35. Daughters of My Ally
Chapter Written by Angmar and Elfhild
After the dishes had been washed and the table cleaned, old Tarlanc stirred up the fire in the brazier. The firelight spread a ruddy glow throughout the room, save in the dark corners where gloomy shadows lurked and sulked balefully. He lit a candle, setting it in the middle of the table, and then returned to the brazier, where he soon had another kettle of water boiling. With a grunt, the old man took his place across the table from the girls, and lighting a long splinter of wood from the candle, he touched it to his pipe. A few rapid tugs on the stem, and he was puffing one ring of smoke after another from the bowl. Haun settled his great bulk under the table, wiggled his back against his master's feet, and was soon snoring loudly.
"Westman's weed - a vice, but an enjoyable one," Tarlanc remarked dryly. Taking a deep breath, he drew in another mouthful of smoke. With a satisfied expression on his face, he expelled it in a cloud of blue haze which caught in an air current that swept down from the gables. Elffled gazed at the smoke as it was flipped over the old man's shoulder until at last it curled upward towards the ceiling. "Now for that little talk," he chuckled.
As the light cast shadows over the angular planes of the old man's face, he appeared almost brooding and sinister. The sisters slid a little closer together, finding comfort in the closeness of each other's warm body. Elffled was the first to speak, her voice a little tremulous as she forced herself to look old Tarlanc squarely in the eyes.
"What kind of talk?" she asked hesitantly.
"You two are in quite a bit of trouble." From beneath his shaggy eyebrows, his piercing deep-set dark gray eyes searched their gentle ones. "There must be a handsome reward on your heads. Anybody who delivers you to your masters will find his purse considerably enriched with a good bit of gold."
Barely daring to breathe, the sisters gaped in astonishment at the old man. So that was his game! He was going to hold them here for the night, and then in the morning, he would turn them over to the slavers, collect his reward and be on his way. Though he had boasted that he was a man of the West, sometime in his long life, his heart must have turned evil.
"Perhaps I should be that man! Poor as I am, I could certainly use some coin!"
Elfhild's eyes flashed angrily, and her hands, which were resting upon her lap, clenched into fists. "Sir, you would not dare! What kind of base-hearted scoundrel are you, who would betray two girls who are only trying to go back to their home?"
"Oh, sir," Elffled murmured woefully, her eyes becoming dewy with tears, "surely you could not be so hard-hearted!" While the idea of living her life as the wife of a rich and handsome Southern man was appealing to her more all the time - provided it was not the boorish Sergeant Daungha or any other uncivilized brute - she was terrified by the thoughts that Tarlanc might turn them over to the dreaded orcs.
"Little girl," Tarlanc pointed his pipe stem at Elfhild, "what I dare is none of your concern, and in my long years, I have dared many things!"
This was too much for Elffled, and the tears which she had been trying to hold back burst forth like a flood. "Oh, please, sir," she exclaimed, sobbing, "if you must turn us in, deliver us to the Haradrim, for they will show us more mercy than the cruel orcs!"
"Elffled!" Elfhild gasped, shocked at her sister's audacity. She stomped on her sister's foot under the table to silence her. "We do not wish to be recaptured at all, either by the Haradrim or the orcs!"
"My foot!" Elffled grimaced at the sudden pain and reached down to rub her injured foot. "You could have broken it!" She turned accusing eyes at her sister.
"After the way that the two of you ransacked my home and stole my property, I should turn you both in and receive some restitution for the damage you have done me! And you," the crusty old man turned the pipe stem towards Elffled and shook it at her menacingly, "you best never attempt your cloying feminine wiles upon old Tarlanc! I know your kind! I know them all too well! They think if they smile and flirt, they can get a man under their thumbs! Make him do whatever they want! Not old Tarlanc! Not for an instant!" Haun, who had been asleep under the table, suddenly yelped in his sleep as he dreamed of chasing hares through the meadow near the cottage.
"How dare you insult my sister!" Elfhild cried angrily.
Sliding the pipe back into his mouth, Tarlanc puffed on it rapidly, sending great trails of smoke to blow haphazardly as the downdraft caught them. His brow furrowed, casting the deep set caverns of his eyes into even more shadow. He stared at them intently until they both felt uncomfortable. "Your sister's honor! Neither of you have any! You are both thieves and scoundrels to break into a poor old man's cottage and attempt to rob him blind! I do not want to hear a single word out of either of you." Out came the pipe from his fleshy lips, and he pointed the stem back and forth between the two girls. "I am doing the talking here, and no flippant little girls are going to interrupt me!"
Elffled looked down meekly. Though Elfhild kept a tight hold upon her tongue, still she continued to glare at the old man. Straightening up his back until it was rigid as an iron pole, Tarlanc took a deep breath and prepared to continue his lecture. "You uppity little fools! One of you begs me to turn her over to the Haradrim, while the other, just as silly, tells me that I have insulted her sister's honor! One thing that neither of you seems to understand is that you will not dictate to old Tarlanc!" He brought his fist down so hard on the table that the candle holder bounced, the flame flickering wildly. "You will not tell me what to do! I will tell you what to do!"
Elffled tried to sink down on the bench and make herself appear as small as possible. This crabby old man was terrifying her, causing her to tremble. She wondered if he was a madman. At any moment, he might reach across the table and grab one of them and throttle her right there on his table. Elfhild though, was determined to face him bravely.
"You do not have to be so sour about it!" she told him, her head held high. "We know we were wrong in taking your property, but in all honesty, sir, we thought that this house was occupied by one of the enemy, a deserter, perhaps. Our clothing is in tatters and we barely have enough food for another day. We just needed a few supplies for our journey." Her blue eyes unwavering as she stared at him, she thought that she caught a look of grudging appreciation in his eyes.
Taking another puff from his pipe, Tarlanc clenched the stem in his large yellow teeth as he lifted up the kettle and refilled their three cups. "Here, you need some more tea. That is the last of it, and if you want any more, I will have to brew it." Smiling politely, Elfhild expressed her thanks for both of them, explaining that perhaps they might want more later, and then waited for him to resume his harangue. "You think I am a pompous old fool, do you not, and maybe you are right, but I know a good deal more about life than either of you do."
"I am sure you do, sir," Elfhild agreed as she took her sister's hand in her own and squeezed it reassuringly. Elffled gave her a weak smile.
"Lasses, if you knew anything at all, you would realize the foolishness of your wild escapade. There is a garrison of Easterlings and their orc allies about twenty miles upriver from us. Then another twenty miles to the west lies the Great West Road, and it is patrolled regularly by the Mordorian cavalry troops. Between here and there, your Haradric masters have surely sent out searchers, and if what I heard was true, there are part-breed orcs in their employ. Your chances of ever escaping such a formidable host and returning to your own land are about as likely as finding the lost palantír!" Emphasizing his point with another loud crash of his fist on the table, the old man fixed them with a triumphant stare.
At his gloomy words, Elfhild's shoulders sagged in despair. "Sir, then what are we to do?" she asked, her voice tortured with uncertainty. "You make it seem so desperate!"
"Give ourselves up and hope they will treat us with mercy?" Elffled suggested hopefully as she turned bright, expectant eyes to Elfhild. "I told you in the first place that we never should have tried to escape." She wondered if finally she might meet the sweet-voiced singer of the riverbank, and if he would be as handsome as she dreamed. Perhaps she would soon know. However, her thoughts were interrupted when her sister dug her fingers into her hand as a warning. Elffled jerked her injured hand away and then scowled at the other girl.
Before tapping his pipe ashes out against the edge of the bench and onto the floor, Tarlanc studied them from beneath his hoary brow. His eyes moved back and forth between them as he refilled his pipe with a fresh supply of Westman's weed and lit it up. His sharp eyes sent them a rebuke. "There you go, interrupting me again! Can you girls not hold your peace for one instant? I was not finished talking!"
"Forgive us our rudeness, sir. We promise not to interrupt again." Elfhild did not feel as though she needed to apologize to this brusque old man, but she thought better of her manners when she considered that he could have been far more severe on them for barging into his house and taking his property.
"Yes, sir," came Elffled's contrite reply. "We have been very poor guests in your home."
"Aye, that you have, lass!" he exclaimed. "But now you are at least showing a little sense. I accept your apologies, for I believe that they were given in sincerity. Now let us get down to business." He stabbed the end of his pipe at them, a habit which both sisters found irritating.
"Sir, what do you mean?" a curious Elfhild asked. "Get down to business?" Feeling guilty about the rough treatment that she had dealt her sister's hand, she gave it a consolatory pat. Elffled bestowed upon her a forgiving smile that said the quarrel had been resolved and all was well once again.
"Why, I am going to help you escape, of course!" Throwing back his head, Tarlanc laughed unexpectedly, a sound which seemed out of keeping with anything that had been said. Haun lifted up his head and looked around questioningly.
Elfhild blinked, taken aback by this sudden change of mood. "Just a moment ago, you were telling us how hopeless the westward journey was, and before that, you were threatening to hand us over to the slavers!" she exclaimed, gesturing to the side and then letting her hand drop in frustration. This old miller and his circuitous manner of speaking was making her head hurt!
Tarlanc's mood of levity soon disappeared, however, and he cocked his head to the side, as would some quizzical bird. "Quite hopeless for you, my girls, for you would soon fall into the hands of the slavers. With your total incompetency and blind foolhardiness, I am surprised that they have not already captured you. As I have long suspected, fools must be protected by some power far higher than themselves." He shook his head. "No, you will soon be caught, for you have no knowledge of this country, no way to take care of yourselves, and no sense!"
"Sir," Elfhild exclaimed incredulously, "you would help us?"
"Are you deaf?" he shouted. "What did I just say?" Scowling, he fixed her with a piercing stare. Elfhild opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off with a sharp retort. "Do not answer that! Your senseless chatter distracts me! It is impossible to arrive at any conclusion when my concentration is constantly being broken by useless remarks! Now be silent! If you two are to be saved, I must arrive at some plan to secret you past the enemy patrols and take you into the mountains." He rose to his feet and energetically walked about the room, his deep eyes hidden in shadows as he cogitated. Frequently muttering to himself, he stomped about the room, puffing out great billowing clouds of smoke from the bowl of his pipe.
Suddenly he swung around and glared at them, fiercely shaking his pipe in their direction, a stream of blue smoke swirling around the bowl and stem. "Those collars! They mark you as runaway slaves. If they cannot be removed, you might as well give yourselves up to the next Haradric patrol which goes by. Plague take it! Why were you two stupid enough to be captured?"
"Our whole village was captured!" Elfhild cried out in indignation. She did not mention, however, that those who had fled to the mountains early on in the war had probably evaded capture, hiding in the steep and rugged fastness of the alpine terrain. Revealing that information would only confirm Tarlanc's low estimation of them and make him even more adamant in his opinion.
Quickly Tarlanc strode around to the other side of the table, where he unceremoniously pushed Elffled's unkempt hair away from the back of her neck. Too frightened to argue, she dared not move a muscle and sat there as stiff and straight as a board, barely daring to breathe. Peering down at her collar, he mumbled, "A file, of course." He tested the distance between her neck and the collar with a finger and scowled. He tried the lock and the hinge, but found them both strong. After determining the thickness of the metal between thumb and forefinger, he gathered up her hair and smoothed it down over her back.
"Whoever designed this piece of work knew what he was doing," he grumbled as he moved to the other side of the table and rested his hands along the edge. "The collar is designed to fit so snugly that any poor wretch who was cursed to wear it might stab himself in the throat should he attempt to file it off. Hmmm," he reflected, "I am going to have to work very carefully here. Now you girls understand that I am not a blacksmith, and that it is entirely possible that the file might slip."
"What a comforting thought," Elfhild muttered sarcastically.
Gasping, Elffled squeaked in alarm and put her hand to her mouth to stifle the noise. "Oh no! I certainly hope that the file does not slip! We both want to keep our necks intact, after all!"
"Well, it is a lot of hassle and bother for me to go out of my way and help two wayward girls who tried to rob me," Tarlanc sniffed. "Perhaps we should forget the whole thing, and I will return you to your masters in the morning."
At those words, Elfhild's face turned an ashen pale. "No! No!" she cried, shaking her head. "Please, sir, do not send us back!" Her voice trembled as she reached her hand up to him imploringly.
"Well, sister, he did mention that taking the collars off might be hazardous. I certainly do not like to think of having my throat slit or my neck broken." Elffled shivered at the thought of this grim-faced, eccentric old man anywhere near her neck. "Maybe if we hurry back to the Haradrim, they will still grant us mercy," she thought brightly, but did not dare to say the traitorous words out loud.
Turning to her sister, Elfhild froze her with a icy stare before returning her gaze to Tarlanc. "I trust you... at least I want to trust you. I will allow you to remove my collar first. Then when my sister sees that you have been..." she gulped, "...successful, all her fears will be alleviated."
Elffled was not so certain, but she knew that there was no arguing with her sister when her mind was set. "If you are sure," she murmured as she lay her hand upon her sister's forearm. Though Elfhild gave a brave little smile, her twin knew she was apprehensive.
"I am sure," Elfhild replied softly.
Tarlanc tapped the spent ashes from his pipe upon the sole of his boot and lay the pipe down on the table. "We might be here quite a long time. This could take all night. Let me think." He tugged on his earlobe as he pondered his next step. "There are some files in the mill which might do the trick. You two girls stay right here; do not move. Haun will guard you while I go fetch some."
Tarlanc was halfway to the door before Elfhild had the presence of mind to call to him. "Tarlanc, what made you decide to help us?"
From where he stood by the door, he gave them a frowning stare. "Your country and mine have been allies for a very long time. When one of our lands has been in peril, the other has ridden to its assistance. When there were no others upon whom we could count, we could depend upon the other. Gondor and Rohan have always stuck together." He paused before continuing. "It is only right that I help the idiot daughters of my country's ally." Then he turned, opened the door, and was gone.
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.