One cycle of the moon had passed since the Elf had pulled the woman from the Lake.
Life in the previously abandoned hut on the shores of the Long Lake had taken on a quiet, orderly routine as Haleth gradually recovered her strength.
In an attempt to overcome her uneasiness with the Lake, every morning she forced herself to go to the shore to wash. She had yet to make peace with the fact that it had almost claimed her life. It was a personal battle to enter even in the shallow waters. She dipped her head beneath the surface very quickly to wash the accumulated grime and oil from her hair.
Inglor had never explained how he had come to be in the lake at exactly the right time to save her from drowning. She had refrained from mentioning the unlikeliness of the situation, much less demand a reason for it. The Elf would give her a truthful answer, but he was sure to leave out a few salient details. In turn, Inglor would ask her why she had taken the Black Arrow. She had absolutely no intention of discussing the reasons for her activities, even with someone to whom she owed her life. In the end and to her regret, Haleth decided that she simply could not trust the Elf.
She was polite but distant in the time they spent together. The situation saddened her, as he had been the first person with whom she had had more than a passing acquaintance in a very long time. The weight of loneliness, which she rarely felt during the years of solitary wandering, suddenly pressed down upon her. If her reticence bothered the Elf, he gave no indication of it. She strongly suspected that he accepted her aloofness as normal behavior.
The ramshackle hut where they stayed had been built by the Men of Laketown. It had served as a temporary shelter during the winter that had followed the death of Smaug and the destruction of the old town. The shack and others like it had been left to the birds and beasts of the field after the new town had been built. Inglor had brought Haleth to the least rundown of them and had made repairs while she had been ill. The lean-to, with its dirt floor and wide spaces between the rotting wallboards, would not be warm enough to pass the winter.
One night an unexpected cold snap left the world silvered with frost and reminded Haleth of the journey ahead.
"We should be leaving soon," she said when she returned to the hut, dripping and shivering from her morning ablutions.
"You still have to regain your strength," Inglor said.
"I can recover as we travel, as long as we don't move too quickly," she argued. "Besides, we have used up all of the small game in the area."
"But there are plenty of fish in the Lake," the Elf placidly countered.
"It will take weeks to cross Rhovanion," she said, thrusting her stiff fingers beneath her armpits to warm them. "The mountain passes will be blocked with snow if we wait here any longer."
"Why would that matter?" Inglor asked, mildly confused.
"We can't stay here all winter." Haleth reminded him. "And the Misty Mountains are in the way."
"But we will go south around the Hithaeglir," he said, ignoring or not noticing the sarcasm in her tone. "The Men of Gondor will supply us with a boat to sail to..."
"I am not going to Gondor under any circumstances," Haleth hissed.
Inglor considered for a moment. Everything from Haleth's posture to the dangerous gleam in her eyes announced that her decision was final. He had to find a compromise.
"We could sail down the Anduin, take the Gap of Rohan, and go north, but it takes much longer to walk rather than sail."
"Which is why it would be better to leave now and go over the Misty Mountains," she said quickly.
Inglor leveled her with an intense, critical look which was completely at odds with his usual expression of absolute tranquility.
"We shall see when the time comes," he murmured, leaving the hut before Haleth could argue any further.
A dim figure glided through the thick fog that blanketed the Long Lake. The weather had turned cold. A silver curtain of mist billowed above Esgaroth; the vapours of the warm water swirling into the cooler air. A small crown of stars gleamed in a dark, clear circle of sky high above the Finder's head. The moon was hidden somewhere within the mists, a brighter haze amid the featureless grey.
The Finder had made the conscious decision to leave her borrowed name behind her, along with Inglor and the distant warmth of his companionship. Inglor had left early that morning, announcing that he intended to be away for several days in order to secure enough supplies to see them through the first part of their journey. He must have been delayed in Esagaroth for he did not return.
The Finder had spent the day tidying the hut and finalising her travelling preparations. The Black Arrow was carefully wrapped in layers of cloth and leather and placed at the bottom of her pack, along with half of the food.
When she was certain Inglor would not unexpectedly return, she strapped her pack to her back and set out for the town without a backwards glance. Her plan was to take a boat and paddle up the Forest River. Once she found the Old Forest Path, she would abandon the boat and make her way through Mirkwood and the wild, empty lands beyond its borders.
She reached Esgaroth in late afternoon. The people of Lake Town were accustomed to the presence of foreign traders and merchants. No one spared her a second glance as she wandered along the docks, idly examining the merchants' wares while sizing up the boats.
As the sun set, she got into a small row boat, cast off the ropes and paddled away. The half expected cries of 'stop, thief' never materialized.
The fog had arisen shortly after the sun had dipped below the horizon. She stayed as close to the shore as she could. The lap of the gentle waves and the mist were her only companions. She tried to not think of Inglor and his reaction upon discovering that she had abandoned him. It was impossible to think of him being angry. He would likely be disappointed. The anticipation of regret pricked her conscience.
She sternly told herself it did not matter. Their meeting had been purely accidental. He had nursed her back to health out of the kindness of his heart. Now that she had healed, he was free to be about his business, which was undoubtedly something very important. Their paths would not cross again.
Her mind turned to the future. She hoped to avoid the Wood Elves. While they had no reason to bear her any ill will, they were understandably suspicious of travellers passing through their realm. Any encounter with them would check her progress her and could trap her on the wrong side of the Misty Mountains until late spring. She did not relish the prospect of spending the winter in Rhovanion.
The boat's pace was painfully slow for she was afraid of losing her way in the murk. It was becoming steadily harder to keep the boat within sight of the shore. A strong current was pushing it towards the centre of the lake. She must be approaching the place where the Forest River flowed into the Long Lake.
A low shape loomed out of the fog, directly in the path of her boat. She fought the current to avoid it, but she had become aware of it too late. There was a loud scrape of wood against wood as the boat and a barrel skimmed against each other.
"There are more over here," an unfamiliar voice called in Sindarin.
"Well, pick them up," came the weary command. "The sooner we get the barrels ashore, the sooner we can rest."
A figure on another boat slid out of the darkness. The forest Elf and the Finder regarded each other in mute surprise.
"What is keeping you?" the irritated question came out of the fog.
"One of our barrels has changed itself into a boat," answered the Elf. "One with a passenger."
"Bring him." The words were as chill as the damp air. The Finder sighed deeply and directed her boat towards the shore.
Tall figures surrounded her the instant her boat touched the bottom. She was preparing her explanations and excuses when someone stepped from the mists and smiled pleasantly.
"Haleth," Inglor said as she ogled him in shock. "I am glad that you are here. I have arranged passage for us through the Woodland realm. We can leave in a week."
Haleth blinked at him. The Elf's eyes, shining brightly, were devoid of any trace of remonstrance although a muted spark of amusement could have been hiding in their blue depths.
He was smiling faintly, waiting for some positive comment from her. Through the layers of surprise and shock, Haleth realised that he had anticipated her actions and had moved to block her. Nothing like it had ever happened to her before, and she had escaped several powerful, clever and highly motivated individuals. It was an unsettling, unpleasant experience to be out-witted; especially by someone who had apparently not put any effort or thought into it.
"Thank-you, Inglor," she said faintly, assuring herself that he had merely been lucky in finding her while knowing chance had nothing to do with the situation. In a state of abject horror, she pictured the rest of her life as one, long, frustrating negotiation with a polite, seemingly naïve, utterly implacable Elf.
Mortality was suddenly not so heavy a burden.