They crept out of Esgaroth beneath a new moon. Only the stars lit the way as they traveled north through the Lonely Mountain where a Dwarf Eirikr knew from childhood housed them for two nights. Then down to the borders of the realm of the Wood-elves where Eruviel’s pointy ears helped convince the scouts to let them pass unharmed. The paths through the Mirkwood were slow and tedious. Several times, they almost abandoned the wagon, but it made traveling so much easier on both Abiorn and Ninim. They backtracked. They waited while Eirikr or Eruviel scouted. They made their way through the shadows and fog with a constant vigilance. If their heightened state wasn’t for the spiders and the wargs, then the knowledge that Kolrson Tenorbekk still lived plagued them all.
Eirikr kept a close eye on Abiorn. The boy joked about his lack of handiness – figuratively and literally – when it came to life on the road. His hands found wielding anything larger than a small knife difficult and his crooked legs kept him from ever being graceful. One night, he spilled their entire supper onto the leaves when his grip weakened his hold on the cast iron pan. The boy nearly cried as he scooped up the bits of potato and carrots with his bent fingers. It took both Eruviel and Ninim to calm him with reassurances and shoulder pats and hugs. He then got angry and did his best impression of stomping away to brood at the edge of their makeshift camp. Eirikr took him some food they salvaged and sat next to him in silence as they ate.
Ninim seemed to be holding her own. She rode in the wagon when she grew tired and walked when she would. Soon, though, her ankles started to swell and she became tired much more quickly. She began to rapidly consume their water supply and Eirikr had to push them a little harder to make up the time they had planned to travel. Still, she smiled as they forged their way through the dark wood, never complaining, never stumbling on their path.
Until one day, as they were finally reaching the end of the darkness, she did.
All at once, her legs seemed to give out beneath her and she fell on hand and knee, panting. Her face twisted into a grimace of pain as Eirikr rushed to kneel beside her.
Quickly, Eruviel and Abbi threw up a camp and Eirikr carried his wife to the bed they made. Abbi fumbled with the flint and tinder as Eruviel rushed to examine Ninim to her best ability. Ninim looked up at them with fear and determination. It was time.
The labor was long. Eirikr and Abbi stood as tense sentinels as Eruviel played midwife as best she could. When it lasted past eight hours, Eirikr took her place beside his wife so she could rest, though she went to take his place as guard instead. After twelve hours, Eruviel came back to them and checked on her progress. The Elf shook her head before she could stop herself. Eirikr’s heart stopped in his chest. He felt a terror and it stole his powers of speech.
Fifteen hours. Eighteen.
At the twentieth hour, a long, tortured scream rent the near silence of the Mirkwood followed by the cry of a baby. The sound of sobbing bounced off the trees and died before it could travel far. A man’s cries overpowered the baby’s and lasted throughout the night.
* * *
“Eirikr, I am so sorry, gwador. If only I-”
“Eruviel, stop now. It is not your fault.”
“But if only-”
“Eirik, what about the baby?”
“I do not know. I do not know anything, brother. I do not know.”
“There are ways to sustain a child without its mother’s milk. I have heard of it before. Once we are out of this cursed forest, we can hunt and boil broth for him.”
“We cannot take a baby through Moria, can we? Eruviel, tell him we can’t take him into Moria. He won’t survive!”
“Abiorn, please. One thing at a time.”
“Well, tell him!”
“You want him to die, don’t you? Because it might be his. But he might be yours, too, Eirik! And even if he isn’t, how could you just let him die?”
“Shut your mouth, Abiorn! I do not know!”
“Wait. Silence, both of you. Do you hear it?”
“There, again. In the trees to the north. Someone’s coming.”
“Silence! Quick, behind me!”
* * *
The bear emerged from the shadows to stare at the three travelers. His deep brown eyes traveled to the babe swaddled in the arms of the youngest and then to the still form of what had to be its mother. He sniffed the air. Familiar scents were scattered by blood and tears and pain. But there was life, there, too. And hope, but it was quickly fading. He sniffed again and lumbered forward, his large head lowered docilely as his eyes took in the rest of the rough camp.
The man tensed. He raised his hand toward his back but when he found nothing there, he looked around sharply. His eyes landed on the bow just as the bear reached it. Instead of passing over it or destroying it with its powerful jaws, the bear nudged it with its nose. The man gaped as he nudged it again. Go on, take it, he almost said. I won’t hurt you.
The man approached slowly and picked up the bow. The bear tilted its massive head and regarded him with curiosity. Then it lumbered on toward the boy holding the child.
The Elf let out a shout and pulled boy and baby behind her. Pausing, the bear tilted his head again and waited for the boy to peek around her. Slowly, he stepped out and looked into the bear’s eyes. Nodding, he told the others to break camp. They resisted. The man said some angry words, but eventually, they packed a rugged and beat-up wagon. They lovingly wrapped the body of the woman in a sheet and placed her in the back. Yes, she must be treated properly. He could help see to that.
The bear led the boy holding the baby to a secret trail. The wagon and horses could find the road and the bear grumbled lowly until they left the canopy of the Mirkwood. His pace quickened as they reached a small cottage with smoke rising from the chimney. A woman came out followed by a girl and a boy. They helped the travelers; they fed them and gave them a soft bed to sleep in. The bear wandered off into a grove of thick trees and then came back a man.
The baby was left with the woman and her children and her Man that was more than a man. It did not have to suffer the dark mazes of Moria and the boy promised to come back and visit one day. The man could barely look at the baby. He had buried his wife beneath the old Oak Tree last night and had no more tears to water her grave. He carved a headstone from a branch throughout the night and in the morning, “Ninim, wife of Eirikr In death shall I live” sat above the mound of earth. The Man that was more than a man clapped him on the shoulder and said supportive and encouraging words, but he did not think the man heard them. His grief weighed upon him like iron chains.
They were heading back to Bree-land, the three travelers. They could not take the baby, and when it was time to say goodbye. only the boy and Elf kissed the child’s head and bade him farewell. The man kept his eyes on the western horizon and as the sun rose behind him, he led his party away, fleeing from the light.
Back to Bree.