34. Supper With Tarlanc
Chapter Written by Angmar and Elfhild
With a gasp, Elfhild dropped the bundle of old clothes. She stared at the door, her heart hammering so frantically that she was sure it would leap out of her chest. Seizing her sister's arm in a death grip, she screamed at the top of her lungs. Once again, she felt the effects of the sun sickness coming over her. A wave of dizziness clouded her mind and her hold onto her sister's arm loosened. Close to swooning, she staggered, lurching into Elffled's side and almost sending her toppling to the floor.
Casting a desperate glance at the door, Elffled tottered as she struggled to regain her equilibrium. She must not let Elfhild fall! Finally regaining her footing, Elffled frantically shot an arm around Elfhild's waist to shore up her staggering sister. Her eyes darted around the room, desperately searching for a way to escape, but the only doorway was blocked. They were trapped!
As the panicked sisters gaped in horror, the monster gave another fierce growl and crouched low to the floor. Its powerful muscles tensing, its huge body coiling like a spring, the great beast growled viciously and readied itself to unleash a savage attack. Never had they seen such a creature in their lives! Covered with sagging, wrinkled skin, the sooty gray brute must have been half lion, half gargoyle and another part demon.
Great folds of loose skin almost obscured its piercing dark eyes and continued beneath its chin, sagging down its neck in enormous rolls which almost reached its knees. Hideous beyond belief, the creature must have been a denizen of Melkor's abode in ancient days. In its excitement, the fiend panted rapidly, its ravening maw gaping open wide, its fetid breath coming in great huffs. Torrents of drool hung in glistening strands from its mouth and dripped to the floor in foamy puddles. With sinking hearts, both sisters realized that the gargantuan grotesque could quickly knock them to the floor and rip out their throats in an instant.
Her eyes wide with terror, Elfhild shrank back as another scream tore from her throat. Her mind could bear no more, and a great wave of blackness mercifully enfolded her. Slowly she slumped to the ground, fainting dead away.
For a brief instant, Elffled glanced down to the prone form of her sister and then her gaze shifted back to the door. With a deep, sighing shudder, she squeezed her eyes shut and prepared herself for death.
"Sir!" a calm masculine voice commanded the attention of the ferocious monstrosity which crouched at his feet, every quivering muscle poised to spring. "We will mind our manners! Down! Do you hear me? Down, I say!" he added for emphasis.
Turning devoted eyes up to gaze at the speaker, the brute sank obediently to the floor. There he lay, cringing and whimpering, occasionally looking up at the man. Too afraid to open her eyes, Elffled kept them tightly closed until curiosity prevailed. Then peeking cautiously from beneath her long eyelashes, she regarded the speaker and his thrall with trepidation.
"Open your eyes, girl, and look at me!" the man demanded. "Haun here and I mean you no harm."
Elffled looked fearfully at the man, who was smiling kindly at her from dark gray eyes set beneath bushy white eyebrows. The man's wide, full mouth smiled between the mustache and long white beard, causing the spidery wrinkles around his eyes to shift and crinkle. Tall and thin, the man wore a long brown tunic which reached his knees, cross-gartered tan breeches, and sturdy leather shoes. Taking off his cap, he hung it on a peg by the door. Elffled could see that, although he had long, wispy hair which fell past his shoulders, the top of his head was bald as the barren crest of a snow-covered mountain.
"Up, sir," came a firm word from his master, and the creature stood beside him, looking up at him and awaiting his next command. "Are you not ashamed of yourself? You know that you have given our guests a great fright."
Sensing that the man did not plan to hurt her, at least for the immediate future, Elffled summoned up the courage to speak. "W-who are you, sir?" she stammered.
"The owner of this house," the man stated dryly, wrinkling his long, narrow nose. Before Elffled realized what he was about to do, he had stalked forward, kneeling down and lifting Elfhild up in his arms.
"What are you going to do to us?" Elffled asked tremulously, her twitching fingers clutching at her heart.
"Why, first I am going to remove this young lady from my floor and put her to bed where she belongs! What did you think I was going to do?" The man seemed to regard her question as a foolish, impudent one, for his shaggy eyebrows shot up as he pierced her with a stern, disapproving stare. Embarrassed, Elffled could not meet his gaze and dropped hers, looking down through long eyelashes at her feet. Muttering to himself, the old man carried Elfhild to the bedroom and placed her gently upon the bed. The huge mastiff followed behind him, wagging his long tail and dribbling drops of drool with each step of his massive paws.
"Why are you standing in there, lass? Come along now!" he called back over his shoulder to Elffled.
At the sound of his voice, Elffled started and decided she should obey him. Quickly making her way to the doorway, she felt a shudder of fear strike her as she saw him bending down over the prone form of her sister. The strange old man peered intently into her sister's face. "W-what are you doing?" she asked as she clutched the door frame and peeked into the room, her body molding to the wood. The mastiff turned his head around and stared at her, a low, ominous growl rumbling in his throat.
"Sir!" the man scolded sharply. "What did I tell you about that?" Embarrassed at the rebuke, the animal lowered his great wrinkled head, his expressive dark eyes reflecting abashment, his short ears going back as he wagged his tail apologetically. The man turned his attention back to Elffled. "You do not listen very well, do you? I already told you what I am about. However, since you seem not to have wit enough to understand a clear statement, I will elaborate, and then perhaps you will understand. I am attempting to determine if this pathetic creature is on the verge of dying, or has merely fainted."
"Dying?" Elffled squeaked, her face turning pale. Even though Elffled was terrified of the old man, she was far more afraid that her sister might be deathly ill. Racing across the room, she stopped beside the old man. Anxiously, she looked down at her sister's pallid face and grasped the hem of her tunic in her hands, compulsively twisting and untwisting the cloth. "Oh, sir, she is not in good health!" She looked imploringly at the old man, her voice trembling in her distress. "This afternoon, she was overcome by heat and lack of water and fainted dead away! For a long while, I feared that I would not be able to revive her, and she would never wake up!" Glancing down at her sister, Elffled buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
"Now, young lady, cease that infernal caterwauling and be still before you prove to be the undoing of your sister! She could be dying," he returned churlishly. "I am no healer, mind you, never pretended to be." He raised his bony shoulders up in a shrug and then let them sag limply. "Almost all of what I know of doctoring has been gleaned from studying animal husbandry." Turning in Elffled's direction, he raised his bushy eyebrows and fixed her with a probing stare. Intimidated, Elffled shrank away.
"I have almost arrived at a conclusion, though; you can be sure of that. From what I can ascertain about her state of health," here the old man paused for effect, "she looks like she might live another sixty or seventy years, but only if she turns from her life of crime." No emotion showing on his face, he waited until the full meaning of what he had said slowly dawned on Elffled. Then he laughed, the sudden, unrestrained sound leaving the confused girl even more bewildered.
"Oh, my! Lass, you should have seen the expression on your face!" he managed to gasp out between great bursts of laughter. "A man would have thought you had just fallen head over heels into the hog lot while slopping the pigs!" His thin body quivering, he sobbed with laughter as he reached for the bedpost with both hands and held onto it for support. "Oh, lass! There has been such a woeful dearth of laughter in this sad land for so long, and you can imagine how good it feels to have something to laugh about again. I had been looking for an excuse for a long time but had never found one until now. Not surprising... I do not talk to many, except old Haun. Everyone thinks I am insane anyway." Squinting at Elffled through copious tears, he clutched the post for some moments as Elffled stared at him incredulously. She could not believe that anyone could find the situation so amusing, and she was left feeling disturbed.
Still wiping the moisture from his eyes with the back of his sleeve, the old gentleman seemed to have regained his composure. He drew a great, shuddering breath and wheezed as he coughed up some spittle that had gone to his lungs. Chuckling to himself, he ambled away from the bed to stand in the middle of the floor. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked down his nose at Elffled. "You have been entirely too quick and ready with your questions for me, but it is time I ask you some. Now, young lady, suppose you tell me just what the two of you were doing in my house."
"Well, sir," Elffled swallowed hard as she rose to her feet, "we - we were - were--"
"Thieving! That was what you were doing!" came his smug interjection. "Do not try to deny it! With the shambles you have made of my house, the evidence of your perfidy is as plain as day! Rifling an honest man's home! For shame, shame upon you!" He shook a long, thin finger at her.
Elffled gulped and looked down at the floor, her cheeks flaming red. "Sir, I can explain--"
"I am sure you can, but your explanation will have to wait until later." The old fellow had already turned away from her, apparently having no more interest in the conversation. "My day has been long and vexing enough as it is. Now I need a cup of tea, and a bite of supper. Come, Haun; we will leave them alone to think upon their crimes." He made a clicking sound with his tongue, and the great dog was instantly up and at his side. Shrinking back as they walked past her, Elffled flung herself against the bed as soon as they had gone into the other room.
Elffled was terrified of this cantankerous old man and his huge, ill-tempered dog. When the elderly gentleman had raised his voice and scowled at her, she had feared that she would crumble and burst into tears. Still, as she felt her face burning in shame, she knew that the man's words were true. They had no right to sneak into his house and raid it, as though they were common criminals, or worse still, orcs. She slumped down on the bed beside Elfhild. After lightly tapping her knuckles on her unconscious sister's cheek and getting no response, she bent down and kissed her forehead. Above the sooty hollows beneath her eyes, Elfhild's long eyelashes fluttered open.
"The monster! The monster!" Elfhild gasped as she sat up quickly and glanced fearfully about the room. Her body reeling at the shock of the sudden movement, she fell back onto the bed with a gasp, blinking as the room lurched from one side to the other. Raising her hand to her brow, she shook her head to clear the uneasy sensation. "Oh, Elffled! Did I really see that thing? Or was it all another dreadful dream?"
"No, dear sister," Elffled sighed as she took her hand, stroking the top with her thumb, "I am afraid this time it was all too real."
"Where is the beast?" Elfhild struggled to sit up again, but slower this time. "It was a warg! I feared that we would see them again sometime, but I never dreamed that we would encounter those monsters this soon!"
"Oh, no," Elffled smiled gently, "I think the beast is a dog, but a strange kind, and a very fearsome one! I have never seen its like before!"
The twins turned their heads quickly to stare at the old man, who had just stuck his head inside the room. "The tea is ready, and a cold supper," came the gravelly voice. "If you want anything to eat, I advise you to come into the main room now, or I will give your share to Haun." He scowled at them both and then walked back into the other room.
"Who is that?" Elfhild yelped as she grabbed her sister's forearm.
"I do not know," Elffled whispered. "He said he was the owner of the house."
"By Helm's horn! He will flay us alive!" Her eyes wide with fear, Elfhild trembled as she clenched her sister's arm, shaking it in her desperation. "'Fled, 'Fled, what are we to do? He and that horrible monstrous hound of his are between us and the door to the outside!"
"We could go out the window," Elffled considered, putting her finger to her lip as she weighed the possibility.
"Let us give it a try! The window is our only hope!" Elfhild exclaimed as she stumbled to the window.
Elfhild's feet had just touched the ground outside when Elffled raised her leg in preparation to climb over the sill. Elfhild was reaching through the window to give her younger sister a hand when she saw Elffled's head twist around to gaze in horror at something behind her. Suddenly the girls heard a fierce growl which halted them in their tracks. Haun, his hackles bristling, stood at the doorway, his dark eyes gleaming from between the wrinkled rolls of skin around his eyes.
"Your tea is getting cold," the old man called from the other room.
"Hurry up, Elffled! We can still make it!" Elfhild hissed as she tugged on her sister's arm.
Grimacing, Elffled turned back to her twin and pointed frantically down towards the floor of the cottage. "Hild, my breeches are stuck on a nail, and I cannot move! Besides that, the dog is sniffing my shoe!"
The old man had become suspicious when the girls failed to join him in the main room. Creeping across the floor on tiptoe, he had sneaked to the doorway and peered inside the bedroom. "Girl, what are you doing in that window? Trying to run away, are you? I will have none of that! Now get out of there and tell the other girl to come back, or I will open the door and turn my dog loose on her!"
"Yes, sir," Elffled peeped as she finally untangled her breeches from the nail which held her and hesitantly walked towards the old man.
"Tell him I am coming," Elfhild growled as she heaved herself back through the window.
Later seated around the table with cups of steaming hot tea and plates of bread and cold boiled meat before them, the sisters smiled sheepishly at the old man. Their abashment did not last long, however, for the food was too tempting for their famished stomachs to resist. While never for a moment did they forget their ladylike manners, still the twins took far larger portions and ate much more quickly than they ever would have dared at home with their mother watching them.
After watching them silently for a few minutes, the old man suddenly stabbed a piece of meat towards the twins' faces. "You are escaped slaves, are you not?" After brandishing the slab at them, he brought the meat to his mouth, vigorously chewing the morsel as he stared at them. "Do not try to lie to me," he growled between mouthfuls of beef and bread. "I might be up in years, but I am not yet a doddering old fool! I can see the collars on your necks as plain as day, and I can even read your names." He pointed a bony finger first to one girl and then to the other. "You are Elfhild, and the other girl is Elffled. Obviously from your looks, you are sisters, identical twins." He cackled triumphantly. "Not only that," he squinted as he deciphered their tags from a distance, "but your collars say that you belong to the Dark Enemy, and you are to be returned to Esarhaddon uHuzziya if you escape!"
The old man's revelation took Elfhild by surprise. Her cheeks stuffed like a squirrel, her eyes bulged as she swallowed the large mouthful in one gulp. Coughing, she grabbed her cup of tea and took a great swallow. The hot liquid burnt her throat, and she gasped, whimpering in pain and squirming in her seat as she fanned her open mouth. Elfhild had been dreading this moment ever since the old gentleman had discovered them in his cottage. At first, she had hoped that age had dimmed his eyesight to the point that he would not notice their collars. Surprisingly, she had found out that the old man's vision was remarkably clear in spite of his stooped shoulders and white hair.
"Here, drink this. It will cool you down," he ordered in a half-amused voice as he poured a cup of water from an earthenware pitcher and slid it across the table. "I know that I took you both by surprise, but I should suppose that you would have had the wits to think of some way to disguise those collars about your necks." Shaking his head, he lifted his hands heavenward, as though in supplication, and then let them fall back down to his thighs, where they landed with a smack. "Pull the necks of your tunics up, tie a scarf around your necks, something!"
"Sir," Elffled looked at him with wide, frightened eyes, "are you going to give us over to the slavers?"
The old man reached a gnarled hand into a platter on the table and tore off a piece of bread. Elffled noticed that his wrinkled skin was almost translucent with age. "You must hold a low opinion of me," his gruff voice was accusing. "If you think I would do anything so despicable as turning you over to those damn slavers, you do not know old Tarlanc! And that, young ladies - even though we have not been politely introduced - is my name! Tarlanc of Anórien, man of Gondor at your service." He inclined his head towards them.
"You mean you will not turn us over to them?" Elffled asked in astonishment. "But I thought you were - you were," she glanced at her sister as she groped for words, "one of the invaders."
"What?" Tarlanc thundered as he pushed the bench back and rose to his feet. Outraged, his face a livid crimson, his eyes flicked down towards the mastiff, who had been sleeping peacefully. "Haun, did you hear that?" At his sharp words, the dog looked up attentively, alert for the order to attack. "I should take umbrage at those remarks, young lady, but since you are only an ignorant girl of Rohan, I suppose that you would know no better!"
Attuned to his master's emotions, Haun heard the anger in his voice and was quickly on his feet, his teeth barred in a fierce growl. "Haun, sir!" the old man's sharp voice stung the animal's sensitive ears like the lash of a quirt. "If I require your assistance, I will ask you for it! Now down, sir!" With a heavy sigh, Haun dropped to his belly and lay his head between his paws.
Elffled waited until the man was finished disciplining his dog before she spoke. "Oh, I am so sorry," she apologized. "We meant no offense!"
"But, really, sir, what would you expect us to think?" Elfhild interrupted, her voice defensive. "Who else except an enemy would still be living here after the invasion?" She tilted her chin up in defiance.
"I am an honorable man, my lass," he huffed from the other side of the table, "a miller by occupation. My family has held the lease to this mill and the surrounding lands from the lords of Pelladen - which is the name of this province of Anórien - for many years. The leasehold goes all the way back to my great-great-grandsire. No one idly insults the millers of Pelladen!"
The long search for water, the depressing village, Elfhild's heat sickness, and now this abrasive old man who wrangled continuously, snapping at the slightest thing - all of this was too much for Elffled. Bursting out into tears, she sobbed wretchedly. "I am sorry!" she wailed between choking gasps. "If you do not want us here, we will be on our way! I only implore you not to tell anyone that we were here!"
At her tears, the old man's expression softened. "There, there, do not cry," he murmured kindly. "Finish your meal in peace. Now Haun and I must leave you to attend to a call of nature." Turning on his heel, the old man strolled out the back door, his great brute of a dog following sedately behind him.
"Oh, Elfhild, what are we going to do?" Elffled cried, slumping over on the table, her brow resting on her forearm.
"If you are wise, sister, you will eat all that you can hold, and thank the old gentleman for it. We must bide our time, and when we find the opportunity, we will escape," Elfhild replied resolutely before taking a drink of her now cool tea.
When Tarlanc returned, he began to boil water for more tea. The dog sauntered over and lay under the table, his breath gusting out in great heaves as he panted. When the water was ready, Tarlanc prepared the tea and took the sisters two cups of the warm brew. "You are afraid of Haun, are you not?" His shaggy eyebrows lowered over his eyes.
"You could say that, sir," Elfhild gave a slight nervous titter.
"You have nothing to fear. Haun is well-trained and devoted to me. Though you might think him a brutish animal, the old fellow is as gentle as a babe... unless someone would try to do me an injury." Chuckling, Tarlanc hunched forward over the table.
Elffled looked at him hopefully. "Oh, sir, I feel much better knowing that. I was extremely frightened of him, for he appeared so terrifying." Her long eyelashes fluttering, she flashed the old man a brilliant smile. "Please, sir, do not think us ungrateful for your hospitality. You have been wondrously kind. And the food! Your bread tasted almost as delicious as my mother's, and she was the best cook I ever knew." She brought a graceful hand to rub over her stomach. "We had not eaten much in two days, and it was the most divine meal that we have had in months."
"Well then, young lady," Tarlanc fixed her with an appraising stare, "you can help repay my generosity by cleaning up the table and washing the dishes. As soon as I heat some more water, you can get right to work. The tub for washing dishes is hanging on the back of the house, and the lye soap and cleaning rags are right over there." He motioned towards a shelf on the other side of the room. Then, bending his head down, he raised his eyes up to look expectantly at them from under his white, shaggy eyebrows. "Should you want to sweep the floor as well, you will find the broom over in that corner. Now, just go about your work and do not mind me while I sit down and rest a while. I feel a bit weary."
"Certainly, sir," Elfhild offered politely, not missing the satisfied smirk on the old miller's face.
"After our labors are done for the evening, one of you can brew some more tea, and then we will have ourselves a little chat." He sighed as he sank down on the bench with a heavy thud.
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.