Night in the Grasslands - Opening

Late Spring, T.A. 1630

The sun has set over the grassland, leaving a golden afterglow in its wake. A ghostly moon — half-shadowed — rises in the east, along with a few hesitant stars. The crickets have taken up their night song, chirps intermingling with the crackling cooking fire beside you that’s spitting orange embers into the evening sky. The heavenly smell of rabbit stew rises from the iron kettle set upon it. Ariunaa is crouched over the fire, stirring the stew as steam billows over the edge.

Father’s gone to bed early and you can hear him snoring in the yak wool tent behind you. The tent has accompanied your family for the last thousand miles of your journey. Its roof has worn so thin in some places that you can see the stars shining through. This winter it was all but useless in the harsh wind of the steppes and your family spent many nights huddled together like a pack of friendless dogs. Happily, winter is over and spring has arrived. The wind that blows now is warm and fresh.

It’s been six months since you began training Ariunaa, despite father’s wishes. You don’t know if he somehow sensed your rebellion but, ever since, he’s been on the move. You’ve traveled a hundred and thirty-seven miles westward since the first winter thaw — by your reckoning of the stars, a skill that father took pains — gave pains, actually — to teach you.

Worse than the traveling is the isolation. Your family has always kept to itself, but during the last four months you’ve barely seen a soul. The landscape isn’t helping, either. You’ve never seen anything like it: A great green prairie stretches to a featureless, verdant horizon. An ocean of grass, bare under a piercing blue sky. You can’t help but feel a little exposed out here and there are times during your nightly training with your sister that the moon reminds you of a great baleful eye, watching and judging your every deed.

Still, it hasn’t been all bad. For most of spring you traveled with a tremendous herd of great beasts that Father said the Elves called beolo. They were as big as oxen, with shaggy brown fur around their humped necks and enormous, curved white horns. There were so many that when you first spotted them from afar you thought they were the shadow of a great storm cloud.

You and Father hunted them, of course, and for a two blissful months you went to sleep so stuffed full of beolo meat you thought you might die. Ariunaa let nothing of the carcasses go to waste. She made a crude hunting horn and fashioned new boots and gloves from their skins.

Your sister loved it among the beolo. During one late night sparring she confided that for the first time in her life she didn’t fear for her next meal. During the rare moments she didn’t have some chore of Father’s to do, you’d find her frolicking across the prarie like a newborn foal, picking wildflowers to stick in her wild black mane.

For a while, even father’s mood improved. Instead of stalking off on patrol after dinner, he’d sit with you and Ariunaa, staring into the fire with a look on his face that you supposed was the closest he’d ever get to contentment.

Then, one morning, it was all over. Sudden as a thunderclap, the herd moved south. Ariunaa begged father to follow. Unlike other girls, she’s rarely cries, but that morning she near hysterical. Father wouldn’t hear it and after some minutes threatened to silence her with his backhand. She slinked away, sniffling.

After the herd departed, Father guided you west, as always. Since then, hunting’s been difficult. Supplies were dwindling and father had you foraging for food. He instructed Ariunaa to serve only one meal a day. Then, a week ago, you came upon a small shepard village. Though they were first wary of you — as rural folk always are of travelers, especially of the eastern kind — they soon revealed their troubles: Their flocks were under threat, shrinking by the night. They suspected wolves, but you knew better. No wolf pack is that hungry.

You and Father crept among the sheep and waited for your quarry. It arrived soon after the moon set. The sheep began braying in panic even before you saw it creep from a nearby copse of trees. It was a wretched thing — tall as two men but gaunt, its scaly gray-green skin hanging in loose folds. It stank so strongly of rotten meat that you could smell it all the way from your hiding place.

Father chuckled when he saw it: “A Hill-troll, Ganoveth. Considering how flat this place is, it’s a long way from home.”

Father told you that you’d be the bait, as is usual with larger and dumber prey. Your job was to distract it while father snuck up behind and stabbed the creature with Ebonrath, which he’d coated in poison. The Troll was far too large to kill with poison, but it’d be weakened enough to give Father the edge he needed.

You gripped your kusari-fundo and stalked onto the prairie just as the Troll was stumbling toward the flock. It picked up two sheep by their necks and swung them wildly. You could hear the necks snap from where you were crouched. It was about to eat them when you stood and shouted.

The Troll regarded you with something approaching curiosity. It dropped one of the sheep and took three steps towards you. It was mid-way through its fourth when a shadow crept up behind it and stabbed it in the thigh.

It let out an enormous bellow and whirled around, but Father had already melted into the grass. It took another step toward you, stumbled, and dropped the other sheep. It stared at you, blinking — and then it did something you’ve never seen before. The Troll turned, and it ran.

Father sprung up and gave chase, shouting for you to remain. You did as you were told, but he returned less than ten minutes later. The poison had been weaker than he’d expected and the Troll’s gait was too long. He’d lost his quarry.

Father smacked you on the back. “It’ll be back tomorrow night. Or, if not, than the night after.”

You hauled the two dead sheep home to the tent and that’s what Ariunaa is using to make her stew. You glance at her and see she’s staring east, the moonlight glittering in her dark eyes. “Gano, do you ever wonder about our mother?”

Ganoveth tells her that he does, but only a little: Her laugh, the way her her was blacker than a moonless night, but shimmered under the sun…

“I was so young when Father took us away,” she says. “I dream of her, you know. I never knew her, but I miss her.”

Suddenly, she smiles. “I made something for you.” She gives Gano a beolo-skin cloak. It looks very well-made, and it’s obvious she put a great deal of time and energy into it.

“I know you get cold when you go out with Father, even if you won’t admit it… And I wanted to thank you for… for teaching me.”

Night in the Grasslands - Opening

The Lord of the Rings: Shadow of the East Leonides02