Battle of the Golden Wood, The
9. Recovery and Threat
A long day had passed in toil. Tasariel's outriders returned to the makeshift barracks set up in the angle between Silverlode and the Lady's wards. Some curried and tended their horses, while others began the tedious task of cleaning and repairing armour. Haldir's folk took up once more the watch on the door of Moria, and an uneasy peace fell. Smoke curled out of the Black Pit of the Dwarrowdelf, and changing winds brought long banners of fume and ash out of Mirkwood. The sky to the East began in sulphur and deepened into soot as shadow crept forth from Mordor, harbinger of its armies.
Haldir walked about the camp, checking its order. All was well. With freedom to think, he marvelled again at the Lady's bravery in choosing this place - this small wood between three of the Enemy's strongholds - as her own land. Long ago, when the Dwarves first stirred up the Balrog of Moria, Amroth, King of Lorien, had fled from its threat with many of his folk, choosing to run to the Havens rather than stand firm. Lorien might have perished then, but that the Lord and Lady heard the people's pleas for help and left their home in Belfalas to settle here and rule in Amroth's stead.
Haldir sighed, looking out at the advancing darkness of the sky. Amroth had been all consumed by love, and perhaps had little choice but to follow Nimrodel in her flight to the sea. He could not blame the King. But Amroth's retreat made Haldir's regard for the Lord and Lady all the stronger. They have been steadfast for us. Now we will endure for them.
The breeze freshened, and the trees tossed overhead, and of a sudden the sound was of the ocean. Gulls wailed, and a voice full of sorrow cried out words he could not quite catch. There was a tang of salt in the air, and the slap of ropes on the masts of ships all long ago fallen to the still places in the deeps of the water. Ever, when the wind was in the South, the voice of Amroth would be blown from the sea, where he had drowned, still striving to be reunited with his beloved. It was a familiar sound, but no less eerie for that. "Stars shine on your face, Majesty," Haldir said to the wind, "But one lost King is enough. No more."
"And thus we see why Haldir is exiled to the borders of the Dwarrowdelf." Tasariel appeared beside him; a tall woman of the Noldor, lithe and strong and ...lordly... in her tunic, trousers, and leather gambesson, "Talking to the dead? It is an ill craft."
"Forgive me, lady," Haldir laughed softly, and nodded at the busy encampment with its many fires, smells of cooking, and raised, challenging voices. "I am not used to such crowds. Oft on our patrols my brothers and I have no one to speak to but the air. It is a hard habit to break."
"Yet we are a host," she said, "And it were ill to face death with a night of such grim thoughts behind us. Let us rather use this peace in a time of storm to rejoice, that we may be strengthened for tomorrow."
At her council Haldir felt chilled. If it had come to snatching every last bliss before ruin, then there truly must be little hope. But he nodded, "Aye, let the Enemy listen to our laughter, and may it choke him."
So as the sun went down, lighting the spill of Mordor cloud from beneath, the elves on the Northern border made preparations for a feast.
While twilight still lingered above the mountains, a horn-call rang out, further in the woods. Turning to it, Haldir saw the healers returning - Orophin among them, his wheat-blond hair marking him out even at a great distance. He looked still sobered and silent, calmer than he had been during the battle, but only as the surface of quicksand is calm, when no unwary beast has yet trodden it.
"Should he be here?" said Tasariel, with a touch of dismissive arrogance, as though she had no time for Silvan frailty, "Unrecovered, returning to a situation he knows he cannot endure?"
Then Haldir was wroth, "Lady," he said, "How else is he to learn? If a child is tossed from a horse once, and frightened, is it not a greater friendship to put him straight back on? I am proud of him that he is making a second attempt." And he went to embrace his brother and welcome him back.
Night fell, and the few stars were dim in the heavens, obscured by mists and smoke, but the garrison of Moria set out lanterns in the trees, and banners of gold and silver, pricked with bells that chimed softly as the breezes stirred them. The healers had brought word from the Lady Galadriel that no attack would come this night, nor early in the morning, so they drank and were merry in the face of death. And many who had been tense and close to tears, as Orophin had, were eased by this proof that joy could coexist with sorrow.
But when Linion, Tasariel's minstrel, opened his mouth to sing - first to bring melody into the darkness - Haldir arose and left the warmth of the fires, passing beyond the wards to a place where he could not hear the music. He spent the rest of the night alone, quietly making arrows. For he had sworn not to listen to any song before Orophin's, and Orophin remained silent.
There was feasting also in Caras Galadhon. The sides of the healer's pavilion were rolled up so that all within could see the merriment. Where there had been one harper there were now three, challenging each other in a light hearted game of skill. The sick were brought such tender meats as they could manage, and watered wine, and encouraged to turn their faces towards the laughter and the lights.
Cyn was recovered enough to teach Ithildir - occupant of the nearest bed to his - how to play Tafl. It proved a long game as one or the other of them would drift into sleep between moves, but they seemed to manage well enough, he with no elvish and the elf with no Westron.
Tired beyond measure, wept dry, Leofwyn rocked Scild in her arms and watched Gytha run up and down from one end of the pavilion to the next. "Child," she said, "Be still, you fret the injured."
Gytha ran to her side immediately and looked up with bright impudence. Now she was no longer afraid for her father some of her pliable good behaviour had worn off. "Lady, I want to look at the feast. I want to go see Oswy. May I, please?"
"I..." she knew not what she wanted to say or why she was so reluctant. It would be safe enough for the girl to go just to the fountain clearing. Likely her only danger would be that she would be smothered with over kindliness.
"You could come with me. Daddy doesn't mind, do you daddy?"
Cyn smiled indulgently but raised his weary gaze to Leofwyn rather than his daughter, "It does me good to see her happy. Would you?"
She felt bullied - like a reluctant horse being goaded towards a jump it feared. Part of her yearned to stay in silence and darkness; to sit by Oshelm's cairn and care for nothing more until swift thirst sent her to his side. But then who would look after Scild? Could she leave him here motherless, to be raised by some elf-woman, ignorant of his birthright, of his very kind? She sighed and pulled herself to her feet laboriously, putting out a hand for the girl, "Very well then. Though we will not stay long. Elves may sing all night, but little girls need their sleep."
Leofwyn walked in silence, but Gytha soon pulled her hand away and began the to and fro running of an ill trained dog - or an exuberant child. Folk, gliding like faint lights towards the sounds of merriment, eddied around her effortlessly, and one slender flautist stopped to lean down and place a garland of violets on her hair. Their faces mirrored one another in startled joy for a moment, before he laughed and fled back to the smiling lady he walked with.
"Look!" said Gytha, twirling in place with her hands outstretched, the small purple flowers nodding over her curly blonde hair and pink cheeks, "Isn't it beautiful! ...Oh!"
They had come to the edge of the fountain glade. In the darkness the great mallorn was ablaze with lanterns - white as starlight, golden as the sun, green as summertime. Torches and lamps flared on every tree and the clearing was full of leaping fires, and elves. Elves with flowers in their gleaming hair, white gems glittering on their raiment, happiness on their faces and voices loud with mirth.
At the end of a long line of feasters the Lord and Lady sat, he crowned with yellow elanor and she with white niphredil. Beside them sat Lord Calandil, who had taken Oswy away this morning to teach him his new duties and had not yet allowed him back. Calandil's wreath of mayblossom sat a little drunkenly on his gold-wound plaits, Leofwyn thought, and unexpectedly the small imperfection made her smile.
The fountain leapt and dazzled, full of lamp and fire and starlight. The air was sweet with song. Pipe, lute and drum combined in racing melody, at once otherworldly and full of excitement. Someone handed her a bowl of roast meat and buttered greens and new baked bread. Sitting down, a little dazed, she watched Gytha scramble away from her side and plunge into the dancing, to be swept up and spun in circles by a reveller; her laughter joining theirs.
I... am alive, she thought, with some resentment but more marvel. I am alive, and the night is fair, and there is still good in the world. She thought of the destruction of her village and the death of her husband, the prospect that tomorrow the enemy would strike again, and more would die, crushed beneath a tide of orcs, and it seemed strange to her, almost callous, to feast and rejoice in the face of that.
It was callous, perhaps. And yet she felt better for it.
One of the other pages handed Oswy a full jug of wine and hooked away the empty that dangled from Oswy's fingers without breaking step. "Le hannon!" said Oswy a little self consciously, and grinned with satisfaction at the look of cool approval he received in return. He had not done so badly for himself during his day of cleaning armour. He now knew the names of many of the squires and had acquired a few - terribly accented - phrases in elvish.
On the other side of the clearing he saw his mother, eating with a faint smile on her face, and Gytha, red to her hairline, panting and giggling. Seeing him she waved, gulped down a drink and then disappeared among the dancers. Leofwyn nodded at him, and the pride in her eyes warmed him through. Taking the wine to Calandil, Oswy felt briefly well content. His family were turning their faces towards life as meadow daisies open to greet the sun.
He sighed and looked up. The sky was slate grey overhead, and the gibbous moon rode above their revelry among wracks of heavy cloud. Its white light was devoured by shadow even as he watched, and - born on the night air like a vapour - fear seemed to flow from the East and curl about him. The music and laughter of elvish celebration fell away, and the warmth of the fires grew chill. It seemed that all lights sickened, and Oswy wanted to tear his eyes from the sky, but he was caught. Dread fell on him as he saw, high above the trees, a black speck come drifting. Ash from a fire, it could have been, except there was purpose in its flight.
No crow. No raven even. He swallowed, his mouth gone suddenly dry, his breath full of the taste of tin. The black speck was no more a speck. It flew towards them - towards him - and its speed was greater than the wind. The lamplight faltered, and the stars swooned before it as it swelled and grew, huge and fell. The moon covered his face. And then it was upon them, turning above the clearing with a thin, cold cry. A voice that spoke of poison, and yearning, as a ghost might cry, desiring and hating the blood of the living. Terror stopped Oswy's heart. He breathed in despair, knowing himself to be alone, worthless, contemptible, and - letting the wine fall from his hands - he cowered before the black wings, covering his face.
Then Lady Galadriel stood, a slender elf-woman crowned with white flowers. She spread out her arms in a gesture of denial towards the night borne abomination. Light leapt from her hands like the dazzling fountain bursting from the earth. It seemed the pillar of radiance would transfix the black flying thing above them, but at the last moment it broke, wheeled away and departed towards Dol Guldur, its shrill cry freezing the night behind it.
Galadriel lowered her hands, brushing them against her skirt as if to shake off dirt. "The servants of the Dark Lord are unmannerly," she said, speaking into a sudden silence, "I do not recall inviting Lord Khamul to our feast." Her eyes were fierce, a ferocity mirrored in her husband's smile.
"I will rebuke him for it when we meet," said Celeborn, laughing.
The feast began again, and in defiance it seemed in better cheer than before. But Oswy sat, hugging his knees and trying not to weep. Terror had departed with the dwimmerlaik, but stronger than ever lay the conviction of utter worthlessness on him. They make a jest of it. And I cannot even raise my head and look at it. He knew his cowardice had been seen and noted. His brief tenure as a warrior of Lorien was over. Tomorrow he would be back with the other children, and rightly so.
A comforting hand fell on his shoulder. He looked up with astonishment into the narrow, delicate face of Lord Calandil. The moon turned the elf's fair skin into silver, inhuman and beautiful.
"I am no good after all," Oswy said. He would rather the condemnation came out of his own mouth, allowing him at least the virtue of humility. He picked up the fallen wine jug. It was of course empty, the grass stained and sodden at his feet. "I am sorry."
But Calandil's gaze was measured. Without pity or blame. "Do not think you are the only Man ever to react thus to the Nazgul," he said, "This fear is their power, and it waxes great beneath the Shadow of Mordor. But forewarned is forearmed. You know now what to expect, Oswy, when you ride out to war against the forces of Darkness."
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