The forest around the old road northwards was full of strange sounds and smells, shadows and movements that were unnerving in their unfamiliarity. Having lived most of my life at the temple grounds in Neville, my current path had taken me much further north than ever before in my life.
I touched the pouch hanging around the neck under my shirt for reassurance. I was here with a purpose, and people relied on me. I would not let them down. The thought made me pick up my gait again, although I knew well enough that it was maintaining a steady run that would get me to my goal the fastest.
I had been entrusted to carry an important message to Norton. Horrible things were afoot. The word of the movements of the orcish armies simply had to reach the northern harbour town in time for them to send help. There was no way we could hold out otherwise.
With grave thoughts weighing down on me, I ran onwards and tried to concentrate on moving. The surrounding forest looked all the same to me, and I had very little idea of the distance I had come so far or still had ahead of me. But I knew that as long as I stayed on the road, it would take me there.
The troll bridge over Levin river had been a rather creepy experience. Luckily I had been warned of it in advance and equipped with a bagful of gold to pay the toll. The giant troll guarding the bridge had called me a mooncalf and patted me on the head with a sneer of superiority when I gave him the money, but he had allowed me to pass.
I did not like the way his orcling minions looked at me, but I had been ensured that this small group of runty orcs were just petty rejects that had no part with the war at hand. They would not stop me, nor would they even know what business I had crossing the bridge. I tried not to show my nerves when I marched on past them. Before I had entirely passed out of their sight, I stopped trying to keep my feet under control and took off in a run again.
It just felt so much better to be heading away from them and towards my goal a bit more quickly.
The encounter with the giant troll and his snickering minions might have left me a little bit jumpy than usual, but it felt like the caws of dark birds flying above were somehow a bit more ominous than before, and the forest darker. I kept running, but maybe increased my pace a little bit. Meanwhile, I tried not to keep glancing around my shoulder in case a little flash of movement caught in the corner of my eye could have been something dangerous or not.
I was pretty certain I could outrun a random cranky wolverine and most large animals would probably avoid the road. But I could not entirely shake the feeling of being watched.
I could see the sapphire-grey waters of Lake Rover glinting between the trees ahead already, when suddenly I felt I tripped on something nasty that was not there a moment earlier. The road welcomed me in its rough embrace with a THUMP; I barely had time to move my hands to break the fall.
When I glanced at my strangely stinging legs, they were tangled with something that looked like rope and spiky balls, biting through my thick pants. The sight almost made me lose my breakfast, but with a quick move I unsheathed my whittling knife and cut the rope loose with only slightly shaking hands.
Then I was up on my feet again, which were still holding, and heard a large rustle behind me. Fear made everything seem to move more slowly than usual: I could feel the strangely sluggish movements of my legs for some three steps that I managed to take before something much larger tackled me to the ground.
The old sand road was hugging me back once more, but this time I could not break free from it. I tried to push myself up but felt a sting of something sharp against my neck. A single, sharp sting.
At that point, I really, really, really hoped that the thing on my back was an unusual one-toothed cranky wolverine and nothing worse. But when it spoke and told me to not move, I had to admit this would be depressingly unlikely.
The amount of panic that fits into a mind is limited. When it starts to overflow, normal thoughts have no more space to move around. In my case, the reflexive reaction was to be very still and listen to the sound of blood wooshing in my ears with every heartbeat.
"That's a good little elf. Now, I hear you have a message on you. You can give it to me nice and easy, or I can get it out of you in more creative ways."
Unfortunately, I was too busy not thinking about anything to formulate a response.
The non-wolverine sitting on me made a 'tch' sound. "I do hope you have it in writing." He patted my side with one hand experimentally.
A hasty and unplanned "...ntkillme" jumped off my tongue and got partially muffled by the close proximity of road to my mouth.
"What's that you say?" The sting at my neck receded and I turned my head a bit, to a position where I would inhale less sand.
A single-breath "pleasedontkillme" was not exactly the brave words of defiance that I heard my kind fighting in the ranks of the Knights learned, but then I never attended that sort of training. So it was only natural that I did not know how to keep it in like a proper warrior.
The weight on my back shifted, as the probably humanoid creature on it seemed to sit back and take a second look at what exactly he was straddling.
"Seriously. They send whelps to do messenger runs these days? I should throw you back in the lake to grow a bit more, boy."
I was still not managing to participate in conversation, as images of my impending painful death were taking priority over any witty remarks or corrections of my exact age or gender. I recalled reading a stories of adventurers who never seemed tongue-tied like this. But whenever I tried to say something, it came out sounding a lot like the two previous attempts. Something about not wanting to die, which was the pressing thought at the time.
"This is like fishing off a soup kettle. No excitement whatsoever." He removed the sting from my neck altogether. I imagined him sheathing some kind of small blade, and with that thought some clarity returned to my thoughts.
There was someone sitting on me who knew I was a messenger. The Scythe army should not be this far north, he was definitely not one of our own, and how on earth did he knew? Had someone followed me from the start, or had the bridge orclings summoned him after me some way after all? What on earth was going on?
I dazedly tried to push myself up, but froze when he briefly tapped a finger at my neck. "No sudden moves, squirt. Where is your message?"
I patchily recalled he was not sure if I had an actual letter on me. That was probably why I was still alive. For now. "You're going to kill me, aren't you."
"You're pretty stuck on that thought, aren't you," he copied my tone of voice. "Where is it?"
I was certainly not going to hasten my demise voluntarily, but getting as far as coming up with a plan of how to get out of this was beyond me. What would heroes in story books do?
"Pointy-eared or not, I don't beat little boys for fun - but you don't want to get insolent with me, squirt." I heard a new, warning tone in his voice that chilled me. I could not possibly keep anything from him.
"...girls." I did not realize I was saying that out loud, and wanted to slap a hand over my mouth to force the word back in again.
"Hmm?" He was still patting my sides and legs, searching for a pocket that could be reached without letting me up. When he spotted my small knife, I felt him take it away. He probably had not heard me, which was just as well. I was biting my tongue hard to not let anything else slip out.
He seemed to pause for a bit, then leaned closer to my ear and spoke in a soft tone. "Tell you what. If you're a really good boy and don't waste my time here, I'm not going to kill you. I'll drop you off at a camp of ours and you'll eventually get hauled down south. If you behave well all the way, you get to keep your head. Deal?"
"R-really?" Oh, how I wanted to believe him! The Scythe did not generally bother with prisoners, and even though he did not smell like an orc himself, I had a hard time believing there was some kind of change in the age-old tradition of attacking elves on sight.
He chuckled and patted me on the shoulder. "Really. The leaders are picking up strange habits from other cultures. You're from the monastery, aren't you? You really don't strike me as a knigget."
"Y-yes." When had I picked up a stutter? Honestly, this was not going at all like the stories in books. Maybe I was just born particularly un-courageous.
"Good boy, you can write and read, then. Now, where is that message?"
I decided that the promise of not being killed was worth going for; the benefit outweighed the cost of dying a bit sooner. "It's a letter, in a pouch, under my-" I froze for a second. "Uh, I can give it to you if you get off me?"
He responded with a "Fair enough," but then suddenly grabbed my wrist and cut me with his knife. I shrieked in alarm and stared at the bleeding 'X' mark on the back of my hand.
It took me a while to register that it was not fatal or even particularly deep. "That's for bookkeeping. I'm going to let you get up now. If you run from me, the next time me or any of my mates see you, we kill you. The cross means you've received fair warning. We clear?"
I hastily nodded, and managed to push out a faint "yes" to go with it. He got off me.
I got up and with my back turned towards him, pulled out the envelope from the pouch resting against my chest. When I turned back to him, I crouched a little bit to look more boyish and flat-chested. It felt like a better idea to be a young boy, now that some plans had been agreed upon of my not dying within the next hour, and instead spending time getting into trouble with these people.
To maintain my crouch, I did not look him in the eye, but rather at his toes as I handed the envelope over. He took it, opened the seal and glanced at the contents. "You sure this is the letter you're carrying?"
There was something ominous in the question. I moved to look at what could have made him react like that. As I read the text, I paled.
"...I swear it's the message I was given!" Why it was filled with an Aunt Reddil sending her greetings about her young boys growing up to her sister was beyond me. I was told to make sure it got to Norton at any cost! Surely they would not go through such trouble for an old lady's greetings, especially given the situation...
Then it struck me, a wild idea I had heard bored scholars theorize about in the dining hall of the temple. I turned to the dubious-looking man with mad hope in my eyes. "It must be written in code! In case it got in the wrong hands. It's the real letter, it's just unreadable to anyone else but the recipient!"
To be entirely honest, it did not occur to me at this point that it might be valuable to not be divulging such information to the enemy. I'm afraid I was entirely too overwhelmed by an urge to keep my captor happy and non-frustrated at me to be considering such more complex concerns at this time.
He stared at me for a bit, frowning. "So, you're claiming this makes sense to the person it's intended to, but no one else?"
He sounded like he was not buying my explanation in the least. My despairing mind struggled for a way out, and grasped at any straws at a hand's length on the way. "It's like when you talk to someone you're really familiar with, other people won't get everything you say, too. I've heard it can be done so that it's deliberately incomprehensible. And it would make sense too, because that way I can't be tortured to reveal what's in the message either. It's written down, so it could be stolen on the way, and that could be bad."
While I was trying to argue for the plausibility of this story, I noticed a slightly disturbing thought forming that if the people who had written this message down had expected that I would run into enemies on the way, things could be a lot worse than I had thought. I really hoped they had just wanted to be very well-prepared.
He folded the letter back and pocketed it. "We'll see what to make of this. Where did you say you were taking this message exactly?"
I had not, but such details did not bother me. The burn to overcome this disappointment caused to the man who promised I could live if I behaved well overcame everything. It was strange how quickly one's priorities could adjust to new situations. "I was to deliver it to Norton and say it was from the western Hobbitat camp. I was told to follow the route and pay the bridge troll. That's all I know." I was watching him keenly for any signs of disapproval, and noticed a faint passing amusement in his eyes when the troll came up. Maybe it had been the minions that had betrayed my location, after all.
"So you're saying you do not have the means to read what this letter really says, either?" He patted the pocket.
I took a reflexive step back, worried this would be lethally detrimental to the perceived usefulness of keeping me alive. But I could not really claim I had such means, and I really did not want to get caught with a lie later. "No, sorry. I've only heard of the idea."
He looked at me so long I was squirming uncomfortably by the time he finally shrugged. "Your poker face is so hopeless I'm willing to take your word for it." He then beckoned for me to follow him. "I'll drop you off at the camp, they can figure out what's going on." I meekly complied.