Winter was still young as the small band marched slowly through the woods. The three figures moved silently under the trees, walking under the tall evergreens where no snow slipped through the branches and the blanket of needles muffled any sound they would have made. The group was led by a dark, hooded man with a thick, dark beard and hard set eyes. He was followed by an older man, stooped and graying. Though he walked slowly and with a walking stick, there was a distinct grace to his step and his eyes and ears were bent sharply to the wood. Little would slip past his long trained senses. He paused as though to rest and then turned his head to say softly into the wood, “Keep up our pace, little one, we still have a ways to go.”
The third of the party turned to face the older man and with a sheepish smile quickened his pace. He was the youngest by far, the youth was not yet old enough to have his first soft bristles, but his grey eyes still glinted with a wisdom more than appearance would have given tribute to. He kept in close step behind his companions, but soon slowed again as he pulled his hood back enough to look around. His dark curls hung about his neck like a small dark mane, and though his cheeks were red and the joints of his hands cracked and touched with little spots of blood, he seemed the least bothered by the cold.
“How far will we march tonight?” He asked his elder softly.
“That depends how long the light holds,”
“The same, little Estel, but enough questions,” the elder laughed softly from under his hood, “I believe our guide is not happy with our progress.” The other moved on as though he hadn’t heard his companions. After a spell, the youth leaned close behind his elder and asked with an excited whisper, “Shall we see the Bear men?”
The elder was about to respond when the other stopped abruptly and hissed, “Enough, I need to listen.” The three stopped and strained their ears, Estel held his breath from anticipation. The leader stepped from under the trees and stood strait, pulling his hood back from his ears. He closed his eyes and turned his head slowly. Suddenly the youth gasped, he had heard the faint wolf-cry from beyond the woods. The others had already heard it and were listening for a second howl.
“It is not far afield,” the elder murmured, “We are hearing it against the wind.”
“It is no normal creature, though it sounds eerily close.” The leader opened his eyes. “I don’t think it is a wolf.”
“No, but the Nimdraug perhaps,”
“A white wolf?” Estel asked, his voice trembling slightly with smothered excitement. “Is that some sort of spirit?” The elder laughed softly, even the leader’s features softened.
“Of a sort,” the guide said, pulling his hood up again.
“Perhaps we should send out our youngling to find our ‘White Wolf’, it would be a great test of his tracking.” The elder offered, “So long as he stayed his course, I would guess that he had passed ahead of our path less than an hour ago.”
“So close?” Estel asked softly, his voice dropping as if he expected this creature to hear him.
“Only if our Estel proves swift,” the leader said, then added under his breath “I would not mind seeing him again.”
They walked further until they reached a frozen creek. The buried remains of a campfire smoldered on its edge. “He was here later than I thought,” the elder commented and he held his hand over the dead fire. The leader turned to the youth and asked him, “If you were to begin tracking a fast moving prey, what would you first do?”
“I would follow its call.” He said, the fear just starting to tug at his young voice. The leader nodded.
“If you have no luck after an hour, return here, we will be waiting.” The youth nodded, and then hesitated before dropping off his pack by a tree. He took his small bow, his quiver, and a knife. “Don’t shoot if it can be avoided,” the elder added as Estel turned to leave, “we don’t need this beast hunted and killed.” The youth nodded silently, and then loped off at an easy trot, his head down looking at the ground as he followed the direction from where they had first heard the howl against the wind.
Once he was out of sight of the other Rangers, he slowed. He was both elated and terrified, he had never been sent to track on his own and the thought of seeing this new and mysterious creature set his heart pounding. The youth skittered across the ice that had caked up along the edge of the creek, trying to stoop over the fresh snow. The trees were thinning and there was more ice and snow on the ground to leave tracks in. As Estel trotted along, he noticed the tracks of other animals that had come to the creek earlier, but nothing that seemed new to this woods. Certainly nothing that reminded him of a wolf. His mind trailed away from the woods as he tried to imagine what this Nimdraug might have been, it was Elvish for ‘White wolf’, he knew that much, but was it some sort of rare wolf, or some spirit of the woods? His mind began to conger a fantastic creature as tall as a tree, with long fangs, two tails, and fur as white as the snow around him.
The youth jumped when he heard the smallest flutter of a bird in one of the tree branches above. He jerked around expecting to see blazing red eyes watching him from amongst the tree branches. He lost his footing and slid down the shallow incline into the frozen creek bed. He fell hard, tears springing into his eyes for a moment as he curled up on the frozen water clutching his stinging elbow and hip. His face was pressed to the light dusting of snow that covered the creek, but as he lifted his head he noticed a large print in the shallow snow. It was a wolf’s print.
The elder was circling the small camp as the leader stood on the edge of the creek. He was looking over the woods with his hood back. The elder bent over the dead fire and stirred he ashes with a stick.
"It seems a little strange," he said softly, "it is as though the fire had only just started when he cast snow over it. Nothing is far burned."
"It was never his nature to stay long in one place." The leader nodded, his mind going back to distant memories.
"True, but this seems brief, even for him."
"I wouldn't worry about him." the leader turned to the elder.
"It's not him I would be concerned about." The elder's brow furrowed as he looked down the path their young companion followed. The leader set his back to one of the trees next to where the fire had been set.
"Shall we begin setting camp here? It's already getting -"
The two lifted their heads as they heard a howl in the distance.
"I do think that's him." the elder smiled, "I wonder what he'll think of our -" Then they heard another howl, and then a third. The leader lept up from base of the tree. The two suddenly understood, "He was being chased." They ran down the creek bed as swift as the winter wind.
Estel ran along the creek bed, the ice creaking and groaning from his weight. He had heard the howl clearly through the woods, and his heart still pounded from it. The tracks were clear to see now; wolves had been running after something along the creek bed. It was hard to tell what, there didn’t seem to be other tracks, but these wolves didn’t seem to be chasing after their own either. The youth followed the trail with his head down. He didn’t notice how the creek bank climbed higher. It wasn’t until the creek narrowed and the bank was higher than he, that he realized how far he had gone.
He stopped and looked around him, then he noticed the blood. There was a streak of it across the shier sides of the bank as though a bloodied hand had been drawn across the cold stone. The color drained from the boy’s face. He looked down the path he was heading and then back the path he had come. All excitement had left him, he was truly afraid now and it chilled him down to his boots. He clutched the small knife in his belt and continued following the wolves trail.
The creek narrowed more before finally opening out and sloping up. The hill had a pile of bare rocks were some water still trickled down the frozen layers of ice. The boy followed where the wolves had rounded the frozen waterfall and climbed the slope. As his panting grew harder and more haggard, his breath came from his mouth in misting clouds. Estel paused next to the stones to breath, as he leaned on his knees he noticed something faint in the snow. He crouched down beside a shallow print. It was as fresh as the wolf prints, but it didn’t seem right. It had a shape similar to a human’s boot print, but it was so shallow, almost invisible in the snow. The youth pressed his finger down in the middle of the print. His finger sunk easily several inches into the snow before he reached hard ground.
The youth looked more closely at the snow and realized there was a whole line of these ghostly prints mingled with those of the wolves. Was it a spirit? He wondered, until he remembered the streak of new blood along the creek bank. A ghost wouldn’t bleed.
As if to prove him right, he heard a terrible yelp as if some wild creature had been struck down. Estel drew his small blade; clutching it in his sore hands he took a deep breath. After gathering his courage he ran up the hill slope. When he reached the top he saw the raised back of some large beast, at first he thought it was a bear. He dropped down into the snow drift, hiding from the terrible rearing beast. Then the animal that had cried out fell aside into a deep drift in the snow. Estel waited, the top of his head just peaking out over the edge of the snow. All was quiet save for the whisper of the wind over the field. He stood up slowly and began wading through the deep snow.
As the boy ventured cautiously out into the open field beyond the hill crest, he found the going hard as the snow deepened. There were three wolves, a brown-gray one, lying on its side with blood streaming from a gash across its eyes and a smaller gray one with its head twisted as though its neck had been broken. As the boy came closer he saw that a part of its skull had been bashed in. The youth trembled; both of the wolves were immense, much larger than the dogs the Rangers kept to train. These wolves were nearing the sizes of small ponies.
Slowly he came upon the monster of a wolf that he had watched fall. It was laying on its belly in the snow, but the youth couldn't seen any clear wound on it. He clutched his small knife with both hands as he neared the monstrous gray-white wolf. His hands were trembling as he got within arms reach of the beast. He paused and debated whether to reach out and touch it. As he cautiously stretched out one hand, the wolf moved. Estel jumped back as the creature heaved up. Instead of turning and leaping at him as he feared, the animal rolled aside.
A melodious voice said quietly from where the wolf had lain, "Are you going to try and kill me too, little one?" The boy stared back at the figure he saw laying under where the wolf had been. "Or were these your pets?" Estel watched as the figure sat up from the hollow of snow. He recognized the long hair and fair, narrow face.
"You're an elf, aren't you?" He said, lowering his knife.
"Indeed, little ranger," The strange figure turned aside and wrenched something from the wolf's chest. Estel's eyes widened at the sight of the bloodied maul in the elf's hand. It was close to the size of a grown man's skull, one side was a flat mallet while the other was a nasty spike. The handle was broken off half way down the stave on which it would have rested. The Elf lifted it effortlessly as he stood up and rested the blunt face on his shoulder as he smiled down on the boy.
"So what brings you here?" The elf asked. Estel looked up at him still trying to decide what he thought of the figure. This elf was tall and thinly built, but clearly stronger than his lank form would suggest. He was garbed in a leather tunic, and shirt and pants of white. A silvery scarf hung from his neck, and his white cloak and hood was trimmed with fur of the same color. Had he been crouching in the snow with his hood up he might have gone unnoticed even to the elder's trained eyes if it wasn't for the blood now flecked across his arms and chest.
"Excuse me, good elf but . . ." Estel began in his best elvish, bowing slightly "Are you the Nimdraug?" He lifted his head as the elf began to laugh, it was a rich, sweet sound. He stopped suddenly as a fit of coughing caused him to double over.
"Is that what they are calling me nowadays?" he said more softly, his smile returned, but his brow was now creased with pain. Estel watched as he wiped fresh blood from his hand onto the side of his leg. The elves kindly eyes rose from the boy to the woods beyond the hill top. "I think you are being called for."
The youth turned and soon heard the crunch of snow as his leader and elder ran up the hill. When the leader saw the boy he shouted out his name and smiled with relief. He dropped to his knees in front of Estel and asked, "Are you hurt?" This was something Estel hadn't expected to see from the normally stern man.
"Indeed, our little Ranger frightened the rest of the pack away," the elf grinned, "just my luck seeing as there were dozens of them." The boy was about correct him, but as he looked up the elf gave him a sly wink.
Then both of the Rangers came up to the elf with bright smiles of recognition. The elder came forward and embraced the elf as an old friend, "Lalaith, to think we feared finding worse things."
"What could be worse?" The elf laughed, though Estel noticed it was softer than before, and the elf was holding his chest as if to ward off the pain that had taken him before. The four of them followed the path they had come, walking towards the camp that the elf, Lalaith, had made before. As they walked down the hill, Lalaith rested his hand on Estel's shoulder and whispered in his ear. "I need a strong fellow to help me along, do you mind?" Estel looked up at his kindly smile and nodded with a smile of his own.
Around the small fire the four travelers sat, sharing their meager packs and their bountiful stories. Especially Lalaith, who told of his news from the worlds far from the cold North. With a full belly, Estel wrapped himself in his cloak and huddled close to the fire as he listened to stories the elf brought. Some stories familiar, like those of masterful dwarves building castles that filled mountains, the lovely music of elves that lived beyond the valley of Rivendell, and the kingdoms of men with their laws, horses, and politics.
Though the stories Estel remembered with greatest clarity were the stories of furan lands. Tales of voyages beyond the silver seas, lands of nothing but sunlight and sand and the strange animals that dwelt there, battles raging far beyond the rule of men. Estel could still hear them sharing stories as he closed his eyes. He was curled up in his cloak, lulled to sleep by the elf's soft, sweet voice and soothing laughter.
He dreamt of traveling to those strange distant places. He had had such dreams many nights before, but now they included an even greater expanse to explore.
The night slipped away more quickly than Estel could have guessed, but when he woke he was surprised by how warm he was. For a moment he imagined he was back in a true bed wrapped in feather down blankets. He opened his eyes to find the early dawn glinting off of soft snow. As the youth lifted his head a white cloak fell from his shoulder.
Lalaith turned to him from where he was sitting next to the creek. "Good morning little one, did you sleep well?" Estel nodded, drawing the elf's cloak tighter around himself. The elf smiled sweetly before turning back to something in his lap. The boy craned his neck to see what it was, and finally just stood up and walked over. He leaned over the elf's shoulder to watch as he polished the heavy maul in his lap. Now that the blood was cleaned away, it gleamed silver in the early light.
"I normally don't carry around a weapon," Lalaith said, his voice becoming deeper, and more serious, "but there is a friend of mine who needs if back." Then his voice lightened as he added, "Normally I carry around a guitar, but that wouldn't have been much use against wolves."
"I would think not," the youth smiled shyly.
"Mayhap you shall hear me play for you some day, but I'm must be going." The elf stood up and took his cloak from around the boy's shoulders.
"So soon?" Estel had been hoping that this kind traveler would be following them on their whole journey.
"Well yes," Lalaith said matter-a-factly, hanging the cloak over his shoulder, "I can't just sit here and wait, I have the fates to follow. They have so much for me yet to do."
"Oh . . ." The youth didn't quite understand, but he knew it meant he wouldn't be seeing this elf for a long while. He sat dejectedly on the stone that the elf had just risen from and stared down at the creek. The elf paused and watched him, then with a gentle smile reached into his small pack, "I've just remembered something, a farewell token if you will." The boy looked up as Lalaith offered something to him. Estel held out his hand, and in it the elf dropped a small, gleaming white stone with faint black veins.
"Now, little Estel," Lalaith said softly, crouching down so he was at eye level with the boy, "whenever you are in trouble, howl like the wolf and a friendly pack shall come to your aid. You can never know what sort of pack it will be, but help will come."
"Does it really?" The youth turned over the stone in his hand thoughtfully.
"Well, you came didn't you?" The elf laughed.
"I guess that's true . . . but, Lalaith, I've never tired howling before."
"Let me show you then," The elf laughed, and dropping his maul to the ground he opened his arms to the sky and threw his head back. He opened his mouth and gave a strong, howl that echoed off the trees and trembled in the air. The other two rangers jumped up suddenly from where they were sleeping and looked around blearily.
"What was that?" The leader asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"My farewell," the elf said, bowing low. Then with a sweep of his arm he hefted up the broken maul and trotted away with his cloak fluttering behind him.
"Till next time, little Ranger." The elf grinned over his shoulder.
Estel grinned back at him and waved as the strange figure disappeared into the trees. Then he looked down at the striped stone. As the youth turned it in his hand he realized it was carved like a wolf with its head bent back to howl at the sky.