Chapter 1: Sun
Even his shadow had deserted him.
Anor’s unforgiving gaze beat down on his face and the back of his neck and through his clothing. Stooping, nearly stumbling, he caught up a stone and slipped it between his lips, but his mouth had assumed the character of the desert by now. No water would come from the stone.
Dust and sand chafed under every bit of clothing, his undertunic sealed against his skin with sweat that had long since dried. Brittle air hissed in and out of his lungs.
Ahead, the unbroken sky. Behind, the unrelieved horizon
Sometimes, a tumbled mass of rocks strayed within his vision,. A hundred fathoms high, its cool shadow stretched across the sands of the middle distance. At whiles, it seemed so clear and so close, even his sun-blind eyes could follow the course of a stream running down through a ravine on the west side. But they kept moving, cliff and stream, flirting with the edges of the horizon.
Sand and rock pressed against his knees with a suddenness that startled him. Was it a storm? He had heard tales of desert storms that had swallowed armies whole. But no, that terrible weight still bore down on the top of his head nary a cloud in sight. He had merely fallen. That did not seem so terrible a thing. A relief, really, not to move. His head swam from thought to thought, never settling, until finally Anor took pity and pressed him into darkness.
And there was not a part of him that did not feel relief.
Elrohir rose out of unconsciousness into a slow grey twilight.
From the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, he felt wonderfully free and weightless. Something coarse and scratchy itched between his shoulder blades, against his back and buttocks. He smelled wool and the eternal mustiness of sand and sun-warmed rock. Except he wasn’t hot anymore.
He was alive. The thought ticked through his head, shallow and unresisting, following another rhythm that was coming from outside of him.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
Strange… who would hang chimes on the wind?
Were those chimes?
Elrohir’s eyelids creaked open, anticipating brightness. He was naked and uncovered and blissfully cool. An olive-colored canvas stretched overhead. The sweet tinkling was coming from a series of glass bottles dangling from a stick in the sand. Drops of color — rose and garnet and emerald — scattered back and forth across the sands as the breeze rocked the vials lazily against each other.
A pair of very dark eyes in a very dark face peered down into his own. Sun and sand-tossed wind had scored deep grooves on either side of the man’s mouth and etched coarse lines along his brow. The man wrung out a damp cloth, drops pattering into an earthen bowl. The cloth dabbed Elrohir along his throat, under his arms, at his groin.
There was a scarlet serpent etched into his cheek. It writhed and flickered its sinuous body as the man worked.
Elrohir stared at it, not, at first, comprehending its meaning though a vague uneasiness tickled in the back of his mind. He’d seen those markings before. Scratched into burnt out walls. Carved on the backs of still and flyblown bodies. Even if he’d wanted to move, he had no strength to do so.
The old man’s gnarled palm passed over his face, smeared his cheeks and cracked lips with oil. He murmured words Elrohir didn’t understand, but somewhere behind his eyes, a boat slipped its mooring line and drifted away on a dark, still sea.
He did not know how long he slept, but he woke alone to gauzy purple shadows stretching across the canvas walls.
Stretching his arm out across the rug he lay on, he brushed his pack, slid three fingers beneath the flap until they touched a weave he recognized even with the tips of his fingers. It felt intact, whole, safe.
Pacified, he eased himself up, groaning at the stiffness in his limbs. His skin upon inspection was raw and red in patches, particularly his face and arms, and itched like mad. Even lying still, he felt the heat of the desert baking out of him.
A wide-mouthed jug sat in the sand beside him, a tin pannikin hanging off the lip.
In ordinary circumstances, he would have thought twice. He would have considered, however briefly, that such an offering provided by unknown benefactors in enemy country was, perhaps, suspect.
He snatched the pannikin up and plunged it into the jug, bringing up more water than he’d seen in a sennight. It tasted like diamonds and overspilled his chin, dappling his chest. The second cup he poured over his head, blowing and snorting and laughing though the effort hurt his chest and wheezed from disuse.
The boy at the mouth of the tent was watching him with some trepidation.
Elrohir hastily wiped water out of his eyes and off his cheeks. “Hello.”
The boy said nothing. He was shy of his full growth yet — all elbows and knees and ribs. Expressive owl eyes gazed out of a thin face, smooth as glass and brown as ripe walnuts. A singlet of blue linen and a gold circlet around one bare ankle were his only coverings. In his arms, he carried a bundle that he placed just inside the tent. He tapped it and pointed at Elrohir’s nakedness.
The boy lowered his eyes while Elrohir pulled on a pair of baggy trousers and a loose shirt of white cotton long as a woman’s shift. The clothes were rough and strange against his skin but light too, and cool. He left the long, sleeveless surcoat where it lay.
“What of my things?” he asked, plucking at his new shirt for emphasis. A knot tightened in the pit of his stomach and pinched his voice into a sharp bark. “Where are my things? What have you done with them?”
The boy startled and scuttled backwards.
Elrohir spotted his knapsack in a corner of the tent and snatched it up, yanking the buckles open so hard one of the stitches tore. His fingers fumbled inside, clawing past the debris of his journey until they closed around a handful of cloth. Shaking the cloak out, he spread it across the pack and passed his palm over every inch, inspecting it for tears or marks or mishandling.
Nothing. It lay there quiet, the color of twilight and ancient trees and less ancient memory, completely undisturbed.
He sighed, shoulders relaxing. “Thank you. I’m sorry if I startled you.”
His fingers still stroked the weave of the cloak. Even when it had been too hot to wear, he had often taken it out at whiles. Just to make sure it was still there. Some things could not be replaced when they were gone.
The boy was still watching him, uncomprehendingly, perched on the balls of his feet as if poised for flight.
Folding the cloak carefully and setting it aside, Elrohir reached into his pack again and withdrew a leaf-wrapped packet. The edges of the leaves were curling and brown, but the lembas within had not gone wholly stale.
He broke off a golden corner, nibbled it, then held out the rest in offering. “You want to try? It’s good. You’ll not have tasted the like before.”
For a long minute, the boy merely looked from the waybread to Elrohir’s face. Then, cat-footed, he crept in, plucked the lembas from Elrohir’s fingers and retreated to the entrance where he promptly stuffed it into his mouth.
Elrohir smiled. “It’s good, yes?”
A fleeting smile. Then the boy was gone, leaving Elrohir to himself.
Faint and far off, somewhere beyond the tent walls, a high, soaring note cut through the air. It was a flute. Rising and falling and echoing. Dunes and wind and forgotten stars…old seas… a white bed dappled with water light…
Elrohir shook himself, and the fog lifted. There was no minstrel. No music. The desert wind had made strange noises too often along this road. It was never anything but his own mind.
But he remained half-bent over his pack for a long while, straining, despite himself, for a last tremolo, his heart suspended in its beat, one hand absently stroking the weave of the grey cloak.
Chapter 2: Shadow
Two men came for him shortly thereafter and marched him through a small forest of tents sprawled across the wadi: great expanses of black wool, each and every one of them daubed with a scarlet serpent — the ancient symbol of Ulfang the Traitor. Little islands of flame dotted the darkness here and there where bonfires had been lit to stave off the desert chill.
Elrohir breathed out, slow.
Observe. Do not engage.
That was the first law a scout learned. And always the one he had the most trouble obeying.
Information was more valuable than blood in this line of work, and it was one thing the Council had been sorely lacking as rumors of the Enemy’s workings in the East increased. They knew precious little of the lands beyond the River Carnen save that the desert roads were a sure highway for moving things and people unremarked through uninhabited lands.
The air was full of the same sounds and smells of any camp: laughter and talk and woodsmoke, dogs barking, meat cooking, here and there the heavy, animal whiff of livestock. A girl slept on a pile of furs outside one tent, a golden circlet about her ankle her only covering. In another, a man, bared to the waist, and spreading the entrails of a goat carcass on the table before him,frowned down at them. Another group threw dice in front of a bonfire, hooting at one another in raucous voices.
And every one of them wore steel — swords, glaives, axes. Even the children carried daggers in their sashes.
One of the men on either side of him suddenly planted a hand between his shoulder blades and thrust him through the mouth of a great black tent, taller and broader than any of the others.
Within was the kind of room that would not have looked out of place in a king’s palace. But in the midst of the desert where water and goat’s milk were valued more than gold, it was striking. Rugs dyed brilliant colors carpeted the sandy floor. The tent walls were adorned with all manner of gilt and glim, and a silken screen sectioned off one corner of the tent entirely that might have been a sleeping or bathing space.
A long-backed divan commanded the center of the room behind the fire pit. Upon it lounged a massive man with heavy jowls and yellow — almost Orcish — eyes. He held a leather hose that ran down to an instrument like a tall long-necked ewer between his fingers. He exhaled smoke from both nostrils, sending a greenish plume up towards the lantern hanging from one of the central posts. A heady perfume like wild apples permeated the air.
A dark-haired, dark-eyed man with a face like a knife blade stepped forward and motioned Elrohir’s guards aside.
“Please sit and be comfortable,” he said in softly accented Common speech, motioning Elrohir to a silken pillow upon the floor. “Our Chief welcomes you and trusts that you have been treated well?”
“Yes, excellent well,” Elrohir said, glancing over his shoulder. His guards had withdrawn to either side of the door, their hands resting with studied casualness on swords thrust in their belts.
“Good. Among us, guests are gifts from the gods. And should be treated as such.” The man cricked his neck in what might have been an obeisance. “I am Logrim, humble servant to our Chieftain Borfain the Mighty.”
Humble, indeed. The chieftain looked all but asleep and quite unconcerned as to Elrohir’s welfare.
Logrim paused delicately as if waiting for Elrohir to return the salutation in kind.
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” Elrohir said and nothing more.
Logrim smiled — if it it could be called that. His mouth winced in a sort of upward curve that would have passed for friendly if his eyes had not been so dreadfully empty. “It is not often we find such bold adventurers in the Sand Sea — lucky we found you.”
“Indeed,” Elrohir said then, figuring he might as well do a decent job of it, added. “I was traveling.”
“Many avoid the Sand Sea like the plague.”
Elrohir affected a careless smile of his own. “Well. Alas, there are no need for errant knights these days with so long a peace between realms. Truth to tell, it’s set my blood boiling. I rather dislike being idle for too long.”
In point of fact, this was true. For the most part.
Elladan had slipped easily into peace’s mantle when the Enemy fled his old fastness, but Elrohir found it an ill fit. He loathed the bureaucracy of the council and the inactivity of the militia in these days of peace.
“I understand completely. I stay too long in one place, my feet itch.” Logrim laughed and clapped his hands and said something rapidly over his shoulder to his chief, who let out a low, rumbling chuckle. “So, where are you traveling to then?”
“Wherever the wind takes me.”
“I always travel alone.”
Travel had freed him from the grey, endless, listless days, and when Glorfindel had mentioned sending a scout East, Elrohir had leapt at the chance — despite knowing that the last one they had dispatched thither had not returned.
Or, rather, because of that.
He touched the fibula at his throat surreptitiously.
“What did you say your name was again?” Logrim asked, his glance sharpening.
“I didn’t. I am Randir,” Elrohir said. “A simple wanderer. I hope not to trouble you for too long.”
“It’s no trouble. None at all. Indeed, you must stay with us. It is not safe in these lands. All sorts of dangers from scorpions to brigands.”
Something stirred over Logrim’s shoulder.
There was a third man Elrohir had not noticed until now.
He was bound to one of the support struts in the darkest, barest corner, his face bloodied and bowed against his chest in a repose of utter exhaustion or complete indifference. His hair might have been fair, though it had been hacked off near the nape of the neck, and the rest of him was so filthy he might have been Man, Dwarf, or Elf. Elrohir’s heart seized at that last.
Logrim caught Elrohir’s look and smiled a smile that was far too wide with far too many teeth. “Ah. This man is not a guest. He is a spy. We caught him near the hidden wells. A sneaking, thieving scrounger. One of a pair, but his comrade fled without him like the cowards they all are. We will stake him up on a pole at first light for the sun to take him. And that is too good a fate for him.” He spat in the dirt beside the man’s boot.
The man didn’t stir.
“He looks rather the worse for wear,” Elrohir remarked in as deadpan a voice as he could muster.
“He will look worse tomorrow. After the buzzards pick out his eyes,” Logrim promised, his smile returning. “But never mind this one. Will you have a glass of wine? It is very good. Dorwinion.”
When Logrim turned his back to fetch the wine, the man in the corner of the room raised his head off his chest and opened his eyes. The face was unfamiliar, but the tongue he spoke — the Sindarin tongue, familiar to Elrohir as his own childhood — cracked between his lips, scarcely audible even to Elrohir’s keen ears.
“You don’t find it,” he whispered. “It finds you.”
Logrim fetched up a burning stick from the firepit and struck the man twice around the ear and shoulders when he ducked his head from the blow.
“Silence, dog! You speak only when spoken to!” Flinging the sparking wood back into the pit, he straightened, his face smooth as a millpond, but his eyes had gone liquid and quite insane. “Filthy spy. I trust you do not know such a heathen tongue?”
“No,” Elrohir whispered as Logrim handed him a glass of rich, dark red wine. “I don’t.”
The goat’s hair of the tent ballooned outward with a crack, sucking inward when the wind veered off as if he lay inside the lungs of some great beast. Beneath the canvas’ strains, the wind droned a low, tuneless murmur.
Too restless to sleep but too tired for anything else, Elrohir lay on his back, moonlight advancing and retreating across the walls. When Elrohir and his brother had been boys, Glorfindel would amuse them making shapes with his hands in the lamplight. Now a bird. Now a face with wide eyes. Now a dragon that breathed clouds of pluming smoke. Old ghosts chased themselves across the tent ceiling.
He stretched out a hand to the shadow-shapes. Were they solid all the way through? A golden light fluttered just behind the canvas…somewhere back there…if he could but close his fingers around it… But either it was slipping from him, or he was sinking away… into darkness, into depth… coming undone at the edges… He groped through black sand for something…anything…
The ground knocked him hard in the back, and he woke, rolling over instinctively for his knife. His fingers skated over bare ground.
His weapon, just out of reach, was half-buried in the sand near the mouth of the tent.
Beside it sat an apparition of moonlight and shadow. “Bad habit that — keeping a naked knife near one’s pillow.”
That warm, teasing timbre he had conjured so often it had melded with the desert wind in his dreams set a cold little ripple edging under Elrohir’s breast. It was too real. Much too real. And impossible.
“Only for the uninvited guest,” he said, gathering the sheet closer about him. His exposed shoulders prickled. “I have nothing of value. Or, rather, nothing that will satisfy a rogue or a thief.”
“What makes you think that?”
Shades of suggestion, of inflection and nuance, the underpinnings of things had drawn Elrohir to him that first night long ago. The musician in his ragged, grey cloak played with words as skillfully as his flute and could spin something as simple and formal as a courtly greeting into a promise of untold (and decidedly lascivious) delight, all without discourtesy. He had always masked his truest self well. Until you got to know him better.
“It sounds like you,” Elrohir said, his tongue too thick for his mouth. “But I don’t believe it. You’re alive.”
“Forgive the light-fingered touch. I had no wish to be disemboweled by mistake. Or castrated a-purpose.”
“You’re alive. How—?”
“I know you must have questions, Elrohir, but I am rather in a hurry.”
“Oh, how foolish of me to delay your miraculous return from the dead with questions,” Elrohir said, his chest no longer cold but hot and roiling.
“When last we spoke, as I recall,” came the cool reply, “you were more interested in ultimatums than answers.”
This was so unjust it shook Elrohir from his shock, which was probably exactly the result intended. “What are you doing here, Haldir?”
“You spoke with Logrim this evening…What did he ask you?”
“I don’t know…” His mind felt as if it were mired in deep sand. “The usual things you ask a traveler, I suppose.”
“Who I was, what I was doing here…” Elrohir shrugged. “I told him nothing he couldn’t have already sussed out for himself.”
“Were there others in the tent with him?”
“A fat man who looked more goblin than man. And… there was a third — one of our folk, I think.”
“Was he alive?”
“He won’t be much longer smoking that thing as he does.”
“The third man.”
“Right,” Elrohir said though the impatience in Haldir’s voice mollified him ever-so-slightly. “Though probably not for much longer.”
“They are going to execute him,” Haldir said with certainty. “When?”
“You seem to know an awful lot already. What do you need me for?”
“First light,” Elrohir said. He pulled the blanket over his shoulders and lay back down. “Now is that all? You interrupted a lovely dream I was having.”
Moonlight spilled over and between them, washed over Haldir’s face. If Elrohir hadn’t known better, the expression on his face might have been penitent.
But for that, time had changed him little. At least the little Elrohir could make of him. Even with all details blunted, he knew too well the devastation of that strapping frame, the fall of pale hair so rarely seen outside the borders of the Golden Wood, the bold and ever-so-slightly arrogant features that charmed women and disarmed men.
Of all the couriers under Amroth, Haldir had ever been the most renowned (notorious was the better word for it). Not least because he had the tendency to countermand all courtesies (save verbal ones) — barging into a lord’s council or a man’s bedchamber to suit his caprice…
It was what Elrohir had loved best about him — his refusal to see the boundaries and limits of the world.
That is until he’d overstepped Elrohir’s own, invisible demarcation.
“Of all men, I least expected to find you in this lonely corner of the world,” Haldir said.
“Yes, well,” Elrohir grunted. “One goes where the Council bids.”
His father had been against the appointment. Had forbidden it, in point of fact. Fortunately, Grandmother had been much more understanding and provided him the means to effect his roguery without detection.
“The Council sent you? Why?”
“Apparently, good couriers are hard to come by these days.” Most of them sent into the far and wild corners of the world did not, as a general rule, return from the dead.
The briefest of silences was all that suggested Haldir was taken aback. “They sent you out here…for me?”
“You’ve been a pain in the arse trying to find. Many believed their hero of the Sorrows for dead. That a search would prove fruitless. Naturally, I, as the champion of hapless pursuits, could not resist.”
“Some things don’t change.” Haldir sounded almost amused. “And are you disappointed then, having been proven wrong?”
“What makes you think I wished you dead? Though if you had been, at least I could have ceased hoping for word from you.”
“I did not think you wished for word from me. And even if you did, I could hardly send it with a runner.”
Elrohir, reclined on his elbows, stared fixedly into the opposite corner of the tent, hoping the diffused moonlight would not reveal his expression. “I didn’t. And I don’t. I was only charged to bring you home, if I found you. Where you are needed. The Council knows this peace won’t last. It is already crumbling. We need all the sword arms we can muster. At the very least, a little more reconnaissance of the lands East would prove useful.”
“If you have been out here even half as long as you’ve been gone, what you know would be invaluable to all the realms,” Elrohir insisted, tucking a knee against his chest. He stared squarely at the shadow-shape silhouetted against the tent entrance. “I have not forgotten those to whom I swore fealty. Yet you would rather live wild amongst the desert natives.”
“My loyalty has never wavered. Not to Lórien. Nor to those who have risked much on my behalf. Tavor will die if I leave him here, and he is the only one who knows the location of what I seek.”
Only those who knew him well, as Elrohir did, would have detected the thread of vibrating steel beneath the calm facade. His sting had found its mark. But the spark of vicious pleasure this brought quickly burnt out. Haldir had his faults — many of them — but he had never given Elrohir any reason to doubt his loyalty to the Golden Wood.
But words of contrition choked him while his own wounds remained un-redressed. He carved a hand through his hair, scratching at the back of his neck. “What are you seeking out here anyway?”
“That’s lovely and vague. You can’t—“
A hand jerked up, fingers splintering the moonlight. Rising, Haldir leaned towards the tent flap, every line of his body taut.
Elrohir’s breath stopped in his throat, but all that reached his ears was the thud of his heart and, beneath it, the low drone of the wind.
At length, Haldir lowered his hand. “Even the empty desert has ears.”
“The guard makes his rounds every hour. Ostensibly for my ‘safety,’” Elrohir said. “How will you get to him? The tent he is imprisoned in is guarded, and they know you’re here. I heard them talking.”
“I don’t know.”
“Then let me do it.” The words left his mouth before he could stop himself.
“Let me get him out.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I told you. Hapless pursuits.”
A dry little laugh from Haldir. “I did hear a rumor of some damned fool who tried to swim the Sand Sea.”
“Guilty as charged.”
“It is too dangerous by far.”
“I can slip about this camp easier than you,” Elrohir said. “And when he has given you the location of whatever cursed thing you’re looking for, you will return with me, voluntarily. Or I shall sling you over my shoulder like a sack of oats. Whichever you prefer.”
“Intriguing as the idea of that is, Elrohir, you do not ken what you have stumbled into. Logrim is no ordinary man. And I would not see you in his hands.”
His insides fluttered at the thought of those liquid, black, not-sane eyes, but he forced them down. Instead, he reached for the grey cloak and shook it out over the bedclothes. “I have this.”
“I thought you would have burned that by now.” A single pale finger stroked the farthest corner.
Elrohir crumpled it and set it upon his pack. “It is a useful thing. Only a fool would burn such out of spite.”
“I never did mean to leave it behind.”
“No. I don’t suppose you did.” A flood of bitterness filled his mouth. He swallowed with difficulty. “It will shield me. I can get in and out with him.”
Haldir said nothing, but Elrohir did not break the silence. He had learned ago that sometimes that was the only way to win.
Then— “I will send word with Harami — the boy who brought you your clothes. He will tell you where to find me.”
The haft of Elrohir’s knife eased before his face, tentative as an olive branch. Elrohir’s glance flickered up to the hand that held it — long-fingered and strong, marked with callouses and cuts (the shape of those knuckles under his lips; the weight of that hand over his heart) — but no further.
“You will not believe it of me, Elrohir, but regardless of what passed between us, I am glad to see you. As insufferable as you are.”
Footsteps crunched outside the tent. The guard.
Elrohir’s heart seized, and he snatched the proffered blade. “Go. If they find you here—”
Barely a beat later, the guard’s lamplight prickled across his shoulders. Elrohir, lying on his side away from the entrance, breathed slow and even through his nose though closer inspection would have revealed no trace of sleep in any other part of him.
At length, the lamp withdrew.
Elrohir squeezed his fingers around the haft of his knife and breathed out, a long exhale. His chest ached in an old, familiar way. “Insufferable.”
But only the wind replied.
Chapter 3: Storm
The very next evening, Elrohir found a note concealed underneath his tin cup.
Two words: Under Borgil.
Elrohir burned the note, threw the grey cloak over his shoulders (even after all this time, he still couldn’t call it his), threaded his knife in his belt, and slipped out.
The camp in the middle hour of the night was largely still as he wove around and between the tents, evading the embers of bonfires and forms of men sleeping outside their tents.
The great tent was dark, grunting snores coming from within, but the two guards outside were very much awake, their spears close to hand.
Elrohir circled round to the back of the tent, nearest the place where he thought Tavor was tied, and crouched in the shelter of a wagon’s axle.
Sweat prickling beneath his layers, Elrohir worked his knife blade through the heavy wool and sliced. Every few seconds he paused to listen, but nothing alerted him, and after a few moments’ careful work, he had cut a long enough hole to work his head and shoulders through.
If the night outside was dark, the inside of the tent was midnight without moon or star, the air thickly perfumed with the musk of apples. Rattling snores were coming from the divan in the center of the tent as Elrohir felt his way forward, crawling on hands and knees until he reached the corner of the tent where he guessed the prisoner was tied.
The man — Tavor — was still bound to his post, but his eyes were open, awake, and glittering even in the black tent. He spoke no word as Elrohir crouched beside him and sawed through his bonds.
“Quickly now,” he mouthed once they had crawled back through the hole.
That was easier said then done. Tavor stumbled often on legs that seemed unsteadier the closer they came to the edge of the camp, and twice, he had to pause for breath, his wheezing agonizingly loud. Finally, Elrohir took Tavor’s arm and heaved it over his own shoulder, pulling him along.
The faint, red flicker of Borgil hovered low on the western rim of the horizon.
“Stop. I have to stop.”
“No, we’re nearly there.”
But Tavor’s legs buckled, and his weight jerked Elrohir off balance. He caught himself on hands and knees scarcely a foot from a very large, very well-armed man. Elrohir held his breath, scarcely daring to move, as the man shifted in his sleep, his eyes half-aware as they stared full into Elrohir’s face.
Elrohir met the stare evenly, adjusting the cloak a little about his shoulders. He was a wisp of smoke. Insignificant. He was air and sand and desert shadows cast by moonlight. Only a dream.
The man’s eyes slid off him again.
Elrohir snatched Tavor up and hauled.
They reached the edge of the camp beside a picket of camels. Elrohir called softly into the darkness, but it was not Haldir who answered.
A red light flared up, and blinking in its light, Elrohir beheld Logrim, half a dozen grim and scarlet-painted men at his back. He had a long knife in his hand, and his black eyes gleamed with triumph.
“So. This is how you repay our hospitality.” He gestured to the men flanking him. “There will be two to feed the buzzards this morning.”
Before Elrohir could put hand to knife, an arrow whipped past his cheek and buried itself in the chest of one of the soldiers, spilling him into red-tinged sand.
Logrim narrowly avoided a second, a hiss of rage spiking between his lips. “Kill them.”
Haldir’s clarion tones rang out in a strange tongue and stopped the men in their tracks. He was standing just past the pickets, another arrow to the string of his great grey bow, the nock against his cheek.
“Elrohir,” he said. “You and Tavor walk towards me.”
Elrohir, hefting Tavor higher on his shoulder, began to back towards the picket of camels. They made it three steps before something jolted through them, and Tavor slumped, dragging Elrohir almost to the sand again, Logrim’s long knife in his throat.
Haldir’s third arrow sank into Logrim’s eye socket, knocking him away from Elrohir. He didn’t turn to see him fall but sprinted the last few yards to Haldir’s side as the men pounded towards them.
“How do I get on?” Elrohir gasped, staring at the back of the great beast in front of him. Even his destrier, seventeen hands at the shoulder, held nothing to the girth and breadth of this creature.
Haldir seized him unceremoniously by hip and inner thigh and heaved him into the saddle then he himself was on a second camel. With a word, they were away, racing into the desert, red Borgil gleaming overhead.
It was the most uncomfortable ride Elrohir had ever endured.
The saddle horn chaffed him in a rather delicate place, and he had to trust the beast he rode and his guide for the desert was wholly dark save for the red glitter of Borgil and a thin sliver of moon.
But Haldir didn’t slow until they had put leagues between them and the camp and only then when their bearers were nearly blown.
When at last they halted, Elrohir slid gingerly out of the saddle, his legs nearly buckling when they hit the ground.
“I am sorry about your friend,” Elrohir offered though it seemed a thin comfort. “It happened so fast.”
Haldir nodded. “Tavor was a good man. And he knew the risks.”
Elrohir did not dare press for more details. He wasn’t entirely sure if he wanted to know. “At least he is revenged. You killed that foul snake, Logrim.”
“No arrow will kill what that one is.” Haldir turned the camel loose to graze what scrub he might find in this place and tossed their single saddle pack upon the ground.
“I left my pack behind,” Elrohir said, bending down to stretch his limbs. On their right, he thought he glimpsed the gleam of a river. “We might still be able to reach the Carnen—”
“I’m not going with you.”
Elrohir wheeled round. “What do you mean? I did what you asked. You promised.”
“I did no such thing,” Haldir said calmly. “And unless you are truly prepared to sling me over your shoulder — fair warning, I kick and I bite — I am going on.”
“To where?” Elrohir spread his arms, encompassing the vast expanse of dry, bare rock about them.
Haldir, riffling through one of their packs, withdrew a flagon and took an experimental swig. “I must find the Well of Cuiviénen.”
Elrohir scoffed. “That is a myth.”
“It is no myth,” Haldir said, refastening the pack’s buckles. “And more to the point, surety of its location would give untold advantage to the finder — it provides the only sure way of crossing the Sand Sea from North to South. Armies wishing to move quietly and quickly will find that road much easier than marching through Rohan and Gondor.”
This wasn’t making any sense.
“Look,” Elrohir said, fighting to strike a reasonable, understanding tone when all he wanted to do was take his heat-addled comrade by the shoulders and shake him. “I am sorry about your friend. But this is madness. With him dead, there’s no way to find the well now even if it does exist.”
“I will find it.”
That part of Elrohir that was saddle-sore, exhausted, and frightened flared up at once. “Why? Why this? Why is this worth your life? My life. After all we’ve been through.”
Haldir did not answer at once, his eyes on the distant horizon. “I’m not asking you to come with me.”
“No. You never did.”
Haldir stared at him for a moment then wordlessly went to his beast. It lumbered off its knees and began to walk south.
A ragged sigh fetching up in his chest, Elrohir followed.
For nearly a sennight and uncounted leagues, they traveled as fugitives, pushing the camels as hard as they dared, always by night when it was coldest.
They spoke rarely. Sound carried in the desert, and though they neither heard nor saw signs of pursuit, they took it in turns to keep watch at night, sitting with their backs against the camels, weapons in their laps.
They passed into increasingly barren, scrubby lands dunes giving way to steep escarpments and treacherous descents where only thorn trees would grow.
Their only provisions were whatever Haldir had managed to carry off. A flagon of goat’s milk, one of wine, some cheese, dates, bread and strips of dried camel meat. The leather wallet with lembas and cordial Elrohir kept in his belt they agreed only to use at the last need.
During the hottest part of the day, they crept into the meagre shade of a thorn tree though Elrohir was too hungry and thirsty to sleep. He had slipped into a stupor when Haldir touched his arm.
Alarmed, Elrohir sat up. “Is it them?”
His companion stood a little above him, staring intently at the horizon.
Elrohir squinted towards the east, but all he could make out was the far and faint teeth of the Orocarni, the great red eastern mountains. Something, perhaps a wisp of cloud, stirred near the highest peak. Fog, perhaps. Or a rainstorm on the other side.
But the clouds, moving far faster than natural, expanded across the horizon and darkened as they advanced towards the west.
“What is it?” The words sank off Elrohir’s tongue as the middle distance vanished.
Spanning the eastern horizon from end to end, a wrack of clouds the shade of nightmare boiled and frothed. They did not seem to just cover the sky but the earth as well, bringing darkness early. Crimson lightning illuminated the undersides, the color of blood.
The wind heaved and struck them with a blast of grit, hurling their hair over their shoulders and into their eyes.
Haldir raced for the camel, fumbling for its hobbles. “This is no natural storm. Move. Move now.”
Even as he spoke, the remaining camel gave an unearthly cry and bolted, the jerking the halter from Haldir’s fingers and nearly pulling him with it.
Then everything — rock, thorn tree, Haldir, his own legs — vanished in a blast of sand.
Elrohir’s arms swam out in front of him, groping, his eyes screwed tight against the flying debris. He tried to call out, but the wind tore his words away, and a mouthful of grit slapped him in the face. Sharper than the wind was the panic, fluttering and battering around inside him. Sand scoured every inch of exposed skin, poured down the back of his neck, crept up his ankles if he stood still longer than an instant.
A slipstream of wind caught him awkwardly and bowled him over. His cloak whipped up over his head and instantly began filling with sand. Clawing at the fabric, he choked, half-smothered. The weight poured down on him. Air, he needed air.
His knife. Struggling under the weight of the cloak (so heavy) and the banging darkness between his ears, Elrohir pulled his knife from his belt and thrust it through the weave of the cloak. It tore, sand pouring down on him from above, filling his mouth. He choked and spat.
Then the cloak was ripped from his face, hands scrabbling at him, catching his cheek by mistake before they found his hands. Haldir seized him by the shoulders, his fingers hard and desperate as talons.
“We have to make the cliffs!” he bellowed in Elrohir’s ear.
Too breathless for speech, Elrohir locked Haldir’s hand tight in his and squeezed. Resisting the long pull of the wind, they pressed forward into the howling dark.
Chapter 4: Water
Ploughing through sand that heaved and bent in tempest-tossed waves, Elrohir stumbled and nearly fell when his boot struck the firmness of rock. He dragged himself up onto a little lip of stone, gasping like a wrecked mariner, Haldir coughing beside him.
They had come up for air on an island of rock; with the storm whipping still about them, all they could see was a shelf scarcely wide enough for the two of them. But it would do. Anything to escape the wind’s undertow.
They hauled themselves a little further into the shelf of rock, its clay arms closing off the worst of the weather. Grit still swept in across their boots, but they cast themselves down at once and slept like the dead.
Elrohir woke first.
Careful not to disturb his companion, he dragged his battered limbs to the furthest end of the shelf and relieved himself against the stone. It didn’t take long. They had had nothing to eat or drink since the storm began, and his stomach gnawed at itself with hunger. There was a little waybread left in the wallet he carried, but between the two of them, it wouldn’t last long.
Elrohir leaned his brow against the stone where it was cool. A kiss of air touched his face; it tasted damp, and he lifted himself off the stone in surprise.
The shelf, though not wide, rose in a steep-angled cliff, far out of sight above him. Faults of deep, ragged fissures etched its face. He did not know what spirit drew him forward, other than idle curiosity, but it itched under his skin. As he ran his hands over one of the fault lines, a draft, stronger this time, fluttered over his fingers.
Rustling in his leather bag for a candle stub, he struck a sulphur stick and eased his shoulders through the narrow cleft. The draft strengthened at once but without the keen bite of the storm wind. It beckoned him on. The walls on either side of him (near enough that he could stretch out his arms and touch both) were wind-smoothed, all the rough edges flattened.
Something rushed and whispered in the darkness ahead. Like wind pushing sand over rock — only steadier.
His candle gilded the walls and picked out flecks of mica in the rock…and other things. Strange things daubed on the walls. His heart began to thud as he ran his fingers over the nearest.
Haldir was not best pleased to be shaken awake, but when he stopped grumbling long enough to hear what Elrohir had discovered, he rose at once and followed him into the rift.
Wonderingly, his palm brushed over the swirled walls of mauve and crimson, over the rude paintings daubed in clay. Star women and men with horns in their hands and antlers on their heads. Of boats and reeds. Of shadow shapes and trees under a much larger moon…As if this desert cave had once been in a forest near a lake…
Elrohir pressed his fingers against the antlered man. A pulse of warmth spread up his wrist all the way to his shoulder and down his spine.
“You don’t find it. It finds you’ — that’s what he said. Tavor,” he whispered. “Haldir…I think…I think this is the Well.”
Haldir said nothing. He seemed beyond speech.
Further in, the walls closed tighter together the higher they rose, almost-but-not-quite roofing over. The stars could just be glimpsed through the gap. On their left, the rocky floor gave way to sand then to red ledges flat as couches. Above these, the fragile shape of an acacia tree lifted its branches towards the stars.
But away in the shadows on their right, the sweetest sound tumbled over a lip of stone into a shallow pool, splashing and rushing and whispering all at once.
Elrohir sank against the wall. Sand was on his eyelashes, in his eyebrows, shoes, ears, but he didn’t move. “I have heard it said the waters of Cuiviénen had great power of old…That they restored strength and life. That those who suffered were healed of their ailments. And that those who drank of it would speak wisdom and truth.”
“It is water. That is enough blessing for me. Not only will it quench my thirst, it’ll get this wretched sand out of every nook and cranny.”
Elrohir laughed as Haldir dropped head cloth and tunic at the waterside, shaking his hair out so vigorously flecks of sand pattered against Elrohir’s jerkin.
There were things that needed to be said between them. Things they had never yet said to one another. But broaching the subject seemed suddenly beyond the ability of Elrohir’s tongue. How pale and inadequate the words ’thank you.” The words: “forgive me.” It had been too long.
“What has you so wrapped in thought?”
Elrohir started. Haldir was watching him with those uncannily keen eyes.
“Hmm? Nothing. Tired, I suppose.”
“You are a terrible liar.”
Haldir finished disrobing and dropped his clothing on the lip of stone, moving out of the circle of light, out of their conversation.
Elrohir lowered his lids and turned his face half-away. Strange how they, who had shared every intimacy of mind and body, now minded modesty in one another. The necessary distance and boundaries had to be maintained between them.
Almost, with the scent of moss and cool rock, the sound of falling water all about him, he could believe himself home. His heart ached of a sudden for the sweet notes of the Bruinen, the constant rush of ever-flowing water. A bed…a bath…familiarity and routine…the world that he fit in. He felt the desert just beyond their red canyon walls, a wide and open emptiness around the two of them.
Beyond his little island of light, Haldir waded into the pool with a croak and imprecation against what must have been a rather chilly immersion. Then the music of the water changed.
Of its own accord, his glance strayed.
A pale shadow against red stone, Haldir ducked under the thin stream spilling from the heights, the pool no deeper than his calves. His body had taken on the character of the desert, whittled down to only what was needed. Silt sluicing away revealed sinews and the edges of shoulder blades, skin stretched taut over ribs and flanks. Elrohir’s eye followed the water’s course as it teased over muscle, down the line of his back, between the twin dimples no bigger than the impress of his thumbs straddling the base of his spine.
Elrohir swallowed, his throat sticky and overwarm. Suddenly, painfully, aware of his own chaffing, he plucked at the collar of his borrowed robes, but he didn’t remove them. Instead, he toed off his boots and waded in.
Gooseflesh crept up his thighs, the cloth of his trousers clinging yet weightless. He ducked his head under the stream, opening his mouth wide to catch the fall and came up sputtering. He put his arms up so that runnels slipped down from wrists to shoulder, streaming over his hair, running into his eyes, sweet and clear and wonderful.
“Ever a child of the Bruinen, you are,” Haldir murmured, a touch of laughter in his voice and something else. Affection, perhaps, as at an old memory.
Elrohir pawed water from his eyes and snorted from both nostrils. They were close enough and in dim enough light to consider one another without too much fear.
Elrohir ran his fingers over the ridged edges of Haldir’s ribs. “And you’re so thin. You look as if you’re wasting away.”
“The drought has been long.” Haldir breathed in, pushing against Elrohir’s hand. “Very long.”
“You left me.” He hadn’t meant to say it quite like that though his hand remained of its own accord, tracing the landscape of Haldir’s chest, noting familiar plains and dips.
“You didn’t want me. Not as I was.”
Elrohir shook his head though he wasn’t in the mood for argument. “It always changes. A wood becomes a desert. Seas recede and turn to stone.”
“And love? Does that have only two sides as well? It is there, or it is not?”
“Sometimes.” If he just kept his eyes on warm skin, he would not be captured by the eyes he felt seeking his. “I looked for you, you know. After the Sorrows. After they told me…I would ride down some mountain pass or through an overgrown lane, and if you had stepped out of the undergrowth, I don’t think I’d have been surprised…I was a little mad at the time. Of course, it was when I least desired to find you that I did. Or, rather, you found me.”
His hand slipped, but Haldir caught it in his own, anchoring it against his breast.
“I hadn’t meant to leave as I did.”
“I know why you did,” Elrohir said. “I made it easy. I let a worthy heart go. I thought I had good reason. At the time. If you had died — if I had let those awful words be the last I ever spoke to you—”
Haldir squeezed his fingers — as much to comfort as to silence. The triphammer of his heart thumped against Elrohir’s fingers. “You always want words, damn you.”
Elrohir’s free hand tangled in his hair then and pulled, crushing their lips together with such force their teeth clashed together, but Haldir did not pull away. They sank into the wet warmth of one another’s mouths. Breath melded, one heartbeat echoed the pace of the other’s.
The pulse elsewhere was stronger still, nestling firm and familiar against Elrohir’s thigh. His hands found new purchase in the hollows of Haldir’s hips, his lips moving down to rest against the shelf of a cool shoulder, sucking at the beads of water the way a man stricken with heatstroke took in moisture.
On dry land in the light of their only candle, Haldir peeled the shirt from Elrohir’s shoulders and loosed his drawstrings.
Elrohir pressed a fevered kiss to his jaw, tasted salt that was not of the desert or the water.
The only words they spoke now, panted between catching breaths, served to direct and command.
Oil that had once eased the pain of Elrohir’s burns now eased another way. He crooked a leg up over his lover’s shoulder, the other cinched tight about his waist, tugging, impatient.
Haldir stroked his cheek, easing back a little. “There’s no rush.”
Elrohir could not explain that there was every rush, that he felt he was coming undone by the moment, that he would drown in this desert if he did not have the anchor of those shoulders under his palms, of that body pressed heavy and solid atop him. Even a pause for words, for more oil was too long, far too long.
He arched his back, bracing his cheek against the grey cloak pressed into service as a pillow. “Deeper.”
“You have all of me.”
Elrohir shook his head. He pried one of his hands loose, slid it down, between and behind slick thighs…until he found that part of his lover that beat with the warmest pulse.
Haldir wrenched so hard into him that Elrohir winced. But even that was a sweet pain. Hands clutched pale limbs, teeth left sharp nips on kiss-swollen lips, in the soft skin behind the ear. They marked each other with their passion as if impermanent marks might etch a more permanent impression somewhere under the skin.
They loved each other until the scent of sulphur and endings permeated the air, until all the remaining lines between them blurred like so much sand erasing the horizon.
The storm had blown itself out by morning.
Elrohir eased himself free of warm and comfortable dampness and stepped out, the breeze crisp against his face.
Dawn had not quite reached the shelf, but its tentative fingers stroked the broad expanse of the cliffs high above and lit on the broken transparent clouds in the east. Everything had fresh color from the vermillion clay of the cliffs to the sky at its greatest depth of blue even to the sands below, all dappling shades of grey and indigo and tan like softened leather. It was a land that no one could claim and belonged purely to itself. Even its desolate stretches were beautiful in their own right. Without their presence the wells and acacia groves and secret oases — whether happened upon by design or accident — would be lesser treasures.
He could see why Haldir had remained so long.
The return journey rolled before him — before too many more days passed, he — or they, if Haldir went with him — would cross the River Carnen, then the Anduin, and eventually up into the High Pass and home.
It was time to rejoin the world. And the war to come.
For war would come. That much he was certain of. The-storm-that-was-no-storm. The-man-who-was-no-man. East was moving West, and their long peace was proving all too fragile.
But for now, he was content to linger in the shade and wait for the sun’s rays to reach him.