The Harpist's Tale

by Varda

Episode One; Trial by Fire

'Sméagol! Come down!'

'It's hopeless, he isn't moving!'


The two wood-elves had to crane now to see Gollum high above them in the leaves of the great ash tree he had ascended a few hours before. Crannlach
thought he could see a dark head peer cautiously out to look down at them. The oversized bony head with the great pale green eyes was silhouetted
against the early evening sky. A single star shone in the dewy air.

'What will we do?' asked Líofa, shivering. Crannlach looked at him. It had been Líofa's idea to let Gollum climb the tree, but they had often let him
up it before. The creature had begged to be let out to get some air and see the sun, and the Elves were poor jailers, and felt compassion for him and
had begun to lead him out into the forest regularly to snuffle about in the undergrowth and, lately, to climb this tree, a great tall ash, growing in a
bright glade quite deep in the forest of Mirkwood.

About an hour before Crannlach, seeing it getting late, had called up to Gollum to come down. But he had not answered. They knew he was still up
there; their keen Elvish eyes could pick him out even hidden in the long tapering leaves of the ash. Now they were getting desperate.

'We'll have to climb up and get him' said Crannlach. Líofa shuddered. He might feel pity for Gollum, but the thought of touching him filled him with
disgust. His smooth grey scaly skin, long back and huge head, with its hair like quills lying along the sharp ridge of his spine, repelled the Elf. But
the Elves did not hate Gollum, not like they hated the orcs. In their generous and noble way they pitied him, as one who had fallen into a fate
they themselves could succumb to; the power of a Ring. And even the Elves knew the power of riches and gold; even now the king of Mirkwood, Thrandúil,
entertained Dwarvish emmissaries, bringing jewels and gold for the Elvish king to inspect. Yet in the meantime the charge that Gandalf had laid on
him, to guard Gollum, had suddenly fallen into peril...

Crannlach looked around. He wondered if he should send Líofa back for help. He could not send him up the tree, he was not strong enough for Gollum. For
Crannlach knew that under the cowering and fawning Gollum had great strength, greater than this slight young elf, and could move faster than a
snake. Yet he did not want to leave Líofa on guard below alone. He thought of Legolas, the king's son. He was uninterested in jewels and wealth, but
always diligent in the Woodland Realm's defence. Had he been at home a proper guard would have been set, at least four and those warriors and
hunters. But Legolas himself was away from home, hunting orcs in the far reaches of the forest. Lately their fair woodland had been infiltrated by
the Enemy, even down to foul things harboured in the innocent-looking groves, giant black squirrels and spiders as large as a man's hand....

Crannlach turned his head suddenly; he had heard a noise in the trees. Líofa looked uneasy, but he did not have the woodland sense of Crannlach. Líofa
was still learning woodcraft, and the arts of war. Crannlach had taken him under his wing but admitted to himself that Líofa was a slow learner. While
Gollum had sunned himself up on the crown of the great ash, the Elves had set up a target and practised with the bow. Crannlach rarely missed, but
Líofa had to retrieve his arrows from the ferns more than once.

'You love the harp more than the bow!' said Crannlach. And it was true, Líofa plyed well, and his singing bore comparison with the Sylvan elves of
legend, famed for their sweet voices.

'Look!' said Líofa, pointing up to the sky. Across the fading blue streamed long ranks of birds. They were high up but black and ragged. Crows! Spies of
the Enemy, perhaps... Crannlach seized Líofa's arm. The younger Elf was pale.

'You must stay here on guard! I will go for help.' Líofa looked afraid, but said nothing. Crannlach thought he heard another rustling in the trees. Just
a deer, perhaps.
'I am faster than you, I will be back right away, just don't let him escape....'

Crannlach picked up his bow and started off at the long loping pace of the Elves which covered the ground so swiftly. As he reached the edge of the
clearing he glanced back to see Líofa also take up his bow and stand with his back to the trunk of the great ash tree. His white shirt gleamed in the
dusk under his dark green tunic. Crannlach ran on.

As he hurried along his senses were alert, even more sharpened than usual by a sense of fear and forboding. The late summer woods were now deep in a
shimmering starlit twilight, usually a time most loved by Elves, but Crannlach had no time to draw it in. He was aware of noises and movement
around him and knew it was no deer. Then he saw looking out at him from under a great stand of fern two eyes, like red coals, and he swerved and
leaped for his life as a black orc arrow winged past him and buried its hooked head in a tree. All around came a fierce chorus of yells and shrieks.
Another arrow spun past his head, and another. Swerving like a deer with hounds all around Crannlach lunged for a gap in the ring of trees just as
the orcs broke from cover. Crannlach had a glimpse of great black-armoured shapes rising up out of the gloom, moving with terrible speed, then he felt
an arrow burn into his leg, and he threw aside his bow and ran for his life...

Legolas walked slowly out into the clearing. Above the sky was streaked with smoke and the red glow of a sullen morning. All around fires smouldered in
the forest and bitter smoke trailed on the breeze. The smell of the burned and blackened trees was like the smell of death to Legolas, but worse was
the sight before him. The great ash was burned to a column of black and grey, stretching stark blackened branches up to the sky. The orcs had burned
it by setting some foul-smelling pitch or tar to its base, and it had become a great column of fire within seconds.

Legolas raised his head and with those senses Elves had but men did not reached back into the past night, and felt the terror and panic of Gollum as
he leaped from branch to branch with the heat and smoke rising ever closer to him, and the orcs shouting and laughing at him to come down. Then with
the singeing fierce heat brushing his long prehensile hands and feet he at last launched himself into the void and saw the deep leaf carpet of the
forest floor rush up to him...

Legolas knelt beside the tree. These vile things had no compassion for any living thing, animal or tree, green growing plant or breathing creature. But
they had not slain Gollum, but had taken him. There was blood on the leaves but it was not Gollum's. A short distance away lay Líofa's quiver, empty,
and his bow, broken.

Legolas straightened up and looked to the edge of the clearing. There his men stood, waiting, told by their Princer not to approach until he had read
the signs left in the earth. Now he beckoned Crannlach, who limped across to him.

'This was where you left Líofa?' he asked him. Crannlach hung his head and nodded. Legolas pointed to the bow.
'That was his bow?' Crannlach nodded again, in tears. Legolas looked away into the forest in the direction the orcs had taken, their mailed feet
trampling everything in their path. On the smoky air came faint sounds of a great hunt, the Elves running down straggling bands of orcs. But Legolas
knew these were but the end of the raid, those which had captured Gollum and Líofa would be far away by now, on a path that seemed to lead away South.

'We must give what chase we can' said Legolas 'but I fear it is hopeless' Crannlach bent stiffly down and picked something small and shining out of
the leaves and ashes. It was a small silver brooch, made in the likeness of a leaf.

'Líofa's?' said Legolas. Crannlach nodded silently.
'Escaped?' cried Aragorn. 'That is ill news indeed!'
'We have failed to recapture him ' said Legolas. 'we came on his trail among that of many orcs and it plunged deep into the forest, going South, but ere
 long it escaped our skill, and we dared not continue the hunt. It seemed plain to us that the attack had been made for his rescue and that he knew of it
 beforehand. His guard was taken or slain...'

'Well, well, he is gone, ' said Gandalf 'we have no time to seek for him again. He must do what he will. But he may play a part yet that neither he
nor Sauron has foreseen...’



Episode Two; Orcs Will Rule The Earth


 Legolas told the Council of Elrond;

'In the days of fair weather we led Gollum through the wood; and there was a high tree standing alone far from the others which he liked to climb. Often
we let him mount up to the highest branches, until he felt the free wind; but we set a guard at the tree's foot. One day he refused to come down, and
the guards had no mind to climb up after him; he had learned the trick of clinging to boughs with his feet as well as his hands so they sat by the
tree far into the night.

'It was that very night of summer, yet moonless and starless, that Orcs came on us at unawares. When the battle was over we found that Gollum was gone,
and his guards were slain or taken....'

Líofa sat up slowly. His head ached and his tunic was stiff with dried blood. What had happened? Gradually memory flowed back; he had been in the
forest clearing with Crannlach, guarding Gollum. The creature had insisted on climbing up his favourite tree to the very top. It was that indigo summer
weather beloved of Elves and all forest-living creatures, with deep green shade and the murmur of bees and the heavy scent of summer flowers. Guarding
Gollum was a duty laid on King Thranduil's folk by Mithrandir himself but in this hot spell no-one was able to take it too seriously, and the Elves
pitied the miserable creature and had no mind to prevent it clambering up to sniff the sweet air of freedom.

Líofa was King Thranduil's harpist, the finest ever known in the kingdom of Mirkwood, despite his youth. But war was growing ever nearer and even in the
woodland realm great black spiders and orcs had begun to multiply and attack the unwary. The king's son, Prince Legolas, was often away fighting the
agents of the Enemy and it fell to even the least warlike to stand their guard duty. And so it was that Líofa and his more woodcraft-wise friend
Crannlach were guarding Gollum on that fateful summer evening.

They had passed the heat of the day practising archery under the shade of the great oaks. Crannlach won easily and Líofa spent a great deal of time
running after his arrows. He was smaller than Crannlach and slighter, his tunic was of grey velvet with gold emboridery and his fine linen shirt was
embroidered with silver. A dark Elf he wore a silver circlet on his long black hair, a gift from the king. Crannlach laughed and expressed the wish
that Líofa might never have to fight...

But when Gollum refused to come down that wish soon proved vain; as they called, coaxed and threatened, Crannlach became aware that the darkening
woods were full of points of lights that could be the eyes of orcs. Fearful of losing their prisoner, Crannlach broke out before they were encircled
leaving Líofa to fight off the attack as best he could.

This was no stray foray but a great raid, a host of orcs of every size and breed from Sauron's fortress of Dol Guldur. Ignoring Líofa's arrows they
surrounded him and bore him down, then found Gollum unwilling to join his rescuers, despite having summoned them with the help of Dol Guldur's spies,
the crows. So they set fire to the great tree, burning it to a charred column of black and grey...

Líofa raised his hand to his head but found his wrists were bound with greasy black cord as strong and hard as wire. His arm ached and twisting his
head around he saw he had a glancing sword wound on his shoulder. As his head cleared he looked about him; he was on the ground in a grove of trees
and all around him were sitting or standing a great host of orcs. They were still in the forest but the trees were far apart and low-growing; they must
be near the Eastern edge of Mirkwood. It was late afternoon and the sun was slanting through the trees. Líofa's heart sank; he was a captive.

The orcs ignored him; some were squatting in groups eating a sparse meal of hard bread and dried meat. Others were talking together and arguing, their
hoarse guttural voices raised in anger. With a shock Líofa realised he could understand what they were saying; even the Elf could see that there were
several tribes of orc present; some were familiar to him, the low black-armoured spawn from the pits of Dol Guldur, black leather bucklers
emblazoned with a great red eye, the Eye of Sauron, slung on their shoulders. But there were also great goblin men, needing no armour but their
own tough hide, their long arms, covered with coarse hair, reaching almost to the ground. To be understood they were all using the Common Speech and
despite his fear Líofa listened to what they were saying;

'Master only wants the Sneak; there's no reason to carry the filthy elf any further!'
'Orders are orders! Or do you want to explain why you disobeyed to the Lord of the Nazgul himself?'
'The orders don't include the elf! He's too heavy, he's slowing us down. The cursed elf prince will catch us up and we'll all be spitted on elf arrows!'

A great angry murmur of agreement went up. There was the ring of a sword being drawn. Líofa looked round carefully and saw the largest of the goblin
orcs, who seemed to be the leader, brandishing a curved scimitar in the faces of his followers, who were not at all cowed, some drawing their own
swords but the goblin was too quick and with a mighty stroke swept off the head of the first to draw. The others froze, watching the head thump into
the leaves and roll away. The goblin chief snarled at them;
'Now who's next? Maggots! Cave rats! The elf goes for questioning, same as the Sneak, now push off!' and he whacked his followers with the flat of his
scimitar as they moved off unwillingly.

Líofa sat still, hardly daring to breath. Questioning? A shudder ran through him; he knew what that meant. But who was the Sneak? As he pondered this,
his head now clear, he looked up and scarcely six feet from where he sat, bound tightly not just by hands and feet but also chained to a tree, was
Gollum.

He was regarding the Elf silently with his large almost lidless pale eyes, which glowed with a greenish luninescence in the shade under the trees. The
hairs which grew in a crest like spines along his head and down his bony grey back were singed and on his long sinewy arms and prehensile hands were
marks of the fire that had forced him down from his tree. He was licking his scorched skin with a dry snake-like tongue, baring his sharp teeth. As the
Elf watched he began to whine;

'It burnss, it does, it burnss like fires! Help poor Sméagol! Gollum!'

It was the same pathetic cry that had won the Elves' pity and made possible Gollum's escape. Líofa hardened his heart but the whining continued.

'Help poor Sméagol! It burnss, yess it does..poor Sméagol on fire. Nice Elves help Sméagol..' then the words disappeared into a long wail of pain.
The cruelly tight bonds were chafing his burned skin. He was chained tightly too, the orcs knew that Gollum could spring great distances like a giant
toad. The wail grew louder. Despite himself Líofa could not endure the wretch's suffering. A little water would help. Raising his head Líofa called
out to the orcs.

All the heads snapped round. At once the lead goblin got up and came over at a loping run. Without waiting for an explanation he swatted Líofa on the
side of the head.

'No talking!' His head ringing Líofa said. 'Sméagol..Gollum, he's burned, help him, get some water...'
There was another blow. From behind the goblin Líofa could hear the other orcs chanting;
'Kill him! Kill him!'
'Burned?' snarled the goblin 'Then why did the filthy little sneak not come down when he was told to? He'll burn for real when the Master gets him, and
you as well!'

And with a final swipe of his massive paw the goblin stomped off, leaving Líofa dazed and sore. When he looked again at Gollum the snivelling hurt
creature had disappeared. Instead there was a sly wide awake pair of reptile eyes staring at him with undisguised malevolence.

'Elveses! Nassty Elveses! We hates elveses! So high and mighty, oh yes, gollum! Too cruel to poor Sméagol! But the Master will see to them, won't
He? Yess indeed, He will!' Líofa stared aghast. 'Elveses think they can talk to the birdses, yess, but Sméagol can talk to the birdses too, yess, Gollum!
He can talk to the Master's crows, black spies of Mordor, the black land, tell him all about poor Sméagol, bring help to free us, gollum!'

So that was it, thought Líofa bitterly. Gollum had summoned help from Sauron. No-one would ever know but himself. Not even Crannlach, if he had
lived. Nor Prince Legolas. He wondered if Legolas had pursued them. He wished they had been caught; even if he had perished with the orcs it would
have been better than a long journey to Mordor...Golllum was speaking again.

'The Master will help Sméagol to find the Preciouss! he will help Sméagol to get it back! Back from the nassty little sneak, Baggins the thief! Nassty
little hobbitses!'

Understanding at least part of this Líofa said;
'No, Sméagol! The Master will not let you have it! The Dark Lord will not share the Precious with you. He will take it all for himself! He will torture you
with fire then take it for himself...'

A scream of rage cut the air, making the orcs turn round. 'No! Nassty elveses try to take the Preciouss for themselves! But Master too
clever for Elveses or hobbitses! He will bring orcs, from the black land; make all lands the black land! Burn the Shire! Burn all the trees! Orcs will
rule the earth!'

The last few words were shrieked out at the top of Gollum's voice, bringing a ragged cheer and laughs from the orcs, who then turned back to their own
affairs. Gollum hissed and spat at Líofa but said no more.

Líofa, feeling dizzy, lay down. His bonds hurt but the pain of knowing that the Enemy had seized what He most wanted hurt even more. Now this hateful
creature would tell Sauron all he needed to know and Baggins of the Shire, whoever he was, would be in mortal danger. And Líofa could do nothing about
it. He could hardly even think. A song came from nowhere and wandered round inside his head. Instinctively he reached for his empty sword scabbard. He
felt at his belt; his hunting knife was also gone. His despair deepened. He was afflicted by a raging thirst and his wrists burned from the tight cords.
The song persisted in his head. What was that song? he wondered in bewilderment. Then he remembered; he had composed it for a banguet of King
Thranduil's the winter past. The King and his court had greatly praised it, and Prince Legolas had given him a gift in reward, a small silver-handled
dagger; Legolas's words came back to him;

'Wear it out of sight, Líofa singer of songs. Even a harpist might have need of such a weapon some day, in a hard place'

Líofa's heart stood still; he was accustomed to wear the little dagger under his belt, buttoned under his tunic, out of sight. He pressed his bound hand
against his waist and felt something under the velvet material. The dagger was still there. The orcs must have missed it when they searchd him in haste
while Gollum was being smoked out of the tree. Hope, light and frail as a bird, sprang up in his heart.

He lay back and closed his eyes. The orcs were settling down for a rest; they moved swiftest in darkness and they were preparing to use the long
summer dusk to sleep for a few hours before attempting the last dash from the eaves of Mirkwood to Dol Guldur, the grim fortress which had been
Sauron's lair before he fled to Mordor. Líofa risked a glance at Gollum but the great green eyes were half-shut and the muttering had stopped. Gollum
had dozed off.

Líofa lay still. Gradually the sounds of the orc camp died down until when he risked another look around there were only two guards, sitting talking on
the other side of the camp. The orcs did not fear an attack from the East, only from the depths of Mirkwood, although few Elves dared to go this far,
right under the shadow of Dol Guldur. Líofa and Gollum were lying on the slope away from the sentinels. So there was hope but Líofa would have to
escape East, away from Mirkwood. A pang smote his heart; he would not now return home. Would they think him dead, or worse still, claimed for Sauron,
twisted and tortured into a creature of Mordor?

Líofa shut out the thought; he had to escape, and somehow he knew he would come where he could yet play some part in the war. Gently, without breathing
almost, he edged his bound hands to his tunic and with his long fine fingers undid the pearl buttons and drew out his small silver dagger. He wedged the
handle between his wrists and began to saw through his bonds. The cord was waxed and tough but the Elven blade was keen and soon the strands fell away.
Blood rushed into his hands again and he carefully rubbed the feeling back into them. Soundlessly he cut the bonds on his ankles. Then he looked
around.

The guards were dozing. Líofa was more worried about Gollum raising the alarm. But the creature seemed to be really asleep, worn out by anger, pain
and frustrated hope. His eyes were shut and his pale tongue lolled out of his open mouth. Líofa was about to slip away when a thought struck him; why
not kill Gollum?

Líofa sat back, taking another glance at the guards. He could do it; Gollum's screams would wake the camp and he would not escape, even the
goblin leader could not save him this time. But he would prevent Gollum telling the Dark Lord what he needed to know; perhaps prevent the doom
predicted by Gollum himself.

Líofa gripped the knife and bent over Gollum. The starlight reflected on the bright blade. Líofa stepped back; he could not do it. This was not like
killing in battle, this was killing in cold blood. He did not hate Gollum enough. Despite all he had done, Líofa pitied him. What evil would follow
from his lack of resolve? Líofa wondered miserably. It did not matter, he could not do it.

And deep in his mind, like an undertow, was a feeling that Gollum was not his concern, that some other destiny had been marked out for him, perhaps
not entirely evil.

He put away the bright blade. Moving stiffly he picked his way past Gollum and out of the camp. Elves can pass unseen at will, especially in dusk and
under trees. He skirted the camp then once out of earshot began to run along the edge of the forest southwards. Orcs were good trackers, so he would
leave the trees where his path could be picked up on the soft leaves and strike across open ground along the rocky escarpment from which he could see
Dol Guldur. They would never suspect he would try to escape that way. It was his only chance...


Episode Three; Land Of Skulls


While night lasted Líofa moved as quickly as he could, keeping the eaves of the forest to his right and aware of the grim fortress of Dol Guldur on his
left, but looking at it as little as he could. Gradually the joy and relief of escape faded and he grew tired but he ran on, the going easy across
barren limestone uplands. The moon rode slowly down to the horizon and the stars wheeled across the sky, his only companions.

Dawn found him far from the orc camp but spent and tormented with thirst. He found a stand of scrubby whin and crawled under it and immediately fell
asleep. He woke near noon. The strong sun was slanting through the thorn onto his face. His throat and mouth were parched and his tongue swollen and
he felt light-headed.

He got up cautiously and peered out from his hiding place. Away on the horizon Mirkwood was no more than a blue shadow and grief struck Líofa's
heart; he would never see his home again. He struggled with the thought;he had escaped from the orcs, had he not? But Líofa had no woodcraft and he
knew he would not last long out here with no water or food. His joy at escaping from the orcs now seemed vain. But he steeled himself; at least
they would not have the satisfaction of torturing him. Would he have told them anything, Líofa wondered, then put the thought aside. He was still in
danger, they might pick up his trail.

But he saw no orcs that day, as he lay dozing fitfully in his meagre shelter. As the sun grew hotter his thirst grew worse and he noticed that
the wound in his shoulder was beginning to burn. He wondered if the orc blade had been poisoned, as they often were. He eased off his tunic and
looked at the cut; it was infected and hot to the touch. His arm was on fire; If only he had some water!

In a wallet at his belt he had a cake of lembas. It would have been his midday meal the day Gollum was rescued, but it had been too hot so Líofa had
not eaten. Now it was broken up into crumbs but it was better than nothing and all he had so Líofa put a corner in his mouth. Despite his hunger it was
hard to swallow on a dry throat. He tried to sleep, longing for cool night.

When it was dark he arose stiffly from his hiding place and moved on, keeping the fortress behind him now. He was slow and not sure where he was
going. The barren limestone country had few streams and as the night wore on he grew faint until almost at the point when the sky grows grey he heard
running water and lying down on the stones he saw a stream feeding into a deep pool cut into the limestone.

Líofa bathed his hot and swollen wrists in the icy pool and painfully cupping his hands drank deeply of the sweet clear water. He wondered when,
if ever, he would use those hands to play a harp again. He bathed his face and tearing off a strip of his now torn and filthy linen shirt he bathed his
wound. The pain made him weak, and he feared he would not be able to go on, but after resting and drinking his fill he made slow progress until as the
sky grew light he found a furrow in the porous rock which led into a tiny cave and there he fell down and slept.

Dreams came to him, vivid and overwhelming. He dreamed of Gollum, his yellow eyes blazing as he hissed and spat and foretold the doom of Elves and men.
Then another dream came, and he was standing in the hall of the King of Mirkwood. The king was seated, toying with his finely wrought mithril chain.
Thrandúil was always concerned with treasure, he was famous for his love of jewels. But before him stood his son, Legolas, who had no time for trinkets.

'Father, Lord Elrond must be told at once of Gollum's escape!' Legolas said heatedly. 'it is a shame on our house and on our people!'
The king raised his head, sensing a reproach from his son. He made a placating gesture.
'What is done is done, Legolas. They were a force beyond our strength...'
''What strength, father?' Legolas replied angrily.
'One guard and your harpist? And why did you let the creature climb a tree, where he could signal to the birds and elude us long enough to be rescued?'

Thrandúil sighed. He was not a warrior king, although the times required it He dreamed much these days of the past, and of times that would never come
again. He loved beautiful things. He had pitied the wretched Gollum and hated to be his jailer. But he cared little for Legolas's rebuke or even for
Gollum's escape; he grieved for his harpist, Líofa. Only the lad's songs could cheer him these days, and now he had lost even that consolation. He
stirred himself.
'Do what you see fit, Legolas. Take a horse and make the best speed you can to Rivendell to inform Lord Elrond of what has passed. As you say, he must
be told at once....'

Legolas paused,looking at his father, who kept his eyes downcast, then bowed and went out to make arrangements for the journey to Rivendell.

Líofa woke with a start. The hall of King Thrandúil faded and he gasped to find himself once more on the bare moorland, the sun risen and his thirst
and fever once again beginning to torment him.

He had no way to carry water, so he had to find it each day, and often he failed to do so. The land fell and there was more cover, thickets and gorse,
but streams were few and hard to find and the bushes were all stunted and burned, as if growing in the sulphurous wind from a volcano. There seemed to
be no living thing other than himself, so great was the fear of Dol Guldur and its orcs in this land. He saw only birds during the day and once a pack
of great wolves, galloping Eastwards across the moor, snapping and snarling at each other, their great grey and black manes making them look as big as
lions. He crouched down but they did not pick up his scent and ran on across the heath out of sight.

By the fifth day he scarcely cared if he was seen nor not. The fever in his shoulder had spread to his whole body and he was burning up. He could not
see clearly and staggered rather than walked. Sleep was impossible and the lembas long gone. He took no strength from the land, as Elves usually can.
Nothing grew naturally here; everything even the occasional grove of trees, birch and alder, was burned and withered. The ground was stony and in places
cairns of these stones had been raised, clearly by orcs. They were daubed with symbols with the red Eye prominent. On top of these cairns were piles
of skulls. Líofa, despite his exhaustion, skirted these mounds, not wanting to see too closely what was on top of them. But as he struggled on across
the barren land a mound rose up in front of him greater than all the others and despite himself Líofa staggered up to it. On a tall pole set up on top
of the stones was the skull of a wild ox or some such great beast, hunted to death by orcs. Its long horns curved towards the sky and its hideous empty
eye sockets gazed out over a once fair land now ravaged by the servants of Sauron. Líofa looked up aghast at the grim scarecrow and wondered bitterly
how long it would be before his own bones were added to those on the mound.

Knowing he had nothing to lose, Líofa decided to go on during the day. The hot sun, from which there was no shelter, smote down on his head and he
began to see visions. He imagined armies spread out all across the bare hills, their banners, blue and green, flying in the sun and men, tall and
grim, wearing stars on their breasts and facing the enemy. In front of them was their stern king with a banner all of black...

'Halt!'

Líofa stopped and raised his head. To his horror all around him were grey shapes, dim to his fevered eyes. They had caught him again, he was taken!
Terror gave him a last surge of energy and he threw himself into the scrub and rolling away he got up and ran as fast as he could. Elves can outrun men but he was weak and he stumbled and in a few seconds two or three of the
tall men had overtaken him and pulled him down. Taking a firm hold of each of his arms they dragged him back to their leader.

The pain in his shoulder was almost unbearable but Líofa gazed up into the eyes of the tall man who stood over him, studying him. He wore a hooded
green cloak, weathered almost to grey. He had long dark hair and eyes cold and grey as the sea, and on his breast, securing his cloak, he wore a steel
brooch fashioned like a six-pointed star. He had a long sword in a well-worn scabbard and he rested a weatherbeaten hand lightly on the hilt, but he kept
it sheathed. His face was fair, and noble as that of a king, or one of aline of kings. Even sick and weak as he was Líofa knew he was one of the
Rangers, the Dúnadain of the North. He had seen them once, long ago, guests at the court of King Thrandúil. He had played for them but it was long ago
and they would not remember a poor harpist.

'Well, an Elf!' the tall man said, with a wry smile.
'And by your dress, what is left of it, one of King Thrandúil's folk from Mirkwood. You are far from your forests, little one!'

He paused, obviously expecting a reply, but Líofa said nothing. The smile faded.
'Come, master Elf. These are perilous lands and few journey here without a reason, not even Rangers. Why are you here?'

Líofa felt the world begin to spin around. The sun beat on his face and his shoulder burned. His whole body shook.
'I can't tell you!' he blurted out. A murmur of astonishment and anger ran round the warriors.

Their leader raised a hand, palm outward, in a gesture of command to his men and reassurance to the trembling Elf. The muttering stopped. He stepped up
to Líofa and looked more closely at him. The torn and bloodstained tunic was of silver grey velvet and the tattered grimy shirt was of fine embroidered
linen. 'That reply will not do, Master Elf...'

Not meaning to hurt him, the men holding Líofa took a firmer grip on his arms, and he felt his wound re-open. His heart was pounding in his ears and
he could not hear the man talking to him, He had escaped the orcs only to die here. He looked up uncomprehendingly at his captors and then his legs
gave way and he fell, still in the grip of the two men on either side of him. Darkness overcame him.

When he woke up it was evening. He was in a glade of trees and it was cool with a dew falling. There was a fire lit near him and he was covered with
one of the Rangers long green cloaks. The pain in his shoulder had eased, he could feel the wound had been cleaned and dressed. Then turning his head he
saw the tall leader of the Rangers sitting beside him, smoking a pipe and examining the small silver-handled dagger Legolas had given him.

Seeing Líofa looking at him the man said;
'A pretty toy but no weapon to fight orcs with.' Líofa stared miserably at the man. Unexpectedly he laughed.
'Rest easy, little Elf. I will not press you to tell me your secret. Elves and the Men of the North have been kin and friends for long ages and I will
trust that you have a good reason for your silence. It was not well done to say that in front of my men, though..' he made a face. Líofa struggled to
speak.

'I meant no offence, my Lord. I have wandered many leagues since escaping from orcs who captured me in Mirkwood. More than that I can only tell you
with my Lord Thrandúil's permission...' he trailed off, it was a great effort to speak.

The tall man nodded and was silent for a while. Then he held up the knife. 'This is a princely trinket. Can I ask where you got it?'

'It was a gift to me from King Thrandúil's son, Prince Legolas' the name made the man sit up and his face grew less grim.
'Then I will ask you no more questions, for Prince Legolas is known to us and has been our ally in many battles. But at least tell me your name.'
'I am Líofa, the king's harpist.'
The man laughed. 'Well Líofa, there is more need for bowstrings than harpstrings out here, but I believe you are who you say you are. And I am
Feolcú, a Ranger of the North.'
Now it was Líofa's turn to show doubt. 'You are far from your home, my Lord'
Feolcú snorted. 'We never journeyed so far south, but we were held on the trail of a large band of orcs who spilled out over our lands in the spring.
More an invasion than a raid and when they retreated we followed them. We have held the chase for a long time but now they seem to have outrun\
us and we are almost as lost as you. Our leader is no longer in the North...' Feolcú's face clouded over.
'And until he comes back or sends word what we are to do, we must make the best of our way out of here to the West.' He looked at the Elf and smiled.
'In these times we are all lost and far from home, Líofa.'

Neither spoke. Líofa wanted to ask the man what he intended to do with him. As if reading his mind, Feolcú said;

'My men have journeyed without stopping for many days. We will rest up here, in this wood, at least we have cover. It will give you a few days to regain
your strength, Líofa.'
The elf looked anxiously at Feolcú. The man shook his head.
'You must come with us, Líofa. It is too far for you to return to your own people and I can't spare men to take you back. ' He patted the Elf's good
shoulder.

'Welcome to the Rangers, little harpist!'
- Varda