18. Unity Part II
Unity Part II
Grindberg – in the White Mountains.
The spear balanced beautifully. Elfwine had taken a long time making it, first shaving the ash stave smooth and straight, before fixing his knife to the end with the fibres stripped from some pine bark. It had taken him a couple of days, but was worth the effort, the ash being light enough for him to heft but with sufficient weight to let it run true.
'You haven't put a stop on it?'Eldarion looked across from where he had squatted next to the fire; his eyes glinted, a challenge lurking in their depths. All his newly made arrows were lined up, the sharpened points poking into the hot ashes to char them hard.
Elfwine hesitated, reluctant to shut the door on something he would love to do, but sense prevailed as he guessed that Eldarion was intent on provoking him again. Something he did at every opportunity. 'No, we promised Déor we wouldn't go for the boar, didn't we. And it would be stupid to do so. I doubt even those hardened arrows you are preparing would pierce a boar's thick hide. The plan is to get a goat, or perhaps a deer, and that is why I made the spear.' Unlike boars who charged, goats ran away. He didn't need a stop for them.
Eldarion just raised his brows, smirking, and went back to tending his arrows.
With an irritated sigh, Elfwine put down the spear. 'It would be folly to go against his advice. We want to survive this week, not end up injured for no good reason.'
'Do you always do as you are told?'
'When the advice is sensible, I do,' Elfwine snapped. He got up, and went to the fire to stir the stew-pot suspended over it. 'You would let it burn.'
'I shot it, and found the herbs. The least you can do is to cook it.'
Elfwine glared at him. As if he had not contributed anything to their larder! 'Are you saying that I have been idle?'
'No, I am saying that I provided this meal.' Seeming satisfied his arrows were baked hard, Eldarion pulled them from the ashes, blowing on the points before he tested their resilience with his fingers.
'And what about the rabbits?'
Suddenly the mocking expression softened and the older boy laughed. 'All right, I know you provided the food the first two days, but I wanted to get these arrows finished.'
'It was quicker to set a few snares than to make a decent bow,' Elfwine conceded, mollified. 'And the rabbits fed us well.' So had the Golden Horns when they first got here. He'd been pleased to find the summer crop already pushing up through the leaf mould on the forest floor. The tasty mushrooms had given substance to their oats. In fact there was no shortage of immediate food, and although Eldarion had laughed at him grubbing the soil for pig-nuts, the sweet, aromatic tubers had been welcome that first day.
Elfwine prodded the stew of wood-fowl and herbs; it smelt good. Plenty of wild garlic bulbs, also dug from beneath the earth, but worth the trouble to collect, would give a good flavour. They were doing well, he thought proudly, looking around their camp. They'd chosen an open glade near one of the streams that tumbled down the mountainside, with lots of wood around for their fire and bracken to make a soft bed. Not far from the edge of the woods either, which had made it easy to set his snares where the rabbits grazed the rough grass. Although that had taken ages, first finding the runs and then rigging the snares, tying the loops open with overhanging grass that would break as soon as one shoved its head in the noose. But he'd been successful, and two had found their way into the pot.
Eldarion had concentrated on making a bow, fashioning it from a solid piece of elm. It took even longer for him to gather straight pieces of wood – larch, hazel and ash for arrows, and find feathers to make the fletching. But he had already brought down one of the colourful wood-fowl with it, their lumbering flight making them easy prey amongst the trees. However, they both wanted bigger game, hence the spear and the hardened arrows.
'I think it's ready.' Elfwine poked in the pot once more. 'At least the stick passes through the meat easily.'
'Good, I'm starving.' Eldarion laid the arrows aside carefully and got up to fetch his bowl. He held it out for his portion.
Elfwine poured some of the broth into it and then into his own dish, before carefully sharing out the meat, spearing it with the twig.
'Ow...! It's hot.' Eldarion dropped the piece of meat back in his bowl and licked his fingers. He started to blow on the stew.
'I should have carved some spoons. Perhaps I will now the spear is finished.' Elfwine waited patiently for his to cool.
'It tastes good.' Eldarion had finally shoved a piece into his mouth. 'I'll let you do all the cooking.'
Elfwine shrugged, not bothering to respond. So far they had mostly shared all the chores, naturally following a camp routine that had been instilled in them since they were toddlers. As his mother had probably intended, their differences had been pushed aside with the need to feed themselves and remain reasonably comfortable. Deep down he wished their friendship could return to what it had been like on Eldarion's last visit, but angry words still lay between them, smouldering under the surface of the enforced politeness. Well, he might want a lessening of hostilities, but he certainly wasn't going to try and ease the situation. The last time he had started to explain that what he'd said was not meant as any insult, Eldarion had not listened and walloped him right in the eye before he had hardly begun his explanation. Anyway, why should he try and make amends, the insinuations his one-time friend had made still hung in the air, souring his mouth.
Eldarion put down his plate and stretched. 'So we are going for a goat first since we've an idea where they might be, and then maybe try for a deer later. That will need a bit of planning, you will have to follow my lead as it will mean stalking one for hours and getting real close. Can you manage that?'
'All right, don't bite my head off!' Eldarion held up his hand as Elfwine got to his feet incensed by the slur on his hunting abilities. 'It's just that you Rohirrim tend to run them down with horses and dogs, whilst I have hunted them on foot many times.'
'You think I have never stayed in Ithilien? You are not the only one whom Faramir has taken stalking.' Elfwine retorted angrily.
'Perhaps we ought to try for one each, that would settle the matter,' Eldarion suggested, the taunting gleam back in his eyes.
Determined not to be roused into committing himself to something he might not be able to achieve, Elfwine answered carefully. 'I would be happy to. But I think we've more chance with a goat, and ought to go for that first to stock our larder. The deer stalking can come if we successfully bag one. And however good you think yourself, you'll have to try and drive a goat to me. Your arrows won't kill one, but will make them run. If we get it right I should be able to use the spear.'
Eldarion looked about to argue, but then shrugged. 'I'll agree to that. A goat first, although the darn things are brighter than one would think.'
Elfwine nodded. As soon as the goats sensed any threat they were off, and nimble and sure-footed as they were on the rocks, they could get away from a man easily. It needed stealth to get close to them. But not as much as it did to get near a deer. 'At least you can tell where the goats are from the smell.'
Eldarion wrinkled his nose. 'The bucks stink all right. With any luck we'll bag a doe, I don't fancy a buck's skin anywhere near me for the next few days.'
'We'll try, but the does might have kids still suckling.'
'A kid as well then,' Eldarion mused. 'They would be tender and easier to cook.'
And they would have meat left over if they got both. Elfwine liked the idea of arriving at the meeting place and offering their escort a meal. Goat would be good, but deer better. They might get lucky, and now they had made the weapons, virtually the whole time could be given over to hunting. Maybe he could take his mother back a deerskin. Smiling at the thought, he hauled himself to his feet. 'I'm going to get some sleep, let's get away first thing.'
The light was only just filtering through the trees when Elfwine crammed a handful of soaked oats into his mouth. The soft bread and honey he normally ate for his early meal was what he missed most. Even one of the flatbreads they usually made when they camped would be welcome, but you couldn't make those without flour and they hadn't been allowed any. The nettle tea they'd brewed didn't taste the same without a spoonful of honey either, but at least it was hot and a change from icy water straight from the stream. He finished chewing his mouthful of oats and gulped down some tea, flinching at the bitter taste.
'I don't suppose you noticed any bees when you were collecting wood for your arrows, did you?'
Eldarion shook his head. 'No, but anyway the last time Elboron and I tried to rob a nest in Ithilien, we got stung horribly. I'm not keen to repeat that.'
'You need to take some smouldering wood and smoke them, that way they're too knocked out to sting you.'
'Well it would be good if it works, and I will be happy to let you show your superior skill. But we need to find some first.' Eldarion emptied his mug and grimaced. 'We'll start looking as soon as we've bagged a goat. Come on, they might have gone miles away from where we saw them yesterday.'
They trekked up through the woods, moving easily between the trees that got sparser as they gained height. Soon the trees gave way to scrub and stunted bushes that grew between the boulders. Coming right out onto the open mountainside they stopped, sniffing the air and scanning the rocky slopes that stretched above them.
'There's an eagle above the ridge,' Elfwine whispered. ''Do you see anything else?'
Eldarion glanced up at the eagle, fingering his bow. 'No, let's go and check that valley out. It looks the sort of place they might be, and they seemed to be heading that way yesterday.'
Making sure they were downwind, they edged their way to where they could look down on a shallow rocky valley with a deep gully at the bottom. Water probably ran down it in the winter, but any stream had dried up in the early summer heat. However, it was enough to make the gully a bit more fertile than the surrounding barren mountainside and many shrubs plus a few low growing trees eked out a living and made for a green oasis amongst the stone.
'I can smell them,' Eldarion whispered. Both boys sank to the ground and peered over a rock. 'Look!' Eldarion pointed across to the other side and then Elfwine saw a brown and black shape appear between two bushes.
'It's a male.' No mistaking the big curly horns and the beard.
Eldarion nodded. 'But look down there.'
Elfwine followed his finger, smiling when he saw what Eldarion was pointing at. A doe with a kid by her side was tugging at a bush a fair distance from where the buck was eating. As they watched, other members of the herd came into view, but they were the other side of the buck, well away from the doe and kid. 'We'll have to go for that one.'
'Agreed. I'll work my way around to the other side, you try and get closer. I reckon a couple of my arrows should take out the kid, that should make the mother run and give you a chance with the spear. Wait until it's in range.'
'I'm not stupid,' Elfwine hissed through his teeth.
'I don't want you to muck up after all the effort involved in me getting to the other side of it.'
'Just do your own job properly and leave me to do mine, you're going to be upwind when you make your way around.'
'I'll manage. As soon as I can get a good shot I will let fly, sooner if we're rumpled. If that happens, you can make as much noise as you like and try and spear the mother. If you bring her down the kid won't go far, we still might be able to get it.'
With no more words Eldarion moved quietly away. It would take time for him to get far enough below their prey to risk crossing the gully and coming up behind them. Elfwine waited until he saw him start to descend into the valley before he stirred from his hiding place. This was the tricky part; if he dislodged a stone the goats would be alerted and he'd be lucky to get within range. He crept downwards, trying to keep to the bigger boulders and avoiding the loose stones, of which there were many. Elfwine froze as one stone moved. The buck looked up and sniffed the air, but the doe carried on pulling at her bush. He waited until the buck resumed his eating before he moved again, reckoning he was almost as far as he could go. Another few yards and he stopped, seeing Eldarion emerge above the doe. Grudgingly Elfwine admitted to himself that Eldarion had considerable skill in the field. He appeared to be able to move noiselessly and often spotted the prey first. Maybe he had better sight; after all he was part elf. Hopefully his bow skills would hold up too, because the thought of roast kid made Elfwine's mouth water. They could stew the mother. She was just within his spear range; if Eldarion got her running up the valley, he should have a good chance of taking her.
Suddenly the doe lifted her head, alarmed by something. Eldarion immediately stood up and let fly his first arrow. It hit the kid in the rump. The kid squealed, and then dropped to the ground as the next arrow took it in the neck. The mother and Elfwine started running at the same time. Intent on getting away from the danger behind her, she didn't see him. Now was his chance. He brought his arm back, and then flung it forward, releasing the spear at the furthest extremity. It seemed to take an age, but it could only have been seconds before it buried itself in the doe's chest. The goat screamed, and tumbled to the ground. He would have to get the spear out and finish her off, he didn't have another knife.
His heart beating wildly with excitement and pride – it had been a good shot – Elfwine lifted his arm to wave at Eldarion. The wave never happened. He opened his mouth to shout a warning. Too late! The lion he saw on the rock above his friend launched itself, landing on Eldarion's back.
Stunned for only a moment, Elfwine started to move. A lion! One of the smaller types of those that inhabited these mountains, but nonetheless a lion with lethal teeth and claws. And he had no weapon. His spear was a good distance away buried in the goat. He shouted as loud as he could, anything he could think of, bounding over the rocks. Hardly missing a step, he picked up a large stone and hurled it at the beast that now had Eldarion on the ground – paws on his back, worrying at his shoulder. The stone hit the lion on its rump but had no effect, but the next one hit its head. It must have been that and the battle cries he was yelling that made the lion back off. But it still growled fearsomely – threatening both of them from a few yards away and only retreated to a far rock when Elfwine lobbed another stone at it.
He flung himself down by Eldarion's side. So much blood. But Eorl save them, he was moving and looked far from dead. Relieved, Elfwine pulled at his belt. 'Your knife, I must have your knife.'
Eldarion tried to struggle up and Elfwine snatched the knife from its holder. Now at least he had something. He grabbed Eldarion's arm, pulling him to his feet.
'I'm all right,' Eldarion said through gritted teeth.
'We need to get out of here.'
'Not without my bow, and the kid.' Eldarion wiped his hand across his face and then felt the back of his neck. It came away red with blood. 'Good job I was wearing thick leather, or I would have come off a lot worse.' He picked up his bow and the few arrows that had fallen at his feet, swaying a little before Elfwine grabbed him. 'I never heard a thing, too much attention on taking my shot.'
'Never mind that now.' Elfwine pulled him away, keeping the knife towards the lion whose yellow eyes glared malevolently at them. But it hadn't come any closer. And then he caught a flash of golden-brown, spotted fur in the bush behind the lion. A cub, no two cubs at least. No wonder it had attacked. 'I want to get my spear. Then I'll have a chance if it comes for us. It's a female. There are a couple of cubs in those bushes, so she might do anything.'
'Pick up the kid first. We need something out of this.'
Elfwine would have preferred to get farther away and take the goat, but he couldn't carry it on his own and Eldarion certainly wasn't up to lending a hand. 'All right, but if she looks like attacking we drop the kid and get out of the way.'
'I doubt she will take on two of us. But you're right, look at her paps. She's definitely feeding cubs. I bet she was after the kid and I got between her and her meal.'
'Probably, for it's not usual for them to attack humans. Anyway, she'll have plenty to eat if we leave the goat.' They reached the kid and Elfwine picked it up, heaving the warm body over his shoulder. He kept his eye on the lion, but she was still watching them from a distance.
The rest of the herd had long gone, but the goat he had felled was still breathing. Semi-conscious, its eyes were closed and its chest rose and fell rapidly. With a glance back at the lion, Elfwine dropped the kid to the floor and slit its mother's throat; her body sagged as life left it. The animal was too big for the lion to drag away, the family would have to eat their fill and move on. A pity as most would be left for the scavengers. He pulled his spear from its flesh and hefted the kid onto his shoulders again, making it comfortable. 'How are you doing? Can you make it back up to the slope?'
Eldarion nodded. He had paled considerably, the first flush of bravado disappearing as pain and shock set in.
Elfwine had his spear in one hand, but reassured that the lion intended them no further harm, he shoved the knife in his belt and took hold of Eldarion's arm. 'Come on, we get those wounds washed out. And you'll probably know better than me what we need to keep them clean.'
'Sticklewort,' Eldarion got out through laboured breaths. 'I saw some growing near the edge of the trees when I got the herbs for the stew.'
'Oh, yes. My mother uses that. It's got yellow flowers.' The climb up proved to be a struggle, Eldarion was obviously in pain and Elfwine, burdened by the weight of the kid, couldn't help him much. But his suggestion to leave the meat was greeted with derision. He looked back down into the gully. 'Look, they have already claimed their free meal.' The lion and three cubs were tearing at the carcass, the cubs already squabbling over the entrails. 'They must have been hungry.'
'They could have asked,' Eldarion muttered. 'No need to attack me.' He winced with pain as they scrambled over some big boulders.
Elfwine looked hard at his greying face. 'Are you going to make it?'
'Just keep going.'
By the time they got to the woods, Eldarion had gone ominously quiet, although he shook his head when Elfwine asked him if he wanted a rest. True, they needed to get back to the camp and treat the wounds. But whatever they did, he thought it likely this would end their sojourn in the wild and pondered on the quickest way to get some proper treatment.
Eldarion flopped down on his bracken bed as soon as they reached the camp, just taking time to mumble something about making a tea with the sticklewort. Elfwine quickly made up the fire, and then rushed off to the stream. Once he had the water heating he went over to Eldarion. 'I'll help you get your jerkin off and we can see what we are dealing with.'
It must have hurt as blood had stuck his shirt to the wounds, but apart from some grimacing and sucking in of breath, Eldarion made no complaint. 'What's the damage?' he asked when his back had been uncovered.
'I don't think it's too bad in itself. The lion bit you through your jerkin and would have got a mouthful of cowhide. There are some puncture holes, which must be where the long fangs sunk in. But its claws ripped down under your clothes, not deep but pretty nasty. As soon as I've washed it, I'll go for help.'
'No, we can't give in. Wash the wounds well and then go and find some comfrey. I'll survive the next few days.'
'Not if it becomes infected you won't.' Elfwine didn't want to give in either, but no one would think ill of them in the circumstances. 'I can get down to the road in a couple of hours, someone will come along. It's well travelled. If not, I will make my way to the next village.'
'You'll probably find our escort there,' Eldarion muttered.
'They've gone back to Edoras.'
'I don't think so. I overheard something that led me to believe they weren't going to be that far away. I don't think they realise how well I speak your tongue, or how sensitive my ears are.'
'Pity you didn't hear the lion behind you!' Elfwine growled irritably.
'Good job I didn't, or it would have got me in my face and then you really would have had to go for help.'
'I ought to go now. It strikes me that if the escort are not far away there will be scouts around. In fact, now I think about it, I bet they are patrolling in the vicinity. It makes perfect sense, they'd want no brigand or wolf pack within a mile of us.' He should have realised, no way would Déor have put Gondor's heir in acute danger.
'We haven't seen anyone.'
'You wouldn't, they're Rohirrim,' Elfwine scoffed. 'Anyway, they'd keep a distance, just an extra safeguard.' He made a move to get up. 'The sticklewort is ready now, I'll tear up my spare shirt and as soon as I've cleaned the wounds I'll be off. I reckon if I go down the mountain a bit and wind my horn, someone might hear.'
'No, don't.' Eldarion grabbed his arm. 'Let's try and finish this. It's nothing we can't treat with what's around us. As long as you don't mind getting the food for the next few days. I don't think I'm up to that.'
Elfwine hesitated; he really didn't want to go back early. 'All right, but one sign of infection and I'll be down the mountain.'
To be continued.
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.