"He took all of his things, including the bedroll," Radagast said as he went through the bundle on Baran's back. "Please tell me the fool didn't go traipsing back to the Partridges'? We are six weeks away from them by now. But where else would he have gone?"
Sméagol sat alternately gnawing on a piece of jerked venison and silently petting Nilde, watching the Wizard paw through the bundles.
And then he spoke up.
"I sees Master," he said said with his mouth full.
"Did you?" Radagast said. The words did not quite register with him for a moment, then he abruptly stopped what he was doing and looked at Sméagol.
"I sees Master," Sméagol repeated swallowing. "Him dances with pretty lady."
Radagast set down the bag of dried fruits. "Do you mean Frodo?"
"Yesss," Sméagol nodded eagerly. "Him dances with pretty lady. Lots of people, dancing. Master dressed up pretty too. Looked very happy."
"Oh…you dreamt of him, you mean?"
Sméagol looked thoughtfully at Nilde, his fingertips caressing her ears.
"Him danced with pretty lady," he repeated.
"How did she look?" Radagast asked softly.
"Pretty, pretty, pretty," Sméagol said in dreamy wonder. "Gold hair all curled. Pink dress with silver on it. Pink flowers in her hair. When she dance her skirt fly and show white under, like petals on white flower. And little silver shoes. So pretty, so pretty."
"I saw the same lady," Radagast said after a long moment. "And it seemed not so much like a dream as…as a vision, as if I were entranced and watching. And he was dancing with her, yes, and he looked utterly happy. I knew his features, but he was so different from what he was that one time I met him…It was a wonderful sight. There were others there—it was a wedding, to be sure, but I had eyes only for those two. And you saw all that?"
Sméagol nodded, smiling a bit.
"She is Greenjade's mother," Radagast mused. "I wonder if he saw her also? And where in blazes can he be now? Did he say anything to you about where he was going, by any chance?"
Sméagol shook his head. Radagast tossed the bag to the ground.
"He took no food with him—or very little. Here are some footprints…he went back down this road, it appears. Here are the marks of his staff. I cannot believe he would do this. The fool! Yes, he has been very down, for the past week, ever since we saw that red-haired woman, but still, I did not think he would actually turn back.…"
He paused, cupping a hand at his ear. Sméagol rolled over onto his knees.
"Sméagol, did you hear that? I heard my name…it was his voice calling. I think he's gone and gotten himself lost. He sounded a bit frantic. Stay here with Baran—I'm taking Nilde with me. Perhaps she can help me find him. You know how to build a fire, yes? Stay here until I come back with him. I may be a bit. You won't be frightened here alone?" he added as he saw that Sméagol did indeed look frightened, and that the sky was darkening to an alarming degree.
"Sméagol goes with Brown Master," he said scrambling to his feet.
Greenjade could see their faces well enough, although the campfire was small. They all wore dark clothing and several wore black cloaks, a few with the hoods still over their heads.
They were looking his way—no chance of slipping off without them seeing him now. And even if there were…well, it was getting darker, and where would he go? He would be floundering about in total darkness before long. Although there was a full moon showing already. Something about that full moon…
Then one of them stood, slowly, with his—or her—eyes on Greenjade, and the others rose also, all of them looking in his direction. He stood transfixed, still scarcely knowing whether to stand still or run. None of the others took a step toward him, and he wondered if they wished him to approach. And he was feeling atrociously hungry, wishing he had had the sense to bring food with him, but so distraught had he been when he had left, he simply had not thought of it.
Then he thought of the purse of money hanging from his belt, and wondered absurdly if they wanted it, and how he would keep them from getting it. He had no weapon apart from his staff….
And then he heard a voice speak to him…only, no one was actually speaking. It was the way sea-folk spoke to one another, sending their thoughts through the water…only, they were not in the water, and these were not sea-folk.
Come to us, stranger. We have food. Are you lost?
Greenjade gripped his staff tightly. It seemed he heard laughter among them.
Behind him was naught but darkness.
Why did they not speak aloud?
And he was hungry.
Acting on sheer need, he took a step in their direction. And found himself being gazed upon as though he were not so much the dinner guest, as the dinner itself.
It seemed there were hundreds of them, although there could have been no more than two dozen at the most.
The tallest stepped forth, throwing back the hood of his black cloak. A handsome head appeared, with hair as black and flowing as his own had once been, the face beardless and glowing with that uncanny pallor.
"Welcome, stranger," he said in fluent Westron, yet with a strange accent, and a rusty edge to his voice, as though he did not use it often. It was, in fact, a ruined voice, as though it had been strong and clear once, but something had happened to it to break its music into a hollow clank like a broken bell. "Have you lost your way? But of course you have. Why else would you be wandering about this time of night, with the wings of darkness so close behind you? You have been tramping long in the wild, from the looks of your clothing, and you are tired and hungry. Why not come and share our bounty?"
Greenjade stood silent for a long moment. The fellow seemed friendly enough, but…what was wrong? That which he emanated was not wholesome, to say the least.
"My name is Gaergath," he said, as though he thought giving his name would put the stranger more at ease. And so it did. Somewhat.
"Greenjade," he said, "and I am hungry, indeed. But what…"
Gaergath turned to look back at another hooded figure, who stood behind him and seemed to be eyeing Greenjade rather suspiciously. A smaller one, a child it appeared, although it too was wearing a long cloak with a hood covering its head, stood close to the fire with something in its hands. The taller figure brushed back its hood to reveal a female face, which gazed a long moment at Greenjade, then turned to the small figure and jerked her head.
The small one came timidly toward Greenjade and held out a dish to him. It had what appeared in the darkening light to have something like bread and cheese on it, as well as a bone with a good bit of meat clinging to it. Without thinking he snatched it from the child's hands and stuffed the bread and cheese into his mouth, heedless of a few snickers that went about, sounding rather like insects in a burning barn. The taste scarcely registered with him, as he wolfed it down, and then he grabbed the meat and fairly sucked it off the bones. Rabbit, he figured, not seasoned, not very warm nor very thoroughly cooked, but at any rate, food. No one spoke until he had eaten every particle. He was minded to eat the bone, for a moment, but did not.
Then he looked down and saw that the child was holding out a piece of fruit to him. A plum, he thought. He took it less urgently, saying, "Thank you, little one. Forgive my lack of manners, but I was half starved and scarcely had my wits about me. I lost my way after I became separated from my companions and took no food with me. But I did not mean to deprive you of your supper. I hope that there is more for you?"
He glanced aside at the pile of dead animals once more. Strange, none of them had been prepared for cooking. They still had their skins. The fur seemed dark and matted. He could see the faces of some of them, sad and stunned in the firelight.
"There is plenty," Gaergath said with a soft raspy chuckle. "Come and sit down with us for a while, and rest yourself. Tell us more. From whence did you come? Your speech is not of this land—not this part. Ah, but where are my manners? This—" he turned to the female figure, "is Duathris, and this—" he motioned toward the child, "is Serilinn, her daughter. This ugly one is Amondachol, and that is Hargammeren, and Brennilvuin, and Fanuilith…"
As he named several others, Greenjade looked at Duathris, who was studying him with a little half smile. Her dark hair was simply parted in the middle and hung straight down her back, and her face had a beauty about it that was as stunning as it was cruel, the features fine and blade-sharp, the eyes gleaming with a black consciousness that seemed composed all of lust and decay and madness, slightly red about the irises and with a pinpoint of scarlet light in the very centers. They seemed to be painted around with dark stuff, which gave them the appearance of being ready to pop out of their sockets any moment. Her mouth was darker than any mouth had a right to be, nearly black, even in the moony pallor of her face, the lips very slightly parted, and it seemed she would salivate in another moment. Greenjade felt positively undressed at the moment, the way she was looking at him.
She was not human. That was as obvious as anything could be.
His legs felt very weak all of a sudden. He could not seem to move. And so he turned his eyes and looked down at Serilinn.
She had put back her hood as well, and the face he saw was similar to the mother's, only so completely lacking the evilness, it defied belief. The light of her face was not as the light of the others; it was a faintly golden, candle-like glimmer, the huge eyes full of starry wonder, secret terror, stained beauty and wounded innocence, the lips pressed softly together as if to give each other comfort. She appeared about eleven or twelve in man-years, yet she held the edges of her cloak together as if there were nothing beneath.
She seemed to be begging him for something, although she spoke not a word.
He looked at Duathris once more. She was still gazing at him, and as his eyes met hers, she slowly drew the tip of her tongue over her lips.
Some of the others, both male and female, were looking at him the same way.
For some reason, he thought of the pouch of silver coins that hung at his belt.
He had an absurd notion of offering it to him, in return for his escape.
And then Duathris pinned her eyes to him in a way that paralyzed him completely. He could not do so much as blink. And yet he was entirely conscious.
She glanced fleetingly at Gaergath, who seemed to nod his consent even though his back was mostly turned to her, and then she looked at Greenjade once more, holding him with the vile beauty of those eyes, and her long white hands emerged from her cloak and she flung it back from her. She stood in a gown of solid black, relieved only by a belt of some sort of fabric, the color of which was hard to distinguish, but it was lighter than the gown, which seemed to be a product of her eyes somehow. The sleeves left her forearms bare, and the neckline exposed much of her bosom, which appeared white as bone and as lifeless.
But the most unnerving thing about her was that as she smiled at Greenjade, the others did also, in an almost identical manner, as if they were all controlled by her alone. Serilinn alone drew back…whatever she was, she was not of these.
Then Duathris took a step toward Greenjade, and he thought to step back, but could not move from where he stood. His trousers felt wet all of a sudden. Yet he could not move. She took another step, and another. The others stayed put. Then she was in front of him, the tips of her toes about six inches from his, and she stopped short, and drew back slightly.
"That at your belt," she said, with the same sort of ruined voice as Gaergath, only of a more feminine timbre, "take it off and throw it away."
Greenjade would gladly have done just that—were it not for the fact that he still could not move. Not even to speak.
"Take it off and throw it away," she repeated. He became aware that he was surrounded—these creatures, whatever they were, stood behind him all around, although he had not heard them approach. He remained motionless, expecting the others to spring on him, snatch the pouch from him, and rend him to bits. But none made a move to do so.
"Serilinn," Duathris spoke to the child, "come here and take that which hangs from his belt."
The girl stood where she was, also without moving, looking pleadingly at the mother—if mother she truly was.
"Serilinn, take it now!" she said, and this time the child moved toward Greenjade, pushed aside his cloak with tremulous hands, and found the pouch of silver. Obviously unable to untie the knot, she slipped out a tiny knife and cut the drawstrings, then looked up apologetically at Greenjade.
"Throw it far away," Duathris ordered her, and the girl flung it into the brush, then snatched the hood over her head once more and sank to her knees. Duathris smiled the most terrifying smile imaginable, and she stepped close to her captive once more, and lifted her hands to his cheeks.
And the others drew closer as well.