Frost and Thaw
Dinuir stirred next to him. There was a rustling of cloth and fur before a dark head appeared above the blankets. "Good morrow, my lord," Dinuir yawned, then gave a sheepish grin as he recalled his manners.
Arvedui waved aside the unspoken apology, as he always did. "A good morrow to you, too! I take you slept well?"
"Like one dead, I fear. I would have never expected these snow-houses to be so comfortable," Dinuir replied, and Arvedui followed his gaze, taking in the small but efficiently set up interior of Nansen's home.
The round room was cast in a blueish light - faint daylight penetrating the walls of snow and ice - but it was sufficient to discern the thick, short-haired fur that covered the entrance, the stacks of supplies that sat on the floor next to it, and the shelf build of snow where Savea kept her strange-smelling lamp, her cooking gear and the set of small sharp knives she had used the other night to clean the festering wolf-bite on Telion's leg that had caused the young man's fever.
Raised voices abruptly ended Arvedui's contemplation. He sighed. Gone was the content feeling that all his worries were solved or did not matter for the moment, chased away by angry shouts, an unwelcome reminder that their shelter was only a temporary one.
"It seems I cannot enjoy the comfort much longer," Arvedui said. "Something upsets our hosts, and I should investigate." With a resolute sweep of his arm, he threw aside the furs and blankets before the prospect of the cold outside could stop him. Shuffling towards the edge of the sleeping area, he reached his clothes, hanging to dry near Savea's stone lamp.
With another sigh he stood, grimacing as blood rushed into his toes, which had been near frozen from their seemingly endless trek through the snow in what Savea had scolded stockings with a scowl that would have sent grown warriors running.
However inappropriate his clothes and boots, he donned them. They were not completely dry but at least warm, and the discomfort was bearable. Behind him, Dinuir started to rise as well, and Arvedui turned. "Stay with Telion, if you would. His fever should have broken, or Savea would not have left, but I would not have him wake on his own."
Dinuir bowed his head, but could not quite hide his relief. "As you wish, my lord. I have no real desire to venture outside as it is."
"Then let us hope that the Lossoth will allow us to stay, at least for another few days," Arvedui said as he turned towards the tunnel leading to the snow-house's entrance. "If they do not, we will be trudging through the snow again ere the day is ended." Not awaiting Dinuir's reply, Arvedui slipped through the fur-curtain, then crawled through the short tunnel that lead outside.
Thick clouds, heavy with the onset of snow, covered the sky, and Arvedui could not tell whether the sun had yet fully risen or not. But the time of day and the position of the sun were the least of his worries. The sight that greeted him filled him with dread, and the feeling of utter despair returned full force: before him the entire clan was gathered, circled around two hunters facing each other. Even though most of the Lossoth's customs were still strange to Arvedui, the posture of the two hunters was that of two men about to engage in deadly combat, and their hands hovered only inches above the hunting knives strapped to their belts.
Arvedui closed his eyes for a moment, weary beyond words of blood-shed and war, but his wish alone would not prevent the fight. A shivering howl broke the pregnant silence that had settled over the camp, and Arvedui's eyes flew open. As one the Lossoth turned towards the sound, but their initial apprehension soon turned to awe, much to Arvedui's surprise.
Before he could fully understand what new threat they faced, a shout from Nansen broke the silence that had followed the howl. "This is no enemy!" he called, just as Arvedui discovered the object of the Lossoth's awe. There, on top of the low rise that sheltered the camp stood a creature the like Arvedui had never encountered before. A wolf it was, but Arvedui had no doubt about the truth of Nansen's words. There was a pride in its posture, a kingly air surrounding it that none of the Witch-king's creatures shared. Another howl rent the air, and then the creature was gone, leaving an awe-struck clan of Lossoth behind.
For a long moment, the Lossoth stood frozen, as if still enraptured by the white wolf's spell. But then Nansen turned and spoke to his clan again. Though Arvedui did not understand a single word of what was said, the change of mood was palpable. The tension had not left the group, but the hostility was gone. Even the two hunters, who had been on the brink of a fight only moments ago, now spoke with each other.
The debate did not last long. Presently Nansen nodded at a suggestion made by another, then glanced at each of the assembled men in turn, awaiting their affirmation. Again he gave a nod, as if concluding the debate by that solitary gesture. Then he spoke a few words, a final declaration, turned and walked away from his clan, approaching the place where Arvedui stood, by now joined by the better part of his small troop.
"Clan has decided," Nansen said as soon as he reached the Dúnedain, his voice grave. "Clan will help Tall Men."
A sigh rose from the Dúnedain, and Arvedui felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders and his heart. The lines of laughter that crinkled the tanned skin around Nansen's eyes deepened with amusement at the Dúnedain's reaction to his words. Recalling his manners, Arvedui bowed to the clan leader, "There are not words enough to express our gratitude. We would not survive without your aid."
Nansen acknowledged Arvedui's thanks with a cock of his head, but when his eyes again met Arvedui's, the hidden amusement was gone. Arvedui stiffened.
"Clan cannot give food to ten and four more men," Nansen declared. "And snow-houses of clan cannot house ten and four more men. Clan will help Tall Men build snow-houses outside of camp. There Tall Men will live as orphans. Each Snowman may give food to Tall Men if he has some to spare. If Tall Men hunt with Snowmen and help in a kill, Tall Men will get their share."
Nansen cocked his head, raising an eyebrow in silent demand of an explanation. "That is all Snowmen can offer. Tall Men will accept or Tall Men will leave."
Breaking free from dark memories, Arvedui hastily replied, "Your offer is more than acceptable. I sincerely hope that we will be given the chance to repay your kindness in time."
Again, Nansen cocked his head in acknowledgement. But the unspoken question remained, even as the smaller man turned to lead the Dúnedain towards the edge of the camp. Falling into step beside Nansen, Arvedui explained, his voice low, "Our homes are destroyed, our people scattered. So many have perished. We are indeed orphans in a way."
Even as he spoke those words, he had to swallow hard as memories came rushing back at him: memories of the seemingly endless trek of fugitives that had left Fornost under what meagre protection the defeated army could offer; memories of Araphant, his son and heir, proud defiance shining his eyes as Arvedui had given the heirlooms of his house into his keeping: the sceptre of Annúminas, the Elendilmir, star of the Dúnedain of the North, and the shards of Narsil, the legendary sword of Elendil. But hardest to bear were the memories of Fíriel, of their last desperate kiss before he had helped her mount her horse, and of the sight of her as she had turned one last time before vanishing behind the pillars of Fornost's ruined West-gate. He could only hope that she had reached safety beyond the Lune.
A hand on his arm interrupted the flow of images, and Arvedui found Nansen facing him. Pinching the bridge of his nose with gloved fingers, he tried to compose himself. It took more than a deep breath for the tightness in his throat to vanish, but within a few moments his curiosity was back as he recalled the question that had been foremost on his mind since the howl of a wolf had turned the tide in their favour. "Pray tell me, Nansen, what creature did we just see? It looked like a wolf to me, yet it seemed no ordinary wolf. I have never seen its like."
To Arvedui's surprise, Nansen did not chuckle as he always seemed to do in response to the 'Tall Men's' somewhat child-like questions. Instead, he turned his head to where the magnificent creature had vanished, and his eyes grew distant. "Snowmen have not seen a Sandulv in many years. Sandulven are elder brothers to the Snowmen. Sandulven showed Snowmen much about life in this land. But then Hekskonge drove Sandulven away. The return of the Sandulven is a sign of change."
Though Nansen's answer left him with even more questions, Arvedui nodded. At least he could understand the feeling of awe he had witnessed among their hosts, and the thought of the creature's majesty alone repelled the last of his bitter memories and renewed his determination. "That beast in Angmar has not seen the last of us," Arvedui said, though the words did not seem like his own.
Arvedui had not quite been aware of the impact his little speech had on those around him. He found himself amidst a ring of both Lossoth and Dúnedain, his men regarding him with open admiration, the Lossoth with a strange mixture of fear and awe. Then Nansen chuckled softly, which seemed to break the strange mood, and said, "If Tall Men defeat Hekskonge, Snowmen will be more than payed for helping Tall Men. But now Arvedui, foe of Hekskonge, will learn the building of a snow-house."
Arvedui was amazed at the Snow-men's skills to use the snow and ice that had almost killed himself and his men to their advantage. He stood with Nansen at the edge of the Lossoth's camp, upon what seemed to be a bank of snow piled up by a storm, watching in rapt fascination the activity before him. The clan's hunters had separated into three groups, each busy cutting large blocks of snow out of the ground itself, using long, strangely carved knives made of bone. The blocks they set in a large circle around each of the three holes that grew in the process. Like the stonemasons of Fornost they worked, with precision and skill, and soon two rows of snow-stones formed the bases of three icy domes.
A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that his men shared his fascination, now that they no longer worried about Telion's health and where they would spend the night. Of course, it was Turandir, who spoke first. "Maybe we could offer our assistance, my lord. I would much like to learn that skill."
Arvedui could not quite suppress a chuckle at his scout's eagerness. Grim and silent and withdrawn though he appeared, hidden beneath the weather-beaten facade lay an almost child-like curiosity that had served him well in learning the ways of the Wild. "Would your men accept our aid?" Arvedui turned to Nansen.
That request earned him an amused twinkle in Nansen's eyes, then the smaller man called out in his own tongue. Whatever he had said was met with good-natured laughter, and some of the hunters waved the Dúnedain over, a gesture of invitation to join them.
Eagerly, Turandir stepped forward, joining the group of the hunter Arvedui recognised as Markku, Nansen's eldest son. Markku handed him his carved knife and showed him how to wield it, and soon Turandir lifted his first block of snow, face alight with pride, and handed it to Markku's partner, Kirk. Glove-muffled applause erupted from behind Arvedui, and Turandir gave an exaggerated bow to his audience.
Others stepped forward to join the Lossoth; Thalanur and Angahûn, Belegond and Manomir accepted the invitation. Gildur and Romendil exchanged a glance, a silent challenge passing between them, then headed off to join their host, who seemed less than delighted about his new aides but held his tongue. Arvedui remained at Nansen's side, enjoying the other's silent company, smiling at the flurry of activity before him and the easy laughter that rose from both Lossoth and Dúnedain.
A short while later, the women joined the men, bearing pots of hot soup, followed by the children, who could hardly contain their curiosity. Arvedui gladly accepted the steaming cup Savea held out for him, savouring the hot liquid. With a grateful smile, he said, "This soup is excellent."
"This is hardly more than hot water," Savea replied with a smile of her own.
"No, it is really good," Arvedui insisted. To his surprise, Savea's face fell at his words, and Nansen's eyes hardened.
Somewhat taken aback by the reaction of his hosts, Arvedui bowed his head in deference. "But even hot water is like a feast to a man who has know nothing but hardship for months," he said by way of apology and hoped that his words were accepted the way they were meant.
Nansen's posture relaxed, Savea moved on, and Arvedui silently released the breath he had been holding. He had no idea what he had done to offend the two, but since Nansen had begun an amiable chat with the younger woman who had followed Savea, he refrained from asking. Instead, he enjoyed his soup and returned his focus upon the activity before him.
With the increase in helping hands, the groups split after the meal was over, and soon two new pits were carved from the snow while slanting walls rose about them. The children flitted about the men, but none seemed to mind, and Arvedui found himself again and again under the close scrutiny of their large, curious eyes.
For a while, Arvedui simply watched, enjoyed the laughter that accompanied the work and Nansen's quiet presence next to him. The rest of his men had joined the work, if only to lend a helping hand here and there, for now that the snow-walls rose in height, the help of the taller Dúnedain was more than welcome.
Childish shrieks of delight pierced the air. Angahûn stood, somewhat sheepishly, amidst a circle of children, the remains of a block of snow in his hands that must have been broken as he had tried to lift it. The children danced around him, chanting some rhyme in their own tongue, and Arvedui was hard pressed to not join in their laughter at the sight of grim, battle-hardened Angahûn, completely at a loss but wearing a good-natured smile, which smoothed the lines that hardship had carved into his face.
Next to him, Nansen gave an exasperate sigh, shook his head and muttered something in his own tongue. He stepped forward and gave a shout, and for a moment the children fell silent, eyes cast upon the ground. But soon the first muffled giggles could be heard again, and the children again crowded around Angahûn, tugging at his hands and clothes.
It was Arvedui's turn to raise a questioning brow at the Lossoth's leader, who presently walked back to him, still shaking his head. Catching Arvedui's inquiring look, he sighed, "Children have no manners!"
"What did they say?"
"Children's words were not polite!" Nansen replied tersely, obviously unwilling to give more details.
"Yet they seem to be rather fond of Angahûn," Arvedui said with a chuckle, "and he of them. 'Tis a long time since I last saw him smile."
"Tall Men do not laugh often?" Nansen asked quietly, his voice tinged with sadness as if he held regret for the Dúnedain's lack of mirth.
"The Witch-king gave us little cause for laughter," Arvedui sighed. "And Angahûn lost more than any of us. His wife died in child-birth, years ago, and the Witch-king first took his sister's husband and son, then his own son, his sister and her daughter. At times the fight against that beast from Angmar and his forces seems to be the sole purpose in Angahûn's life."
"That is sad," Nansen said simply as he regarded Angahûn, crouched amidst the crowd of little Lossoth, who eagerly instructed the tall man in packing the cracks between the blocks of ice forming the walls with loose snow. They chatted incessantly and broke into laughter ever so often, but would guide Angahûn's hands whenever they caught him doing something wrong.
"But he still knows laughter," Nansen added at length, his features softening. "And children love him."
"They do?" Arvedui asked, surprised at the other's change in mood.
"Children would not teach new friend if they did not like him," Nansen stated.
"And he would not teach them," Arvedui laughed as snippets of an old nursery rhyme drifted to their ears. Angahûn sang to the children, who soon tried to fall into the simple melody, while they worked together on smoothing the walls of a snow-house.
"Look, Arvedui," Nansen said after a while. "First snow-house almost done." Arvedui let his eyes follow the outstretched arm to where Gildur, Egli and Romendil emerged from the newly dug entrance of the snow-house. All three men wore a somewhat grim and determined expression, and next to him, Arvedui heard Nansen chuckle.
"Egli does not like Tall Men, Tall Men do not like Egli and each other. They did not waste words or time," Nansen said, still chuckling, and Arvedui felt compelled to join. Their grim faces stood out amongst all the others, for the earlier apprehension had all but vanished.
"Little do I know about Egli, but your judgement of Gildur and Romendil is more than accurate," Arvedui replied with amusement and a hint of a bow to acknowledge the other's perception. "They manage to put their quarrels aside in a pinch but will continue to drive any sane man to madness as soon as the danger has passed."
An inquiring look from Nansen compelled Arvedui to further explain. "They are both valiant men, each in his own way. But they never agree. So they argue about everything." Arvedui smiled as he recalled some of their more absurd fights. "At times, they can be quite entertaining; at times it is best to keep them separated in order to keep everyone sane." He gave a wry smile at Nansen. "Such is their way."
"So Arvedui told them to not argue when they left with Egli." It was more a statement than a question, and Arvedui again marvelled at Nansen's perceptiveness.
"I feared that Egli would not be best pleased with their behaviour," he answered cautiously.
Nansen chuckled softly. "Not many things please Egli. Tall Men did not quarrel in snow-house of Egli but made much noise while sleeping. Egli was not pleased about that."
"They made noise in their sleep?" Arvedui laughed. "Should you wish to witness their quibblings in person, just mention the fact to one of them and prepare for a long wait."
"Nights are long in the winter," Nansen replied, a mischievous twinkle gleaming in his eyes.
"But what about Egli?" Arvedui asked at length, unwilling to let the opportunity pass to learn more about their hosts and the tension among them that had almost led to a fight.
"Egli is hunting partner of daughter's husband. Egli is the best hunter of the clan," Nansen answered after some consideration. "Egli and Markku are like Gildur and Romendil. They are good hunters but do not often agree. Egli does not like Tall Men, Markku does not like Egli."
"So is that why Markku welcomed us while Egli did not?" Arvedui could not keep himself from asking.
Nansen sighed. "Yes and no," he said at length but seemed unwilling to say more upon that matter, and Arvedui did not press.
Hours later, Arvedui lay awake, arms folded behind his head, staring at the ceiling of what would be his home for the winter. Next to him Boracuil shifted, tugging at the thick fur blanket that covered them both. With a grateful sigh Arvedui recalled the small procession between the Lossoth camp and their own as Nansen's people had brought to the Dúnedain camp all that could be spared: Furs and blankets, stone-lamps, pots and cups and food.
"Have you no need for sleep, my friend?" came Boracuil's soft voice from somewhere next to him.
"I have more need for thought," Arvedui replied.
"Should you require the ear of a friend ..."
"I thank you for your offer," Arvedui replied with a soft chuckle, "but I would not keep you from your rest. I was just thinking about the day's events."
It was Boracuil's turn to chuckle softly. "Then you shall remain awake for quite some time."
"Aye, an eventful day it has been. And most of the events turned out in our favour."
"Though our hosts were more than delighted about the outcome of the evening's hunt as well."
"They had not much luck on the hunt as of late. Nansen had not expected to even send out hunters today."
"I did not think it wise of them to leave so late in the day. But who could have thought that they would come upon snow grouses, and so many of them, so close to the camp."
"'Twas fortunate, too, that Turandir and Manomir went with them and had their share in the kill. We rose considerably in the Lossoth's esteem the moment they returned with their booty."
"And the evening meal was delicious as well. I cannot imagine the last time I ate that much."
"Aye, that was quite a feast, and prepared on such short notice at that," Arvedui replied, but then something strange stirred within him, and he fell silent.
"My friend?" Boracuil asked at length. "What troubles you?"
Arvedui turned towards Boracuil. "Do you know what day it is today?"
"I fear I lost count sometime in the endless dark of that Dwarf-mine. But wait ..." For a moment Boracuil was silent, lost in thought. "It is two days past the full moon." Boracuil turned on his side, so that he came to lie face to face with Arvedui. "It is Mettarë, my friend."
Arvedui sighed. "I had hoped to be with Fíriel and the children tonight. I only hope they are safe."
"We all hoped to be with our loved ones tonight. But at least we are out of the cold, have found shelter and aid. Even if our hosts are somewhat strange at times."
Arvedui chuckled into the darkness. "I bet they find us equally strange. You should have heard Savea's remarks about our garments."
"You must admit, my friend, that our garments are less than appropriate for this weather." Boracuil replied equally amused. "But what I deem most puzzling about the Lossoth is that it seems impossible to thank them for their efforts. Lhaeghen praised our hostess' cooking-skills the other night, and her husband said that his wife's cooking was poor at best. Right into her face. And she just sat there and smiled ..."
"Now that you mention it," Arvedui said, recalling Savea's and Nansen's strange reaction to his remarks regarding the quality of their noon meal. "I feared to have offended Nansen and Savea as well this afternoon but refrained from further inquiry. I will amend that on the morrow." Arvedui stretched and shuffled further beneath the thick fur.
"Do you expect an answer?"
"Aye, I do. He will be amused, no doubt, but he seems more than willing to teach us 'Tall Men' the ways of his people." Arvedui turned onto his other side. He felt Boracuil do the same, so that they came to lie back to back. His eyes drifted shut. "Sleep well, my friend," he said around a yawn. "And a Peaceful Mettarë," he murmured as an afterthought.
"Peaceful Mettarë, my lord," Boracuil replied, a smile audible in his voice. "And a good night to you as well."
To be continued ...
Mettarë: The last day of the year according to the King's reckoning.
Written by Wolfwind & fliewatuet
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.