Only a Game
Suddenly I recalled our flight from the High Pass the day before and sat straight up, groaning as a burning pain rippled across my chest. I looked at the wound below my collarbone. It was cleanly bandaged, and when I moved with care it did not hurt very much.
My feet were throbbing dully along with the wound across my chest. They felt as if we had run the distance of two day in one.
"We have… almost. But it's two days since the attack. You were a bit feverish the first day; I don't think you ever noticed when we stopped at the foot of the Misty Mountains to rest for a few hours." Elrohir stepped under the branches of the tree and smiled at me. His hair was wet from washing, and he wore a fresh white shirt loosely over his leggings.
I thought back, and could not come up with any recollection of the first night of running away from the orcs. I remembered pain and running and trying to get back my breath and then the cold waters of the Anduin, but it was all in jumbled bits and pieces in my memory, like a jig-saw puzzle. "They won't follow us here?" I asked, trying to keep any undertone of fear out of my voice.
Elrohir shook his head. "No, they won't. We are no far from Taur e-Ndaedelos and this great wood is free from evil this day and age. Thranduil, King of Mirkwood and Lord Celeborn of Lothlorien drove away the darkness from Mirkwood after the War of the Rings and renamed it Eryn Lasgalen. It has been home to Elves for a long time, and even though they are gone, traces of their power remain, and good men and their families have moved to the forest. No evil creature will dare cross the Anduin here."
I felt an almost palpable relief. "That's reassuring."
Then I remembered about the plan to follow his brother's trail across the mountains to the North. "But what about your brother? You said that you think he hiked across the Misty Mountains to the North and only later turned probably into Eryn… Lasgalen." I kept forgetting that Mirkwood was not Mirkwood anymore in the fourth age.
Elrohir sighed. "That is true. But the orcs followed us almost to the banks of the Anduin. We cannot return to the Misty Mountains now. We would barely be safe with a company of accomplished Elvish warriors, and certainly not with only the two of us."
A horrible thought occurred to me. "Do you think, your brother…" I could not go on.
"No", Elrohir said, but his voice betrayed a certain tension. "I questioned one of those vile creatures. They have no prisoners at the moment and there has been no fight to put the fear of Elves into them recently. They would not have dared to attack us, had they encountered Elladan during the last months. Or at least not with a group of only ten scouts."
I hoped he was right. And why shouldn't he be, after all, he was the expert, both Elf and ranger and a warrior from the War of the Rings.
"Where do we go from here, then?" I asked.
"We are now at the Old Ford, a good day's march from the beginning of the Old Forest Road, the Men-i-Naugrim, which crosses Taur-En-Daedelos from the West to the East. It's a straight road and should be still kept in order. I think we should take this way. It will be easy on your wound and on the other side of the forest we can turn north and travel to Lake Town and Dale to ask for news of my brother." Elrohir fell silent, and there were shadows lurking in the depth of his bright grey eyes.
"Why did you wait so long to go looking for him?" I blurted out and regretted my bluntness instantly. This was nothing of my business.
Elrohir sat down in the shadow of the tree a few feet away from me, fingering the wet tendrils of his hair. Then he looked up at me. A fleeting expression of pain passed over his face. "I could not believe he would simply stay away, without sending any message… knowing that our time here is nearly over." The elegant lines of his face tightened, giving away nothing of his feelings, but his eyes betrayed him, darkening to an almost black colour again.
"We were always together in the past, never separated for more than a few days. But now…"
His voice trailed off.
He had to be thinking the same thing I was thinking. His brother going off like that, just before they were supposed to leave for Aman to claim their immortal Elvish heritage… To me that sounded as if Elladan was not really sure about leaving Middle-earth. And if Elladan decided to stay and Elrohir wished to go to the Blessed Realm, their parting would be forever, beyond the destruction and remaking of Arda. I shuddered at the thought of spending all eternity without the person one loved the most and was closest to. Then I frowned at myself, remembering that at the moment I had no person at all I felt really close to.
And although I really loved my brother, I did hardly notice if half a year went by and I did not hear from him. After all, we were both adults and had our own lives. Strange, really; I had not expected Elves to feel so intensely about their family. But perhaps it was only a twin thing. Twins were special, even in the real world; there were any number of scientific studies this special bond most twins had.
Elrohir's voice interrupted my musings. "Hmmm?" I made, not having understood a word he had been saying. "Sorry, I was a world away in my thoughts."
"I said whether you wanted to have a bath first and breakfast later, or the other way around."
Bath? I lifted my arm and sniffed. My hair felt sticky and tangled, too. Bath!
"I think a bath sounds fine. The river's safe?"
Elrohir nodded. "There is a pool at the edge of the river down there", he pointed to the some boulders at the edge of the grassy slopes leading down to the river. "The current does not reach it. But don't venture out of it; the currents of the Anduin are strong and treacherous, even up here."
"I will be careful, I promise." I got up, stretching my aching back, careful not to put a strain on the wound. My backpack had been put up against a gnarled root. I opened it and rummaged among my things until I found the large towel, my brush, the soap and the toothbrush.
Then I walked down to the edge of the river. The Anduin was indeed a mighty river, watching the waves crashing against some boulders in the middle of the river, white spray flying high into the air I got an inkling of the strength of the Anduin's currents. I would make sure to stay in the rocky pool at the edge of the river.
I climbed down to the sun warmed boulders and pulled of my clothes. With extreme care I removed the bandage from my chest and was relieved to see only a crusted red line. It was a clean, shallow cut and it was not inflamed. No need to call things off because of this scratch. Although it did hurt, and itch. I grimaced. I sat down on a boulder at the edge of the clear water pooled among large boulders in a little cove. Slowly, carefully I lowered my feet to the surface of the water and gasped with shock. Only just in time I managed to suppress a completely undignified squeal. The water was cold as ice!
I shivered at the thought of submerging in water that cold. But I felt horribly sweaty and dirty.
And that Elf… he had stayed in there long enough to wash hair, which was a good deal longer than my own shoulder-length brown curls. Well, not really curls, more like soft waves, but tangling into knots and creating a mess just like real curls.
One – two – three – I lost my dignity and screamed. "Did you hurt yourself?" Elrohir had materialized out of thin air and was kneeling above me on the boulder I had just slipped down from. I was hopping to and fro in the icy water, only just remaining upright by clinging to a ledge of the boulder. "No, no", I gasped. "I'm alright. But this water is bloody, damn cold!"
I gasped again, as a wave struck the back of my neck, continuing my hopping motion in order to get accustomed to the cold of the water. Slowly my heart beat returned to normal and I felt the smooth expanse of another boulder under my feet, giving me a more secure footing.
I looked up and found Elrohir still kneeling on the rock with the strangest expression on his face. I followed his gaze and realized belatedly that I was buck naked and that my jumping up and down had set my relatively full breasts bobbing up and down. I felt the blood rush into my head. I was probably blushing furiously and had nowhere to hide.
"Would you mind looking the other way?" I asked, when the Elf did not turn away of his own accord.
I stared up at the beautiful angular face and was rewarded with the sight of an unmistakable blush spreading across the pearly white skin, all the way up to the delicate tips of his ears.
He turned around at once. "I – er – will go up to the tree – keeping look-out. Just yell when – er –"
"I'll shout when anything happens", I promised to his back.
"Yé", was the answer and he was gone.
I exhaled deeply and submerged completely. Gods, was the water cold. But suddenly it felt exhilarating, too. I felt the tangles of my hair float away freely in the slight current moving fresh water into the pool. When I came up again, I had adjusted to the cold of the river and felt quite comfortable. I brushed out my wet hair, suppressing valiantly any further squeals when a tangle proved to be particularly nasty. Then I climbed one of the boulders so that the water only lapped at my ankles and slathered myself with the soap. Real shower gel is much better, of course. But you can get reasonably clean in a river with a bar of soap.
After getting my body clean I set to work soaping my hair. It was quite a bit of work to get enough foam out of the soap to clean my hair. I submerged again, opening my eyes under water and admiring the clear quality of the Anduin's water. The water was absolutely translucent and the white, grey and reddish rocks looked really beautiful with the current washing over their smooth surfaces. My hair was floating with the current, I felt light and clean and wonderful, almost like a mermaid.
I climbed out of the water and wrung my hair out. With only the one thin towel there was no way to rub it dry. I took one look at my clothes and decided to get out my spare clothes. Tying the towel around me I walked up to the tree. Elrohir was nowhere in sight. All the better. I could get dressed in privacy. I got out my spare things, bandaged the wound again clumsily and dressed. Loose green trousers of a thick, sturdy cloth, bra, a cream coloured linen shirt, a green tunic, the leather belt with my purse and the dagger attached to it, and I was ready to go.
"Elrohir? Are you somewhere?" I called out and jumped almost a foot into the air, when the Elf dropped out of the branches of the tree landing smoothly next to me. What if he had watched me dress? Only a game, I told myself. Only a game. But my heart beat like a drum nevertheless. "What is it?"
"I was only wondering whether we could stay here for the night. I could wash my things then. That is… if it's safe." I looked at him, trying to interpret his expression. Was it terribly idiotic to want to wash clothes when on a quest like this?
"I thought we'd stay for the night to give you some time to recover." Elrohir told me.
Give me time to recover? The wound hurt a bit, and my feet felt stiff, but I did not feel the need to recover. Cleaned up I felt positively splendid.
Give a ranger time to recover from a little run in with some orcs… and how could an Elf, who did not really exist doubt my masquerade? Is a table a table or do you only believe it is a table? Can you discover at all, whether a table is a table is a table or only the image of the table? I walked back to the pool with my dirty clothes and the soap, my thoughts getting into a knot of what I had had to read about Plato in my philosophy class at university.
When I knelt on a low rock at the edge of the river scrubbing away at my clothes, the water cold on my fingers, the cloth wet and heavy in my hands, everything feeling as real as can be, I realized that my grasp of what was real and what possibly could not be real, was fraying.
But somehow I could not make myself go up to the tree and take out the box with the little switch. Even the possibility of a nice dinner with the handsome young physician was fading with each day into the hazy memory of another life, in another world.
I wrung out my clothes and spread them on the boulders in the sun, hoping they would be reasonably dry by morning.
I would accompany Elrohir to Dale. Then I would get out of the game. That was a good plan. I would see the town of dwarves and men; I could have a look at the splendid architecture Glóin had told Frodo of at the dinner in Rivendell before the Council of Elrond. Elladan would perhaps have left a message there. Even with the pending decision weighing heavy on his heart, I could not imagine that he would leave his brother after thousands of years with no message at all. Everything would be fine and I would go home.
Why then could I not dispel this nasty feeling that nothing was fine and that the fact of no message at all from Elladan boded no good?
The next morning dawned bright and warm, another perfect summer's day. It did not stay perfect long. Elrohir declared that we should start the day with some fighting practice.
Posing as a ranger I could hardly refuse, although the following hour was enough to shatter any pretence of my being in any way related to the Dúnedain of old.
An hour later I sat in the shadow of the tree, gasping for air, feeling as if I had been kicked by a mule not once, but a score of times, emptying a bottle with the cool water from the river in about five swallows.
Elrohir, on the other hand, had no hair out of place and was breathing evenly, looking perfectly at ease and rested. But he smiled at me encouragingly. "You have real talent, Jarro. You are sure-footed and for a woman you are tall and strong. With a bit of practice no orc will score you as easily as back on the pass."
I stared at him, not quite believing this kind of praise. "Do you really believe that?" I could not keep a trace of incredulity out of my voice.
He frowned at that. "Of course I do. Why should I lie to you?"
And why should he? He was not Mike, who had told me he thought my passion for fairy tales and fantasy stories cute until shouting at me to get real and start living in the world as it really was.
The road leading towards the dark expanse of forest to the East was straight and level. It was, of course, not a real road, but only a stretch of bare packed dirt, what we would call a field lane, suitable for sturdy coaches and horses, and of course, for wanderers such as Elrohir and myself. It was easy walking nevertheless, just as Elrohir had promised. The sun was shining brightly and a soft breeze kept lifting the dark strands of the Elf's hair. He had left it open today, and I was continually looking at the silky twilit waves floating on the air in front of me.
Jarro, you looser, I thought. Not enough to fall for one idiot after the other, you develop a crush on a programmed figure in a computer game. It would almost be better to join the ranks of all those teenagers pining for a certain blonde actor from the LOTR movies.
Perhaps, if – when – I left the game, I could persuade the glamorous Mr. Smith to present me with a screen shot of Elrohir.
But I felt pretty miserable at this thought and increased my speed, catching up with Elrohir. "It's a good day for walking, isn't it?" I said, hoping for a bit of conversation. The Elf looked at the sea of tall trees we were approaching. There was a hint of a smile playing around his lips. "Yes, it is. We make good speed and the wind and the sun tell only of the peaceful goings-on of all the usual small creatures of these regions. Everything is calm. We walk well together. Our feet have the same rhythm."
"Really?" I looked down at our feet. And indeed, he was right. We were moving at exactly the same speed, with a flowing, easy pace. Interesting. Too interesting. Watching our feet made me miss a hole in the road. I stumbled and would have fallen, if Elrohir had not caught me at my left elbow. I swayed against him, feeling an almost electric shock of the contact prickle along my skin. I felt myself blushing once again. Jarro, the ranger – what a joke!
"I probably should keep looking at where I am walking nevertheless", I said, feeling embarrassed. "Probably", Elrohir agreed, looking at me with his grey eyes shining. Slowly, almost reluctantly, he released my arm. Or had I imagined that?
In the evening we had reached the edge of the wood. Mirkwood, or rather Eryn Lasgalen turned out to be not a forbidding forest of dark fir trees, but rather a mixed forest of leaved trees and needle trees, with underbrush in various stages of growth. I recognized oaks, beeches, ashes, firs, spruce and even some pines. The forest exuded a warm, spicy scent of wood and herbs, woodruff and resin melting in the sun.
I inhaled deeply. "The wood smells wonderful, don't you think? The very perfume of summer." I tilted my head back and inhaled again, tasting the air. When I looked over at the Elf, he was mirroring me, standing with face tilted up at the branches, his eyes closed, concentrating on his other senses. There was a stillness to him, standing tall and lithe as a willow wand in front of the slender trunk of young birch tree, with his black hair moving slightly with the breeze, he seemed more like a tree, a growing thing of wilderness, than anything human. He really was not human, I realized once again, and shiver ran down my spine, making the tiny hairs on my arms stand up. He was not human at all, he was something else, an alien creature, who could talk to a tree and be answered in kind.
Suddenly he broke his stance, shaking his head and smiling at me with an open, happy smile of pure joy, which reminded me of the delight small children sometimes display on discovering a tiny flower or a pretty pebble. "Indeed, the perfume of summer. You make me feel young again, Jarro. It's been a long time since I walked with a human through mountains and woods. I think we can stay here for the night."
"Lovely idea", I said and threw my backpack on the ground. I pulled off my shoes and socks and enjoyed the feeling of soft green moss under my toes. Elrohir had moved off to gather dead wood for a fire; I watched the fluid movements of the Elf bending for a branch, straightening and moving on along the edge of the forest with barely concealed fascination.
If I was able to dance the way the Elf gathered wood, I would not have to worry about getting a new job.
I woke before dawn the next morning, opening my eyes from soothing dreams, feeling instantly awake and clear of mind.
The edge of the forest I was looking at was hazy with silvery mist. Suddenly something moved in the swirls of mist. At first I started, almost expecting ugly black figures breaking out of the woods, running for us with cries of war on their leathery lips, but the mists parted to reveal two animals.
I blinked in amazement. Looking at me from a distance of perhaps thirty feet away was a deer like animal with its young. However, it was not a deer. It looked like mix of a zebra and a horse. Its fur was white as a pearl and gleaming through the mist. The mane was bristly, but its tail was swishy like the tail of a horse. But the feature, which made my heart speed up with wonder and excitement, was the single, slender, white horn on its forehead. The kid was just as white, but it did not have a horn yet. I did not dare to breathe, and watched with fascination, as the unicorn turned and slowly made its way back into the forest, the little one following close behind its mother.
Shortly after the animals had disappeared the sun broke through and the mist dissipated in the first light of another glorious day of sun shine and blue skies.
Walking under the canopy of leaves, the warm rays of the summer sun dancing in green and gold sparkles around us, my heart was filled with delight at being alive in this beautiful and magical world.
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.