11. Veils of Darkness
Author’s Notes: Once again, my huge thanks for the supportive reviews, the critical suggestions, and the alert eyes out there. You guys are wonderful, and I just had to thank you before doing anything else. And now with that out of the way, on with the chapter!
Chapter 11: Veils of Darkness
It was the considered opinion of many mortals that elves create their environment and that their reality is determined by their mindset. An elf in good spirits seemed to have the ability to make the sunlight brighter, the sky bluer, and the forest greener. For his part, Thranduil found the notion rather amusing while at the same time indicative of the general ignorance that seemed to pervade the race of mortals. The things of the world were masters unto themselves. Possibly they responded to the emotions of elves in some small way, but they were certainly not bound to the Eldar race, as many believed. Elves, on the other hand, were very much influenced by their environment, and perhaps the saying could simply be turned around and so made factual. A dark cave had the power to wilt even the most powerful elven warrior while a serene forest was a blessing and a balm to the spirit of the grief-stricken. During his many years upon Arda, Thranduil had become very aware of his own surroundings and their affect on his mood, but never had he felt the influence of his environment as strongly as he did now.
Before him, writhing in coils of eternal shadow, the forest floor was almost a mirror to the darkness swirling within his own heart. His youngest son, the last child of his beloved wife, was gone. Taken by Orcs. And his final words to this son had been spoken in reckless anger. Glancing around to ensure that he was not observed, Thranduil sighed and his perfect posture was broken as his broad shoulders slumped and he bowed his head in grief and torment. A hand rubbed his brow and he closed bright elven eyes, murmuring a quiet prayer to Elbereth on behalf of his realm’s youngest prince. What have I done, Legolas? What have I done in driving you from Rivendell?
"How goes the search, Ithildae?" the king asked, quickly reassuming his commanding presence and sending a warning look at the archer in the event that the other elf might venture inappropriate questions.
"Elladan has discovered something, my liege," Ithildae replied, wisely showing no sign that he had caught the king in a moment of private sorrow. "I thought you would wish to be informed."
Thranduil nodded and waved his hand in dismissal even as he turned and searched the gathered elves, looking for Elrond’s son. Elladan had become rather distant since this search began. It seemed as though something greatly troubled him. There was a feeling of guilt and recrimination about the half-elf, and it was possible that he blamed himself for not acting against the shadow earlier, a failure that Thranduil was quite willing to grant him. But there was more to it than simply self-condemnation. It was as though this darkness affected Elladan more than it affected the rest of them, and perhaps that wasn’t far from the truth. Thranduil had noticed over the years that Elladan seemed particularly susceptible to changes in his environment, more so than even full-blooded elves. And with the feeling of evil so close and so pervasive, he might be having trouble focusing his senses and consequently withdrawing from those around him. And for this reason alone will I fail to mention that I hold him accountable with Isildur’s heir for the loss of my son, Thranduil thought grimly, knowing that darkness in one’s heart was far worse a punishment for Elladan than anything that the elven king of Mirkwood could concoct.
Eventually spotting Elladan at the far edge of the group—and noting with some despair that the king of Gondor stood with the son of Elrond—Thranduil steeled himself and moved toward them. Anger still throbbed within his veins at the thought that Aragorn had sent Legolas into danger virtually unprotected. He trusted his son’s abilities for he had seen those abilities in action, but one elf could never hope to stand against an entire battalion of Orcs no matter how skilled that elf was. Even Glorfindel might balk at such odds. And as for the defense that Gimli had been with Legolas… Thranduil shook his head in disgust. Dwarves were mighty in battle, that was true, but they were wholly untrustworthy. They could not be relied upon to watch another’s back, for their minds were flighty and their attention short-lived. Thranduil held both the dwarves and the Orcs fully responsible for the death of his wife, and never again would he trust any children of Aulë. And after Isildur’s treachery in the face of what his own father had sacrificed, it was a foregone conclusion that men were also untrustworthy. Why, then, does Elladan place so much faith in Aragorn? Thranduil wondered as he neared the two. It seems that Elrond’s wisdom failed these last years, and it fails even more in his sons.
"Ithildae reports you have discovered something, Elladan," Thranduil said upon reaching his destination.
"News travels quickly," Elladan replied, barely sparing the king a glance. His eyes were intent upon Aragorn, whose gaze was strangely blank and who looked as though he was about to topple over.
"News does not travel quickly enough, young one, for word of what your discovery is has yet to reach my ears," Thranduil said, his voice filled with reproach. If there was one thing Thranduil could not stand, it was secrets that were kept from him. He had an insatiable need to know everything that went on, a need that had been born of seemingly endless years fighting Orcs, Wargs, spiders, and countless other denizens of darkness in Mirkwood. Without the aid of an Elven Ring to protect his kingdom, Thranduil had been forced to demand much of his people, and among those demands was the right to know anything and everything that happened within the realm. To his credit, Thranduil was alone in his ability to preserve an elven land against Sauron without a Ring of Power, but the cost of such preservation had taken its toll. His temper was short, his prejudices were set, and he had very little tolerance for those who stood in his way. And Elladan was coming very close to incurring Thranduil’s full wrath.
Seeming to sense something of the emotional turmoil within Mirkwood’s king, Elladan turned and studied the other elf. "I am not yet certain of this potential discovery, and I saw no purpose in bringing it to your attention until there was something definite to relate."
"I believe we have had this conversation before," Thranduil said quietly, his eyes narrowing. "What is it you suspect?"
"As of yet, I do not know enough to suspect anything," Elladan answered. "And as for discovering something, that remains to be seen. In any case, it is more Estel’s discovery than mine."
Thranduil’s eyes shifted to the man and deep prejudices immediately flared to life. But even as his mind began to close itself against the possibility that Aragorn might have anything constructive to contribute, a tiny voice in the back of Thranduil’s head spoke up in warning. His son’s life hung in the balance, and he could not afford to overlook any chance to bring him home. It was far-fetched, but maybe…just maybe…this mortal could be of use to them. Legolas was a young elf and sometimes acted more with his heart than his head, but Thranduil trusted his judgement for the most part and if Legolas had made a friend of this human, that did say something. Of course, Legolas had also made a friend of a dwarf, something Thranduil could not understand no matter how he twisted his mind around that particular puzzle, so perhaps the young prince was still in need of instruction and advice in this area. Still, even Thranduil would admit, albeit reluctantly, that the men of Isildur’s line did have heightened senses and abilities. Perhaps he could allow himself to trust this human somewhat. But he would bear careful watching, all the same.
While these thoughts rolled through Thranduil’s mind, Elladan stood silently by, watching and waiting with the eternal patience granted almost exclusively to the Eldar. And when the king of Mirkwood finally focused on the son of Elrond again, Elladan gave him the barest hint of a smile and nodded toward Aragorn. Taking a deep breath and ignoring the indignant outcries of his pride, Thranduil turned and addressed the man. "King Elessar?"
For a moment, it seemed that Aragorn would not answer, but after a time, he closed his eyes and shuddered. He swayed slightly and Elladan was quick to support him, leading him to a tree and pressing him against it. Confused and more than a little concerned that something was going awry without his knowledge of what that something was, Thranduil followed.
"Aragorn?" he tried again, feeling rather sick at the thought that he was placing his trust in a mortal.
Aragorn sighed and opened his eyes, raising a hand to his head and rubbing his brow. "Thranduil?"
It could not be said that Thranduil knew very much about humans, but he was not completely ignorant. His kingdom was a primary trading partner for the men of Dale, and beyond than that, he had fought beside men under the standards of Oropher in the failed attempt to destroy Sauron’s evil at the end of the Second Age. He had seen men wearied and injured, and he had learned to recognize some of the signs that accompanied the peculiar mortal phenomenon of sickness. He now identified a few of these signs in Aragorn and wondered at it. "You do not appear well, son of Arathorn," he eventually said, thinking that perhaps he should have learned more of men in the past.
Aragorn gave a short bark of laughter and shook his head. "Let it never be said that elves are unobservant."
Thranduil bristled slightly but managed to restrain his growing temper. It was a difficult task, for Thranduil had never been a particularly patient elf when Orcs were concerned, and the fact that his youngest son was held captive by these foul creatures only exacerbated the problem. But with an iron will and a great deal of effort, the king of Mirkwood shoved his feelings to the back of his head and tried to assume a logical interior to match his outer façade of calm and dignity. "May I assume, then, that you are ill?" he ventured, impressing even himself with the steadiness of his voice.
"Weary would hit nigh unto the mark," Aragorn answered, pushing off his tree and waving away Elladan’s silent offer of assistance. "I think I may have discovered a way to see through this darkness."
"You can follow the Orcs?" Elladan asked.
"Perhaps." Aragorn sounded rather hesitant, and Thranduil was forced to curb his impatience once more. "If I clear my thoughts and try to sense rather than see the trail, I feel as though one is there. Yet whether or not I can follow it, and whether or not this trail is even the correct trail, are things that I do not know. It could be a diversion set to turn us from the true path." Aragorn grimaced and glanced into the darkness. "Would you attempt to sense the trail, Elladan?" he asked at length. "For your senses are keener than mine, and I would know an elf’s opinion on this."
Elladan frowned but nodded. "As you wish, brother. I know not for what I search, yet if you think it shall help…" The half-elf trailed off and looked out over the swirling darkness that clouded the forest floor. Sensing this might take a while and needing something to pass the time, Thranduil amused himself by counting the leaves in the tree overhead while his fists clenched and unclenched at his side. As the minutes ticked by, it was becoming more and more difficult to restrain himself and his rage. At this point, he had more in common with Gimli than he did with Elladan, Elrohir, or even Celeborn. Thranduil would never admit to such a thing, of course, but this line of thought led him to stop counting leaves and instead glance about for the dwarf. To his surprise, the stunted creature was nowhere in sight, and elven curiosity began to surge with him.
"Where is the dwarf?" he eventually asked.
Aragorn sighed and shook his head. "I know not. Shortly after we dismounted, he disappeared. As to where Gimli is now, I cannot say. I have not dispatched any to search for him as we cannot waste the manpower, and he is more than capable of taking care of himself. Still, I cannot help but wonder what he is doing or where he is."
"One can never trust a dwarf," Thranduil said flatly, glancing about again but still not finding any sign of Gimli. "The friendship of a dwarf means nothing, for they are often wont to break what promises they make and destroy what vows they speak. You would do well to send him away from us, son of Arathorn."
"King Thranduil, I have journeyed with Gimli over many leagues and many days. He is a courageous and stalwart companion, and were I given the option of taking one thousand of your archers into battle behind me, I would decline in favor of having Gimli and Legolas at my side."
"You are young and you are a man," Thranduil said, turning away from Aragorn as a means of dismissal. He did not need to be lectured by a youth who would be dead ere the next acorn fully matured. He was Thranduil, son of Oropher and king of Mirkwood. He was quite capable of taking his own counsel, and no mortal would tell him what could and could not be done. After the Battle of Dagorlad, and later the loss of his wife, no mortal could ever be truly trusted anyway.
"When last I left you, you were standing about doing naught. I see now no change for the better."
Speaking of mortals… Thranduil was forced to summon some of his last patience in order to turn and watch as a dwarf stomped out of the trees, a crude axe slung over one shoulder. Gimli looked about him with a mixture of frustration and rage, eventually grunting and shaking his head.
"You disapprove, Master Dwarf?" Aragorn asked.
"Our friends are in the hands of the Orcs, yet you do nothing to save them," Gimli snapped, anger beginning to redden his face.
"Peace, Gimli," Aragorn said just as Thranduil was preparing something truly scathing to say. "If I may ask, what have you been doing while we have been searching for a trail?"
"I have done some searching of my own out in that darkness."
"You traveled in that?!" Aragorn demanded, gesturing to the waves of black mist that hid the ground.
"You believe Legolas and Merry to be somewhere beyond it, do you not? Therefore, it seemed only logical that I should follow."
Thranduil blinked and took a closer look at the dwarf. None of the elves had ventured to set foot in the swirling shadows, for the feel of evil was palpable. Yet this dwarf claimed to have traveled through them. The king of Mirkwood narrowed his eyes and studied Gimli carefully. Perhaps there was something different about this creature. Or perhaps he is as other dwarves and lies to us about his travels.
"Gimli, we do not know enough about what we face to take chances like that," Aragorn said, and even Thranduil was impressed by the amount of anger the king managed to put into his statement.
"Then when shall we be allowed to take chances?" Gimli shot back. "Perhaps it was a risk to brave the shadows, but has not Legolas taken similar risks for me?"
Aragorn shook his head, but it seemed to Thranduil that the king’s attitude was slowly turning to one of weary acceptance rather than one of anger and condemnation. You shall never rule effectively if that is your policy, he thought to himself. Subjects and underlings must be controlled. One cannot allow oneself to fall prey to weakness and compliance. Such thinking led to the corruption of Al-Pharazôn and the downfall of Númenor.
But it did not appear that Aragorn had learned this lesson—a fact not greatly surprising to Thranduil—and the man eventually sighed as his anger at Gimli drained from his face. "Tell me of your journey in the darkness, then," Aragorn said. "I trust you discovered something of note, else you would not have returned."
"True enough," Gimli said. "First of all, this darkness…" The dwarf trailed off and shook his head before continuing. "The darkness is a grasping thing. While walking through it, I felt faint and confused. As though my mind was not truly my own. There is evil there, and it is powerful."
"We can feel that much from here," Aragorn said, his anger briefly resurfacing. "You did not need to walk about in it to tell us of this."
Something flashed through the dwarf’s eyes, but his patience held and he kept his tongue in check with an effort that impressed Thranduil. "There is more in the darkness than simply evil, Aragorn," Gimli said, his voice soft yet tempered with steel. "The trail to our friends lies hidden in it. But I may have found a different trail that we might use, since it seems that the earth and its signs have betrayed us. Where the trees press close together, there are broken branches that indicate the passing of a large company."
"Broken branches," Aragorn echoed with a shake of his head. "Gimli, do you truly think I have not considered this option? Yes, there are places where the trees are close together and branches may be broken, but such places are not frequent enough to provide a reliable trail. Beyond that, a strong wind or a racing stag might be responsible for the snapping of limbs. It does not necessarily indicate a party of Orcs."
"And have there been many strong winds or large, armed parties of stags racing through these woods?" Gimli demanded.
Aragorn’s eyes became hard, and when he answered Gimli, his voice was cold. "There are strange happenings this day, Master Dwarf, and nothing in these woods is as it seems. I would feel better following a clear trail on the ground rather than guessing haphazardly at broken sticks. If our choices go awry and we lose the trail, such delays could be more dangerous for Legolas and Merry than the current delay. Your haste may cost them what little hope they have. Think on that ere you press us for a change in plans."
There was silence for a moment, and it seemed as though all of Arda waited. The waiting ended after a time when Gimli’s shoulders slumped and he looked away with a sigh. "My apologies, Aragorn. I spoke from my anger, not from my wits."
"And that is to your credit, for we will have need of such passion and fury," Aragorn responded. "Only hold it in check a while a longer. It will be more than welcome when the time comes."
Thranduil rolled his eyes at these words. Dwarven fury was destructive, true enough, but it was often misguided and uncontrolled. An enraged Gimli would probably run full into a tree and knock himself cold ere he struck his first Orc. When emotions clouded their judgement, dwarves were little better than stunted beasts.
"You are right," Elladan suddenly spoke up, reminding them all of his presence. Blinking his eyes as though waking from a deep sleep, he stepped backward with a shake of his head and staggered slightly. "There is a trail, and we may follow it if our minds our clear, but the moment our thoughts stray, the way is clouded."
"What is this of a trail?" Gimli demanded, eyeing both Elladan and Aragorn with suddenly renewed suspicion.
"There may be a trail hidden beneath the darkness for eyes to see that can," Aragorn answered. "But I know not if it is the true path of the Orcs or a detour sent to lead us astray. What say you, Elladan?"
"I do not know it either," Elladan sighed with a shake of his head. "Only one thing is certain—we must proceed with caution. Númenórean blood is slow to thin, and we know not what surprises our adversary may have already planned."
"Then let us take those surprises in stride," Thranduil said, feeling his patience come to an end. He had been wary of venturing into the dark cloud, but if a dwarf could do it, so could an elf. An opportunity had presented itself, its discovery had been backed by an elven voice, and Thranduil was ready to set out. "You claim that you can follow a trail hidden in this blackness. Let us follow it, then, and see whither we are led."
"Patience," Elladan soothed, his voice low and calming. "We know not if this is a trap. This might very well be another deception intending to lead us away from the true trail. We cannot afford to make a mistake of that magnitude, for such mistakes could be costly."
"Elladan is right," Aragorn said quietly, looking out over the swirling darkness. "There is too much at stake to rush into this. We must proceed carefully. The situation is urgent, but at this point, the need for accuracy outweighs the need for haste."
"What would any of you know concerning the need for urgency and haste?" Thranduil spat, elven eyes flaring with anger. "None of you here understand what I face. I remind you that my youngest son is in the hands of the Orcs, and I—"
"Yes, your son, my friend, a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, the lord of Southern Ithilien, and the youngest prince of Mirkwood," Gimli interrupted, his voice rising to match the king’s. "Legolas bears many titles, and all of us here can lay claim to him through either friendship or kinship. I assure you that this grief is not yours alone, king of Mirkwood, and others here suffer as well. Perhaps it is different for you as a family member, but know that we all bear a measure of sorrow at his absence."
"And what would a dwarf know of elven sorrow?"
"More than you, King Thranduil," Gimli shot back. "While you hide in your forests among the Silvan and Sindarin, I speak with the Noldor and taste of the beauty of Lothlórien, bittersweet in its fading. I have seen the sea longing awakened in your son, and I have now battled this curse with him for five years. Can you say the same? Can you eve say that you and he parted on favorable terms? It occurs to me that your last words to your son were spoken in anger."
"If you say another word, dwarf, I shall personally rip your heart from your chest!"
"Enough!" Elladan cried, jumping between the two. "Silence, both of you. Your arguments do not aid us, and if anything, they only serve to make the darkness stronger. If you cannot speak civilly, then do not speak at all!"
Thranduil rounded on Elrond’s son, fully intending to completely unleash his building fury, but the sudden sound of hooves interrupted him. With narrowed eyes, the king of Mirkwood took a step backward and conceded the round, conscious of the growing number of looks from surrounding elves and men.
Elladan’s brow furrowed and he stepped away from Thranduil to turn and look for the coming riders. The foliage was thick enough that sight was difficult even for elves, but the voice that had cried out was unmistakable, and Thranduil wondered what had happened in Rivendell for its guardian to desert his post, even if Celeborn was still there.
"Elrohir?" Aragorn called out, his voice curious.
"Elrohir, what brings you here?" Elladan asked, moving to catch Gaearsul’s head as the stallion thundered through the underbrush and came to a rather abrupt stop.
"New tidings from the north and counsel from Lord Celeborn," his twin answered, dismounting and moving aside quickly as three other horses pushed their way through the dense underbrush. Haldir, Rúmil, and Orophin leaped off their mounts and were then joined by two hobbit ponies and two exhausted-looking hobbits.
"Sam, you have a family to think of!" Gimli reprimanded. "Why aren’t you back at Rivendell with them?"
"Because I would never forgive myself if I didn’t help look for Merry and Legolas," the hobbit answered staunchly, drawing himself up and meeting the dwarf’s stern gaze.
"And we’re not going back, no matter what you do," Pippin added, joining Sam in glaring at Gimli. "There’s no use trying to protect us, anyway, because we’ve both been through enough to know what we’re facing out here. And we want to face it."
"What was the last thing I told you ere you left for sleep last night?" Aragorn asked, his voice stern.
Thranduil watched these proceedings with an air of impatience—something that now seemed to be a constant for him—and eventually turned expectantly to Elrohir. The king had no qualms about hobbits in general and actually respected Bilbo and Frodo after his own fashion, but worry and fear for his son was combining with his general dislike for mortals and giving him an edge that did not allow for the distractions in which mortals seemed to engage. "What tidings do you bring?" Thranduil asked Elrohir, trying to ignore the debate now developing between the hobbits, the dwarf, and the man.
"Firstly, Haldir, Rúmil, and Orophin have somewhat to report from their scouting in the north," Elrohir said, nodding toward the three Galadhrim. Haldir made a short bow and began speaking.
"We had followed many trails left by Rivendell’s attackers, my lords and lieges," he began, including Aragorn in the formalities even though Aragorn was still arguing with the hobbits. "And we were nigh unto losing hope, for it seemed that the Orcs wandered without purpose. Or if there was purpose, it was to burden us with an impossible puzzle. But even as we considered returning to Imladris, Orophin discovered a path that led into darkness. It is much like the path you face here. In fact, to my eyes the two are identical. But returning to my tale, we knew not how to combat this darkness and so sought out Lord Celeborn and Lord Elrohir for counsel."
"And Celeborn was able to identify this darkness based on the details brought to him by Haldir and his brothers," Elrohir said. "He confirms that it is the work of a Black Númenórean—or at least one who has studied their arts—and we now know the purpose of such a shadow. According to Lord Celeborn, this veil of darkness was used in the Second Age to disguise trails and confound those who would track them."
"Know you anything of this?" Elladan asked, looking toward Thranduil curiously.
"Celeborn was more involved in the affairs of man than was I. I know much of the Black Númenóreans, but I do not know specifics," Thranduil answered, quickly searching his memory but drawing a rather embarrassing blank.
"Fortunately for us, Lord Celeborn does know specifics," Elrohir said, and Thranduil bristled slightly at the imperious tone in the young half-elf’s voice. "According to him, the true trail lies beneath the darkness but must be sensed more than seen."
"Then our path could be the correct one," Aragorn said, having finished scolding the hobbits and apparently also having tracked the conversation of the elves even though his concentration was elsewhere.
"At last, wisdom from higher authorities," Gimli exclaimed, joining the others in their discussion. Pippin and Sam now stood quietly behind the dwarf, watching the conversation with rapt attention. "Let us follow the trail."
"It may still be a trap," Elladan cautioned.
"Do we truly have any other options?" Gimli demanded, and for once, Thranduil found himself in complete agreement with the dwarf. It was a rather disconcerting experience and the king quickly evaluated his mental state, looking for signs of insanity. "Celeborn’s counsel indicates that our path could be the path of the Orcs!"
"What is this of a path?" Elrohir asked. "Have you found something already?"
"We seem to be one step ahead of you, brother," Aragorn said. "Elladan and I have discovered a trail, but we feared it was a decoy. And while that may still be the case, at least we have some assurances from Celeborn that perhaps we would not be remiss for following this trail, as Gimli has now pointed out."
"Then if we are to follow it, let us follow it!" Gimli exclaimed, and for the second time that day, Thranduil wondered if he were not going mad.
"The dwarf speaks wisely, strange as that may seem," Haldir said with a sidelong glance at Gimli, and Thranduil sighed in relief with the realization that he was not alone in agreeing with the stunted creature. "Time is our enemy, as it has always been, my lords and lieges, and if we are to pursue those who have taken our comrades, we must act now."
"Then come," Elladan said, turning to the darkness and shivering slightly. "Let us pursue this trail and see where it may lead us. And Valar willing, it shall lead us to our friends."
* * * *
The scream of a whip mixed with the jeers and taunts of Orcs to provide a horrific cacophony of sound. He could feel warm blood running down his back, and his head had dropped forward to rest limply against his bare chest. Laughter and cruel jests surrounded him, but he ignored them as he ignored all else. He was a prince, the last son of Thranduil, and his tormentors were beneath him. Their cruelties were but the pounding of rain upon an immovable stone. They could not hurt him. They could not touch him.
At least, that’s what Legolas kept telling himself. He wondered how much longer he would actually manage to believe that lie.
There was one spot of joy, though. He had yet to express his discomfort verbally, though facial expressions indicative of pain were no longer something he could hide. Still, so long as he could keep back the cries in his throat that begged for release, his tattered dignity and pride were still somewhat intact. It was a small consolation of sorts, and in a remote corner of his mind, Legolas laughed at his enemies for their failure to break him.
But at the same time that part of him was laughing, the more rational portion of his mind was evaluating the situation and coming to rather grim conclusions. The Orcs had been commanded to refrain from permanent damage, and so far they had obeyed those orders. Painful as his current condition was, Legolas’s elven healing ability was already stemming the flow of blood. Even the humiliation of being their captive was something that could fade with time. But why was permanent damage forbidden? What greater purpose lay beneath all of this? Why did he and Merry need to retain the ability to recover? Such policy was certainly not in keeping with general Orc practice, and it was obvious from their taunts and threats that the twisted goblins wished to do far more to the elf than was currently allowed. Yet they restrained themselves, and Legolas wondered at this. Even fear of a vindictive master could give way to an Orc’s desire for sport, but these hideous creatures seemed to know that something more awaited the prisoners. But what? What greater evil was planned and how could it be thwarted? More than that, what was planned for their friends? The attack that had led to Legolas’s imprisonment had been well coordinated, and it was obvious now that these Orcs sought revenge for the fall of Mordor and Isengard. The cloaked man who led these creatures would be after the others. They had to be warned.
And as for the man himself…a man who was not quite a man, it seemed… Legolas wondered if he was perhaps mistaken. His first glance beneath the dark hood had revealed a specter from the past that should have perished with Sauron’s fall. It should have been impossible for this particular man to survive Mordor’s collapse. How was it that he—
Legolas’s thoughts were interrupted when he heard two Orcs step forward, and he belatedly realized that the whipping had ceased. With a mental sigh, the elf turned his mind more or less back to the present and tried to steel himself for whatever they planned next. Doubtless they would attempt to make up for the fact that they’d gotten no real outcry from him yet. Sometimes it did not pay to maintain dignity, and Legolas decided that this was one of those times.
His hands were released from the manacles that dangled from the ceiling. Dropping like a dead thing, the elf landed heavily on his side and with effort bit back a hiss of pain as jagged shards of broken ribs rubbed against delicate lung tissue. Legolas lay quietly, lacking both the energy and the will to move. If he was to be repositioned for some new game, the Orcs would be more than happy to reposition him themselves. A few moments later, he sensed the approach of one of the larger Orcs and felt himself rolled onto his back. Clenching his teeth as the raw skin of his bare back came into contact with the rough, gritty floor of the cell, he opened his eyes and watched the Orc quietly, trying to guess what was to come.
The elf’s right arm was lifted into the air and the Orc kneeling beside him studied it with an almost academic detachment. "So this is what draws the bow that kills our kind," he murmured, his foul voice grating on the elf’s fine hearing. The Orc ran his hands over the pale skin in a cruel parody of a caress, and Legolas forced himself to repress a shudder of revulsion. Then the Orc tightened his grip on the limp arm, clutching both the elf’s hand and his forearm. Looking Legolas straight in the eye and wearing a horrible grin, he slowly began to twist.
It took a long, painful minute for the bones to finally crack beneath the mounting pressure, and during this time Legolas hardened his gaze to stone while furiously beseeching the Valar for strength that he might be able to keep back the moans and screams that were once again building in his throat. He forced himself to lie still, knowing that fighting would only bring greater torment, but when the wrist finally snapped, the pain was too great. His breaking wrist coupled with previous tortures was more than Legolas could take. A cry of exquisite agony burst from him, echoing off the dank walls as it was joined by the triumphant yells of the Orcs.
Struggling to control himself, Legolas dimly sensed his most recent tormenter move to his other side and pick up his left arm. The breaking process was repeated amidst pitiful whimpers of pain from the elf, and when it was over, he could not move his hands.
"How many arrows will you shoot now?" a harsh voice slurred in his ear, and then the Orc stepped away as others approached, pushing a brazier of burning coals and bearing a length of iron, the end of which glowed red with heat. The horror in Legolas’s eyes could not be hidden as a wave of burning heat swept over him, and like prey before a merciless predator, he watched helpless as the end of the iron rod was brought closer and closer.
It was not long before elven screams echoed through the cavernous hallways again.
* * * *
The sensation of cold stone against his back woke Merry from a world of disturbing and horrific dreams. As he became more aware of his surroundings, he wondered if waking up was actually an improvement. When the hobbit became more cognizant, his ultimate conclusion was a very firm and resounding No! His broken arms were stretched above his head and chained tightly, and he was secured face-up upon a rough bench hewn from the rock wall. His feet were also chained and the hobbit lay naked and vulnerable, just as he had when the Orcs had tormented him. A shiver of cold crept over him and at this shiver, his abused skin and muscles cried out in protest. Choking back a cry of pain, Merry slowly opened his eyes and wondered what new activity the Orcs had planned.
He was rather surprised to discover that he was alone in his dark cell. A single torch was the only source of light, and it flickered fitfully, attempting to burn despite the damp drafts that blew in and out of the open door at one end of the room. Merry harbored no false hopes that he would be left to himself for long, but at least for now, he could enjoy a brief respite.
Closing his eyes, he tried to relax, though it was hard because his body was growing cold and his bruised, swollen muscles were beginning to tighten. Two ribs were broken, and when he was suddenly taken by an involuntary shiver, he could feel their shards tearing against his lungs. Blood tickled the back of his throat, and Merry stubbornly fought down a cough, knowing that the motion of such an action would only make matters worse in addition to possibly drawing unwanted outside attention. For this latter reason, Merry also stifled the moans and whimpers that were collecting within him. Legolas had said he must not draw attention to himself. It seemed a little late for that, but at the moment, the hobbit had nothing else to go on and he stubbornly clung to the elf’s last words of advice much as a drowning man might cling to the wreckage of his ruined ship. Merry’s muddled mind could construct no coherent plan of its own, and the strange shadows and darkness that seemed to hover just below his consciousness were certainly not helping.
For a moment or two, Merry wondered what had happened to Legolas but ultimately decided that he was better off not thinking about it. He couldn’t remember his own trials without cringing at the dark images that cropped up in his mind, and he didn’t want to extend that darkness by imagining what had become of the elf. Instead, he cleared his mind and did something for which all hobbits have a strong, innate talent. He thought of nothing.
Time seemed to slow and lose its meaning, the surrounding world faded to a dim picture with no relation to reality, and Merry’s mind became a blank. Nothing mattered and nothing could affect him as he achieved a mental state that would rival even the meditative silence of the elves. Hobbits most often used this trick when eating so as to consume more food without acknowledging the consequences of an impending stomachache, but Merry now used it to forget himself. He used it to forget everything and for a brief moment, he existed purely in the present with no past and no future to hinder him. Other races, had they known of this talent, might have envied hobbits greatly, for it was in part due to this ability that hobbits could endure so much and still continue. It was this ability to ignore both future and past that had enabled Frodo and Sam to journey through the desolation of Mordor. It was this ability that had given Bilbo the strength to finally discard the Ring of his own free will. And it was this ability that now allowed Merry to rest despite the screaming of his body.
Unfortunately, the rest was short-lived. Footsteps sounded in the black corridor beyond his room, drawing Merry from his peaceful world of nothing, and the hobbit shivered again in spite of himself. Now was certainly not a time to show weakness, but he seemed powerless to do anything else. He tried to shove down his rising fear, burying it deep within himself where none could see, but when a dark shadow stepped into the doorway, Merry knew it was no use. His skin was crawling, his hands were cold as ice, and his stomach churned with nausea as all reason fled his mind.
"My greetings, Meriadoc Brandybuck." There was a slight clink of mail as the shadow stepped into the room, and it seemed that the lone torch dimmed in response to the presence of this man. The hood of the cloak was slowly lifted, and Merry found himself looking upon the visage of a nightmare. This creature, though he might at one time have been human, was no longer truly a man. The skin of his face was unnaturally pale, and lines creased his forehead and eyes while scars wound their way down his cheeks. Depthless black eyes glittered with a fiery insanity, and it seemed that tendrils of darkness had coiled themselves within this man’s being, surging and pressing for release.
"Who are you?"
Merry did not even realize he was asking the question until the words left his lips, but once spoken, he could not retract them. Unable to help himself, he pressed his back harder against the cold stone beneath him and whimpered slightly. His pride and will railed sharply against this action, but Merry was quickly losing what little control he had.
"Who am I? Ah, so you were not the halfling who stood before the Morannon that day. Doubtless, though, you have heard of me. Yes, I am most certain you have heard of me. They believed me dead upon the field, those who found me, and so left me as carrion among the corpses of the Orcs." The man who was not quite a man leaned toward the hobbit, and with a sense of helpless desperation, Merry tried to back away only to discover that he had nowhere to go. "I was among the most trusted advisors to the great Eye. Long ago, I was taken from Harad where my people have hidden for years, cursed by our Númenórean blood to live in exile or hide our lineage. I was taught by Sauron himself, the Necromancer, the Dark Lord, and through his training I have come into my own, Meriadoc, son of Saradoc. I was known as the Mouth of Sauron, but now you shall become the mouth. I have a message for your friends, young hobbit, and you and the elf shall deliver it for me. But there are things you must learn before you will be ready to deliver this message. What say you, knight of Rohan? Shall we begin the lessons?"
"Whatever you do to me, I was one of the Nine Walkers," Merry said bravely though his heart was pounding so loudly in his chest it was a wonder that the sound of it did not echo about the room like the drums of Moria.
"Yes, a member of the famous Fellowship, a group of witless, hapless fools who blundered their way to victory with the aid of chance and the fickle graces of fortune," the Mouth of Sauron sneered, and Merry decided that he was in trouble. Not that he hadn’t been in trouble before, but it was quickly becoming apparent to the hobbit that he was actually in more trouble than he’d first decided. "You will find the other Fellowship members soon, I promise you that. But you are not yet properly prepared." Hands the temperature of ice water came to rest on either side of Merry’s face and the hobbit squeezed his eyes shut and steeled himself, somehow knowing that everything he’d faced before was going to be as nothing compared to whatever was about to happen.
Pain suddenly assailed his thoughts and a darkness so black it eclipsed even the very hope of light slammed into him, demanding access to his mind and his agency. Skidding backward in his mind, Merry braced himself and tried to fight back, but at that moment, the Mouth of Sauron seized one of his broken arms and twisted. The sudden physical pain cost Merry his tentative hold on reality, and he felt himself pushed further back while darkness rose to claim him. Words began to seep into his mind, orders and suggestions. Merry couldn’t understand most of them as they were clouded in a dark speech that seemed to weave an entangling web within his mind, but he felt himself wishing to obey what was told him.
NO! his mind screamed, recoiling at the darkness that now filled his entire world. For his defiance his other arm was twisted brutally and the hobbit cried aloud in pain, once again faltering before the wave of evil. It tore through his mind, taking advantage of his distraction and planting seeds of shadow throughout. The pain grew and the world began to spin violently as Merry felt himself flung through a blackness that seemed to shatter as a mirror crashing into the ground. Shards flew past the hobbit, tearing and cutting, and Merry heard himself screaming. For a moment and an eternity, the hobbit struggled against the shadows that dragged him toward a pit of darkness that had suddenly materialized. Somehow, through means he did not fully understand, Merry realized that if he fell into that pit, he would never recover. This knowledge gave him strength, and despite the pain of his body and the agony of his mind, he resumed the struggle. His screams became louder in response to his fight, the darkness closed in as a predator over a kill, and Merry knew death was but a breath away.
And then everything stopped.
The mental pain ceased, the darkness disappeared, the shadows fled, and Merry was left with the physical complaints of his body that seemed trivial in view of what had just happened. The icy fingers that had pressed so hard against his temples fell away, and as tendrils of darkness began to disperse within his mind, Merry fell into an exhausted and a dreamless sleep.
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.