20. Roads Not Taken
His mind ached. His body trembled. Every muscle, every sinew, and every fiber within his being cried for rest. His skull shuddered with a headache situated directly behind his eyes. His very soul felt as though it had been pushed far beyond what it was capable of enduring. Darkness crowded his thoughts, and he no longer had the strength to push the shadows aside. The only recourse left to him was to become lost in dreams where the powers of the enemy could not follow.
Aragorn remembered being this weary only once before and that had been during the endless journey upon the Paths of the Dead. Having just wrested control of the palantír away from Sauron, Aragorn had really been in no shape to take the road he then took, but necessity had dictated his actions. Onto the Paths of the Dead he had gone, and by their end, he had felt as though he could easily sleep for at least several years. Only the strength of Númenor pounding through his blood and the impending doom of Minas Tirith had kept him on his feet. And it could be said that he faced very similar circumstances now. Only fear for Legolas and Merry had seen him through the trying night.
But now others had taken up the task of tracking, and Aragorn was ready to drop. Sprawled across the large bed in the chambers that he shared with Arwen, the king wondered where his wife had gone and if she’d been informed of his return. His frazzled mind, torn and worn by the constant contact with darkness, yearned for her calming touch in a way he had never before experienced, even during the long, lonely years as a Ranger in the wild. But at the same time that he pined for her presence, another part of him was somewhat glad she was not about. He had not the strength to return words and ease her fears, and he was somewhat leery of Arwen’s mothering instincts should she find him in his current condition. Hopefully he would be able to recover somewhat before she discovered him, for then his tired reassurances that he did not need medicines and healing would be far more convincing. He would be unable to completely fool her, but if he was strong enough, he might be able to dissuade her.
He had certainly not dissuaded Celeborn. Aragorn had ridden into Imladris with his guards surrounding him as though they feared he would fall from his horse. And if it had been any horse other than Roheryn, their fears might have been justified. Roheryn had taken great care to ensure that the bumpy road was a smooth as possible for his rider, but there were several times when Aragorn almost decided that pitching forward out of the saddle and knocking himself unconscious might actually be a good thing. The time would pass much faster that way, and he wouldn’t have to concern himself with all the petty details of command when they arrived at Rivendell. But once Aragorn undertook a job, he fulfilled that job, and so he remained in the saddle. Yet as they were dismounting before Rivendell’s main porch, Celeborn had come forth, taken one look at the king of Gondor, and immediately sent servants scurrying off to prepare a bath in his quarters. Then he had personally steered Aragorn into his room, informed him in no uncertain terms that he was to spend the day resting, and locked the door on him.
Had Aragorn been in any other condition, he would have been greatly affronted. He would have engineered a daring and dashing escape that would have put even the vigilance of Mirkwood to shame, and then he would have confronted Celeborn as an indignant king who had been imprisoned against his will. But as it was, Aragorn had possessed just enough energy to scowl wearily at the closed door before collapsing face-first onto the bed. He had not moved since.
A doorway on the far side of the room was beginning to allow steam to drift in, but though the idea of a relaxing bath was tempting, Aragorn didn’t think he could make it to the bathtub. Beyond that, he was somewhat concerned about the possibility of drowning, which only confirmed his feelings about just how tired he was. It would certainly garner an interesting reaction, though, he thought wryly. The king of Gondor, after coming through darkness and death to stand before the very gates of Mordor itself and then see the delivering hand of victory, drowns while having a bath in Rivendell. I wonder what Elrond would say to that…
Completely surprised by Arwen’s voice, Aragorn somehow managed not to jump, something that pleased him greatly though it could be argued that his lack of reaction was due to the fact that he had no energy for a reaction. But his joy was short-lived, for in his current position, his exhaustion was painfully obvious. He had no illusions about fooling Arwen into thinking he was well, but neither did he have a desire to display his weakness for the entire world to see. And at the moment, it is probably possible for the entire world to crowd into my room without my ever being aware of it, he sighed, slightly disgusted with himself.
"Beloved, are you awake?"
For answer, Aragorn moved his head to the side and grunted. It was the best response he could offer at the moment. Utilizing energy for anything more substantial seemed like a terrible waste.
"Celeborn and Elrohir told me that you had returned," Arwen whispered, sitting next to Aragorn and gently brushing errant strands of hair away from his brow. "They also told me that they locked you in our quarters so that you might find rest. Why are you not sleeping?"
This question required a slightly longer answer than her last one, and Aragorn cast about in his mind for a way to minimize words. "Too tired," he finally muttered, wondering if that made sense to anyone other than himself.
"You are too tired to sleep?" Arwen said, her brow furrowing.
"Frustrated," Aragorn added, opting for the single-word answer and hoping it would be enough.
"Too much on your mind, then," Arwen translated, and it was close enough to the truth that Aragorn decided to let it pass. "I know of what you speak. Or rather of what you don’t speak," she said, pushing him on to his side and undoing the ties of his tunic. "My mind has also been full these last few days. I have learned much of what we face but little of what to do in bringing this crisis to a resolution. Lord Celeborn has been one riddle after another, and even when he speaks plainly, he speaks of things so terrible that I cannot believe them." With effort, Arwen drew Aragorn’s shirt off his unmoving form and then started on his boots and pants. "He wishes to speak with you and ask of you what you felt when confronting the darkness," she continued, keeping up a running monologue even as Aragorn began to drift in and out of sleep. "He also wishes to know if Gondor has information concerning Amandil and Ar-Pharazôn that Rivendell does not have. After all, Minas Tirith has many records left by Isildur that never again made it back over the Misty Mountains. Aragorn, are you listening?"
Aragorn blinked and realized that Arwen was now pulling a blanket up over his form. "Pardon?" he asked, wondering if he had missed something important.
"Peace," she said with a quiet smile. "My apologies. I think I spoke to hear the sound of my own voice. But you are tired and I weary you. Sleep now, and I shall keep the bath water warm. When you wake, you may wash yourself and then we shall seek out Celeborn together. There are many things still that I would know."
"Time?" Aragorn murmured, trying to muster the energy to turn his head and glance out the window.
"You have several hours in which to sleep, and I shall wake you ere it grows too late in the afternoon. Have no fear," Arwen promised.
Aragorn grunted again and his eyes slid shut. For a brief moment, it seemed that the black mists of the forest seized upon his helpless form and tried to drag him into darker depths, but then he felt Arwen’s lips upon his, and the shadow vanished. He raised his head slightly, returning the kiss, but he was pressed back down and Arwen again commanded him to sleep. Unable to disobey and very aware of the fact that his mind seemed to be assuming the consistency of a hobbit porridge, Aragorn abandoned the fight and drifted into slumber.
* * * *
The sun was directly overhead, but the day seemed unusually cold. Still panting from the battle with the Orcs and still feeling surges of adrenaline coursing through him, Sam was nevertheless becoming convinced that the day was growing colder rather than warmer. It was a disconcerting thought and he blamed it completely upon the darkness that swirled about his feet.
The hobbit looked over as Pippin stumbled toward him, trying to wipe his sword off on every tree he passed so as to rid it of the filth from the Orcs he had slain. "How are you doing?" Sam asked.
"That was my question for you," Pippin answered. "Elladan says we should be safe enough here and that the elves have driven most of the Orcs off. Or killed them, I guess. But he wants to move as soon as he can get everybody together and accounted for." Pippin looked up into the trees, searching for elves above them, and then sighed. "From what I can gather, and that’s little enough, I guess not everyone made it."
"The way Mr. Elladan’s eyes widened when he first heard those whistles, I’m guessing the Orcs took even the elves by surprise," Sam said.
"And in addition to that, there was the problem that everybody had split into scouting parties while we stayed on the main trail," Pippin added, glaring at his sword as though the force of his stare would somehow clean it of the remaining residue. "How’s your head?"
Sam rubbed a bump on the back of his skull and grimaced. While ducking beneath the sword thrust of one of the few Orcs that had remained upon the ground, he’d been caught by a glancing staff blow and had rolled into a tree. Fortunately, Pippin had been close enough to help him, and elven arrows from above had also made an appearance. "I’ll live," he answered at length. "It wasn’t a very hard blow. Just enough to daze me."
"Good," Pippin murmured. "I don’t fancy carrying you back to Rosie. She’d have both our hides."
Sam nodded and winced when he thought of Rosie’s expression should she learn that he had been injured. The injury was minor and Sam had no plans to tell her that he’d been struck, but should she find out, he would endure a scolding the likes of which might well bring down the foundations of Rivendell. And considering the fact that Rivendell had survived almost one complete Age and half of another one, that was quite a feat.
"Have you seen Gimli at all?" Sam asked, deciding he’d had enough of his own thoughts and hoping that conversation might distract him.
"Not since he took off after Rúmil when Haldir and Orophin were trying to make an opening for us to escape," Pippin said. "I think I heard him say something about elves not being able to stay out of trouble, which I thought rather odd because there he was rushing into it."
"Gimli can be rather odd around elves," Sam murmured. "Do you suppose he’s all right?"
"Gimli? Of course he’s all right. He’s a dwarf. Dwarves are always all right."
"That’s no guarantee," Sam sighed, stalking toward a broad tree trunk and leaning back against it. "Dwarves aren’t always all right. Just ask any of the elves. I heard Legolas once say that—Pippin! Down!"
Reacting completely on instinct, Pippin fell to his stomach as a lone Uruk-hai came charging toward him, the sword thrust intended for his chest missing his hair by scant inches. Sam was immediately moving, brandishing Sting as its blue light filled the woods. Pippin rolled to his feet and turned to meet the Orc, but before either of them could do aught, the air seemed to whistle and the Uruk-hai fell dead with three arrows imbedded in his throat.
"My apologies, Master Hobbits," a voice called, and Elladan suddenly dropped out of the branches behind Sam. "We were not watching the north as closely as was needed. The fight to the east took our attention."
"How many more of them are out there?" Pippin asked rather breathlessly, feeling the top of his head to make certain that the Orc had actually missed.
"That should be the last of them," Elladan sighed, indicating the fallen Orc with the tip of his bow. "Valar take them all. Were it not for this accursed darkness we would have sensed them long ago. And then mayhap we would not have been hurt so grievously."
"How many?" Sam asked hesitantly. His obsession with the Eldar while in Rivendell prior to the Ring’s departure had led to a rather uncanny talent for reading emotions in elven faces, and this talent was now informing him that Elladan was very upset about something.
"More than should have been lost," Elladan answered, a mask swiftly descending over his face. "The Orcs had dipped their arrowheads in a poison of some kind, but we are still uncertain as to the exact nature of the poison used."
"Is Gimli all right, Mr. Elladan?" Sam asked, feeling a stab of fear. "We were trying to get back and Haldir and Orophin were covering us and then Haldir started shouting something about Rúmil, but they couldn’t leave us, if you understand me, so Gimli just ran off and—"
"Peace, Samwise," Elladan interrupted. A small smile appearing on his face, but it did not reach his eyes. "Your dwarven friend is physically unscathed."
"Physically?" Sam questioned.
"What about Rúmil?" Pippin asked, his voice quiet and fearful as though he already knew the answer.
"Gimli did not reach his side in time. He had already been shot. And though the dwarf did drive off a group of Orcs, he could not get Rúmil away. Rúmil died in his brothers’ arms." Elladan’s gray eyes clouded over and he sighed. "Rúmil was not the only warrior we lost today. And we may yet lose more. A group is gathering to return to Rivendell with the wounded and the dead, but at the moment, we do not know if the wounded will even survive the journey."
"Are you going back with them?" Sam asked.
"Nay, I am staying here. I fear we can no longer follow the trail as was our intention, for we are too close to the stronghold. Such a large group of Orcs was no scouting party. They were a standard guard unit out on patrol. We are very near their base and must now formulate another plan."
"So King Thranduil was right," Pippin said. "We should have left the trail this morning."
"He was indeed, and I fear that my counsel persuaded him to follow the wrong course," Elladan murmured.
"Do you want us to stay with you or go back with the others?" Sam asked. "If you need us, we’ll be glad to stay here."
"The decision is yours to make, my friends," Elladan told them. "The wounded, if they live, will reach Rivendell ere Elrohir and Aragorn leave to rejoin us. If you wish to return now and meet with them, you have my leave to do so. But if you wish to remain here, then we would be glad of your company."
"Even though we’re not very good in the trees?" Sam asked, hoping to draw a smile from the weary warrior.
"Even though," Elladan answered, but he gave no smile.
A moment of uneasy silence fell, eventually broken by Pippin. "What do you think we’ll do now? Will we split up like King Thranduil wanted to do?"
"We cannot do that until Elrohir and Aragorn return," Elladan said with a shake of his head. "We shall need all of our forces to separate effectively, for by necessity, any groups we create must be large groups. The ill effects of the darkness seem to be lessened if one travels with many others."
"Then what shall we do until they get here?" Pippin wondered.
"I know not," Elladan said. "At this point, the great bulk of our knowledge is not knowledge at all but rather vague guesses backed by circumstantial evidence." Elladan smiled slightly. "You probably did not wish to hear that."
"No, not really," Pippin admitted.
"Were I able to, I would give you nothing but reassurances. However, I fear we have all been grievously deceiving ourselves, and now it has led to the deaths of elves beneath my command. I will not lie to you, my friends," Elladan said with a slight grimace. "Our next task will not be an easy one. Without the use of a clear trail, we must somehow locate the stronghold of the Orcs and then confront them. And doubtless we shall meet other Orcs along the way."
"If it brings us closer to Merry and Legolas, then I’m coming," Pippin said firmly.
"We didn’t follow you out all this way just to stop here," Sam added. "We haven’t been much help so far, but we aren’t turning back."
"Would that all could have your resolve and your faith," Elladan murmured. "Come then, and let us seek out your dwarven friend and also King Thranduil. We shall take counsel together regarding our next option, and mayhap when Elrohir and Aragorn arrive, we shall have answers for them."
"Is it safe to have King Thranduil and Gimli together in the same conversation?" Pippin idly wondered.
"Safe or not, it is necessary," Elladan said firmly, moving away and gesturing for the hobbits to follow him. "They must both overcome their differences if this is to succeed. If not, I foresee a very dark future."
* * * *
"Mommy, I’m hungry."
Rosie looked up from her ôlgalenas leaves at Elanor and sighed. The little hobbit had woken an hour or so ago, and after one of the elves informed her of it, Rosie had taken her daughter to breakfast. She’d already eaten, of course—breakfast being something that hobbits did immediately after rising—but she’d cheerfully joined her daughter for yet another meal before returning to the porch where she and Arwen had been preparing medicines. Arwen had been gone when she returned, but since Rosie had a fairly good idea of what she was doing with these elvish leaves, that was not a problem. What was a problem, though, was that Rosie had now eaten twice and had yet to feel the bite of hunger. But Elanor did not have that advantage and was feeling the need for more food. Unfortunately, Rosie had learned the day before that Rivendell’s kitchens did not operate on a hobbit timetable. There would probably be nothing to eat for another hour or so.
"Why don’t you keep playing with your toys and I’ll see if I can manage something," Rosie counseled.
"I’m hungry now!" Elanor insisted.
Rosie sighed and rubbed her brow. "Elanor, I don’t know as there is anything for you to eat."
Rosie looked up, startled. She had not been aware of anyone’s approach, but a strange elf was now leaning over her shoulder, examining her work with the ôlgalenas leaves with a critical eye. "Begging your pardon, sir, but I didn’t hear you come in," she hastily explained, getting to her feet and offering a quick curtsy.
"No matter," the elf said with a slight shake of his head, and Rosie now recognized him as the elf that had come earlier to speak with Arwen. His long, silver hair was caught back in a warrior’s braid at the base of his neck, and his bright gray eyes held depths that the hobbit could not even begin to penetrate. "I have to come to tell you that Arwen may not return for a while," he continued, his eyes softening when Rosie began to shift nervously, not used to the effects of a prolonged elven gaze. "She apologies for this and promises to come as soon as possible."
"Oh, that’s all right," Rosie said. "She can take whatever time she needs. I’m fine here and I don’t want for company, seeing as I have Elanor with me and all." Rosie then blushed and realized that this was probably an elf of some importance. "I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t know as I remember your name. Or maybe I don’t know it, but—"
"Peace, good hobbit," the elf laughed quietly. "My name is Celeborn."
Celeborn…the name was vaguely familiar to her and Rosie wondered if Sam might have mentioned it in conjunction with his tales of Mr. Frodo, but all those strange names of people and places had run together in Rosie’s mind. She was fairly certain that she’d heard the name Celeborn before, but she didn’t know if this was an important name or just someone Sam had run into.
Seeming to read the confusion and hesitation on Rosie’s face, the elf before her smiled and his eyes twinkled with a bit of mischief, a trait that seemed to be quite common in elves. "I take it that you do not know who I am."
Rosie shook her head even as she continued to search her memory. "I’m sorry. You seem familiar, but I just can’t quite seem to put my finger on where I might have heard your name, sir."
"Mommy! I’m hungry!"
Rosie looked over at Elanor and sighed. "Elanor, I already told you that—"
"The child is hungry?" The elf named Celeborn smiled again and shook his head. "So the obsession with food begins young in hobbits."
"I don’t know about obsession," Rosie said, feeling a quick sting of indignation. "We just like to be well fed, that’s all."
"Of course," Celeborn said indulgently with an amused look. He then moved over to Elanor and went down on one knee. "You say you are hungry, young one?"
Elanor nodded and adopted her best pouting expression, something that made Rosie instantly groan. There was no reasoning with Elanor when she started to pout, and the only way to win her good graces again was to agree to whatever she wanted, something that Sam did with outrageous regularity. Rosie kept trying to tell her husband that giving in only cemented in Elanor’s mind the idea that she could get anything out of anyone, but while Sam would listen and nod in agreement at all the right places, he continued to spoil their daughter shamelessly.
"Well, then," Celeborn said, picking the child up effortlessly and rising. "Let us see if we cannot fix that problem."
Rosie frowned and decided that this particular elf was probably not from Rivendell. " I don’t think the kitchens are open right now, Mr. Celeborn," she informed him. "They won’t be serving food and we’ll have to wait for noon. I don’t want you getting Elanor’s hopes up, if you take my meaning."
"I do take your meaning, good hobbit, but I think I may be able to convince the kitchens to provide a small meal for a hungry child," Celeborn answered.
It was absolutely clear now to Rosie that Celeborn definitely did not come from Rivendell. "I don’t think you understand, sir," she said. "Those elves in the kitchen…they’re strict about when they serve food and they told me that there were already too many people about to go catering to hobbits whenever they were hungry."
At this Celeborn started to laugh. "Ah, that brings back many memories. When your husband and his companions stopped in Lothlórien, the hobbits in the party nearly cleared out our larders."
"That’s where you’re from?" Rosie asked. "Lothlórien?"
"Yes. For now," Celeborn sighed as an expression of great sadness swept over his face. It was such a contrast to his previous mood that the sudden shift unnerved Rosie slightly, but before she could say aught, a mask had fallen over the elf’s face and he inclined his head toward the house. "Come. As I said before, I believe I might be able to convince the elves in the kitchen to fix a plate for your daughter. And perhaps for you as well, if you wish to eat again."
There seemed to be no gainsaying this elf—particularly since his legs were twice as big as hers were and he had already left the porch with Elanor in his arms—so Rosie hurried to catch up, wondering exactly how she was going to convince him that this particular kitchen did not listen to anyone. She supposed she would have to let him find out for himself, a tactic she used quite regularly with Elanor. She only hoped that he wouldn’t be too disappointed. It was a shame, really, because he seemed like a very kind elf that only wanted to help. And sad, too, though Rosie had yet to determine why he was sad. Personally, she didn’t understand how anyone could be sad in Rivendell. Even though she missed Sam fiercely, there was a healing spirit in Imladris that set her heart at ease. She still feared for him, but sadness itself was an emotion she had difficulty maintaining.
"Maybe we should find a back way into this kitchen," she suggested when she caught up to the elf. "Or you could distract them up front while I slip in and find a bit of something for Elanor. Maybe that would work better than just approaching them."
The elf laughed quietly and shook his head. "Let us try a more direct method first. It is sometimes far more beneficial."
"Sometimes," Rosie allowed hesitantly. "But I think if you distract whatever elf runs that kitchen, then maybe the rest won’t be so intimidated and I can get some food out of them."
Celeborn stopped so quickly that Rosie let out a quick yelp, surprised at the abruptness of his halt. Looking up at his face, she saw that his eyes had gone blank and she wondered what had happened. According to Sam, elves didn’t get sick, but to Rosie’s mind, Celeborn’s sudden actions seemed to indicate illness. Wary of disturbing him—especially since he was holding Elanor—Rosie cleared her throat and took a tentative step toward the elf.
"If Mithrandir were still here, he would call us all fools," Celeborn murmured, closing his eyes and shaking his head. "It works upon the field of battle, why should it not work within the mind as well?" The elf opened his eyes and turned to the hobbit. "Rose Cotton Gamgee, you have my thanks. And if we are successful in our endeavors, you shall have the thanks of Legolas and Merry as well."
"Come. You shall be rewarded twice over for this," Celeborn said, resuming his walk toward Rivendell’s kitchens and forcing Rosie to run in an effort to keep up.
"But what did you mean? They’re all right? Merry is—"
"Not yet, but soon. Much sooner than originally planned, thanks in part to you," Celeborn answered. "Valar, I should have seen this by Mithrandir’s example if for no other reason! Confront first and then offer solace. Valar, he almost succeeded with Saruman! Why could I not see this? But we have been set in our ways and our strategies for far too long."
"Sir, I don’t understand what you mean and I don’t see that—"
"Peace," Celeborn interrupted, weaving his way through a maze of corridors that quickly had Rosie’s head spinning. She knew how to get to the kitchens, of course, for acquiring this knowledge is a priority among hobbits whenever they elect to stay in a new place. But apparently there was more than one way to get to these kitchens, and Celeborn seemed to be taking a shortcut. Almost before she knew what had happened, they had walked into a large room filled with cupboards, pots, pans, hearths, ovens, and things Rosie couldn’t even begin to identify for she had never seen them before her stay in Rivendell.
"Brannon nîn!" one of the elves called out, and she recognized it as the elf who had informed her the day before in no uncertain terms that hobbits did not dictate mealtimes.
"This good hobbit and her daughter are in need of food," Celeborn said, speaking in Westron for Rosie’s benefit. "Would you see that they are given a proper meal? I wish for there to be nothing lacking."
Until this point, Rosie had seen only the calm, austere side of the elves. She had never seen one discomfited or taken by surprise. But the look she now saw upon the elf’s face was nothing short of complete and utter dismay. "Lord Celeborn," the elf started, "I do not think that you understand what you are—"
"Lothlórien played host to the Fellowship, and within the Fellowship were four hobbits. I know very well what I am asking."
"As you wish, my lord," the elf sighed, and Rosie heard a definite note of reluctance in his voice. But her mind was now focused on other things, for a memory had been triggered at the title of lord. Sam had once told her who ruled Lothlórien, but she had forgotten the strange name. Until now…
"If you have need of aught else, you have but to ask these good elves," Celeborn informed Rosie, handing Elanor back to her. "And if they do not see to your wishes, you have but to search me out. I thank you again, Rose Cotton Gamgee, for your help. And now I fear that I must bid you a fond farewell."
"Wait!" Rosie blurted, unable to stop herself. Shifting Elanor to the side even as the child started squirming at the smell of food, she hurried after Celeborn and nearly ran into him as he stopped in the doorway. "I…that is…what I mean…are you the same Celeborn that—"
"Peace," Celeborn interrupted before the stammering and embarrassed hobbit could finish the question. "To you, Rosie, I am Celeborn. A friend. And to me, you shall also be a friend. An elvellon, or elf-friend, if you accept it. Nothing more and nothing less. Will you allow me this privilege? For often, especially now, I find myself very alone."
The sadness in the elf’s eyes took Rosie’s breath away, and before she knew what she was doing, she had nodded her assent. But she could not help herself, for the ageless quality of those deep, gray eyes coupled with an immeasurable sorrow running just below the surface was not something to be denied. "Just Celeborn," she murmured. "I don’t know as I can do that, sir."
"Try then, for me," Celeborn said quietly.
"All right," Rosie promised, offering a slight smile. "If it will help you."
"It will," Celeborn answered, returning the smile. "And now I must go, for there are many things to do. See if your food is yet prepared, and if it is not, tell them that Lord Celeborn of Lothlórien orders speed and haste." And with this, Celeborn reached out to gently tousle Elanor’s hair before rising and leaving the room. And behind him, a hobbit of the Shire seemed to stand a little taller.
* * * *
I warned them. I warned them that this would happen. Had they heeded my counsel, our presence might still be unknown. Now we have revealed ourselves to the enemy. Beyond a shadow of any doubt, they know that we draw near. And if Legolas is harmed in any way because of this…
Fuming with anger even as fear was choking his heart, Thranduil made his way swiftly and silently through the trees on a search for Elladan. The company of elves had to move and it had to move now! They could not remain here, for more Orcs were certainly going to be sent to finish what their brethren could not. As for where they would go, Thranduil had yet to figure that out. They needed a better idea of the surrounding area in order to gauge where a stronghold might lie. But that also needed to be done with haste, for they had just set a time limit on the lives of the captives.
Of course, time was always limited if what Celeborn suspects is true, Thranduil thought as the cold hand of despair began to creep over him. If what my son currently endures is the same as that which was done to Ar-Pharazôn, then time is almost up. But we have made his plight worse, for if our enemy hastens his plans and does not take care, he may well kill his prisoners by accident!
Taken by fury, Thranduil swore and brought his sword down hard against the trunk of the tree in which he had stopped. The blood of Orcs caught the sun’s feeble light and turned the blade a dull red. With a slight grimace of disgust, Thranduil pulled the sword free of the trunk and then dragged the weapon along the tree’s limb in a futile effort to clean it. But the filth of dead Orcs clung to the metal like a dragon clinging to pile of gold, and the king of Mirkwood knew that a far more thorough cleaning would have to be arranged sometime. Most of the attacking Orcs had been killed, but a few of the Mirkwood scouts insisted that one or two had escaped southward. This complicated matters somewhat and also delayed the time when Thranduil could clean his sword. Not that sword cleaning was an item of great priority, but Thranduil was a rather obsessive elf with some very peculiar habits. Keeping his sword clean was one of these habits. A bloodied blade had a tendency to wear on his nerves, but the situation was clearly not going to allow Thranduil to indulge in any of his idiosyncrasies. He could live with that—he had lived with it many times in the past—but it was one more black mark against the enemy that had taken his son. And Thranduil intended to see that this enemy paid for each and every offense that Thranduil was dealt as well as tenfold for each and every offense that his son was dealt.
A sudden disturbance to his left brought Thranduil’s murderous thoughts to a halt, and he looked up with a frown. Something was coming through the trees with great haste, but though it moved with an elf’s grace, it did not move with an elf’s silence. Tightening his grip upon the hilt of his sword, Thranduil took a step back and fixed his eyes upon a cluster of leaves. Before long, his wait was rewarded as the branches burst asunder and the creature making such a stir leaped through.
"Hold!" Thranduil commanded even as surprise blasted through his mind. The noisy intruder was indeed an elf, and not only was it an elf, it was one of the Galadhrim. Within the trees, Lothlórien’s elves were so skilled as to be comparable to even Mirkwood’s finest scouts, but this particular elf seemed to have forgotten how to move with stealth. He also seemed to have forgotten his surroundings, for he did not stop at Thranduil’s command. Somewhat indignant at this breach in authority and respect, the king of Mirkwood quickly stepped forward and placed himself directly in the path of the rampaging elf.
Startled by the sudden roadblock, the elf came to an abrupt halt and seemed to realize that he had company. His flashing eyes darted to Thranduil’s face and he opened his mouth to speak, but recognition flitted across his features ere he could say aught. Not quite knowing what to do, he froze, watching Thranduil closely.
"You are greatly distressed, young one," Thranduil said, running his eyes over the other elf’s bloodied tunic and trying to determine how the archer was wounded. He had seen stress and battle rob even the best warriors of their senses, and he suspected that this was probably the case here. "Perhaps I might aid you," the king offered at length, deciding to forget the earlier lapse in protocol. "You have been hurt and—"
"Nay, not I but my brother!" the elf exploded, anger and hatred springing into his countenance with such swiftness that Thranduil actually stepped back. "It is his blood that I bear!"
Thranduil frowned and took a closer look at this elf, recognizing him now. "Haldir of Lothlórien, correct?" he questioned.
The elf nodded, and once again, sense seemed to prevail in his distraught mind. "My apologies, my liege," Haldir murmured, casting his eyes down and beginning to shiver from shock and grief. "I fear that, at the moment, I…I am not myself."
"Your apologies are accepted," Thranduil said quietly, drifting closer to the elf. "And in return, I offer my sympathy. I was among the archers that sought to buy Rúmil time to escape. I regret that we were not successful." The king laid a hesitant hand on Haldir’s shoulder, seeking to impart comfort.
"He is dead!" Haldir suddenly wailed, his grief bursting from him as though a torrent had been set loose. "Sweet Elbereth, he is dead! Gone!"
"Peace," Thranduil said quickly, pulling the weeping elf against his chest. The king had been in Haldir’s situation many times. His father, his wife, and one of his daughters had all perished by the hands of the Orcs. His other daughter and two of his sons had departed over the sea at various times during the passing years. Four sons only remained to him, and should he lose one of them… "Peace, Haldir," Thranduil soothed, shaking himself free of his own thoughts. "We are still in danger here. Hush. Think of your other brother. What is his name? Haldir, what is his name?"
Haldir shuddered and seemed to calm himself slightly. "Orophin," he murmured. "His name is Orophin."
"Yes, Orophin," Thranduil said quietly. "And where is he now?"
"He sits with…he sits with Rúmil and the rest that were lost."
"And why do you not sit with him? For surely Orophin is in need of your wisdom. He is younger than you, I believe."
"Wisdom is well and good, but I desire vengeance," Haldir hissed, his mood shifting abruptly. He stepped back, shaking off Thranduil’s restraining hands, and a strange gleam entered his eyes.
"The Orcs are gone," Thranduil reasoned, wondering if he would have to summon his guards and have the archer restrained. "Unless you wish to leave the safety of the group, you shall not find them. And though I understand well your feelings, I cannot allow you to do this, Haldir. Vengeance will have to wait."
"I do not seek vengeance from the Orcs, sire, for there will be time enough for that later," Haldir growled. "It is the head of a dwarf that I now desire."
Thranduil blinked, rather surprised by this turn of events. As he had told Haldir, he had been among the group that answered Rúmil’s stricken cry. It had been an astonishing sight that threatened the very foundation of reality, but with his own eyes, Thranduil had witnessed Gimli defending and supporting Rúmil as they both fled the Orcs. They did not flee fast enough, but despite his prejudices, the king of Mirkwood could not attribute that fault to the dwarf. He had seen Rúmil’s staggering steps, and he had seen Gimli struggling to keep the elf on his feet. But apparently Haldir was only aware of the fact that Rúmil was dead. And since the dwarf had been present when he had died, Haldir’s grieving mind was giving Gimli the blame.
It seems I am confronted with many interesting dilemmas this day, the king of Mirkwood sighed. Thranduil certainly had no great love for the stunted creature that now bore the brunt of Haldir’s hatred, but he was not about to let the grieving elf kill the dwarf in cold blood. Rúmil’s death had not been Gimli’s fault, and beyond that, the dwarf had actually risked his life in an attempt to save Rúmil. Thranduil had his suspicions about Gimli’s motives, but the deeds themselves could not be ignored. Nor could they be rewarded with murder. But how was he to explain this to Haldir?
Thranduil opened his mouth to speak—though he had no clear idea of what he was going to say—but movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and he looked to see the chief of his scouts, Ithildae, step from the foliage.
"Sire, all the injured and the lost have now been accounted for. We have gathered them together just north of here. What are your orders for them?"
"A moment, Haldir," Thranduil said, his gray eyes quickly boring into the elf and warning him of the consequences should he think about leaving prematurely. Then he turned his attention to Ithildae, though he kept his ears trained on Haldir’s movements. "Are elves of Rivendell among their number?"
"Several, sire, both wounded and dead. Also, many of the wounded are falling quickly to a poison that we discovered upon some of the arrows shot by the Orcs. We know not its source or origins, nor do any of those who possess some amount of healing skills."
Thranduil swore silently and went over the options available to him. Technically, he could not order all the wounded to be taken back because some of those wounded fell beneath Elladan’s sovereignty. He could certainly order his own, and he could probably get away with ordering the Galadhrim because they had not been left with a central commander and were instructed to follow joint decisions of both Elladan and Thranduil. Yet the circumstances were less than ordinary, and immortal lives were at stake. In addition to that, ordering them to leave now might take care of another problem…
"Haldir, follow Ithildae and return to your brothers," Thranduil instructed, moving so that both Haldir and Ithildae were now in view. "You shall accompany them to Rivendell and aid them in whatever manner is needed. Ithildae, assemble what help you require and move all the dead and all the injured to Imladris. Proceed with haste, for time is of the essence. All those fit to do so shall return in Elrohir’s company this evening. Bring with you arrows and supplies."
Ithildae bowed and turned to leave, but Haldir showed no inclination of obeying these instructions. Rebellion was growing in his eyes, his jaw was tightening, and his fists were clenching at his sides. "My liege, I—"
"Those were not suggestions," Thranduil said quietly, his voice gentle but firm. "Remove yourself from this darkness and think upon your desires. Consult with Orophin, and pay Rúmil the respect he deserves by accompanying him. After you have done this, return refreshed and ready to visit your vengeance upon those more deserving of it."
"Now, Haldir," Thranduil said, his eyes becoming stony. For a moment the tension between the king of Mirkwood and the scout of Lothlórien seemed to rival the tension felt when the Orcs had attacked. But Haldir’s weary mind could not endure Thranduil’s piercing gaze for long, and at length, he dropped his head in defeat. Thranduil then flicked his eyes to Ithildae, who quickly nodded at the unspoken command and moved to Haldir’s side.
"Come," Ithildae said quietly. "Your aid shall be needed in assisting with those from Lothlórien."
The two elves departed, leaving Thranduil alone, and the king of Mirkwood was given a brief chance to think back over what had been said. I have just saved a dwarf’s life, he realized, marveling at the irony of it all. It seems that the Valar are enjoying themselves today, for doubtless this is a spectacle which entertains them greatly. Unfortunately, I have not their sense of humor.
Thranduil sighed, closed his eyes, and rubbed his brow. The day was filled with surprises, and he was still attempting to process them all. But necessity called first, and Thranduil eventually chased away those thoughts that centered upon why a dwarf would defend an elf. Focusing once again on the imperative need to move the elven host, he resumed his search for Elladan, all the while wondering what else could possibly go wrong before the day was through.
Brannon nîn—My lord
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.