Meanwhile, miles south...
Thar huddled close to the fire pit. Deep in the earthen well a bright birch fire danced merrily; the smoke travelled lazily up and into a tunnel dug into the earthen bank opposite where it finally exited, cooled and invisible, through a screen of dried moss. He found everything he needed; kindling, water, food, even a small supply of medicinal herbs he used on a nasty smelling cut. ‘A bolt-hole put up by motherless paps, but a bolt hole nonetheless’ Harlond had called it. Even miscreant Elves weren’t to be trusted, it seemed.
The ‘bolt-hole’ was south of Rivendell, about two or so miles and it nestled in a small valley between two steep ridges that, at the top, were covered with crusty old snow. The Harlond Clan only used this hole occasionally; they had their own hidden way stations but this one had the added benefit of being completely concealed. To hide here was to disappear. The shelter was so well crafted and camouflaged that one had to be standing directly before it to see it and the small, fresh water stream had been diverted and engineered so that it was now soundless yet endlessly filled a large and ample cistern cleverly made to look like a large, hollow truck of a tree; Elvencraft, all.
Thar took another bite of dried meat and chewed wearily. Every muscle, joint and bone in his body ached. He’d been riding, almost nonstop, for weeks retracing what he thought or hoped had been her route and his horse was almost lame from the effort. He’d learned nothing of value in his time on the road, just rumours.
Was she alive? Or dead? And where did he go from here? Thar watched the flames intently, as if the answer was somewhere, there, in the bright orange and yellow tongues of light. But no answer came.
Thar’s head dropped heavily onto his chest but he jerked himself awake before he tumbled over where he sat. Sleep had eluded him until then and with the dawn only a few hours off he’d decided he might as well watch the sun rise. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and forced himself to his feet. As he turned he saw the Elf, standing behind him, watching silently.
“Eru’s Blood!” Thar hollered, staggering back. “Mablung! You scared the crap out of me!” Thar sank back onto his seat of skins, his hand held at his racing heart. “Elbereth save me! How long have you been standing there, you cack? ”
“Cack? Mind your manners, Edain," Mablung replied. "Long enough to see you’re exhausted,” the Elf added, moving to the fire. He gave the second-born’s fire a quick inspection. “Very good,” he said quietly. “Now, what is it you want?”
Thar bit his tongue, reminding himself that Mablung was a cock, though a helpful one. The Elf had provided information, aid, and shelter and, thanks to his position as the master of all things underground at Imladris, had helped the Clan smuggle goods and people into, out of and past Rivendell for years. Harlond and Mablung had met once, Thar recalled. Who Mablung’s master was, however, Thar did not know and did not want to know.
“No, Mablung. First you tell me why you’ve kept me waiting!? I’ve been here for two days!”
Mablung turned and assessed the bandit, reading his face, his body language; Thar was seriously close to exhaustion, it was true, but the man’s eyes burned with an intensity Mablung not seen before in the bandit’s brown-black eyes. Thar could tip over into an extreme state if he wasn’t careful with his words and if it was one thing Mablung had learned over his very, very long life it was how to be careful with words.
The Elf reached into the breast pocket of his coat and pulled a small silver flask. He uncorked it and extended it to the Edain.
“Drink this, it will,” Mablung considered the rest of his sentence. Were he to say ‘it will calm you’, it would only irritate the man. He came upon the correct phase: “It will restore you.”
He watched as Thar blinked away his mistrust before taking the flask. The Edain drank greedily.
“Miruvor, you know it?” Mablung asked as he sat himself down cross-legged alongside Thar. The Edain managed a grunt in response before he held out the flask but Mablung shook his head, offering the man the cork.
“Keep it, my friend,” he said graciously.
“Thank you,” Thar replied, noticeably more at ease. “Now, answer my question: why the wait?”
Mablung took an in-breath and forced a quick smile. “Your message came at the most inopportune time. There were preparations for a grand feast coupled with a host of ill warriors newly returned to us from the field; in other words there are many of my people running about. I could not easily disappear nor could I send any of my subordinates – obviously,” the Elf bowed his head slightly.
“Illness? Is it contagious?” Thar asked. He looked suspiciously at the flask.
“Fear not; our soldiers were poisoned while in the field…”
“Yes. It appears Carnad’s men poisoned wells and streams as they retreated. Our warriors drank from them, unawares, and were afflicted. They were cured, however…” Mablung watched as Thar’s anger returned.
“Carnad’s men, no,” the Bandit said angrily, “they’re low but they’d never stoop that low. Poisoning? The Black Warriors, that’s their doing…”
“Yes, once again the mysterious men in black…”
“They’re the spawn of Sauron! They’re not human…”
“That may well be true and we shall be vigilant but that is not the reason you’ve contacted me,” Mablung retorted, “Is it?”
“No. There was a clash of arms, by the tunnel…”
“Yes, Harlond was thoroughly thrashed…”
“Carnad was killed, his clan is destroyed…”
“But the real victors were the Sons of Elrond and their warriors, no?”
Thar nodded wearily. “There aren’t many Harlond Clansmen left. The Chief’s holed up in one of his outlying stables waiting for survivors to find him…”
“Why are you out here, alone?” Mablung asked, cutting the man off. Thar’s eyes flashed sharply.
“I’m looking for the Barding,” he replied with a defiant tone, “Harlond’s orders.”
“As I suspected,” Mablung replied. He leaned back and supported himself with his arms outstretched behind him. The firelight threw an eerie yellow light onto his long, snow-white hair.
“She was wounded in the battle,” Thar said, “I set her off on horseback just before you lot attacked…”
“My lot!?” Mablung interjected with a laugh.
Thar ignored him. “About a week ago I heard she’d been knifed in Weathertop. I then heard that was an imposter, that she could still be alive but injured…”
“She is alive,” Mablung said flatly. He suppressed a grin while watching the flood of emotion wash over the first-born. The bandit was visibly relieved – and moved. ‘Curious creatures, these men,’ the Elf thought to himself. “And yes, she’s not in the best shape," he continued, "She’s now a ‘guest’ of their sovereign majesties, the Princes of Imladris. Seems she rode straight into a trap.”
“She rode into a trap?” Thar repeated, surprised by the news. “That doesn’t sound like her…”
“No, but then again, my sources tell me she doesn’t really know who she is – or rather she didn’t know who she was. To make things even more interesting she was carrying a satchel full of Eastern documents when she was taken and two Southerners were following her, one being a Tower Guardsman. It sounds all very complicated but the long and the short of it is, Thar, she is alive but,” Mablung watched as the Edain hung on his every word. He would have to admonish this man in someway for his weakness but now was not the time. “Little good your host of orcs will do in any attempt to free her. ” Mablung had set the bait but was quietly surprised to see the man’s face take on a genuinely puzzled expression.
“My host of orcs? I have no orcs! What are you on about?” Thar asked, sitting forward.
“Three, maybe four days ago my scouts, mine – not the Prince’s – tracked a small host of Harlond orcs marching west. Marching, no, they were positively running. We let them pass unmolested…”
“Well, Harlond didn’t send them and I certainly didn’t authorise any orc marches,’ Thar offered.
“You didn’t?” The Elf asked. A slight wrinkle creased in between his eyebrows. Mablung then leaned forward and brushed the dirt from his hands. “Well, that is concerning.”
Thar jumped to his feet. “How many?”
“About sixteen, maybe twenty.”
Thar began to pace. “West, you say?” Mablung nodded. “Why west? There is nothing west for them. They should be travelling east, to the mountains unless…” Thar came to a halt and turned to the Elf. “Unless they’re tracking her, too! A group of rogue orcs…”
“But why? Out of loyalty?”
“No, no, most of the orcs loyal to her were slain in the fighting; just a few remained alive...” Thar stopped and turned to the elf. “Of course!”
“What?” Mablung asked, irritated that his information was incomplete.
It was Thar’s turn to watch his tongue; if he used the word ‘mithril’ this could go ill for Bardhwyn. “They think she knows where some of Harlond’s treasure is buried,” he lied. “That’s what they’re after; treasure. Not her.”
“Well, as I said, little good will it do them. They’re walking headlong into a confrontation with Elrohir’s own personal guard. They’re doomed.”
“Good,” Thar replied.
“Good? You want your orcs dead?”
“Rogue orcs, yes. Dead as a doornail,” Thar announced as he sat back down. He picked a stick and jabbed angrily at the fire.
“Most likely you’ll get your wish,” Mablung replied, casually adjusting his cloak. “As for your other wish - I cannot help you free her,” he added with a sly tone.
Thar looked up, his eyes now clouded and dark. “Then I’ll do it alone,” he said.
“Then you, too, shall die. Is that what you want? After all you’ve done? You choose to die with an elvish arrow in your chest?” Mablung paused for effect. By the look on the Edain’s face it was working. “She’s to go to Dale,” the Elf said heavily, “There is nothing you can do about it and nothing I dare do about it.”
“Nothing?” Thar asked.
Thar sat staring at the flames with his teeth firmly clenched on the knuckle of his index finger. They sat silently for a time, staring into the fire. When Thar was deeply held by the flames Mablung chose his moment.
“You’re still… attached, I see,” the Elf commented dryly.
Thar gave the Elf a quick glance askance.
“I thought you were done,” Mablung added with the same sly tone.
“We’re done,” Thar replied. “Long time now.”
“That’s not why…” Thar bit back his words, resisting the Elf’s sly baiting. He took to his feet again and resumed pacing. “Harlond’s orders. Oaths were sworn, by she and I…”
“I’ll tell you who is done,” Mablung said, “Harlond.”
“No, you’re wrong,” Thar retorted. “Carnad, yes – he’s been destroyed but not Harlond, not yet. Men are returning to him and he’s promising them vengeance." Thar dragged a hand through his dishevelled hair. "I think even some of the dead would leave the halls of Mandos out of love for that man. Somehow I have to get the Barding and we go back…”
“She played out her hand when she rode into that trap, Thar. Perhaps she wants it this way? Have you considered that?”
Thar stopped pacing once again. “Yes,” he said quietly. “But its unlikely she’ll get to Dale alive.”
“Despite the King of Dale’s edict, yes, that is probably true. You, though, you get captured as a Bandit at Large, Thar, and you would be delivered alive to his most august Barding Majesty to be meted the justice you deserve but she, with that scar and her reputation, well…”
“And she knows that, Mablung, which is why her wanting to be caught…” Thar shook his head, trying to make sense of all he’d learned.
“If I have an opportunity the least I can do is ask her,” Mablung said thoughtfully, “perhaps even arrange for you to speak to her.” The elf suppressed a grin at the interest this suggestion generated in the second-born. The man could be read like a book. “She’ll be held for a day or two at least before arrangements can be made to deliver her to Dale. It will be a cold and hellish trip but I doubt the Princes want to keep her in captivity through to the spring…”
“If you can get me in to see her, why can’t you get her out?” Thar asked. His frustration was, again, written all over his face.
“What do you think shall happen, shall HAVE to happen if a very high profile prisoner just disappears from a cell in Imladris?” Mablung’s eyes were burning now. “Elves would be crawling over every square inch of Rivendell, knocking on walls that will sound just a little too hollow. They’ll be peering into dark places we do not want to see the light of day and asking questions of people we cannot afford to have speak.”
“Thar, you forget! Everything I have put into place, we have put into place- it is much bigger than you, much bigger than her – it is bigger than all of us and I will not allow your attachment to that woman jeopar…”
“ENOUGH!” Thar hollered. His voice echoed of the walls of the small valley, disturbing the quiet of the early morning and Mablung glared. The chances of them being discovered were slim, but not nonexistent. They both fell into silence, listening, but only night noises came to their ears.
“You have to collect yourself on this matter, Thar,” Mablung said through clenched teeth, “or you will get yourself killed and your scarred Barding as well, if you’re not careful.”
Thar crossed his arms over his chest and nodded, angrily.
“We expect Elrohir’s guard in a day or two. I’ll send word when they arrive and again if, and I said IF, I can arrange a meeting. I’ll send more provisions as well.” Mablung got to his feet and casually brushed a bit of dried moss from his cloak. Thar made no move; his arms were firmly crossed and his mouth was pressed into a thin, angry line.
“You mentioned oaths, Thar," Mablung added. "Ask yourself: who decides when an oath is fulfilled? The Oath Giver or the Oath Taker?”
Without another word Mablung left, melting into the early morning darkness. Thar sank back down onto the pile of skins and furs next to the fire and began to feed it, sending the flames higher but still not high enough to break over the top of the deep pit. Designed for concealment, it was. And he would be concealed as well, hidden in this place until news would come, and then what?
“Oaths we have sworn…” he murmured. The flames had nothing to say in reply.