Theodred squinted at the horizon, but he couldn't make out anything in the gathering dusk. Everything was too shadowy-he might not reach the Golden Wood before nightfall. He could feel Selwyn's sides heaving under him. The poor horse, barely more than a colt, wasn't yet used to carrying a rider all day, for days on end.
He glanced anxiously at the red-orange sun hanging low near the horizon. It was still on his left, which meant that he was heading in the right general direction. He could only hope that he hadn't made some stupid mistake and gotten lost. He should have run into the Great River hours ago, and been able to follow it upstream to the Wood. Instead, there had been nothing but grasslands for miles.
Theodred slumped dejectedly, closing his eyes for a moment in misery. His father must have sent men after him by now-it had been four days since he had left Edoras, and even with a day's head start he couldn't hope to stay ahead of Rohan's finest trackers and riders. A fine picture he would make when they found him-lost in the very lands he would someday rule over, dragged home in disgrace and punished like a disobedient child.
'Curse you, Eothain!' he howled silently. 'Curse you and your gods-bedamned dare...and curse my own stubborn pride!'
He groaned softly, slumping even more. Why, oh why had he ever agreed to test his courage by venturing into the Golden Wood and trying to catch a glimpse of its sorceress-queen? He had been prepared to risk the wrath of the Lady of the Wood -- after all, a Son of Eorl feared no elf-witch! -- but he hadn't known that simply getting to the Wood would be so hard. He was sixteen, nearly a man; he should already be able to travel as well as any of his father's warriors!
Resigning himself to disgrace come the morning, Theodred sighed and began looking around for a likely place to camp for the night. Then he saw it-a dark blur on the horizon ahead that might...just might...be the Wood! He kicked Selwyn into a fast trot, hope rising swiftly in his heart.
Theodred finally reached the fringes of the Golden Wood just moments after the sun sank below the horizon. He slid off Selwyn to let his poor horse rest, taking the reins and leading the stallion into the shelter of the trees. He touched the smooth bark of one sapling, nearly dancing with elation. He had made it! He had reached the Golden Wood!
Cautiously, he led Selwyn deeper into the forest, looking around curiously. Now that he was here, he had to find the Lady of the Wood...but how? He supposed that he should first find a place to camp for the night, and leave exploring for the morning. If he wanted to light a fire, he should probably go deeper in so that his father's trackers wouldn't-
Theodred froze in terror. A figure dropped from a tree to land in front of him, and swiftly pointed an arrow at his throat.
"What is your business in Lorien?" the figure demanded.
Theodred ran for it, dropping Selwyn's reins and throwing himself desperately to the side. He stumbled through the trees, tripping on roots and scrambling desperately onwards, anywhere, away from the archer.
Something heavy slammed into his back and knocked him down. He rolled over and lashed out with one fist, hit something solid and warm. Then a hand grabbed both his wrists and pinned them to the ground, and a heavy weight settled on his stomach.
He looked up into the face of the person sitting on him, and his eyes widened in surprise. His captor, presumably the archer from before, looked no older than he. A young face with clear grey eyes glaring down at him, looking as if he could be one of Theodred's friends who'd pinned him in a wrestling match.
"What is your business in Lorien?" the elf repeated. With his free hand, he drew a dagger that hung on his belt and pointed it at Theodred's throat. Shaken out of his momentary surprise, the fear rushed back to Theodred, clawing coldly at his gut.
"I...I..." he stammered, "I didn't mean any harm, that is, I wasn't spying or anything like that, and why would I be spying anyway, I'm definitely not allied with, you know, the Dark One or anything like that!" Theodred knew that he was babbling, but he couldn't seem to stop. "It's just that my friend, he dared me to come here -- I'm going to kill him when I get back, curse that Eothain! -- yes, he dared me to come here and look for the Lady of the Wood -- mmph!"
His captor's eyes had been growing wider and wider as he rambled on, and finally the elf dropped the dagger and pressed his hand to Theodred's mouth to silence him.
"Wait, wait!" he cried. "You speak too -- uhm, you are speaking too...too..." he seemed at a loss for words. "Too fast! You are speaking too fast."
Theodred stared at him. The elf suddenly looked embarrassed, and quickly took away his hand.
"...What?" Theodred finally asked.
"I...do not speak well your language," his captor admitted. It was too dark to see him well, but Theodred could almost hear the blush in his voice.
Well, this was unexpected.
"Uhm -- all right, I'll...try to speak slower, then..." Theodred said, finally finding his voice. "I...well, I didn't mean any harm when I came here. My friend Eothain dared me to do it."
The elf looked puzzled. "He...dared? What is 'dared'?"
"He...um...he told me to prove that I'm brave by going here and trying to catch a glimpse of -- that is, trying to see -- the Lady of the Wood."
"Lady Galadriel? Why? -- no, no, you do not have to answer. I will not understand!" the elf laughed. "I'm sorry, but you cannot watch -- uhm, see-Lady Galadriel. You cannot continue in Lorien."
Theodred sighed. "I thought as much. Ah well, at least I can tell Eothain that I've entered the Golden Wood."
The elf smiled and nodded. He slid off Theodred's stomach and stood, offering a hand. "Do you want rest with me in my...uhm, my...house? My resting place. It is too dark for...I cannot say. It is too dark for...you return?"
Theodred smiled back and took the offered hand, pulling himself to his feet. "Thank you," he said with genuine gratitude.
The elf's smile grew even brighter. "I am called Rumil," he said, bowing slightly.
"I am Theodred, son of Theoden King of Rohan."
Rumil gasped in surprise and hastily deepened his bow, but Theodred stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't bother; it doesn't really matter," he said. In truth, he was flattered-everyone in Edoras had known him all his life and didn't care that he was of the royal house; they treated him just like any other boy of his age. But he didn't want Rumil to treat him too formally. Something about the elf made Theodred want, with a startling intensity, to be close to him.
On the way to Rumil's "resting place", they found Selwyn trotting lazily through the woods, his reins dragging on the ground. Theodred petted his muzzle in greeting, then took the reins in hand. It was an odd procession they made-Rumil leading Theodred by the hand, seeming to see effortlessly through the shadows, and Theodred in turn leading Selwyn behind him.
Finally, Rumil stopped before a large tree. "Wait here," he said. Not waiting for a response, he scrambled up the tree-trunk as swiftly as a squirrel and disappeared into the branches. A moment later, a silvery-grey rope ladder dropped down in front of Theodred. "Come here!" called Rumil's voice.
"All right!" replied Theodred. He paused a moment to tie Selwyn's reins to one of the lower branches and remove the saddlebags and bedroll, slinging them over his own shoulder. He took hold of the ladder and began to climb.
When he reached the top, he looked around in amazement at the little wooden platform that was hidden in the branches. It was a cozy little place, with a lamp set in the middle that gave off a bright, silvery light. Rumil was kneeling, arranging a blanket beside what was plainly his own bedroll.
"There's no need," Theodred said, kneeling beside Rumil and putting his hand gently over the elf's to stop him. "I have my own." He unslung his bedroll from over his shoulder and laid it out, setting the saddlebags beside it.
"Do you have food also?" asked Rumil.
"Yes, I do," Theodred replied. Rumil nodded in acknowledgment and moved off towards the side.
As Theodred unpacked his provisions and began eating, Rumil returned to sit beside him, bringing something wrapped in leaves. When the elf took off the leaf wrappings and broke off a piece of the contents to chew on, Theoden saw that it was some kind of bread. It must have been delicious, from the way Rumil proceeded to lick every last crumb off his fingers.
Theodred turned back to his own food. He and Rumil ate together in silence for a few minutes, but when he saw Rumil sneaking curious glances at his dried venison an idea suddenly came to him.
"Rumil?" he asked.
"Why don't we share our food? That way I can taste yours, and you can taste mine."
"Yes, good!" Rumil agreed enthusiastically.
Theodred handed a strip of the venison to Rumil, and Rumil broke off a piece of his food for Theodred. When he tasted the elf-bread, Theodred closed his eyes in bliss. It was the most wonderful thing he'd ever eaten-light yet filling, and deliciously sweet.
When he opened his eyes, he had to stifle a chuckle. Rumil was trying to bite off a piece of the venison, looking endearingly uncertain as he tried to imitate what he'd seen Theodred doing earlier.
As Rumil, finally successful, chewed the meat with a considering expression, Theodred remembered another thing he'd brought with him. He rummaged in his saddlebags for a moment before he found what he was looking for.
"Here, Rumil," he said, setting the small wineskin in front of his companion. "Some of the finest mead in Edoras. See what you think."
"Thank you," Rumil smiled. He took a thoughtful sip, then smiled approvingly before taking another, longer swallow. "It's like..." he searched a moment for the word, "like wine." He went over to his own stores of food and took out a small glass bottle, which he handed to Theodred.
"Wine of Dorwinion," he said, pointing to the dark red liquid inside.
Theodred pulled out the stopper and took a mouthful. "It's delicious!" he complimented Rumil. "Here, do you want some?"
He handed the bottle back to Rumil, who took it with another "Thank you!" and offered him the mead in return.
The boy and the elf stayed up late into the night, cementing their newfound friendship by exchanging food, drink and stories.
After midnight, when the moon had already begun to set, they found themselves sprawled side by side, tangled up in their blankets. Their elation at finding a new friend had left them almost too excited to sleep, but weariness and drink had taken their toll, and both were drowsy.
Rumil was idly running his fingers through the mass of golden hair that spilled over the floor. His hair and Theodred's were nearly the same color, and now they were so mixed together it was impossible to tell the difference.
"It is the same..." he murmured hazily to himself. "Yours and mine."
Theodred heard the quiet whisper and turned his head to give Rumil a warm, tired smile. Running his eyes over the hair that Rumil was playing with, his attention was caught by the pointed ear-tip peeking out from behind his companion's hair.
With sleepy curiosity, he reached out to touch the point of the ear. He ran his fingers lightly over it, and Rumil made a pleased little noise. Amused, Theodred stroked the ear again, and elicited the same response. Growing bolder, he rubbed his thumb gently over the point. Rumil gave what seemed like a soft hum of contentment, and rolled over onto his stomach to get closer to Theodred.
Theodred kept stroking the elf's ear, losing himself in the gently hypnotic rhythm. Rumil's eyes soon grew unfocused in sleep, and Theodred followed him soon after, his hand slipping down and his eyelids slowly falling closed. The two of them slept that way for the rest of the night, Theodred's hand cradling Rumil's neck and a faint smile on both their faces.
Late the next morning, Theodred stood beside Selwyn, ready for the journey back to Edoras. He was adjusting the saddlebags when he heard Rumil's voice behind him and turned.
"Theodred! Do you like a thing -- do you want a thing so that your friend will know that it is the truth that you came here?"
Rumil was offering a leaf-shaped pendant that Theodred had noticed him wearing last night. Theodred hesitated, not wanting to take anything too precious, but Rumil nodded and held it out towards him.
"Thank you," he smiled, taking the pendant and putting it around his own neck.
"You're welcome!" Rumil replied cheerfully. He hesitated for a moment, then kissed Theodred mischievously on the cheek and shot up the tree like a startled squirrel. Theodred could hear him laughing from the branches, and joined in with a bemused chuckle.
"Farewell, Rumil!" he called as he swung himself up into the saddle. "Until we meet again!"
"Farewell!" Rumil echoed.
Theodred grinned and fingered the leaf pendant. He would have such a story to tell Eothain when he got back to Edoras! And he would have to find an excuse as soon as possible to come back to the Golden Wood.
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