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18. Mysterious Footsteps
For two full days the elves scanned the area where they had found the footprint, without any trace of its owner. But on the third day Galion, who had been taking the lead on his large gelding, finally spotted something. A single file of tracks, running straight over a boggy part between two hills.
“At least there seems to be only one of them,” Bronedir said. That had them all relax a bit. One uruk would not be too bad, if that was what it was.
Galion said he thought these footprints looked fresher than the first one, but it was still very hard to tell how long ago they were made. It had not rained for several days.
They followed the tracks between the hills, and came out on a flatter expanse, covered in purple heather. The air smelled sweet, and hundreds of bees were humming.
“This is beautiful,” Legolas exclaimed, and provided one of his rare smiles to Wynne, who had come last. Whenever they were tracking monsters she preferred to take the rear.
“Yes it’s lovely!” She smiled back, and instantly decided there would be heather around their cottage in her next daydream.
“Here are more prints. Two sets of them!” Galion waved to the others from a small pool under a cliff face. “This seems to be their water hole. They have come here many times.”
The others joined him and dismounted. Thranduil dipped a finger in the water and tasted it.
“Sweet and clear. Maybe we should take the opportunity to refill our waterskins.”
“I could do with a washing,” said Bronedir. “It has been a while.”
“It is not safe to linger, they might be near.” Legolas looked tense. “And we should keep our voices down.”
“I agree with Legolas.” Wynne glanced about her anxiously, imagining a huge orc jumping out from behind every thicket of brambles.
“We find the owners of the prints first, then we come back. If this is their regular watering place, then their den cannot be too far away,” Thranduil decided.
Galion had been following the cliff face a bit longer, and now came back.
“There is a path over here.”
Everybody drank their fill, including the horses, and then began to follow the narrow track. They rode slowly, the elves alert and wary, with Wynne tagging along a few yards behind just to be on the safe side.
The moorland ended and the ground grew rocky and rough. The path still went close to the cliff, which now had a slight overhang. Underneath it the ground was soggy, and they found new footprints, going in both directions and partly covering each other.
“This is odd.” Galion had lowered his voice to almost a whisper. He dismounted to take a closer look at a very small print, about the size of Wynne’s palm. “I have never seen an orc that small.”
“Could they have captured a human child?” Nodir looked aghast.
A chill seeped through Wynne. What would they find when they finally came to the orc den? Appalling images of dismembered and broken children came before her. She almost wished not to continue, but of course they had to. If there was a kidnapped child somewhere around, they must try to save it.
They went on, Wynne even slower than before, allowing the others to gain a few extra yards still. Then the track ended abruptly with a steep wall of huge boulders, and everybody came to a halt.
The elves dismounted and spread out among the rocks, searching for an opening or cave. Wynne remained seated on Vatna as usual, ready to bolt if any orcs would attack.
The summer air was hot and very still, the cliff overhang and boulder wall on two sides shielding the place from wind. Insects buzzed and birds chirped, and there was a sweet smell of herbs, wild rosemary perhaps, or thyme. Under different circumstances this would have been a lovely place.
A slight movement made Wynne turn her head up to the cliff side they had been following. An immense juniper bush grew a few yards above her, had it moved? She screwed up her eyes to see better. Yes, there definitely was a movement. It trembled slightly, and there was no wind, so something else must have caused it. She went cold with trepidation, and wished she could make the elves notice somehow. But they were too far away, and if she called out to them she would draw attention to herself. If an orc was hiding behind that bush it would jump down on her before she could flee.
Wynne very slowly made Vatna back away, all the while staring intently at the juniper.
It moved again, and now something emerged, equally slow and silent as herself.
It was a woman! Wynne’s eyes grew wide in surprise. A brown-skinned, black haired human woman, clad in rather ragged clothes. She had her back to the cliff and edged her way sideways, away from where the elves searched among the boulders. There seemed to be something behind her, something that she shielded with her body.
Their eyes met. The woman instantly stopped, looking frightened. She held her palms out to show she had no weapons, and then put a finger to her mouth. Her dark eyes had a pleading look. It was obvious she did not want to be found by the elves. But why? If she had been captured by orcs, the elves could help her. Did she think they were dangerous too? That Wynne was their prisoner?
“It’s okay, we don’t mean you any harm,” Wynne said in a low voice, and tried to look as friendly as possible. Just like the woman had done, she held her palms up.
The other shook her head vigorously and again motioned for Wynne to be silent, but the elves with their exceptional ears had already heard her and soon noticed whom she had talked with.
“There, it is a woman!” called Galion.
They quickly spread out in a semi circle around the cliff.
“Do not be afraid, we come in peace.” Thranduil had put down his two swords in their scabbards again, and the others had lowered their bows.
“Leave me alone.” The woman’s voice was dark and heavily accented.
“Of course, we are not after you. Have you seen an orc around here? A big one, human sized or larger.”
“No? We have seen tracks, footprints just here. Are you sure–”
“I said no. Now go.” The woman scowled, and Wynne noticed her eyebrows were almost up to Thranduil standard. Impressive.
Thranduil seemed rather perplexed at her fierce reaction, but then shrugged, and was just beginning to turn away when a thin wail instantly caught everyone’s attention. It had come from behind the woman.
“What was that? What are you concealing?” There was an edge to the king’s voice now, and his body had tensed.
“Nothing.” She began to tremble.
“Move away.” His voice was cold as ice, and Legolas, Nodir and Bronedir had drawn their bows.
The woman must have realized she had no option but to obey, and very slowly took a step to the side, tears glittering in her eyes.
“Please don’t hurt them.”
There was a collective gasp when they saw what she had been hiding. Two tiny orcs stood there, hand in hand, thumbs in their mouths. They were barely more than toddlers.
Toddler orcs eh, who would have thought? What do you think they are?
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