21. A Vision of Dread
Chapter Written by Angmar and Elfhild
"Lasses, the first watch of the evening was just ending when the captain at last dismissed me." Tarlanc squinted into the darkness, barely able to make out the shadowed faces of the twins in the lantern light. "The captain had treated me as though I were a felon, threatened me with prison, and reviled me because of my insistence that I was truly a Gondorian by birth and lineage. I was enraged. Not only had the captain gravely insulted me, but he had kept me from going home to my wife."
"What an awful man!" Elfhild exclaimed, horrified at the treatment that Tarlanc had received. Elffled was too quiet, and she wondered if her sister had fallen asleep with her eyes open. Elfhild elbowed her in the ribs, and Elffled turned around to glare at her.
"I am not asleep, Elfhild, if that is what you are thinking," Elffled replied hotly, rubbing her side. "At least you did not break anything!" She felt somewhat mollified when Elfhild fidgeted uncomfortably.
Blushing, Elfhild attempted to change the subject back to the hostile reception which Tarlanc had received in the city of Linhir. "I know some Gondorians think ill of those who are not from their land," she put in shyly, wondering what Tarlanc truly thought of them. "The captain was cruel and petty to waylay you just so he could harass you!"
"He was not a cruel man, lass, but surely a misguided one, to judge others on outward appearance alone. I have certainly encountered worse by far over the years." Tarlanc lit up another pipe. "I remember the arrogant smirk on the captain's face as he told me never to come back to Linhir or I would live to regret it." The miller's brow furrowed in a deep frown as he recalled his tormentor. "After the interrogation, the guards took me to where a frightened Xabe awaited below the city walls. As the gate was raised, the guards laughed and cursed, ordering us out of the city. You would have thought that we were infected with the plague!" Tarlanc shook his head, laughing softly at the absurdity. "Leaving the twinkling lights of civilization behind, we went out into a night without moon and whose dim stars gave only a sullen light. The inky skies suited my mood, which had grown increasingly foul during my interrogation.
"Xabe was nervous, constantly glancing over his shoulder as he cracked the whip over the horses' heads, urging them to go faster. 'That was a close one,' his voice trembled as he wiped the sweat that glistened on his forehead in spite of the cool night.
"'Cutting it a little too close for comfort,' I agreed. When he asked me about my interview with the captain, I told him about the interrogation. As he cursed the Gondorians under his breath, I added that I had already learned that the young man had died of his injuries. 'How is the father?' I asked.
"'Poor man, so grieved he is that I wonder if he will outlive his son by very much,' Xabe muttered, shaking his head. 'His heart was fairly broken.' Neither of us said much for a while after that, each thinking his own thoughts of the tragedy. At last Xabe interrupted the stillness. 'The healer was a decent sort, though, not like those damn guards. He and his assistants plan to go about the city and collect enough coin to give the young man a proper funeral. The poor old fellow is in no condition to take his son back home to bury him in their village.'
"'That was considerate of them,' I remarked.
"'Well, what did you expect?' my companion asked, shrugging. 'He was one of them. Now if it had been one of our men - would they have been so charitable, planting him in the ground someplace quiet? Maybe toss a flower on his grave? Ha! I do not think so, no.' Xabe poked his finger deep inside his ear and inspected the amber-colored wax which was now caked under his fingernail. 'No, nothing proper like that! They would have tossed his body onto the refuge dump outside the walls and left it there amongst the rotten cabbages, broken pots and bottles, and women's menstrual rags. He would lie there cold and pale as the dogs sniffed his crotch and licked the blood off his wounds and his bones were picked clean by the ravens!'
"'At least you are frank with your comments, Xabe,' I chuckled, unable to keep from laughing at his colorful descriptions. 'But, no,' I added as my mood sobered once again, 'the Gondorians can be a heartless lot in battle, but they respect the remains of the dead. They would bury him properly.'
"'You think so?' He turned to me, his eyes questioning.
"'Aye,' I told him, 'in spite of whatever errors into which they may have fallen, they are still sons of the Númenóreans.'
"'If you say so, Tarlanc,' Xabe muttered, 'but neither the Númenóreans nor their descendants ever had any love for the likes of us 'lesser men.''
"I did not wish to argue," Tarlanc explained, "and so I pretended I had not heard him. I hunched down deeper into my cloak, for the night was cold, and the frost lay upon the ground. Xabe shook the reins over the backs of the horses, sending the team into a lively trot. We fell silent, marveling at the scene as the lanterns on the front of the wagon sent out their warm radiating light over the ground. The glow struck the glittering frost and turned its surface into a million sparkling facets of white crystalline splendor.
"Lasses, I am sure that you know how moods can overtake you, and you can think of nothing else." Tarlanc nodded at the twins' murmured agreement. "That was what happened to me. The reminder of the young man's death caused my mind to plunge even deeper into the darkest of gloom. I did not like to feel this way, and so I attempted to pull my spirits out of the low place where they had settled into an icy slough of despondency. I had always been a cheerful person, seldom knowing depression, but during those rare times when I sank into a melancholy, I always relied upon my own strength and reason to pull out of it. As we rode along, the wagon bumping upon the uneven pavement, I rationalized with myself. 'What could possibly have gone wrong in my absence? Nothing, surely nothing! Surrounded by her kinsmen, what could happen to her? I am a love struck fool to worry so! Tabahanza is probably lying snug and warm under the blankets on our bed, awaiting my kiss to awaken her.'
"I was still brooding when Xabe called out, 'We are almost home! I can see the lights ahead!' He waved the whip in the direction of the camp.
"The horses were as eager to be going home as Xabe and I were. Arching their necks and lifting their feet high, the team pulled at the bit as they trotted briskly towards the shed where they were stabled. Xabe declined my offer to help him unhitch the team. 'I know how it is to be a young buck and in love. You go on home now to your wife. I know she is what you have really been thinking about. Remember me to her with a kiss!' He winked at me as we parted.
"Shivering with the cold - for the night seemed to have grown chillier - I hurried off towards my wain, seeing the face of my beautiful Tabahanza before me like a vision in the misty steam of my own breath. When I entered our wain, I found it dark and eerily silent. 'Tabahanza?' I called out, but there was no reply. Becoming alarmed, I shouted her name over and over, but the wain was silent and empty, the covers on our bed undisturbed. Terror hit me in the stomach like a mallet of ice.
"I was in a blind panic as I rushed out of the wain and ran to Wedri's wagon. I hammered wildly upon the door, nearly hitting my father-in-law in the face when he suddenly opened the door. 'Sorry, Wedri,' I stammered, my face burning in embarrassment.
"'Be careful where you are swinging those fists, son! You could hurt someone!' he rumbled in annoyance as he motioned me inside. One glance about the room told me that Tabahanza was not there.
"'Wedri, we do not have time to talk! Tabahanza is gone!'
"'Gone? What do you mean, gone?' He stared at me, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
"'When I returned home, she was not there,' I told him hurriedly. 'Has she been here tonight?'
"'Earlier she was here, but she did not stay long.' He peered up at me. 'Tarlanc, just sit down and let us talk this over calmly.' His face full of concern, Wedri placed his hand upon my arm and led me to a stool. At that moment, the arras between the two sections of the room parted, and Ahãma came into the room. Her long gray-streaked black hair was unbound and hung wildly about her haggard face. Clutching a shawl around her shoulders, she shivered as though she were freezing.
"'What is this about Tabahanza?' she asked, her hand grasping at her throat.
"'That was what I had hoped to discover when I came here. I just returned to my wain and Tabahanza is not there!'
"Suddenly Ahãma's shriek cut through the night. 'The circle of fate has been set in motion and there is no turning back now!' With another ghastly cry, she flung herself down onto the cushioned bench. 'The ill-omened prophesy is about to come to pass!' Her dark olive-skinned complexion was as pale as death, and she seemed on the verge of fainting. Rushing over to Ahãma, Wedri sat down beside her, taking her in his arms. She looked to him, her lips moving but no sound coming out. Fetching a cup of wine to revive her, I held the vessel to her lips and wondered what new horrors that her sudden weakness presaged.
"Turning her head, Ahãma held up her hand in refusal. 'Fah! Wine will not help! You must listen to me! Tabahanza is in great danger! At first the meaning of the visions was hidden from me, but now it is clearer!'
"'Ahãma, this does not make sense,' I interrupted. 'Wedri told me that she was here tonight. If you knew that some great misfortune was about to befall us, why did you not prevent her from leaving?'
"'My son,' she gripped my arm, 'I did not understand then! That is what I am trying to tell you! Tonight she visited with us for a short while and then returned to your wagon. While she was here, we laughed and joked and talked about ordinary things. Nothing she said gave any hint of alarm. However, after she had left the wain, a sense of great peril descended upon me, crushing my very soul and paralyzing my body! I collapsed upon the bed and fell into a deep slumber. I did not awaken until I heard the sounds of your voices.'
"'What do you see, Ahãma?' Wedri's voice shook as he gripped her hand.
"'Darkness!' she screamed. As we looked at her, her features seemed to age, her beautiful face wrinkling and creasing in hundreds of tiny lines. Outside, the wind had picked up, whipping about the wain and howling like ghouls around a barrow. Her glazed eyes stared into nothingness as she sat as stiff as a frozen sapling. Terrified, Wedri passed a hand back and forth in front of her unblinking eyes. 'She is beyond us where we cannot follow. You must not awaken her. Let her talk with the Ancient Ones,' he whispered to me, his voice trembling.
"'Dancing shadows of fire upon the frost,' Ahãma intoned, her voice dull and lifeless. 'A struggle. I look into a deep chasm... the waters of doom froth and churn...'
"Horrified, I watched as she began to shake, her whole body twitching as though she were in the grip of a demon. 'Wedri,' I whispered hoarsely, 'never have I seen her like this! Can we do nothing for her?'
"'Nothing, boy, unless you want to kill her!' He glared at me. 'She will come out of it when the veil is pulled closed. Shhh,' he put his finger to his lips. 'She begins to speak again.'
"'Beware,' Ahãma moaned. 'The child means well, but brings harm clenched in his fist. Peril is in his coming, and death shall follow in his wake. He means well, he means well... Beware of the child! Let the heart be steadfast!' Her eyes rolled back in her head, the whites flashing under her dark lashes. As the words stilled upon her lips, she fell back in a swoon.
"Stunned at what I had seen, I stared down at the lifeless body which Wedri cradled in his arms. 'None of what she said made any sense, Wedri,' I confessed, my mind reeling with dark visions. 'Did you make any sense out of it?'
"'Never can I comprehend what she says! I am but a blacksmith, and not a seer!' he replied, visibly shaken. 'I suggest you wait until she awakens and perhaps then she will explain the meaning of her words.'
"'I cannot afford to wait!' I replied brashly. 'Now I will leave you and summon the whole camp to ride with me in search of Tabahanza! Will you come, Wedri?'
"'No,' he shook his head, 'but I do not think you should go either. Wait here until Ahãma wakens! You must listen to the message that she will surely have for you!'
"'There is no time!' I rushed from the wain, forgetting to close the door in my haste. Wedri called out behind me, 'Wait, Tarlanc!'
"Unable to ignore his pleading voice, I reluctantly turned back to see him silhouetted in the doorway. His face a mask of light and shadows, he shouted out to me, 'Tarlanc, do nothing foolish! Remember, everything is in the hands of the Gods!'
"'Then let the Gods be with me!' I rashly proclaimed.
"Turning my back on Wedri, I ran to the large open area in the center of the camp. When I reached the circle, I found a bright bonfire burning and a number of the younger people playing music and dancing. Climbing to the top of a set of stairs on a nearby wain, I raised the cry of alarm. The merry-making instantly stopped, and the people looked up at me, waiting to hear what I had to say.
"'As most of you know, I was gone the afternoon, returning only late in the evening. When I reached my home, I found it empty, my wife gone. Has anyone seen her since darkness fell?' I asked, thinking perhaps she had gone to see friends.
"There was a murmuring among the crowd, people looking at each other questioningly. 'No, Tarlanc,' came the voice of one of the musicians, 'not since before darkness.' By then, a large crowd had gathered in the meeting circle and pressed closer to me, eager to see what might happen next.
"Pushing his way through the throng, Pere spoke up, 'I do not like the sound of this. It is not like my sister to go abroad at night.'
"'What about Dezi?' I asked. 'Has anyone seen him?' When the crowd was silent, I shouted, 'That settles it! I believe that Tabahanza has been kidnapped, and we can all guess the identity of her abductor!' My eyes scanned the crowd. 'Who will go with me to search for my wife?' My voice rose even higher, and my anger waxed fierce. Drawing my dagger from its sheath, I lifted it high above my head. 'When I find out who has stolen my wife, that man will pay dearly!'
"One of the clan elders made his way through the crowd and stood below me, looking up into my face. 'Tarlanc, a word with you in private; it will not take long.' He gestured to the side of the wain. Grudgingly I followed him away from the crowd.
"'Yes? What have you to tell me?' I asked when we were alone.
"Putting his hand on my shoulder, he told me quietly, 'Tarlanc, you must not jump to conclusions. I know there has been bad blood between you and Dezi for a long time, and you consider him your sworn enemy. However, do not blame him for the disappearance of Tabahanza when you have no evidence that he is involved in any way. Dezi would never harm her, for he loves her in his own clumsy, simple-minded way.'
"'That is where you and I disagree,' I told him, none too politely. 'Though he does possess a childish mind, Dezi is far from being a child! He is a grown man of great strength and jealousy, and I consider him very dangerous. Now if you will release my shoulder, I will return to organizing a party to search for them.'
"'Tarlanc, will you at least wait until morning?' he asked. 'No?' I shook my head. He studied me compassionately. 'I have never seen you like this. You are always so calm and restrained. Now you have let your anger consume you. Has something happened which the rest of us do not know?'
"I could not divulge to him what I knew of Ahãma's prophesy, and so I hedged. 'What husband would not be alarmed if he found his wife missing, along with a man whom everyone knows is nothing short of mad? Now excuse me. I must go back.' He started to speak, but I left him abruptly.
"Within the next half hour, over twenty men were willing and eager to help me find my wife who might well be in the clutches of a madman. We set off by the light of smoky, flickering torches to search for my beloved Tabahanza. What the others did not know was that I had made a vow before the Valar that if I found Dezi with my wife, I would kill him!"
"That is a very serious oath to swear," Elfhild whispered gravely.
"And so it is, dear girl, and so it is." Tarlanc stared into the candle, catching shimmering images in the flames that reminded him of scenes long forgotten.
"Some say," Elffled added, thinking of a bit of lore she had once heard, "that those who break such an oath are cursed forever." She looked at him fearfully, wondering if he had fulfilled his vow, or if he would burst into flames at any moment.
"Aye, some say... but people say many things, and you cannot believe all of what you hear." Tarlanc cleared his throat.
The old miller rose to his feet and stretched, his bones popping and cracking from sitting in the damp night air for so long. Over an hour had passed since he had first begun his tale of life among the Randirrim, and his body felt stiff and more aged than usual. "Lasses, a fire would be good to warm these old bones, but those devils who search for you might spy it. Tenacious they are, and they will not easily give up searching for you."
"I wish they would just go away to wherever they came and leave us in peace!" Elffled exclaimed hotly.
"They will not, my dear lass, for you are too fine a prize to relinquish," Tarlanc replied as he lit his pipe.
"At least we gave the slavers the slip," Elfhild boasted proudly, hoping that Tarlanc would agree.
"So you think, my dear, but they have sent orcs upon your trail, and those rascals will never give up until they have either found you or else been called off the search by their masters." Tarlanc sent a puff of smoke curling into the dark night.
"Oh, Tarlanc, do not frighten us!" Elfhild exclaimed, glancing around to make sure that no orcs had crept up upon them in the darkness.
"There are worse creatures who could be seeking you, but that, lasses, you will never have to fear." Briefly he thought of the demon riders of the skies, and then shuddered. How horrible it would be to be pursued by one of those fiends! "No, such as they would never deign to trouble runaway slave girls like yourselves." Shaking away the thoughts of the winged terrors, he gave the girls a wry smile. "Now I have rested long enough. As soon as I refresh my throat with a draught of wine, I am ready to resume my story." As Tarlanc drank from the wineskin, Elffled fetched a blanket from Mithril's saddlebags and draped it around the old miller's shoulders. "Ahhh, that is much better," he smiled up at her as she walked back to her place.
"Before we set out, the men and I talked it over, and we decided that in the time that Tabahanza and Dezi had been missing, they could not have traveled more than four or five miles at most. I doubted that it was that much, for my wife was with child and Dezi was still insisting that he was crippled. Although it seemed unlikely that they had gone northeast and crossed the fords over the Gilrain and Serni, I decided that just to make sure, a party of men would scout in that direction. If any of the residents had seen them cross, one of the scouts would ride back to the camp while the others would wait until help arrived. Another party would travel north on the Ethring road, while the rest of us went west and south. Wedri had agreed to stay behind to watch the camp and send out more men in case they were needed.
"Pere offered to ride with me, and we set out towards the west, following the bank of the estuary. After journeying several miles, we saw the lights of a ramshackle hovel. Yawning and scratching his belly, a fat, sour-faced man came to the door. When I inquired if he had seen Tabahanza and Dezi, he gave me a bleary look and then laughed uproariously as if that were the most humorous thing in the world. 'So your woman has run away with another man, has she?' he howled, slapping his thigh. 'No, no one here has seen them. Now go away or I will set my dogs on you!' The reception at the other cottages along the road was not much better, and feeling downhearted, Pere and I considered turning back, but decided to go on ahead.
"We had traveled on the road another half mile when we came to a grove of mixed evergreen and oak, and the thick forest seemed to close in around us. We were riding under a canopy of oak branches when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. A fallow deer buck, alarmed at our passage, plunged across our path and raced off into the trees at the other side of the road.
"Snorting in terror, Pere's horse reared, almost unseating its surprised rider as it lashed the air with its forelegs. When the beast's hooves slammed to the ground again, it plunged forward, its hooves striking sparks from the pavement as it galloped down the road. In its wild flight, the animal slipped, crashing to its knees and throwing Pere over its head.
"'Pere, are you hurt?' I cried as I jumped from the saddle and rushed to him, but Pere was already on his feet and shuffling stiffly towards his horse. The animal stood a few feet away, its head down, its dilated nostrils sending out billowing clouds of steam into the cool air. When he reached his mount, Pere bent down and ran his hands over both forelegs.
"'No, I am unhurt, but it seems the fall has lamed my mount,' he replied glumly as he stroked the trembling animal's neck. 'What luck! What wretched, foul luck!'
"'Yes, I see that,' I remarked gravely, shaking my head. 'Poor beast! I hope the fall has not ruined him.'
"Pere frowned. 'Tarlanc, wait here and I will take my horse back to camp and return with another.'
"'There is no time for that,' I told him. 'I will go on alone.'
"Reluctantly we parted, with Pere promising that he would return as soon as he could. I watched as he slowly led his crippled mount away into the inky darkness. Going to my own steed, I swung into my saddle and headed down the Gilrain road. In a way, I was glad that Pere was gone, because there would be no one to interfere once I had found Dezi.
"Along the coast of southern Gondor, the winters are usually mild, although deeper into the interior the weather is cooler with some snow in the mountains of Dor-en-Ernil. Often the coast is breezy, especially in autumn and winter, and winds from the sea sometimes blow up the river valleys. As I rode towards the west, the river to my left, a chilly wind from the sea sighed up the mouth of the Gilrain, striking me in the face and whipping my cloak about me. Bowing my head to the wind, I pulled my hood close about my face and urged my horse into a slow trot.
"Alone with my thoughts, I rode in the darkness, listening to the rhythmic monotony of the horse's iron shoes striking the pavement. After Pere's horse had fallen, the torch had been snuffed out, and we had forgotten in our haste that the unused brands were stored in Pere's saddlebags. The absence of light did not matter, though, for I wished to travel in stealth. I had little difficulty seeing, for the light dusting of frost on the bare wintry landscape dimly illuminated my surroundings. Another gust of wind from the inlet drove up the valley, and with it brought the faint sound of voices."
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.