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Chapter One, A Grey Night, Section 5
by Stephen N. Barnes, Jr.

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They moved as quickly as possible through the undergrowth. They had not much time, for as Fendolas knew, the acute ears of wargs had heard the cry of their scout, and howls and shouts sounded clearer behind them. Fendolas led the way.

They ran without a path, ever eastward through the Finterwood. "We should be travelin’ north, to throw ‘m off," thought Caedron as he followed behind Fendolas. Though the elf was only a few paces in front of him, he could barely see him. The combination of fog and Fendolas’ elven cloak camouflaged him well. Caedron could barely keep up with his taller companion. But the sounds of pursuit drove him on.

After minutes of running, the forest floor sloped downward and the undergrowth grew thin. They were running slightly downhill into a small ravine "Ahh," said Fendolas, and he looked side to side as if looking for something. He slowed and motioned for Caedron to follow closely.

"They will likely follow us here," he whispered. As he spoke, he pointed down the gully, "They have surely lost neither our scent nor our trail, especially with the loss of two of their kind. But they shall soon end their pursuit." Caedron looked, and at the bottom of the ravine a small stream gurgled and bubbled southward.

"Lannaníel!" Caedron cried with surprise, as a new hope welled within him. "Have we come this far?"

"No. But the silent stream has many children in this old forest, and this young creek is one." Fendolas spoke as if the water could hear him. "I am grateful to find her."

Ugly shouts sounded behind them and southward. Their pursuers had found the dead orc and warg. "Shall we cross?" Caedron asked.

"Yes, and in crossing we shall be rescued, at least for a time." Fendolas shuffled down the steeper sides of the ravine and stepped upon the creek edge. Roots, like twisting fingers, erupted from the sides of the gully; pebbles and broken twigs lay strewn upon the creek side. Caedron followed and half-slid down to the creek. The creek ranged between seven and ten feet across, and its water was crystal clear. Caedron could see round stones and river weeds on the stream bed. It looked only a few inches deep.

Fendolas had bent down beside the creek. He was filling a small vial with water. "Wait before you cross," Fendolas urged. Caedron, however, had already stepped into the water.

To his surprise, his boot did not reach the bottom! He lost balance, fell forward into the water, and splashed wildly as he tried to tread water and regain his footing. "Help!" he sputtered.

Fendolas nimbly leapt across the stream at its narrowest place and grabbed a fallen branch. "Here!" He pushed it toward Caedron, who was spluttering and gasping. Caedron reached for the branch, and Fendolas heaved him toward the shore.

He pulled himself up onto the shore. Confused and out of breath, he wheezed, "That is no creek! I could not reach tha bottom!"

"The ancient Lannaníel has many tricks — deception of sight is a favorite," chuckled Fendolas. "This small stream is surely a daughter of the Hushed. See how she laughs quietly! But quickly, yrch are close behind!"

Caedron wiped his face and followed Fendolas. He was drenched from head to toe, clammy and cold from his unexpected swim. Together they trudged up the eastern side of the gully.

As they walked from the stream, the water shimmered and gleamed with glee as it gurgled downstream.

They pushed further into the woods as the rain fell heavier. The drip, drip through the canopy teased Caedron as he realized that the sounds obscured the noises of their pursuers. He looked over his shoulder expecting a horde of wolf-riding orcs fast approaching. He shuddered, "I do not care how much magic that water bears, ‘t will not stop those monsters." As he followed Fendolas, he debated in his mind this new friendship with the Ælfan, and thought back to his mission — to retrieve the stolen Ondol. It seemed months past that he had met with the Vlarid Dundar and they had commissioned him for this task. He counted in his mind the days. It had only been a fortnight since his meeting with the sacred council. "I must not forget mae duty," he thought to himself, "but I must save mae own hide befayr I reclaim it. The time will come soon enough." He trudged on.

Several minutes beyond the creek, they came to a clearing in the midst of the trees. Fendolas pulled aside several low-hanging branches to reveal a small open area. The underbrush gave way to green grass, and rain poured onto the ground. Heavy grey clouds billowed overhead.

In the middle of the clearing stood a huge tree of a kind Caedron had never seen. Its bark was smooth and light in color like a sycamore, but did not separate from the trunk; its leaves were deep green with a golden tint. It grew like an oak, its branches like strong arms lifting the weight of rain-drenched leaves. Those broad leaves stretched defiantly toward the threatening sky. Clover grew at the base of the tree, and lichen covered knotty roots intertwining with the ground. The tree was at least a man’s stature in diameter at eye level.

"We can stop here," said Fendolas quietly.

"With orcs in pursuit? I do not understande yer thinkin’," said Caedron. He stared at Fendolas inquisitively.

"Friend Caedron," Fendolas looked at him shrewdly. "I would venture that we are safer here than anywhere else in this dark valley. We have nothing to fear here but each other." He smiled. Fendolas’ tone conveyed knowledge of a deep and longstanding mystery, but Caedron was not sure of this last statement. He scratched his head and looked away.

Fendolas stepped closer to the tree, and reached out to touch a leaf. He then ducked under a branch and felt the bark on its trunk. Whether Caedron’s eyes tricked him, he did not know, but the tree seemed to vibrate at Fendolas’ touch.

Caedron now noticed that the ground sloped steeply upward five paces or so behind the tree. The odd tree stood in the middle of the clearing, at the foot of a huge mound that rose and disappeared into the depths of the Finterwood. Trees and vines covered the hill.

Clover grew thick about the tree and spread for several yards up the hill like a deep blanket of green. A thicket of holly, overrun with vines, encircled a portion of the clearing. Caedron had not noticed the thicket when they had entered the draw, but now looked at it closely. It stretched around the edge of the quiet area, almost like a hedge deliberately planted years ago, which had lost its purpose and now grew spindly and wild. He noticed large stones along the holly hedge protruding from the ground. Some leaned this way and that; all with strange carvings — odd lettering and faded outlines of trees. He looked at Fendolas, who was leaning against the tree and looking up in thought.

"What is this place?" he asked.

Fendolas sighed, then answered slowly. "This is one of many ancient hallows in the Finterwood. Few men of the north have stood where you stand now. Many, many years ago a high king claimed this land and his subjects settled south and east of this wood. They lived in villages throughout this area, some of which the Finterwood has overtaken. A great garden once grew here — with flowers and many orchards. The Finter-Fälien were skilled in herb and tree lore. They planted these gardens and guarded them wisely. This is an old place, forgotten by most, even of my kind." Fendolas turned toward the tree. "Tis good to know that a part of the Third Age still remains in these sad times." He seemed to be addressing the tree more than his companion.

Caedron moved under the shelter of the tree limbs and stared at a leaf. "Tis like no tree I have seen," he marveled. "It shifts colors." He had picked up a leaf from the ground and was examining it. As he twirled it round, the green hues deepened and the gold tint changed to silver. "No record of the Vlarid speaks of tha Bænde-hullow valley as a garden." He turned toward Fendolas. "Who was this king, and what …"

He stopped in mid-sentence, as Fendolas had lifted his hand and motioned for him to be silent. Fendolas stood in rapt attention, his eyes closed, listening. "Wait here," he whispered. Pulling his bow from his shoulder, he slipped into the forest.

Caedron could do nothing but wait. He cautiously moved around the tree trunk and crouched down. He strained his ears, but he heard nothing but dripping rain and an occasional bird.

The birds suddenly stopped calling. Caedron thought he heard a stirring in the woods. It sounded close, perhaps near the creek they had crossed. He sneaked closer to the edge of the woods and bent down behind a tree, listening carefully.

Distant shouts echoed under the forest canopy. He heard barked orders, and a yelp, and a far away howling. He thought he heard gruff voices shouting again. Then all was silent.

The rain pattered around him as he listened. Nothing. Caedron sat straining his ears for five … now fifteen minutes, quietly attentive to the sounds around him. He heard no sounds of battle. The forest creatures were still silent as well. Then, ever so faint, a twig snapped behind him. With sword drawn, Caedron stood up and slowly turned to face the grove and the tree.

Fendolas was standing under the tree. His bow leaned against it, and he was wiping his knife on a rag. "The danger has passed, for the moment," he said. He slid the knife back into its sheath under his cloak.

Caedron stared at the elf. "Are ye hurt?" he asked.

"No. I merely watched while another fought for me … for us, perhaps." He stared back at Caedron, who was still gripping his sword tightly. "We no longer have cause to fear yrch now. The silent stream has never taken kindly to them. We should rest here for a while — while we have time."

Caedron stood, thinking. He had experienced the wiles of the small stream, but he did not know how its childish cunning could stop a horde of blood-thirsty orcs and wargs! There was more to this Ælfan than at first he had thought.

At Fendolas’ urging, they sheltered under the tree and awaited twilight. Caedron refused to dare a campfire, despite his encounter with the stream and the constant rain that had left him wet and chilled, even though Fendolas assured him they were quite safe. "Ae won’t be havin’ orcs cut mah throat in the night," Caedron huffed. He was also contemplating the night watch, and vowed not to sleep so as to keep an eye on Fendolas. Though Fendolas had single-handedly rescued Caedron from the wargs, Caedron’s thoughts had returned to the deeper purpose of his quest given by the Vlarid council. He must retrieve the Ondol. Perhaps tonight the opportunity would arise.

Night fell, and the rain slackened to a steady drizzle. Fendolas began searching the clearing and hill behind the tree. Caedron sat huddled beside the tree, listening to the chirping and calling of strange crickets and other animals in the Finterwood. He was exhausted, but resolute. "Ae’ll take the fayrst watch," he said to Fendolas.

"There is no need to watch, friend Caedron, but if you insist, so be it." Fendolas called from behind the tree. "Ahhh. Look at this!"

"What is it?" Caedron yawned. He turned to look at Fendolas, who had walked into the forest a few yards up the hill, and was crouching down beside several low bushes. "What do ya see?"

"There is an opening here. A small cave in the side of the hill." Fendolas swept the ground beside the brushes and motioned to Caedron. Caedron stood and walked toward Fendolas, his curiosity overcoming sleepiness. The hill rose steeply at the bushes, and vines and roots spread over its side near a thorny prickleberry bush. Fendolas reached up to the vines and pulled several aside, exposing a craggy opening. Wet leaves and dirt fell as Fendolas grasped the vines.

"Perhaps it is a bit dryer under the hill," said Fendolas. They pushed the vines and roots aside and Caedron squinted as he peered into the hillside. The cave looked to be a small indention in the steepening hill.

"It’s perfect to shelter us from this blasted rain," Caedron thought out loud. The cavern was small, merely a few feet wide at the opening, but seemed to broaden into a cozy den. Without light, he could not see how far it extended into the hill.

"You may shelter here for the night, if you wish, Caedron," said Fendolas. "I much prefer rain in the night air to such a stuffy bedroom." Fendolas laughed.

"So be it," said Caedron. "Ae’ll sleep here, but ae’ll take the first watch," he repeated.

"Whatever you prefer, friend," Fendolas smiled, and walked the few short steps down the mound towards the tree. He lay down on the ground under the tree, staring through the branches, lost in thought.

Caedron sat down at the mouth of the cave, with his longknife resting across his knees. He knew that Ælfan slept little, or so the stories went, and so he was careful to watch Fendolas as he lay silently. He leaned against the side of the cave opening and closed his eyes, thinking. He wondered if his men had returned safely to Lettleton. Images of orcs and wargs chasing, catching, and torturing his men and horses plagued his mind. He doubted any had survived. Sighing, he turned again to Fendolas.

Fendolas lay on the ground, his bow and quiver beside him. He had pulled his cloak about his body. As the rain fell lightly, Caedron heard him singing softly.

O Finter-Fäli iluvath, O elathil amas
Tü lithien a milaniel, te rathas.
Sil mallon tes athanil maras!

O Finter-Fäli tiliel, O elathil temas
Te mithril ane sithindriel, a thamas.
Sil mallon tes athanil maras!

His voice was like silvery thread, and twined with the pitter-pattering of the drizzle on the leaves of the tree. Caedron heard ancient glory and peace in his song. He thought of battle, and then of rest, and then of the sky and his home. His head nodded, and he fell deeply into dreamless sleep.

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

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