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Battle of the Golden Wood, The: 6. It Begins
In Lorien the grass and trees, the stones and water, were singing with the voices elves had given them - a song that had remained unchanged since the before the first sunrise. But here the refrain was of Men - brief, swiftly grasped, soon gone - and Erethon felt out of key with the melody of the world.
He spoke softly to the two horses who accompanied him. They did not seem to mind the change of air and were tossing their heads, delighted with the space and the chance to run. Leaping onto the back of the grey, Erethon let them have their wish, leaning close to the pale mane as they galloped together through the weary moonlight. Though he had strung his bow and kept it in hand he sensed nothing ill near him. Nor did he catch sight or sound of any good beast, whether horse or herd of Rohan, or white owl hunting. The hills seemed scoured and silent, and Ithil's pallid glow shone on a great emptiness. Only the grass whispered as the cold wind hissed over the turf.
The night hours passed, and in the East the sky became as bone. He smelled the chill freshness of dew, but over it and through it, discordant as voices shrieking, the scents of cold ash and spilled gore, of ordure and orcs. The feel of the din-horde was greasy over the green pastures, like a spill of tar. Dawn showed him a thin trail of smoke against a citrine sky, and rags of tents, and bodies of both men and orcs littered like strange leaves over the sward.
A mile later, and the scent came to the horses. He felt them balk, and, pitying them, dismounted, bidding them to remain within calling distance. So it was that he came to the ruin of the people of Oshelm on foot, and trod lightly over ground torn and muddied with blood. The first corpse of Man he came seemed at first a rock - it was the wrong shape for anything living, and rust brown as the earth. But then he saw that the legs had been cleaved through and lay a little apart. One arm was outstretched and the other severed. The blond hair was dark with foulness, but the eyes were open. At the sight of them Erethon felt di-nguruthos; overwhelmed by the dread and horror of death.
Where had the light gone out of those dead eyes? Not to Mandos, not to any place that elves understood. It had gone utterly beyond the world. An unnatural and uncanny fate that made his skin creep over his bones.
He could not force himself to go closer, but edged around the thing to check the next, and the next, the horror mounting as he found maidens disembowelled, beheaded infants, trampled babes. His chest began to hurt with the fear of it, the pain and the waste, and he wished he could sing for them, but he knew none of the sagas of Rohan. At last, when it became unbearable, he found himself chanting the Lay of Leithian. At least Luthien of all elves had travelled where mortals go in death, and returned, and been not afraid.
The words strengthened him, and as the light broadened and clouds rode up the morning from the North, his voice also swelled, filling the emptiness with a tale of victory beyond the grave. He let the final words linger on his tongue before hope gave place to silence once more.
There was a tumbled tent nearby, a swathe of half-burnt canvas over a lump that moved. He dashed to it, caught the corner and flung the material aside. And then recoiled. There lay a boy little older than Oswy. His hair was copper-bright and his face all freckles. Red rimmed, narrowed eyes sought Erethon's face with desperation. His bared teeth ground together with pain. A long knife lay beside him, and with both hands he was holding his own entrails where they spilled from a ragged wound in his belly. Tears leaked from the corner of his eyes. "I'm thirsty."
Erethon unslung his water bag and cradling the boy's head gave him to drink, carefully. The child's skin was clammy and cold, his sweat soaked hair like river weeds against Erethon's shoulder. He could feel in the very air the boy breathed out the taint of death, inescapable. But not quick. He would linger in torment first, some days.
"Have you ...come to help me?" The boy gasped, and water ran over his hands from the rent tatters of his guts.
Put him on a horse and he would die more swiftly and in greater pain. Even if Erethon could construct a litter, he would but die in it before they reached the wood. So this is the mercy I was sent to bring, Erethon thought, bowing to the necessity of it. "Yes," he said.
"What are you?"
Erethon stepped back and took an arrow from his quiver. "I am a follower of Lord Tauron," he said, truthfully enough, "Whom you call Bema. And there is only one thing left that I can do for you." He nocked the arrow and drew.
The boy's eyes widened. Then he nodded, pressing his mouth closed to stop the lip from trembling. He closed his eyes, and Erethon shot him cleanly through the forehead, turning away so he did not have to watch as the spirit fled.
"Ai!" he said to the silent hills, "Ai, Elbereth!" He covered his face with his hands and stood as one stunned.
How long he was still, he knew not, but the sun was lowering when he stirred again. Now he made one last circuit to be sure he had not overlooked any other survivor, and when that was done he hardened himself to pick up the bodies and place them on a pyre made from the peat they had cut for their fires and the poles of their tents.
Once the blaze was lit he went over the ground again and gathered every discarded weapon he could find. Lorien would need these gleaned arrows. The smiths could melt and reforge the orc scimitars. Even the eating-knives of dead children could be turned to a new purpose in the defence of Erethon's land. Let Rohan contribute these things it no longer needed. No other help would come to Lorien from the old alliances or the hands of Men.
Not even death would they give us, if our positions were reversed, he thought, and recognized the bitterness that came with too much grief.
At last he whistled for the horses, grateful for the pleasure drawn in every line of them - their day had clearly been to their liking. Dividing the weapons into four piles, Erethon fashioned large bags from the tent canvas and slung them over the horses' willing backs, careful to lade the weight evenly, and pack the sacks as smooth as he might. "We will go slower on the return," he said, giving each an apple, "Come, my friends, let us go home."
They walked through a grey evening. The lowering clouds set in and a fine drizzle swept out of the west, smelling of smoke and iron. Night came without stars.
Far off, a wolf voice cried and its pack answered in clamour. Erethon had been looking about for a place to camp, so that the horses could rest, but now his heart fell, and a sense of doom assailed him. Red were the tongues of fire in Eryn Fuin.
The horses' ears laid back, and their eyes showed white in the darkness.
"We must not linger here," Erethon told them, and ran. They kept pace, trotting beside him, the sacks of weapons slapping against their flanks.
Thus the night passed, and he saw nothing, but the sense of threat grew.
Morning dawned grudgingly, little more than a lightening of the heavy black cloud, except over Lorien. Barely more than a league away, and surrounded by drabness, the golden wood lay under a sky of rain-washed blue, the very rightness of it refreshing him more than rest or food. Yet his back ached with tension, expecting a blow, and his breath came hard, so fierce was the warning on him.
One moment he looked back to the long drab plains and the darkness that was Mirkwood. The shadow moved and boiled, and a great army of orcs came pouring forth from beneath the twisted branches. Harsh voices yammered, whips cracked, and a score of great wagons crawled forward. Wargs and warg riders howled about them, bearing black banners that hung heavily, as though they were already soaked in gore.
As they approached Anduin the orcs caught sight of Erethon watching them. A great laughter and cursing went up. Then they began to throw down the sections of what they had brought in the wagons - great pontoons. They were bridging the river.
Erethon leapt on a horse and set his heels to its flanks. They thundered across the last miles and drew up blown and panting only when Erethon's fellow guards dropped out of the trees to intercept him. He threw the sacks of weapons on the ground and caught hold of the fastest runner in his company.
"Tell the Lord: They are coming. And there are many of them."
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