2. Discoveries in the Snow
Chapter 2 - Discoveries in the Snow
Narthan stepped carefully through the undergrowth, his eyes and ears as open as he could make them. While the winter had not been a harsh one, the snowfall the night before now made hunting difficult, for hauling a carcass home through drifts was not a task he looked forward to. And the deer had been scarce close to home, which was why he had ventured into this part of the forest. Unless the rumors of new settlement in Menegroth were true, however, this area had remained untouched since the lifting of Melían's protection years before.
Still, it was his turn out and about, and he was not about to go back to the gathering of telain empty-handed. He hadn't really wanted to wander quite so close to the underground city of Menegroth. That place held bad memories for him – memories of naugrim, their battle axes keen and flashing, killing all whom they came upon in their quest for that accursed Nauglamír.
He, his wife Galenas, and twenty other survivors of that massacre had left to find new and less hazardous lives as soon as the chaos subsided. They had not followed Oropher into the far east, although they had discussed the matter at great length at the time. Instead, they had but removed to the eastern sector, not far from the River Aros, to enjoy the protection of the trees and the luxury of plentiful, clean water. Normally, game was plentiful there, but not so much this winter, for some reason.
There had been smoke, starting late the day before, hanging over the trees that surrounded the hill beneath which the Thousand Halls meandered. And now, he was close enough that he could smell it, acrid and nasty. Any game that might have been in the area would have no doubt fled the possibility of fire. He took the arrow he'd been carrying around nocked and shoved it over his shoulder, back into the quiver, and slipped the bowstring over his head. He should have headed in the other direction after all, onto the plains beyond the river. If nothing else, he could have speared enough fish to feed them until Lathron had finished his turn as provider.
Something large flew extremely close to his ear, and then landed on a branch of a tree. He blinked in surprise at seeing a huge white owl, which normally stayed far away from any hunters. The raptor ruffled its feathers at him, and then leapt into the air again, circled his head and then flew in the direction of the smoke. When Narthan shrugged and turned his steps back in the direction of the river, he found himself once more brushed by white wings. The owl circled, closer to him this time, and then flew once more in the direction of the smoke. It landed on a branch a little further in that direction and again ruffled its feathers.
He frowned, frustrated by his own lack of sensitivity to the beasts and trees of the forest. Perhaps it was the Ódhellen blood of his father, but he'd never been able to commune with the deer or the birds, much less hear the voices of the trees, half as well as some of his companions at the settlement. Now, it seemed, the birds – or at least this one – were going to make certain he came to understand.
With no game to be found, and faced with a long walk back past the settlement to the river, he decided to humor the persistent owl. He turned and walked back toward it and stopped a few paces from the tree where it waited for him. The owl silently spread its wings and flew a little further along, then swung back in a lazy loop, very much like an adult trying to get a child to follow them. "I am coming," Narthan murmured under his breath and kept moving.
Suddenly he stopped as his ears caught a tiny sound that didn't normally belong to a snow-covered forest. He stood motionless, waiting, until… There it was again! What was it?
Watching every step now, as the ground in this area of the forest was rugged and uneven, he followed the sounds, which came at him in irregular intervals. They sounded like snuffling, but small, almost stifled. The white owl found a perch in an old oak tree, and this time didn't fly away as Narthan came close. Instead, he heard another sound that he hadn't expected: the yipping of a small fox. The owl fluttered its feathers again, looking in the direction of the fox's voice, and then back at Narthan again.
By now, he was learning to read the owl's intent, and moved in the direction of the yipping. He knew he was getting closer, but had no idea how close when he stepped around the base of a big, old oak tree and nearly tripped on something beneath the snow that was soft - and let out another snuffling sound at the contact. A small fox growled at him from a pace away, then whined.
He frowned at the idea of a fox and an owl, working together in this way, and he still couldn't distinguish what he had found, as the blanket of snow from the night before was obscuring everything. He bent to begin to brush away the snow; and then he dug faster, more desperately, when he uncovered what looked like dark hair. When he uncovered most of the mound, he straightened, utterly shocked and appalled.
Two children lay there, huddled close together. They could have been no more than nine or ten and had their cloaks pulled over them as much as possible. From the dark hair and the similar cant to the eyebrows, they had to be siblings at least. The sounds he had heard were one child's shiver and the other's gasp for breath. They were both alive, but their skin had a bluish tint that suggested that the cold was well on its way to rectifying that error.
Narthan glanced around, suddenly very confused. There was no reason for two small children to be out here, in the snowy wilderness, all alone. Who were they? Where had they come from? Where were their parents? He looked up, his eyes narrowing as he caught yet another whiff of the acrid smoke. Perhaps the rumors that Lúthien's son had taken up the throne in Menegroth had been correct after all; but would the naugrim have been desperate enough to make another try for the Nauglamír in the dead of winter?
One thing was for certain, he couldn't leave the children where they were. To do so would be to sentence them to death. He crouched down and shook the shoulders of the child closest to him, hoping to at least rouse the child a bit. All that happened was that the child shuddered and tried to move closer to the other, but the movement was odd, clumsy. Frowning, he lifted aside the cloak and had to bite back a gasp of dismay.
These children were bound! Their hands were tied behind them – and Narthan knew enough to recognize warrior's knots when he saw them. He bent and finished brushing the layer of snow from them and found their ankles bound as well. Someone had not only deliberately brought them out into the cold, but tied them up so that they couldn't escape their fate.
This was to have been murder – a bloodless, heartless and cruel death that could be blamed on the elements and the weather when found out!
Narthan quickly untied the children, noting that their fingers had lost all color. Then he crouched and stared, not exactly certain how he was going to manage two children all by himself. He had to get them to safety - to somewhere that he would feel secure in building a fire that would begin to warm them again. It was too close to the cursed caves – too close to whatever had happened in that subterranean labyrinth – to do anything like that here.
Picking two limp and virtually lifeless bodies up off the ground took coordination and persistence, because the last thing Narthan wanted to do was drop one of them and cause them injury. As it was, a quick check had demonstrated that one child already had a broken arm. Still he kept at it from a crouch until he carried a child in each arm, balanced very delicately so that heads lolled on his shoulders as if deeply asleep.
When he finally rose to his full height, he found himself face to face with the white owl, which had flown to a branch not quite overhead. "I have them," he told the raptor with all seriousness, "and I will care for them. Worry not." He thought for a moment. "And thank you, my friend."
With that, the owl ruffled its feathers one last time and, with a few strong flaps of great wings, flew away. At his feet, the little fox gave one more yip and then vanished into the undergrowth that formed brambles just a few paces away. Narthan shook his head, refusing to contemplate the implications of the assistance he had received, then hefted each child up a little more securely in his arms and began the eastward trek.
He walked as briskly as he dared for hours, stopping only long enough to reassure himself that both children still lived before trudging onwards. He had hunted these hills often enough, so his steps were sure once he had regained more even ground. He was taking them to his home, to Galenas; it was the only thing that he could think of to do. His fellow hunter, Lathron, would have to go out hunting, or the both of them would hunt together once he had the children safely up in a talan, where they could be warmed and nursed back to health.
As it was, the sun was nearly gone from the western sky when he began to see the familiar landmarks that surrounded the settlement. He raised his voice in song, hoping to be able to shift the weight of at least one soon, for his arms felt as if they were ready to fall out of their sockets. Quickly enough, a voice answered his song, and then a call.
"Here! Make haste!"
Narthan felt a sweep of relief at the sight of first his wife, and then Lathron and others from the settlement, coming through the trees towards him. "Narthan! What?..." Galenas stared at him, and then stared at the two children whom he knew seemed merely asleep. "Who are they?"
"I have no idea, but we need to get them inside and warm, quickly!" he said, grimacing in pain as she lifted the nearest child to her into her arms without rousing it at all. "They were covered with snow, and someone had bound them hand and foot so they could not escape."
"Give me your burden," Lathron was the next to reach him. "You look as if you have nearly reached your limit, my friend."
Narthan followed his wife, groaning as muscles that had nearly frozen in place from the need to keep them steady and secure for so many hours in the same position now had permission to move again. He would be sore in the morning from his efforts, very sore indeed!
He answered the questions flying at him as best he could: no, they hadn't awakened at all; no, he had no idea who they were, although he had been close enough to Menegroth that they could very well have come from there; no, he really didn't know if they were girls, boys, or one of each; no, he really hadn't thought what he would do with them once they recovered; no, he hadn't managed to get any meat before he stumbled on them; and yes, he already knew he would have to go out again later. He pumped his arms slowly over and over again to awaken the muscles again as he climbed the spiral stairs to the talan he shared with his wife, and flexed his fingers.
"The clothing they are wearing is rich," Galenas said as she deposited the little one in her arms on the bed she shared with him and divested the first child of a wet cloak. "How long do you think they had been out there?"
Narthan shrugged. "They were completely covered with snow," he remembered, "so probably for the better part of the night before. It stopped snowing just a little before dawn, remember?"
The child on the bed whimpered and reached out, as if searching. Lathron arrived and put his burden down next to the first and the three adults were amazed to see the two nestle and snuggle together. It was as if they knew where the other was, even while insensate. "Their faces are very similar," Lathron observed, fingering back dark hair that had fallen and obstructed the face of the child he'd borne. "Siblings, definitely."
"That was my thought as well," Narthan agreed tiredly.
"We must get them warm," Galenas declared and pointed to the metal hearth-fire pan not far away. "Narthan, build up the fire. Lathron, if you would, we will need more wood." She busied herself with removing the other child's cloak and then carefully spreading Narthan's recently discarded cloak over both children, followed by a warm fleeced throw and then another blanket. "They probably are still alive because they stayed so close together." She gifted her husband with a quick and admiring look. "They were very lucky that you discovered them."
"I was led to them," he admitted with a shake of his head. "A white owl would not cease flying past my head and brushing me with its wings until I followed. A fox guarded the two and led me directly to them, once I was close enough."
Lathron stood back, his arms crossed over his chest. "I shall take your turn at hunting, then," he said, seeming to come to a decision. "You and your lady will have your hands very full when these two awaken, I would wager."
"I appreciate that," Narthan smiled and gave his friend a grateful grasp of arms. "With any luck, we will know where these little ones are from and to whom we must return them by the time you return."
Galenas waited until the talan only held the two of them and their unconscious charges, and then she nodded. "They need more warmth, my husband. You should take off your outer clothes and lie down between them to hold them close, so that they can each take advantage of your body heat. I will make you tea, to help you have enough heat to give them."
"Can we not get them to swallow warmed tea themselves?" Narthan asked, startled.
She shook her head. "I wouldn't want them to choke. This will be better, and we will start giving them warm food the moment they awaken enough to take it in." She pointed. "Trust me. This is the best and quickest way to help these children."
Narthan blinked, shrugged, and then began to remove his warm outer clothing.
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.