After the battle at the ford, we were led along the winding and twisting roads that eventually brought us to the elves’ secret home.

Dusk was settling upon the vale as our path led downward, into splendor that both soothed the spirit and exemplified plainly what it was for which we toiled to save.

We were brought to the stables, where I wearily climbed down from Dandi’s back to the ground below.

“These dear friends will see to you and keep you company, sweet girl,” I whispered to her as I stroked her neck before turning to leave with the others.

She neighed after me as we walked away, and her voice cut through all I shouldered that day, touching my heart.

We were led through the settlement to guest chambers where we were to rest for the night.  Foods and wines of all kinds, each better than the last, were brought to us, and we were freed of our armor and clad in the finest of elven fineries before being left to our rest.

Sleep claimed me, keeping me through the evening and well into the next day, only awaking when I heard a light knock at the door to my chamber.

At the door was a messenger who asked forgiveness for disturbing my rest.  He handed me a missive before taking his leave.

The missive was from Lord Elrond, asking for Deverell and I to meet with him in his library in the Last Homely House in one hour’s time.

Deverell was still sleeping in her chamber, so I made to rouse her.

“Wake up, Sleepy!” I laughed, shaking her gently.

But she would not rise so easily, so I let her be.

She looked so peaceful in her rest, unlike the days when the burden of the concerns that we bore weighed upon her and dimmed her light…

…before the day I had asked her to keep me through the endeavor for which we still battled…

I lay my hand over her own for a moment.

“One day, I will finally give more than I take from you,” I promised in a whisper before turning away.

I took leave of our guest chambers, venturing out into the cool of the early evening…

…finding the beauty of the vale no less striking in the evening than during the light of day.

Will that beauty remain, by part or by parcel…

…when the Last Homely House is no longer the last…

…and the bridge of time, from present to past…

…fades at the foot of the western shore?

I left my musings at the door to the Last Homely House and went inside.

Both the splendor of the hall and the elves within greeted me upon my entry.  I was pointed to the stair which led to the library.

It was only when I reached the top of the stair, and the door to the library lay just beyond, that the thought of meeting alone with Lord Elrond made me uneasy.  I took a moment to settle myself and remember the things for which I sought his counsel.

I then drew in a deep breath and went inside.

I found Lord Elrond at the foot of the stair on the lower level of the library and bowed before him.

“Good evening to you, Lord Elrond,” I greeted him.

“And to you, Kaleigh,” Lord Elrond replied.  “It is one far better than the evening before evening last, I think, when the evil host gathered upon the far side of the Bruinen.  All who dwell within the vale know of your part in the battle that turned that host away.  Every last one of us is in your debt.”

I blushed crimson to the roots of my hair.  “Thank you, my lord, but it is my belief that we all have come out ahead.  It was your sons who led us in battle, and from them whom we drew our strength.  And it was your presence at the ford from afar that aided and guided them, and through them guided us all.  Whatever small debt you believe you owe has been paid over and beyond.”

I spied a hint of a smile grace Lord Elrond’s countenance.  “You weave your words with elegance, Kaleigh, the same level of elegance with which you wield your knives upon the battlefield.  But however you might try to parry it away, you will find yourself unable to turn aside the gratefulness those of the vale feel for you and your companion who aided us in our time of need.”

“You honor us both greatly, Lord Elrond,” I replied, curtseying before him once more while still trying to fight down the flush in my face.

“And where is Deverell?” Lord Elrond inquired.  “Did she not know of the missive I sent?  I hope she is recovering well from the battle?”

“Forgive us, Lord Elrond,” I asked.  “I went to rouse her but she was not easily stirred.  As you do, she battles in a way beyond my ken, and the effort takes all of her strength and beyond, to a place few ever find in themselves.”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Lord Elrond replied.  “I know you both mean to leave the vale soon, and I would see you both whole and hale before you do.  Please, give Deverell my best wishes, as I also give them to you.”

“I am most grateful to have them, Lord Elrond, and I know that Deverell will feel the same when I share them with her.  Our time spent here in this haven, and the gift of your good wishes, will make our road a brighter one,” I said, smiling.

Lord Elrond studied me for a moment and then said, “I hope they shall, for I suspect the road that brought you here was more difficult than you care to reveal, and the road you mean to take from here darker still.”

When his words found their mark, and I did not respond straightaway, he asked gently, “What is it that truly brought you to the vale?”

I reached into the pocket of my dress where I had secreted Halbarad’s letter and offered it to Lord Elrond.

After he read the note, he returned it to me, and I tucked it away once more.  I watched him closely as he weighed it, turning it over in his mind.

“The kinsmen of Estel serve their captain dutifully and well,” he finally said.  “Much as we do in the vale of Imladris, they shelter in a place hidden from the eyes of those that would seek to do them harm.  That place bears their captain’s name.  Do you know of it?” he asked.

“I do, my lord,” I replied.

“Do you know the name’s meaning?” he inquired.

I blushed once more, for better reason, and admitted, “I am sorry, but I do not.”

“It means ‘hidden hope’ in these words,” he said.  “Tell me, do you weave at all?”

“I enjoy my stitching very much, when I have the time to sit with it,” I smiled.

“Have you ever woven rope before?” he asked.

“Many times, my lord.” I replied.

He nodded, looking upon me as an elder would a child.  “Then you know that many strands are woven together to make the rope.  Why is this?”

“To make the rope stronger?” I asked, more than I stated.

“Indeed so,” he said.  “Tell me of the road you have taken while in service to these men.”

I reached for the pocket of my dress once more.  “I have kept a record of our journey, Lord Elrond, if you would care to see it?” I asked.

“If you will allow it,” he replied, the wisp of a smile returning to his face once more.

I brought my map over to him, showing him the paths Deverell and I had taken, and how they had led us to come to Rivendell while he looked over my shoulder.

After I had finishing telling my tale, he traced his finger over our path…

“As do the paths woven by those who serve their captain in his stead, so does your path, and Deverell’s path, strengthen those whom you serve.” Lord Elrond said.  “In the letter that you carry, and in the paths that you weave from it, hope may be hidden, yet it remains.”

I dabbed at my eyes to wipe away the tears that welled in them before they could fall.

“Thank you.  Thank you, Lord Elrond,” I was finally able to get out.

“You have done all you are able in northern lands.  The path of those who walk with Estel lies southward.  His kinsmen will follow southward in service to their captain.  You should return to Esteldin with word of all that you have done and have seen.  If your path on this endeavor is to continue, you will then know,” Lord Elrond advised.

“I am most grateful, my lord, grateful beyond the words I know to truly express it,” I said, thanking him as I slowly started to fold up the map.  “If… I may…”

“Yes, ask freely,” he answered.

I unfolded my map once more and held it out before him.  “Is there somewhere yet that might be in need of aid?  Somewhere we have not yet been to see?”

“Let such things be decided by those whom you serve,” suggested Lord Elrond.  “By availing yourself to the direction of the weaver who guides the strands, the greatest care may be taken to ensure that the rope will not unravel.”

“I will bring your counsel to those who remain in Esteldin and do no more, I promise you,” I said quickly.

“See that you do,” he said sternly, before pointing to a place on the map to the south.  “Below the halls of the ancient kingdom the dwarves attempt to reclaim even now, trouble stirs in the depths.”

I folded up my map once more and tucked it away.  “Deverell and I will away tomorrow with this news and give word to the Way-watchers.”

It was then that Lord Elrond was called away to other matters, leaving me to contemplate the wisdom of his words.

I took my leave from the Last Homely House and walked out into the evening once more…

…with the weight of Lord Elrond’s words upon my shoulders and my heart…

After our rest that evening, Deverell and I awoke to find a satchel left for each of us at the door of our quarters.  The satchels were filled with elven waybread to keep us on our journey.

Leaning against the wall next to one satchel was a staff of mallorn wood, beautifully adorned with carvings of runes that appeared to swirl about its length.  Atop the other was a sticker of elven-make, light as a feather, yet firm in my hand and more sharp than any blade I had ever held.

As I readied my things for the road ahead, I reflected upon the notion that the good wishes of the elves were no trifling thing.

Deverell had some things yet to see to by the time I was ready, so I decided to take one last turn about the settlement before meeting her at the stables.

The morning was bright, and the path brighter still, for the good wishes of all those I came across while on it.  So many stopped to bid us well on our journey.

The voice of the elves will still touch us, their spirit and grace will still linger, long after the day they might leave these lands to us…

…a legacy beyond mere wishes and dreams, an example to value and follow…

…to sacrifice all for, even as those before have done for me…

We all finally gathered at the stables, Deverell and I, along with Elladan and Elrohir, with whom we battled alongside at the ford.  The two brothers were to escort us as far as Thorenhad, where they would once more take up their watch over the paths leading to the hidden vale.

Together, we took the trail leading upward, out to the high moor…

…while casting one last gaze upon the Last Homely House, and the treasures of the vale, before turning southward to leave them behind…

Upon reaching Thorenhad, we took rest for the evening, rising early the next day to start on the road once more.  We parted company with the sons of Elrond with regret, but also with the promise of well-wishes, and the hope our paths might cross again one day.

“May your journey be swift and true, that you may find its end in good time,” said Elladan.

“And know that the path to Imladris will be open to you both, now and for always,” added Elrohir.

We bid farewell to Elladan and Elrohir, then peered into the clouded sky that brought forth a light rain to start the day.

The elves in the camp seeing to the horses led Dandi and Dancer over to us, from where they had set out feed for them.

And we were away, to the Great East Road, onto which we then turned westward, toward Bree-land.

The rain grew heavier, and lightning brightened the sky, illuminating all within its brief evanescence, before the day became dark once more.  We made camp during the heavier parts of the storm but took to the road as often as we were able.

We came to the Last Bridge, parting company with the elves who kept watch over the last of the Trollshaws, and crossed into the Lone-lands.

Once we passed Weathertop on the Great East Road, we turned northward, winding our way through the foothills, and over the Weatherway, into Bree-land.

We spied evil men and others rooting through the ruins out in the open of the Weather Hills and skirted them to the west as best we could, taking cover on the edges of the Chetwood.

We had traveled by day and rested by night for many days.

Once we reached the southern waters of Nen Harn, we traveled northward, along its eastern shoreline…

…until reaching its northern shore, where we then cut eastward, through the forest east of the ruins of Merenost, south and east of Lin Giliath.

We tread warily, making our away around the hills and stone where we spied the caves that the trolls of the forest likely called home.

Daylight was fading as we came to the cliffs overlooking Dol Dinen.  I stopped Dandi before we came too near the edge and beckoned Deverell forward to see.  We then led the horses to the edge of the forest behind us to rest before returning to the cliff.

I surveyed what remained of the forest, as we stood overlooking the land beyond the cliff for a few moments in silence.  Then Deverell asked, “What is this place, Kaleigh?

“What lies beyond the cliff is called Dol Dinen,” I told her.  “Once it was a great forest, before the Angmarim hewed most of it down and built a great stronghold further to the east.  It is from there that the orcs and goblins, and things more foul, harry the Way-watchers.  We are in a most dangerous place.”

“Why did we cross eastward at the ruins then and not continue to the north from there, on the western side of the mountains?” she sighed.

“Because I thought we might skirt the edge of Dol Dinen and bring word of anything we might discover to the Way-watchers,” I smiled wearily.

Deverell nodded and then returned her gaze to the forest below.

“I should have said something before we turned this way.  I am sorry.” I said.

I saw a brief smile surface for a moment before her weariness took hold once more.  “You are the scout and remind me often why you rightfully are called by that title.  I had just hoped we might reach Esteldin tonight if we pressed on into the evening a bit is all.” she replied.  “That we might find out if…”

“…if we can go home.” I finished for her, fighting back the sob that had taken life in my chest at that moment.   Neither of us had dared to speak of it during the whole of our journey, but now we were near.

So very near…

The weight of our endeavor pulled the tears from our eyes, and the path they traveled down our faces, the wet against our worn and tired skin, gave testament to how far we truly had come, together…

The two of us embraced, trembling in each others’ arms, as we both relived what we had endured, the sum of our months’ long journey laid bare in those few moments…

Finally, I let go of her and turned back toward the east.

“If we skirt Dol Dinen, keeping as far to the west as we can and under cover of the trees, we could reach Esteldin before the sun rises,” I mused.

“I’ll get the horses,” Deverell said, turning swiftly to keep to her word.

We eased Dandi and Dancer down the steep switchback leading to the downs below and headed northward, keeping close to the eastern edge of the Kingsfell mountains.

The western edge of the forest still provided cover from the eyes of those that lurked further east…

…though the wound they continued to inflict upon the forest had grown in the time since I had last come to know of it.

At the times we heard movement in the distance, we shrouded ourselves, staying tight to the trees.

As we rounded one of the foothills that led to a shallow canyon set in the mountains,  I caught sight of shadows flickering against the side of the cliffs ahead.

I motioned to Deverell to stay put, then eased Dandi slowly forward…

Nestled between the canyon walls was a campsite.  I spied movement beyond the small tent that sat before a fire pit.

I waited to see who might come forth from the darkness…

A lone figure emerged, taking a place before the fire.  It was a man wearing the colors of the Way-watchers.

I motioned to Deverell to ease up slowly and, when she was near, I urged Dandi forward, toward the camp.

“Who goes there?!” I heard the man call out, in a voice familiar to me.

“It is Scout Kaleigh, with a friend just behind.  We mean you no harm, Master Siniath.”

Siniath stood and looked over us a moment before beckoning us forward.  We settled the horses nearby and then met him near the fire.

“You two do not know the trouble you’ve walked into this evening,” Siniath said, as we approached.  He looked about for a moment, then back to us.  “I would ask your aid, Scout Kaleigh, for our need is dire.”

“You have it, this very moment,” I replied, looking at him with concern before glancing to Deverell.

“Mine as well, good sir,” Deverell said, returning my glance.  Looking then to Siniath, she asked, “What is it that we can do to aid you?”

Siniath looked between us, then back to Deverell.  “I do not wish to presume, but you are Lady Deverell, I take it?”

When she nodded, he gifted her a warm smile.  “You are known to us, Lady Deverell.  Your deeds precede you and deserve far more praise than I have time to give them this moment, I fear.”

He then looked off into the distance behind us and nodded, causing us to turn.

As we looked into the darkness, Siniath said softly, “Esteldin has been discovered by the Enemy.”

We turned to find him hunched over. as if he bore the weight of his news upon his very shoulders.

“How… how can this be?” I stammered.

“Our lookouts spotted a small group of men wandering the downs near to the hidden encampment before dusk.  We sent scouts to intercede before they might discover our true presence.  When our scouts learned the Enemy had driven them out of their homes and put them to the torch, they decided to aid these men by allowing them to seek refuge within our encampment.” Siniath explained.

“These men, they were not traitorous?” I asked.

“No, they were not.” answered Siniath.  “But neither they nor our men noticed the band of goblin-scouts following behind them until it was too late.  The goblins know of our presence and where our encampment is hidden.  They race for Dol Dinen to bring word to their masters even now.”

“We must fly to keep them from it, before they can no longer be silenced!” I exclaimed.

When Deverell nodded her assent, Siniath said, “There is more.  The goblins will likely make it to the safety of Dol Dinen before we can hope to reach them.  Many of our brothers ride south now, to distract as many of the enemy as they are able by luring them to the west.  My task is to take advantage of the chaos woven by penetrating as deeply into the camp as necessary to find these goblins and end all chance of their spreading word of our hidden presence.

We stood silently, the magnitude of the task before us leaving room for little else in the moment…

“There is little hope that we will prevail,” admitted Siniath.  “If you wish to instead see to what you both have been tasked…”

“We will need a place to hide the horses, once they have carried us as far as they are able without giving away our presence,” I mused.  “There is a cave to the east that I know, east of the main trail leading to Dol Dinen.  We can leave the horses there and hope they are not found before we return for them.”

“Let us away, then,” said Deverell.  “Now, while there may yet be time.”

She ran off to fetch our horses, Siniath and I looking after her.

Siniath then turned to me.  “Whatever end we meet this day, whatever fate befalls Esteldin, we will make it cost the Enemy, and dearly,” he vowed.

We set the horses to fly across the downs like birds of prey…

…and we raced the moon, as it sped across the sky…

The first light of day already threatened the darkness…

I led the others to the cave, where we hoped other Way-watchers, if anyone, were to find the horses.

We pressed on…

…over hills where we attempted to glean which path might thread its way through the enemy’s forces safely…

…where we lent encouragement to one another before braving those paths…

And over grasses, where we took as much advantage of the scant cover they provided as we were able…

…until the place we had marched through the night to reach finally came into view…

The Way-watchers’ gambit had worked.  Unfettered, we stole our way to the outer fortifications protecting the Enemy’s stronghold…

…and along their length, to the front gate that would grant us entry into the deeper fortifications, and those that remained inside…

Master Siniath bid us wait, while he skulked up to the gate…

…before turning to beckon us forth…

With the burden of protecting the secret of Esteldin upon our shoulders, after our long march across enemy lines through the whole of a sleepless night…

…we now stood upon the edge of battle, the dawn of the new day breaking upon us…