The Elves came upon us in the night.
Rashly, I reached for my sword, foolish and far too late. In my defence, I was but half awake.
We were perhaps a shade over halfway through our journey, the sun had long since slipped below the craggy western ridges behind us. Shinvar pushed us onward as long as she dared. Footing was relatively safe and the going easy enough through brush and bush, although my face weathered many a raking branch and the occasional scratching thorn. I trusted such assailants to allow Shinvar to pass unmolested, leave her beauty unmarred.
It must have been past midnight, with a feeble moon peering down through the forest canopy, when Shinvar signalled a stop. “We’ll camp here,” she said. And slid from her saddle in a cosy clearing where mounds of soft moss had clustered around the base of a gnarled oak like cushions strewn at its feet. Perhaps the forest floor sought to comfort this lonely veteran. Its kind were few and far between amongst the cedars and maples and birches. This one’s age suggested it had been here first, but really it was impossible to tell which species were the invaders – the noble minorities or the common masses. In any case, it seemed they shared the high mountain valleys in relative peace. We were the intruders.
A little unease stirred in my stomach even as I descended from my saddle, over-ready for a rest. “Can we afford the time?”
“We must make the time.” Shinvar looped Surefire’s reins over a low-hanging branch. And I similarly tethered my steed. “It’s okay. I factored in a short rest break as a matter of necessity. We’ll keep it really short, don’t worry on that score. And when I say camp here, it won’t be much of a camp. No fire. Just us stretched out on a bed of moss.”
I confess my heart spread wings at the prospect and took romantic flight. I reined it in, in case there was sufficient moonlight to illuminate my blushes. “Should we not take shifts? One of us to keep watch?”
Shinvar nodded. She sat with her back to the wrinkled trunk of the oak. “I’ll take first watch. You sleep. Two hours. Make the most of it.”
She tilted her head back, her posture entirely relaxed. And yet I didn’t doubt her senses were fully alert as ever. Any other sentry in such a pose, you would expect to doze off. As I settled down beside her – but not too close beside her – I knew I would wake to find her in exactly the same position. Resting but wide awake. Nothing, not even a squirrel or mountain fox, might steal up on us while she sat guard.
I turned onto my side and wrestled with the impossible task of getting comfortable in my armour. I wished I had remained on my back a while longer. Or turned onto my other side. To face her.
We had no campfire, but there was warmth in the knowledge of her presence. A portrait of her, bathed in the light of a campfire or of the tree-filtered moon, drifted in and out of my mind’s eye. There on the border of dreams I heard her shift behind me and clear her throat. She was real and it did not matter what light illuminated her. I longed to know more of her. I longed to lie awake and talk with her for my full share of two hours. And I knew why I had hesitated back there in the mine’s tunnels, at the rail track.
I did not know when I crossed into the realm of sleep. But Shinvar roused me with a shake and encouraged me to my feet. I rose slowly, blinking what felt like all of ten minutes of slumber from my eyes. And my hand shot to my sword hilt even before I had properly caught on that we had attracted an audience. A small semi-circle of hooded figures.
They walled off one edge of the clearing, but made no threatening moves. Their bows were worn over the shoulder, their blades sheathed in ornamented scabbards. I left my own blade stay put.
Our visitors’ cowls hung low, concealing all but a glimpse of elegant chins. Strange, I had heard Elves were vain creatures, but not these eight, to hide their faces so.
There was a rapid trade in Elvish and I was surprised – and yet not – to hear the foreign words spill forth so fluidly in Shinvar’s voice. She was fluent indeed, shaping the tongue well. And the language, in return, shaped her voice in intriguing ways. It was akin to hearing a bard known for enchanting ballads strike into a jaunty ditty for the first time.
She nodded, in conclusion, and turned to me. “Sorry,” she said. “They’re insistent.”
“Hmm?” I managed.
Before someone stepped up to my left and looped a blindfold around my head. The fabric fastened firmly in place. My vision thus obscured, I was guided to my horse and assisted into the saddle by gentle hands.
And blind is how I rode out the remainder of our journey. But for the air on my cheeks and the absence of echoes, I might have been back in those mines.
Until – hours later – we halted. And I was unmasked, to be confronted by sights and faces more beautiful even than Shinvar.
[To Be Continued…]