Quarry in the Wood
Silence. Like a bell it was, pure and crisp, a whisper yet without form, punctured at times by the strident chirruping of insects and the eerie melodies of birds. In the deeps of the wood, beneath a black dome flecked with white fire, a shade moved amongst the silent trees. The indigo and ebony shades of nightfall seemed drawn about its form, as though to obscure its presence and purpose. Its steps were soundless, disturbing no leaf or twig as it passed, though it moved with no small haste. Now and again there would stab through the ebon-leaved crowns of the trees a shaft of silver light: a gift of the full Moon, whose delicate rays were too oft turned aside by the forest's great canopy. The specter of movement would then pause, careful to shun the revealing beams, and when the breeze once more shifted the lofty shield of leaves into its prior arrangement, the dark form continued on, unseen, undetected.
Such was the conduct of a hunting Elf of Mirkwood. His eyes glinted in what little light there was to be had, and though mortal Men would have squinted terribly and cursed their luck--to be caught in such a darkened pit with no light!--the Elves possessed the keen eyes of the eagles, and so the hunter saw his prey with perfect clarity. His feet trod lightly upon the forest floor as he trailed the creature, and it remained oblivious to his presence. A smile touched his lips; his folk were from birth gifted with heightened senses, and were therefore acutely attuned to their environs, so much so that only rarely could an Elf be taken by surprise. Thus, the hunter found it somewhat amusing that he could so easily follow his quarry without detection.
The creature had emerged from a standing of large trees, ancient trees of roughened bark and wide girth, with no easily reached branches for climbing. The Elves of Mirkwood did not often venture near to that particular assemblage of trees, for an ill air lingered about them, akin to the smell of fire and smoke, although there was no visible flame. There were sweeter scents as well, but their cause was no more apparent than was that of the smoldering aroma. The hunter had been attracted by one such saccharine whiff, a pleasant fragrance wafting about the nearby woods, and though he was already belatedly returned from his watch at the northern border of the kingdom, he had decided to turn aside in hopes of discovering the source of the peculiar scent. After the fashion of his people, he had approached the monoliths cautiously and unperceivably. There he had sighted the creature departing from within the shadows caught between the trees' massive trunks. Such an unnatural shape it was, and so suddenly appeared, that the Elven guard had thought it best if he traced its movements and discovered its nature, and moreover, its intent.
So it was that the hunter had begun his pursuit. As yet, he had not determined what manner of creature he followed, although he suspected it to be some sort of Dwarf. If a Dwarf it was, then it was the strangest of their folk the Elf had ever encountered. It was shorter than any of that so-called "stunted" people, and lighter of tread. Its face remained turned away from the hunter, and neither could he discern the coloring of its skin or raiment. Yet he trailed it, and with little exertion; though light its steps were, its feet made enough clamor against the leaves and twigs so that the Elf's sensitive tipped ears could easily catch at the sound. He had been tracking his quarry for nigh on an hour when he finally grew impatient; he wished to satisfy his interest and return to his home for well-deserved rest.
Therefore, moving with care and precision, the Elf hastened his steps and traveled some distance ahead of the creature, slipping through the tree-shade. He knew that they would soon reach one of the clear pathways that cut through the forest's gloom, and when his prey stepped out into the sheer radiance afforded by the Moon and stars, he intended to finally confront the puzzling little stranger. So he waited, well-concealed by brush and shadow, and listened to the approaching footsteps. As he had anticipated, the creature was quick to escape the eerie murk of the forest--the same gloom which had given the realm its moniker, for it had once been known as Greenwood the Great--and it gave a low sigh of relief as it turned its face upwards to the Moon's bright rays.
The hunter studied his prey for a moment before challenging it. Its features were rounded and smooth, unusually so; above plump cheeks rested a pair of widely-spaced eyes, which resembled twin saucers in the glaring brilliance, so anxious was the creature's stare. The mouth was small by comparison, formed into an O, with the bulb chin quivering ever so slightly. Its complexion was ghastly pale, and the thick tufts of hair poking from beneath its cap were likewise pallid. Its clothing was of bright hue, at sharp odds with its sallow features. In truth, it was the most peculiar sort of creature that the Elf had ever chanced to witness. He had never seen its like.
The creature stood in the middle of the path, looking first this way, then that, as if unsure of what direction it would take. The hunter had no intention of allowing it to traverse one step further without first discovering, at last, to what folk it belonged and to what purpose it had come forth from concealment. He rose from the thicket behind which he had hidden himself, and with a ready arrow nocked to his bow, he stepped out into the path, some few paces from the creature. "Be still," he commanded in his own tongue.
The creature spun to face the Elf, and as it caught sight of the fletched shaft directed between its rounded eyes, it gave a small gasp. "Oh, oh my," it stammered. Its fleshy features trembled as it looked from the arrow to the Elf--who stood twice its own height--and back again. "I didn't--that is, I wouldn't have--what are you going to do to me?" it asked waveringly.
The Elf did not lower his bow, although he found his prey laughable. It was shivering in obvious terror, seemingly unarmed. It had spoken in the Common tongue of Men, and fortunately the Elven guard knew that speech. "Who are you, and of what manner of folk do you hail?" he asked.
The creature's protruding eyes never left the arrow. "I am a worker. Doomed to slave in the Master's kitchen day and night." The creature gave a pitiful sniff. "'Twas from that horrible place that I have escaped this past hour."
The Elf felt a twinge of sympathy for the miserable being. "What is your name, fleeing one?" he asked.
The creature sniffed again. "I don't have one, sir. The Master gives us all a designation so that we're recognizable as his, but we don't have real names."
"No names?" The Elf shook his head slightly, unable to imagine any living thing being so stripped of identity as to have no personal name.
"No." The small creature pushed its hair back from its eyes, tucking the stray locks behind its ears. Only then did the Elf see that his quarry's ears were sharply tipped, more so than those of any Elf.
"I ask again, little one, from what folk do you hail?" the Elf asked, narrowing his eyes.
"I'm an Elf, sir," the creature replied.
"Nay, that cannot be, for you bear no resemblance to any of my folk," the Elf told it. "I am Elven, a guard of Mirkwood, the realm of Thranduil. What land do your kind inhabit?"
The creature shrugged helplessly. "I do not know. We have been enslaved to the Master for as long as I can remember." It peered up at the Elf. "Perchance, do you know the Master?" Its gaze turned fearful. "Are you going to turn me in to him?"
"Nay, fleeing one, I shall not turn you over to a cruel master," the Elf assured his onetime quarry. "But what is this Master's name?"
"We do not even speak his name aloud. It is forbidden," the creature explained. "Here, I have his name inscribed on my arm. It is the mark by which we are all known as his own."
The creature pulled up his sleeve and showed the single word written into his pale skin. The Elven guard read the word, absorbed it, but shook his head. "Nay, I know him not. I shall take word to my king, however, and perhaps if the threat is deemed great enough, we shall ride against your Master and put an end to his cruelty."
A small smile broke across the creature's rounded features. "Oh, that would be splendid! To free all of my people, so that we can find a land of our own. I would never have to carve a face into another of the Master's treats?"
"Carve a face?" the Elf repeated questioningly.
"The Master hates my folk so, but he will not kill us because we are the only ones with the skill to make such treats as he likes," the creature explained sadly. "So he bids us carve our faces into the treats, so that as he consumes them he may imagine that it is our own mangled corpses that he grinds between his teeth."
The Elf hissed slightly. "That is terrible indeed, and I would that your Master were at the end of this arrow," he said. "But I must return to my home now, and there I shall speak to my king. Will you come also, little one?"
The creature shook its head. "No, I don't think so. I might have before, but not now."
"What have I done to dissuade you so?" the Elf asked in confusion. "Where will you go, if not with me?"
"I will return to my duties in the Master?s kitchen, and quickly, before my absence is discovered," the creature answered. "You have given me hope that we will one day be free, and I would be a barbaric thing if I did not return to share that hope with my fellow slaves."
The Elf smiled then, and placed a slender hand on his former prey's thickset shoulder. "You are a noble one," he said. "Do you know the way back to your Master's realm, or shall I escort you?"
The creature shook his head. "No, I know the way back. But thank you." He turned to leave, saying, "Please, let our rescue come soon, for there has been word that the Master intends to triple our workload in order that he might sell our craftsmanship for profit."
The Elf swallowed his anger and bade the small creature a good night and farewell. When the creature had once more disappeared into the forest, the Elf also turned about and made his way toward his home. He intended to go to the king as soon as the Sun's fiery disc broke the horizon, for his miserable prey's words had made him uneasy. Such a cruel and perhaps powerful personage as the Master could not surely be permitted to remain in Thranduil's realm, in especial because he kept slaves, a practice which the Elvenking detested.
The Elven guard repeated the name that he had seen upon the creature's arm, for he wished to be certain that he would remember it on the morrow. The name of the Master fairly reeked with evil, so much so that the Elf's eyes narrowed in revulsion.
Note: I actually like the cookies, don't get me wrong, but do they have to carve those disturbing little faces on them? (shudder)
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.