Elrohir was in trouble. It was not something he was eager to admit to himself, but there it was. An experienced campaigner of Middle-earth should not find himself at any risk, here in the distant West Beyond the World. Danger was supposed to be something he had left behind him.
The enormous bear on the ground far below him reared up on its hind legs, and brought two massive paws thudding into the trunk. The entire tree shook under the impact, and Elrohir hastily braced himself against a branch with one elbow and tightened his grip upon his bow. He had put five arrows into the beast already, but its thick hair and hide were strong as armour and probably the arrows had done no more than annoy it. He did not feel very confident that his sword would have much more effect.
The oak tree stood alone in the clear morning light of a wide grassy clearing, gnarled branches wide-spread and laden with dark leaves starred with morning dew. Far beyond it in the distance, woods stretched quietly away, fading into golden morning mist. It would have been a peaceful scene, if it had not been for the bear.
If he could manage to find just the right angle, perhaps an arrow to the eye... But a thick branch was in the way. He dare not venture too far down the tree to the branches that might carry the bear’s weight if it decided to climb up after him.
The tree groaned and creaked as the bear set long black claws into the trunk and pulled.
Of course, if the bear pulled the tree over entirely, then the branch would no longer be in the way of the line of shot to its eye, but that would probably be irrelevant to Elrohir by then.
Usually, he had been told, it took around a thousand years in the Halls of Mandos, from death to being permitted to return to life, if Lord Námo decided there was no obstacle...
Being eaten by a bear would probably be quite painful, but worse was the thought that Mother would cry, and Father would make his hurt, unhappy face when he thought that nobody was looking. Elrohir had left Rivendell and sailed from Middle-earth largely because he found that thought difficult to endure.
Great-uncle Finrod had been let out of the Halls of Mandos within weeks, and after all, Elrohir was Lúthien’s great-great grandson. There must be a trick to getting out of the place.
The bear pulled its massive bulk up into the tree, and now there was only a mass of twigs and foliage between Elrohir and the bear, but still no clear shot. The sheer weight of the monstrous bear was pulling the entire tree sideways. Elrohir retreated, bow in hand, to a higher, thinner branch.
A movement far below caught his eye, grey animals running silently towards the tree. Wolves? The first had reached the tree-trunk and it lifted its head and began to bark, and then the others joined it.
Not wolves. Hounds. Some way away, a horn called merrily, and then riders on tall white horses came cantering through the deer-grazed scrub towards the tree where Elrohir stood, small bells on their harness ringing merrily. He thought of Glorfindel, but of course it was not: Glorfindel lived in Tirion now, among his friends from Gondolin, and would surely not be out hunting here in East Beleriand.
One of the riders saw him, and called out to his fellow across the baying of the hounds. “A good hunt today indeed! We have caught not only the bear, but the bear’s breakfast too!”
The other laughed and called back, “Is it polite to interrupt the bear’s breakfast? Perhaps we should wait for him to finish his meal.”
The bear’s attention had been distracted away from Elrohir in the tree above by the sound of the barking, and it had turned to swipe at the hounds with one vast clawed paw, growling. They leaped out of the way, barking furiously.
“He has found a rare morsel indeed,” the first Elf laughed, putting an arrow to the string as he spoke. “He must be most unhappy to lose it. There aren’t many who get a chance to taste the blood of the Children of Lúthien.”
The bear turned in the tree below him, and now at last Elrohir had the clear shot at his eye.
The arrow sped true. It sank into the bear’s eye until there was a bare hand-span of the arrow and the fletchings standing proud of the head. A brief moment of silence, as if even the hounds had caught their breath, and Elrohir thought, surely, surely it can’t live with an arrow right through its skull like that?
Then, slowly, massively, the vast bear toppled from the tree, and fell to the ground, dead. Around it, the hounds cried furiously, and darted in to grab at their prey.
“It seems this morsel is not for the bear today,” Elrohir said, in Quenya, because these elves would probably not speak his own modern Westron, “Though some would call that a joke in bad taste, from your family to mine, Amrod.”
Amrod jumped up and stood upon his horse’s back to bow apologetically to Elrohir. “A fair point,” he said, wryly. “Don’t tell Maedhros, I’m trying to convince him that I’ve finally learned to think before I speak...”
“A hopeless cause, he knows you far too well,” Amras advised him solemnly, and looked up at Elrohir. “You have slain our cave-bear for us, cousin. Come down and take a cup of wine to celebrate!”
“Very well then,” Elrohir said, putting his bow away in its carrier. He swung down from the tree. “I am glad to see you, truly. That was an alarmingly large bear.”
“You didn’t seem to need much help,” Amrod said grinning. “When I saw you up there, I thought I’d have a chance to boast to Maglor that we had rescued his honorary grandson. Then you went and killed it yourself — with one shot at that!”
“Not quite one shot,” Elrohir admitted, “I’d bounced a few arrows off his hide already, before you arrived... here’s one of mine in the grass, and another, barely through the fur.” He picked the spent arrows up and restored them to his quiver: he had a small supply of arrowheads with him, and could make a few more arrows if he needed, but there was no point in wasting them. “I’ve never seen a bear of such a size before.”
“We have a plentiful supply of similar bears, in Beleriand Arisen,” Amras told him, pouring out a cup and presenting it to him with a flourish.
Amrod turned to the fallen bear and prodded it with a foot. The hounds growled enthusiastically, and he began to cut off a strip of the flank to give them. The bear’s thick fur and hide had defeated their teeth. “Perhaps the bears of Middle-earth have dwindled?” he said over his shoulder. “I hear that’s how it goes. But most of the bears of Beleriand are large, but peaceable enough — as long as you don’t steal their breakfast. This particular bear was an exception, that’s why we were hunting him.”
“You were looking for this bear in particular?” Elrohir enquired, sipping from the cup.
“Yes,” Amras said. “Your bear had a taste for cattle, and that was a great nuisance, but he took a farmer last month, and that was when we started looking for him in earnest.” He gave Elrohir an appraising look. “Some would say you were travelling rashly, coming through cave-bear country on foot and alone.”
Elrohir shrugged. “I’m on my way to Nan-tathren, to see my grandparents. Galadriel and Celeborn, I mean.” He had still not quite got used to having more than one set of grandparents that could be visited. “I’m used to walking : the Dunedain Rangers of Arnor used to patrol that way a good deal. ” Possibly Amrod and Amras would not know who the Dunedain were. No matter. He shrugged. “I am in no hurry. On foot I don’t have to fuss with fodder, forage, or fretting that my horse might go lame or be stolen by orcs. ”
Amrod shook his head. “No orcs in Beleriand, “ he said. “Not any more.”
“Of course,” Elrohir said, and made a gesture of acknowledgement with the cup. “I forgot... We were fighting orcs for a very long time, my brother and I.”
Amrod threw the bloody scraps he’d made to his hounds, then wiped his bloody hands upon the grass. “So Maglor has told us. That is your brother Elladan, who stayed in Middle-earth?”
“That’s right.” Elrohir said. He looked from Amrod to Amras, their faces almost indistinguishable, as he and Elladan had been, and found that he had more to say. “He chose the path of Men, and I chose the Elves. We agreed that he should go with my sister, Arwen, and with our foster-brother Estel, and I should stay for my father and mother. You have to choose someone to lose... This was the nearest we could come to being able to take both paths at once.”
Amras looked at him thoughtfully. “I see. A hard choice.” He hesitated for a moment. “You hadn’t thought of travelling back to Middle-earth?” he asked. “You know my father has woven paths through from the Straight Road to Middle-earth, where Eru bent the ways. The road is not all in one direction any more. I could show you the start of the path that runs from Beleriand into the lands of Men...”
Elrohir looked away at the hounds milling around the fallen bear. “I know the path is open now,” he said. “But in Middle-earth, no-one can turn back the river of years. Elves may stand by the river and admire the ripples passing, or even walk upstream a little way along the bank, but the children of Men are carried swiftly out to Sea, whether they go willingly in joy and hope, or swim against the tide. My brother, my sister and my last foster-brother are dead and gone beyond the world, and no work of cunning thought can amend that. Our paths are parted.”
“Cruelly is Arda made,” Amras said, frowning.
“Cruel and kind at once, and very fair,” Elrohir said. “My mother thinks the darkness makes the stars shine brighter. Most of the time, I think she’s right. The bear died, and that will be a fine thing for the young calves and the farmers and their children, yet the bear too had his beauty though it was wrapped in terror." He cut himself off short. "I’m sorry, travelling alone has left me too many high-flown thoughts. At any rate, I thought that I would come and explore Beleriand Arisen, returned to the world beyond hope, and remind myself of the brightness of the stars.”
“We too have returned beyond hope,” Amras said. “We shan’t complain at thoughts that fly like larks against the sky.”
“But you weren’t coming to visit us?” Amrod asked. “This is a strange way to take to get to Nan-tathren, if you landed at New Eglarest!”
Elrohir shrugged. “I decided to take a roundabout route and see more of the land.”
“Never mind,” Amras said with a meaningful look at his brother. “Can we persuade you to visit us, even if you weren’t intending to, Elrohir? In a few days, we shall ride up to Lake Helevorn for the Feast of the Lighting of the Lamps. We would be greatly honoured if you would join us.”
Elrohir began a polite refusal, but Amrod interrupted him “You really should,” he said persuasively. “You’ve been in Tirion and visited Fingolfin, and you are on your way to Galadriel. It would do nobody any good if Fingolfin, or our father, got the idea that you were favoring one side of the family over the other.”
Oh. Father had been very clear that one thing they must avoid above all things was causing tension between any of the great Houses of the Elves. The potential for doing so, for both Elrohir and Elrond, who were members of all of the Houses, seemed to be considerable.
“I don’t have any festival clothes with me,” he said. “I’m travelling light.”
“We’ll lend you some!” Amras said, beaming cheerfully.
Elrohir put on what Arwen used to call the Tactical Rivendell smile, the one for those occasions when Durin’s folk, Wood-elves and Men from Arthedain and Rhudaur happened to be all visiting at once. “In that case, thank you, I’d be delighted,” he said.