8. The Dusk and the Dawn
"Are you certain that you are not left-handed?" Aragorn shot his tormentor a quick glance at that. Faladhros frowned as he inspected his work from the night before, and his grey eyes darted Aragorn's way briefly in response to that look. "For it seems that you are quite unlucky of late!" Faladhros continued by way of elaboration. As the designated surgeon for the company, he had seen to both Aragorn and Aradhil, and had spent a lengthy bit of time suturing wounds. The Ranger's wrist had required particularly careful work due to the arterial flow and nearly severed muscles. Nevertheless, that more urgent concern did not prevent Faladhros from commenting on the marks left by Gollum's teeth, and though the injury had ceased to give Aragorn any trouble, the Elf tsked now at him over the scarring. "I fear you shall have scars from both claws and teeth, but less from the former than from the latter, I assure you."
"For that you have my thanks, and were I left-handed, then I would be unlucky. As I am not, however, I shall not complain of the fortune that has left me alive," Aragorn replied as the Elf carefully rebound the cloth strips round the Ranger's forearm.
"And kissed at that!" Faladhros grinned, which comment earned him a rather quelling glare. Little intimidated, the Elf continued blithely, "Be careful not to break the stitches by any too strenuous activity." Aragorn nodded somewhat brusquely, feeling a bit irritated, both by the jibe and by the unnecessary reminder. He was a healer as well, and he needed not such basic admonitions. But it is Faladhros' task to give them, so bite your tongue, Aragorn! So he told himself and tried not to let pain dictate his temper overmuch. The Elf rose and gave the Ranger a hand up, and then he paused, gazing past Aragorn as if with resignation. Unobtrusively, the Dúnadan made a quarter turn and, under the pretext of adjusting the bandages more to his liking, he surreptitiously followed the other's gaze. Legolas stood conversing with the warden, and though the Ranger had not an Elf's ears, he guessed from the taut, still expression on the latter's face that the matter was not to his liking. Hearing the soft sigh at his side, Aragorn hid a slight, but not unsympathetic, grin, for clearly Faladhros did not relish the prospect of dealing with the warden this morning. But duty left him no choice, and so, shaking himself slightly, the Elf offered the Ranger a parting nod and moved determinedly towards the pair. "Aradhil !" At Faladhros' approach, Legolas hastily concluded his discussion and moved away, leaving the warden to the healer's attention.
With a sigh of his own, Aragorn clenched and unclenched his fist a few times, testing the stitches and accustoming himself to the discomfort. His grip would be worthless for a time, but he was fairly confident that in a pinch, he could use both hands to defend himself. Just not very well! Beyond that, his shoulders throbbed, and his shirt would need extensive patching if he ever wanted to use it for anything other than rags. At the moment, it occupied the bottom of his light travel pack, and short of a return to either Thranduil's halls or Eriador, Aragorn doubted he would find both time and safety in which to mend it. One did not bother with such trivialities when traveling the mountain passes, and Mirkwood forest was proving to be nearly as bad, if not worse. All that I miss on this journey is the knowledge that these lives are mine to spend or spare, and glad am I to forego that responsibility. But though firmly outside the patrol's hierarchy, he was hardly without obligations to the group, and to Legolas himself. Indeed, as the Ranger watched the prince move among his men, pausing by each to speak in a low voice about some matter, he found himself dreading the moment when Legolas should turn to him. For whatever my place in this patrol, I ought to know better than to alter set plans as I did last night. Had one of his own men been so foolish, he would not have spared him the reprimand. Truly, it was not even a matter of 'would,' it was simply an accepted fact that a company of Rangers could not tolerate that sort of behavior; and he who blithely followed his own notions did so knowing that he would face his captain's condemnation. That Aradhil and he together had decided to dare the slopes only made matters worse, and Aragorn tasted the irony bitter on his tongue. I was concerned that Legolas should assume his rightful authority, and yet it was I who was insubordinate!
The prince of Mirkwood spoke now with Dorothil, who stood gravely attentive and listened, nodding every so often. To Aragorn's mind, the two seemed to have grown closer in confidence since Dorothil had come to plead for the Ranger's intervention. I hope that they have, for in this matter I think me his judgment is more sound than Aradhil's. Given my actions, it may be more sound than mine, for that matter! He sighed softly, letting his eyes sweep over the eerily still forest, wary of the shifting play of flame-cast shadows on the knotted bark. Nuilandar absently tended to their small fire, rationing their supply of nargaladh chips, and it occurred to Aragorn of a sudden that he had been on but one other journey so consistently dark. 'Tis unfortunate that the pillars of Moria, crumbling and chipped where the worst damage was done, rather resemble this stretch of Mirkwood. Or so it seems to me. A shiver worked its way down his back, and the Ranger clenched his teeth as his shoulders tensed convulsively. There had been other campaigns, in Eriador and elsewhere, in which the threat to him and to others had been far more immediate and numerically overwhelming. Yet despite that, thought of that long ago trek through ancient Khazad-dûm inspired a terror in him that no other memory could match. I know not even the reason for it, for I met with nothing untoward. Yet my heart warned me then that I walked in the lair of an evil more profound than any I had ever faced or have ever faced directly since then. The watcher and the maker, though, were steadily rising in his estimation, and who knew but that they might at some point eclipse that older fear? Whatever lay in Moria's depths, it had been intuition and feeling that had announced its presence, but whatever stalked them now, its whispered incantations were enough to make one frantic even for the leaden silence of the forest.
At that moment, Legolas broke away from Dorothil and glided purposefully towards the Ranger, and Aragorn drew a somewhat deeper breath as he gave the prince a polite nod. "Good morrow, my prince."
"Good morrow," the other replied, and then paused, green eyes flitting thoughtfully over the Ranger. "I have spoken with the others already, and despite the risk of remaining here, we have no better recourse. Short of knocking upon the gates of Dol Guldur, we shall meet no greater danger, and to retreat would unduly tax your strength, and Aradhil's as well." The Elf paused, as if to give him a chance to object, but Aragorn only nodded. It would be pointless to deny that a day on the move would leave him ill-prepared to face their enemies, after all. "Truth be told, I think Dorothil and Nuilandar also would be the better for the rest, and we shall need what strength we can muster. Nuilandar especially, perhaps, for he has been distracted of late when not on his rounds." Legolas shook his head, and Aragorn saw the brief flash of worry in his face. And strain as well. If this whispering disturbs me, how much more difficult must it be for an Elf to ignore it? But the moment of revelation was brief, and then Legolas was speaking again, apparently in control of himself. "If we cannot destroy the better part of the werewolves in the next battle, then our fate is sealed!" This time, green eyes pinned Aragorn as the prince continued grimly, "Should that be the case, then my father must know of this threat. I would send you and one other back as messengers, and the rest of us would do what we could to prevent the werewolves from following."
Aragorn raised an eyebrow at this, pondering the other's decision, and after a moment he said, "If you order me to leave, I shall. But you know well that I shall slow any Elf whom you might send, unless he be sorely wounded. Would it not be better for me to remain in that eventuality, and to send two Elves instead?"
"If I looked no further than this engagement, then yes. But you are no mere Ranger, my friend, and you know that as well as do I. Your people need you, and as the Age grows ever darker, many others may also come to depend upon you. You know whereof I speak, so do not make of yourself less than you are."
"I seem always less than I am, Legolas. That is a Ranger's way," Aragorn replied, unwilling to touch upon that subject. Not here, and perhaps not ever, 'til the war that must come is at an end. And if we win the day back from Sauron's clutches, then it will have been evident enough the reasons for disguise. That did not make his excuse ring any truer, but the prince, after a moment's hesitation, seemed to accept it, though not without reservations.
"Nevertheless, Aragorn, we know who and what you are, and such foresight as I have is based not on mere appearances. For I fear that intentionally or otherwise, you put all of us in peril."
"You have my apology for that," Aragorn replied, forcing himself to keep his eyes on the Elf's face as he spoke, and not to dither about it like some raw youth. Ordinarily, he had less difficulty admitting his errors, but usually such mistakes were not willful, as this one was. "The risk might have been warranted, but it was not my place to take it without your permission." Legolas cocked his head at him, and the Ranger blinked in rather confused surprise. For if he read that look aright, it said that his words did not address the matter under discussion as far as the prince was concerned. "You do speak of last night's diversion, I assume ?" he prompted, fishing for an explanation.
"Nay, not at all," Legolas replied, shaking his fair head. "What I speak of concerns a question that has long preyed upon my mind: why the wrath of the tower? What goad could elicit so swift and fearful a response, when Wargs are often lost that dare our borders? I have but two theories. Or rather, one theory and an intuition so vague that I cannot risk even speculation. But your blood marks you, Aragorn and there are those who remember well the noontide of your race." As the prince spoke, that forest-deep gaze captured Aragorn's and would not release him, and the Ranger felt a certain chill pervade him, though he himself doubted the prince's deduction.
"I cannot tell you that your theory is wrong, nor deny that my father and grandfather were slain for what they were. But since then we have been careful: I knew not what I was for twenty years, as you will remember, and there are other precautions in place. To my knowledge, I am naught but a Man to enemy eyes."
"Mayhap you seem one to the imperceptive, but some things you cannot hide from those who know what to look for. Others here remember well the spirit of Westernesse, and they feel it in you. It may be that he who guards the tower, being older than we two, also remembers it, and so seeks you out. Be wary yet, son of Arathorn! After all, 'tis not every man gets a kiss from a werewolf! Clearly there is something attractive about you." That last was said with a faint smile and a lighter tone, but still, Legolas' eyes were serious. Nevertheless, Aragorn sighed softly and lowered his face into his hand.
"Let us not speak of that!" he muttered, rubbing tired eyes in disgusted remembrance, wondering if every Elf in the patrol would feel the need to remind him of that incident.
"As you wish." And true to word, the prince quickly changed topics. "Guard duty is tedious work, but I fear that I must leave it to you and Aradhil most of the day. The rest of us will do what we can to secure this place, or at least to make attack more difficult. Tonight we shall all remain on the ground together." He paused, and Aragorn nodded. Much though he might wish for the range of elvish archers, those who had no choice but to remain earthbound were in no condition to withstand an attack without the support of hale companions. Legolas read his understanding and pursed his lips slightly, running a hand through his hair to tuck it back neatly behind his ears. And it seemed to the Dúnadan that the prince hesitated, caught in the grip of some troubled emotion. I would say that he were nervous embarrassed, even . Finally: "On the matter of your actions last night and those of Aradhil, you were right to point out that we learned what we needed to know of our enemy's strength; and I cannot argue that twelve dead werewolves was more than fair recompense. It may save us tonight, if only we can match that tally. Nevertheless, should there be a next time, I will know better than to pair you with Aradhil, for I think you forget your places." Which direct rebuke was nevertheless gentler than Aragorn might have expected given the seriousness of the offense.
"I fear that we do. And whatever penalty you impose, I shall not challenge it."
The elven prince gave a soft grunt at that, once again raking the Ranger over with his eyes, and he seemed to relax at the Dúnadan's acceptance. When he spoke again, his tone was more natural. "I think we may consider the werewolves more than sufficient penalty for your fault. More, I know that I am not blameless, for I have pondered your words to me and your actions for several days now. And I believe that I know why you would forget yourselves ." Legolas trailed off significantly, quirking a pale brow at the man. After a brief lacuna, he continued, "Take another hour, and then begin your shift." With that, the prince gave him a nod and retreated gracefully back to the perimeter, there to relieve Hithras of the watch. Aragorn stared after him in a somewhat nonplussed manner, yet he felt a slight smile tug at his mouth. Young you are, my prince, but you grow quickly when need presses! Irresistibly, his eyes were drawn to Aradhil, who sat now with his back to a tree and carefully honed the edge of a notched knife. The reason for his expression earlier on seemed now quite clear, and for the first time, Aragorn felt a certain pity for the other that went beyond the Elf's apparently painful history. One must learn to let go of one's children when the time comes. Else when they claim the freedom that is their birthright, it will tear us apart! Though the warden's head was bowed and his lashes concealed his eyes, the Ranger recognized the telling quality of the other's stillness, and wondered in what realm of memory Aradhil now wandered. Eregion, I should guess, but perhaps also the more recent past perhaps he walks now with Legolas. Given their mutual dislike of each other, Aragorn knew well that it would be worse than useless for him to approach Aradhil, and so he let him be, turning his thoughts elsewhere. With a distrustful glance round at the forest, Aragorn sat down with his back to a tree and pulled Tharinsal's sword from its sheath as he fished around in his belt pouch for a whetting stone. Since they were committed to another confrontation, it would not do to be unprepared. One hour .
Elves work swiftly when need presses, and by mid-afternoon, such defenses as they could manage were in place: pikes for the most part, though Hithras had managed a lattice-like weave of the long ropes that the Elves carried. He had then strung it such that a wolf could not leap over the barrier without being caught and forced down onto the close-ranged rows of sticks. That arrangement covered approximately a quarter of the little clearing, and the rest was more or less open. At the least, the werewolves would not be able to approach with any great speed, and they would be forced to show themselves in order to pass the rows of pikes. In light of that, the patrol's strategy had changed somewhat as they could count upon having a more or less solid barrier at their backs. As the werewolves had demonstrated their willingness to take to the trees, Hithras had been assigned to guard the group from on high, to insure that they were not attacked from that angle. Aradhil and Nuilandar would be in the back row on the ground, and were to shoot past their companions to try to pick off some of their enemies at a distance for as long as possible. The rest would deal with the werewolves at knife or sword point, and if Legolas decided that theirs was a lost cause, then Aragorn and Faladhros were to break away and make for Thranduil's halls.
In the meantime, there was little to do but wait and rotate the watch while the hours trickled slowly away. And so wait they did, busying themselves with such tasks as came to mind: blades were sharpened, arrows fletched, and bows oiled; Aragorn found time after all to make a start at mending his shirt, and a few others also saw to torn clothing. And despite the aura of fear and the edginess that even the Elves evinced, quiet conversations broke out among those not on guard-- the first time in many days that any had dared to make a casual sound during an off-shift. It was as if, knowing that they approached a final stand, no one felt the need to preserve the oppressive silence. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Aragorn found himself included in the chatter rather than shunned. It had been a subtle thing at first, for the Ranger had seated himself somewhat apart from the others, as was his wont. But as the Elves spoke among themselves, ever and anon one or another of them would casually toss a question his way. That had gone on for perhaps an hour or so, until Dorothil had come back from a stint of guard duty. Without asking or making a fuss, he had sat down next to the Ranger and entered into the conversation as if naught could be more natural. After a short while, Hithras had joined them, and even Nuilandar stood at the edge of the small group, listening, though his attention seemed rather wandering. Only Aradhil kept his distance, and none asked why, accepting the other's willful isolation as inevitable.
Privately, Aragorn worried about that, but as he had tried to make a point of refusing to interfere in the patrol's relationships, he said nothing, and cast but the occasional glance at the warden. If I were truly so concerned about Aradhil, I would continue to hold myself separate from the others, so as not to jeopardize his standing. So said principled logic, but he knew he was beneath principle today. For loneliness is wearing when companionship is so near at hand, and I have had my fill of isolation! And let it be ever so banal, I would rather listen to Sindarin than that Valar-forsaken whispering! Watches rotated, Elves came and went, and eventually Aragorn took his own turn at the clearing's edge, staring into the darkness with misgiving as the others continued to talk quietly behind him. Though Legolas had decreed that shifts were to be kept short so as to tax no one's strength and keep all alert, the minutes seemed to drag by cruelly. 'Tis like walking in Rohan, or in the deserts. Where there are no ready markers to tell the leagues, it takes an effort to continue without losing one's way. In the bleak temporal 'space' beneath the boughs of southern Mirkwood, there was little indeed to mark the passing of time, save a growing sense of dread unease. And that infuriating whispering! The Ranger found himself drumming his fingers on the girth of his belt, unconsciously keeping time with the hissing cadence. Irritated with himself, he gripped the hilt of his sword tightly in an effort to suppress that habit.
At last, he sensed a frosty presence nearby, and glanced back to see that Aradhil had come up behind him. A moment the two of them stood and stared at each other. But then Aragorn made himself nod civilly to the other and stepped past him, leaving the warden the watch. That earned him naught but cold silence, and the Ranger ground under a mental heel his frustration with Aradhil. There are other things to worry over, after all. Look up, son of Arathorn! See how the sky grows indistinct between the breaks in the leaves? Dusk comes, and with it, danger. Casting one last glance over his shoulder at the warden's back, he started forward and nearly collided with Nuilandar, who seemed to have appeared before him as if by magic. Rocking back on his heels a bit, the Ranger blinked in startlement. "Your pardon, Nuilandar!" he murmured.
"'Twas my fault," the other replied quite distinctly, and Aragorn's eyebrows shot up at the other's oddly grave tone and blunt words. "I should know to be more careful, yet I sometimes ignore what lies before me." The Elf's dark eyes--unusual among the Sindar--fixed upon the Ranger's grey ones, and somehow Aragorn doubted that the Elf spoke now of their near collision. As if in confirmation of that suspicion, Nuilandar darted a swift look beyond Aragorn, who knew precisely whither he gazed and at whom. The chill at his back seemed to deepen, and Aragorn had to resist the urge to groan. However merited, the apology was also a pointed rebuke to Aradhil, and much though the warden deserved it, Aragorn did not wish to be caught once more in the middle.
"Let us speak of this more privately, Nuilandar," he murmured, catching the other's elbow and steering him firmly away from both the warden and the rest of the group. When they had retreated as far as they could, the Ranger released him to cross his arms over his chest. For a time, he said nothing, and simply stood staring at the glow of their fire. But after a small while Aragorn spoke slowly, choosing his words with care, "I thank you for the apology, but I would not have Aradhil humiliated. My presence among you has caused resentment enough, and I would have no more of it."
"For my part, if he would recognize his fault short of embarrassing himself, I would be well content. Alas that he does not! And that I did not!" Nuilandar replied, but then sighed. "Nevertheless, you may be right. But leaving the warden aside, I know well that I owe you for my part in this--" a minute gesture of the hand yet served to encompass the forest entire and all that they had suffered in the past several days-- "and more than that, I owe the others as well." Eyes dark as coals and smoldering with intensity met his once more, and for several moments, the Ranger simply stared at the Elf. A number of thoughts passed swiftly through his mind, chief among them that to continue to dwell upon Nuilandar's involvement in Aradhil's plan served neither of them well. He ought to be content simply to forgive him and forget the incident, but Aragorn held his tongue a moment. For the way Nuilandar had phrased this latest apology, he had inadvertently presented the Ranger with an unprecedented opportunity. I could never have forced Legolas to break his trust, nor would I have wanted to do so. Yet I cannot think that all of them are bound by the same trust to say nothing of Aradhil's past. Should I take that silence, then, as respect for the prince, or as a sign that I ought to let ancient history lie? Turning measuring eyes on Nuilandar, the Dúnadan considered the possible repercussions of making his inquiry. Ostracism aside, none of them topped the price of ignorance. And I know already what it is to be an outcast. Today's interlude was pleasant enough, yet I can endure their silence if I must. Aradhil's wounds make him vulnerable, and that makes him a danger so long as I know not what to expect of him! So, speaking in a low voice and with careful deliberation, he replied, "For my part, I would excuse you, for such debts do but breed divisions. If, however, you feel you owe me aught, then mayhap you would answer a question for me."
Nuilandar's breath hissed softly in the deepening shade and the Elf lowered his eyes. After a lengthy pause, he replied in a low voice, "I think you know not what you would ask."
"Think you so? Must I remind every one of you each time I speak that I was brought up to elvish ways in an elvish household?" Aragorn asked with asperity, letting a touch of heat enter his tone. "I know what I ask of you, to tell of another's tragedy when there lies between Aradhil and me bad blood. Nevertheless, I do not retract the question, for if it is common knowledge among you then there is no reason to hide it from me. Or do you disagree, Nuilandar, that Aradhil may well endanger himself in this matter of the werewolves? Do you disagree that his actions put us all in jeopardy, warden though he be?"
For a heartbeat, the other's resentment pulsed strong, souring the air between them, and then, just as swiftly, it died, draining away as Nuilandar sighed once more. "Would that you were an Elf, for then I would be certain of your measure. I fear I still know not what to make of Aragorn son of Arathorn!"
"Make of him all that you like, or nothing at all. My question you know already. Will you answer it, or not?"
"If I would not be proved faithless, I have no choice," the other said with a somewhat bitter smile as he leaned a shoulder against a tree's trunk. "What do you suspect already?"
"Something about him whispers to me of Noldorin blood, and all speak of Eregion when they speak of werewolves."
"You have a good ear, then, to tell him from the lot of us. He came out of Beleriand, originally, a younger son of the Exiles, born in Arda and not Aman. I trust you knew that as well?"
"That he had not seen Valinor, yes."
"He has no family left, I think."
"Indeed, he does not, and thereupon hinges his hatred of werewolves," Nuilandar replied. Sliding his left arm behind the Ranger to prevent his retreat, the Elf stepped in so close their bodies touched, and Aragorn could feel the other's lips brush against his ear as he spoke. "They were taken in Eregion while he was away fighting with a company of Celebrimbor's folk--one of very few companies that survived to join Lord Elrond's host. For a year, he assumed that they, like others, had been slain. But it was not so. For the company came upon a small scouting unit of the Dark Lord's army, and the commander was cautious, for none knew whether the main host might lie nearby. The Dark Lord's minions jeered at them, insulting their honor, and they showed among their numbers some who seemed prisoners. And among them was Aradhil's wife." Aragorn felt ice sweep through him at that, and he stared past Nuilandar at Aradhil's back, understanding too well, too late. "They attacked, of course, to try to save those few. And they did. But 'twas a ruse, for they were not prisoners. They had been made. Aradhil had to slay the werewolf to release his wife. They say when he was done, it seemed he had bathed in her blood! I think he is a bit mad, at least when it comes to werewolves, and he will take the worst risks in hunting them. He has skill enough to warrant them, but this is no ordinary hunt."
"What happened to his children?"
"None know. We assume that they, too, were made along with their mother. Though who knows? They were quite young, perhaps too young to be of any use." Which statement told Aragorn almost nothing, for 'young' might mean seventy years to an Elf. "For long after he dwelt among us, he was quite solitary: a good captain and wise in the forest's ways. But his heart was closed until Thranduil gave him Legolas to teach. We were glad of that who knew Aradhil, for we thought he would never learn to feel so deeply again anything but hatred for the werewolves and grief for his family. Now though, even love is turned against itself."
"Because of me," Aragorn supplied, cursing silently.
"Because of you, and yet it is not so simple as that." Nuilandar stepped back a bit, just enough to gaze into Aragorn's eyes as he murmured, "Know that among us there is no one save Legolas who does not remember the end of the Second Age. Only Dorothil and Aradhil fought at the Dagorlad, but I lost my brother there and Faladhros nearly died with Oropher. Hithras was at the siege, but sorely wounded before the final thrust. Aradhil swore to see Sauron defeated--to avenge his family. And it seemed we had won the day until Isildur looked upon that which he should never have seen, and condemned us all to this existence. Therefore wonder not that he hates you, for your blood reeks of Númenór, if I may say it. And now that Legolas whom he loves well turns to you you understand, do you not?"
"All too well, I fear, and I cannot blame him for his pain. Nevertheless, it does not excuse him, for I am not my ancestors, and for the short life that I have had, I have spent the better part of it atoning for a sin older than my brothers, even. 'Tis not my place to take his pains upon myself as well!"
"I said not so, nor do I excuse Aradhil--or any of us! I would simply have you understand ." The Elf trailed off, running his fingers through dark hair in a nervous gesture that struck Aragorn as being out of place in an Elf. And in his mind, the undercurrent of whispering surged suddenly louder, as if in mocking response to Aradhil's dark tale. Before him, Nuilandar pressed his fingers hard just before his ear, as if to try to block a sound.
"Are you well?" Aragorn asked, suspicious, suddenly. Legolas mentioned this morning that Nuilandar has been distant preoccupied, he remembered. And he seemed to me rather absent much of the day.
"Yes, thank you," the Elf replied, quickly lowering his hand again, an air of pensive distraction on his face. Has he been thus for longer than I know? Aragorn wondered. The Ranger had not paid as much attention to Nuilandar as to others, for Nuilandar preferred the heights and had often been out of sight even while off-duty. Hithras might be quieter, but despite that, he was also more social, hovering ever on the edge of other conversations, listening in silence. Nuilandar, though, was much more likely to withdraw into his own mind, which made it difficult for a mere mortal to measure an increase in distraction. But he did shoot that squirrel and by accident at that, by his own confession. That bespeaks an unusual lapse in elvish concentration.
Which was why, seeing that the other's focus remained elsewhere, he asked, "Are you certain?"
"Who can say anything with certainty?" the Elf replied, but then hesitated, narrowing his eyes. "Hear you aught at this moment?"
"In a manner of speaking. I know not whether it is the same voice that Elves hear, but there is a whisper in my mind that has not ceased since I became aware of it. Now it seems to me to grow more insistent. Or insidious, perhaps, is the better word."
"Insidious yes, that is a word for it. So you hear it now, too?" Nuilandar murmured. "It ran through my dreams last night, and though I tried to escape it, I could not. After a time, I simply listened, as I have done the past several days. The maker's voice, I deem it. Or the master's. Dorothil believes that the two may be the same."
"I had not heard that."
"Faladhros was tormenting you at the time, so I doubt you would have noticed much else," Nuilandar allowed graciously, and then sobered quite suddenly as he gazed darkly out at the threatening woods. "But that it seems to me unusual that the master should leave the tower to hunt us, I should hold the same opinion," he confided after a moment, and then fell silent. And Aragorn, watching him, could sense him reaching in spirit for that elusive, yet ever-present babble. For his part, the Ranger found his attention divided between Nuilandar and their fire, which burned low but bright enough for the patrol's purposes. Yet its crackling seemed muted, as if mindful of the opprobrium of the silent trees and heavy air . As if mindful of evil stirring!
"Are there words to this muttering, or do I seek them in vain?" Aragorn asked of a sudden.
"There are words, of that I am certain. Almost, I think I can grasp them," the Elf murmured, closing his eyes after a moment, falling into an attentive silence.
"Nuilandar? What are you doing?" Aragorn asked after an uncomfortable pause. But the Elf seemed not to hear him, caught up in a hunt that led not through the woods but through the shadowed places of the mind. A swift hunter he seemed as well, for after but a little while, his lips twitched and began to move slightly, as if he sought to capture the words in his own mouth, to repeat their shape, though as yet he gave them no voice. But slowly, it seemed he gained some confidence, and a hushed whisper issued forth, growing in strength as the sounds came more swiftly:
" rhapat dur ûk bat batat ûk dur naghâsh ash hulughat na ash na ûrzu ." Syllables without meaning they seemed--phonemes spoken as caught and without comprehension, though Aragorn's ears pricked up at 'ghâsh.' He was not the only one, either, as around the clearing, conversation ceased as others became aware of Nuilandar's activity. Legolas and Dorothil both rose, moving towards them a few paces as they listened concernedly. The latter in particular bore a look of arrested fascination. Perhaps it was but the play of firelight on his face, but to the Ranger's eyes he seemed almost stricken. As if he remembers something.
"Nuilandar ?" Legolas' soft-voiced query brought no response, for the other's attention was focused intently inward, and Aragorn's eyes narrowed. He had not expected so innocent a question to yield so bizarre an answer, yet he thought he knew what the other did, for he had done it himself when faced with a language he knew but little. Separate sounds, pull what words one can find from the stream and I know these sounds!
"I have heard this tongue before," the Ranger murmured, feeling his gorge rise.
"Lug Lug ayanûz mai ." The Elf's voice hardened, as if he struggled with the words even as they came ever more swiftly to him. The forest seemed to press close, choking out the light, and even their fire seemed dimmed of a sudden as the other members of the patrol rose and gathered round.
"This is why he could not come to Mordor! Nuilandar," Dorothil said urgently, and limped forward to stand before the other. Aragorn meanwhile felt his hand snake down to grip the hilt of his sword for no discernible reason but the sense of threat that stemmed from those words. Even the forest seemed to cower before the outpouring of guttural sound, and the Ranger felt his heart begin to race.
" ash yanûzulûk ash sko bûrzyanûz ." Through the minds of the listeners stalked a vision of darkness incarnate, and the trees seemed to moan. A visible shiver rippled through Legolas' lithe frame as the prince stared in horror.
" mai mai Lug anazg-durbatash Ash bûrzum gimbul!"
"Nuilandar!" Dorothil fairly shouted in his face and grabbed the other's shoulders, shaking him. With a startled cry, Nuilandar's left hand slapped Dorothil's right from his shoulder, and his right hand slammed into the other's chest. Dorothil went down hard, and the others, including Aragorn, leapt back as Nuilandar swept out his dagger and sank to a crouch.
"Tiro!" he screamed. And even as blades left their sheaths and the members of the patrol turned to face the woods once more, the first shapes hurtled over the barriers.
In the midst of the chaos that erupted, Aradhil remained quite calm, save for the familiar edge of blood-lust that tingled throughout his body. Three thousand years and more of hunting the creatures of the night had not sated that desire, and even pain could not truly reach him in this place. Around him, the others flowed in an attempt to shift positions, to put injured comrades further from danger, but the attack had come unheralded and at the worst possible moment. Doubtless the enemy waited for us to be distracted by his tricks! Aradhil thought as he nocked an arrow and considered his targets. But we are distracted no longer! Werewolves leapt in from the sides, slowed by the pikes, but not stopped. The first of them fell instantly upon Dorothil, who was still trying to scramble to his feet, and another barely missed Legolas as the prince dodged instinctively to his right. A sharp twang from amid the trees announced Hithras' presence, and Dorothil's attacker yelped and collapsed utterly atop him as the arrow pierced a gleaming golden eye. Then the archer was sprinting along the branches, shooting as he moved to try to give them some cover.
Nuilandar threw a blade and caught a werewolf that would have taken Aragorn, who snarled--in pain or in fury, it was hard to say which--as he pulled his sword from a corpse. For his part, Aradhil stood with his back to the one nominally safe quarter, aiming for those werewolves who still poured over the pikes or tried to wend their way through them. Fifteen, he counted grimly, taking his fourth shot and snarling softly when he missed. Not for poor aim on his part, but because the werewolf in question shifted forms in mid-leap. What ought to have been a clean shot to the heart opened a painful--but non-lethal--gash as the arrow deflected off a human sternum. Quick as a cat-- quick, almost, as an Elf-- the werewolf lunged at Faladhros, pulling him down and throwing itself atop him. A second werewolf broke past Legolas to join its companion. Aradhil's next shot struck the first one true in the throat but he could spare no time for the other and had to trust that Faladhros could handle it.
For a wolf leapt high, knocking a staggering Dorothil to the ground; the creature then slithered past Aragorn to spring for Aradhil. The warden felt a brief flash of dread but the greater part of his mind remained coldly calm, and his hands moved of their own accord. Ere he consciously knew what he did, he had an arrow nocked and he let it fly The werewolf shrieked hideously as the shaft went in up to the fletching, and Aradhil managed to dodge to one side as it fell. A moment he stared at the dead face, and a slight smile curved his lips. They all have the same face. Good night once more, my love! "Down!" a voice snapped authoritatively, and Aradhil, by sheer reflex, obeyed. Something whistled through the air, straight through his former position, and a weight landed atop him. With a snarl, the warden rolled and swept his dagger out but his attacker did not follow. The werewolf lay dead with a by now familiar dagger in its chest. Aragorn spared him not half a glance, turning swiftly back to slash at another opponent. In the mean time, Nuilandar appeared suddenly and grabbed his arm. The other Elf hauled him to his feet, slashing at a werewolf that came too near and cursing when it dodged the blow. Leaving Nuilandar to deal with that one, Aradhil glanced around, taking in the situation. All the others were engaged, but he saw no more werewolves daring the pikes. Is that all of them then? But if so, then where ?
He got no further. In the split second that he had to reflect, he knew not whether he had felt it first or seen it, but suddenly his calm was pierced. A horror gripped him so suddenly, so tightly, that he felt it as pain and doubled over. His weak leg buckled and he went down hard to his knees even as he dragged his eyes upwards. "Ware!" he screamed, and saw Nuilandar turn just then, pale even in the dim light, as the air itself seemed to heave, storm-like, before their eyes. Wood splintered and shrieked as their defense-work was shattered like a ship on the rocks; Aradhil and Nuilandar, closest to that blast, were thrown down, pelted with debris, and they huddled there, unable to move. Even the werewolves paused in their attack, and pitiful, groveling whimpers replaced the fearful howls and snarls as they backed away, tails between their legs. Friend and foe alike retreated from the wave of terror that seemed to issue forth from the darkness. Something rose up--something wolf-like and yet more sinister, and as Aradhil and Nuilandar dazedly crawled after the others, a deadly hiss followed them, seeming to pierce them with a cold more deadly than Helcaraxë's ice.
For through the chaos stalked shadow incarnate, cloaked in a wolf's pelt yet none present mistook it for even the leader of the pack. "Eru berio men!" Aradhil's harsh whisper fell loudly into the sudden stillness, and the hideous head swiveled instantly towards him. For a moment, Elf and maker stared at each other, and in that brief pause, hatred flared suddenly bright against the suffocating terror the other projected. I know you! Beneath that disguise, I know you, maker! Noldorin fury pulsed white hot, and Aradhil's voice was distorted with it as he cried, "Naur! Naur dan i--!" The maker leapt, and the warden felt his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth, rendered speechless by the other's will. But if he could not speak, he was not quite helpless, and as the demon reared above him, Aradhil remembered the dagger he still held in his hand and stabbed upwards. There came a flash, and the warden felt a numbing shock run up his arm--felt the blast of the maker's hatred and cruel, mocking contempt impale him more surely than a lance, cutting into his soul, wounding him more cruelly than any dagger.
"Aragorn!" Legolas! The prince's cry reached him faintly, as if through a cocoon of dirty wool or from beneath the dark waters of the Úrînduin. The warden was dimly aware then, that something touched his body, enveloped him; and through the blind night that had descended upon Aradhil, he made out a dim, strange light, and fought to reach it. But it was too great a distance to bridge for one sorely hurt. Pain lanced through him as his feeble efforts ceased, and then his enemy struck again. Aradhil screamed, writhing in his agony as the maker's cry resonated within his mind. And though he struggled against the assault, clinging to his sanity with all his might, he simply had not the strength. Whether the world shattered or he did, Aradhil knew not: of a sudden there simply was nothing, and the stars faded into the night.
When the maker attacked Aradhil, Legolas felt his immobility vanish. Weaving past stricken comrades and motionless werewolves, the prince darted instinctively towards the remains of their camp fire, which burned still in spite of it all. Sheathing his daggers, he pulled three arrows from his quiver and unslung his bow. Wasting no time, he jammed an arrow into the fire, and set the other two with the heads in the flames. Fire, is it? Legolas thought grimly, pulling the now burning arrow from the blaze. Even as he nocked it, though, the maker let out a shriek, and the prince cringed involuntarily before that sound. High and thin, vibrating with rage, the awful cry seemed to pierce the heavens, and as it rose, so also rose the maker, seeming to grow and change shape as he did. Beneath the wolf's skin was a void that had no shape save where that pelt lay, and Legolas felt his heart quail. At the same time, another form darted forward, and the prince's eyes widened as he shouted: "Aragorn!" Isildur's Heir heeded him not at all; perhaps he could not even hear him. The Ranger slid to a halt on his knees, and scooped the motionless warden into his arms. The maker seemed to sway back before the pair, but not in retreat; rather, it was akin to a snake that draws back only in order to strike the harder.
Whether the Ranger had intended to try to move Aradhil away from his enemy or not, Legolas did not know. Had he had the time and peace to consider it, he would have doubted that Aragorn, injured as he was, had the strength in that moment to lift the other. As it was, though, he had no chance even to try. The maker--empty and shapeless save for the pelt, the drape of which seemed to tell of a man's shape--stooped to attack again, and the Ranger simply bowed over his fallen rival, shielding him in the only way he could. Desperate, Legolas loosed his arrow and did not pause to see whether his shot struck aught. The next arrow was in flight almost immediately, and the elven prince nocked the third and last one just as the maker screamed again. Such was the hatred in that thin and fearful voice that Legolas, cringing from the sound of it, sent his third arrow wide of the mark. It struck a tree, scattering a shower of sparks as the wood began to burn. But that hardly seemed to matter, for the wolf's pelt fluttered to the ground, empty. And although the malice of the maker lay still heavy upon all of their hearts, Legolas sensed a lightening of the atmosphere. Elves stirred, and weapons came up once more as the patrol realized that there remained werewolves in their midst.
But ere the fight could begin once more in earnest, a new voice sounded suddenly, stern and commanding: "Drego ngaurhoth!" Light flared, and as Legolas turned, a grey-swathed figure emerged from the trees at his back, seeming drenched in sunlight. A fatal moment the werewolves hesitated, and in that brief space elvish daggers found marks. Four werewolves actually broke away, heading swiftly for the edges of the clearing. An arrow from Hithras brought one down just ere it could leap, but the other three disappeared into the brush. The prince stared after them a moment ere he turned back to the newcomer and he felt a rush of relief course through him.
"How could you know to come ?" he asked, and then trailed off as the other smiled grimly.
"Well," Mithrandir replied, leaning on his staff as his bright eyes took in the bedraggled victors. "I am a wizard, you know!"
A/N: For all of you suffering through midterms, I'm very sorry. More power to you. Having wrestled with this chapter for a week now, I am throwing it online for your sleep-deprived perusal. The surreal mood that comes of a caffeine haze may actually improve this chapter, who knows?
The Orcish/Black Speech stuff is mostly nonsense at least, it probably is. The only things in there that come off the corpus listing are: ghâsh, ash, Lug, nazg, ash bûrzum gimbul. The rest are either separated elements, imaginary phonemes, or creative attempts to make words out of the tiny list available.
Ash bûrzum gimbul!" (A/the?) Darkness find them!
Eru berio men! Eru protect us!
Naur! Naur dan i--! Fire! Fire against the
Úrînduin-- I finally gave that Forest River a name. Tried to go for "River of Forgetfulness" but it's literally "not-remembrance river."
Drego ngaurhoth! Flee, werewolves!
As always, go Ardalambion, and also, there's a searchable Sindarin Dictionary at: http://www.jrrvf.com/~hisweloke/cgi-bin/sindarin.cgi?cognate
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.