23. Twisting Vision
Haldir could not say how long he ran. He took no conscious thought for direction but rather placed his trust in his instincts, hoping that they would lead him to his brother. Initially he raced through the branches, but his balance was so uncertain that he quickly moved back to the earth, a sense of self-preservation telling him that it was safer there for the time being. Even so, he still stumbled over obstacles in his path, and so blind was his flight that more than once he collapsed to the ground and could not say why. Had any been there to witness his faltering feet, they might have recoiled at the sight of an elf so distraught, so grief-stricken, and so enraged that he could not even stay upright. But none were present, and so Haldir continued his frantic, desperate race to find Orophin, unaware of just how precarious his hold on sanity had become.
Not that he was completely without sense. Haldir had retained enough clarity of thought to escape from Rivendell undetected. In retrospect, it had been ridiculously easy. With concern focused on the dead and the wounded as well as the preparations for departure, few were keeping a close watch on the surrounding forest. The simple scouts left to patrol the boundaries were no match for the woodcraft and stealth of Lothlórien’s chief marchwarden. He had slipped past their guard as easily as one might deceive a young and trusting child.
But after passing the border wardens, Haldir’s quasi-lucidity had left him. It was then that he began to stumble, weary with shame and fear. Anger, too, was there in abundance, and his heart felt so torn within him that he was amazed he still lived. Only two goals kept him moving forward: He had to find his brother, and he had to kill the dwarf. He truly did not know which goal he should seek first. Killing the dwarf would assuage his need for vengeance, but the words he remembered saying to Orophin caused his stomach to knot and twist. Orophin was still so young for an elf, and this was his first real experience with grief. He had been too small at the time of their father’s passing to understand what had happened, and Haldir and Rúmil had taken it upon themselves to shelter him from the full shock of the experience. Even now, there were things about his father’s death near Dol Guldur that Orophin did not know, and if Haldir had any say in it, his youngest brother would never learn of these things.
Unfortunately, Rúmil’s death could not be softened for Orophin’s sake. And Haldir should have been there for his youngest brother, but instead, he had pushed him away. No, the dwarf could wait. Vengeance could wait. Orophin, on the other hand, could not wait.
Shaking his head and trying to clear his mind from the jumble of emotions that assailed him, Haldir once again missed seeing a tree root, and he stumbled hard to the ground. Cursing the fates and slamming his fist into the rich earth, Haldir looked up and froze. Before him, not more than a few steps away, a sheet of darkness writhed and twisted. Haldir had reached the point where he would have to take to the trees again. He could not risk walking through that evil. He had sensed its touch when he had descended to the ground in a vain attempt to save Rúmil, and he had felt the influence of a shadow so powerful that it had shocked him to the very core. Seeing Rúmil’s lifeless face had completely torn him open, and when he had knelt next to his dying brother even as darkness swirled about him, he had been certain that all of reality was coming to an end. He saw again Gimli, hovering over Rúmil with horror-filled eyes that spoke of shock and despair…
Shock and despair?
Somewhere deep in Haldir’s mind, the sensible part of him started to break free. Struggling against the clouds of grief and rage, the thought occurred to him that perhaps the dwarf had not been at fault.
It was such a startling idea that Haldir—about to resume the journey in the treetops—froze. Watching the shadows suspiciously, he frowned and called to memory the last moments of Rúmil’s life. It was a difficult process and grief pounded relentlessly at his soul, but he forced himself to do it. Something strange was at work here, and the more rational portion of his mind was beginning to exert itself. Long years of patrolling Lothlórien’s borders against the threat of darkness also came into play, and caught by his habit of mistrusting everything until it was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, Haldir slowly combed over the events leading to his brother’s death.
Rúmil had been running. Blood had soaked the right leg of his pants. He had been injured. He…he had not been able to put weight on his injured leg. No, that was not right. He had clearly been running. Yet how…the dwarf? The dwarf had been helping him?
"Nay," Haldir whispered. "Nay, that cannot be. The dwarf is to blame. Were it not for him, then…"
He trailed off, confused, and the logical side of Haldir—a side that had enabled him to be one of the most effective marchwardens in Lórien’s history as well as a mediator between brothers who were diametric opposites—began to come forth. Were it not for the dwarf, then what? it questioned. What? Rúmil would not have survived as long as he did. Gimli had been helping him. He had moved him behind trees in order to avoid arrows, risking his own safety in the hopes that others would come to their aid. It was the arrow of an Orc that struck Rúmil down at the last. It was no fault of Gimli’s.
"But it was the dwarf!" Haldir insisted, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. "It was him! I know it was him!"
Fool! How do you know? You saw nothing to incriminate Gimli. You saw nothing that is worthy of your ire. Rúmil was beyond help when you arrived!
Haldir shook his head violently. It was impossible. There was nothing more to say on the subject. And yet…the more he considered it, the more his thoughts began to change. And sensing victory, the logical portion of his mind redirected him to his final moments with Rúmil.
Haldir had been almost immersed in the darkness. He had been kneeling. He had lifted Rúmil off the ground with Orophin’s aid. His emotions had been chaotic. His mind and his thoughts had not been guarded. By chance, his eyes had fallen upon Gimli, whose expression of sorrow and guilt triggered something within Haldir. Somehow, he had become convinced that the dwarf was to blame.
"But he was not," Haldir whispered, feeling a whisper of darkness slide away from his thoughts. "He was not at fault. How did I err? Why did I think otherwise?"
Confused and frightened, the elf once again returned to his memories, but he could find no logical reason for concluding that Gimli was responsible for Rúmil’s death. Yet the idea had become so firmly implanted in his mind that he had come dangerously close to murdering the dwarf. His mind had been consumed by the idea of vengeance. Had Thranduil not been there to stop him…
"Sweet Elbereth," Haldir breathed, his eyes widening. "If this is what we face, then…Orophin!"
With no further hesitation and none of the faltering steps that had slowed him before, Haldir leaped into the branches and raced forward. As before, he let instinct guide him while his mind became consumed by one horrible thought. Orophin was still out there in the darkness. Orophin had been blaming himself. And if the shadows that had affected Haldir’s mind were now affecting his brother’s…
Once again, Haldir could not say how long he ran. Intimately familiar with travel in the trees, he moved from one limb to another with such haste that all else became a blur. And finally, as he leaped off of one branch and skidded onto another, a flood of recognition hit him. This was where they had fought. This was where he had taken Rúmil from Orophin’s arms and then left, believing that Orophin would follow. How he remembered this place he could not say, for his mind had been clouded at the time. But his instincts were certain of his location, and he had trusted them too often in Lothlórien to begin doubting them now.
"Orophin?" he called, looking for signs of where his brother might have gone. "Orophin?"
There was no answer, and terror squeezed Haldir’s heart. The forest was completely still, the only movement coming from occasional ripples in the shadows below. But they, too, seemed strangely calm. Before, they had occasionally boiled up in violent turbulence, much like a summer storm would play havoc with a lake or pool. Yet now… Something had happened, and the will that drove these shadows was slowly dying away. The thought should have been comforting.
It was not.
It is almost as if the shadows have accomplished their goal, Haldir decided, watching them suspiciously. Now, they only serve to cloud our eyes and diminish our senses. I do not feel their influence in my mind. They no longer seek to control.
Shaking his head, Haldir grimaced and then turned back to the task of hunting Orophin. With the mists of darkness dormant, some of the fear for his brother was dying away. But danger still lurked and Orcs still prowled. Orophin should not be here alone, especially with night drawing close.
"Orophin!" Haldir tried again, moving higher into the branches. Whenever his brother felt the need for solitude, he sought the very tops of the trees. "Orophin!" Making his way toward the forest canopy, Haldir’s sharp eyes soon found signs that an elf had traveled on these precarious branches. The signs were subtle, to be certain—a bent limb here, a detached leaf there—but Haldir’s instincts were rarely wrong. Orophin had passed this way.
Encouraged by this, Haldir began the slow and tedious task of tracking his brother. He was extremely grateful for Orophin’s love of the treetops, for the thin branches, which bent easily underfoot, made him easier to follow. Had it been Rúmil—who seemed to seek water when he needed space to himself—the tracking would have been futile. As it was, trailing Orophin was a difficult but possible endeavor.
The sun was partially below the western horizon when Haldir’s sharp ears caught something. At first, he was unsure of what he had heard. Freezing for a moment, he waited in the hopes that he would catch the sound again. And his wait was rewarded as the noise came a second time. It was a soft sigh, barely distinguishable from the evening breeze that now ruffled through the leaves, but it was not part of the wind. The wind spoke of mountains and melting snow. The sigh spoke of mourning and a terrible sorrow.
"Orophin?" Haldir called out gently, hoping that his brother would answer him. "Orophin, are you here?"
For a moment, all was silent. Even the wind seemed to die away. And then the sigh came a third time, followed by a tentative voice weighted with such grief that Lothlórien’s chief marchwarden wondered how a heart so young could carry so much sadness. "Haldir?"
Latching onto the voice and using it to guide his direction, Haldir now hurried through the trees at pace that would have made more prudent minds flinch. Even elves might fear to travel so quickly upon branches so thin, but at the moment, Haldir cared not for such things. His objective was Orophin, and he was now only moments away from reaching his goal.
"Haldir, stay! Come no further."
Stopping in surprise, Haldir checked himself in exactly the wrong place, and the branch beneath him bent suddenly. Leaping back and giving a startled curse, Haldir dropped into lower parts of the trees were he might safer conduct a conversation. "Orophin, are you—"
"Haldir, I know not why you return, but if you come seeking vengeance against innocent blood, I will stop you. It is what Rúmil would have done."
The mention of Rúmil’s name stirred the anguish that Haldir had firmly suppressed, but also stirred was his fear for Orophin. His brother still thought him mad with grief and rage, which was quite understandable given the state in which Haldir had left him. Gathering his wits, Haldir cast about for what he might say in the way of an apology, but words seemed to be elusive at the moment. "Orophin…" Haldir grimaced and shook his head, shoving aside his own grief for the moment so that he might better reach his youngest—and only remaining—brother. Eventually deciding to start with rather obvious things, he said, "Orophin, would you show yourself? Please! I have no desire to converse with a voice that has no face."
"You have no desire?" A mirthless laugh that held nothing of Orophin’s patient, gentle nature drifted down. "And why should your desires be heeded? You accuse me of tainting our brother and—"
"Orophin!" Haldir interrupted, cursing himself for words spoken earlier in anger. "Orophin, I was wrong. You were right. You were more right than you will ever know. I should have followed Rúmil. I should not have let any wander alone with so many Orcs attacking. It was folly on my part! It was I who was tainted! I trusted in the strength of the elves when I should have trusted in the strength of alliance. But the darkness…it clouded my mind. I could not see!" Haldir sighed and rubbed his temples, guilt now coursing through his mind and making it difficult to concentrate. "Orophin, will you not come down? We must speak."
There was silence for several endless moments, and then a quiet sob could be heard. Descending slowly, Orophin emerged from his hiding place and pushed through the leaves that had sheltered him. Climbing down until he stood on the same branch as Haldir, he shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. His face was ashen, and he trembled as mortals did when they were cold. Haldir had never before seen his brother look so vulnerable. Feeling his heart break with shame, he quickly moved forward and wrapped Orophin in a fierce and protective embrace.
"You were not alone in your folly," Orophin whispered, squeezing his eyes shut and leaning against his brother. "And for that I must apologize. I was also working against alliance and kin. I said words to you, Haldir, that—"
"Nay, it is I that must apologize," Haldir interrupted quickly, tightening the embrace and hoping to impart some measure of comfort. "You needed understanding, and instead, I gave you hatred. I drove you away when—"
"Hush, Haldir!" Orophin broke in, the pleading in his voice tearing at every fiber of his brother’s soul. "Hush, I must say this. I did not mean to accuse you, and for that I am sorry. Rúmil’s…Rúmil’s passing was no more your fault than it was Gimli’s. I still know not why such a thing has happened, but I must trust that all will work out for the better. Ever have our days here been tinged with sorrow, but out of sorrow can spring joy."
"So Rúmil would often say," Haldir murmured. Of all the brothers, Rúmil had been the one to thirst most after vengeance in retaliation for what had happened to their father. His grief had been deepest, and for a time after their father’s death, Haldir had wondered if he might not lose Rúmil to the sea. But Rúmil had eventually overcome his despair, partly thanks to his belief that even as victory was never wholly without sorrow, defeat was never wholly without hope. And ever since, he would often say that joy could spring from sorrow. It had been one of his few philosophical tenets—Rúmil had neither the time nor the desire for the lengthy meditation and introspection that Orophin loved—and he had clung to this tenet as though his entire being depended upon it.
"If one follows Rúmil’s belief, then it is logical to conclude that from defeat can spring victory," Orophin continued, his voice quiet but filled with a sudden chill that made Haldir blink.
"Defeat has turned to victory in many of the old tales," Haldir said cautiously, stepping back slightly and studying his brother. A sudden change had come over Orophin, and Haldir wondered at it. What had grief done to him?
"Does your blood still pound for vengeance, my brother?"
"Not against the dwarf, nay," Haldir answered.
"And what of the Orcs?" Orophin shrugged off Haldir’s gentle hold and moved away, creating a distance between them. "Do you desire their lives in payment for what has been done?"
The fires of rage, carefully hidden beneath a blanket of concern, began to rise, and Haldir hastily thrust them back. Clear thinking were needed now, and it was becoming apparent that Orophin was not going to aid his brother in this. "Of what do you speak?" Haldir asked at length. "This is not like you, and I would know what you intend by this conversation. What do you hope to learn?"
"Do you know of King Thranduil’s desire to leave off following the trail and pursue the Orcs to their stronghold by other means?" Orophin asked, returning question for question.
"I do," Haldir said warily. "What of it?"
"King Thranduil wishes to find the Orcs by splitting the search party into several units and sending them out into likely areas where Orcs might congregate. He no longer wishes to follow the trail they left behind. Why cannot we act on this suggestion?"
"Alone?" Haldir asked, frowning.
"Two are not as easy to see as ten or twenty. And we are marchwardens, Haldir. Marchwardens of Lothlórien! We can slip past the spies of the enemy and come upon them through routes denied our brethren from Greenwood and Imladris. We can find guarded and hidden entrances that will escape their notice."
"And what if we fail?" Haldir challenged, his mind spinning as he tried to keep up with his brother’s unexpected turn in thinking. "What if we give away the elven host?"
"They are already revealed," Orophin returned coldly. "Rúmil died in that attack. Or do you not remember?"
Whatever had happened to Orophin after Haldir left, it had stripped him of his patience and his common sense. Staring in disbelief, Haldir could only shake his head and wonder at what his younger brother was suggesting. "Orophin, I—"
"Enough," Orophin interrupted. "I am going to search for the Orcs who took Rúmil. Whether or not you choose to follow is your decision, but I will not tarry here. Night is coming on, and I now count every second that passes."
Slightly stunned and more than a little afraid, Haldir could say nothing for a moment, and then he nodded slowly. "I will follow you, Orophin. We do this together or not at all."
A flash of something that reminded Haldir of the old Orophin flared briefly in the other’s face, but then it was gone and the cold creature that had taken his brother’s place returned. Nodding shortly, he turned away. "Come quickly, then," Orophin called over his shoulder. And without waiting for a response, he melted into the trees. Hastening to catch up, Haldir quickly followed. He did not know where they were going, and he did not know why. But one thing he did know, and that was this: The ache of losing Rúmil gnawed unceasingly at his heart; he was not about to lose Orophin, too.
After an hour’s worth of forced convalescence, Elladan felt much better. Considering his previous condition, this was not saying much. The oldest son of Elrond did not feel well in the slightest, nor did he feel capable of entering a battle or sortie of any kind. But he did feel better, so Elladan decided this was reason enough to take on an optimistic outlook. After all, any improvement should be met with joy. The situation was too desperate to disparage even the slightest amount of fortune that attended the weary searchers.
He was extremely grateful that Elrohir was not present. His brother would probably strongly disagree with Elladan’s appraisal of the situation. Elrohir was not inclined to favor optimism when another’s health was concerned. Not that Elladan blamed him for this. Had their positions been reversed, Elladan would have forced his twin to take at least several days in which to recover and rest rather than a single hour. But Elladan did not have several days, and fortunately for all involved, Thranduil had realized this. Either that or Thranduil possessed more concern for Legolas than he did for the son of Elrond. Which was understandable. And Thranduil was certainly neither callous nor unfeeling to those who labored with him. The king of Mirkwood had granted Elladan an hour’s reprieve, knowing full well that every passing second was a second in which Legolas and Merry remained in the hands of the enemy. Despite the shortness of the rest, it still remained that Thranduil had been surprisingly generous in even granting one, no matter how brief it had been.
But the hour was now spent, and it was time to move to other things. Slowly raising himself up from the wide branch upon which he’d forced himself into sleep, Elladan glanced around for any that might tell him where Thranduil could be found. To his surprise, he found no one in the immediate vicinity.
Confused and more than a little unnerved, Elladan blinked and scanned the trees once again. Ah yes, he suddenly remembered. Thranduil had intended to move the company away from the Orcs so that they would not be easy prey for another attack. He then frowned slightly and sighed. He might have told me where they would be moving.
To his credit, Elladan did not jump. He came very close to doing so, but he managed to restrain his surprise and lock it inside, giving no outward reaction. Lifting his head, his eyes narrowed and he eventually spied a Mirkwood archer in the limbs above him. "Well met, friend," he called.
The elf nodded his head and then dropped down so that they might more easily converse. "If you feel ready, my lord, then we have been instructed to be your guides and show you where the company now rests."
We? Elladan once again looked up, and this time he seemed to catch a hint of movement that might indicate the presence of other elves. But even his eyes could not discern their outlines. Mirkwood had survived because of the skills of its warriors, and they were almost unmatched in their ability to blend with their surroundings. "King Thranduil sent you, then?" Elladan asked, eventually giving up his attempts to count how many scouts ranged above him.
"I was sent, my lord," the archer answered. "My companions have stayed with you for the duration of your sleep. We did not think it prudent that you rest without guard."
"Ah." Elladan frowned slightly, trying to sort through his feelings on this revelation. It was gratifying to know that Thranduil had posted guards on him, but he did not take well to this assumption of authority on the king’s part. Elladan’s safety should have been overseen by warriors from Rivendell, not from Mirkwood. Still, there was nothing to do for it now, and in the long run, it really didn’t matter who did the guarding so long as everything turned out for the best. With a tired sigh, Elladan shook his mind free of petty political thoughts and turned back to the present situation. "Lead on, then, my friend. Doubtless your liege is anxious to continue the search."
"As are we, my lord," the other elf said, his voice laced with steel. "Our prince lies within this darkness, and we of Greenwood do not abandon our own."
To that there could be no safe response. Elladan had the distinct impression that this elf shared Thranduil’s opinion of delays, and further words would do nothing to improve the dark mood that had suddenly fallen. Returning insult for insult was a waste of time, and beyond that, Elladan didn’t think his mind was clear enough for a prolonged debate with a Silvan elf. Instead, he settled for a cool stare and a mask of elvish inscrutability. At length, the archer with whom he spoke made a motion with his hand, and soft noises came from above as other elves began moving.
"This way, my lord," the Mirkwood elf said shortly, turning away and setting out. "It is not far."
The ensuing journey was made in a rather tense silence. Once or twice, Elladan wondered if he should ask whether anything had taken place during the time he had rested, but in the end, he decided to keep the silence intact. It helped to order his own thoughts, and he would need them free of any mental cobwebs if he was to convince Thranduil to stay his separation plan for just a little longer. Elrohir, Aragorn, and the rest of the searchers would be joining them in another hour or so. If they could wait only for their arrival, they would be able to organize into larger and safer search teams.
After traveling for some time, Elladan’s sharp ears began to catch murmurs of voices around him, and he soon saw a few of the elves from Rivendell as well as some of the Galadhrim and others from Mirkwood. The elf guiding him stopped at one point and spoke quietly, asking after Thranduil’s whereabouts. Then they were moving again, steadily working their way southward until Elladan heard the voice of a dwarf and two hobbits.
"My king awaits you just ahead," Elladan’s guide said, stopping and making a rather shallow bow. "By your leave, I must now depart and rejoin my own patrol."
Elladan nodded. "My thanks for your guidance," he said, turning his head away and looking south. The other elf left him rather quickly, but Elladan decided to ignore the slight and concentrate on more puzzling things. He could clearly hear the voices of Gimli, Pippin, and Sam. Surely Thranduil was not holding council with them. For most of the search, Thranduil had done his best to stay away from all three, interacting with them only when necessary. Had that now changed? And if so, why?
Confused, nervous, and wondering if his knowledge of healing would be required for a certain dwarf in the immediate future, Elladan advanced with absolutely no idea of what to expect. It was an extremely unnerving prospect for the son of Elrond as his instincts usually gave him an indication of what lay around the next corner. Very few things had ever taken him completely by surprise, and even if he did not fully understand a situation, he was usually able to obtain enough of a working knowledge through intuition and perception that explanations came easily.
At length, gaps in the branches revealed Pippin, Sam, and Gimli having something that might be called a conversation, for lack of a better word. Pippin and Sam seemed to be doing most of the talking while Gimli was making a valiant attempt at feigning interest, but it was clear that his mind was not upon the subject matter. Above the three were elven archers, all wearing the colors of Mirkwood, and off to one side, partially hidden by the lengthening shadows as the sun dipped toward the horizon, Thranduil stood watching the threesome as they conversed below his position.
Elladan had seen many strange things in his lifetime. He had been raised in a home protected by the mightiest of the Elven Rings. He had ridden with the Rangers and acted as an emissary for his father in many realms for many years. He had traveled the lands on both sides of the Misty Mountains extensively. He had stood before the Black Gate of Mordor and witnessed the coming of the eagles even as the might of Sauron was struck down from within. He had walked with the dead and traveled their road behind the man he had come to look upon as a brother. Yet despite all these wonders and all these marvels, Elladan decided that the sight before him now ranked as one of the most unusual. Never did he think to see the day when Thranduil would stand guard with his own personal archers above a dwarf.
Sensing his gaze, Thranduil looked up and nodded curtly, his expression suspiciously casual as though this were the most natural thing in the world. "I had wondered if you would need to be roused," the king of Mirkwood said by way of a greeting.
"I was not so tired that I could not rouse myself," Elladan answered, feeling a flicker of irritation.
"Your appearance did not inspire confidence."
Elladan pursed his lips and wondered if that had been meant as an insult or if Thranduil’s customary bluntness was rubbing him the wrong way this evening. Given his current state of mind, the latter was certainly a credible explanation. Deciding that becoming offended required too much effort, Elladan pushed his annoyance aside. "Be that as it may, I am here now," he said. "Has aught happened in my absence?"
"Naught of note," Thranduil replied. "As you have no doubt observed, we moved the company further south. I have also sent elves back toward the original trail so that they might meet those coming to find us. We did not leave a path in the trees, for we are too close to the enemy’s base for that."
"There are Orcs about, then?" Elladan asked, frowning slightly.
"There are Orcs about, but they are not close. Scouts have reported small patrols roaming the forests, but they are not searching for us. Not yet. It is strange," Thranduil said with a shake of his head. "These Orcs do not behave as they have been wont to do in the past. I like I not."
The evening was apparently destined for many wonders, as that was the closest Elladan had ever come to hearing Thranduil admit to uncertainty or unease. Nor had the king broached the subject of splitting into smaller search units. It was almost as though he was waiting for something. Perhaps anxiety and fear were breeding caution within Oropher’s usually bold son. If so, it was a singular event, and Elladan was not entirely sure that this was a turn for the better. Caution was good, but the time for caution was dwindling. Even Elladan was feeling a growing need for swift action.
Deciding to take the initiative in this matter, Elladan braced himself for an argument and elected for the direct approach. Elrohir always said the direct approach was better anyway. If this didn’t work, he could blame his twin for faulty advice. "Do you still desire to split the company and begin smaller searches?"
A thin smile curved Thranduil’s lips and he laughed quietly. "It is unlike you to be impatient, Elladan. That is more your brother’s domain, is it not?"
Elladan frowned and his eyes narrowed. "It is unlike you, King Thranduil, to deflect a question. From my observations, you usually answer questions directly. Why this change?"
Thranduil studied Elladan for a long moment and then turned his gaze toward the dwarf and the hobbits, who remained ignorant of their conversation. "You know more of our guests than I. How is it that they resist the shadows upon the ground?"
Wonder upon wonder, Elladan thought, struggling to hide his surprise. I have lived to see the day when Thranduil asked for information about a dwarf that was not couched in words of derision. "Perhaps you would know more of this than I," he said in answer to the question. "You seemed to guess something from my report of Lord Celeborn’s warnings. Know you aught else of this darkness? For as you told me, secrets can be dangerous."
A warning flash in Thranduil’s eyes told Elladan that secrets were not the only dangerous things about, but the son of Elrond was brimming with curiosity and would not be dissuaded. Thranduil seemed possessed of strange thoughts this evening, and Elladan longed to know what had happened to begin this unusual course. Never before had he seen the king of Mirkwood so reflective.
"I cannot speak for Celeborn in this," Thranduil said at length. "His suspicions are his own. As for this darkness…" Thranduil turned his gaze downward and was silent for a moment. "It is an agent of seduction," he eventually said. "It seeks out desires and twists them. Weaknesses, also, become its prey. A small chink in the armor of the mind is all that is necessary." The king of Mirkwood looked up again, his gray eyes fastening themselves on Elladan. "But you were the one following the trail hidden by these shadows. Surely you should be sharing this information with me."
"What need is there to share when we both understand what we face?" Elladan asked. "And as for your earlier question, hobbits are strangely resilient. Bilbo kept the One Ring for years with no hint of evil or turning until the end. Frodo carried it into the poisoned wastelands of Mordor itself where its power reached its highest potency."
"And the dwarf?" Thranduil prompted, his eyes narrowing.
"Single-mindedness is the only explanation I can offer," Elladan said with a slight shrug. "He is completely bent on finding your son. There is no room for anything else. And from what I have observed, the darkness has not left him entirely unscathed. His impatience has become more pronounced, and he has little tolerance for any who do not keep up with him."
Thranduil frowned and shook his head, his gaze turning back to the ground. "The darkness has become very quiet," he murmured after a while. "I do not like this change. I fear what it may forebode. We should delay our search until we are joined by reinforcements. At that point, we should turn directly south as you and the dwarf have advised."
Elladan felt that surprise and shock could go no further. He had never met Oropher—the late king of Mirkwood having died over a century before the twins’ birth—but he had heard many tales and had been assured that Thranduil had inherited many of his father’s traits. Impatience was one of them. Intolerance was another. If a blow was to be struck, then Thranduil was among the first to strike. If any advised otherwise, diplomacy was among the last recourses for use. But now Thranduil was counseling delay as well as hearkening to the advice of a younger being and a dwarf. Perhaps I did not receive enough rest, Elladan thought. It appears that I am becoming delusional.
His confusion apparently showed upon his face, for Thranduil’s eyes twinkled and he offered a slight smile. "Peace, son of Elrond," he said. "I am not as fool-hardy as some of the Wise may have led you to believe. My fear for my son burns brightly, but I will not turn our search into a vain endeavor. Too often have we underestimated the enemy in the past. We will not do so now."
Elladan shook his head, still wheeling in disbelief, and sighed. "I fear that apologies are in order, then," he said.
"Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not," Thranduil answered. "Had the darkness remained as it was and had I not witnessed its effects on Haldir, my counsel would now be different."
"What of Haldir?" Elladan asked, his brow furrowing.
"Rúmil was killed in the attack, and Haldir did not take it well, blaming it upon the dwarf. He sought vengeance," Thranduil said quietly, watching Elladan closely as though to gauge his reaction to this news. "I sent him back to Rivendell with his other brother as a precaution."
"Elbereth," Elladan groaned. "Haldir is too high in authority among the Galadhrim for this. Where he leads, many follow."
"Few were following him when he made known his thoughts to me, if that comforts you," Thranduil offered. "And given his state of mind, I doubt that he could create convincing arguments for attacking the dwarf. You have little to fear from him."
"That is well," Elladan murmured. "And now that our role is reduced to one of waiting, I think I shall seek out my own scouts. Do you wish to relinquish the task of guarding those upon the ground?"
"My guards are already in place," Thranduil answered, doing his utmost best to sound as though it did not matter to him. "To change now would be a waste of resources."
"I see," Elladan said slowly, deciding that he was indeed becoming delusional. "Then I bid you farewell for the present. I will look for you when our friends arrive from Rivendell."
"Until then," Thranduil answered, turning his gaze back to the hobbits and the dwarf upon the ground.
Perhaps I am not the only delusional one, Elladan mused as he left to find his own forces.
His first sensation in returning to the conscious world was of a searing pain that attacked his mouth and throat. His next sensation was nausea. His stomach felt as though he had just taken a trip down the Brandywine River in a barrel during the early spring when it flooded its banks. Beyond that, a sickening stench was now assailing his sense of smell. His first instinct was to recoil sharply, but he was strangely devoid of energy. He could not seem to move. Coherent thought, also, was a struggle, and he felt as though his mind labored upward with a dragging weight that sapped his strength and took the very idea of exhaustion to new heights.
Swallowing painfully and licking his lips to moisten them, Meriadoc Brandybuck whimpered as this slight movement sent waves of pain surging through his head. His gut clenched and rolled within him like a thing possessed. Vivid images flashed through his mind in a whirling kaleidoscope of colors and impressions. The pictures shown within these images were familiar, but they flew by too quickly for the hobbit to recognize them. Yet he knew he had seen this before. He could not say where and he could not say when, but there was a horrifying familiarity about everything he witnessed that frightened Merry.
With a choking groan that turned into a broken sob, Merry struggled to open his eyes, desperate to find a measure of sanity in his tortured world. The images continued to flash before his thoughts, and along with them now came a soft voice. It was a voice that had spoken before, but it had been distant and muffled then. It had been recognized as an outside influence and dismissed, or so the hobbit believed. But now it was different and could not so easily be ignored. It had become clear and commanding, almost as though it was an extension of Merry’s will. Yet at one point, he was sure that this had been a foreign voice. An intruding presence. Hadn’t it?
Confused and feeling as though answers were becoming even more elusive, Merry called upon a sudden well of hidden strength and willed his stubborn eyes open. The first sight to greet him was a pool of black sludge that had collected beneath his mouth. He could taste the remnants of it upon his lips, and he realized with a shock that he had expelled this sluggish liquid from his stomach. But he could not remember drinking it. And yet…
More images began to assail him, and Merry turned his head to the side in lieu of shaking it. He hoped that a sight other than the stinking slime would ground him, but he quickly discovered that he could not be more wrong.
His eyes came to rest upon Legolas, who lay unmoving beside him. For a brief second, the elf appeared to sleep. Yet his sleep was anything but peaceful, and it seemed from his restless movements that he struggled with fell dreams. And then something within the hobbit’s mind…shifted. It was as though a cold fist seized his mind and turned it, forcing him to see a different image. Before his eyes, Legolas changed. His skin became ashen, and his face twisted with terrible agony. His eyes blinked open wearily, and he looked to Merry, his lips parting slightly as though he sought to speak. But before he could say aught, a tremor of pain ripped through his body and his head jerked back as he cried out. The elven voice that had blessed the Fellowship with song and comfort during the lonely hours of the evening was twisted into a croaking scream that sounded more akin to the grunts of the Orcs than to the fair notes of the Eldar.
"Legolas!" Merry cried out, wishing for the strength to steady his friend but lacking even the energy to raise his head away from the foul stink that had collected beneath him.
You failed him! Help might have arrived had you possessed the courage to find assistance!
Merry froze, remembering the incident in the tunnels. Legolas had begged him to leave and escape. But he had refused to leave the elf’s side. Had he truly brought Legolas to this point? Was he responsible?
The elf’s head slumped forward, and he coughed violently as shudders wracked his body. Blood now speckled his tunic, and more edged the corners of his mouth. His gray eyes, dark with pain and torment, locked onto the hobbit, and a flash of anger surged in their lifeless depths.
"Legolas, I didn’t know!" Merry cried, wincing as another round of convulsions shook his friend. "I didn’t want to leave you here."
You betrayed him! He dies because of you.
"No!" Merry screamed, squeezing his eyes shut. But the voice, louder than ever, could not be silenced. It had become a part of his being, and the words it spoke wound their way around the hobbit’s soul, tightening the grip of darkness that had crept over his mind.
The hobbit’s name, gasped as though wrung from the breath of the dying, arrested Merry’s attention as nothing else in Arda might have. His eyes snapped open and he turned to Legolas, suddenly finding the strength to rise. Pushing himself off the floor, he tentatively moved toward his cellmate. "Legolas, I’m sorry," he whispered, tears filling his eyes. He reached out to place a hand upon the elf’s shoulder, but Legolas recoiled sharply, hissing in pain at the slight touch. "What has happened?" Merry cried. "What have they done?"
"Poison," Legolas murmured as the convulsions began anew.
"Poison?" Merry echoed, his horror growing exponentially. "But why? Why would they do this?"
"Only needed one prisoner," the elf murmured breathlessly. "Too hard to control me. Had you left…had you left then I—" Legolas’s words were broken off as he arched under another wave of pain and torment. The grinding sound of his teeth as his jaw clamped shut sent Merry’s rapidly fraying sanity teetering to the brink of a dark abyss.
"Had I left, they would have needed you," Merry finished, tears now falling freely. "They wouldn’t have done this. Legolas, I—"
The hobbit blinked, his mind arrested in mid-thought. "What?"
"End it. Kill me."
Everything went horribly and dreadfully silent. Merry’s world shattered as he stared at the form of the broken elf. It was as though he saw Legolas through the fractured shards of crystal while all of reality twisted into a distorted nightmare. "No," he whispered, backing away. "No, I can’t."
"As my friend, I ask you to—"
"Legolas, please! Please, you don’t know what you’re saying! There has to be another way! There must be—"
"Help me, Merry. Help me. Free me."
And in that moment, the images that had been parading through the hobbit’s mind at speeds too fast to comprehend suddenly revealed themselves in shocking and horrifying clarity. He saw Legolas beaten. Broken. Crippled for life. Forced to endure the ravages of a poison that worked slowly and painfully. And in all these images, he saw Legolas pleading for it to end. He saw him begging for his misery to be stopped by the hand of a trusted friend. But each time the elf pleaded for mercy, Merry refused. And so Legolas grew steadily worse until even his restless sleep was interrupted by screams of pain.
It was you who prolonged his misery! You brought it upon him, and then you let him wallow in it. He has no escape save through you, but you lack the courage to help him!
"I can’t, Legolas," Merry whispered, feeling as though his spirit was rent in twain. "I—"
The whispered plea tore through Merry’s mind, and as he hesitated with indecision, Legolas cried out again, his arms encircling his chest and blood spilling from his mouth. His lungs heaved and his breath rasped while tremors worked their way up and down his prone form. Merry started forward as though to offer comfort, but as before, when his hand touched Legolas’s shoulder, the elf stiffened in sudden pain. But this time, the pain did not end with the elf flinching away. Instead, Merry’s hand touched off a chain reaction that escalated into violent convulsions, eventually topped by a shrill cry that was somewhere between a scream and a roar. The power of this cry slammed into Merry with all the force of a Balrog’s whip, and he found himself gasping for breath while his vision darkened. It was too much for the hobbit, and as the world spiraled into chaos, he could endure no more. He dared not think about what his next actions would bring, but he knew that he could not hear such a noise again. Not from Legolas. It would destroy him.
"How?" Merry asked, feeling something crack deep within his soul as he uttered the single word.
"Left gauntlet. Knife," Legolas murmured, his eyes shutting tightly as his head jerked back against the onslaught of additional pain.
Merry moved as though numb. The shadows of his mind were too heavy now to fully understand what he was doing. He only knew that he was answering the dying wishes of a friend who deserved better than this. He deserved to live, but Merry had already denied him that. This was the only way to make recompense. This was the only way to make things right. Yet at the same time, this was all so very wrong…
Choking back the gasping sobs that were making him short of breath, Merry unlaced Legolas’s left gauntlet and found a small dagger hidden underneath the tough leather. Had the hobbit been in his right mind, he would have immediately questioned how such a thing had come to be there. Surely the Orcs would have found it and removed it. Even had they not, Legolas would have used it before now. But Merry was not in his right mind, and such considerations did not occur to him. He was currently so far removed from himself that it was a wonder he entertained any thoughts at all.
Picking the knife up, the small blade gleamed a dull red in the torchlight, and Merry looked away, unable to bare its sight. "Legolas, I—"
"Give it to me," the elf rasped, turning his head as another round of coughs shook him.
Merry slowly extended the weapon, and Legolas’s trembling hands reached up to take it. But he lacked the strength to hold it and he sobbed with despair, his pale hand lying atop Merry’s shaking wrists. The sob quickly turned into a choking gasp as blood welled up from his lungs, and Legolas closed his eyes as yet another scream was torn from him. And as this second terrible cry rent the air, the shadows within the hobbit gained enough of a hold to command his actions.
His mind spinning in horror at Legolas’s torment, Merry’s body moved against his will. Seizing the elf’s shoulder with one hand, he surged forward and plunged the knife deep into quivering flesh. He felt the movement of elven muscles shake the haft of the dagger, and then he felt the motion of the heart ripple through to his fingers as the blade sank to the hilt.
The scream abruptly stopped and Legolas’s eyes flew open in shock. His mouth moved as though to speak, but no words came forth. Time slowed to a crawl, and then the elf went limp. All motion ceased and his vacant eyes darkened as the light of life fled. Warm blood spilled onto Merry’s hands and the hobbit leaped back, his movements jerky and uncontrolled.
"Legolas!" Merry screamed.
"No!" the hobbit cried out as darkness overwhelmed him, blotting out hope and memory as its control became complete.
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.