Many leagues they galloped that day. The trees of the silent forest passed them by like blurs in a dream. On and on they galloped with the wind bowing on their faces. The sun rose when they had long left the fields of Cair Sandor. They stopped only to rest and let the horses eat a blade or two of grass, whilst they ate a light lunch made of cakes and a sip of water, and again they were on their way, covering league upon league of the Valdai plains.
Soon the sun was nearing the west and the question of where to spend the night arose.
“We best go to Halvlen,” Aravoen said.
“You must be joking,” Leonora snapped.
“No, it is the safer place to be now,” Aravoen said. “If we are lucky we will reach it before they close the gate. The townsfolk mind their own, not strangers, so we will go by unheard.”
“Townsfolk,” Leonora said sarcastically. “Yokel is a better word.”
“Whatever you say,” Aravoen answered. “But it still remains a better bet than being out in the open.”
“Lead us there, but we leave very early, all right,” Miaren said, ending the argument. With his mind, he reached out to Leonora’s mind and said, arguments; what are they for?
Miaren, let it be, it is not like we argued we just disagreed.
Well, try to make it minimal.
Ye a fanir deri.
Ordo et majuro yat.
On they galloped and even as the pale moon rose, they went on until they reached the hill that overlooked the town of Halvlen. “Let us ride now, the gates could be shut on us or before we get there.” They plunged headlong and just about made it through the gates. As they sat upon their horses in an empty street, they looked around. The three horses were panting. Aravoen knew they had not yet pushed them to surpass their limits.
Halvlen, as compared to Cair Sandor, was but a small settlement of hunters. The streets, though laid with stone, had grass growing up through the cracks. The houses were well built, some with brick and others with finer brick. The streets were lined with pale lamps that glowed so dim that one could see better with the moon. As for the town, folk ruggedly dressed going about their business not caring if a woman was being robbed.
“How terrible a place!” Leonora whispered out from under her hood.
“Let us go to The Vineyard,” Aravoen said. “It is much safer and old Tom will surely help an old friend. I know this place all too well. I used to pass here just to get news of Eduin.”
“Then may we make it hasty,” Miaren said, afraid. “I fear these streets now after what I have seen.”
Aravoen followed his gaze and indeed there in a nearby dark alley, two women pushed and held a young man to his will whilst they satisfied themselves immorally.
“Come now,” Aravoen said quickly. He led them through street after street until they came to a large two-storied building. The signpost reading ‘The Vineyard’ lay on its hinges, almost falling off. At the side, a long pole was raised where many horses were taking a drink from a trough.
“We will tie the horses there,” Aravoen said.
“Surely they will stand out.” Leonora was in shock.
“No.” Miaren spoke. “I do not think so.”
“I know this town, My Lady.” Aravoen shook his head. “One thing they do is mind their own.”
They dismounted and tied the horses to the pole. Leonora was wary and Aravoen to an extent agreed with her wariness. Finally, making sure the horses were secure and taking a sip, they turned to make an entrance. Looking about them, they made their way into The Vineyard.
As dreadful as it looked outside, its interior gave a feeling of warmth from the hard town. The bar had all sort of drink. The tables were aligned in a way that none could eavesdrop on another. Aravoen led them to the bar where an old man and his daughter served drinks to shabby drunks.
“Tom,” he said
“Who be this?” the old man asked.
“Your memory dwindles whilst your belly bursts Tom,” Aravoen relied humourously.
“My beard,” Tom exclaimed, “if it is not Walker. Lookie here Stacy, it is our long lost friend Walker, what can I do for you? And who are your friends?”
“My usual room should be made ready for us,” Aravoen replied. “But first, something light to eat and a table at the back far away from the ears of anyone.” Aravoen winked at the barman. Leonora caught this from under her hood.
“Stacy, show our friends to their table,” he said. “I’ll prepare something for you.”
The young woman led them to a table far placed from the others and by a window. The light just touched it thus making it hard for anyone to see them. They sat and looked around the dining area. People poured in, some drinking, others eating. Some even went upstairs never to be seen for the night.
“So, Walker,” Miaren said, “is that what they call you here?”
“Actually it is a long story.”
“We are all ears,” Leonora said.
“I tried hiding here many years ago,” Aravoen began. “I had fled from some uruks. They chased me down from the south. Nevertheless, in trying to hide here lay my grave mistake. They stormed the town, killing many. So I fought them off or more of led a rebellion against them.”
“Since then people called me Walker for I led a few men through this very inn and killed the Uruk chief. I threw him down those very steps,” he said, pointing to the stairs. “Dark blood sprayed the wall and I held firm.”
“Well, I think we should stop talking of these things.”
“Why should we, Leonora?” Miaren asked. “I was quite enjoying this tale of bravery.”
“Huh, bravery!” Leonora exclaimed. “Sheer luck, but anyway here comes the fat man with a tray.” Indeed Tom came to them with three trays of soup.
“Here yah go,” he said with a toothless smile. “Eat up and your room is ready. But first there is some news about our mutual interests.”
“Really?” Aravoen leant closer to Tom.
“Yes.” Tom flushed, happy at the invitation.
“Well, go on,” Aravoen gushed.
“Word has it that.” Tom looked around and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Sedranor, that guy that used to head the Eluncil, rode fast out of Sandor. Some say he is heading south beyond Elliyon. But it is not concrete.”
“What?” Aravoen was shocked by this news. Was Sedranor going to commit the ultimate betrayal? But Tom had said it was not true. Aravoen gave Sedranor the benefit of the doubt. He was vile and ambitious, but not a betrayer.
“Anything else?” Miaren asked. He had become interested.
“Yes,” Tom continued. “War is coming. Some hunters saw a group of dark riders coming north, and then trying to cross into Eduin.”
“Plus their movements of orcs down south.”
“Thank you, the information is good unless there is more,” Aravoen said.
“No, Walker,” Tom whispered.
“Tell no one of our presence here,” Aravoen said finally.
“Why?” he asked. “Uruks. Are they after you again?”
“None of your business,” hissed Leonora from under her hood
“Yes, yes I understand. Well, so long, see you in the morning.”
“Before we go up,” Miaren said, “Aravoen, we have something to teach you.”
“Well, what is it?”
“To talk with your mind.”
“Ah, that,” Aravoen said. “Someone showed me how.”
“Prove it,” Leonora snarled.
Turning his eyes to Miaren, he reached out with his mind, remembering the words of Akasha the witch of the green wood. He felt it and then he spoke. Why is she rude?
She does not trust strangers, Miaren replied, shocked and happy. And you are another stranger. However, you better ask her, but be careful not to tread too fast. But her trust you can gain with time.
Well, I better satisfy her now, he said. Turning to Leonora, he asked, happy, Leonora?
Yes, was her short reply.
“We should go up and rest,” Miaren said.
The three stood and followed Aravoen up the winding stairs to the topmost room. They entered to be met with a simple yet well-furnished room. The bed was placed by the wall, the window overlooking the gate. The room’s source of light was the moon, which shone through the window.
Aravoen wondered about the mysterious riders. They seemed to have been following his companions.
Locking the door behind him, Aravoen said, “Well, we should sleep; I will keep watch.”
“Yes, that you should,” Miaren said, settling on the bed.
Leonora walked past them to the window. She looked deep into the night. Removing her hood, she peered deeper into the darkness. The expression on her face changed to worry.
“What do your eyes see?” Aravoen asked, drawing close to her.
“Evil is in this air,” she replied. “I fear our night might be short. Keep a brave watch, for something might happen.”
“Is there anything that could have followed you from the south?” Aravoen had to ask.
“Yes,” Miaren said, “but I doubt the Sarubel knew of our journey.”
“Do not be sure,” Leonora said. “They are not like the rest of Sarzgat’s servants. They are not his chief generals for no reason.”
“Are you saying we are being followed?”
“Maybe, but we are safe for the moment.”
With those words, she turned around and slept on the second bed. Her words had alarmed Aravoen. No one could have seen them leave. However, at the back of his mind, something kept coming, but he could not make out what it was.
Wondering what it was, Aravoen settled in the chair at the window. Second after second dripped away into the night; sleep came over Aravoen, and he did not know how it came.
* * *
A loud crash from afar woke Aravoen. He looked out and there laid the town’s gate and standing on top of it were six dark riders.
“Sarubel,” he whispered. Tom was right. The riders he had been talking about were the Sarubel. They were doomed.
Rushing to the two elves that rested peacefully, he shook them awake. “Wake up, we have to leave immediately.”
The two elves sprang out of bed and went to the window. The shock that grew on their faces was terrifying.
“How did they get here so quickly?” Leonora growled.
“The horses will give us away!” Miaren cried
“No, we must get away quick,” Aravoen said.
“Wait!” Leonora cried. “Think, who could have told them? Maybe they were after us since we left Cair Sandor. Or they followed us. That Tom fellow was right about the dark riders.”
A silence enveloped them; they did not know how to get out without risking a fight.
Suddenly the door of the inn was crushed.
They heard a scream and a low, hollow, cold threatening voice said, “The boy, the elves, they came tonight.”
“Elves!” a scared Tom shouted. “What elves? I know none came, I saw none.”
“Liar,” a sharp, cold voice said. The scream that followed was well defined of death.
“Search the place and burn the town after.” The low hollow cold threatening voice rung.
“The window: that is our only hope, hurry,” Aravoen said, pushing the window open. As they went through the window, they heard footsteps the floor below. Aravoen put a finger to his lips, telling them to keep quiet. They moved holding onto the window edges of other rooms, keeping their feet even so as not to slip off the narrow edges. As they went around to where the horses were, they heard the wall below them burst open.
“Come out, I smell you,” the harsh voice said. Aravoen, Miaren and Leonora stood still, hoping the Sarubel would go away. After what seemed like eternity, they heard his heavy footsteps move away.
Aravoen saw the horses standing firm. They jumped down, rolling to hide the noise. Each rushed to their horse, but Leonora pointed a bit ahead of their horses. Where her finger pointed sat a figure tall and terrible upon his horrible horse. His face was hidden by the heavy hood cloak about him. His hands were covered by dark armour, armour that looked like the work of Ontov.
“The Sarubel chief lord,” Aravoen whispered.
The figure raised his accursed sword in the air and let out a hollow cry that filled the hearts of all those who heard it.
Be strong, you amongst many can stand him greatly, Leonora said in his head. Aravoen whistled in a low tone. The horses looked up and neighed in response to him.
Come, we jump on the horses, he said to them. Miaren, get Elben’s reigns, I will distract the Sarubel.
Do not do it, Leonora cautioned.
I can handle myself well so get on the horses quick, Aravoen replied
Aravoen jumped down and walked a few steps towards the Sarubel lord. The Sarubel lord looked to him, and let out a low whisper of terror on Aravoen’s appearance. The other Sarubel came out blocking the view to the horses. Aravoen drew his sword and held it high.
“You have at last shown yourself to the world,” said the chief lord, in a low, hollow, cold threatening voice.
“No,” Aravoen replied. “I am just a humble warrior.”
“Warrior,” it said with a merciless laugh.
Suddenly the neighing of horses broke through the air. The Sarubel were taken by surprise. This was the gap Aravoen needed. Seeing the space between the Sarubel lords, he dashed for it and broke free of the ring of enemies. Sprinting towards Miaren and Leonora, he heard a cold wind sweep by him. Taking a glance over his shoulder, he saw the Sarubel distracted.
Jumping on Elben, Aravoen sheathed his sword and kicked the flanks of Elben. His horse sprung into a gallop. He urged the elves to follow him. He saw a light spring from Miaren’s hand, which enveloped the Sarubel. They screamed.
“That will give us time to get away,” he said.
Together they galloped through the open entrance of the town. Many men and women lay at the side of the streets and gate, all dead. Galloping south like the wind they rode on through the night. Pushing on, pushing the horses to the limit.
As daylight broke through the sky, their horses slowed down to gather strength.
“The Sarubel are not yet strong enough,” Miaren said. “Surely their master too is not strong enough. That is why we can afford to slow our pace.”
“Lucky for us Sarzgat has not yet reached his full strength,” Aravoen replied. “For if he had, we would be afraid of them passing us. However, I fear soon that he will and his chief servants will have ability to travel in the light. We best make use of it well.”
“The caves of Sidra are not far from here, right?” Leonora suddenly asked.
“We best reach them before nightfall,” she said. “They will provide cover at night and hopefully the Sarubel will pass us by and move back to their master.”