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A Rustle in the Underbrush

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 Beleriand, First Age 4650

20 miles out from the Avarin settlement of Burnt Tree

Three days ago, they came on the bodies of the lost hunters from their village. The orcs sent by Morgoth killed like no beast ever did: beheading, slicing off hands and feet, or taking out the eyes: defilements meant to terrify the Elves and fill them with sorrow.

Not all the lost warriors were even accounted for. There were fewer dead here than the number of those who went out together, a week past.

And Hwindi felt something even worse than sorrow: it was shame. For what the orcs did left him full of fear and disgust at the once-fair forms of his own comrades. He wanted to run away and leave them, to scrape the images of horror from his mind. It was only the courage of Qwena, his spear-sister, that prevailed, so that they stayed and performed the rituals of the dead, singing the songs of memory and burying them properly.  

Now he walked his own forest differently, listening not only for the signs of dangerous beasts such as  wolves and shadowcats, but ever fearing that the agents of the Enemy might be near. Hwindi knew that many of the others were also changed; they flinched easily, and tried not to show it.

Near sundown, they spotted the smoke; just a small smudge rising above the trees. They crept close on their bellies, close enough to see that it was a campfire. Around it were the silhouettes of a dozen dark forms, some seated on the ground, a few leaning on spears. They could hear low voices.

Qwena gestured silently for half their group to circle around to the other side of the clearing. Another hand gesture: wait for my whistle .

"We must attack first," hissed Twan.

"But what are these?" whispered Qwena. "They seem smaller."

"Yes, but that could be a trick; who knows what powers they may have."

Abruptly, from the other side of the clearing, an arrow flew, and one of the figures around the fire went down hard, with a pained cry. Hwindi realized that someone in their group had begun the attack without waiting. It was clear what they must do. They leaped to their feet and rushed the foes.  

To their shock, those around the fire ran from them at once with shouts of dismay, scattering into the woods.

Hwindi found himself standing over the bodies of three who were already dead on the ground, killed by the first arrows and their initial rush.

The one he was looking at . . . had a face like a person.  There were no fangs or tusks, no distortion of the features of the face, no fixed snarl, such as he had seen on dead orcs.  It had pale skin, and long brown hair tied into many braids. Strange to say, there was hair on the lower half of the face, around the mouth and chin. Its eyes were half-closed, and with a strange queasy acuity he noticed that its eyes were also brown, with long eyelashes.

The creature was only about four feet in length. It had on ragged clothing made of animal skin.  But its hands, his hands, were just . . .  small hands. No talons.

Overturned wooden bowls of cooked roots were scattered around the fire. Dropped spears. No prisoners. Not the half-gnawed bones of an orc-camp; the only blood was still wet, fresh.

The rest of the patrol came back. They had slain several more of the  . . . things, in the forest.  One Elf had been wounded in the leg by a spear when one of the creatures turned at bay.  

Qwena instructed them to wrap one of the bodies in a cloak and bring it with them. 

They returned to their village. They laid their burden down in front of their Wise Woman, and told her about the events of the patrol. Gently, the Wise Woman removed the clothes from the body. 

Under the lamplight of their own lodge, they could see more clearly. It seemed now just to be a small male body. A little strange:  differently proportioned, squatter, than their own.  And more hair again, on the chest, and by the male part. Different ears. The soles of his feet had the calluses that come from going often barefoot, like their own feet had.

A strange appearance; but not so strange that they did not recognize what they were seeing. 

They looked at one another with dismay. They had no words for this; no legends and no lore; nothing like it had happened to them before, and they had never heard tell of such a thing.

The Wise Woman sighed.  "I want you to listen carefully to me, for it is possible we will meet more of these in the future."

She pointed to them. "You were hunting. The forest was especially dark that night, the sky clouded. You heard rustling, and loosed your arrows, thinking you heard some unseen beasts. That is how this happened." 

"But," said Hwindi, much daring. "They had clothing, and spears, and made fire; used their hands like ours.  They were speaking to one another. How can we say that . . ." 

The Wise Woman looked at him steadily. "You were hunting. You thought you heard  wild beasts. You did not see clearly. It was an error." 

He nodded dumbly. 

"I will bury the body," she said.  "Qwena, help me."

He saw them carry it out to the edge of the village; and he heard them sing a low song, out in the dark, beyond where the lamplight ended.

Over the next week, Hwindi listened as his own voice and those of his comrades told their story.   We were hunting, and we thought they were some strange beasts. Most of the village did not even see the bodies. It does not sound so much like a lie, without that.