32. Heat of the Afternoon
Chapter Written by Elfhild
When Elfhild reached her sister, she found her gazing in bemused fascination at the mill pond. Slanting across the water, the late afternoon sunlight painted the pond a shimmering golden hue, making it appear as though the bottom were covered with precious stones. A gentle breeze blew across the surface, rippling the reflected images of the tall, leafless trees which hung over the bank and setting them into a graceful dance.
"Is it not lovely, Elfhild!" her twin exclaimed dreamily, turning to face her sister. "I would like nothing more now than to strip off these horrid, filthy rags and miserable shoes and dive into the pond! I think I could soak in the cool water the rest of the afternoon!"
"You cannot do that! How foolish of you even to think such a thing!" Elfhild was amazed at her sister's preposterous notion. They needed to keep moving lest they be discovered by one of the enemy scouting parties that operated in the area!
"Why not?" Elffled's glaring eyes challenged her sister. "You are such an advocate of gamboling in the water. After all, it was your plan to take to the river as though we were otters!"
"If you think I enjoyed that little dip in the Anduin, you are very much mistaken!" Elfhild huffed indignantly. "Traveling up the river was simply the only way that we could possibly escape from the trackers at that time. Must you keep repeating this over and over? You are wasting time!" Annoyed, she stamped her foot for emphasis. "We cannot stay here! We must get back on the road and travel as far as we possibly can before nightfall." She felt her temper rising like steam in a tea kettle when the fire beneath it is built up higher. Still her twin had not budged an inch from the side of the pond, and from the way her jaw was clenched in rigid determination, it did not look as though she were going to move anytime soon. "Elffled, you are acting peculiar! What has come over you?"
"Oh, nothing." Elffled turned to gaze sullenly at the placid pool. "Nothing except I am completely worn out, and to be honest, I am weary of listening to you all the time!" Then, realizing how unkind her words had been, Elffled put her hand to her mouth and looked apologetically at her sister. "Oh, Elfhild! I am sorry to be so out of sorts and say such mean things, but it is so unbearably hot and sultry this afternoon! The heat has made me so wretchedly, terribly miserable! I cannot bear the reeking stench of my own body, and my clothing is so wet that the material sticks to me like glue! If I took off my poor dress and twisted it in my hands, I could wring the sweat out like water! And the lice! The little monsters are driving me mad! I can barely sleep at night for their crawling through my hair and over my body! And, ohh, by the Gods, how I long for a good hot bath, a decent meal, and a night's sleep in a real bed!" She raked her fingers through her hair and frantically scratched through the tangled mat. "Ohhh! I cannot bear anymore!"
"Elffled..." Elfhild reached over to put a consoling arm around her sister's shoulders, but the other girl tore herself away from her embrace.
"Stop acting like a big sister all the time! Nothing you say or do can help! All you do is order me about all day, as though I were a simpleton!" Immediately, Elffled felt guilty when she saw the hurt expression on her sister's face. Yet, refusing to apologize anymore, she lifted her chin and, stiffening her back, she stomped away along the stream towards the mill. She clenched her teeth to keep from screaming. Elfhild was as bad as the lice; they were both driving her mad!
Elfhild stared open mouthed at the retreating form of her sister. Oh, everything was going all wrong, dreadfully, terribly wrong! They should be miles from this place, and if they could start now and make good time, they might even reach the Great West Road by nightfall. Instead, they were wasting time while her sister threw a foolish tantrum, as though she were a little girl who cried and stamped her feet when she was refused a piece of hazelnut cake. What sort of nonsense was this? Had her common sense fled? What was the matter with her?
All the strain was far too much, and the headache of this morning was beginning to return in full fury. Her temples pounding, Elfhild clutched her forehead and groaned in pain. Closing her eyes, she massaged her throbbing skull, but the action only made her head hurt worse. When she opened her eyes again, the trees across the pond shimmered and undulated as though they were being viewed through the glistening haze above a blazing fire. Alarmed by what she saw, she stared with wide eyes at the northern bank of the pond. Were those translucent figures dancing among the glittering bars of distorted light? Elfhild passed her hand over her disbelieving eyes, and when she looked again, her vision was crystal clear. There was nothing across the stream save for the dense thicket of trees. "Only a trick of the heat upon my weary eyes," she reasoned with herself.
Now where had her sister gone? Elfhild looked downstream, but she was no longer able to see Elffled. Where was she? Had she gotten herself into some sort of trouble? A dire premonition that something terrible was about to happen struck her like a bolt of lightning. Cold dread clenched her heart like the icy hand of a barrow wight, and she began to shake with fear. Something must have happened to Elffled!
"I must find her!" Elfhild tore off at a run, following the edge of the pond as it led towards the mill. The pounding in her head intensified with each fall of her feet upon the hard, dry ground, until it felt as though her skull would burst with the pressure.
The intense heat combined with air heavily leaden with moisture made running seem more like swimming through a swampy bog. Trembling and panting with the exertion, Elfhild slowed her pace to a sluggish trot. Sweat poured down between her shoulder blades, soaking the back of her dress, and trickled down the valley of her buttocks. She felt as though she were back at home on a cold winter's day when her mother was cooking cabbage, and the house became so steamy that the air was almost impossible to breathe.
She must stop and rest! Gasping, she stumbled to a halt, her chest heaving up and down. Why did her headstrong sister have to run off like that? It was so unlike her to do such a thing. Something had brought about this transformation; Elfhild was certain of that. What could it be?
Instantly her horrified mind knew the cause! The sorcerer! ...Or whatever the mysterious stranger was; perhaps a demon lord, the commander of some legion of the spawn of hell! Ever since they met him, everything had gone woefully wrong, as though their path were now doubly cursed. Surely this evil man had bewitched her twin!
At the mere thought of the hooded stranger, she felt the hair on the nape of her neck rising. Reeling from the sudden sensation that she was being watched, Elfhild clutched her bosom and looked with wide, fearful eyes at her surroundings. She imagined that his eyes were riveted upon her, boring into her, undressing her body and beholding her naked, and then seeing beyond her flesh to her very soul. Strangely, she was excited by this feeling of terror, as though terror were a person, an entity, a being, a reality in itself. Bizarrely titillated, she shivered with the thrill, feeling her body tingle with these macabre fantasies.
Through her drenched bodice, her fingers could feel a throbbing icy coldness where his tongue had lathed her bleeding flesh. Morbidly fascinated with the sensation, she clutched her breasts and felt her nipples harden against her palms. Her face, already flushed from the heat, reddened deeper with shame. For the first time in her life, she felt a perverted urge to touch herself between her legs, and fondle the aching place which he had awakened to vibrant, pulsing life. Her heart hammered wildly in her chest and resonated inside her skull.
Even though the least thought of the fell stranger would send her mind recoiling in horror, still she longed for him to return for her. She yearned for the sound of his aloof, icy voice, the voluptuous taste of his kisses, and the feel of his devilishly tickling tongue as it probed deep into her mouth. A scandalous vision dared to caress her mind with the lightest of touches, and she imagined his amazing fingers stroking the secret places of her body, unleashing the springs of her desire. Oh no! She could not think such things! She gritted her teeth, trying to purge her mind of the wicked thought. Her sister was not the only one who had been bewitched! He had entrapped her in the most obscene of all sorceries - a spell of rampant, burning lust that demanded to be satisfied but had no way of being quenched! How could they ever fight such power and throw off the yoke of his dark slavery?
A chill rippled through her body from the back of her neck, across her shoulders and down to her hips, and she shivered from head to toe, her teeth chattering. In spite of the warmth of the late afternoon, she shivered as the frigid cold penetrated to the marrow of her bones. At that moment, a cloud must have crossed over the sun, for a cold, black shadow passed over the water, and the pond grew dark and murky before her eyes.
What was happening to her? Her legs felt as weak and wobbly as those of a newborn lamb. Unreasonable panic rose within her, and her vision blurred as a sense of unreality enveloped her senses. The pond was seething, frothing with a cold, misty vapor. Swaying, she feared she might faint and topple into the pond and never rise again to the surface. The water lay before her like a great gloomy sea of unfathomable depths, and as she peered dumbly into its recesses, the pond became a swirling whirlpool dragging her into the core of its fury. A great dread of drowning beset her, and it seemed her lungs were filling with water. She was suffocating! Elfhild sucked in great gulps of air, but the more she struggled to breathe, the more she gasped and choked. Flinging her hand to her forehead, she pressed her palm against her brow, attempting to drive away the waves of nausea which threatened to engulf her.
She had been pulled down to the very depths of the pond. Though her disbelieving mind refused to accept it, her limbs would not obey her and remained as lifeless as those of a corpse. Whenever she attempted to breathe, her lungs filled with water! Her eyelids were stuck tightly together, as though secured by glue. She could not lie here like this! She must force her deadened limbs back to life!
Calling upon the last remnants of her strength, she fought to open her eyes. Slowly they came open like the rusted hinges on a door, and she saw far above her through a greenish gray haze a narrow beam of sunlight. She could hear her grandmother's voice calling softly, up where the sunlight lay, where the living dwelt. Her voice, a whispering echo of what it had been in life, beckoned comfortingly to her.
"I am so weary, Grandmother. Let me lie here a while..."
The voice sighed despairingly. "You must get up! You must! To stay here is folly!"
"No..." Elfhild turned her head away, her eyes refusing to meet her grandmother's loving gaze. Her eyelids drooped down, closing once again in weariness.
The gentle voice silenced, slipping away into memory. Elfhild felt a coolness, a gentle lapping of the water as she slid deeper into the mud at the bottom of the pond. The slime caressed her, coaxing her to stay there forever upon its soft cushions. Pond weeds gently moved in the current of the water, swaying like the fronds of willow branches. They seemed to be beckoning to her, and she could hear their soft whispers: "Rest... rest..." It would be so easy just to slip away...
Sighing, she fell into a light slumber, her muscles relaxing, a state of bliss and peace surrounding her. The mud was softer than any feather mattress upon which she had ever slept, and she nestled into its softness like a kitten pressing against its mother for warmth. She sank down into the muddy cloud, down, down... Wait - why was she slowly falling down deeper into the darkness? The ground was sinking beneath her! Panic shot through her senses. She was in a mire of quicksand and it was pulling her to the thick mud at the bottom of the pool! She must escape! Her grandmother's voice again came to her, urgently pleading this time, encouraging her to rise from this bed of death.
She could not breathe; the air would not pass from her straining lungs. She was dying! Struggling, Elfhild finally forced the putrid air from her chest. As her breath gushed forth, she gazed in horror as bloody bubbles drifted towards the surface. Fighting against the unyielding ooze that threatened to suck her down into its murky depths, she forced her unwilling limbs to move. She strained and fought, until at last her body broke free from the slime. Flailing her arms and legs, she began to swim upward through the muddy water. As she moved, the viscous mud swirled and billowed about her. If she could only reach the surface! Then as she saw the sunlight growing closer, an intense pressure began to weight down her chest. Her heart hammered wildly. She must combat this grim enemy!
Struggling, fighting, her arms thrashing, she fought her way through layer after layer of fetid, murky water. At last she could see the muted glow of light filtering through a heavy ceiling of gray. She was almost to the surface when she saw a dark shape moving towards her. A pair of large, lidless eyes faced her, terrifying her with their grotesque blandness. Drawing her hand back in a fist,she struck desperately out at the monster.
"Elfhild! You could have broken my nose! As it is, I think you have given me a black eye!" Taking a step backward in the knee-deep water, Elffled glowered down at her sister, but the hostile look quickly melted into one of concern. The back of Elffled's skirt was pulled betwixt her legs and secured in her belt, allowing her to move about in the pond without getting her clothing drenched.
Blinking, Elfhild looked around in bewilderment. Glancing down, she saw that she was naked, the lower half of her body immersed in the shallow water. A wet rag lay draped over her forehead, the tattered material dripping tiny droplets of water down the sides of her cheeks and onto her already soaked hair. Elffled scooped up a handful of water and splashed it on her sister's breasts and stomach. As she watched it seep away to the sides, Elffled smiled and cupped her hand into the water, offering her sister a drink from her hand.
"I was worried nearly out of my mind! I thought you were dying! I think you would have, too, if I had not reached you when I did!" Elffled's words poured out in a disorganized jumble. Scarcely pausing for breath, she rushed on. "Actually, though, I do not think that you were unconscious for very long before I came back to find you."
"I thought I was dying, too," Elfhild sighed weakly.
"Oh, Hild, I was so worried! You must have been overcome by the heat! Did you stop to drink when you followed me to the pond? Surely you must have!"
"No," she murmured, her voice soft and frail. "I was in too big a rush to find you, and I drank nothing."
"Oh, Hild! What a foolish thing to do!" Elffled's face was pained with worry, her disappointment with her sister mitigated by her fear.
"I am not the only one who does foolish things. You have been known to do them, too," Elfhild chided mildly, every word an effort.
Holding up her sister's head, Elffled dipped her hand once more into the water and let the life-giving droplets trickle over her sister's lips. "Oh, do drink more!" she fretted, her eyes continuously returning to Elfhild's face. "I am so sorry! I never should have run away like that! I do not know what came over me, but I wanted to see the mill. It was something solid, substantial, good, in this nightmare where we have been living for weeks. Forgive me, oh, please, do forgive me!"
"There is nothing to forgive," Elfhild murmured as her tongue licked the droplets of water from her sister's hand.
"We must promise each other right now that we are going to stay together and not become separated." Elffled's eyes were pleading.
"I promise, but you must promise, too."
"Oh, I do, Elfhild!" She filled her cupped hands with water and returned them once again to Elfhild's lips.
"Now move aside," Elfhild directed after she had satisfied her thirst. "I have recovered now, and I surely do not want to lie here in this pond any longer. I have been here long enough as it is."
"No!" Elffled gasped. "Not yet! Rest a while longer!"
As Elfhild struggled to sit up, she felt a wave of darkness pass over her eyes, and she fell back against the bank. "Perhaps I am not ready for this yet," she smiled ruefully.
"What do I have to do? Tie you down?" Elffled laughed nervously. "I wish we had a cup to hold the water! Perhaps I should go back to the mill and try to find something."
"No, this will do." Elfhild smiled wanly, her face still pallid under the sunburnt skin. She was content to lie in the water, feeling its pleasant coolness refreshing her. Oh, how wonderful this was, just to lie here and lick the drops of water as they slid from her sister's fingertips and bask in the coolness of the liquid as Elffled splashed it over her shoulders, chest and stomach.
"Then if you are certain," Elffled replied as she brought another handful of water to her twin's lips and smiled anxiously down at her.
"Oh, 'Fled, I do not want you to leave me again." Elfhild closed her eyes and leaned back against the bank. As her mind cleared, she began to wonder what had happened, and how she had come to be in the pond. "How did you get me in the water?"
"I tugged and I tugged upon you until I finally dragged you into the shallow water. You are a lot heavier than you appear to be," Elffled chuckled impishly, moving her hand down to flick away a drop of dried mud on Elfhild's cheek. "You did not think I had the strength enough to do it, did you? You think you are the strong one," she smiled rather smugly, Elfhild thought.
"You do not have to convince me. I guess you can put your mind to doing whatever you want to do. I can sit up now, and do not try to stop me!" Bracing her hands against the bank, Elfhild pushed herself into a sitting position and looked down as the droplets of water rolled over her stomach and into the pond. She felt lightheaded and horribly weary, but she thought she could walk.
"You are looking so much better! But how do you feel?" Elffled reached a hand down and smoothed a muddy strand of hair away from Elfhild's face.
"Much better." Elfhild sighed deeply as she sank back into the water. "Just let me rest here a while, and then I must get out of here. I do not want anyone to see me naked."
"Who? Who would ever see you? Hild, do not be silly! There is no one here, unless it would be the fish!"
"Yes, yes, I know, how foolish of me." Elfhild felt a pleasant sensation of deep weariness sink over her, but she no longer felt dizzy or nauseated, and her head no longer felt as though hornets had built a hive inside her skull.
The sun had edged closer to the western horizon before Elfhild felt sufficiently recovered enough to leave the refreshing water. Night would be falling upon the land within another hour, and though the waters called to Elfhild with their soothing coolness, it would be folly to stay longer. Putting an arm around her sister's waist, Elffled helped her stumbling twin out of the water.
"Let me assist you in dressing," Elffled offered solicitously.
"No, please, 'Fled, not yet. I am too weary to struggle with my sweaty dress. Just drape my cloak about my shoulders, and I will be quite fine."
"Whatever you feel is best, sister." Elffled scooped up their things, and then with an arm about her waist, she guided the other girl towards the mill.
Nearing the front of the large three-story building of weathered planks, Elfhild gazed up at the rough exterior and smiled. "Elffled, what does this charming place have to offer in the way of lodgings?" she asked, a playful note in her voice as she attempted to lighten the mood, which she considered was far too doleful. "Since it appears that we are the only customers, surely there are rooms in abundance."
"Other than a dry place for the night, the mill has nothing to commend it. I have already explored the first floor, and I would assume the other floors would be much the same," Elffled returned glumly.
"I am not too picky now when it comes to shelter, sister, and since it seems to be the only thing available, I am happy to have it." Elfhild attempted a bright smile to disguise the wave of exhaustion that washed over her.
As she was about to open the door, Elffled saw something out of the corner of her eye which had escaped her notice before - a small cottage nestled far back among the trees to the south. She halted and squinted into the distance to get a better look.
"Why are we stopping?" Elfhild asked tremulously as she rested her head on her sister's shoulder.
"Look, Elfhild! Back there among the trees! A cottage!" Elffled exclaimed excitedly, then turned back to her sister. "You look so weary, dear sister. Sit here on this old, worn millstone by the door and rest whilst I dash to the house and explore it." Her eyes bright with excitement, she gave her sister a quick kiss on the cheek.
"What had we just decided?" Elfhild reminded her with a wan grin. "We promised not to become separated again. We shall go and explore the house together. I am not letting you out of my sight!"
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.