24. Answers and Tempers
Celeborn had hunted with many warriors and fought in many armies during the course of his long and periodically tumultuous life. But as he surveyed those who now journeyed beside him, he decided that he had never before traveled with a group quite like this. Upon the ground, wading through a suspiciously calm sea of shadows, walked the men of Gondor. Above them were elves of both Rivendell and Lothlórien. Even more elves traveled parallel to the group, spread far and wide in an effort to locate Haldir, who had not been seen since Ithildae had escorted him to his room. And as for Ithildae himself, the archer had taken the few Mirkwood elves in the group and departed in order to conduct his own search for the missing marchwarden. Celeborn had not heard from them since, which came as no surprise, but it would have been nice to know that his kindred from the north were still safe. All in all, it was a very disparate, very divided, very wary, and very weary group.
Some of us should not even be able to stand upright, much less go forth to battle, Celeborn mused grimly, his eyes straying to Aragorn. Elrohir was upon the ground with his foster brother and was doing his best to aid him, but it was clear to all who knew the man well that the king was faltering. He was simply not ready to return to this hunt. He needed more rest. Alas, there is no time for rest, Celeborn sighed. Not for us and especially not for those we seek to rescue. Time is nearly spent if it is not spent already.
The woods were growing dark as the last of the sun’s light disappeared behind the western horizon. The lengthening shadows mirrored the doubts and uncertainties growing in Celeborn’s heart, and he shook his head, one hand tightening around the sword he had girded about his waist. Lothlórien’s lord had a fairly good idea of what to expect should they ever succeed in freeing Legolas and Merry, and thanks to Rose Cotton Gamgee, he also had an inkling of how to help the prisoners recover from this experience. But he could not be sure of himself. He had never witnessed this first-hand. He had Elrond’s account of what Elendil had revealed, and even that was based on a great deal of conjecture and assumption. Still, what else could be done at this point? No other explanation fit the situation as closely as did his current theory. And until he could find a better, he would stand by his thoughts and suppositions, uncertain though they might be.
Celeborn stopped and looked up as one of the Galadhrim scouts leaped down before him, landing neatly on a narrow branch and executing a quick bow. "Report," Celeborn ordered quietly.
"We have found no sign of Haldir or Orophin, my lord," the elf answered, his voice filled with frustration and concern. "Both have hidden their tracks well. We can only say with certainty that Haldir left Rivendell and journeyed south. Any more than that is speculation."
Celeborn cursed quietly. Haldir was an unexpected problem, and one that they could not afford to deal with at the moment. There were too many other things to consider, but Haldir could well prove to be a wild arrow, shot in the dark with no thought for aim. Who knew what he might hit were he not stopped in time? If his desire for vengeance led him to Gimli and a fight ensued, the consequences were grave. They were divided enough already. They did not need cause for further separation. "Continue the search," Celeborn instructed. "Haldir is to be taken to Rivendell the moment he is found." He paused, thinking about his next words, and then sighed. "Take him unharmed if possible, but if you must subdue him in order to take him, you have my leave to use force."
A wide range of emotions flickered across the scout’s face, but he bowed quickly and nodded. "As you say, my lord. I shall pass these commands to the other scouts." And then the elf left, disappearing into the darkening forest as quickly and quietly as he had come.
"Think you that such an order was prudent?" questioned a voice from below.
"Would you rather invite further sundering between elves and dwarves?" Celeborn returned, glancing down at his grandson. "Unity is crucial. We cannot afford to be further sundered. To this end, the use of force against an errant marchwarden seems a small price to pay."
"Gimli should be safe enough," Aragorn reasoned, his weary voice joining the conversation. "Ere we left them this morning, Elladan assured me that he would see to Gimli’s well being. At the time, we were most concerned with King Thranduil’s actions, yet the promise holds, regardless of the threat."
"But Elladan knows where Thranduil is," Celeborn answered. "He does not know where Haldir is, and he does not know that Haldir might be a danger. It is difficult to guard against an unexpected attack from an unexpected source."
"Elladan might be unaware of this peril, but Thranduil is not," Aragorn said. "If Haldir does return to the searchers, there are a few that will know of his true designs. It would not be completely unexpected."
"Even so, let us hope that we find Haldir ere anyone else does," Celeborn sighed. "And Orophin, as well. I fear to speculate as to his current state of mind, but if it is anything like his brother’s, then there is cause for fear."
"Arwen was dispatching many scouts as we left," Elrohir said. "Perhaps they shall find the missing brothers."
"Believe you that they shall have more luck than we?" Celeborn challenged. "Your Rivendell searchers are looking for experienced Galadhrim marchwardens in a dark forest. What hope of success have they?"
"Though our ways are different, my people are skilled in tracking," Elrohir said sharply.
"I intended no disrespect, Elrohir," Celeborn said, startled by this sudden indignation. "But it is no secret that even my own people have difficulty tracking one another in the woods. Your scouts are unused to our ways and our paths. They have a severe disadvantage."
Elrohir was quiet for a moment and then he sighed. "My apologies, Lord Celeborn. And you are right. Finding Haldir and Orophin will be a difficult task, if not an impossible one."
"There is always hope," Aragorn murmured quietly, but his voice indicated he did not quite believe himself.
After these words, they continued on in brooding silence, each lost in his own dark thoughts. For Celeborn, dark thoughts included several different venues of mental tracks. And while he was certainly not unaccustomed to multiple evils—life with Dol Guldur just across the Anduin had a tendency to give one experience in these matters—he was not accustomed to having evil strike the very heart of his forces. Haldir was a trusted and ranking marchwarden. He was a gifted warrior with the patience to wait out the enemy and the boldness to strike when a strike was needed. Orophin, also, was an extremely talented scout with an uncanny ability for finding and examining each and every clue or fragment left behind by his opponents. But now Haldir seemed to have turned against them all, and Orophin was still missing. When this problem was added to the uncertainty that Celeborn already felt regarding Legolas and Merry, it was easy to see why the lord of Lothlórien was troubled.
But just as experience had gifted Celeborn with many opportunities for fear and doubt, experience had also blessed him with the means to handle such situations. He could do nothing about Haldir and Orophin until one or both were found. Worrying about them did not help his scouts in the search, and so he pushed the matter to the back of his mind. The issue of freeing Legolas and Merry was also something he could not directly control at the moment. The layout of the enemy’s forces and the design of their stronghold would determine the method of their release. Thus, Celeborn pushed it to the back of his mind as well. However, he could not ignore the nagging doubts surrounding what to do with Legolas and Merry once they were liberated. That was something over which he had quite a bit of control, and it was also the area about which he had his greatest doubts. There were only two documented cases of men treated for the conditioning that he suspected Merry and Legolas had endured. One of those had been reasonably successful, and the other had ended in suicide. There did not seem to be any accounts of an elf being treated, and there were certainly no records for hobbits, which meant that Celeborn was essentially stumbling around in the dark in his attempt to formulate a method for healing the prisoners.
Slight movement ahead of their position suddenly arrested Celeborn’s attention, and he frowned, stopping so as to better examine his surroundings. After a moment or two, he smiled slightly and nodded. "Hail, warriors of Greenwood," he called.
Moving with complete silence, an elf clad in the green and brown colors of Thranduil’s realm stepped forward, separating himself from the growing darkness of the night. Sketching a quick bow, he straightened and spoke. "Lord Celeborn, Lord Elrohir, and King Elessar, by your leave I have been sent to guide you to the others. We moved further south several hours ago and left no trail so that our movements might go unnoticed."
"Our thanks," Elrohir said. "How many of you have been sent as escort?"
"Ten, my lord," the elf answered quickly. "Shall we lead the way?"
"I fear that not all of us are able to come at this time," Celeborn said. "We have scouting units spread abroad. They must be brought back so that they may follow, for they do not know where to go after this point."
"Then, my lords, I shall divide my company. Those wishing to wait for the scouts may tarry here. Others we shall lead forward, for my liege bids you make all possible speed."
I am certain that he does, Celeborn sighed. This search had dragged on long enough to severely try Thranduil’s limited patience, and the lord of Lothlórien was slightly surprised that his kinsman from Mirkwood had not already struck out on his own. "It is well," Celeborn answered aloud. "We shall leave captains here while the rest follow so that counsel may be taken." He sent a glance downward to Aragorn and Elrohir, clearly indicating that he wished them to be in the group that would follow.
"A moment, ere we begin," Elrohir interrupted. "Have any come before us from Rivendell? Perhaps some of the Galadhrim?"
The elf from Greenwood frowned. "We have seen none, my lord, save your own scouts, and those we saw were of Imladris. Have any gone astray?"
"We shall know soon enough," Celeborn said quietly. "Come. The night draws on and there is much to be done. Elrohir, choose some from among your own scouts to remain. The rest of us shall follow as quickly as we are able."
Arrangements were made swiftly, and then those not waiting for the search parties to return hurried after the elves from Greenwood. Their direction was almost due south, and it veered sharply away from the path they had been following earlier. The snatches of ground that Celeborn could see beneath the shifting mists showed that this area was rocky, possibly allowing for the existence of caves. Having lived the early years of his life in Menegroth, Celeborn was fairly knowledgeable about caverns and what was needed for the existence of underground chambers. They were now entering lands that could easily hold vast networks of tunnels, and such a place would be to the liking of Orcs as well as the dark master that they served. Thranduil and the other elves old enough to remember Doriath would know this as well, and doubtless Gimli could also sense the changing of the land. It would make their desire for haste even greater, and Celeborn wondered if he would be able to hold them back long enough to explain what he knew of the situation and the danger they faced. Time was crucial, but so was knowledge. And they needed to be informed.
Minutes dragged on, and Celeborn began to wonder just how far away from the trail the group had strayed. They had found country capable of supporting caves, but were they now too far from the trail to make an educated guess as to where the opening for an Orc stronghold might be? With a frustrated shake of his head, Celeborn cursed quietly and debated about throttling his kinsman. This was undoubtedly Thranduil’s doing. Move as close to the goal as possible to avoid detection, change direction, circle around, come in from behind, and hope that the goal hadn’t moved in the meantime. Those were Thranduil’s patented offensive tactics. To his credit, they had been reasonably successful in defending Mirkwood. Outnumbered and shorn of the protection that had defended Rivendell and Lothlórien, this strategy had been Thranduil’s only real option for keeping a dwindling military alive and fit enough to repel the continual attacks launched at his realm. But there were times when these tactics failed, and Celeborn wondered if this might not prove to be another example of that. They had a clear trail to follow, but Thranduil had moved them away from it in an effort to escape patrols. Prudence was well and good, but it may have been taken too far.
Eventually, Celeborn began to hear soft whispers in the trees around him and to catch glimpses of other elves. Murmurs from Aragorn’s men indicated that they also sensed the change, and the guides from Greenwood stopped, turning to face Celeborn, Elrohir, and Aragorn.
"My lords, we have arrived. My own liege bids you meet with him and also with Lord Elladan. If you will come, my companions shall see that those forces upon the ground are protected by our archers."
"I thank you for the offer, but know that my men are quite capable of seeing to their own safety," Aragorn answered coolly, his dark gray eyes coming to rest upon the Mirkwood elf and challenging him to deny the fact that his words had been a slight.
"It has been our experience that those confined to the ground do not fare as well as those with freedom to move about in the trees, my lord," the elf answered, his eyes hardening.
Deciding that this could go on all night, Celeborn dropped to the ground beside the king of Gondor and laid a hand to the man’s shoulder. "Lead us to King Thranduil," he ordered the scout while sending a stern look in the direction of both Aragorn and Elrohir. "We have tarried here long enough."
An awkward pause filled the forest, and then the elf nodded curtly. "This way, my lords," he murmured, turning and moving off. After indicating to his forces that they should remain where they were, Celeborn followed.
"What cause had you to interfere?" Aragorn hissed angrily. "My honor—"
"Your honor had naught to do with what was said," Celeborn shot back, calling to mind Elrohir’s earlier indignation. "It is this darkness that causes such misunderstandings, and it is affecting us all. Our perceptions are twisting to fuel our misgivings and our anger. Watch your tongues and your tempers, both of you. Because you have spent so much time in it, this shadow has a greater hold on your minds."
"I must agree with Estel, Lord Celeborn," Elrohir said, his voice sharp. "That elf had no right to—"
"Have you listened to nothing I have said?" Celeborn demanded. "Your minds and your hearts are being turned against your allies. That elf is no less affected than you. Pay it no heed! Now come. I have much to explain to all of you ere we take the next step."
Saying this, Celeborn strode ahead of the younger beings, praying to any Vala listening that they would cease their talk and follow silently. He could feel his patience slipping, and the darkness through which he waded did not help. It was still and dormant, but it was yet a shadow on his thoughts and a disturbance. He could only imagine what it had been like to repel it repeatedly as Elladan and Aragorn had done. It was no wonder the king of Gondor had returned to Imladris looking as though he just had walked out of a Barrow.
After a few minutes of walking—in which Elrohir and Aragorn were blissfully quiet, though Celeborn could feel the weight of their combined glares upon his back—they arrived at a small clearing and found two hobbits, a dwarf, and the eldest of Elrond’s twin sons.
"Lord Celeborn!" Elladan exclaimed, straightening immediately and pushing off of the tree against which he had been leaning. "I had not expected you to come."
"Nor I," a voice called as Thranduil dropped out of the trees, landing so close to Celeborn that the lord of Lothlórien almost flinched. "Your presence is unlooked for," Thranduil continued, pinning his kinsman with a shrewd glance that carried traces of a veiled warning. "I trust that this heralds news of some import."
"Your senses are as sharp as ever," Celeborn answered, wondering if his temper was up to surviving an encounter with Thranduil.
"Aragorn, do you feel well enough to be here?" a dwarven voice asked.
"I might ask the same of you," Aragorn replied sharply. "Your face betrays grief, Gimli. Have you a firm handle on your emotions?"
Things were definitely not off to a good start, and questioning the fitness of others was going to lead them nowhere. Celeborn had serious doubts about both Aragorn and Gimli. Moreover, he was not exactly confident that Thranduil and Elladan were nearly as hale as they were pretending to be. But when working with a group of minds as stubborn as these, Celeborn knew where to push and where to let well enough alone. It had been something he had learned from his years of working with the White Council, and it served him now as they huddled together in the mists of shadows. "Peace, all of you," he said, inserting enough authority into his voice to ensure that they listened but speaking quietly enough to escape the possibility of causing offense. "Thranduil, before anything else is said, I must ask if you have heard any tidings of Haldir or Orophin."
Thranduil’s only indication of surprise was an elegantly arching eyebrow, something that immediately reminded Celeborn of Oropher. And of Legolas as well, now that I think of it. "After sending him to Rivendell, I heard no more of him," the king answered, gray eyes narrowing slightly. "What prompts your question?"
Celeborn risked a quick glance at Gimli, noting with a flicker of amusement that Sam and Pippin were flanking the dwarf as though preparing to support him in the event of an attack. "He came to Rivendell, but he did not stay there. And he still does not accept that Rúmil’s death was the fault of the Orcs."
"You allowed him to leave Rivendell?" Thranduil asked, his voice carrying an undertone of complete disbelief.
"We allowed him to leave in much the same way that you allowed Sméagol to leave your care in Mirkwood," Celeborn found himself answering before he could stop his tongue.
Thranduil froze, and for one interminable moment, all of Arda seemed to hold its breath. Thousands of years ago, Celeborn had once watched Oropher give a similar reaction to the news that the dwarves had murdered Thingol. After the pause had come an explosion of temper the likes of which could easily put to shame the greatest eruptions of Orodruin. Celeborn briefly wondered if he would even be given enough time to blink when Thranduil attacked.
Fortunately, no attack took place because Elrohir chose that moment to step between the two older elves. It was certainly not the wisest thing he had ever done, but it was probably one of the bravest and Celeborn made a mental note to both compliment and reprimand his grandson about it later. "My lord, what was Haldir’s state of mind when you decided to send him back to Rivendell?" Elrohir asked, his eyes hard but his voice respectful. "Would he truly have acted on his desires for vengeance?"
Thranduil’s eyes reminded Celeborn of a black storm he had once seen building upon the sea, and he discovered that his hand was curling around the hilt of his sword. Forcing himself to release the blade, the lord of Lothlórien reached out and pulled Elrohir back, stepping forward as he did so and taking the full brunt of Thranduil’s dark glare. For a moment they were locked thus, and though he had spent many years at Galadriel’s side while she used Nenya to hold the forces of Dol Guldur at bay, Celeborn found himself slightly amazed at the power that Thranduil seemed to project. It was a power completely devoid of Nenya’s finesse and lacking Galadriel’s touch of elegance, but it was a potent power nonetheless that seemed rooted in the earth itself and buttressed by the strength of the mountains. This power crashed into Celeborn, and though he did not shrink from it, the lord of Lothlórien did marvel at what his younger kinsman had developed over the long years of defending northern Mirkwood. But his admiration was short-lived, for time pressed upon them and confrontations such as these could not be tolerated. Moreover, Celeborn was not without power himself. Withstanding Thranduil’s silent attack, he loosed his own anger at the elven king, holding back slightly but making it clear that his authority was not to be contested. After a moment, Thranduil blinked, shook his head, and then stepped back. Whatever force he had been employing abruptly vanished, and Celeborn nearly stumbled forward, so intent was he on their silent battle. He managed to keep his balance, but the disorientation was great and the shadows about his feet seemed to be surging and roiling as though disturbed.
Elladan’s tentative voice broke through the silence, and though Elrond’s oldest son had whispered, his words were amplified by the tension that had descended. Still attempting to recover, Celeborn watched in confusion as Thranduil took a deep breath and then stepped back yet again. The movement was almost akin to a retreat, and Celeborn found himself reeling in shock.
"King Thranduil, are you—"
Thranduil shook his head sharply, his eyes seeking out Elrohir and silencing the question before it could be finished. "You asked concerning Haldir’s state of mind?" Elrohir nodded silently, apparently not trusting his voice. "I cannot speak for him at the present time," Thranduil continued, "but when last we parted, he was not well. Had I not stopped him, then Haldir would have killed the dwarf."
There were a number of reactions to this announcement, and Celeborn felt his head spinning as he attempted to analyze each one. It did not help that he was still dazed by Thranduil’s apparent retreat. But one thing was certain and that was this: Gimli, Pippin, and Sam had not been told that Haldir blamed Gimli for Rúmil’s death. Nor had they been told that the marchwarden was looking to avenge his fallen brother. Trust Oropher’s son to completely abandon tact when announcing such a thing, Celeborn sighed wearily.
"What’s this about killing Gimli?" Pippin was demanding angrily while the dwarf in question stared at Thranduil in shock.
Watching the king of Mirkwood with a mixture of caution and concern, Celeborn glanced in the hobbit’s direction. "Haldir was not entirely satisfied that Gimli did all that could be done to prevent Rúmil’s death," he answered. "He has placed some of the blame upon Gimli and seeks vengeance."
"But Gimli didn’t kill Rúmil!" Sam protested, looking rather unsure of himself but speaking up despite his fears. "He told us himself what happened, and there wasn’t anything that could be done about it! Surely you can’t believe that—"
"We do not hold Gimli suspect in this matter, Samwise Gamgee, but neither did we lose a brother this day as Haldir did," Celeborn replied, still flicking uncertain glances back at Thranduil. "Grief is an irrational thing at times."
"He blames me for Rúmil’s death?" Gimli whispered, seeming to speak to himself.
"What can we do?" Sam asked.
"Naught but remain vigilant," Aragorn spoke up, and Celeborn noted that the king of Gondor was also watching Thranduil sharply. It seemed that the lord of Lothlórien was not alone in his confusion over Thranduil’s strange behavior. "We have teams searching for Haldir, but finding him is another matter entirely."
"Orophin is also missing," Elrohir added with a grimace, "and we must search for him as well. None seem to know his state of mind."
"Can you keep nothing secure in Imladris?" Thranduil demanded, his disconcerting reticence shattering at this last bit of news.
"Orophin never reached Imladris," Celeborn replied, wondering what was going through his kinsman’s mind. He retreats and now he advances again. By all the stars in the heavens, Thranduil, what has this shadow done to you?
"A fine state of affairs this is," Thranduil said, his eyes darkening. "One of your marchwardens left Imladris against your orders, and the other never arrived. Do I have this aright, Lord Celeborn?"
Feeling his temper rise again, Celeborn bristled and turned a cold look upon the king of Mirkwood. "Was it not you who sent the wounded back and appointed your own elves over that party? And were they not responsible for those within the party?"
"The two missing elves are of the Galadhrim," Thranduil snapped. "If any here are responsible for their actions, I say it is the one to whom they owe allegiance."
"If I may intrude, my lords, this discussion serves no purpose," Elladan spoke up. He received twin glares for his interruption, but he would not be dissuaded and continued, his voice carrying an undertone of frustration. "Unless something must needs be said now, I counsel that we separate our companies and begin searching south for evidence of an Orc stronghold. Time passes, and we have now enough numbers to safely form groups."
And as before, Celeborn was suddenly aware that there was a disturbance in the shadows about his feet. Slowly shaking his head, he turned his eyes back on Thranduil and discovered that the king of Mirkwood was now looking at the dwarf. As if sensing Celeborn’s gaze, Thranduil turned away quickly and focused his attention back on his kinsman. "We separate, then," he announced quietly. "But we stay in large groups. None are to be alone."
"Good," Elladan sighed. "But ere we divide our forces, I would ask if any present have somewhat that should be shared with others ere we depart." The lord of Imladris trailed off and sent Celeborn a look that was eerily similar to some of Elrond’s more formidable expressions.
"You wish to know of my suspicions," Celeborn surmised.
"We are sadly lacking in information," Elladan answered. "Moreover, I cannot see a reason for your presence here if it is not to inform us of what we face."
"You doubt my skill on the battlefield?" Celeborn asked, his tone becoming cold.
"Nay, but if your skill on the battlefield was all that was needed, you would have been here earlier," Aragorn said, cutting in on Elladan’s behalf. "It is your wisdom we seek now, and since you have abandoned the manuscripts in the library, we trust you have discovered something. You said as much to Elladan early this morning, did you not?"
"I did," Celeborn admitted, taking a breath and attempting to rein in his temper. Sweet Elbereth, Thranduil has a greater understanding of this darkness than I. Perhaps he should be the one to answer these questions, for unless my aim is far astray, he has seen something very similar in Mirkwood. To this end, Celeborn turned his eyes upon the elven king and waited until Thranduil returned the look. "You recognized the hints in my words?" he asked.
Thranduil’s jaw tightened marginally and he nodded. "I believe so, yes. If I read your hints aright, you reference an interesting tale concerning Amandil, Ar-Pharazôn, and Sauron as it was related to Elrond by Elendil. I did not give this story much credence when first I heard it, for men are fickle and need little outside persuasion to turn their loyalties. But if the account is true…" He shook his head.
"Not all men are as fickle as you believe them to be," Aragorn said quietly, a clear note of warning in his voice. "Do you treat those of Dale with the same discourtesy you have shown me?"
"Enough," Elrohir said sharply, laying a hand on Aragorn’s shoulder and drawing him back. "I would hear more of this story, for naught that is good comes to my mind at your vague hints. Speak, and tell us why these names are important to us now."
"I’d like to know who these names are to begin with," Sam added, looking rather unsure about entering the conversation but forging ahead anyway. "Elendil and Sauron I recognize easily enough, but what about those others? Who were they?"
"In one way or another, they were involved in the demise of Númenor," Celeborn answered. "But only a brief summary will have to suffice, for there is no time to tell you all that you should know. Amandil was Elendil’s father, and one of the last of the Faithful to serve on the ruling council of Númenor. Ar-Pharazôn was the king, and it was he who took Sauron prisoner. But over time, the prisoner became a confidant, Ar-Pharazôn had Amandil cast from the council at Sauron’s insistence, and the last stages of Númenor’s ruin began."
"Another item to note is that Ar-Pharazôn and Amandil were close friends as children," Thranduil murmured. "Despite the fact that Ar-Pharazôn opposed the Faithful, he allowed Amandil to retain his authority as a counselor for many years. But this changed quite suddenly when Sauron was eventually released from his chains."
"And you believe that Sauron did something to Ar-Pharazôn that aided in this change," Elladan guessed.
"That is indeed what I believe," Celeborn confirmed. "And based on records and tales I have found, I also believe that whatever Sauron did, it was not unlike what was done to first breed the Orcs."
This statement met with a rather stunned silence, and even the hobbits seemed properly frightened, though it was clear they did not understand all. Eventually, Elladan broke the stillness, his tone carrying hesitation as well as horror. "You mention the breeding of Orcs. Can you explain?"
"And will you tell us how this is important now?" Elrohir added, eyes glinting in the darkness.
"It is important now because I believe that our enemy is using the same process on Legolas and Merry that Sauron used on Ar-Pharazôn."
"And you liken it to the breeding of Orcs?" Aragorn demanded, looking as though his stomach had just been hit with a mithril club. "Then does hope still exist? Is this a permanent change you speak of?"
"Not necessarily," Celeborn answered, "and yes, hope still exists. I said the two processes were similar, but they are not completely the same. The methods and the requirements share things in common, but other things are very different. Aragorn, you sent me scrolls from the ruin of Orthanc concerning the first breeds of Orcs. I assume you read these scrolls before you sent them."
"I did," Aragorn murmured. "And Gimli as well, if I am not mistaken, for he was there when the scrolls were discovered."
"Only parts," the dwarf said quietly. "Such knowledge is dangerous, even in the hands of those who mean well. I had no desire to learn more."
"And yet sometimes knowledge is the only way to combat the darkness," Celeborn said. "Do you remember, Aragorn, the necessary conditions for the binding spells that would turn an elf into a servant of Morgoth and thus render him capable of reproducing creatures that could later be used to breed Orcs?"
"A broken body and a mind devoid of hope," Aragorn whispered. "But the process required years of torture and torment for a victim to reach such a stage, sometimes even centuries. Our enemy has not that luxury."
"Nay, he does not, but he is not breeding Orcs. Centuries are not necessary. What he is doing might be accomplished in a matter of days, depending upon the strength and stamina of those he seeks to shadow. This process is not as reliable and is not as grievous as that which Morgoth used upon his first elven captives, but it is effective."
"Effective in what way?" Elrohir demanded, a slight note of impatience entering his voice. "You have skirted the facts well, my lord, but I wish to know exactly what we face. What does this process do?"
Celeborn sighed, once more struggling to control his fraying temper. "To put it simply, it forces a victim to abandon his own will in favor of another’s. If I am right, then the elf and hobbit we seek are not going to be the elf and hobbit we knew."
"You still speak in riddles," Gimli hissed, folding his arms across his chest and assuming a belligerent stance. "Tell us plainly what is happening to Legolas and Merry."
"Do you truly wish to know?" Celeborn challenged, raising his brow.
"I can’t speak for the others in this, sir, but I know I’d feel better if we had a good idea of what happened," Sam spoke up hesitantly. "And it might give us some peace of mind. Leastwise we wouldn’t be guessing in the dark, if you understand me."
"In any case, we’ve searched for long hours without knowing why Merry and Legolas were taken or what was being done," Pippin added, his voice firm. "We deserve to know."
"None dispute your right to be informed, but the details are not pleasant," Celeborn said. "I will tell you this, and it will have to suffice: our friends have been subjected to torture of both body and spirit. Were we to stand before them now, it is possible that they would not recognize us. Their fears will have trapped them in a world they cannot control, and their loyalties will have been twisted into things they cannot understand. They will be subservient to an imposed will, and they may be unable to combat this."
"In what state shall we find Legolas and Merry?" Aragorn asked, his face blank but his eyes burning. "Will it be possible to move them or will their injuries prohibit such a thing?"
"I confess that I am uncertain," Celeborn admitted reluctantly. "We may find them in a state of unconsciousness. We may find them in something akin to a trance. I truly do not know. It should be safe to move them; I believe I can say that much. But I counsel that we heavily sedate them before undertaking such a move. We would not want them to wake before we reached the safety of Rivendell. My companies have brought with them herbs that will induce a heavy state of sleep. Do not err on the side of caution in their use!"
"Your words are certainly not words of comfort," Elladan murmured. "Unfortunately, they have the ring of truth to them."
"I remain unconvinced," Elrohir said flatly. "What proof have you that what we face here is similar to what Sauron did to Ar-Pharazôn? And how much do we truly know of what happened prior to the fall of Númenor? It seems to me that we have naught but tales and legends to work from."
"These mists of darkness are much like the clouds that Sauron ordered forth from Orodruin ere he attacked Minas Tirith. The sorcery is similar, but on a lower scale. It could be accomplished by a Black Númenórean. The task of turning a mind is also something that a Black Númenórean could do."
"That proves nothing," Elrohir argued. "There are many things within the power and scope of a Black Númenórean trained by Sauron. We do not even know with certainty that a Black Númenórean is behind this menace. What better proof have you to offer?"
For answer, Celeborn looked to Elladan and Thranduil, noting that both seemed willing to believe him. "I am asked for better proof," the lord of Lothlórien said. "Have you any insights that you wish to add?"
"We came to similar ideas, kinsman," Thranduil said quietly. "And more or less independently so. That hardly seems conclusive, but my own observations of these shadows and their effects are convincing. Your theory of what we face fits well with my own experience."
"And mine," Elladan whispered, his eyes going to the shadows strewn about his feet. "I have felt within this darkness a malice and a twisting force. Lord Celeborn’s words bring to mind the emotions and sensations that I have felt when searching for the trail beneath these mists. They evoke great fear as well as feelings of contention. But the fear makes it difficult to see that we are being manipulated. This could easily be a reflection of the thoughts belonging to he who controls these mists."
"Moreover, Elrohir, the theory makes sense," Celeborn concluded. "Why else would Orcs wish to attack hobbits? They could not have known Legolas and Gimli rode to meet them. They were seeking prisoners upon which dark arts could be performed. They were seeking prisoners of renown that could be turned against us."
"There are those who would seek prisoners for the sake of a ransom," Elrohir argued.
"Yet there has been no demand for a ransom of any kind," Aragorn pointed out, sighing and shaking his head. "They are wanted for other purposes."
"Bait, then," Elrohir tried, his voice taking on tones of desperation. Celeborn reflected that Arwen had reacted in a very similar manner to this theory. It seemed that both used anger to protect themselves from unpleasant possibilities.
"Why hide the trail?" Elladan asked in answer to Elrohir’s suggestion. "If Legolas and Merry were a lure for a trap, why hinder our movements to find them?"
"It was to buy time," Pippin said. "Whoever wanted them needed time to do whatever he was going to do."
"Time to alter their minds," Aragorn concluded grimly.
"And there was the Orc I found," Elladan added, his eyes narrowing as they turned again to Celeborn. "You asked me of him, and we both found it strange that a renegade Orc would feel allegiance to master that he had abandoned. Something had been done to affect his mind. Despite his desires, he was bound to serve the one he hated. He was bound by his own fear." He paused and then frowned. "You could have told me then."
"I was uncertain then," Celeborn answered. "But I am fairly certain now."
"If you are fairly certain of this, then perhaps you know the answer to another question," Thranduil said, and something in his quiet voice put Celeborn on alert. "What chance is there that we shall arrive before this Númenórean’s work has been completed? And what chance is there for healing them should we arrive too late?"
"To answer the first question, I suspect we are already too late," Celeborn said reluctantly. "The change in these shadows is one such indication. The mists are no longer as insistent or pervasive. They are something against which we must guard, but their influence is less now. A purpose has been accomplished."
"And the answer to the second question?" Gimli prompted, his eyes flashing.
"There is a record of one man who recovered from this. Moreover, I believe I have an idea of how best to approach this particular problem. Sam’s wife said something that resonated with me, and I believe it possible, if we are indeed too late, to restore Legolas and Meriadoc."
"But you wish them to be in Rivendell first, correct?" Aragorn asked.
"Correct. Familiar surroundings may help."
"Then if we are finished here, let us find them and get them to those familiar surroundings," Gimli growled.
"Have you anything else to share, Lord Celeborn?" Elladan asked.
"Only this," Celeborn said. "The one who initiated the binding process must be destroyed. If he is not brought down, I harbor little hope that Legolas and Merry can recover."
"Then he will die," Thranduil promised, his voice emotionless but his eyes flashing. Celeborn felt a strange shiver of fear creep up his spine, and a quick glance at those gathered revealed that he was not the only one unnerved by Thranduil’s vow. The hobbits had taken several steps backward, Gimli’s hands were tightening about the haft of his axe, Aragorn’s eyes had narrowed, and Elladan and Elrohir had moved closer together as though looking for support. All of which was quite understandable, for when Thranduil set his mind to something, nothing stood in his way. And the rolling waves of seething fury in his eyes were enough to stop a Nazgûl cold.
It was Elrohir who eventually broke the silence that had descended upon them all. "Since we now seem to have sufficient information, let us turn out minds elsewhere and decide upon a method of searching for these Orcs and their stronghold. The path we were following can no longer be walked with safety. What are our options?"
"We divide and search southward," Thranduil answered, and his cold hatred had now given way to tones of frustration and anger. "I have been pressing for such a change, yet my counsel has gone unheeded. And it has been to our loss, I might add."
"We were too far from our object for such searches to be effective," Elladan protested.
"Peace," Celeborn interjected firmly. "Peace, what was done is done. It cannot be altered, and we are separating now. Though I should ask, Thranduil, as to whether or not you have taken this group too far from the original trail. We are now far to the west of the path."
"There will be more than one entrance to this stronghold, and the number of Orcs still about indicates that a second entrance is probably nearby," Thranduil answered, his eyes did flashing indignantly. "We are not astray, Lord Celeborn. I have done this often enough in my own realm."
"I shall find comfort in your assurance, then," Celeborn said, deciding that Thranduil’s concern for Legolas would not have allowed him to take unnecessary risks in direction. "Now it only remains to be seen how this search will be managed. Shall each realm take a direction?"
"That would be wise," Aragorn said. "Coordination within units would be easier. I suggest four groups. My men, Gimli, Pippin, and Sam shall be upon the ground and we will strike directly south. Greenwood, Lothlórien, and Rivendell can each move separately."
"I counsel that the Galadhrim stay near the men," Thranduil said. "Your two groups are smallest. It would be best to stay near one another. My archers and I will move southeast while Elladan and Elrohir lead their forces to the southwest."
"Agreed," Elladan said. "And as we are greatest in number, Rivendell shall also supply runners that may act as communication among our groups. We should be ready to move within the hour."
"Greenwood is ready now," Thranduil said sharply. "And we will be moving immediately."
"Then good luck to you," Celeborn said before anyone else could say aught. Whatever the reason for his former restraint, Thranduil’s impatience was beginning to get the best of him and he would not hold back much longer. It would be folly to delay him now, and the elves of Mirkwood were more than capable of seeing to their own safety should they choose to strike out ahead of the others. "Once our own forces are mustered, we shall join you."
"If it’s not too much to ask, what exactly are we searching for?" Pippin piped up.
"Caves," Thranduil said, glancing at Gimli before quickly looking away. "Caves and signs of Orcs. Send word if you discover aught. I will have elves ranging upon all sides, and they shall intercept your own scouts should you wish to find us. Now let us go, and may we go swiftly. I fear that Celeborn speaks the truth when he says we may already be too late."