blisters in a computer game. I stubbed my toe at a rock and moaned.
"The infusion is almost ready", Elrohir told me. "Your feet will be good as new, come morning." He was preparing an infusion for my feet? I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks. F… I guess I could count myself lucky I had not decided to play the game as an elf. Thinking about the blunders I would have made then did not bear thinking of.
Increasing my embarrassment beyond bounds, Elrohir walked over and crouched at my feet. "You should have told me to slow down." He poured the hot infusion in a wooden bowl and mixed it with cool water from his bottle. The aroma was rousing me above my feeling of intense abashment. He tested the temperature of the mixture with his slender index-finger, and then gripped my left foot at the ankle, gently lifting it a few inches. He poured the warm herbal infusion slowly over my foot, carefully moistening the sore areas.
I gasped, and then forced myself to relax under his ministrations, which was more than a little difficult. His warm, firm grip of my ankle released a host of butterflies in the pit of my stomach, and the way the athelas took away the pain and soreness of my foot was pure bliss. He turned to me with a smile before he proceeded to the other foot, and I almost could not breathe, looking into starlit Elvish eyes.
Afterwards I felt well enough to eat some supper and offer to take the first watch. But Elrohir smiled again, shaking his head. "That won't be necessary. As I said, I have not seen any orcs in these mountains for more than a hundred years. And we Elves can rest with our eyes open. You can sleep you human sleep without worrying."
"I knew you sleep with you eyes open", I said grumpily. He looked at me thoughtfully. "Did you, now?"
What had I said now to rouse his suspicion? I suppressed a sudden mad impulse to tell him I had come into this story by the means of a computer and that for me all of this was only a game.
I clenched my teeth and remained silent.
I stayed sitting on my side of the fire watching the Elf for quite some time. He was lying on his back propped up again a rock, his profile outlined by the fire. He was looking off into the darkness, away from the fire, to keep the light from impairing his vision. He had braided his hair at the nape of his neck, which emphasized the elegant bone structure of his head. The tips of his ears seemed to be so white as to be almost translucent. He looked absolutely alien, and yet much more than only handsome. He was beautiful. And he was an Elf, whatever else he might be.
Watching Elrohir I finally drifted off to sleep, resuming our walk in my dreams, following narrow trails through steep mountains and dark forests until I was suddenly shaken awake.
It was absolutely dark. The only light came from the myriad of stars blazing in the night sky.
Elrohir was crouching next to me, covering my mouth with his hand to prevent any inadvertent noise. "Yrch!" He whispered into my ear.
I was wide awake at once, adrenalin rushing through my veins, my heart thumping madly.
Was there the hint of a foul and evil smell drifting to me from the darkness?
Was that a sound of branch, which should not have broken if it was moved only by the wind?
I felt the hilt of my sword shoved into my right hand. "Ten", Elrohir whispered into my ear. "Hit them at the stomach or the throat with all the strength you have. Grip with both hands. We stay back to back as long as possible." I felt him squeeze my hand and then he turned, putting his back against my back. I moved slowly, getting my legs under me, ready to jump up. My hands felt cold and clammy, my heart was racing somewhere in my throat.
A grunt, a thump, suddenly dark shapes were moving towards us.
Glimpses of teeth and claws, green and yellow eyes glinting in the light of the stars.
One of the things jumped at me, and with an involuntary scream I swung up my sword. It connected with the body, the impact so hard it almost wrenched the sword from my grasp. But the monstrous shape kept coming, stinking hot breath on my cheeks.
A strength born of fear for my life made me lift my sword again and slash at the throat of the creature. It was an awkward angle, and I did not have much strength, but he did not expect this strike and suddenly a warm flood of stinking blood gushed into my face. I gasped and coughed, my stomach heaving, but before I had time to vomit, I was down on the ground, another of the creatures on top of me, ripping at my shirt, trying to get at my flesh.
My sword had flown away into the darkness. I was flailing with my arms and my legs, scrabbling helplessly, trying to ward off the foe. Without meaning to, I suddenly felt the hilt of my dagger pressed against my arm. And all at once, my mind cleared and became cool and quiet. Still striking out wildly with my legs and the left hand, I drew the dagger with my right, keeping it unobtrusively close to the ground.
Then the wild and ugly thing above me reared up, yelling its triumph, believing to have me for sure – and with my last strength I thrust up my right, and kept going straight into its face and into its eye. Something hot and slimy hit me in the face, again I felt the spray of blood against my skin, first hot, then cool and sticky, stinking death all over me.
From far away I heard someone screaming, only dimly recognizing the voice as my own.
Somehow I got up, and turned around trying to discern what was going on in the dark of the night. More shapes were lying on the ground and I saw three or four moving shadows, the screams of wild and evil creatures echoing through the mountain night.
Suddenly there was silence. The only noise I heard was my own laboured breathing.
"Elrohir?" I gasped. A slender dark shape drifted up to me out of the shadows.
"Yé! I'm here. Well fought, ranger from the North." He had the grace to sound slightly out of breath. I felt my knees give out under me and slid to the ground giggling softly with the shock and the horror of the unexpected attack. Ranger from the North! If only he knew!
Suddenly I felt hot tears running down my blood smeared cheeks.
"Shhh, Jarro. All is well, you fought bravely. They are gone." A dark voice whispered into my ear, and I felt strong arms supporting my shaking body. I collapsed against Elrohir, weeping without really knowing why. He held me close for the rest of the night, only letting go to rekindle the fire.
The cold light of dawn brought me awake. I was lying huddled in a blanket against Elrohir. His left arm was curled protectively around me, his right hand held a sword. His eyes were open, surveying the area. My face was itching, and when I put my fingers up to my cheek, I felt a sticky crust of a glue like substance flaking off against my finger nails. I sat up straight, the memories of the night returning with undiminished horror. I looked at my fingers. The bits of substance I had scraped of my cheek were flakes of dried black blood. It stank like offal.
I had only just the time to stumble away from Elrohir and fall down on my knees before my stomach revolted, spilling a copious amount of nasty fluids into trampled grass dark with blood. I felt someone hold onto my shoulders, or I would have fallen back and collapsed onto the soiled ground. I felt a wet cloth wiping my face, and reached up to take the cloth with shaking hands from Elrohir. Before my face was clean, the cloth was black with orc blood.
Elrohir took the cloth and wrung it out, pouring clear water on the rag and passing it back to me. Finally my face was clean and my gasping breath had become almost even again. Only then I grew aware of a burning sensation above my breasts. I looked down at my breasts, and between my breasts and my collarbone my shirt was ripped and hanging away in tatters. A bloody gash showed all over the front of my body, and had begun to bleed again from my fierce movements in my panicky attempts to get the dark orc blood off my face.
"Elrohir, I think I am wounded. I am bleeding." My voice sounded thin and frightened in my ears. The elf turned to me with worry in his eyes. His left cheek bone was bloodied and bruised, but apart from this little scrape he appeared to be unhurt.
"Let me have a look." His voice was calm and commanding. I only pointed at the front of my shirt. "Lie down and breathe deeply." I did as I was told. I felt his warm fingertips carefully following the gash in my skin. "Only a superficial cut. I will clean it and put some salve on it. Don't worry. It will heal to nothing." I heard him rummage around the remains of the camp. Then the soothing fragrance of the athelas infusion reached my nostrils. I inhaled the calming scent of the kingsfoil, relaxing slightly.
I would survive.
With touches of exquisite softness Elrohir cleaned the wound, slathered it with a fragrant salve and bandaged it. Then he helped me into one of my spare shirts. I was shivering uncontrollably again.
"What happened?" I managed to choke out. I felt Elrohir shrug, even as he put his arms around me once more. "Just calm down, Jarro." I forced myself to relax, counting slowly my breaths, trying to listen for the soothing pause between inhaling and exhaling. After a time, I felt Elrohir incline his head ever so slightly. "That's better. Ten orcs attacked us at three o'clock in the morning. Probably a hunting party. You killed two; I killed five, the remaining three fled into the night." He told me, his voice calm and matter-of-factly. "How do you feel? We should try to get as far away from the mountains as possible today."
"They will come after us?" My voice was trembling.
"Yes." I was suddenly looking into a pair of bright grey eyes full of compassion and concern.
I cleared my throat, wincing at the pain across my front. But the pain quickly faded to a tolerable ache. I sat up, leaning heavily onto my arms. I inhaled deeply, still feeling somewhat shaky. "I'm alright. We can get going in a minute or two."
Elrohir shook his head at me, but after half an hour or so we were indeed ready to go, although I was happy to have the support of my walking staff – the souvenir from the Prancing Pony – as my knees still felt weak and mushy.
Elrohir had moved the carcasses of the dead orcs away from the camp site, but I insisted on going to have a look at the creatures I had killed. In the light of the sun the dead skin had turned from black to grey, and they were, although still big and strong not anymore the giant shadows coming at us in the dark.
Gods, were they ugly brutes! Yellow, crooked teeth the length of my smallest finger. Long hairy, pointy ears. Slit, mean, yellow eyes. Their faces were covered with scars and warts and pustules filled with stinking pus. Their claws were sharp and dirty and some were covered with the black spots of drying mud. But nevertheless, as I looked at the gaping second maw my sword had cut across the throat of the first orc I had fought, and the pained grimace of the second, preserved in the rigour of death of the second, clawing helplessly at his eye – they had been living, breathing creatures, evil and vile, but alive. And I had killed them. I swallowed hard, at a loss not only for words but thoughts, not knowing what to think, either of those demons, or of myself, cutting down those demons and killing them.
Speed was called for today, and the pain across my breast and the burning of my feet notwithstanding, I hurried along behind Elrohir as if I already felt the foul breath of orcs at my neck.
It was already late in the evening, when we reached a great river flowing to the South.
"This is the Anduin. A few miles on is an old ford. We can cross the river there and be relatively safe for the night." Elrohir told me. I felt alternately hot and cold with fever and exhaustion, his words barely registering as an explanation a ranger from the North should not need.
"Okay," I said, my voice more a croak than anything else.
I trudged along behind Elrohir in the twilight, feeling tired to my bones, almost beyond caring, if orcs were just behind me scenting for my life's blood or not.
When the icy floods of the river suddenly lapped at my feet, I jerked out of my semi-conscious state, almost screaming with the shock of the cold to my feverish flesh.
"Hmm…" Even this soft noise was exhausting.
"Can you hold on to my arm? We have to get across the river, then we can make camp and you can sleep. But we have to get across the river. They loose the scent in the water. They don't like the water." Elrohir. That was Elrohir's voice, sounding urgent.
Crossing the river. Holding his arm. I could do that. In a blink. I was a ranger from the North, after all. I grasped at his arm like a drowning swimmer.
I stumbled through the icy floods of the Anduin hanging on to Elrohir's arms, more than once loosing my footing, only the Elf's extraordinary strength keeping me from being swept away into the dark.
I never knew how we made it across and where Elrohir decided to rest for the night. I remember the shadow of a tree and the flickering flames of a fire, a tender hand smearing my wound with a fragrant salve – and then nothing. Blissful darkness and a sleep with no dreams at all.
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.