16. Games Played by Moonlight
Chapter Written By Angmar and Elfhild
Snuggling against each other, their only bed and blanket their cloaks, the two sisters sought each other's warmth to stave off the clammy chill that bored deeply into their bones. Their fears, while by no means quenched, had at least been subdued by the exhaustion which held their bodies in its grip. Both lay down the day's burdens and yielded, one after the other, to the lure of slumber. As they lay sleeping, the winds whipped up, chasing away the mists. First swirling the strands of their hair about their faces and then touching their eyelids with chilly fingertips, a desultorily breeze nudged the sisters to wakefulness.
"The night has certainly turned colder," Elffled muttered unpleasantly, sitting up and rubbing her upper arms.
"Aye," Elfhild yawned, squinting her eyes and gazing towards the Anduin. "This accursed dampness from the river penetrates to the marrow with its chill. Oh, look - the moon is coming out!" Smiling, she lifted up her hand and pointed skyward.
Like a roguish suitor, the moon winked playfully from behind a lingering cloud. The celestial trickster, in the mood for a lark, concealed himself once again, denying them the sight of his face and leaving them feeling forsaken. A shadow passed over the girls as the undependable sphere then disappeared entirely, playing some capricious game and challenging them to find his dark hiding place.
When at last the frivolous orb reappeared, the silvery light revealed the silhouette of a great, towering figure, his back leaning against a weathered yew, a foot resting nonchalantly against the trunk. Elfhild's heart stopped in mid-beat and she froze in place. Had he been there all along, watching them whilst they slept?
A gasp of alarm hanging in her throat, Elfhild seized her sister's hand in a grip of iron. "Oh Gods, there is someone over there! I think it is an enemy scout!"
Elffled peered into the darkness. "I do not see anything," she whispered uncertainly.
"He is leaning against that tree up ahead." Barely moving, she raised her hand up to waist-level and made a quick pointing motion towards the yew.
"What shall we do?" Elffled's wide, frightened eyes searched her sister's face for the answer.
"I do not think he has noticed us yet. At least he has done nothing that would imply that he had. Let us hope we can slip by him." Taking a deep breath, Elfhild surveyed her surroundings. "I do not see any other men. Thank goodness! Perhaps he is alone, just one soldier or scout." Running her fingers through her hair, she clutched her head, forcing her frightened mind to think, to plan. "All right, this is what we will do. Crouch low to the ground and crawl into the trees over yonder. He is not looking this way, and if we are quiet, perhaps we will escape his notice. When we are certain that it is safe again, we will leave this place as quickly as we can!"
Their hearts hammering in their chests, the sisters slowly dropped to the earth and began crawling as quietly as they could. It was almost a monumental effort to will their bodies to move, for their limbs were trembling so dreadfully that they almost vibrated along the ground like nervous inchworms. Crawling, trying to ignore the wicked little scratches from the sharp thorns and brambles, they moved on hands and knees for what seemed like an agonizingly long distance. At last they came to a spot where the trees grew thicker, closer together. Wriggling on their bellies, they felt the ground dip down into a slight, shallow depression. Shifting their positions, they hugged the ground and peered furtively through the trees back the way which they had come.
Had they been seen? The unspoken question hung in the air like a blade. There was no sound of pursuit, no cry of alarm, nothing to indicate that they had been detected. There was no great commotion, no rush of troops, no sharply barked orders or bellowed curses of orcs. The man had not seen them! They were safe! Sighing in relief, the sisters slumped against the earth, their taut muscles beginning to relax. Now all that they must do was wait.
But then, much to their dismay, their eyes caught sight of the tall figure moving towards their hiding place. Oh no! The scout had heard them after all! His long-legged strides effortlessly consumed the ground separating them. He stopped occasionally, tilting his head back, no doubt listening for them. Soon he came to the thorns and brambles that lay near the entrance to the grove. Pausing, he knelt down, searching the ground and underbrush. Barely daring to breathe, the sisters lay on their bellies as quiet and unmoving as fallen timbers. Though they knew little of hunting, they knew full well that the scout was studying the ground for signs of their path - earth disturbed by their desperate crawling, broken twigs and disrupted leaves, and bits of fabric which had been caught by the thorns and torn from their dresses. They were being hunted down like animals!
Elffled's teeth were chattering, her body trembling against her sister's. Reaching out, she clung to Elfhild as though the other girl could somehow protect her. Intent upon watching the man draw ever closer to them, Elfhild had not noticed the small creature which had fluttered noiselessly down through the treetops. No, not until she felt a leathery wing brush against her head and felt the pull of claws in her hair. Piercing the night in horrifying intensity, a shriek tore out of her throat as she flailed at the bat with her hands.
"Oh, thank the Gods," Elfhild gibbered, close to fainting. "It was only a bat!"
Near the edge of the trees, the scout slowly turned his head around and gazed in their direction.
"Oh, Béma, no!" Elffled moaned in a wailing whisper as she grabbed her sister's arm. "See what you have done? The man has heard us! He is looking directly at us!"
A deep voice silenced their terrified babblings. "It would have mattered little whether you had screamed or not. I knew you were there, for I can smell you," he chuckled. "You have not bathed in some time, and your individual scents are... quite pungent. In any event, your arrival was not entirely unanticipated."
Oh, no! Dread shook the sisters to the very core of their being. They had been seen, discovered, found out! This could not be happening! The girls listened to the words of the man as though in a daze, their minds struggling with the realization that they were about to be captured. As this horrible nightmare unfolded, they were filled with the sickening sense of unreality that often follows in the wake of a great tragedy.
Now they would be taken back to the slavers' camp, where they would suffer innumerable punishments for attempting to escape! The only question that remained was whether the scout was with the slavers or with the army. They would that find out soon enough though.
Yet Elfhild wondered at the man's strange words. Was he merely being snide, as all enemies were when they spoke with their conquered foe? Perhaps, but there was something... peculiar about him... something that was not quite right. Her mind could not explain the sensation in words. It had crept up upon her like the sickly, unsettling mood permeating an unpleasant dream, a profound sense of underlying taint, as though a dark secret brooded just beneath the surface.
"Such a stir about a bat? In truth, the little denizens of the night are gentle, harmless creatures." The side of his face unobscured by his hood was transformed by the moonlight into a pale crescent upon a sky of deepest sable. "Perhaps someday you will discover this for yourselves."
"This accursed man of the enemy is toying with us," Elffled thought resentfully. "He will torment us a while to remind us of our slavery before he finally decides to bind our hands and start us marching again. Oh, by the blessed spirits of the ancestors, can he not just capture us quickly and be done with it? Oh, please spare us the cruel taunting and degradation!"
"Now it is time to get this business concluded," the tall man sighed, his voice reluctant. "Would that there were some other way for this to be accomplished, but, unfortunately, there is none."
He was attempting to make them feel guilty, of course, Elffled presumed. It was a simple game of the mind, much like those which adults play with unruly children. Their village had been destroyed, their mother and faithful dog had been killed, and they had been dragged away from their burning home by savage orcs. Yet somehow they were wrong in attempting to escape, and the punishment for this vile perfidy would be justly deserved. It was the logic of the enemy.
The sisters tried to melt into the earth when they saw that the man was walking towards them. They were too terrified to run, and where was there any escape to be found? Cowering to the ground, they dared not look up, for his presence was overpowering, insinuating itself within their minds, stamping them, marking them like a brand of ice.
"Look up at me," came his deep, masculine voice which was as commanding as the crack of a whip and as pleading as the entreaty of an earnest lover, as loud as the booming of thunder and as soft as a whisper, close and yet far away. "It is good to know that your gaze is fixed upon me. I like to see how I appear through your eyes."
Very slowly the sisters raised their heads. This strange man was terrifying Elfhild. He seemed mad, dangerous even. Perhaps he was not a scout, after all, but some deserter from the army. In an attempt to squelch any thoughts of escape, the orcs had often told the captives cruel tales about such men and what they did to women whom they found wandering alone. She would not put it past this man to rape them and slit their throats!
"The eyes of men are much more useful for visualizing than are those of beasts. While animals have excellent vision, their brains are deficient at processing information. Their interpretations of what they perceive are often faulty. Man is much more analytical." The man inhaled deeply and then sniffed the air, much like some sort of creature. "Were you seeking me?"
"N-no, sir," Elfhild stammered. What was this talk of eyes? The orcs often made necklaces and other ornamentation out of the teeth of their slain enemies; maybe this man collected the eyes of his victims as trophies! What if he were some madman who had been driven from his village, or perhaps a deranged murderer who had taken refuge in the wilderness? She felt sick to her stomach but she knew that if she vomited, at least it would mostly be dry heaves, for there was little in her stomach.
"I did not think you were searching for Death," he chuckled, a melancholy sound that resembled the muffled sigh of a mourner as he viewed a loved one's cold, stiff body laid to rest in the tomb. He sniffed again, slowly winding the night air, processing all the many scents that the breeze gave him. "Stand up... now." He lifted up his long arms, as though he were raising the dead from their graves.
Terrified, the sisters rose to their feet, their arms and legs stiff, unwieldy, as though they were frozen, or were corpses, heavy with the paralysis of death's chill. Far away across a forgotten moor, a wolf's song struck a chord in Elfhild's brain, while Elffled swore that she heard the doleful screeching of an owl which called from some dark grove.
"Then why are you here?" His deep voice murmured like the sighs of thousands of doomed lovers held in the clutch of a tormented kiss. Then he laughed and the sound was a tickling kiss that teased and tantalized the secret parts of both of them, licking, thirsting, probing for mystic juices.
"I sought to escape my fate," Elfhild whispered bitterly.
"I only went with her because I could not let her go alone," Elffled added, for some reason wanting to explain to him that she was hardly a willing party.
"And you think you can escape fate?" He stepped forward, his strange murky presence reaching out to them.
"I do not know... perhaps the question is dependent upon what that fate might be," Elffled replied uncertainly. Unlike her sister, she did not believe that this man was mad. He was merely playing games with them, amusing himself before he delivered them to the slavers.
"I tried to escape it," Elfhild spoke up defiantly, recklessly, perhaps. "What person in his or her right mind wants to be a slave?"
"There is no escape, but what is the harm in making the attempt? Behold what it has already brought you." Tinged with sarcastic amusement, his icy, deep voice mocked them both, promising something forbidden, mysterious, enticingly alluring. Then that promise was withdrawn, leaving them groping for the answers.