6. Chapter 6
Loch woke by that warm, stinking pool of hot water to a world that seemed fashioned of diamonds. Everything glittered, encased in ice, but the pool remained as unnaturally hot as ever. Beautiful though it was, Loch's heart turned to ashes in his chest. It would be weeks now, before the planting begun. So long, too long. He sat, dejected, for some while before he noticed a bundle nearby. A red cloth had been wrapped around something. Vivid, bright, promising red. Perilous, warning, deadly red. He did not know what it was, who it belonged to or where it had come from. Ultimately his curiosity won out and he edged closer to prod at it. When nothing terrible happened, he warily peeled back the red cloth to find a wooden box. It gleamed, a rich vibrant hue. The box was as big as his head. Best of all, it was unlocked!
He cracked the lid to find there was food! Food! Meat, bread, cheese, some sort of vegetable he had never seen before. Food! Heart thudding he slammed the lid shut and scuttled back. It was a trap. Surely. A trap. The witch! Loch was torn between wisdom and his belly. It was an uneven contest and, once he had convinced himself that the witch would not spring out of thin air, he edged back and cracked open the lid. The food was still there and that was that. Loch fell onto it, ravenous as a wolf, cramming as much as he could into his mouth as fast as he could. Longer it took you to eat, the more likely it would be that you would be caught. Another lesson he had learnt early on. When at last the food was all gone, he saw something gleamed in the morning light. Coins…gold crowns! More than one. He did not know the word for the number he held in his hand. More than one and two. Immediately his mind flew to his sister. Is what he held close to twenty? He would take them straight away, spay his debt or at least start to if twenty was more than he had in his hands.
Loch scooped up the coins and bounded away. From her window, the woman everyone denounced as a witch grinned as the boy shot into the next snow drift like an arrow. Such a determined boy. The old woman gathered her stick and cloak and ventured out to the hot spring where the boy had been sheltering the past two nights. She could see the depression his scrawny body made on the packed earth beneath the slight rocky overhang. Canny boy too, prepared to put up with a little mineral laden air for warmth and survival. The wooden box with it's fine charcol liner kept the air from spoiling the food she had set within it. It was all gone, food and coins. Would he venture back, she wondered. She hoped he might. With warmth, food and now gold available at this pool, it seemed likely. The world was a vicious place for the vulnerable. She collected up the box and set back for her cottage.
~ ~ ~
The storm made the going treacherous and difficult but Loch was determined and he reached the farm by midday. Habit made him cautious but everything was still, as if frozen in time as well as ice. Not a sound. No movement. He continued on, heart expanding as he drew near to the cottage. Closer, he could hear pigs snuffling, eating, their particular reek on the air. No smoke came from the chimney though. Were they out? Where had they taken her, he wondered. Would they come back? The curtains were drawn. Something made Loch hesitate and he did not knock on the door. The hair on his arms stood on end and his heart was pounding now. Not from running, or the excitement of getting Rin back for surely he had twenty gold crowns. Something else sped his heart and so he circled around the cottage to the yard behind it.
It was a muddy expanse that had frozen everywhere in the storm like everywhere else, except for where the dogs had churned it all up. There were many dogs, gaunt and miserable creatures all chained to a peg in the muck as best Loch could guess.. They jostled about restlessly at his appearance by the corner of the cottage, chains rattling at their collars, but they did not bark. It was more than passing strange, he thought, and he could see no one in the yard. He gaze travelled back to the dogs, their flat eyes and matted coats. No few of them were belly down in the mud, whining piteously despite the fact that he had made no advance towards them. Then, he saw something that was not a dog at all and, heedless of the strange dogs, he leapt forward.
Next thing Loch knew, he was running. Running as fast as he might. A chain rattled on the ground after him, skipping and jarring like a great metal snake. It was attached to Rin's neck. His sister was in his arms staring, no recognition, like she was frozen. He did not know what had happened. She was beaten black and blue, covered in mud and filth, with a chain around her neck like the dogs. He did not know what to do. All he knew is that it was all his fault. While he had slept warm and safe, and eaten food that seemed to come from thin air, he had abandoned his sister to bad people. Bad people who said nice things but lied. Smiled, but lied. Did bad things. His fault. It was his fault!
~ ~ ~
The twilight had nearly subsided into another chilly night when the old woman heard a strange sound, oddly metallic. She peered out her window to see the boy had returned. He was scurrying towards the hot spring. His movements had a panicked, jerky quality to them but she could mark little else aside from that queer sound.The pool was too far and the hour too late and her eyes too old. She would have to go out. She snatched her stick and a stouter cloak, one fit for the bitter night.
Loch set his sister down. She did not move, nor twitch nor blink. He shook her, shouted at, screamed her name. She did not respond. The chain, then. The chain had to go. He set his hands to that and tugged at the links. It would not give. He tugged again, teeth gritted. No change. He started to wonder if he might need to move her closer…even into the hot, smelly water…to revive her. He feared with all his being that she would die if he did not so something.
The old woman could hear the boy's panic and she took care not to misstep and startle him. By the time she reached the spring, the boy was moments away from dropping a smaller child into the water itself.
"NO!" she called sternly, her voice echoing off the small rock overhang he had been sleeping under. The boy froze, terror etched on his young features.
The witch, Loch's despair wailed. The witch had come! She would kill them both. Eat them. Just like they said! He shuffled back, tightening his grip on Rin as the crone emerged into view. The moon was full and the sky cloudless. Her crinkled face was one of shifting shadow in the fragile light. A veritable demon!
"Stay back," he demanded, not really thinking she would. He had nothing else to fight her with. The witch raised her hand, the other clutching a knobbled, twisted walking stick. A plan began to hatch in his mind.
"Very well, child. Do not go into the water. I will stay here if you will agree not to touch it."
"Why?" Loch asked, stalling for time as he wondered how quickly he could dart across and knock the crone's walking stick out from under her.
"Because it'll be the death of you, boy," the witch said tersely.
"How do I know it's not a trick?"
"You don't. Want me to stay where I am then you'll heed my terms."
The boy had no questions for that and she was relieved that he made no further advance to the spring's edge. The waters were hot enough to scour flesh from bone.
"Who do you have there?" she asked him after a moment's silence, "A friend?"
The boy did not answer, not willing to be drawn on. Whoever the child was the boy clutched, he or she was important to him.
"Is your friend hurt?"
"Why do you want to know?" Loch shouted back, angry with the questions and his inability to figure out a way from the death trap he had fled into.
"Not answering no more questions," he said stubbornly, lifting his chin, "So why don't you just kill us or go away!"
The old woman smiled in the darkness. Just like her grandson.
"Kill you, why would I want to do that?"
"So you can eat us," the boy said belligerently.
The old woman cackled at that. The villagers, it seemed, had been at it again. Long winters made for idle hands and vicious tongues.
"You? There's more substance to be found on a sparrow's leg than you, right now, I'd wager. Who's your friend? And, more the point, why is your friend wearing a chain?"
"None your business. You leave her be."
"Thought you were done with answering my questions, lad," she said, continuing her careful shuffle forward, moving so slowly in the dark that the child did not mark it.
"Girl eh? Your sister, I'd wager."
"YOU LEAVE HER BE!" he shouted at her, confirming her guess.
The old woman ceased her approach and settled down. The boy, meanwhile, clutched at his sister and stared at her. Odds were, she mused, he'd attempt to outstare a dragon when it came to his sister. Where their parents were she did not know. But the girl was in trouble. His sister was unnaturally still. If she wasn't dead, she was close to it.
"Well now, here we are then. A pretty pickle, if I do say so myself," the old woman said a while later.
"Go away then, if you want," the boy said.
"I could, I suppose, I could. But I suspect you need help more than you need privacy right now."
"Stay away, witch."
Old woman sighed, realising that attempting to talk the boy around was doomed and time was awasting. She stamped her stick on the ground, "Very well, lad."
She turned away with every intention of swinging back and barrelling the boy over, sister and all onto the soft, warm packed earth behind them. Apparently, she was not the only one with guile. The boy charged her like a bull, knocking her walking stick away as he did. She lost her balance and tumbled to the warm soil with a thud. Old though she was, she was faster than Loch had imagined. Loch watched in dismay as the witch seemed to spring back to her feet. On the other side of the witch, lying stiff and still, was his sister. The witch realised this and cackled with delight. To his horror, she edged towards Rin, still cackling. And so, with nothing else, he charged again. Then everything went black.
"Fool boy," the old woman muttered, turning attention to the boy's sister.
"Alive then. Well, nothing else for it. In you come."
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.