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Battle of the Golden Wood, The: 14. Downfall
"Rumil," he said, and the word came out as a gasp of pain. It did not grow easier to breathe, and darkness quavered behind his eyes, "I cannot..." He coughed, and blood filled his mouth with a taste of copper and salt. "Can't..."
"Give him to me!" Orophin shouldered Rumil aside and took Haldir's uninjured arm, wrapping it about his own neck. "Cling on to me Haldir," he said, "You must to the healers at once, only hold on to me until we reach the ground." Yet he did not leave go of his brother's hand, and that proved well, for by the time Orophin reached the forest floor Haldir could think of nothing but the terrible struggle to draw air into his body, the choking, drowning sensation of his throat filling with blood. Each time he gasped a knife of his own bone was driven further into his lungs. But for his brother's clutch he would have fallen again, and he felt it - a sensation of releasing, descending into an endless cold.
"Thilevril!" Orophin was calling above him. He opened his eyes and saw, very white against the night's utter pitch, the face of a lady who seemed otherworldly as a Vala to his failing sight. He struggled to speak - to tell her he drowned on dry land - but she looked grimly at him, and in her eyes the light of long-dead trees still shone keenly, ruthless as spears.
"Hush now," she said, "Go to sleep." He had much to do; archers to lead, a war to win. But he could not breathe, and her will was the stronger. So he let go and fell again, and this time there was no pain.
Erethon's last arrow was set to the string. He fired downwards, into the face of an uruk whose claws were almost on him. The creature tumbled, snarling, grabbing out at the orcs below it with a grip that pulled them from the trunk as it died. Even motionless, its weight and limp body crashed into its followers and brought many down behind it. Erethon smiled. Fifty orcs with twenty arrows was not so bad a tally. He would yet have something to boast of in Mandos. Looking out towards the West he hoped for a star, and at that moment the cloud over Lorien shifted, and moonlight drenched the crawling orcs with pale, pale silver.
The treetops of Lorien tossed in a breeze called by the Ring of Adamant, and Erethon felt wonder. Like Elwing, perhaps, if he flung himself out he could transform to a gull and sail on white feathers over the silver and sable trees, with the light of Telperion's last flower sleeking his wings. It was a good time to fly.
There came the whine of wings, but out of the wood streamed not birds but arrows; white fletched shafts with tips that glimmered like ice, and he did not know if he felt relieved or disappointed as the orcs began to fall from his tree like overripe fruit. He could see now his own folk slipping amidst the boughs like grey shadows, surrounding him, moving swiftly, ever moving so they might not also be trapped. Then Merethir's cavalry surged from the shade like a dam breaking, taking long spears against the wargs.
"I was not aware this song had a repeated chorus," said Merethir, stilling his horse beneath Erethon's tree and looking up, his armoured fist raised in ironic salute.
"It grows wearisome, I admit," said Erethon, embarrassed at having been rescued twice. Then he reached for the quiver on the nearest orc corpse and pulled the filthy flights into his own hands. His mood changed at the thought - he had been light as a seagull wheeling on a sunlit wind, but now his face grew hot, and he was wroth at the army of Mordor for discomforting him. Taking aim and letting fly, he watched with satisfaction as a little sneaking snaga fell, impaled by the orcish arrow. "But let us now change the tune," he said fiercely.
Leofwyn awoke from drab dreams as Oswy scrambled to his feet next to her. As with the baby she had never quite lost the habit of listening for him, even though she slept. Night was a weight of lead upon the healer's tent and pressed like a closing fist on all the shadowy trees about them, but in front of Oswy stood Calandil. Torchlight leapt over the elf's gold-wound hair, and he was all amber and flame himself - like a spirit of fire alight in the deadly dark. She saw that he was in mail which seemed to flicker with light like the firebrand, and girded with a sword, and her heart stilled a moment, as she remembered the bitter truth upon which this warrior beauty was built.
"Nnh!" said Oswy, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as a child might, and she wanted to cry out and cling to him. Have not I lost enough? My son will stay with me! He will stay!
"Another attack comes," said Calandil, without gentleness, "Arm yourself and come."
But Leofwyn was of the people of Eorl - a stern folk, loyal to their lord, so she let the fear straighten her back, and closed her mouth on protest. She handed her son the leather jerkin which went beneath his mail, and watched him lace it with an impassive face. His eyes were on her, and she knew he sought for his own courage. She would not take away his strength with weeping. "Hold up your arms," she said, and lifted the shirt of steel rings to lower it over him. May a mother's blessing protect you, little one.
She took Oshelm's sword, on the belt she had embossed for him with loving work and painted with galloping steeds, and hiding the tremble of her hands, she put it around his waist and buckled it. I release you into the protection of Bema. You were never mine, you only sojourned with me for a while. Go to your fate.
Bending down slightly she kissed his forehead, as she had done so many times when he was but an infant, to soothe a wounded knee, or one of childhood's many disappointments. "Defend your lord," she said, "And do honour to your father's name."
And come back.
"I will, mother," he said, solemnly. Did she look close enough, she could see all the words unspoken in his gaze, but she would not ask him to say them, lest it unman him, and at last he smiled awkwardly, and walked away. She watched him out of sight, the Healer's tent still around her as other women did the same with their own loves, their own children. Then she bit back the cry of anguish and turned, to do what needed to be done next.
Oswy mounted and accepted the winged-moon banner. The cavalry of Lorien drew up in two forces just beyond the dust and ash of the borders. Lamplit, the elven warriors were outlined in shifting silver as light spilled down the sleeve of a mail shirt, stroked the smooth edges of helms and the long, black brilliance of unbound elvish hair. In the Mordor darkness it was as though stars themselves had come to earth, and armed themselves to do battle.
Beyond the slot of withered ground, where the stumps of blackened trees held up broken fingers to the clouded sky, the army of Dol Guldur seethed. Many torches flared among them, and bathed them in a bloody light. There he saw creatures who had haunted childhood nightmares, now made real, and he felt a horror, as though their very being undermined the goodness of creation. Cold was on him, and above the heads of all circled a Ringwraith, neither living nor dead. Terror flew with it and blanketed the earth beneath it, like the vapour of fear that flowed from the deathly halls of Dunharrow. But this pursued Oswy with malice, having seen his face.
"You take that one," Gentling his horse with one hand, Lord Celeborn raised the other and pointed at the closer siege engine. Calandil, who sat his horse beside him, frowned.
"Lord, I have not your woodcraft," he said, "Though I reach it I can do nothing to it."
At that Celeborn smiled, like the gleam on the edge of a sword, "That, the commanders of Khamul's army do not know. Lay your hand on the machine and recite poetry if you will, and they will not dare use it again."
Even beneath the oppression of the circling wraith, Calandil laughed at the thought, and wheeled away. And Oswy saw his wing of cavalry go flying across the darkened ground as a swan in flight.
Then horns were blown and to a sound of steel and silver the elvish host leapt upon their enemies, and Oswy was born among the charge like a mote in a swift stream, while the banner he bore snapped behind him and the white gems of its device flamed like vengeful stars.
But the enemy knew their tactic now and were prepared. This time the orc archers aimed not for elvish knights but for their horses, and the arrows were tipped with crescents of steel that made a wound the size of a child's hand where they touched.
In front of Oswy a horse stumbled, fell, its proud neck arched as it screamed in pain. Its rider - an elf in green livery stitched over with snowdrops - leapt to safety as it fell, and one of his companions reached down to help him spring up upon his own horse. Wargs closed in on the fallen animal and rended it to pieces, stood eating and snarling at one another, even as their riders lashed them to rejoin the fight. At the sight of the fallen beast a slow fury began in Oswy, and he spurred his own steed faster, drawing his sword, and joining his cry with the voices of the elves. "Gurth an yrch! Gurth an glamhoth!"
It was fortunate that the machines were set up so close to Lorien. Had they been further there would have been little hope. As it was, more than half the force was unhorsed by the time they turned, the device left disabled behind them.
Stabbing down, Oswy drove his sword through the gaping mouth of a warg. It thudded to the soaked ground and, for a moment, he was left without any opponent. He looked out over the roil and filth of the orcs with hatred. There, on his right, speeding towards the safety of the Golden Wood was the gleam and glimmer of Calandil's force, a brightness about it. Like spring after winter, or the dawn after a night of grief seemed Calandil as he cleft his way through the foe. A glad lord, alight with gold. At the sight Oswy began to smile, but the expression faltered and turned to horror. A weight as cold as snow settled at his chest and his heart iced over, as part of the night shifted, drew into focus and became a faceless king of ghosts, flying on darkness.
Air rushed and hissed in the downdraught of the dwimmorlaik's wings as it descended like a hammer upon Calandil. The bright lord raised his shield - and it was shivered to pieces in the grasp of the fell beast's talons. Then, as the elf-lord struck out with his axe, the bolt of an Uruk crossbow came from the shadows and pounded into his shoulder. Mail links burst apart. The shaft burrowed deep. Blood bloomed on the bright steel.
"No!" Oswy wheeled and charged towards Calandil, seeing as he did so Celeborn turn too, like a white wave, and drive towards his friend. Swift were the paces of the elvish steed, and Celeborn was beside Oswy when a wicked arrow, shaft as thick as his thumb, flew from the dark and gored a fist sized hole in the flank of Oswy's mount. Oswy cried out as Fleetfoot stumbled. Unable to relinquish either banner or sword he was thrown over the horse's head, hit the ground. The pain was breathtaking, but he had not time to feel it. As he scrambled to his feet he felt a hand seize him, and he almost hewed it before he saw, through streaming eyes, the sleeve of icy mail scattered with small cold stars.
Celeborn lifted him and set him before himself, and if possible the elvish horse galloped faster, hooves flying, barely seeming to touch the ground as orcs fell before Lorien's wrathful lord as though before lightning.
But the Nazgul's beast had closed its maw about Calandil's broken shield-arm. It lifted and shook him, its teeth making deeper wounds even as he bled from the bolt. Then it dropped him to the ground, and mantled over his fallen form like a carrion bird over its prey. The monstrous head raised, shrieking its triumph.
Oswy was filled with rage, but his terror was the greater, for the closer they drew to Khamul the Sorcerer the more evil, the colder and more deadly grew the spell of fear that swept from him. Though Oswy hated himself for his weakness, and he hated the wraith for taking away his courage, still his hands grew slack, barely able to clutch at the precious standard. He turned his face away and closed his eyes, and tears ran over his cheeks, warm and shameful.
Then, still at the gallop, Celeborn seized an orc and slaying it he plundered its quiver and bow, shredded the air about the dwimmorlaik with arrows. Remembering, perhaps, the wound Elien had dealt his steed, biding his time til the archer should be again unarmed, the great shadow-king withdrew, rising up into the darkness from which he came, and Oswy and Celeborn dismounted and came at last to Calandil's side.
He lay twisted on turf torn and muddied with blood, his bright hair sodden and filthy, his eyes wide with surprise, and focussed on nothing in this world.
"No..." said Oswy again, hopelessly, and "Baw," said Celeborn, kneeling to take the broken form into his arms. "Mellon nin... gwanur nin. Avo firo, baw."
"Gurth an yrch! Gurth an glamhoth!" = "Death to the orcs! Death to the din-horde!"
"Baw. Mellon nin, gwanur nin. Avo firo, baw." = "No...don't. My friend, my chosen-brother, don't die. Don't."
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