M. J. Downing.
Leaving aside his famous ancestor, Bandobras, Hildifons Took numbered amongst the boldest of Hobbits in any era. However, as courageous as he was, dread accompanied his thoughts about crossing the Misty Mountains with Stapa. Though he never mentioned this to Stapa, Hilds noticed that the big lad bent wary eyes on the mountains, as though the sight of their cloudy heads stirred old fears. Like Hilds, he did not bring the matter up.
In relative silence, then, Hilds and Stapa had made their way toward the Misty Mountains, fording the Greyflood above its confluence with the River Sirannon. Their clothes and packs were already wet from the incessant rains that followed them from the upland dales of the Cardolan Highlands to the lower, empty lands of Eregion. The river crossing soaked them to the skin, of course. Among the tall grasses, brush, and innumerable holly trees of that land, they walked, taking an east, northeast tack, to seek a mountain pass to the south of Rivendell. Ketel Ironweaver advised him that Stapa’s ability to become a bear might excite Elrond Half-elven’s interest and, thereby, delay their journey. Hilds wanted to stay north of Moria, as well, for goblins and worse wandered there freely at night. Ketel had also warned Hilds to steer clear of the ruins of Ost-in-Edhil, once the city of Celebrimbor. The dwarves thought it haunted. Hilds may not have shared Ketel’s distrust of the elves, but he knew better than to disregard the dwarf’s knowledge of Eregion’s history, having lived through two hundred years of it.
Hilds, though bold in his ventures, determined to keep their journey as secret as he could, especially after the misadventure in Tharbad. The journey he and Stapa made was for the boy’s sake, not anyone else’s. At least, that’s what he told himself and thought reasonable, even if he was not sure why. Lord Elrond had a reputation about being careful of those who travelled through his domain. And if the elves had gotten wind of the recent events in Tharbad, Elrond might not see Stapa and his ‘gift,’ ailment, curse—whatever it was, as safe to let loose in his realm. Hilds thought it wise to accept Ketel’s warnings.
In lonely Eregion, they met no other travellers, so Stapa and Hilds marched on in determined silence, intent on the mountains that loomed over them in the east. Both were hardy walkers, made even more so by their journey thus far, though they needed to take time to dry their garments before taking them into the mountains, where winter still held sway. Much to Hilds delight, Stapa learned to keep complaints about his hunger to himself, which suggested to his companion that some subtle change in maturity had come upon the young fellow.
Hilds, of course, could not forget the wight’s declaration that Stapa’s ‘gift’ was a seed of ruin, planted to carry out an evil intent, though Hilds saw nothing evil about his young friend’s normal behavior. Stapa, transformed, however, had torn through Bold Hurin’s rag-tag forces in Tharbad. Having witnessed Stapa’s transformation twice now, Hilds had yet to overcome the shock of it, knowing it would take an army to overcome Stapa the bear, if even then. However, Hilds told himself that there was no sense in believing the words of a wight. Anything such a creature said was likely a lie designed to work harm.
Still, some subtle change had come over Stapa since they left Tharbad. Hilds wondered if Stapa’s repeated transformations had matured the lad in some way. He was certainly quieter, less playful, and complained less about hunger, though Stapa had said nothing more about the events in Tharbad. The silence between them, however, was not unpleasant. Hilds decided that, if anything, Stapa’s quietness came about as he neared the mountains.
Those mountains loomed in their sight, growing taller, more imposing. It was one thing to plan to cross them, quite another to face the task of doing so. Though a mildly chill wind blew in Eregion, the tops of the mountains looked to have fresh coats of snow. Clouds lowered over them. Ominous rumblings in the distance, from time to time, would awaken the travellers, as though the mountains knew they drew near and prepared some mischief for them. Hilds told himself not to give in to such imagined fancies and urged Stapa to do the same.
“You, a man of Rohan,” he said to Stapa after being awakened in the night by rumblings in the mountains, “must know that things happen all the time there: avalanches of snow and ice, rock slides, and such. We need not think of them as dangerous to us.”
“Avalanches are dangerous,” Stapa replied. “My father’s great uncle and his men were lost in the White Mountains when they pursued orc horse thieves.”
“Yes, but they most often occur in higher places, lad, and we’ll seek lower, slower paths that don’t take us to the high places,” Hilds responded, rising and stirring the fire. “Now, let us break our fast and press on, eh?”
Later, as they made their way into the foothills, Hilds told his large friend, “Ketel told me about a little used, winding trail that should lead us to the sources of the Gladden River, which we can follow down to the Anduin on the east side of the mountains. Then, turning north, we follow the great river to the bridge on the Old Forest Road. If you ask me, I should say that there we will face a greater risk in finding Rhadagast’s home in the Mountains of Mirkwood.”
“If you say so, Hilds,” Stapa answered. “It’s just that…well, I have had dreams about the mountains, since I was little.”
“Dreams of avalanches and your lost uncle?”
“No. Dreams of…someone I meet in them,” Stapa said.
“An orc, perhaps? A troll? I should think you’d be over your fear of trolls having killed two of them,” Hilds scoffed in reply.
“No, not one of those. It’s, well, it’s a girl I meet.”
In teasing tones, Hild asked, “What? A lass in the mountains? Are these, um, romantic dreams, boy?”
“Don’t be shy, lad. I know that young fellows’ heads are often full of dreams about fair maidens and the promises of love,” Hilds said to him. “But if I were you, I wouldn’t get my hopes up about chance romantic encounters in the Misty Mountains.”
“Yes. That would be silly, wouldn’t it?” Stapa replied. He hitched his pack straps higher and walked on, frowning. Hilds stared after him, noting that Stapa had acquired the ability to employ sarcasm.
The holly trees that dotted the land soon gave way thickets and groves of pines, as they made their way into the higher foothills of the mountains. For some time, they had followed an overgrown roadbed of stone flags, choked now with grasses still brown from winter. The rains came and went. Wet shoes and socks chafed their feet. The winds rose higher as the air cooled, making them shiver in their damp clothes. They came to a stone bridge, whose arches crossed a ravine in the old road’s path. This, Ketel had said, marked the point that they should seek a path into the mountains. Before they left the north bound road, however, they came upon a ruin, set well back from the road, well before the bridge.
“We might as well stop for the night,” Hilds said, “and take shelter here, if any dry corners remain in this old place. There looks to be windfall enough for a good fire, and we need drying out before we reach the colder heights.”
Stapa stood looking at the overgrown stone of what had once been a spacious home, larger than any mead hall of his father’s people. The fallen walls showed where many rooms had stood, joined by gardens and courts, their stones blackened from fire. Mature trees now enveloped the ruined walls. Thee stones they had pushed aside lay broken around them. The depth of the old building lay in deep shadow, for a partial roof stood in the midst of ruins, which promised some shelter, though Stapa looked upon it with doubtful eyes. “I’ve never seen a building like this. It looks like it was once a palace. Who lived here, Hilds?”
“Elves, probably. Behind us, this road leads on down into what was Ost-in-Edhil, the city of Celebrimbor, if the Old Took and Ketel were right. Old Gerontius once had some dealings with the elven folk, though not Elrond and his people. He sought to tell me the old tales that passed down to him. Truth is, though, that’s about all I can remember of what he tried to teach me. When I was a lad, I only wanted to hunt and explore.”
“My people didn’t talk much about elves,” Stapa said. They called them ‘dwimmer crafty’ and said that we shouldn’t have much to do with them.”
“Probably sound advice,” Hilds said as he pushed through the tall grasses and entered what was once a spacious court of many-hued stones. “They are a fell folk, to be sure, some of the mightiest warriors of old. They were more powerful years ago, I reckon, but most of them, I hear, have taken to the sea and left middle earth. They’d have to cross the Shire to get to the havens and hobbits would see them, from time to time. But they were rich and powerful once, especially in this land. This ruin might have been the home of one of their lords who protected the approach to Ost-in-Edhil across that bridge out yonder. Doesn’t seem to have done them much good, does it?”
Stapa shook his head ‘no’ and walked on. “It’s a scary looking place, now.”
“Well, it might be dry and keep us out of the wind this night,” Hilds said. “And I don’t imagine there’s anything left here but a dark corner or two. It’s been plundered many times, I’d say, judging from the orc scrawl you can see on the stones.”
The inner chamber that possessed a portion of its roof was circular, its strong arches along its outside wall having supported the roof. On what remained of its inner walls under those arches were carvings in stone relief, though these had been hacked and hammered so that no figures or scenes could be discerned. Hilds scanned them as he made his way to the central hearth and chimney, still intact.
Hilds pointed to the hearth. “See the remains of a fire? Not too recent, I should say? Many folks have passed through this way and taken shelter. We’d do well be on our guard tonight, in case someone decides to return, which I doubt, really. In any case, we should start our own fire and get a warm night’s sleep. It might well be our last one for a while.”
Stapa nodded, unslung his pack, and went to gather windfall from the fallen branches that littered the outer court. Hilds soon had a blaze going. They unpacked everything to dry out their things and settled bedding before the fire. After a meager meal of dried meat and fruit, Hilds got out his pipe and the leaf Tolman Fern had given him and settled his back against the warm stone. He smoked in peace, out of the wind and rain. Stapa explored a bit as though to ease his distrust of the ruins. Having found no orcs hiding in dark corners, he was soon back at the fire side.
Hilds had set his pipe aside and fallen into a doze, while Stapa fed the fire. After a while, he crept, again, away from the hearth to gather bigger pieces of wood to make the fire last the night. Stapa dropped his bundle of wood when he heard a shout, followed by a high-pitched wail. The shout had come from a man, he thought, and the scream from a woman. Stapa ran back to the hearth calling, “Hilds! Something is wrong! People are in trouble!”
Hilds woke with a start to see Stapa rush into the firelight, up his axe, and run out toward the road. Yelling at Stapa to wait for him, Hilds lit a stick of wood, took his bow and quiver of arrows, and followed him. On his way to the road, he heard a man’s echoing cry, “Leave us or die!” This was followed by a roaring sound that started the hairs on Hilds neck.
Stapa had run out to the road and onto the bridge which spanned the ravine. When Hilds caught up with him, Stapa was looking down into the deep ravine, peering through the trees. He could see nothing of the ravine’s floor. At that point though, there came another roaring from the ravine higher above the bridge. They could see nothing, though they heard the hoarse yells of a man, which turned quickly into his screams of pain, followed by an ominous silence. Stapa bolted toward the end of the bridge and scrambled into the brush at the ravine’s edge. Hilds followed with ease, for Stapa’s descent into the ravine left him an easy path to follow. Ahead of him, pelting toward the ravine’s bottom, Stapa had pushed through, uprooted, and broken foliage of all kinds.
“Up this way,” Stapa called back to him. Hilds marveled at his companion’s strength, for nothing had stood in his way. He worried about the lad’s safety and wondered about the advisability of getting involved with this adventure. “What are we getting into now? Will it delay us? I don’t want others to be aware of our journey, but does that even matter?” He supposed, though, that he had a duty to render what aid he could to another traveller in distress. His bold nature notwithstanding, Hilds had a shiver of fear race up his spine at the man’s final screams, which surely meant his death. Hilds made sure to keep his brand alight and pushed on.
The hobbit could hear Stapa speed up the ravine but could not see him. Hilds noticed a strange smell growing as he followed his friend. It was, perhaps, of a large, filthy anima. It hung in the air and became more pungent as he ran. With his meager light held high, his eyes scanning the shadows, Hilds climbed on, until he figured to be above the ruins where he and Stapa camped. In a clear spot ahead, Hilds saw Stapa and another smaller cloaked figure squatting down. The smell was powerful in the area, though Hilds neither saw nor heard any source for it. Holding his brand high, Hilds came to them and shed light on a fallen man. A naked sword lay nearby and a bow without an arrow.The sight of the man’s wounds made him blanch and turn away, as did Stapa, when his light revealed the fallen figure.
Handing the brand to Stapa, Hilds knelt at the man’s side. Though not as tall as Stapa—nor anywhere as big–the man had been tall and well grown, cloaked in greenish brown, booted, and dressed in well-made, travel-stained clothes. Those clothes had been torn open as had the man’s belly. It looked like large teeth had torn his neck.
“He breathes, still, though I don’t see how,” Hilds said and glanced up into the face of the hooded figure who knelt beside Stapa. He started at her feminine features and the dark, tangled hair that escaped her hood. Her eyes were dark and her face tense, not frightened. Hilds thought that she must be near Stapa’s age, though her face was lean and streaked with dirt, making her look older. She said,
“He will die,” in the common tongue, and her voice was hoarse.
“I think it likely, don’t you?” Hilds asked, drawing her gaze to his. He thought for a moment and asked, “What happened here? Who attacked this man?”
Stapa offered, “I think it was a what, not a who, Hilds. Just look at–”
“I was asking her,” Hilds said, without looking at his friend.
“I…I…It’s all a blur,” she whispered. “It’s so dark, and I…I was so scared.”
“What kind of thing were you two following?” Stapa asked, noting that the smell abated somewhat.
“What?” the woman asked, casting a nervous glance at Stapa.
“Was it a wolf or a bear?” Stapa asked. “I smell something, don’t you?”
“I…I don’t…know,” she said and turned her eyes back to the figure. Hilds looked again a the long sword and bow, strung and ready, lying nearby.
“Was it you he followed?” Hilds asked.
“Hilds, how can you ask that? She couldn’t have done this. It was something with claws that attacked him,” Stapa said. “Can’t you see she’s terrified?”
Hilds, who wasn’t sure what he was seeing, replied, “Stapa, lift him gently and bring him back to our camp. We will help him if we can.” He took up Stapa’s axe and handed the woman the man’s sword and bow. She took them and stared at them with a blank expression . Hilds led the way down the ravine. The pungent smell grew faint in the air.
Their fire they built up as high as they could and placed the wounded man near it. The woman sat huddled in her hooded, homespun cloak, head bent to her drawn up knees. As far as Hilds could see, she was dressed in some sort of homespun shift, though she didn’t appear to notice the cold. Her lower legs had sustained scrapes from rock and bramble, though around her right ankle the flesh appeared raw, as though she’d once been shackled, though much of this had healed. Her shoes, they saw, were nothing more than shreds of old hide, bound to her feet with strips of leather.
Hilds could do little to staunch the man’s many wounds, though he applied pressure to the wounds and had Stapa help him, where they could do so without causing the man great pain from broken bones. Soon, their hands were covered with the man’s blood, as was the front of Stapa’s jerkin from carrying him.
“He has lost too much blood,” Hilds said. “His left leg and most of his ribs on that side are broken. He bleeds within and without. He doesn’t have long. What is his name?”
When the woman didn’t answer, Stapa reached out to nudge her. She slapped his bloody hand away, causing Stapa to cry out, “Ouch! His name! We only wanted his name!”
The woman’s dark eyes turned to Stapa. At that moment, her face held more emotion than Hilds had yet to see in her. He wondered if her situation might well be as Stapa had suggested, merely a shock brought on by terror, though he was still suspicious. Just then, she looked frightened.
“His name,” she repeated. “I… I don’t know his name. I knew him only as the hunter,” and at that, tears rolled down her cheeks, streaking the dirt. Hilds studied her and realized that she was tall, almost as tall as the wounded man. Though she was thin, she looked strong. He could not study her for long, though. Stapa stared at her and offered her some dried meat. That, she took with a shaking hand, holding it as if she didn’t know what it was.
Patting the man’s cheeks, rubbing the wrist of the man’s unbroken arm, Hilds called to him: “Sir, you are dying. Can you tell us who you are? If we come across anyone looking for you, we can tell them of you. Sir, can you hear me?”
The man’s eyes twitched. Blood bubbled over his lips. He coughed up yet more, his eyes wincing at the pain. When he was able to draw a ragged breath, he opened his eyes.
“Ha…Hal..dir, son…of…Haldan,” he managed, choking on his own blood. “Carag…is she…?”
“The woman we found with you?” Hilds asked, leaning close. “Yes, she is here.” Haldir managed a nod.
“Keep…under guard…” Haldir said, before a deep convulsive coughing stopped him. His only other sound was the agony of his last, bloody exhale. After a moment, Hilds pressed Haldir’s eyes closed.
They sat in silence for a while, listening to the wind and the crackling fire. After a while, Hilds and Stapa wrapped Haldir’s body in an extra cloak of Stapa’s. “In the morning,” Hilds said, “we can gather stones and raise a cairn over him. That is as much as we can do for him.”
“Carag?” Stapa asked, “Where was Haldir from? Who are his people?”
Carag said nothing and stared at the ground. Hilds asked, “Do you really think she knows, boy? Just look at her. Can you not see that they weren’t traveling together? Haldir was clothed well and clean. She is clothed in little more than rags. She’s dirty, too, or haven’t you noticed? Haldir was none of those things. Why would his companion be? Clearly, she didn’t travel with him. I think it more likely that he was hunting her when something–or someone—killed him.”
Carag gasped and turned startled eyes on Hilds. “No,” she cried. “I… I was with him for days, after…after… I…, he…” She stopped and shook her head, placing her hands on either side of her head as though a sudden aching had come upon her.
“After what, Carag?” Hilds demanded. She leapt to her feet and turned from them, still holding her head, as though to stop the pain.
“He…saved me…took me away…. ’You must not remember,’ he told me, and I don’t want to…it was…dark. I… I didn’t know…myself. It was horrible,” she said between her sobs. Stapa rose immediately and went to her side, enveloping her in his arms. Slowly, he turned her back to the fire and put his own blanket around her.
“So, you are saying that Haldir rescued you?” Hilds asked, though in quieter tones. Carag shivered, now, as though the little remembering she had done brought back terror. Her clothes, Hilds thought, along with the marks of a shackle, suggested that she was imprisoned.
“Did Haldir rescue you somewhere near here?” he asked.
“Yes—I mean, no,” she said, sitting down with Stapa under the gentle pressure of his embrace. “The big ones…helped me.” Hilds raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Big people helped you? People as big as Stapa?” Hilds asked.
Carag turned her eyes to Stapa, gave him a little smile, and nodded. “Bigger. They were bigger, but…I didn’t learn their names.”
“Were they giants?” Hilds asked, leaning forward. He’d grown up with scary stories of giants from the Misty Mountains and had never before heard that they helped anyone. Every story he’d been told about giants made him believe that they ate people. Carag, however, nodded her head again and leaned her head against Stapa’s shoulder. A silly grin spread across Stapa’s face. He began to blush, though Hilds pressed on. Had she been enslaved by giants? That would account for her clothes and the marks of an ankle shackle.
“So, you were captured by giants and held prisoner?”
Carag frowned, then, shook her head and said, “No. They—he—helped me when I escaped from…from the others.”
“From goblins? Men? Elves?” Hilds demanded. Carag, though, only dropped her head in her hands and shook it, as though to keep from remembering. “No…I must…not…the hunter said.” She wept then and turned to the comfort of Stapa’s embrace.
“Hilds, stop asking her questions!” Stapa cried. “Can’t you see she’s—”
“I see plenty and much of it doesn’t make sense,” Hilds answered. “What I can see is that she could be dangerous. We know nothing about her. We should send her on her way, or we might never get across these mountains. If nothing else, the giants—or worse—may be hunting for her, still.”
“But she needs our help, like Ivy and Tolman did,” Stapa replied in angry tones, drawing her closer. “You go on, if you want to, to Mirkwood and the wizard. I’m not leaving her like this.”
Drawing a deep sigh, Hilds pinched the bridge of his nose, as though to fight a headache. “Stapa is caught up in that dream of his. He has met his girl in the mountains, and now, he is besotted with her.” Hilds could see how, for Carag, under the dirt and rags was striking. Like many a youngster, Stapa had gotten caught up in those blue eyes and mane of black hair, and all she had to do was appear vulnerable to wrap him ‘round her little finger. Was he to abandon them both? What then? Go back to the Shire? Return to Breeland, perhaps, and try to make Ivy understand that he was not a danger to her? With an even deeper sigh, Hilds gave in to the realization that he was no smarter than Stapa in the ways of the heart. Besides, neither the Shire nor Breeland held any allure for Hilds. This quest was all that he had, other than returning to an endless hunt for orcs, which promised only his death at their hands, at some point.
“Well, then, I guess that she is just coming with us, eh?” Hilds said, relenting.
Stapa smiled like the gratified child he was, and turned to Carag, lifting her face to look into her eyes. “Would you like that, to come with us? We are going over the mountains and beyond the great river to Mirkwood. I will protect you, though I am no giant. And there are two of us. Hilds is smart. He will take care of both of us.” She made a thoughtful frown but said nothing, then.
Hilds shook his head as though in disbelief. Carag, though, stirred at Stapa’s side and murmured, “The great river. Is it… Anduin? I, I remember…something…the sun on a wide water…but then, only fear. The river, though. I wanted to go back to it, but they had me. I was so…small and…frightened.” She broke into sobs. “Their evil faces…” she cried and swooned and fell limp in Stapa’s embrace.
“Well, I guess that settles it, huh, Stapa?” Hilds asked, knowing the answer. Hilds could see by the way the big lad studied Carag’s quiet face that she was part of their party now, though he didn’t know how they would feed her, too. They’d need to hunt along the way, Hilds realized, which would delay them even more, especially in the mountains, where game would be scarce. He rose and took his bow. “Might as well start now,” he mumbled to himself. He donned his cloak and left Stapa staring at Carag, as lost in her disheveled beauty as if he’d wander off into the mountains on his own.
Between building a cairn over Haldir and drying fresh venison over smoky fires, they were three days in those ruins before beginning their climb into the mountains proper. Carag slept for the rest of the night and well into the next day. When she woke, she smiled at them and offered to help in their work, though she knew nothing and had to be taught everything.
And when they left, Carag volunteered to take turns carrying Hilds’ pack, which he was glad to do. It allowed him to run ahead and investigate the path up the ravine, which he was glad to see ran, more or less, northeasterly, away from Moria, yet skirting south and east of Elrond’s realm.
Over their first days out together, Hilds had begun to piece together and idea about Carag and her relationship with Haldir. First, Haldir had been no man of Rohan, nor did he look like the men of Tharbad. Hilds had never seen a man of Gondor, away to the south, but he doubted that one of them would be found wandering the Misty Mountains. If anything, Hilds thought of Haldir as dressed, almost, in elven fashion, though without any finery. His garments and boots had been well made, as good as the stuff Hilds and Stapa had from Ketel’s people. That and his name suggested that Haldir had come from and was bound back to Rivendell, the home of Elrond’s people. Haldir, a name that sounded more elvish to Hilds, had meant to take Carag back there. He had urged Hilds to guard her. Carag’s one coherent memory, though, indicated that she came from the banks of the Anduin or near there. Many settlements of men were said to lay across the Anduin, so he doubted that Haldir had been taking her back home.
Since the Took family were natural wanderers, they had met men whom they called Rangers, who were sometimes seen around the borders of the Shire. Those reports were consistent enough for Hilds to believe them as true, and those men had been described in a way that made him wonder if Haldir had not been a Ranger, though he was far from the Shire borders. Then again, Hilds thought, ‘I am too and am bound on an errand whose mission seems to be changing.’
In the meantime, Carag showed every enthusiasm about going with them, even if it meant going back into the mountains. Scouting around the ruins, she and Stapa had encountered a stream flowing down an adjacent hillside. They would carry as much water with them as they could, plus Carag had insisted upon bathing in the frigid snowmelt, which Hilds thought reasonable. His only task in that was to insist that Stapa did not need to stand watch over her as she bathed. “I do not need you losing focus by the sight of an unclad female, lad.”
Stapa could only blush crimson at that idea and agree hastily with Hilds. He was glad of it, for outfitted in some of his own clothes, which were way too short on her slender arms and legs, Carag, all cleaned up, was even more comely. She had washed out the tangles in the long black hair and under the dirt on her face were rosy cheeks and a winsome smile. Hilds was not encouraged by the two of them now holding hands as they walked. Somehow, however, he could find nothing to say against it.
Between the high peaks of Caradhras, Celebdil, and Fanuidhol to their south and those peaks to their north that guarded Rivendell, the mountains showed them many pathways going off into ravines and canyons, many of which had no outlets and were of dark aspect. They stayed as high as they could each day, atop ridges and high mountain vales, where they could see to the highest country to their east. In that way, they kept a good direction east and a bit north, hoping to find on the other side, the headwaters of the Gladden River.
When sunset came each day, they would leave the higher paths and find more or less sheltered spot to spend the night. Enough wood, they found, among the thrawn trees of ridge and canyon that they didn’t lack for fire, especially since Hilds was handy with his dwarf-made flint and steel. Yet in all their talk around a good many fires, Carag, though seeming to feel better in Stapa’s company, contributed little. Mostly, Hilds told stories or sang songs, for he had a good voice and a store of knowledge. Stapa tried his hand at a few tales but often forgot key events in them, for he had grown up quite sheltered from the more adventurous life of the Rohirimm.
“My dear,” Hilds said to her one evening as she leaned against Stapa listening to Hilds tell of Old Bandoras’s victory over Golfimbul the goblin, “do these stories of mine not take your thoughts back to bright memories of your own, buried in that dark head of yours?” Hilds, for all of his first doubts of her, had grown fond of her in his own way, for she was quiet and helpful in all things, and almost as childlike as Stapa.
“No, nothing comes to mind,” she answered, “though often I hope it never does. You see, this is the best I can remember ever feeling, and I don’t want dark times to come back to me and spoil all this,” she said, waving her hands to encompass them and their surroundings.
“This?” Hilds asked, chuckling, “tramping about with two misfits in the wilds? This is your idea of a good time?” She gave him a dazzling smile and nodded her head.
“It is,” she said, making Stapa’s grin broaden. Carag nestled deeper into his embrace.
“You can’t mean that, my dear,” Hilds replied. “I mean, after all, Haldir , I assume, was taking you to see Elrond, in Rivendell. Perhaps someone is searching for you? Do you not want to go home to your people?”
“No,” she said with a smile, looking up at Stapa. “You two are my people. Besides, whoever ‘my people’ were, I don’t think they cared about me enough to ever come and find me. They just let those…monsters take me away. I don’t care if I ever see any of them again, and I don’t remember the hunter saying ‘Rivendell.’”
“’Imladris,’ maybe?” Hilds asked.
Carag shrugged and shook her head. Hilds noted that she avoided his gaze. Her tendency to do so was usually followed by a sullen silence if, say, he pressed her about other memories of the Anduin or about the creature or person who killed Haldir. Hilds saw no reason to kill the happy mood. He let it be, for the time.
“Well,” he said in happier tones, “I suppose we can go on, tramping about. Who knows what awaits us? For the time being, all we three have in the world is right here, correct?”
“Yes,” Carag replied, her smile returning. The smile on Stapa’s face was not something that Hilds wanted to take away. He thought of his earlier skepticism about Stapa meeting some mysterious girl in the mountains. “Who am I to gainsay a prophetic dream? They are both young Surely, we all strive to fulfill our dreams. Maybe they can have all that I lost.”
Such was not a happy thought for Hilds, for it put him to wondering about his own choices. Supposing they did find Rhadagast and the wizard helped Stapa learn to cope with his power? What would he do with that task completed? There was no desire in him to return to the Shire. That much he knew.
When he looked back at Carag and Stapa, she had turned to face him. Her arms were around the big lad’s neck, their eyes locked together. Hilds suddenly found that his presence wasn’t called for. Wrapping his cloak around him and taking a blazing brand from the fire, he turned from the camp and walked up the path toward the ridge.
The air was still and getting colder, for they were in the high vales of the mountain range, though the higher peaks were to their north and south. The path before him rose up the ridge to a higher, rocky ridge that ran across their path. He decided to walk that far and see if under starlight he could see anything of the path ahead of them. “It would be a dream come true if cresting this ridge, I see the Anduin away to our east, glistening in the starlight!”
Upon gaining that point, though, Hilds saw that there were yet higher ridges before them, which he should have realized. With a sigh, he looked along the length of the path before him. It ran down dark, stony vale like an enormous bowl a half mile wide. It was strewn with boulders. Here and there, great patches of snow still lay, from the winter fall that would have filled the bowl. From where he stood, Hilds could not see if the path ran up the other side. To his right, though, on the rocky slope, his quick eyes caught the twinkle of fire. Hilds dropped his flaming brand behind a rock, stomped it out and hid himself.
Once his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he looked again and saw that the fire must be of good size, for most of it was within the entrance of a large opening under a beetling overhang, making it resemble a wide mouth in the mountain side. The fire didn’t produce much smoke, for Hilds could barely track any fume rising in the night. That much firelight and that little smoke told Hilds that whoever built that fire knew his business.
“Dwarves or men,” Hilds muttered to himself. He knew he was wrong when a boulder roughly twice his size landed on the path behind him, its impact shaking the ground beneath him. His heart pounding, panic rushing through him, Hilds pelted down the path into the great bowl, the path a silvery line between the boulders around him. He had just enough wit left to look at where he was going and saw that something blocked the path. That shape moved and rose before him, blotting out the stars. It emerged from among boulders as big as houses.
“I don’t miss,” said a voice that could have belonged to the earth itself, huge, grating, deeper than the mountain’s roots. The shape held another rock in its right hand and tossed it up and down as Hilds would an egg. Hilds could not see its features, but he saw its shape and size, over twice the height of Stapa and built on a titanic scale.
“Heard you for two days, smelled you as you topped the path,” it said, pointing back up toward the ridge.
“I…I…we, that is, mean you…no harm,” Hilds cried, though he realized it was a stupid thing to say. He could imagine no way to harm this mountain of flesh. However, his comment elicited a vibration that coursed through his body before Hilds heard the higher registers of the giant’s low chuckle, for giant it was, stone giant, to be exact.
“Was worried,” the giant said, showing a laconic mastery of sarcasm that Hilds wondered at finding in a giant. He had supposed that all such creatures were dim witted at best. After the giant’s low laughter ran out, he said simply, “Come,” as he flicked the boulder out of its hand. Hilds watched it shatter another boulder as it fell. He realized that he could not possibly escape by running, for the giant had smelled him from far away and could kill him with any number of rocks it had to hand. The giant started up a well-worn path toward the fire in the cave and beckoned for Hilds to join him, though the hobbit had to run hard to keep pace.
As they moved toward the light coming out of the cave, Hilds looked at the giant and saw that though it was ugly, its face looked human enough, with features broad and blunt. A mane of dark brown hair covered its head, matching its bushy beard. Where its skin shone around his homespun garment, he was so pale as to seem almost blue. The giant’s foot coverings looked quite like those Carag wore.
Upon entering the cave, with Hilds blinking in the sudden light, the giant turned and looked at him, motioning him toward the fire, which warmed and lit an area the size of a barnyard within. Once again, Hilds’s notions of giant’s caves was challenged: the cave’s floor was swept clean. A massive table stood nearby, the top of which Hilds could not see. Eating utensils, skewers mostly, and wooden spoons, hung on wood pegs driven into the stone wall. A huge cooking pot, scrubbed clean, stood beside the table. Nowhere were there piles of bones, rags or old clothes torn from captured travellers, nor pots of coins or other spoils. The cave even smelled of pine and dry wood smoke, sort of wholesome, like a poorer sort of hobbit hole.
Near the fire was something like a chair, made of smooth, stones cunningly placed. It had no legs as such, and leaned back, Hilds figured, so the giant could recline in it and stretch out his legs beside his fire. Presently, the giant lowered himself onto and sat upright, looking at Hilds.
“To old elves,” the giant said, “was Ondo. To, my people, Gunr,” the giant said, poking himself in the chest. He cocked a massive eyebrow and gestured to the hobbit.
“Oh, er, my name is Hildifons Took,” the hobbit replied, bowing low in dwarf fashion. “I…I thank you for your hospitality, er, Gunr…sir.”
“Huhrum!” Gunr said, making a noise in his throat, “Shire?” he rumbled. “Periains!” Hilds nodded and said.
“Yes. Hobbits, I think you must mean, sir. You’ve been to my land?” Hilds asked, wondering how and when that could have happened without causing widespread panic amongst his people. It would have been an occasion that stayed in common memory.
“Saw it, afar,” Gunr replied. Hilds noted that Gunr was forced to clear his throat when speaking, possibly to use his highest voice. Sometimes, at the beginning and ending of what he said, Gunr’s was so low as to be unheard. Hilds only felt its vibrations.
Gunr held up three massive fingers and raised his eyebrows at Hilds as he told them off, one by one: “Hilds, a man, Carag?”
“Carag? You know the name of the young woman who travels with us?”
Gunr nodded and pointed to his wide, flat nose. “Scent on you.”
“Yes. She travels with us. I left her in our camp with my companion Stapa, a man, a youth, really, of Rohan. They are, well, um, together,” he said, mimicking an embrace. He’d imagined, since they were both young, healthy, and fond of each other, that they might have discovered to joy of each other’s bodies. He didn’t know if human love was something a giant would understand.
Gunr smiled at Hilds saying that Stapa and Carag were together and nodded his head. The smile wasn’t brutal or suggestive, just happy.
“How do you know Carag?” Hilds asked.
Gunr replied, “Don’t know. Heard of her. My family,” he said, waving his hand toward the mountains south of where they stood. “The Hunter?”
“Dead, I’m sorry to say. Something attacked them three days ago. We found Carag with him,” Hilds said. “She…can’t remember.”
Gunr nodded and touched his forehead, which prompted Hilds to ask, “Do you mean that she is afflicted in her mind, in some way, or just can’t remember?”
Gunr mulled this question over for a moment and then nodded ‘yes’ to Hilds. “Horror. Sorrow,” he rumbled, and the words came slowly, deepening in tone as they went, making Hilds wish that he had never mistrusted the poor lass.
“Bring them?” Gunr asked, raising his eyebrows. “Need to.”
“Here? To your home?” Hilds asked. Gunr nodded. “He knew we were three, so he knoes they are out there. Does he want to come back so that he can eat all of us? On my own, I would barely be a mouthful”
Gunr, who smiled as though he guessed the source of Hilds’s doubt, merely nodded his head and said, “Don’t eat folk. One bad giant, long ago.”
Hilds had to smile at his own foolishness in believing old stories told to frighten hobbit children. “Please do come and meet my friends.”
Together, they went out into the night. Gunr let Hilds go first and waited for him to get ahead before he stepped out after him. Still, Hilds had to run to keep anything like a normal pace for the giant. And as he ran, he wondered if Carag would panic if she saw another giant, for, clearly, she had been the guest of similar creatures before Haldir had brought her away. If nothing else, they had taught her to make shoes of their kind.
Knowing that he had left them in something like a prelude to a private embrace, Hilds began to call to them as he found the track that led down to their campsite. He warned them not to be afraid, that he had brought someone to meet them. Hilds stopped and motioned the giant to stay back so as not to cause Stapa and Carag undue fear. After all, one doesn’t meet a giant every day—alone and in the mountains. There was something, however, something wholesome about Gunr, something almost Hobbit-like that spoke to Hilds. And, Gunr’s attitude toward Carag, and the fact that she had been a guest of other giants, showed that Gunr and his kind were trustworthy.
As Hilds entered the firelight, he saw that Stapa sat on one side of the fire, Carag on the other, though they both stared at each other.
“Nothing happened,” Stapa said, looking up at Hilds.
“That is not the case for me. I have met someone, who has invited us to a safer, warmer place to spend the night. He is a giant, friends, so I don’t want you to be afraid. I think we can trust him. He knew, Carag, the people who helped you.”
“A…another big man?” Carag asked. “They called themselves the Gonwaith, I think.”
“This one is Gunr,” Hilds said, feeling the earth tremble a bit as the giant neared them in the dark. He crept slowly toward the firelight, his feet wider than the path that descended to the campsite. Soon, Gunr peered down at them, the firelight making his big features shadowy. Stapa grasped his axe and moved to stand before the giant, easily twice his height and more.
“Fear not,” Gunr said, showing them his open hands.
“We will all be much more comfortable in Gunr’s home. Come Stapa,” Hilds said, placing his hand on the haft of Stapa’s axe, “we must gather our supplies and go with him.”
“If, if you say so, Hilds,” Stapa said. “And, like I said, nothing happened.”
“That’s fine, I guess—or possibly very sad, I don’t know,” Hilds replied as he grabbed his pack and weapons, “though we should take advantage of Gunr’s hospitality. His knowledge of these mountains might well get us through them to the source of the Gladden River.”
Carag le to Carag and then offered his hands, saying, “Packs,” taking all the goods they travelled withhim, Hilds noted, smiled at the giant and reached up to offer him her hand. Gunr offered his smi in his two hands. And soon, they were all back in the cave, enjoying the fire. There they stayed that night, since after their arrival and building up his fire, Gunr soon retired for the night, offering them the shelter of his warm lodgings.
The next morning, they woke to find Gunr gone, though how he managed to leave them so quietly, none of them could guess. Stapa was for leaving right away, for the sheer size of the giant seemed to hold a terror for him that neither of the other two shared. Hilds, however, spoke against it.
“We must ask him about our path,” Hilds insisted, “for he has likely tramped from one side of these mountains to the other many, many times. Plus, we must thank him for his hospitality, as well. I should think that you’d want to express your thanks to him for his, or his family’s, care of Carag.”
Carag stood at the mouth of the cave, her back to them. Stapa shot glances at her and kept his agitated voice low: “Okay, okay. I understand, but last night, I lied. I didn’t know what else to do. At our camp, something did happen, Hilds.”
Hilds studied the big lad’s face. He realized that Stapa’s attitude toward Carag had shifted after last night and that this shift had little to do with those two young people finding solace in one another’s arms, as Hilds had imagined. If anything, Stapa looked frightened of Carag and anxious to keep her from knowing it.
“Go on, then, boy. Tell me,” Hilds said, noting that Carag had taken an attentive posture by the cave entrance, leaning out as though to sniff the wind or catch a sound.
“Well, soon after you left camp, I kissed her, and, and, it was good, so good, Hilds,” Stapa said, his face reddening. “You may think me young and stupid, but I know how it is between a man and a woman when they love each other, and, believe me, I was ready for it. But something began to happen—to her.”
Hilds gave the lad a sidelong look and replied, “I suspect that she was responding to you in a way that matched your reaction, right?”
“But when I was kissing her, she actually growled and…and, against my own lips, I felt her teeth grow long,” Stapa whispered.
“What? Why? What did you do?” Hilds demanded.
“I…I pushed her back, and there was a strange glow to her eyes, as though she was excited—”
“Which in ordinary circumstances is very much part of kissing a maid, if its done right,” Hilds observed.
“But I saw that her teeth were growing pointed, and, since I had my hands on her bare shoulders—they had been so smooth, so perfect, Hilds, and then, then…there was hair—more like fur—growing there. I saw it begin to grow. When she noticed, she became frightened and drew back from me.”
“What?” Hilds asked, desiring to not believe that he travelled with two skin changers.
“She was changing, like I do when I become the bear. I can feel the hair grow and my mouth and teeth change each time. When it happened in Carag, it scared me, really. But she backed away and pulled her shift and cloak over her. She moved away from me and sat shivering by the fire. When I went to her to ask her what was happening, she just said, ‘It’s a curse. Leave me be,’ and she wouldn’t look at me.”
Hilds glanced at Carag, who had walked out into the sunlight outside the cave, though her head was down, and her hands were clenched at her side. There was no cause to not believe Stapa. His fear spoke to the truth of the matter. A very rudimentary passion in her had prompted a change but into what? Something furred and fanged. Another dark thought returned to him: could it have been, after all, a changed Carag who killed Haldir? The claw and fang marks on his body suggested it, though his body had been broken by enormous force, such as what Stapa the bear could do. What was she?
Hilds walked towards her, uncertain of what to do or say, Stapa following. Yet as they reached the cave mouth, a fresh breeze hit them. Hilds froze, for it carried the same scent he had picked up in the ravine where Haldir met his death, the earthy, animal scent. It brought to mind the claw and tooth marks on Haldir’s body, his broken ribs and limbs. That scent grew so strong as to be nearly sickening.
In the next instant, the floor of the cave shook, for Gunr ran up the path to the opening, brushing by Carag. Hilds figured that he had picked up the scent before it came to them on the wind. He had his cauldron in one hand, and it had been full of water that had splashed out in his hasty return. This, he hurled aside to clang and clatter against his table as soon as he entered. Hurrying to the wall above his table, Gunr took down a long-handled hammer and rushed to the cave mouth. With one hand, he scooped Carag inside and rose to his full height outside. With his mouth wide open and his great lungs swelling his chest, he uttered a cry that made no sound Hilds could hear, though it registered in his bones and an aching in his head. Its deep vibrations hit him and caused his hands to leap to his ears. It went on for several agonizing seconds, taking him and Stapa to the floor of the cave. When it stopped, Hilds saw Gunr facing him in the doorway.
“Olog Hai!” Gunr cried in tones Hilds could hear. “Your weapons!” The giant leaped away from the cave mouth, down the path, his hammer in both hands. Hilds bent to pick up his dwarf axe and followed, not knowing only that they were under attack. When he reached the mouth of the cave, he gasped in horror. Gunr stood head and shoulders above a swarm of trolls. These trolls, though, were out in the bright sun, which should not be, and they were clad in plate armor and were armed with hammers and swords, in addition to their own great claws and foul teeth. Gunr’s hammer swung in long arcs, its rough-forged iron head whistling through the air to smash troll heads and limbs. The giant’s silent roaring caused everything to rumble and stopped Hilds in his tracks. He knew better than to try his axe against enemies ten feet high. And there were many of them, two score, at least. They bounded over the ridge at the edge of the great bowl. Their deep-throated howls bounced off the mountain sides as they all descended upon Gunr.
Hilds ran back for his bow and quiver of arrows. He saw Stapa bending over Carag, and cried, “Trolls! Arm yourself!”
Stapa looked at him, with fear in his eyes, though the lad’s hands were busy loosening the bindings of his clothing. Carag, was not Carag any longer. She lay in a writhing mass at Stapa’s feet. Her shape gained size and length. Her limbs thrashed, and her clothing split apart.
“Leave us!” Stapa yelled, and Hilds did so. In that moment, the hobbit knew the fear of a small, weak things. Surrounded by trolls, giants, and skin changers, Hilds knew the absolute terror of battle with foes far too powerful for him to fight. With no idea what was happening between Stapa and Carag, Hilds could only think that his own death was at hand. “Very well, then. It ends here, which is as good a place as any,”
Hilds found a boulder and clambered to its top. He could see Gunr in the midst of the troll swarm. Hilds nocked an arrow and sent it through the eye of one great troll who was about the leap atop Gunr from another boulder. Arrow after arrow, Hilds sent into the swarm, though Gunr’s unhearable bellowing shook Hilds’s bones. But behind him in the cave, two roars arose, one Stapa’s bear voice roaring his rage and the other a howling snarl, as that of a huge wolf seeking its prey.
He had little time to consider the fight between Stapa and Carag in the cave. It was a melee, to be sure, horrid echoing sounds of two great beasts locked in combat. Would he have another enemy at his back if Carag emerge, victorious, from the cave? In seconds, he saw that it did not matter for the trolls, or the Olog Hai, as Gunr called them, had taken notice of him. A party of ten of them broke off their attack of the giant and scrambled over and around boulders to get at him. He had only three arrows left. Hilds wished, then, that he had picked up Haldir’s long sword or his own dwarf-made blade, for he would need something with which to defend himself at the last. He wished that Stapa was at his side in bear form. Hilds knew that he would have to stand alone. The trolls grew near drew closer, and their smell was nearly weapon enough. One of them, perhaps one tracking Carag, had been at the scene of Haldir’s death. Haldir had not fled, and neither would Hilds, even with the mystery of Carag unclear in his mind.
The first of the Olog Hai to reach him dared to roar and raise its jagged scimitar above its head. Hilds sent an arrow into the thing’s gaping mouth and into its skull. It crashed against the side of the boulder on which he stood, nearly knocking Hilds to the ground. The others were too near and would trap him atop his position, so, Hilds jumped down in an ankle-jarring leap. His next arrow lodged in the face of his rushing foe, but, somehow, another arrow, from some other bowman, penetrated the thing’s eye, though in its fall, it knocked Hilds off his feet.
“What wonder is this? Arrows fall from the sky?”
The others were almost upon him, when a blurred shadow and a roar passed him from behind. A black-furred wolf of tremendous size bowled into the Olog Hai, snapping at throats and raking with outstretched claws. They turned to grapple with it, leaving their weapons aside. Yet more arrows whistled from above, striking the trolls and felling four of them.
Then, Stapa came. At the sound of his roar, the wolf broke away from the fight and ran down the path. Hilds found himself in the shadow of the great bear who stood above him, roaring. Hilds covered his ears and rolled into a ball, making himself as small as he could. Stapa the bear lost no time in following the wolf’s attack. The trolls howled, seeking to retrieve their weapons, though it was too late for them. Stapa crushed them, with jaws and his huge forelimbs. The wolf attacked the mass of trolls around Gunr, leaping upon their backs. Stapa pursued the fleeing trolls. In seconds, the battle passed away from the stunned hobbit.
Hilds looked back, then, and saw three men above the mouth of the cave, loosing arrows from their great bows. Much like Haldir in their dress, the men clambered down to the level of the path. Hilds ran, ahead of them, axe in hand, to help Stapa, who had followed the wolf to the main battle. A strong voice called, “Hobbit, Wait!” When Hilds looked back at him, that man was pointing to the same ridge over which the trolls had come. There, he saw three figures charging into the scene. Gunr’s kin, giants, bearing long-handled hammers and wooden clubs, broke upon the rear of the swarm around Gunr, who had fallen beneath many trolls.
Stapa soon reached Gunr’s fallen form and stood over him, his great paws lashing out, crushing troll heads, breaking their arms, legs, and bodies with each blow. Hilds saw that the wolf had passed through the battle and ran over and around boulders, up the north side of the great bowl. Hands fell on Hilds’s shoulders from behind, and two seeming identical men dropped to one knee along either side of him. “Are you wounded?” one of them asked.
“N, no,” he managed. The twins were attired in even finer dress than Haldir or their other companion. They exuded a strange, ethereal air, and Hilds thought thatu they must be elves or something akin to elves. Looking at the third bowman, who looked more like Haldir, dressed like him, and perhaps a little shorter, was clearly a man. They all had long swords in their capable fists, as well as the bows slung, now, on their backs. “You, you…are Haldir’s kin?”
“Yes, something like that,” one the third one. “I am Arvedon, of the Dunadain. These are Lord Elrond’s sons, Elladan and Elrohir. We have tracked you for two days now. We owe you a debt for raising a cairn over Haldir.”
Hilds looked up at the Elrond’s sons, now standing tall over him. They observed the decimation of the trolls. The giants had killed the last of them and stood looking at the great bear, Stapa, who slowly gave way for them to move to Gunr’s side.
One of Elrond’s sons pointed to Stapa, with something like a smile on his handsome face, and asked, “By the Valar, who is that?”
“He…is my friend, a man…of Rohan. We… travel together,” Hilds replied trying to get his breath. “ He…um…has a gift…you might say. You have been seeking Haldir, then?”
“Indeed, we feared he must have run into trouble, when he was late in his return to Imladris,” the other of Elrond’s sons said. Turning to Hilds he asked, “Do you, my hobbit friend, have a similar gift?”
“No, I do not. And I didn’t know, until a little while ago that Carag was, was…”
“A werewolf?” Arvedon asked. “It is said that she bears a curse from the master of the Olog Hai of Dol Guldur.” Arvedon rose then and held a brief conversation with Elrond’s sons in what Hilds thought sure must be elvish. “We think that you two should come with us, back to Imladris. My Lord Elrond will wish to know of you.”
“We have our own errand,” Hilds said sensing that they would not insist. Though they were three very capable warriors, they surely saw that forcing Hilds and Stapa to comply was out of the question. When Hilds looked around again, he noticed that Gunr had risen to his feet, at which Hilds sighed in relief. “Plus, we must see to this giant’s welfare. But for him, we would have been caught unaware by the trolls.” Despite the help of these three hunters, who had also saved him, Hilds still didn’t want to risk further entanglement with Elrond or his people. Elrond’s sons and Arvedon nodded.
“When that errand is finished, please do seek us in Imladris. As for us, we will follow after our quarry. What did you call her?”
“Carag. That was the name she gave us,” Hilds replied.
Arvedon smiled and said, “And you had no idea what she was? ‘Carag,’ in the speech of the Sylvan elves she comes from means ‘fang.’”
“She is of elf kind, then,” Hilds said, not rising to the jest. “That explains her beauty, I suppose.”
“Losiel was her birth name, “Arvedon said. “She was abducted from King Thranduil’s people when she was a child. We have hunted for her for years. Where she was held, we do not know, Dol Guldur or Moria, probably, but when she escaped or was let go, giants found her and made contact with us to help her. Gunr and his family have been helpful to us from time to time.”
“Or let go, you say?” Hilds asked.
“Aye, there have been many such captives in the last decade or so, as though a single enemy is behind all the curses, with a will to inflict ruin. Are you sure that your friend, Stapa, is not such a one? We have never heard of a werebear in these abductions, but that doesn’t seem too far of a guess as to the source of his power.”
The words of the wight came back to him, then, and Hilds had to wonder if such wasn’t the case. Still, something held him back. “No, I think not. He was raised by his own people and met me while I hunted orcs in the Trollshaws. He is his own man,” Hilds said, desiring to believe it true.
“Then, you are the one that orcs call ‘Mik-ghush,’ the ‘small death,’” one of the sons of Elrond said, smiling. “You are known to our father, who would welcome you to Rivendell.” Hilds did not know which was Elladan and which was Elrohir, and never would.
“Yes, they called me that, those that escaped me, anyway. And, thank you, I shall endeavor to visit your halls when our journey is over,” Hilds replied, thinking that in time it might prove good to do. “I owe you a debt for your timely intervention and well-placed arrows.”
“Then we will bid you namarie, farewell, for now, for we must stay on Carag’s track so that she come to no harm and do no more,” Arvedon said. Elladan and Elrohir were already ahead of him, skirting around the party of giants helping Gunr limp back toward his cave.
Hilds watched the giants come and earned a weary smile from Gunr as he passed. Down in the bottom of that mountain bowl, Stapa the bear sat on his haunches, his great head looking this way and that at the stinking bodies of the Olog Hai around him. Hilds went back to the cave and fetched Stapa’s garments. When he came again to his friend’s side, it was Stapa the overgrown youth who sat, head down, amongst his slain foes.
“Boy, are you hurt?” Hilds asked, tossing the garments to Stapa. He sat still, with his unfastened clothing draped around him, head down.
“These were bad trolls, huh, Hilds?” Stapa muttered, like an over-tired child.
“Yes, the worst I’ve ever seen,” Hilds replied, “And the good thing is that none of them will return to their masters.”
“Who were those men?” Stapa asked.
“They were hunters, like Haldir. They are going to find Carag and get her safely back to Imladris, Rivendell, I mean,” Hilds said, working one of Stapa’s boots back onto his feet.
“We…we are going on, now, right Hilds? To the wizard?”
“Yes. I believe we should, after we have helped Gunr as much as we can,” Hilds said, handing the laces to Stapa to tighten them. “Or, I suppose, if you want to, we can follow them. Those three were a big help, though not as big a help as you were.”
“No, I…I guess we should just go,” Stapa murmured. Hilds stood looking at his huge friend, who had tears showing in the dust on his cheeks. Stapa pulled on the pieces of his tunic and leggings and laced them to his body while he sighed.
“You love her, don’t you, my lad?”
Stapa nodded and sniffed. “Yes,” he said in a small voice. “But after what happened in the cave, I…I don’t think…she will…ever…love me.”
“Her real name is Losiel, and she is an elf of Mirkwood,” Hilds said.
“She sure was—is, I mean—beautiful,” Stapa sighed. “Are all elves so pretty?”
“I’m told so,” Hilds said, “but I suppose that’s just something we’ll have to find out, just one thing among the many.
“Can you help me gather my arrows?” Hilds asked, plucking one from the head of a dead troll. “I have an idea we might have further need of them.”
In three days’ time, they found the headwaters of the Gladden River on the eastern slopes of the Misty Mountains. They had passed those three days in silence, Hilds wondering about many things, and Stapa wondering about one, a maiden called Carag, who had once been Losiel.