1. The House In The Woods
Shelter From The Storm
The blizzard outside was growing fiercer. Wind whistled between gaps in the window shutters and moaned down the chimney, buffeting the walls of the little house and driving snow against the doors and windows.
Inside, despite stray draughts that lifted the papers on the table and caused the tabby cat dozing by the fire to wake periodically and glare at nothing, the house was a warm cave of light. A lamp burned on the table and the fire crackled and spat sparks onto the stone flags surrounding it.
Elladan leaned back; tipping his chair onto two legs as he reached for a log from the stack piled high by the fireplace and threw it onto the fire.
"Stop doing that!" Gilraen chided him. "You will break my chairs!"
"Sorry," he said unrepentantly. "My mother used to tell me off for the same thing."
"With little success, I see," she scolded, but there was a smile on her face. "I hope Aragorn will be more biddable than you or your brother must have been." She glanced at the cot in a corner of the room, but Aragorn slept soundly, oblivious to the storm raging outside.
Elladan laughed. "Have pity, Gilraen - he is not even a year old!"
"Nine months tomorrow," she agreed. "How fast the time goes!"
She tucked Aragorn's blanket around him as the wind howled again. Elladan wondered where Elrohir and the patrol he and Arathorn rode with were. Would they manage to return this night as planned, or were they sheltering from the storm somewhere? For once he was glad that the sword slash to his leg had prevented him from riding out as well - he did not envy Elrohir being out in this foul weather.
Against the howl of the wind he heard hoofbeats and voices in the distance, and got to his feet a few moments before Gilraen raised her head. "They are back!" she cried. "Safely back at last." She threw open the door. The grassy clearing at the centre of the village was full of men and horses, the swirling snow pierced by light streaming from every door. In very little time the horses were stabled and the men brought within with cries of welcome and bowls of hot, savoury stews.
Elladan stood aside as Arathorn entered, hugging Gilraen tightly before crossing to the cot in the corner to gaze at his son. "He has grown!" he marvelled. "In two months he has grown."
Elladan did not hear Gilraen's reply. He still stood by the open door, looking out at the now deserted clearing.
"Where is Elrohir?"
Arathorn turned and stared at him. "Elrohir? But he was with us! He was our rear guard. He ..."
"He is missing."
Elladan stepped outside the cottage into the freezing night. Snow billowed in flurries across the square, icy shards stinging his face and eyes. The wind took his breath away, whipping at his hair until it blew in a dark cloud around him.
"El!" he shouted into the violent darkness. "Elrohir!" There was no reply but the shriek of the wind.
Gilraen tugged at him. "Elladan, come inside!" she shouted. "We cannot leave the door open like this. Aragorn ..." She pulled at him again, and he turned reluctantly back inside as Gilraen shut the door behind them.
"Arathorn, where is he?"
Arathorn looked at Elladan helplessly. "He was behind me. I told you - he was rear guard. We must have become separated in the blizzard. But Elladan, think! You cannot go riding off into this in search of him. You are not fit. And Elrohir is no fool - he has been riding with the rangers for many years, and is quite capable of finding shelter and sitting out this storm."
Elladan sighed. "Yes, I know. But ..." he fell silent, frowning.
Arathorn laid one hand on Elladan's arm. "He knows these lands like the back of his hand. He will be here soon. And though I don't understand how you do it, I know you can sense him somehow. Surely you would know if he was injured or in danger?"
"Yes, I would. I just ..." he fell silent again.
"You are just concerned," Arathorn finished for him. "Well, of course you are. But Elladan, we cannot go riding out in this to search for him - it would be impossible. We could pass within six feet and see no sign. Wait until morning - and if he has not returned by then, we will look."
"Yes, we will look then," Elladan agreed, but he was not convinced. Yes, he would know if Elrohir was injured or in danger - and even if his twin was unconscious, he would sense that. But now there was a strange absence of feeling - he could not feel Elrohir. He could not sense him at all.
Elrohir narrowed his eyes as he peered into the clouds of snow billowing about them. He could barely see two feet ahead, and the rider in front of him was just a dark shape huddled into his cloak, his hood drawn tightly about his face. Elrohir wished he could shut out the storm as well - but he could not drop his guard. It was unlikely anyone or anything else would be out in this weather, but he would not take that risk.
He paused as a distant howl rose above the screech of the wind. A wolf - alone by the sound of it, probably separated from its pack while hunting. It was far away though, and no danger to them.
The rider ahead had vanished into the gloom and Elrohir urged his horse forward, floundering through drifts that grew ever deeper. The swirling snow covered his tracks as soon as they were made, and in the darkness he could not see where the other five riders were. He paused again, listening; then called ahead into the night.
He listened again and called once more, but there was no reply. There was no sign of the rangers, and their tracks had vanished under the snow as if they had never been there.
He swore. It would be a cold, lonely ride back to the rangers' village alone like this. With a sigh he rode on though the clustering trees. There were no tracks or paths through the forest, nothing that could lead orcs or other enemies to the wide clearing where the village stood. Although he seemed to be heading in the right direction, the blinding snow disorientated him. The trees loomed thicker and closer, and he realised he was in a part of the forest he had never seen before. The ground sloped down to a small stream, still flowing although a film of ice clung to the sides.
He stopped again, swearing as he realised the truth. He was lost. He had no idea of where he was or which direction to take, and if he continued blundering about like this Mithrilyn could easily stumble over some hidden obstruction and break a leg. "Balrog's balls, Mithrilyn! Now what shall we do?"
There was only really one option. He would have to find what shelter he could and wait until morning, then follow the stream until it joined a river and judge his position from the sun if it ever appeared. It would be a long, cold, lonely night with just Mithrilyn for company, but nothing he had not done before. There was a darker shadow ahead - a cliff face perhaps - so he rode closer. There would be more shelter there, and possibly even a cave.
As he drew nearer a spark of light seemed to gleam ahead in the darkness. He blinked, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks after the unrelenting whiteness, but the light came again, a warm flicker in the cold and dark. A small house loomed out of the blizzard, its low roof covered with snow. A clear patch surrounded the chimney, the warmth there telling of a fire within. Lamplight glowed from the windows, and as he watched one of the curtains moved and a pale face looked out.
Elrohir stared at the house, half wondering if he was imagining it. He had never seen or even heard of this place in the deep woods - he must be even more hopelessly lost than he thought. And who could live here, so very far away from all other human contact? He gazed at the lamplit windows, sorely tempted to ride up to the door and seek shelter for the night.
Another wolf howl, nearer this time, decided him. If wolves were prowling he would have to spend the night perched in the branches of a tree with Mithrilyn tethered below. Again, it was nothing he and Elladan had not done before, but it was an experience he would not repeat by choice. He led the horse towards the door, passing low, regular mounds that spoke of plants and bushes beneath the snow - a garden. As he knocked he pushed back the hood of his cloak - finding a hooded and cloaked stranger on the doorstep on such a night could alarm whoever lived here.
"Who is it? Is that you, Tom?" The door opened and a woman peered out at him, a shawl draped around her shoulders and her greying hair tied back in a loose knot.
"No. My name is Elrohir."
The wind howled again, snatching at the woman's hair and sending the flames from the fire behind her leaping high. She clutched at the shawl more tightly. "It's no night for man or beast to be out. Come in then, out of the cold. Have you seen my Tom anywhere?"
Elrohir stepped into the tiny room. "Thank you, my lady. I am afraid I have seen no-one else since I lost my companions an hour or two ago. But is there anywhere where I can leave my horse? As you say, it is no night for him to be out either."
She pointed. "A shed, at the side. It's Tom's workshop. He'll be safe there, and warm enough I dare say."
He led Mithrilyn to the shed, built against the side wall in the lee of the house. It was at least dry, and shelter from the wind and snow. Once the horse was settled among the rusting tools, Elrohir returned to the house, shaking snow from his hair and cloak.
"Come in, come in. Take off that wet cloak - and your boots. I've a bit of rabbit stew here that I made for Tom - but there's enough for you as well. Sit down by the fire and get yourself warm. What did you say your name was?"
"Elrohir. And you are ...?"
"Sarra. My husband's Tom. Have you seen him anywhere? He's late."
Elrohir glanced at her. "No," he said again.
"He went out to trap rabbits, and he's not back yet." As she spoke, Sarra poked at the fire and added more wood. The flames leaped again, and Elrohir's wet clothes began to steam. "There. Eat that. It's good and hot - my Tom says I make the best rabbit stew he's ever had!" She thrust a bowl and spoon at Elrohir.
The rabbit stew smelled wonderful, and tasted even better. It was thick with vegetables and barley and flavoured with herbs. "Your husband is right," Elrohir agreed. "This is excellent."
Sarra smiled. "You'll stay the night, of course. There's only the two rooms - our bedroom's next door, but you're welcome to sleep here by the fire. I'll fetch a blanket." When she returned with the blanket she peered out of the window again. "Tom's late. Have you seen him?"
"No - but if he has not returned by morning, I will look for him. My companions will be looking for me, too - we will search together." He began to wonder where Tom was, and how long he had been gone. A pair of men's boots were next to the door, the leather dry and cracked - it had been a long time since they had been worn. He remembered the dusty, unused tools in Mithrilyn's stable too.
"That's good. Well, I'll be off to bed now. I'll just leave a candle burning for Tom if he comes home. Goodnight."
"Goodnight. And thank you."
Left alone in the firelit darkness, Elrohir wondered again about the absent Tom. Was he out in the woods sheltering from the storm? Or was he long dead, and poor eccentric Sarra was waiting in vain for him to come home? As he settled into the deep chair under the blanket he smiled to himself. What a story he would have to tell Elladan when they met again!
By morning the storm had blown itself out. Elrohir was awoken by a pale gleam of winter sunshine and brilliant whiteness outside. He stirred the fire back into life and set a kettle over it to heat, then went outside to see to Mithrilyn. Deep, unbroken snow surrounded the house, but the sky above him was clear and cloudless. It was still bitterly cold, and his breath steamed in the air.
When he returned to the house Sarra was up and bustling about. "Good morning," she greeted him. "Tom didn't come home last night. Have you seen him?"
"No," Elrohir said again. "But when I go back I will ask my companions about him, and we will look for him. Is there anything I can do to help you? Do you want water from the well, or more firewood? Tell me how I can repay you for your kindness."
Sarra smiled again. "There's no need. But there's some wood that needs chopping if you like. You're just like my Tom - always needing to be doing something!"
Elrohir found a mound of logs piled behind the shed and chopped them into smaller pieces, bringing the wood indoors to stack into an alcove next to the fireplace. He also drew several buckets of water from the well, filling the barrel that stood just inside the back door. As he turned to leave he pressed a silver coin into Sarra's hand. "Thank you," he said again. "I will not forget your kindness. It would have been a cold and uncomfortable night without you!"
"If you see my Tom, will you tell him to come home?"
"I will," he promised. "And I will ask my friends if they have any news of him."
As he rode away from the house, following the stream beneath the trees, he glanced back one last time. Smoke curled from the chimney into the still air, and Sarra waved to him from the window before letting the curtain fall into place again.
Elrohir followed the water for a few miles downstream towards the river. Now that he could see his surroundings he realised that he was not quite as far off course as he had feared - here the stream dropped into a low waterfall where the children splashed and played, and here it joined the river he knew. The rangers' village was only a mile or two away now. In the distance he could see riders, and he waved. Soon Elladan and Arathorn came into sight, and he urged Mithrilyn forward to join them.
"El, you idiot," Elladan greeted him. "Where were you? Trust you to get lost! I hope you had a long, cold night in the forest. It serves you right!"
Elrohir grinned as he embraced Elladan. "I had a very interesting encounter. I spent the night with a lady who lives deep in the forest - she was waiting for her husband to return. She seemed a little odd, but she was kindness itself."
Arathorn stared at him. "No one lives in the forest now - the last settlers moved out many years ago."
"Sarra does," Elrohir told him.
Alcarin, one of the older riders, laughed at him. "You're snow-touched, lad!" he said. "No one lives in the deep forest now - the last one was a poor, mad woman whose man went off during a snow storm and died. For ever after she was looking for him, asking everyone she met if they'd seen him. Tim? Tam? Some name like that."
"Tom," said Elrohir softly.
"Aye, that was it!" Alcarin agreed. "My grandfather told me the story. Even after he was found dead the following spring, she still looked for him and asked about him. And she would always welcome complete strangers if they were lost in the woods - she didn't want the same thing to happen to them. Someone would ride out from the village once in a while to see if she needed anything, or wanted to come back with us - and just to see if she was still alive."
"What happened to the woman in the story?" Elrohir was curious. The tale was such an odd coincidence, but at least Sarra was very much alive.
Alcarin shrugged. "I don't rightly know. My grandfather said she disappeared one winter, and no-one saw her again, or ever knew what became of her. It was a long time ago - my grandfather was just a boy the last time she was seen."
"Could someone else be living in the house now?" Elladan asked.
"I doubt it. I told you - no-one lives in the deep woods now. The house must have fallen into ruins long ago."
"Well, someone lives there," Elrohir insisted. "I can show you." Leading the others, he retraced his steps to the river and along the banks of the stream. The tracks were clear to see in the pristine snow and easy to follow.
As they approached the clearing where Sarra's house stood, Elrohir glanced back at the others. "I told you the house was here - look!" Then he stopped dead, reining Mithrilyn to a halt as they emerged from the trees.
The forest had already begun to encroach on the clearing. Saplings sprouted from the open ground, and a long, low, ramshackle building stood to one side. The snow covered roof sagged, and had collapsed at one end. Jackdaws nested on top of the crumbling chimney, and a holly bush laden with berries grew through the fallen roof.
"What has happened here?" Elrohir whispered. "This was her house!"
Elladan stared at him doubtfully. "El, no-one has lived here for years. You must be mistaken."
Elrohir shook his head. "No." He pointed to a tumbledown shack to one side of the ruined house. "That was the shed where I stabled Mithrilyn. The main living room and kitchen was in the middle, and Sarra said her bedroom - hers and Tom's - was at the end. And those are the tracks I made."
They followed the tracks to the front door which stood ajar, hanging from a single hinge. As Elladan pushed it the iron disintegrated into a pile of rust and the door fell across the entrance.
Elrohir hung back as Elladan stepped over the door, unable to accept the reality of what he saw. This could not be the same place, yet he knew he had not left Elladan astray. Debris and leaf litter were piled around the door, and the stone flagged floor was stained and cracked. Grass grew between the slabs and ivy crept in at the broken windows. And next to the empty fireplace there was a sagging chair, still draped in a mouldering blanket.
Elladan picked his way across the floor to the table. When he turned he had something in his hand. "El, look at this," he said quietly. He held a tarnished silver coin. As he rubbed it on his cloak the design on the coin was revealed - the waterfall insignia of Imladris. "I think this is yours."
Elrohir placed it back on the table. "Leave it," he said, his voice husky. "Leave it here."
Outside in the bright, cold air he turned to Elladan. "What happened last night?" he asked. "What happened to me?"
Elladan shook his head. "Who knows? You needed shelter from the storm - and Sarra was a woman who welcomed all travellers so they would not meet the same fate as her husband. And somehow you found each other." He clasped Elrohir's shoulder. "Come back now. Gilraen is waiting for us, and Aragorn will have grown even more."
As they left, Elrohir turned and looked back at the abandoned house one final time. And for a moment it seemed that behind one of the broken windows a curtain moved and a pale face looked out. He blinked and looked again, but there was only a gap where the shutter had been, and emptiness within.