Chapter 1: announced, yet unexpected guests
The Master of Rivendell leaned back in his chair with an inaudible sigh. Again he eyed the four men sitting in front of his desk with a frown.
Something about them felt wrong but he could not put his finger on it. The longer he listened to them the more the uneasy feeling rising up in his stomach intensified. Schooling his features into an unreadable mask and concentrating harder to identify what had unsettled him, Elrond hardly heard the words spoken by the leader of the little group, a sturdy mid-aged man with unfriendly eyes.
However it was not the words he spoke but rather the manners the four displayed that were out of place. The men were merchants from the little town of Ardent, not a day’s ride from Rivendell. The town lay nestled on the outskirts of the great forest that surrounded the hidden valley.
Every year in the spring, emissaries from the village arrived to negotiate the terms of the upcoming grain harvest and settle the delivery schedules. This year’s meeting had been requested via a message that had arrived two weeks before. It was an annual routine, but Elrond felt ill at ease the moment the four men had entered Imladris.
Maybe one reason for his unease was the fact that usually his chief councillor Erestor negotiated with the representatives from other villages or realms. Erestor, however, was away on a similar errand and therefore not available.
With Glorfindel, his chief troop-commander also not present to attend the negotiations, the Lord of the Last Homely House had the task of having to deal with the humans himself.
An adept negotiator himself, the healer tried to get rid of his unsettled feelings, but again to no avail. He nearly groaned however when a short flash of foresight crossed his vision.
…………someone shouting and running through the forest, a raised knife, a fleeing horse…..
Opening his eyes after he had briefly closed them he looked at his guests and realized in surprise that they had not even noticed his short inattentiveness. Even more disturbed, he began searching in earnest for the reason why the men had upset him and what had triggered this vision. Or had he witnessed something that had already happened?
First of all, the four were complete strangers to him. This was surprising because Imladris and the little town had experienced good relations for many years and the Mayor, Calen, was well known in the Valley. He had always sent men worthy of his trust to keep the alliances close. Those traders, often accompanied by the mayor’s son, Thoren, were also well known in the Valley.
Additionally, the four men had been delayed by a few days and had no real excuse for their lateness. Not that the Elf-lord had a right to question the time schedule of the men, but never had the traders arrived this late after an agreed upon date without a plausible excuse.
Shortly after their arrival Elrond had briefly conversed with some of the patrol leaders, but they reported no recent increase in orc activity or other disturbances that might have accounted for the traders’ delay.
Additionally, the travellers had no idea what they should ask for, or how they should properly negotiate the annual agreements.
And now, after coming so far with his musings, it hit Elrond like a blow. The four didn’t look like townspeople at all, much less like merchants sent by Calen.
He carefully guarded his expression and redirected his mind toward the four in front of his desk. The leader still squabbled over something unimportant and the other three were more interested in the room’s décor than in their companion’s words.
The Elf-lord thought quickly. Should he arrest them and inquire about the real merchants? What if his feelings had deceived him?
No! The four unwashed subjects before him looked exactly like the ruffians plaguing the countryside of late. Robbing and murdering were their daily business.
The elves had received many reports and even pleas for help to identify and catch these ruffians and bring them to justice. Glorfindel had already sent out a small group of his warriors to investigate in this matter. Elrond´s twin sons had even accompanied one of these troops, intent on making the roads safe again and to remove the threat for elves and men alike.
The Elven Lord wondered what these four hoped to achieve here by trying to deceive him. Maybe they had not expected to be brought to the Lord of this house. Maybe they had hoped to speak with some assistant and then…then what?
Elrond shook his head inwardly. Were they really so bold to hope to steal something of value here? Yet, they had surely not intended to visit the valley.
They probably had wanted to disappear after attacking the merchants from Ardent but were caught off guard by the warriors Glorfindel had sent out to look for the missing traders. If they did not want to raise suspicion they had to play along.
Having had enough of this charade now; the Master of Rivendell rose, startling and efficiently silencing the quartet. Slowly Elrond stepped around his desk, four pairs of eyes following his every move, still focused on playing their roles.
With no gesture indicating that he had discovered their plot, Elrond cleared his throat. “I think we should take a break and I will……”
While he had half turned back to his desk, pretending to gather some papers, he was unable to finish his sentence, when one of the men sprang up with agility and speed the Elf-lord had not anticipated.
Only surprised for a moment the healer whirled around quickly, however he was a second too late. The tall man grabbed him from behind with an arm slung tightly around his neck and a blade was pressed against his throat.
Elrond froze not willing to provoke any further rash action because he clearly felt the nervousness and quick heartbeat in the body pressed against his own from behind. He chided himself for his carelessness. He had not even considered that the humans would bring a weapon into his presence. A possibly fatal mistake he now realized.
Before he could think of a method to overpower the one holding him the man pressed the knife harder against the side of his neck. “Move an inch and you will join your creator, elf!” he hissed.
Elrond stood perfectly still, not doubting for a minute that the man would carry through with his threat if pressed. The four men were surely no match for a trained warrior such as he, but the sharp blade at his throat was dangerous. A cut artery no one could undo.
Breathing as shallowly as possible to not increase the pressure of the blade on his neck Elrond followed one of the men with his eyes while he walked toward the door and listened with his ear pressed against the wood. A third one was busy closing the heavy draperies.
It was a paradox. Elrond knew that with one shout, he could alert the whole household to his predicament, but in the same instant he would be dead. And who should help him - the cook, a chamber maid, one of the healers? No, they would not be able to act appropriately. He had never been in need of a personal guard, and had no guardian standing at his door or following his every step. All elves capable of coming to his aid, mainly the warriors, his advisors or his sons, were on patrol, out on the training fields or were completely out of the valley.
As if sensing his thoughts a foul breath near his ear growled. “One sound from you and you are dead, understand?” Elrond sighed inaudible, not daring to nod.
The Elf-lord was angry; angry at himself for not anticipating that these deceivers would have nothing to lose and would act unpredictably.
His thoughts were again interrupted when the man at the door let out a low whistle. “We have to leave”, the listener at the door whispered and strode toward his companion holding the Elf-Lord.
Elrond furrowed his brow. What had startled the men? He could hear no one approach. The house was unusually unoccupied at this time of the year. There were no guests and no representatives to host right now. Most of his staff was on leave to visit family or relatives. He could not expect that someone would inquire about him or his guests any time soon. A servant had brought refreshment only a few minutes ago. If the men would manage to overpower him they had a good chance of leaving the valley unnoticed.
Still unable to move an inch with the blade pressed against his throat he stiffened even more when two of the men began to rifle through the contents on his desk and check the boards along the wall. Elrond pressed his lips into a thin line. He could barely believe what was happening. Their only purpose was to steal. If he had considered some nobler motives behind their actions before, he was deeply disappointed now.
The Master of Rivendell narrowed his eyes when one of the men opened a little wooden box on his desk which held the circlet he wore on official occasions. The High King Gil-Galad had given it to him on the evening before he was killed on the battlefield. It was only a ceremonial device but it was of high value, being made from pure mithril. Having recognized the value immediately, the thief grinned and shoved the beautiful jewel quickly into his pocket; another indication that these men knew their business.
The Elf-lord was forced to watch them steal other items from his office; jewels, money and things of personal or historical value rescued from days long past. Elrond was at least relieved that his most valuable possession, Vilya, was still on his finger, invisible for others to see.
With a quick glance towards his desk he tried to determine how quickly he could grab the jewelled dagger which lay on top of some papers. It was a gift from the Woodland King used only to open letters, but nonetheless a weapon.
Coming to the conclusion that they would not let him live when they had finished their business, the Elf-Lord decided to act. They had most assuredly murdered the traders from Ardent they would not hesitate to kill him too. Distracted as the men were with searching through his things Elrond knew he might not get a better chance. After the man who had already taken his circlet also pocketed the jewelled dagger with a broad grin, Elrond briefly closed his eyes to concentrate. Now he had to face them without a weapon to use for his defense. He took a deep breath, stiffened his muscles and shoved his elbow forcefully back right in the pit of his opponent’s stomach.
Before the man could even feel the air rushing out of his lungs the healer had leaned back in the suddenly free room, ducked out from under the blade, and stepped sideways to avoid the flailing weapon attempting to strike him. Surprised by the powerful shove, the men tumbled back gasping for breath.
At the same instant the Elf-Lord turned just in time to deflect the blow of a second knife swung at him from another of the quartet. The other two had recovered from their shock remarkably fast. Unarmed, he had no other choice but to raise his arm to deflect the blow.
The healer gasped when the blade cut deeply into his forearm but he managed to twist the man’s arm with his uninjured hand sharply before he could strike again, the weapon clattering to the floor.
Sensing another man approach he turned again and slammed his elbow right into the face of the third one who was sneaking up on him from behind. The man staggered back with a grunt while holding his broken nose, blood pouring through his fingers.
Intent on ending this the Elf-lord bent down to retrieve the fallen dagger trying to turn the odds in his favour, but before he could rise again he felt a sharp pain in his back. Momentarily surprised he gasped and looked at the leader who had regained his breath and kneeled behind him his dagger raised to strike again. Forcing back the pain Elrond kicked out with his leg and sent the men sprawling onto the floor a second time.
Elrond blinked at the tears clouding his vision and grabbed the table’s edge to haul himself back to his feet when he felt another blow to his back. Now he could not hold back a cry of pain and sank back to the floor. Grabbing the errant dagger tightly he struck out and sliced through the man’s trousers right into the flesh beneath his knee. He heard a choked cry of pain as the man grabbed his knee and tumbled to the floor.
Before Elrond could gather enough strength to rise again he felt another sharp pain in his back and another….
The Elf-Lord slid down the side of his desk and tried to stay conscious but he was losing this battle. The healer knew that the wounds had to be serious considering his quickly deteriorating senses.
Although there were additional blows, he barely felt them while consciousness left him.
To be continued…………………………
As always many many thanks to Erulisse and to Selene Aduial for beta reading this story for me. Without them this would not be possible.