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Chapter One, A Grey Night, Section 4
by Stephen N. Barnes, Jr.

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Though shrouded by fog, blackish shapes gathered near the road in the south of the vale. Several had crossed over the stone wall and were winding about, searching for the trail of their prey.

Caedron and Fendolas were running eastward towards the Finterwood, a forest of elm trees, oaks, and aspen which spilled down from the sides of the Celmadin hills towards the valley of Bænde-hullow. This ancient forest spread several leagues north and south, covering burial hills and silent villages with a blanket of whispering trees. Through its center a small stream flowed which the Elves called Lannaníel, the Hushed Water. Snowmelt from the Celmadin range trickled down the mountains and gained momentum in the northern Finterwood. Lannaníel flowed through the Vladarim northlands beyond the town Celderin and met further south with the Westlode which flowed into the Western Sea.

Rain was falling steadily as the mist thickened. "We must speed to the cover of that wood," cried Fendolas. "There at least we may find a hiding place."

"Perhaps thae will mistake us for trees?" Caedron thought cynically to himself as he ran. But the battle cries were growing louder behind them, and he had no better plan. So Caedron ran blindly toward the shelter of the trees. "Can ye sae tha Wither?" Caedron gasped.

"Nay. But I think we should fear orc blades and warg teeth now. They know we are running eastward, but it seems they have yet to fix our trail. Hurry!"

They were now almost two hundred yards from the edge of the woods. More shouts sounded. Looking over his shoulder, Fendolas cried, "Our trail is found! Be wary, there are orc bowmen!" More black shapes converged at the breach in the wall and hastened into the field behind them.

Projectiles whistled and plunked to the ground behind them. "We are yet still out of range," Fendolas said. "Hurry, straight for that grove." He pointed eastward towards the forest, but Caedron only saw a blurry darkness of trees and mist where he had pointed.

Caedron’s heart pumped as he raced closer to the grey-cloaked Finterwood. He remembered stories of orc-archers at the ancient battle of Helms Deep, fought many years ago, and the skill with which they wielded their cruel weapons. He shuddered. Surely the cover of the woods would not stop the vicious orcs and their wargs from pursuing them. He whispered a prayer of thanksgiving for the heavy fog.

Fendolas stopped abruptly. "Go on ahead into the wood. I will catch up shortly." Caedron continued on course. Fendolas paused, looking back towards the roadway, and then reached into his cloak and pulled out a vial. He opened it, and quickly poured its contents on the ground in front of him. He shook the liquid onto the ground, then slipped the vial back into his cloak.

The liquid hissed where it hit the grass, and white smoke rose up where it touched the ground. Whether by illusion or by some trick of elf-lore, the grass seemed greener where the liquid fell. The white smoke blended with the mist in the air as it dissipated.

As the smoke was rising, Fendolas ran toward the orcs a short way, then turned southwards and ran about twenty yards before sprinting back to follow Caedron toward the grove.

He caught up to Caedron quickly. They were almost to the Finterwood, and as they approached, Caedron noticed a thick mantle of vines spreading out from the forest floor over the brush and growth and into the field before them.

"What were ya doing?" Caedron asked.

"Distracting our enemies, I hope," answered Fendolas. "We shall soon see. Quickly, into the forest."

The two sorted through a tangle of underbrush, prickleberry and ivy as they made their way carefully into the Finterwood. The overhanging branches of the trees at the outskirts of the forest sagged under the weight of rainwater. Fendolas pushed ahead, with Caedron close behind. They heard shouting through the mist as their enemies approached.

They moved further into the thicket, careful not to create a trail that could be easily seen. As they passed through its bristly edge, the Finterwood opened to them. Ivy draped here and there upon sad oaks and elms like a tattered blanket, and a thick underbrush of dead wood and young saplings seemed to bar their course. Upon the disheveled forest floor leaves, moss, and lichen-covered fallen branches were strewn about. Although rain was falling steadily on the valley, the canopy of leaves and branches permitted only an occasional drip, drip on the ground underneath.

Caedron and Fendolas wound their way cautiously through the thicket into the forest shade. Heavy mist and thick undergrowth met in a blinding grey soup.

About sixty yards into the wood, Fendolas stopped abruptly and motioned Caedron down. Caedron loosened his sword and strained his ears as he knelt down behind a wizened stump.

"We’re too close to the edge to stop," Caedron whispered quietly to himself. Fendolas still stood, now facing the direction of their pursuers, listening intently. A haunting cry disturbed the saturated silence under the trees.

From the edge of the forest, a piercing howl answered a reply!

Fendolas crouched down and set an arrow, peering toward the howl. They now heard another answer, further away in the field. Their hunters were closing in.

They waited for sound, and Caedron looked intently at his companion. Fendolas was crouched on one knee, his bow grasped tightly in his left hand. His face reflected no fear or anxiety, only intensity and experience. His eyes narrowed as he scanned the woods for the nearest enemy.

A crash! in the woods interrupted Caedron’s thoughts. Fendolas turned to face the sound, and motioned Caedron to ready himself for battle. He unsheathed his longsword quickly. They crouched behind a fallen elm whose leafless branches spread down a sloping gully. Caedron was stooped beside the broken stump of the tree, listening.

Blurred by the mist, a shadowy shape meandering their direction. It ambled from tree to tree through the tangle of underbrush. The figure was large, about seven feet tall, and rocked from side to side as it walked. Caedron strained to get a better glimpse — to no avail. Then, about forty yards from them, the bulky figure stopped. Caedron gasped as its upper half fell from its lower half and began moving toward them!

Fendolas saw the figure too, and drew his bow. He waited. The two shapes were now five or so yards apart, and were plunging deeper into the thicket. They stopped twenty yards from the elm hideout.

As the misty blanket drifted, Caedron saw clearer. A man, shrouded by the mist … or was it a man? It was hunched over, searching the ground. No, it was not as tall as a man, he thought. The mist enveloped it again. Caedron saw the other shape, smaller and shorter, moving closer. A brisk wind cleared the air.

Now he understood! What he had thought was one creature had been an orc atop his wolkin steed. The orc had dismounted to scout and its warg was now sniffing the air feverishly.

"Azg! C’mere, snivelin’ dog!" The orc whispered gruffly in Common Speech. He spit at the warg. Azg snarled. "What?" said the orc. "I’ll break yer neck!"

The orc was muscular and squatty, almost five feet tall. He wore crude leather armor with hobnail boots and a chain mail shirt. A golden ring encircling a red eye marked its front. He wielded a broad double axe, and a small spiked buckler was attached to his arm. He hunched over as he walked, gripping the axe tightly with his clawed fingers.

"‘Stick together,’ Durzbakh said, ‘tha cursed Elf warrior’s dangerous! ‘E’s got somethin’ the High One needs, ‘n he needs it quick.’ That’s what he said, ‘n that’s what we’re gonna do." The orc glared evilly at Azg, and scanned the forest back and forth.

Caedron held his breath and pressed against the stump. Thunder growled in the distance. Rain dripped through the forest canopy, and the fog swirled through the undergrowth. The orc scout stepped closer, and was now staring directly at the fallen elm where Caedron and Fendolas crouched. He leaned forward, and his eyes squinted. "Azg? … look …"

Whoosh! Fendolas’ bow twanged, and an arrow zipped through the mist, striking the orc in the throat. His warning cry silenced, he gurgled and fell to his knees, grasping the shaft. He fell sideways to the ground, his eyes wide with fear and surprise.

Azg turned immediately at the sound and saw his orc partner fall. Fendolas readied another arrow, but Caedron had blocked his view. The rush of battle had swept through Caedron’s blood, and he was already rushing toward the wolfkin. At five strides away, the dark wolf yelped and turned to face him. But Azg was too late. Caedron swung his longsword and cleanly beheaded the brute with one stroke.

The body collapsed, still twitching. Caedron leaned against a tree, panting. The orc and warg both lay dead beside him.

Fendolas looked westward, towards the edge of the Finterwood. Then quickly he stood up and walked toward Caedron. He nodded, "Friend, you are faster than you seem. I am grateful." Caedron looked up at the elf defensively. "Than I seem?" He frowned, but Fendolas smiled pleasantly, and Caedron suddenly felt foolish. He realized that he had not formally introduced himself. "Mae name’s Caedron … of the Vlarid Dundar," he said, and reached out his hand in Vlarid fashion. "And I am grateful for your marksmanship."

Fendolas grasped Caedron’s forearm, also in Vlarid fashion. "Well met, indeed, Caedron. But we have no time to celebrate. Orcs have sharp ears, and warg’s even sharper. We must continue eastward."

Fendolas first knelt beside the body of the Orc. He plucked his arrow from its throat and examined the mark on its mail shirt. His brow furrowed. "Strange," he murmured. The two turned and wandered eastward deeper into the forest.

Copyright 2000, Stephen N. Barnes, Jr., Esq., All Rights Reserved

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