18. Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold
Rowanna shivered, drawing her cloak more snugly about her, and shifted closer to the warm bulk of the horses against the icy gusts which whipped between the towering cliffs of the High Pass. Though she was well used to the winter winds which raced across the plains of the Riddermark, since they climbed above the treeline two days earlier she had been colder than ever in her life before.
And that despite the finest winter gear I ever wore, she reminded herself, thankful yet again for the Elves' skill in making wonderfully light but warm mountain clothing, from furlined boots and jerkins to silk underlayers. Clothes of mere Mortal make will take some getting used to back in the Mark! she thought ruefully, wondering how long she could wear and repair her Rivendell riding boots, the best-fitting she had ever had. She intended to treasure her butter-soft leather gloves, a parting gift from Arwen which the Evenstar had embroidered herself with an intricate pattern of leaves and stars.
The party of six had climbed out of the valley in brilliant sunshine, and their first day's ride had been pleasant enough; but as they rose into the shadow of the Misty Mountains, such warmth as the early spring sun could give was cut off until almost noon; the sunshine was often suddenly replaced by lashing sleet, and Rowanna struggled in the damp dawns to loosen up her frozen bones and get the blood flowing in stiffened limbs, longing for a hot cup of Bilbo's coffee as she munched gloomily on a few dried fruits and took a mouthful of water. On their second night in the mountains, a vicious storm had whipped up the valley from nowhere, and they had all crushed as tightly as they could into the lee of a great boulder, the horses close together on the outside with snow settling on their blankets and their manes, and longed for morning as the wind screamed past them.
In general, though, the nights were merely uncomfortable, as the company huddled together in the shelter of whatever overhang they found to keep them from the worst of the bone-biting cold, pressing close to the horses' steaming flanks, and snatched what fitful sleep they could. No need for bad dreams to wake me, here! Rowanna would grimace as she shifted cautiously, trying to shove a fold of cloak between her back or hip and the sharp edge of rock which always seemed to jut in just the wrong place. In truth, although she still woke each morning with a faint feeling of sickly unease, the worst of her night-terror had ebbed for now; simply having heeded its call and begun the journey south seemed to have taken away the dreaming's desperate edge. For this she was grateful, since waking screaming in the night-watches would have done little to endear her to the rest of the company.
"Neither yrch nor wolves have been sighted in this stretch of the mountains for many a year, thanks to the Beornings," Maentâl, who led the party, had told them as they made their first night's stop; "but the times grow dark, and we know not what evils may be drawing close to Imladris once more. So be wary! We will avoid sleeping in caves if we can, keep watch at night, and scout ahead by day. And should anything trouble us," he added, fixing Rowanna with a stern eye, "you, my lady, will betake yourself at once behind the nearest boulder and allow us, and Master Dirgon who I know is no ill hand with a bow, to deal with it! Am I understood?"
So they had trudged painstakingly for days into the looming grey fastness of the Misty Mountains. And well they are named, Rowanna often thought, as she glanced off to one side or the other and found she could not glimpse the depths of the clefts and valleys for the shifting patches of fog which wreathed about them. Small stones would rattle and clatter away, sending echoes flying back and forth across the pass, as a foot or a hoof slipped; ravens would occasionally give out a harsh, gloomy caw from the rocks; now and again there was a rushing of water as a snow-swollen stream tumbled down the cliffs to left or right, and over all came the keening whine of the wind.
The jagged peaks above them cast the path into deep shadow for much of the day; even clear blue skies did little to ease the party's spirits, as Maentâl and Mîrwen looked anxiously up at the sun beating on the dazzling white cornices which loomed over the pass. "Tirim an taltloss," Mîrwen tried to explain, and then as Rowanna looked blank, "I know not in your tongue - slipping-of-snow?" Avalanche! shuddered Rowanna, who had never seen one, but remembered fearful childhood tales from herders returned from the White Mountains.
"It is not likely," Maentâl tried to reassure her, "the great falls of snow and rock come rarely before summer; but we must take care."
The Elves' horses were remarkably sure-footed, hardly ever making a false step, and Dirgon's Edlyn, retracing the path over which she had come the previous summer, seemed to take her lead from them and to bear Dirgon without too many stumbles until she began to tire towards the end of each day. Rowanna had expected to need full days of rest for the horses as they ascended to the pass, but Maentâl had shaken his head.
"We will give the beasts a few hours' rest here and there whenever we can; but you will find it too cold on the higher reaches to want to stop them for long, except at night when we have little choice. Nor will there be grazing to speak of above the trees' line, hence the grain we carry, and nowhere safe to turn them loose. They will snatch rest whenever we must scout and clear the path ahead; and once we get down - Powers willing! - into Rhovanion, where the grazing is good and the land kinder, we will rest them fully and let them regain their strength."
And I shall welcome it as much as they! thought Rowanna, though she would never have said so aloud. She had spent the days while waiting to depart from Rivendell riding and walking as much as she could, yet knew she was still not as strong as she had been before her injury; by the second day out from the valley she ached all over, but gritted her teeth and bore it. You will be fitter the longer you go on; and from what Maentâl says, this is the most gruelling stretch of all our road...
"Daro!" Again and again the call to halt came from whichever of the Elves was scouting ahead, and one or two, usually aided by Dirgon, would undo their shovels from their straps and make their way up to help clear a small mudslide or a lingering pocket of deeper snow; often the rocks they found beneath would have cut their mounts' legs to ribbons had they fallen, making the riders wary of every doubtful stretch. Rowanna stood back soothing the horses, marvelling at the Elven beasts' patience; I thought Elf-bred stock highly strung, but I believe they truly understand why up here their safety depends on their steadiness! And that helps to calm Edlyn, too; I feared she might give us more trouble than she does.
Elrond was right to hold us back the extra week till the worst of this mud was gone, she admitted as yet another slipped heap of earth and rock was shovelled from the path ahead, much though I chafed at the delay! She had requested an audience with Elrond as quickly as she could get herself dressed and reasonably groomed on the morning the thaw came; as they sat in his chamber looking at the suddenly budding branches outside the window, hearing the cascades of birdsong and the bubbling voice of the Bruinen, she had found his mood much changed.
"Erestor is putting all that is needful in train," he told her briskly, "arranging your mounts and gear; go to him for anything you need. I have been thinking on the messengers I would send to Lothlórien, and will call to me today those I judge best skilled to lead a mounted party over the High Pass; even after the snowmelt, the hazards will be many. Yet it seems that is indeed your path; for sooner than chance might have had it, the thaw is come, and the road opened to you. "
Irritation flared in Rowanna for a moment: more than anything in the world I willed to go, and that was not enough; but because you deem this early thaw the work of the Powers, and more than a caprice of the weather in our favour, all is changed? She quelled it, though, and held her tongue: if Master Elrond believes the world so ordered that you can take the path you would choose anyway, best not to argue!
"Pressed though we are," Elrond went on, "we cannot have you attempt the mountain paths for some days yet; if the weather holds, you will leave in a six-day, and by the time you are out of the valley and into the foothills your road should be passable."
Then, of course, she had had to go to Bilbo, and break her news to him with sinking heart as she realised how upset he might be; in fact, the old Hobbit managed a cheerfulness which touched her all the more for being visibly a little forced.
"That's excellent - think of all the practice you will get at the Grey Tongue on the way! Oh, I shall manage well enough, dear girl, don't worry about me - I got along perfectly all right before you were here, did I not? I've got plenty to do, after all - as well as the tale of the Lonely Mountain, there are all the adventures Frodo told me about to write up, now! And I'll need to go and take tea with Arwen in the afternoons - can't have her getting too lonely, can we? - and read her all my latest drafts. Who knows, I may even have finished it by the time you get back - " He broke off and fussed with his papers, suddenly. "But of course, how foolish of me, you won't be coming back I don't suppose..."
"It's a long way back from Rohan, Bilbo," Rowanna admitted with a sigh; "but who knows what the future holds? So be sure to finish your book!" And with that encouragement quelling her pang of guilt, she had to be content.
Parting from Arwen was a great wrench: yet the Evenstar seemed strangely untroubled by it, even given her usual serenity. "We will meet again in this world, Rowanna, you and I," she maintained, smiling as though at something the mortal woman could not see. "For I will not dwell all my days in Imladris, this I know; and many paths and errands may all meet at one ending. Have courage, and the Powers speed you; you and your mother will be in my thoughts." Two dark heads came together, the two women hugged each other tightly, and Rowanna realised that however else her time in Rivendell had changed her, here she had gained a true and lifelong friend.
Elladan and Elrohir reappeared from the west in time to wish the eastbound party good speed. "Though you must be quite mad, wanting to take horses over the Pass this early in the year," Elrohir drawled as he stepped forward to give Rowanna his farewell. "A fine sight you will make for the Beornings, wallowing about in the mud. Try not to break your neck - and take care of Gelion; he's a good beast, and I did not train him just to have his legs snapped half-way up a mountain!"
And I have no idea what I am doing where the care of a horse is concerned, I suppose, Rowanna growled inwardly. Is that your way of telling me to take care? Or am I really still just an amusement after all this time? Before she could come up with a suitably withering reply, however, Elrohir had clasped her round the waist and kissed her with enough vigour to cause the watching Elves to murmur, and Arwen to roll her eyes sympathetically at Rowanna behind her brother's back.
"Have a care on the road," Elladan urged as he gave Rowanna a clasp of arms, "and the Powers grant your mother safe and well when you reach her..."
"And we all know how well-disposed the Powers are wont to be in such matters!" put in Elrohir sharply, before turning on his heel and stalking back towards the House.
"Pay no heed to him," Elladan said softly. "He remembers, that is all, and it takes him hard -" Their mother! Rowanna realised, wincing, remembering the sadness in Bilbo's voice as he had told her this part of Rivendell's history. She half-turned to look for Elrohir; but he was already gone. Elladan kissed her affectionately on the cheek and went to stand with Arwen and Master Elrond, and with little further ado the party was waved off down the valley to begin the long road to the mountains.
A sudden snort from Gelion brought Rowanna's wandering thoughts back to the present; jutting out on one side of the path was a great rock, narrowing the defile for a moment so that the horses must again tread with special care. As she nudged Gelion gently past it, Rowanna's attention was caught by another huge boulder which sat against the cliff-wall beyond, almost as though wedged into a gap. One of the Elves noticed her curious look. "That," he commented, "was once the gate into the orc-halls, when the foul things infested these parts of the mountains."
Of course! Rowanna smiled, remembering Bilbo's story of his escape with Gandalf and the dwarves from the halls of the Great Goblin years before. Bilbo said Gandalf was going to get the gate blocked up by a giant, and it seems the wizard was as good as his word! But - if we have passed the goblin-gate, then we must be nearly -
A call from Maentâl confirmed her thought even as it formed: "Sí girith!" They rounded a final bend, and she saw that at last their days of painstaking climbing had brought them to the High Pass itself.
Here, between the hulking granite cliffs on either side, the path briefly widened and flattened a little to make a stopping-point where a dozen or more travellers and their mounts might rest. To either side of the way, Rowanna saw the mouths of caves, let into the rock by nature or craft; with a crunching of stone underfoot, several huge figures emerged as though from the very cliffs into the midday light to challenge the party, and Maentâl stepped forward to speak with them. These, she realised, must be the Beornings, the hunters of orc and warg, and the keepers of the pass.
They were as tall as the Elves, but twice as broad, and swathed in such thick furs that they seemed to loom over the travellers. One sported so shaggy a mass of black hair and beard that Rowanna could almost believe Bilbo's fanciful tales about their forefather shape-shifting into a great black bear; the other two, to her surprise, were as blond as any Rohirrim, and when they switched out of their heavily-accented Westron to mutter in asides to one another, she was startled to realise she recognised words and even whole phrases of their tongue.
While the horses dozed and the mortals shivered, the discussions went on; from the snatches Rowanna overheard as she stamped her feet for warmth, it seemed that as the first mounted party up from the West since the thaw, they were expected to give the Beornings a full report on the state of the path, and were also being questioned about any sight or sound of orcs in the mountains. At last Maentâl handed over with a bow a heavy, clinking leather pouch removed from one of his saddle-bags, and Rowanna remembered Gimli's rueful remark about the Beornings' steep tolls.
"Where do they keep all that gold?" she whispered to one of the Elves, trusting to the Grey Tongue lest she be overheard. He grinned and flicked his head towards the mouth of the cave hollowed into the rock behind the passkeepers, and in the shadows beyond she glimpsed what looked like a great iron-bound chest.
"They bring well-armed parties up here every so often to carry down the gold - and they've kept the passes clear of orcs for a while now, there are none left to steal from them. Besides, would you climb all the way up here to try to rob Men that size?"
"But why take the tolls at the very top?"
"Because below us the path soon branches off into many ways, and it would take half a hundred pass-keepers to man them all and not miss out on any of the gold," the Elf retorted dryly. "Which, to be fair," he added, "they say they need, to keep the widows and orphans made in their long battles to clear the mountains of the orcish scum. In any case, if they are willing to cart it all the way back down the mountain, I say they are welcome to it!"
With the negotiations successfully concluded, the Beornings became jovial enough, offering hot spiced wine to thaw out chilled bones, and handfuls of grain for the horses. "Watch you let them rest and eat well when you get down into the good grass of Rhovanion," urged the black-haired Man, looking critically at their mounts. "I know you elvish folk like slender elegant horseflesh, but those beasts look hungry to me, and well they might after such a climb! You must be in a hurry indeed, to try the Pass this early in the year - still, it is good to know it is clear; few enough travellers have passed this way these last months either from east or west, and we are glad of the company - and of your fees of course!" He roared with laughter and gave Maentâl a slap on the shoulder that would have sent most Men reeling.
"Come back and see us again soon!" called his lieutenant, adding in a grinning aside in his own tongue, "especially if they bring another of those black-haired Dúnadan wenches with them. Makes a nice change from skinny Elves!"
"Don't count on it!" retorted Rowanna in Rohirric over her shoulder as she walked Gelion on; and clearly the Beorning could catch the gist of her tongue as easily as she could his, for he started as though he had been stung, and gave her the satisfaction before she was out of sight of blushing to the roots of his hair.
They walked the horses out of the shadow of the cliffs around the Pass, around the first bend of the descending path, into the midday sunlight, and Rowanna gasped. Before them the mountains fell away steeply, the path winding dizzyingly away into the dark green of pine-forests below; spread out beyond was a great sweep of plain, and far off she thought she saw the sun glint on water.
"It is water," agreed Mîrwen when she asked, "the Great River Anduin, though not so great as when it flows through the lands far to the south..." The Langflood! The knowledge that this was the very same river which meandered along the borderlands of the Wold and the Eastemnet suddenly made Rowanna feel as though the Riddermark was not, after all, so impossibly far away.
"And that? That great dark smudge, like a cloud, on the horizon?"
"Dark indeed." Mîrwen frowned. "You see only its western edge, for it stretches near seventy leagues eastwards, and southwards as far as Lothlórien. That is the Forest-under-night - in your tongue, Mirkwood."
"We will descend as far as we can today," broke in Maentâl, "for if we can reach the treeline we will be better protected against change in the weather, and can turn the horses loose to rest. But have a care; though climbing is the more strenuous, on the way down you are more like to stumble. We will not linger, but nor must we over-hasten."
So the company descended in a steady line, strung out along the path and scouting ahead still for pockets of unmelted snow or deep mud. Though she did her best to watch the road, Rowanna found her eyes drawn time and again to the distant haze that marked the borders of Mirkwood. Legolas' home! It looks a dark dwelling for one so light of heart - but then, perhaps it was the need of light that made him so... Is he well? A chill ran through her as another thought occurred: Is he even alive? How do they all fare, Frodo and his Fellowship? She felt her chest tighten painfully, and swallowed hard at the sudden lump in her throat. If Powers there be and if you do indeed order the seeming chances of this world, guard him! Keep his heart warm and his smile ready!
So for two more days they dropped down out of the mountains, through the forests of pine which steadily gave way to bracken, and then finally to open valleys already rich with the first grasses of spring. Here Maentâl called a rest day; the horses wandered joyfully off to roll or graze (the Elves' horses apparently never needed tethering, coming willingly at a call), Rowanna put a few handfuls of lentils to soak overnight to stew with the rabbits that Mîrwen hoped to snare, and there was talk of their onward road.
"Another day to the Old Ford - "
"But why do we go all the way to the River?" Rowanna protested. "We do not cross it, and that must take us out of our way too far east - surely we waste time - "
"We lose time to gain it," one of the Elves explained. "Were we on foot and hunting only for ourselves we could hug the mountains, but nearer Anduin the going is easier for the horses, and there are more villages of Men - the grazing is better, and we can get grain for the beasts, who will give us greater speed for being better fed."
Rowanna could not fault this reasoning, and so for all her chafing, the extra day was spent travelling eastwards. Then at last they could turn, and with the river rushing in its stony bed within earshot on their left, bear southwards down the Vale of Anduin. Now their progress was swifter, and trotting or cantering steadily the leagues fell away behind them. Here and there they saw a handful of cottages sheltered by clumps of trees, and one of the Elves would turn aside to offer a little coin for grain or goats' milk, for the Firstborn were well thought of by the woodsmen of the vale who had sometimes been protected by the Mirkwood Elves to the east. But they also passed villages which were clearly deserted, their rush-thatched roofs fallen into disrepair and all trace of life gone.
On the third day from the Ford they slowed a little as they came into marshy land where great beds of rushes grew; "Loeg Ningloron," one of the Elves told Rowanna. "In the Common tongue, the Gladden Fields; the river comes in from the west there, see, and we must ford it with care, for it will still be swollen with snow-melt from the Hithaeglir."
Rowanna grimaced at the thought. "How deep?"
"If we choose carefully, shallow enough for the horses to walk," she was assured, and so it proved. Cloaks and quivers were bundled up and tied behind the saddles in case of mishap before Mîrwen and her steady mare led the way; the icy water rippled and rushed around the horse's legs, but she made no mis-step, found no hidden holes or rocks to trip her, and the rest followed cautiously one by one. Before they were over, the water was up to the riders' calves and Rowanna felt certain she would never have feeling in her frozen legs again; but all got safely across with neither loss of gear nor injury, and so she counted her blessings and persuaded the Elves to walk for a while until her feet warmed.
The weather held fair, with high white clouds chased across the sky by a swift wind; the day after they crossed the Gladden, Maentâl was scanning the sky ahead of them when he gave a cry and gestured upwards. "Tíro thoron dhaer!" And indeed, though Rowanna could not see it till another of the Elves pointed it out to her, a great eagle was flying far above them, not circling in the updraught from the mountains but beating its great wings in a determined line southwards.
"Almost as though his path was one with ours!" murmured Mîrwen. "Who knows where he is bound?"
They rode, rested, rode again. Rowanna began to lose all sense of time, of the days since they had left Rivendell, and to feel as though they had been riding thus for ever on and on through the wide green lands with the snow-capped mountains always guarding their right flank, and the river their left. At last one afternoon the westering sun lit up a strange golden haze which seemed to lie across their road.
"Our destination, though not yours," Maentâl told Rowanna and Dirgon, pointing. "Yonder lies the Golden Wood. By nightfall we will come beneath the eaves of Lothlórien."
Descriptions of the Misty Mountains and the High Pass draw on The Hobbit, particularly Chapter IV; for the Beornings I drew both on The Hobbit and on LOTR with the help of the HASA Resources Library. The idea that the Beornings' tongue and Rohirric might have enough similarities for Rowanna and a Beorning to understand one another is my own, drawing on Aragorn's comment in LOTR Book 3 Chapter 2 about the kinship of the Rohirrim and the Beornings.
All other chapter titles in this story are lines or half-lines from poems or songs in LOTR. This one is a departure, as it's from The Hobbit (from the Dwarves' song in Chapter I) - but really, what else could I have called it?
Language and name notes:
Maentâl: cunning foot (maen = clever, skilled; tâl= foot)
Mîrwen - jewel-maiden.
Tirim an taltloss - We are watching for avalanches (Tirim an = we watch for: talt = slipping, falling or insecure; loss = snow)
Sí girith - here is the pass
Tíro thoron dhaer - see the great eagle
Edlyn = princess
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.