The Hunters by WendWriter

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A grey day threatened a storm as the two riders made their way along the mountain path. The Redhorn Gate lay just ahead. Elrohir scowled at the memories that came unbidden, for they flooded his mind with images he could not forget. Rage rose to the surface of his heart and he tensed. His horse, Celegroch, fidgeted beneath him.

This was where they had found their mother; beaten, humiliated and in agony with a poisoned wound. Even the air smelt the same as it had that day, bitter with the tang of approaching rain. They were not far from the shelter they had made during the first days of their vengeful hunts on the Orcs who infested the mountains. There they would rest themselves and their horses, and plan their latest campaign. Elrohir noted with grim satisfaction that the mountain paths were much safer for travellers now.

A rumble of thunder rent the air. Elladan's steed snorted and pranced, but he quickly mastered him and urged him on. "Easy, Donncrist," he soothed the frightened horse, "it is not far now. Soon you will have shelter from the weather and a comfortable stable to lie down in."

"A swift wind blows, brother," said Elrohir. "And the sun is going down. Let us make haste ere the storm comes upon us."

With a hard nudge to the flanks of their mounts, the brothers sped their horses to a dead end with a sheer slope on one side of the path, and a high cliff on the other. The path was so narrow they had to dismount. Elrohir walked in front towards the pile of boulders that barred their way. He took hold of a slab of rock taller than he was, and pulled it upright. The slab, which was as thick as a Man's arm, leant against two triangular rocks. One jutted out in front of the other. Elrohir shifted the slab from side to side and moved it away from the underlying rocks. It was far too big and heavy to lift. He leaned it against the side, and waited for his brother to bring the horses over.

Picking their steps, the horses zig-zagged around the rocks and into a large gap surrounded by the stone walls of the mountain and the rockfall.

Elrohir eased himself in behind the slab and moved it back into place.

The brothers made their way to the stone cottage they had built years before. When they arrived, Elrohir dismounted and began to scout around. He moved stealthily among the bare rocks, and checked every nook and cranny, then announced that all was well. Elladan got down from Donncrist and led both of the horses to the lean-to that served as a stable.

From above, the cottage looked like a rockfall. It was covered in scree and the surrounding area was barren. A closer look revealed a house made of rock and stone, plugged with moss to keep drafts out. A large crack at one end allowed smoke to escape. There were small, narrow windows with wooden shutters and a thick oak door coated with mortar to resemble stone.

Elladan entered the cottage when the horses had been settled for the night.

"Someone has been here," remarked Elrohir. "And recently, too. The storage jars have been filled with lembas, honey and dried meat."

"Our lady grandmother must have sent her folk to stock it for us," Elladan replied with a smile. "We must pay her a visit and thank her."

"Aye, that we must," agreed his brother.

Elrohir took a silvery jug from a shelf near the hearth, where a cauldron hung from a hook on a chain. "I will fetch some water," he said. "You light the fire."

Elladan lit the fire, rinsed out the cauldron with water from his supplies and prepared a meal. Another search yielded a store of dried fruit, a barrel of mead, an assortment of root vegetables and a haunch of salted pork. He found some candles, lit one and placed it on the table.

There was a thin little stream nearby that cascaded down the mountainside. Elrohir went to fill the jar from it. A slight sound froze him where he crouched. Quick as a whip, he turned to face his foe, but there was nothing to see. White knuckled, he gripped the slender handle of the jar. He drew his sword with his other hand and glared around. Something had definitely moved. Rain spat from the sky. Thunder rumbled overhead. The wind grew wild; it buffeted him and blew his long dark hair around his fair face. He waited for a little while to see if anything would happen, then returned to fill the jar. The heavens opened before he was had finished.

"You could have stood outside in the rain, brother," said Elladan, cracking a grin. "That would have saved you a journey."

Rainwater dripped from Elrohir. A scowl twisted his lips. He put the jar down on the table.

The cottage was split into two rooms. The first one was both kitchen and parlour. The other room was for sleeping in, with a screened-off section that served as a wash-room. On either side of the hearth in the main room were shelves where food and supplies were stored. Two long chests and an assortment of barrels covered with sackcloth lay against the wall, and contained more supplies.

Elrohir snatched up the candle and went into the bedroom to unpack while his brother made their meal. Anger coursed through his veins. How dare Elladan make fun of him thus! Everything he did was for the good of them both, and for the honour of their mother. He was convinced that the sound he had heard was that of an enemy who had crept up on him. Surely it was the sound of a stone disturbed by the movement of someone spying on him. Elladan would not find it so funny if Orcs came upon them and stormed the house!

Elrohir pulled off his wet clothes and put on a dry tunic and leggings. Water dripped from his hair, and he dried it off with a towel. The prickling sensation at the back of his neck did not die down. Thunder rumbled overhead. It was so loud! Whatever waited outside could not remain there for long. He draped his wet clothes over a box to dry and left them in a corner. Tension held him like a coiled spring, ready to let fly at the slightest provocation. He went back into the kitchen with the candle, where Elladan sat waiting for him on one of the two benches that stood on either side of the table.

"Brother, 'twas a jest," said Elladan in conciliatory tones. "Why do you stamp around like an angry bull?"

"Danger lurks outside our door and you are amused by my caution!" growled Elrohir.

"It is not caution that has made you this way," said Elladan. "You are as tense as a drawn bowstring, and have been thus since we arrived at this place."

"It has been long since my blade tasted the blood of our enemies," said Elrohir, his voice raised. "For months we have hunted them and found but a few. Yet I know they are many in number, for reports of their foul deeds abound. When I went to get the water just now, I heard the sound of a stone fall behind me. When I looked around, I saw naught."

"Brother," said Elladan, "if an enemy did indeed lie in wait for you, would you not have been shot where you stood?"

Elrohir considered this. "Perhaps," he replied, his lips pursed. "Nonetheless, I am convinced we are being watched."

"You are jumping at shadows," Elladan told him firmly. "You must not be so quick to assume that enemies dog our every step. If this continues, you could put us both in danger."

"And you, brother, must cease your insistence that all is well no matter what I say. For if I should prove to be correct, we will both suffer for your complacency," Elrohir retorted.

Elladan regarded his brother. The aroma of the stew wafted into his nostrils; the crackle of the merry blaze in the hearth and the bubbling of the stew were the only sounds in the room for a moment. A barrier made of pain parted them, for neither would back down from his claim to be correct.

"Elrohir," said Elladan at last, "outside, a storm rages. No-one could stay out there in those conditions. For the moment at least, we are safe. When the weather clears up, I will come with you and we can take a look around. Will that suffice?"

Elrohir nodded, his lips pulled thin.

"Let us eat now; the stew is ready," said Elladan, and served them both.

The storm finally died down in the early hours of the morning, and the brothers deemed it best to take turns to stay up on guard. If their hideout had indeed been discovered, it would not have been wise for both of them to slumber while a potential threat skulked nearby.

It was Elladan's turn to watch and wait when the candle finally burned down to the end. Silence reigned, for the embers of the fire glowed dimly. Elladan got up and opened the door warily. Pink-tinged clouds hung low in a pale sky as the morning began. He took a deep breath and looked around. The air was fresh, and a gentle breeze brought with it the scents of wet rocks and moss. A sound from behind him made him turn around.

His brother had opened the shutter. Bleary-eyed, Elrohir looked around. "Brother, shall we take a look around now?"

"Aye," said Elladan. He waited for his brother, and together they searched the area for any signs of the presence of an enemy. After a while, they split up. Elladan took the high ground while Elrohir returned to the stream.

Elladan climbed up the rock face near the cottage. He struggled to find hand-holds; his toes slipped from the narrow crevices from time to time. He discovered a ledge above the cottage. His heart leapt. Anyone could safely observe them from here! Though the going was treacherous, he found he could make his way to a spot near the stream if he got right down and crawled. There he could see his brother look warily around, listening for any indication that there might be someone nearby.

A short distance away, Elladan came across a crevice where the rock face jutted out above him. It was a small, shallow cave. He crawled inside, and his heart stopped when he found a thick-shafted black arrow. 'Orcs!' he thought. 'Orcs use these arrows. Elrohir was right after all. But why did it not shoot him?' He considered this for a moment, and came to the conclusion that the crack that could barely contain his body, even though he was lying flat, had prevented the Orc from taking aim at his brother. 'Thank the Valar! But how did the arrow come to be here? He must have tried to take aim and found that he could not. He then lay quietly here and hoped my brother would not see him. He may well have dropped it when he tried to put it back in his quiver. The sound Elrohir heard was a stone the Orc dislodged when it tried to shoot him.'

The stream tumbled down overhead. Its noise masked any sound he made. He tucked the Orc arrow into his tunic. After a while, he came upon a wider shelf and he stood up and walked along it. A large cleft in the rock smelt of fire and roasted meat. A movement caught his eye, and Elladan drew his bow, ready for anything.

A loud yawn presaged the presence of a Man, who stepped out, stretching, into the open.

Elladan shouldered his bow. "Hail, friend," he greeted him.

The Man jumped. "What the...? What are you doing here?" he asked. "How did you get here?"

"The same way you did," retorted Elladan. "You do not look like an Orc."

"What are you talking about?" said the Man.

Elladan pulled the Orc arrow out of his tunic. "I found this on the rock ledge around the corner from here. Orcs use them, but you are no Orc. What were you doing up there?"

"I took a wrong turn," said the Man, "and got lost. I found the arrow and brought it with me in case I needed it. You can never have too many. I was looking for water and I heard a waterfall. I followed the sound and saw you fetch water from a spot below me. Garn, but you looked so fierce-like with your sword out and all, I was afeared to say anything, so I kept quiet till you'd gone. I know I knocked a stone off the ledge. I nearly followed it down when I saw you whip around like that!"

"Very well," said Elladan, "but where did you find the arrow?"

"There's a pile of twisted bones not far from here," said the Man. "I found the arrow near there. Looks like there was quite a fight! I left the bones alone, but kept that."

"So you dropped it when you saw my brother turn around, looking for you?" asked Elladan.

"Your brother?" said the Man, incredulity raising the pitch of his voice. "You must be the sons of Elrond. We sing songs about you!"

"Indeed," said Elladan, a smile spread across his face. "Well, now that the mystery has been resolved, I can go and tell my brother that it was a Man that lurked above him by the stream. Go your way in peace, my friend."

"Thank you," said the Man, "for 'tis your efforts that have made it safe to do so."

Elladan grinned and made his way back to the cottage by another route.

Elrohir waited nervously by the cottage. His brother returned, carrying an Orc arrow. "Ai! Brother, I was right!" he declared, and snatched it from him.

"Actually, no," replied Elladan. "It seems a Man found it near the scene of an earlier sortie of ours. He took a wrong turn when looking for water and found the stream where you were. There is a ledge where the rock face hangs overhead. It forms a crevice you must crawl on your belly to move along. You gave him quite a fright!"

"Well, I was not jumping at shadows, brother, was I?" Elrohir said insistently.

"No indeed," Elladan admitted, "but there is less to be concerned about than we believed. The only Orcs around here are dead ones."

"Then my sword must remain in its sheath," said Elrohir, with a slight smile. "At least for the moment."

A weight lifted from his heart at that moment like an eagle taking to the sky. It was good to be able to believe at last that they could travel through the mountains without the constant fear of attack pressing down on them from all sides.

The End.




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