38. The Long Road Home
Chapter Written by Angmar and Elfhild
Cowering under the bed in the pitch dark of the bedroom, the girls strained their ears to hear what was being said in the other room. They feared at any moment that the slavers would overpower the old man and rush in to seize them. Or, just as bad, the old man might succumb to the slavers' promises of rewards, and betray them for treasure and prestige. How well could they really trust Tarlanc? He seemed only a harmless eccentric, and he had helped them after all, but he was still just as much a stranger as he had been when they had first laid eyes upon him. He did seem to be on far too good terms with an enemy general to be trustworthy, Elfhild thought suspiciously.
When they heard Tarlanc call for them, Elfhild and Elffled scurried out from under the bed and rushed to the main room of the cottage. After the darkness of the bedroom, the sisters were momentarily blinded by the light of candle and lantern. When their eyes had adjusted to the brightness, the girls saw before them a scene of utter despair: the old miller sat at the long table, his dejected posture reflecting the soul-crushing anguish which he felt inside. His shoulders slumped forward, the old man's head was bowed as his long, gnarled fingers raked through his lank gray hair and clenched his scalp. Rising from his position by his master, Haun growled at the girls, his hackles bristling. "Haun, no," Tarlanc whispered to the overprotective mastiff. The great hound's snarls turned to a sullen silence, and the dog sat down on his haunches.
"Oh, lasses, I have made a mess of things and done you a terrible disservice!" the miller moaned over and over.
"What kind of disservice?" Elfhild demanded, her voice tense with urgency, her hands clenching the edge of the table. "What has happened?" She leaned forward slightly, her cold blue eyes boring into those of the old Anorian.
Tarlanc looked up, and the sisters could see that he had been weeping. His eyelashes, iced with the frost of age, clung together in glistening wet clumps. The twins could see that there were drops of red among the silver strands where his ragged fingernails had dug into his scalp and drawn blood. "Those men from the South are coming back..." His voice quavering, his tone was as dolorous as that of the chief mourner delivering the eulogy at a funeral, "They will be here in the morning, and then it will be all over for you... and for Haun and me, too!"
"Then why on earth did you tell them?" Elfhild cried, slamming her fist on the table. She had been able to hear only bits and pieces of the conversation with the slavers, but she had heard enough. Such gross incompetence disgusted and angered her. To have all their plans of going home thwarted by a bumbling old fool was just too much! And after all they had been through, all the narrow escapes from danger! If Tarlanc were not such an elderly man, she would fry his ears with her fury.
"Because I was afraid, lass! Scared almost out of my breeches! If they had stormed in here and found you, things would have gone bad for me! These people have no mercy, I tell you! Life means little to them, and they would think nothing of killing an old man if he crossed them. The only reason that I have survived this long is because their general believes me mad and spared my life out of pity. They will not go easy on me this time, though. You can be sure of that! Probably beat me and who knows what else!" He sniffed piteously, wiping his dripping eyes and nose on his sleeve.
"You could have just told the Southrons that we were here, you know, and spared them the effort of riding back," Elfhild retorted bitterly.
"Elfhild--" a dismayed Elffled gasped, aghast at her sister's rude behavior.
"You have to believe me, lass..." His eyes pleading, Tarlanc looked up at Elfhild. "Never would I have given you over to them willingly! Never would I have done such a thing as that! I just wanted to tell them something which would speed them on their way. The first thing that popped into my head was to say that you had come begging at my door this morning and that I had driven you away. Of course, it was a prevarication, but if they believed me, I would not be accused of harboring escaped slaves. I was sure that when they left here tonight, those devils would chase off after you towards the west, but I was wrong. It had been my hopes that the slavers would wear themselves out on the futile search and then give up. Then the westward way would be clear, and it would be safe for you to leave. But nothing worked out the way I had planned it!" More tears streamed from his bloodshot eyes and the old man moaned louder, tearing once again at his hair.
"Sir, do not be so harsh upon yourself!" Elffled murmured quietly, her large blue eyes filled with pity.
"Lass, do not try to excuse me! I should have told them that I had never laid eyes upon you. But like the fool that I am, I said that you had been here this morning, and now they have a fresh trail. They will be returning in the morning and bringing tracking orcs with them! Those fiends are said to be better than hounds at picking up a scent and following it." His watery gray eyes were pathetically begging as he looked at the girls. "You must believe me! How was I to know that the Southrons had orc trackers with them? I thought those monsters were only with the army!"
"Oh, sir, I believe you," Elffled softly murmured as she moved around the table and sat beside him. Lifting one of his large hands, she cradled it between her own small, slender ones. She heard Elfhild grumble in disgust, but ignored her sister's disapproval.
Tarlanc turned to look at her, his eyes kind, a wistful smile softening his austere features. He placed a gentle hand of benediction upon her head and gazed into her eyes. "Lass, you remind me of my daughter. She was much like you, always gracious, compassionate, and imbued with a blithesome spirit. After my wife died, she was the light of this old heart."
"Sir, I am so sorry about your wife," Elffled exclaimed sympathetically. "At least you had them both for a little while."
"Aye, lass, that I did," Tarlanc nodded his head. "And I still have my memories!"
Spinning away from them with a groan, Elfhild leaned against the table and crossed her arms over her chest. Clearing her throat, she demanded petulantly, "Well, now that we only have a few hours ere the Southrons return, what shall we do? Sit here and wait for them?" She did not wish to be unkind, but she felt that the old man was dawdling when he should be formulating a plan which would save them all from the disaster that loomed before them. She hoped that he would actually give more serious thought this time to the consequences of any plan which his muddled brain concocted.
Elffled inhaled deeply and let her breath out in a pained sigh of long-suffering as she rolled her eyes heavenward. "Why, sister, it is all very simple. Since you are always so clever, I am surprised you did not think of it first. We do not want any harm to come to Tarlanc on our account, so we will depart now and resume our journey. This way, there will be no suspicion upon him, and the Southrons will leave him in peace." Perhaps the slavers would find them and recapture them. This was her fearful hope, but she did not express that traitorous thought to the others.
"You will do no such thing, lass!" Tarlanc replied emphatically, almost shouting. "That is the height of foolishness! Those Haradric rascals will catch you before noon, and I hate to think of what they might do when they find you! There are tales, terrible tales..." He shuddered as he considered the stories that he had heard of the Southrons' hideous tortures - splinters of wood driven under the fingernails and toenails of screaming victims and then set afire; men buried up to their necks in sand and their heads covered in honey to attract ants which would feast upon both the honey and their flesh; and men and women whose genitals were smeared with pitch and turned into human torches. He would keep such stories to himself. There was no point in alarming the twins any more than they already were.
His fear had been contagious, though, and he felt Elffled's hands tremble around his. When he saw the look of terror upon her face, he put his hand over hers and caressed it with his thumb. "Now, lass, you cheer up. You should not pay any heed to an old fool whose tongue flaps far too much. My words were rash, only the reflections of a doddering old man's faulty mind which gets him in trouble far too often. You do not have to worry about them anyway! Haun and I are going to protect you!"
Tarlanc rose to his feet, took a deep breath and squared his stooped shoulders. A flicker of pain flashed in his eyes, making them appear brighter as he straightened his back. Yet proudly he stood erect, the carriage of his head high, the pains of all the years temporarily set aside. Somehow, the miller seemed to have shed years and appeared much younger and more hale than before. After months of self-doubt and uselessness, the defeated old man had become one who had found new purpose.
"Lasses! We will not wait around for them! We are leaving here now. There is not a moment to be lost! Listen carefully to me while I tell you what you must do. Although you are dressed as lads, your bodies would betray you the moment anyone saw you. Lads do not have bodies like yours. Do not think me out of order for what I must say." Coloring bright red, Tarlanc cleared his throat. "For your own safety, you must bind your breasts tightly to your chest so that they appear flat. In the bedroom you will find old sheets; tear them up and use them for that purpose."
Elfhild nodded, her expression grave. "Tarlanc, I realize that our situation is perilous. My sister and I will do as you have advised us." Flushing slightly, she waited for his next instructions.
Walking around to the other side of the table, Tarlanc looked down into the upturned faces of the twins. "Would you be willing to cut your beautiful hair? No," he sighed and shook his head. "I can see by your expressions that it is useless to ask. There is no time even to dye your hair a different color." He paused a moment while he collected his thoughts. "Then we will use what we have. Braid your tresses and bind them close to your heads. In one of the trunks in the bedroom, you will find some hoods which once belonged to my grandsons. Cover your heads with them. Do you understand?" The sisters nodded their affirmation that they realized the wisdom in this plan.
"Quickly, now!" he exhorted them as he looked around the room. "Elffled, go to the bedroom and gather up spare clothes for the three of us and wrap them in sheets and blankets. Elfhild, there are plenty of dried beans, lentils, and other provisions stored in the main room and in the loft. Take what you think we will need for the journey. A few pots and pans, knives, spoons, and other eating utensils, and we will be well off. Let me see if I have forgotten anything..." The old man took a mental inventory of what supplies would be necessary. "Ah, yes! There are two tinderboxes on the shelf. Bring both along with us, too! You never know when another one might come in handy!" Smiling at them encouragingly, he turned and walked to the door.
"Tarlanc, where are you going?" Elffled exclaimed, her voice filled with concern as she rose from the table and followed him to the door. "I am afraid to stay here without you!"
"Do not fret, child! Haun will protect you while I am gone. I am headed to the barn behind the house," he explained. "The horses must be saddled and loaded for a long journey. While I am taking care of that, I want you girls to pack everything and be waiting for me at the back door step within a half an hour."
"Horses?" The sisters looked to each other with wide, astonished eyes. Slowly large smiles of joy spread across their faces. Horses! It had been so long since they had ridden. This was certainly an unexpected twist of good fortune!
"Why, certainly, lasses!" Tarlanc looked at them in surprise. "You did not think that I was so great a fool that I would embark on such a long journey on foot, did you?"
"I did not think you a fool at all, sir," Elffled murmured softly, wondering if this irascible old gentleman were anything like her grandfathers had been. Alas, she had never known them, for both had died before she was born.
When Tarlanc returned, the girls were waiting for him on the back stoop, each with a large bundle beside her. He led two bridled and saddled horses, one a tall bay gelding, and the other a gray mare with a lead rope attached to her halter. Saddlebags and grain sacks for the horses were strapped to the backs of the saddles; waterskins and oat bags to the pommels. It was obvious from the old man's beaming face that he was pleased with his quick work at loading the beasts. In the saddlebags, he had included all the supplies which he felt necessary for a long journey - a horse brush, curry comb, hoof pick, four extra horseshoes and horseshoe nails for each mount, along with a picket pin and long lead lines so the animals could be staked out.
"Now you two are going to have to ride double, for these are the only horses I possess. In case you want to know their names, the bay gelding is Sparrow, and the gray mare is named Mithril... after the metal, you know," Tarlanc explained hurriedly as he handed them the horses' reins. "I need to go back into the cottage to fetch a few things." The old man had been gone only a short time when he returned with a small bundle, a lantern, and the two slave collars. Locking the door and putting the key in the pouch on his belt, he turned to the twins.
"I am going to take these two infernal devices and deposit them where they belong - in the privy!" he chortled. The girls giggled as they watched him disappear around the side of the cottage. When he returned, he was beaming, but he seemed tense. Frequently he looked about cautiously and cupped his hand over his ear, as though listening for enemies. As the old man considered the consequences of what he had done, he wondered what would be the penalty for removing the collars of two slaves of Mordor. "Probably death in the most gruesome way which they can conceive," he thought with grim certainty. "But first they have to catch me!" he chuckled to himself.
"Are you all right, sir?" Elffled looked at him uncertainly.
"Never been better in all my life," he told them with much more confidence than he actually felt. "Lasses, I will be honored to help you mount up." Walking over to Elffled, he took the reins from her hand. "Now, little lady," he smiled as he picked her up, "just put your arms around my neck, and I will have you atop that horse in no time." Taken by surprise, she yelped as she felt him swing her up in the saddle. "Now you, lass," he turned and beamed at Elfhild, "I will help you next."
"No, thank you, sir," she retorted flippantly as she tossed her head up into the air, "you must forget that we are Rohirric and can mount a horse with no trouble at all." As she put her left foot in the stirrup, Elffled reached a hand down to her, and soon Elfhild was behind her sister in the saddle.
"This is no time to be getting uppity, lass!" Tarlanc gazed up at her, disappointment etched over his face. "I was only trying to help you."
"Well, I do not need any help," she declared with a haughty lift of her chin.
After securing Elfhild's bundle onto the back of the gray mare's saddle and Elffled's bundle to the bay, Tarlanc mounted his own horse. Haun looked up at him expectantly, his long, red tongue dangling out of his mouth, drooling saliva. "Lasses, now we need to see about getting you two home." He looked back at them, grinning as happily as a lad about to set off on his first great adventure. His smile turned to consternation when Elfhild refused to budge.
"The reins, Tarlanc... give them to my sister. We are not moving from here until you do." Elfhild glared at him icily. "We are sensible young women and not simpletons who must be led around on lead lines."
"You need not be so huffy, lass!" Tarlanc muttered as he dismounted his horse. Shuffling back to the gray, he unfastened the lead line from the mare's halter and stuffed the rope into his belt. "I was not certain that you knew how to ride. Apparently you do." Sniffing, he twitched his mustache. "Now let us not stand out here and talk about it all night. We need to be away!"
Remounting his horse, Tarlanc gazed back at his cottage, now dark and forlorn in the stillness of the night. "Well, it has been a snug little house and sheltered mine and me for many years." Pausing, he sniffed again. "Something is telling me that I am not going to see it for a long, long time." Maybe never, he thought to himself.
Then he touched his heels to the bay's sides and rode away without looking back again. Eager for some excitement after being cooped up in the house, Haun trotted along beside the horse. Riding ahead, Tarlanc held the lighted candle lantern aloft, its weak, flickering light protected from the breeze by the glass sides of the metal box which held it. As the girls looked towards him, the candle cast patterns of light and shadows over the rider and his path.
By this time, around two hours ere midnight, the humpback moon was still in command of the night sky. Keeping close to the shadow of the trees bordering the fields behind his house, Tarlanc led them across the large meadow. As they neared the edge of the trees, he halted them. Before them, they had a clear view of the north-south road below the bridge.
"Come, lasses, let us be a little quick here and cross over the road. Never know when a patrol might be coming, and we do not want to meet any of those fellows. They have murderous quick tempers when they think that someone is up to something that he should not be." Tarlanc set his horse into a rapid trot, and soon they were across the road and into the safety of another patch of woods on the other side.
"Lasses, we are going to have to do a lot of riding tonight," Tarlanc spoke louder so that the girls, who were riding behind him, would be able to hear him over the distance and the sound of the horses. "I am trusting that the two of you are strong enough that the journey will not fatigue you too much, because the only resting that we can afford will be for the benefit of the horses." They had come to another stretch of wood, where Tarlanc halted his horse and held the lantern high above his head to get his bearings. He moved his mount forward into a walk. "Now we are going to stay off the roads and keep to the woods and fields. The next road we have to worry about crossing is the Great West Road, and I estimate there are over six leagues between us and it. We will have to be very careful when we get there. This will be the most dangerous part of our journey. There are far more patrols on that road than ever pass through Ivrenlaer."
"Are we going to try to reach the road tonight?" Elfhild asked, her eyes peering into the darkness to descry the dim shape of Tarlanc.
"Aye, lass, reach the road and pass over it. We will try to get into the Drúedain Forest, where I am planning to set up camp sometime before dawn. We are going to have to press the horses some, but they are young and healthy. I keep them in good condition, riding them several hours every day, or exercising them on the lines. Do not worry any, lass, they will not fail you."
The girls had almost dozed off in the saddle when at last Tarlanc halted in a small clearing where he planned to rest the horses. After a ride of over two hours, in which they had covered slightly more than two leagues, the girls' muscles were contracting balls of stinging pain. Wincing at a knotted up muscle in one of her calves, Elfhild yelped and rubbed the sore place gingerly. Leaning on her sister's shoulder for support, she hobbled over to a fallen tree and sat down.
Tarlanc loosened the saddle girths and walked the horses around the small clearing. They needed to be cooled down before he would allow them to drink from the small tributary which ran to the stream that flowed into his mill. "Lasses, while I finish caring for the horses, have yourselves a cooling draught of water and then refill the waterskin. Now," he chuckled as he stood by the bay's side and stroked his neck, "I am sure that before we left, you found the bread I baked this morning. If you were wise, you packed it where it can be reached easily. Go ahead and refresh yourselves. I will be with you as soon as I tend to the horses," he told them as he led the two mounts away.
"Dear sister, I know you are exhausted," Elffled rubbed her sister's shoulders sympathetically. "You sit here and rest, and I will be back soon with the waterskin and some bread and meat for you. It has been so long since supper, and we are both famished."
Tarlanc tied the horse to the branches of a leafless shrub, took the wineskin from his saddle, and ambled over to sit down beside the sisters. Placing the lantern before them, he tore off several pieces of dried meat and tossed them to Haun before eating the rest of the beef and washing it down with a swallow of water.
"Lasses, I know you are frightened and ill at ease. You might not feel so comfortable with an old fellow like me guiding you. You probably think I will get you and myself lost out here. You need not have any fear about that score. I have lived around here all my life and know every inch of these woods like I know the land around the mill. Why, when I was a young man, I once rode all the way to Rohan!" The old man had lowered his voice and was gazing reflectively into the flame of the candle.
"Tarlanc," Elfhild spoke up, "how many days journey is it back to the Mark?"
"That is difficult to say." Tarlanc scratched his chin as he thought about her question. "I would judge it to be about two hundred miles to the Mering Stream, the border between Gondor and Rohan. After that, it is another forty-five leagues to Edoras, but I do not plan to take you there. To tell you the truth, I do not like taking you back to Rohan at all. If you were not escaped slaves, I would insist that you stay here with me in Anórien. Perhaps you might not believe it, but my lot has not been too terrible under the invaders. However, since you are wanted and there are men on your trail, I know that is impossible."
"Oh, Tarlanc," Elffled placed her hand on his sleeve and asked him desperately, "do you really think you can get us home?"
He sighed heavily, his shoulders slumping. "Maybe, lass; if I avoid the road and keep to the foothills, there is a chance. What worries me, however, is what you will find when you get there."
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.