Part 3: Vraeden
The grass was soft beneath her bare feet. The leaves rustled gently in the autumn breeze. In the small clearing, Vraeden lost herself to the sounds of nature. Like all elves, she felt at home among the woodlands, in the midst of the flora and fauna. She sang a melody from her childhood and danced carefree, her flowing gown glimmering in the sun.
Voontak was off consulting with the Lord Elrond and the renowned scholars of Imladris about the tomes they had retrieved from the hidden library. When last she checked, Braggar was arguing the merits of a strong dwarven ale with an elven vintner ten centuries his senior. Sally was off exploring all of the nooks and crannies of Rivendell. Cayleigh and Garald had disappeared “to clean their weapons”, or whatever euphemism they came up with to spend some time together. That they were a couple was an open secret among the fellowship; only Sally seemed to mind, but even she knew that the pair worked well together, both in battle and out, and that the handsome man’s affections would never be directed towards her.
That left Vraeden some time alone for her reverie.
Deep within the safe borders of Imladris, Vraeden didn’t fear attack from brigands or goblins. She lost herself to the siren call of the Song. It gave her peace. It gave her purpose. It gave her harmony. It gave her power.
Everything she was—indeed, everything she aspired to be—was dictated by the Song. Her ballads and anthems were the outward expressions of the Song, but it resided deep within her soul. The words and music she called upon were meaningless to those who did not follow the Song. To them, they were simple tunes and rhyming verses. However, to her, they were markers of something greater. Of a gift she could not squander or take across the seas to the Undying Lands. Not yet.
Her brother held similar power, but his runic magic flowed from a different source. More than the brute force of Braggar or the stealth of Midnight or the resolute strength of Cayleigh, the words of the elves harkened back to a bygone age, their secrets preserved only by a select few among the Free Peoples.
Vraeden knew about the rising power of Mordor and the corruption of the White Hand. Heroes from across Ennor gathered to fight the growing evil, and she knew that everyone had a role to play, some great and some small.
And so she danced and sang, reveling among the trees of her youth and the ground of her ancestors.
Her joy was so great that she did not hear Cayleigh and Garald approach. When she finally noticed them, Vraeden spun in a flowing pirouette and bowed deeply. The humans smiled, mesmerised by the beauty and poetic movements of the elf.
All three were out of their traveling gear. They were bathed and dressed in fine elven silks. Gerald looked handsome and regal; he radiated confidence and power. He was always well-mannered and gallant. If she were not two score lifetimes older then he, Vraeden might have considered pursuing an extended companionship with him, but like all men, he would grow old and die while she retained her eternal youth. She had learned that lesson a long time ago. The hard way.
Cayleigh was obviously less comfortable. When she wasn’t garbed in thick platemail armour, she was a very pretty young woman. Like the others in their company, her body was toned and muscular from a lifetime of battle, but she still managed to appear curvy and feminine, even with the sword strapped to her waist over the fine gossamer gown. Vraeden knew Cayleigh always felt intimidated around the elves. After all, they were ageless and graceful. They had seen generations of men come and go, and would remain long after the grandchildren of living men had passed.
The young warrior woman also thought that she was nothing more than a begger who wore the trappings of a fighter, but was still just a scared little girl inside. Vraeden saw those feelings in the woman’s eyes the first time they met, but nothing could be further from the truth. The elf admired Cayleigh’s inner determination and fire. For while the elves might have the perspective of five thousand years, many lacked the intense passion that fueled the race of men. For that, Vraeden admired the men. They lived and loved hard and fast because their lives were short, at least by the reckoning of the Quendi.
“Good morning,” Vraeden said gently, the Song still ringing in her ears.
“Suilad mellon,” Cayleigh replied, and the elf smiled to herself. The woman’s accent was noticeably stilted to the sound of elven ears, but she was trying and that made Vraeden happy.
“We have been summoned by Lord Elrond,” Garald spoke the very words the elf expected to hear. “I think they have some idea about what the Dourhands are up to in Sarnur.”
“Very well,” Vraeden sighed and gathered up the few things she had brought with her.
The three of them made their way to the Last Homely House where they found their other companions in the Hall of Fire. Elven warriors stood at the door, and the usual inhabitants within the Hall were gone.
Lord Elrond and the powerful Eldar Glorfindel waited for them. The six bowed as Elrond bade them to sit at an intricately-carved ilex table.
“Thank you for coming at such short notice. We believe that we have discovered the plans of the Dourhands.” The six exchanged a worried glance. Elrond motioned to a collection of bowls on the table. “These are sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter. The ancient texts you uncovered contained a recipe which describes great power and terrible destruction when these are mixed in certain concentrations. The message from Cardavor describes the Dourhands attempting to use a similar concoction.”
“To what end, Lord elf? The Dourhands aren’t much for alchemy. They can barely make steel,” Braggar snorted.
“Very true.” Elrond replied. He drew a chunk of charcoal from the bowl and tossed it into one of the great ovens. It briefly flared and began to burn slowly. “I believe they have been given specific guidance by another. Cardavor has reported couriers bearing the mark of the White Hand coming and going among the Dourhands.”
Then he picked up another bowl off the table and tossed it into the fire. It exploded in a brilliant burst of flame and a wave of heat washed over the room. The six companions shielded their eyes and covered their ears.
“Cardavor believes the Dourhands are preparing to use this weapon against the Longbeards of Thorin’s Hall,” Elrond said. “If they have enough of this powder, they could fell the walls of Gondamon or Thorin’s Gate. We cannot allow Thorin’s Hall and Celondim to fall.”
“What would you have us do?” Garald asked.
“You must return to Sarnur and destroy this weapon,” Glorfindal’s voice was heavy. “Along with any who know its secret.”
“We will offer you what aid we can,” Elrond continued. “Provisions, weapons, armour. All of Imladris is at your disposal.”
Vraeden looked around the table at her friends. In any other group, she might have questioned her other five companions. But not these. She knew that in addition to being skilled warriors, each of the others had a profound sense of right and wrong, and that none would shirk their duty to fight for the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth.
“We will do what we can, of course,” Garald spoke for the others.
“That is all we can ask. I will see to it that you are properly outfitted,” Glorfindel rose and the others followed.
As the company filed out of the room and back to their guest quarters, Lord Elrond asked to speak with Vraeden and her brother.
“A fortnight before your arrival, another company departed Rivendell,” he told them. “I cannot help but think that there is some greater evil at work. Isengard is restless, as is Barad-dûr. We must be on guard.”
“Of course, Lord Elrond,” Vraeden nodded.
“What of these companions? Do they have the strength to succeed in this mission?”
“Yes, they do,” Voontak’s voice grew hard with pride. Pride in his friends.
“Gandalf the Grey believes it will be the strength of men that carries this world into the Fourth Age.”
“You do not agree,” Vraeden said. It wasn’t a question.
“I hope it is true,” Elrond sighed. “But I do not believe it. There is weakness in men.”
“No more than the weakness in elves that allowed Morgoth to corrupt them and make the race of orcs, my lord,” Vraeden’s eyes darkened for a moment. Then her voice softened. “Our time is over. The power of the Eldar fades. Who else but men can rise to the occasion? Yes, some of them will fail. Some are vile and corrupt. But there is great goodness in them, too. The Fourth Age will be when the race of men becomes the guardians of Middle Earth. And it will be men such as Garald Osgood, Son of Angelos who will lead them.”
“I pray you are correct,” Elrond sighed, as if he had just had this same conversation within himself and didn’t like how it ended.
“We cannot watch over this world forever,” Voontak said. “Even though we may wish it.”
“Very well, my friends. This mission is in your hands now.” Elrond rose and saluted the other elves. “When you are ready to depart, see the stablemaster. Our swiftest horses will take you to Erid Luin.”
A short time later, the six companions rode out of Imladris. As they prepared to depart, Vraeden returned to the woods of her homeland once more to listen to the Song, and perhaps divine some direction. Out in the woods, surrounded by nature, she noticed that the Song changed. It was slower. And darker.
But to Vraeden, that mattered not. She didn’t fear the coming darkness.
As always, Cayleigh rode at the head of the group, her vigilant eyes watching out for danger. At one point, Vraeden moved her horse from the middle of the procession to join her friend at the front.
“I have something for you,” she said softly.
Cayleigh blushed slightly, and the elf knew the young woman would be uncomfortable accepting another gift from the elves. Her old mismatched armour was gone, replaced with the finest plate from the forges of elven master smiths. The new platemail was lighter, yet stronger. An elven shield was strapped to her saddle and a fine lebethron bow slung across her back.
Reaching into her pack, Vraeden withdrew a longsword and handed it to the young woman, whose eyes grew wide. The intricate pattern on the pommel was laced with magical runes and sigils. Cayleigh drew it from the scabbard and found it to be perfectly balanced. It seemed to fit her hand as if it were an extension of her arm.
“This sword belonged to our brother. The storytellers say that it was forged by Lord Elrond himself,” Vraeden said.
“You have another brother?”
“We had a brother.” A wistful smile passed over Vraeden’s lips. “He was slain a thousand years ago in a far away land by a long-forgotten foe. It would have gone to Voontak, but he has no use for swords.”
“What about you? Shouldn’t this be your sword?”
“I already have a sword,” Vraeden winked. “I carry a blade that was once my father’s, just as Garald wields his father’s sword. This weapon is a powerful item from the Second Age, and these are times when such weapons cannot collect dust or sit idle in display cases.”
“Thank you,” Cayleigh whispered.
“You’re very welcome.” Inwardly, Vraeden felt as if a small weight were lifted from a corner of her heart. The world needed heroes. The Song told her that Cayleigh was one of those who would answer the call to fight the coming evil and the dread that was spreading about the land.
Vraeden didn’t fear the coming darkness. Because it is only in darkness that the light shines the brightest.
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