27. The Last Debates
His eyes narrowed into slits, Aragorn tightened his grip on the branches around him and leaned forward, attempting to get a better view. There were times in his life when he fervently cursed his mortal sight, and this was turning into one of those times. Elrohir had extended his arm and was pointing toward the indicated rocks, but Aragorn’s eyes simply did not work as well in the darkness as the eyes of his foster brother. With his limited sight, he could dimly see Orc guards moving back and forth in a patrol pattern of some kind, he could make out large shapes that were probably boulders, and he could almost discern the steep rise of the land behind these stones. But he still could not see…
Wait! Was that…? Yes, it was. Now he saw it. An Orc had just appeared among the rocks, and as Aragorn had kept careful track of all the Orcs he could see, he knew this particular soldier had not been out and about earlier. That was where the cave’s entrance lay. He still could not see the entrance itself as the elves could, but he now knew its precise location. "I have found it," he whispered to his companion.
"Praise the Valar," Elrohir muttered, his voice barely louder than a sigh. "Then let us go. I fear we have lingered here too long already. Come. But move carefully! Step only where I step. There are Orcs about, and they may have caught our scent. Some are growing agitated."
"They know we are here," Aragorn murmured, glancing down. Once in a while, a flicker of starlight would glance off a rusty helm or a battered blade, indicating the presence of an Orc, but aside from these few glimpses, he could see almost nothing of the ground below. Still, he knew better than to second-guess Elrohir, and he could hear quiet movements as Orcs passed beneath them.
Elrohir’s hiss drew Aragorn’s attention away from the Orcs, and he shook his head as he freed his mind from distraction, stepping away slowly and mirroring the other’s movements. "If they begin a search pattern, they will find the men upon the ground," Aragorn whispered, following Elrohir through the trees.
"Thranduil has a line of scouts set up that will provide a distraction should the Orcs venture too close. And our forces are located almost a full mile from the cave’s entrance," Elrohir answered, picking up his pace slightly as they moved further away. "We should be able to last the few hours of darkness remaining to us."
"Unless Gimli and Pippin give us away so as to start the battle early," Aragorn said softly.
A quiet chuckle answered this, though the mirth seemed forced. "We shall keep them occupied. There is still strategy to set and final positions to be assigned."
"Even so, they are not pleased with this delay," Aragorn whispered. "And I must confess that I agree with them."
"The power of the Orcs is greatest now," Elrohir reminded his foster brother, "while the power of the elves wanes. We must wait until dawn or else we shall suffer many casualties. The difference of a few hours is negligible, particularly when those few hours will be spent making plans and moving companies about. Were we to rush this confrontation with minimal preparation, it is doubtful that we could be fully underway before first light."
"Even so, the idea that we tarry while our friends lie in darkness is a difficult thing to stomach," Aragorn sighed.
"I know, Estel," Elrohir answered quietly. "I like this no better than do you."
They continued in silence, then, moving as phantoms through the trees. The shadows seemed to lift slightly as they put distance between themselves and the cave’s entrance, making it easier for Aragorn to follow Elrohir’s steps. The number of Orcs also decreased, which meant caution gradually gave way to haste, and after a time, they were taking little care to muffle the sounds of their movements. Eventually, Elrohir dropped out of the trees and signaled Aragorn to follow.
"You might not have seen them, but we have just passed the first line of Thranduil’s archers," Elrohir explained as Aragorn joined him in the rolling shadows. "We should be safe upon the ground now. Come!"
"Second line," Aragorn murmured, hurrying after the other as Elrohir broke into a run.
"That was the second line of archers. We passed the first line several minutes ago," Aragorn explained, struggling to keep his face impassive.
Elrohir blinked. "How do you know?"
"I saw the outline of an elven bow."
Until now, Aragorn had not believed it possible to go completely still while running. Elrohir’s reaction forced him to revise his thinking. He did not know how his foster brother did it, but somehow, Elrohir managed to give the perception of motionless shock without breaking stride. It was rather impressive, actually, and had circumstances been different, Aragorn would have tried to startle Elrohir into doing it again.
"If it assuages your pride, I did not see any sign of the second archer group," Aragorn offered, now unable to keep the corners of his mouth from twitching. "And I only saw the first group because a bow moved off to my left, drawing my attention to it."
Elrohir shook his head darkly. "I should have been more alert."
"Mirkwood’s forces excel at secrecy," Aragorn said. "It is a wonder that either of us saw anything."
"Perhaps." Elrohir suddenly slowed and lifted his head, his eyes narrowing. "This way," he said, changing direction. "Elladan and the others are over here. I can hear them."
"Are all gathered?"
"I do not know. I cannot hear King Thranduil, but he may simply be holding his peace."
"He has been unusually quiet of late," Aragorn murmured.
"Nay, the rest of us have been unusually argumentative," Elrohir countered with a shake of his head. "Thranduil has been silent from time to time, but no more so than usual. Yet it is difficult for the rest of us to see that. We have been affected by these fell shadows. Thranduil has more or less remained constant."
Aragorn frowned. He had known that the darkness had influenced his thoughts to an extent, yet Elrohir was implying that a severe change had taken place. But surely they would have all felt such a change long before now. Wouldn’t they? Walking his mind back through recent events and comparing them to previous experiences with Thranduil, Aragorn tried to look at everything with completely objective eyes. And as he examined past situations, also including Celeborn and his foster brothers in his musings, it became rather clear that Elrohir was right. Thranduil has not changed. At least, not significantly so. Yet during the past day, an unusual streak of belligerence and unrest had characterized Aragorn’s actions, but until now, he had been unaware of how bad it had become. "You are correct," Gondor’s king said at length, his brow furrowed. "We have changed. We have argued, and we have fought one another more than is normal for us. How is it that we did not see this?"
"Because we were in the midst of it," Elrohir said. "I only realized what had happened because Lord Celeborn pointed it out to me when we separated to search for a cave. He cautioned me to watch my thoughts as they had gone far astray of their usual course. Since then, I have watched and listened closely." Elrohir paused, his face turning toward Aragorn as they hurried through the darkness. "We are not the only ones so stricken, Estel. The elves of Mirkwood and most of the Galadhrim are handling it well, but the rest of our forces are suffering. When morning comes and our attack commences, we will not be at full strength."
"I cannot say that this surprises me," Aragorn murmured. "I knew that the men and elves had been affected, but I did not think on how it might impact the battle. And that is the first thing I should have considered." He shook his head, wondering at this serious lapse in judgement. "Elrohir, what has happened?"
"That I cannot say, but I would see that it does not happen again. To either of us." He fell silent and then slowed to a walk. Aragorn checked his pace and watched his brother as Elrohir’s eyes searched the darkness. "Elladan?"
"Here," a voice answered, and Elrohir stepped off to the left and pushed aside a thick curtain of leaves, revealing a small hollow sheltered by closely-knit trees. "King Thranduil and Lord Celeborn are with me," Elladan called. "We have been waiting for you."
"Have all seen the layout of the area?" Elrohir asked, holding the leaves back as Aragorn entered behind him.
"All except the hobbits and Gimli," Elladan answered quietly with a slight frown. Judging from the note of hesitation in his voice, this had been a subject of some controversy. Aragorn had been one of the last to go forward and survey the clearing where they would fight come morning, and he remembered well the protests from Gimli and Pippin about being left behind. He wondered how long the dwarf and hobbit had continued to voice their objections or what other argument had ensued because of it, but the matter could not have been helped. There were too many Orcs upon the ground for the pair to risk getting close enough to see the area, and taking the dwarf up into the trees had not been even a remote possibility.
Thinking that perhaps a sympathetic word or two was in order, Aragorn looked around for Gimli and Pippin, but to his surprise, he could not find them anywhere and Sam was also missing. "Where are they?" he asked, fervently praying that the elves had done nothing rash.
"They are safe," Elladan answered quickly, appearing to have guessed his brother’s fears. "I sent them to join your own forces."
"I cannot imagine that they went quietly," Elrohir remarked somewhat suspiciously.
"They did not," Thranduil muttered from behind Elladan, his eyes seeming to flash with impatience. "It required a certain amount of persuasion."
"Persuasion involving threats," Celeborn added with a dark look at his kinsman.
"Their arguments were in no way constructive to our objectives, and our current discussion is taking a similar turn," Thranduil said sharply. "We must concentrate upon setting the strategy. There is no time for anything else."
For a moment, Aragorn was sorely tempted to debate the matter further. There was little love lost between the king of Gondor and the king of Mirkwood, and Thranduil’s abrupt, superior manner had always managed to rub Aragorn the wrong way. But fortunately for all involved, common sense prevailed and Aragorn took a deep, calming breath. He would deal with Thranduil’s version of diplomacy another time. "King Thranduil is correct," Aragorn said, collecting his thoughts and calling to mind all his experiences in battles alongside elves. "We must now look to the coming attack and determine our priorities. Our primary objective is the rescue of the captives, but we are also in a position to destroy a large infestation of Orcs. Do we wish to completely close the noose upon these creatures or shall we leave them a venue of escape?"
"Have we forces enough to surround them?" Celeborn asked, his eyes skeptical.
"The rise behind the cave is steep, but not so steep as to prevent escape if the Orcs are determined," Thranduil said. "However, a group of archers positioned in the trees above the entrance where the land evens should be sufficient to cut down any that flee. Unless we require all our forces for a frontal assault, it is not beyond our ability to encircle them."
"I do not think I understand," Elladan said slowly, his face strangely blank. "What rise do you speak of? The cave’s entrance was set against the side of a cliff. The Orcs would not be able to climb it without the aid of ropes."
Aragorn frowned and Elrohir shifted uncomfortably beside him. "It was not a cliff, brother, but a rather steep slope. It would be manageable to those on foot," the younger of the twins said.
"Nay, it was a cliff!" Elladan insisted. He turned to Celeborn and Thranduil, his eyes beseeching. "We saw it together. It was a cliff."
Celeborn shook his head slowly. "There was no cliff, Elladan. The entrance was set at the base of a rise in the ground."
"It could not have been! The tunnel that leads to the entrance is nearly horizontal!"
"Did you see the same cave that we saw?" Thranduil questioned. His voice was devoid of emotion, but a ripple of uncertainty crossed his face. "There were rocks jutting up about it and Orcs patrolled in groups of eight, passing before the entrance every minute or so."
"Yes, I saw what you saw," Elladan said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "But I tell you that this rise must be a cliff. The tunnel just inside the entrance is level. It does not climb to find an entrance but rather meets it on a straight path!"
"Elladan, how do you know this? How do you know what lies inside?" Celeborn questioned, placing a gentle but firm hand on his grandson’s shoulder.
"Because I have seen it! I have seen the inside!" As though feeling constrained, Elladan pulled away from Celeborn and started to pace, something that deeply frightened the king of Gondor. Upon rare occasions, he had seen Elrohir pace, for the younger twin had not been gifted with Elrond’s patience but rather had inherited Celebrían’s boldness. But Aragorn had never seen Elladan pace, and the current display of unchanneled, restless energy was far more unnerving than the omnipresent darkness.
"When, Elladan?" Celeborn pressed as his grandson continued to pace. "When did you see it?"
"I…I do not remember…"
"Try!" Thranduil now stepped in front of Elladan, stopping his pacing. "Try to remember when you saw the inside of the cave."
"I cannot…I do not…" Elladan trailed off, his expression one of consternation. A sudden chill swept Aragorn’s mind, and he glanced down to find that the darkened shadows about his feet had gained life and energy.
"Elladan?" Elrohir prompted, his voice laced with an ill-contained note of fear.
"Elladan, when we were waiting to be joined by those from Imladris, you suggested that you had seen a cave in darkness," Thranduil said, his piercing eyes fixed upon Elrond’s oldest son. "Are you now speaking of the same cave?"
"In darkness…a cave," Elladan whispered. His hands went to his face and he began massaging his temples. "Yes. Yes, that was it. A cave in darkness. I saw it. Two days ago, I saw it."
Aragorn shook his head, feeling that confusion and anxiety could go no further. "What are you—"
"Estel, do you remember when we were first beset by Orcs upon this trail?" Elladan asked, his eyes filled with a strange light. "You were there as well, Elrohir," he continued, not waiting for a response. "I collapsed, and you took me into the trees. I know not what happened to the rest of you during the time of my unconsciousness, but as for me, the darkness…spoke."
"Spoke?" Elrohir repeated slowly as a shiver crawled up Aragorn’s spine.
"Yes," Elladan nodded, his gaze turning inward. "It was strange, and I could not understand what it said. But at the same time, even though I did not understand, I knew. I knew what it wished to say. And it was forceful. Almost impossible to resist."
"I remember your collapse," Aragorn said softly, his mind now clicking rapidly. "When you woke, you said things about darkness, and you did mention…caverns, I think it was. But we did not know what to make of your words."
"We still do not know," Elrohir added, moving closer to his twin.
"Then listen and understand now!" Elladan cried, his tone colored by rising frustration. "While I was unconscious, the darkness took me elsewhere, and I saw the entrance to a cave. Or…or the exit, rather, for I was within the cavern. Orcs were behind me, and I heard voices speaking in a language I could not understand. And this cave had to have been set in the face of a cliff! The tunnel that ran to its entrance was too level and too straight to be anything else!"
"A dream, Elladan," Elrohir said rapidly, catching his brother by the shoulders. "An ill dream brought on by the shadows."
"Nay! It was no dream!" Elladan cried, causing the others to wince as the silence around them shattered. "I know what I saw. I was there!"
"But the cave we have found is nothing like the cave you claim to have seen," Aragorn protested. "It was but a trick of the mind. It could be nothing else!"
"There could be more than one entrance to the caverns," Celeborn said. "Indeed, such a thing would be very likely. Even if there were no natural alternative exits, the Orcs would create some. Elladan may have seen another way into the Orcs’ stronghold."
"And it seems that Elladan also became privy to whatever instructions and thoughts that the darkness encouraged," Thranduil said quietly.
"That was also my thought," Celeborn agreed.
"A moment!" Elrohir broke in angrily, still holding Elladan firmly by the shoulders. "What does this mean? What has happened to my brother?"
"Exactly what did you see?" Thranduil demanded, turning his attention to Elladan and ignoring Elrohir’s frantic questions. "And what did the darkness tell you? We must have details!"
Elrohir’s eyes flared. "Until we begin to hear explanations, Elladan is under no obligation to—"
"Peace," Elladan whispered, pulling away from his twin and shaking his head slightly. "Peace, they are right. I did not remember until now. At least, not really. There were…glimpses. Things I instinctively knew. But as for details…I had forgotten. Somehow, I had forgotten what I had seen and when I had seen it. But they are right. I was there. I was in the caves. Perhaps…perhaps that is why I was so quick to believe you, Lord Celeborn, when you revealed your suspicions as to what is happening to our friends."
"But what is happening to you?" Aragorn demanded, not about to forego the pursuit of at least some kind of explanation.
"At the moment, naught. But two days ago…" Elladan trailed off and sighed. "I do not know if I can give you the details you desire, King Thranduil. My memories are confused. It is as though what I felt and saw makes no sense outside the cave. I…I do not think I was ready to leave the caverns. The time had not yet come, and so that which was told to me has no significance here." He shook his head. "But I do not understand what that means."
"It is probably best that you do not. Any further and the darkness might have taken you completely," Celeborn murmured with a shake of his head, sounding as though he spoke more to himself than to anyone else. "Elbereth! You were not even the direct target of the attack. If our opponent’s strength is so potent when unfocused…"
"Such thoughts can wait until the prisoners are freed," Thranduil said sharply. His voice had become hard, and within his eyes was a growing fire of rage powerful enough to discourage a charging pack of Wargs. "It is clear now that the foe we face holds more power than we suspected. I would not have believed that he could unintentionally draw another into his clutches at such a distance, but it seems that such is the case. Our attack must be planned with greater care than ever, and we must now turn our focus upon our strategy."
"Elladan is safe," Thranduil interrupted Elrohir, his voice suddenly dropping in both volume and intensity. Deep, gray eyes swept across the twins and then rested upon Aragorn, drawing them into a powerful gaze that was stern yet at the same time strangely reassuring. "Peace, all of you," Thranduil said. "I sense no more darkness in Elladan’s mind than that which I sense in all of us. He has recovered. So long as he does not expose himself to the shadows as he did while searching for a trail, I believe he will be well." The tone within Thranduil’s voice changed then, resuming its hard impatience. "And now we must see that the prisoners are also given a chance to recover."
For a moment, no one spoke and silence fell over the group. At length, though, Elrohir sighed and nodded. "You and I are in need of a long talk," he told his brother firmly, his eyes narrow. "But King Thranduil is right," Elrohir continued, turning toward the others. "We must now turn our minds to other things."
Vowing to be present for this talk between the twins, Aragorn nodded his reluctant agreement. "Then let us turn our minds to strategy and the coming morn. We have yet to decide whether or not we should seek to eliminate the Orcs completely or if we would be better served by allowing them a venue of escape. If they sense they are trapped, the fighting will be fiercer and the rescue delayed. But if we allow them to escape, we invite further attacks in the future."
"If we allow the Orcs to escape, they may take Legolas and Merry with them," Elrohir warned. "We cannot afford a second chase. Too much time has already elapsed."
"If Elladan is correct, there is already a venue of escape," Celeborn said quietly. "The caverns have other exits, and since we do not know where these exits lie, we will be unable to block them. Still, we could certainly cut off any Orcs outside the caverns. And as for the prisoners, I do not believe that they will be taken elsewhere. It would do no good at this point in time."
Beside Elrohir, Elladan seemed to shudder slightly at this, and his eyes became vacant, as though lost in memory. Aragorn frowned and opened his mouth to question his foster brother, but Thranduil began speaking of placing a hidden line of archers on one side of the clearing and Aragorn was drawn back into the conversation. Elrohir agreed to this suggestion while Celeborn recommended that these archers be placed in the trees on the far side of the clearing so that they might have the advantage of the high ground if the Orcs chose to flee up the rise.
Intent upon their debate, no one noticed Elladan slowly withdrawing from the group, his eyes glazing over and his hands clenching fiercely at his sides.
The Orcs were growing in number.
For the last hour or so, Orophin had been keenly aware of their presence, as well as the fact that the foul beasts were now everywhere. He had yet to actually see any and his elven hearing had detected no sounds that might betray the presence of his foes, but they were about. He had guarded Lothlórien’s borders for far too long to ever forget the feel of their dark taint upon the fair forests of Arda. They were here and in great number.
A quiet exhalation of breath from behind accompanied by a light touch upon Orophin’s arm stopped the elf, and he looked back as his brother cast a wary glance toward the ground. Motionless for but a moment as he evaluated their surroundings, Haldir then jerked his head to the side, indicating that they should separate for a moment and scout the area. Nodding, Orophin placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder and their eyes met briefly before both turned away.
Climbing soundlessly through the trees, his eyes trained upon the ground below, Orophin reflected on how quickly routine had taken control of their actions. With a speed that was almost frightening, Haldir and Orophin had both fallen back upon old patterns of hunting and stalking. It was familiar and comforting at the same time that it prodded the grief that surged just below the surface. With every silent signal and every look, Orophin could not help but remember that there were only two Marchwardens on this hunt instead of three. One was missing.
Slight changes in the routine further emphasized this fact. Haldir was far more protective than he’d ever been before. As the oldest of the three brothers, Haldir had always insisted that they take a few more precautions than were probably necessary. But now, Haldir was carrying his protective duty almost too far. Their scouting trips to the east and west had been so frequent that they had almost stopped moving south. And more often than not, these scouting trips were done together rather than separately, further increasing the delay and severely trying Orophin’s patience.
Not that Orophin didn’t understand Haldir’s need for these precautions. On the contrary, he understood the need all too well. Their current trek southward was against Haldir’s better judgement. Rúmil’s death had reminded Haldir of the unsettling fact that his brothers were vulnerable. The trio had a nearly flawless record in defending the western borders of Lothlórien, but they were not invincible, as Rúmil’s passing had so harshly proven. Orophin’s life could be taken just as quickly as Rúmil’s life had been, and Haldir intended to make sure that such a thing did not happen. Thus, he continued to order an unusual number of scouting trips so as to ensure that there was naught in the way of pursuit from behind and no ambushes on either side to waylay their steps. And though he chafed at their slow progress, Orophin continued to submit to his brother’s wishes in this for two reasons: First, Haldir was older and technically in command. Second, Orophin was also undergoing a change, and if Haldir was to make allowances for his younger brother, then Orophin needed to make allowances for Haldir.
Ever since he became a Marchwarden and joined Rúmil and Haldir upon the borders, Orophin had been the brother who hung back. He was fearless in battle and never hesitated if the situation required immediate action, but if there was time to stop and consider what was happening, Orophin did so. It was something that had greatly tormented Rúmil, for Rúmil had firmly believed that surprise and swiftness were the best advantages. Pondering could be done while one was attacking. And though he was not nearly as bold as Rúmil, even Haldir had occasionally expressed frustration over Orophin’s incessant need to step back and evaluate the situation.
But things were different now. Orophin did not wish to tarry and evaluate but rather to move forward and strike. He was no longer under the influence of the darkness; he was fairly certain of that. Through Haldir’s words, Orophin had realized that his grief over Rúmil’s passing had transformed itself into an obsession for vengeance and death. Whether or not he—or anyone else—survived his mad quest for retribution had been completely beside the point. The only thing that truly mattered was destroying those that had destroyed his brother.
Thanks to Haldir, Orophin had overcome that desire. He had pressed the darkness to one side. It lingered still, for he was yet in its presence, but naught could be done about that. And Orophin was taking care that his grief did not overcome his common sense. Yet even so, this common sense was altered now. Rúmil’s death had started a change within patient Orophin. He had discovered that time was a fleeting thing, even for elves. The seconds it took to back away from a situation were precious. They were to be hoarded and only spent when necessary. Indeed, Orophin’s newfound awareness of time had grown so acute that almost it bordered on mortal awareness. And because of this, Orophin could not return to Rivendell, as Haldir had suggested. He could not forego this search for the Orcs. Time was critical. And Orophin intended to make the most of it.
The great irony in all this was that he was currently allowing Haldir to divert much of their precious time into precautionary scouting trips. Still, at least Haldir had not insisted that they return. He had allowed Orophin to continue the pursuit, and because of this, Orophin felt that some sacrifices had to be made. But time was slipping away, and Orophin was growing anxious. He would tolerate a few more delays for Haldir’s sake, but his patience was beginning to wear thin. They needed to move faster.
A gentle breeze suddenly tossed the branches in front of Orophin, causing him to step back for a moment before deciding to climb higher. Raising his head, Orophin took a deep breath of fresh air as the wind drifted out of the east, away from the looming shadows of the Misty Mountains. Far away in the north, clouds were beginning to loom, possibly heralding a spring storm, but directly overhead, the skies were clear and the stars were bright.
A pity the light of the stars seems not to touch the ground below, Orophin thought bitterly. For then perhaps Haldir would not feel the need to stop so often. Uninhibited sight would give us a better idea of where the Orcs might hide.
Continuing his journey upward through the branches, Orophin eventually emerged above the canopy of the trees, lifting his face to the sky and drinking in the glow of Elbereth’s stars. The aching grief in his heart eased a bit and he loosed a tired sigh, feeling the eastern breeze wash over him. For a moment he was still, allowing the ageless stars to whisper words of peace and solace. But then his newfound sense of time began to prick at his mind, and he dropped his gaze, turning his eyes toward the forest. Solace and comfort could wait. There were more important things to tend to.
A quick search of his surroundings revealed that he could see very little of the ground while this high, so he began to descend before he was stopped by a shadow out of the corner of his eye. His brow furrowing, Orophin turned and traced the line of the horizon directly to the south. Where the sky met the ground, he could make out what appeared to be a ridgeline. A cliff, of some sort. And though an acute awareness of time continued to press upon him, Orophin could not help but stop to consider this.
The Orcs they trailed were led by one powerful enough to conceal their tracks. A leader did not gain such power unless he was cunning and intelligent. Would such a gifted captain establish a base camp under the trees? Nay, he would seek better cover, for he would have to expect that elves would be quick to follow him. He would seek shelter away from trees and subsequently away from a possible elven ambush. He would look for rocky ground, and if possible, he would conceal himself in a cave.
Orophin did not know much about caverns and rocks, for he had spent almost his entire life beneath the leaves of Lothlórien. But he did know that cliffs and rocky outcroppings sometimes held entrances to caves and tunnels. And if he was leading these Orcs, he would have already established a base in such an area.
That is where we must go, then, Orophin thought, a faint glimmer of hope entering his mind. We must press toward the cliffs and seek for caves. It is likely that we will find the other searchers there, and even if we do not, it is likely that we will find the main body of Orcs. Either way, we accomplish much.
The harried whisper came from somewhere below him, and Orophin glanced down in time to catch sight of flashing gray eyes as his older brother glared up at him through the slightly swaying branches. "Haldir?"
"Why didn’t you rendezvous with me?!" the other elf hissed.
Orophin frowned. "You failed to specify a time for our rendezvous," he whispered. "I did not know the scouting trip was to be such a short one."
"There are only two of us here!" Haldir snapped, his voice rising momentarily before he controlled himself and lowered his tone. "We cannot afford to take extended scouting trips. It is too dangerous, and there are too many Orcs about!"
Orophin pressed his lips together, wondering if he should point out that erring too much on the side of caution was sometimes just as disastrous as ignoring caution altogether, but the constraints of time would not allow him to do so. Instead he turned away and studied the faint outline of cliffs, motioning Haldir to climb up and join him. "Tell me what you see against the horizon to the south," he said quietly.
With a quiet noise that seemed to be a frustrated grunt, Haldir moved upward through the branches and was soon beside his brother, staring into the south. "Cliffs, I believe," he murmured. The older elf was silent for a moment, and then Orophin felt Haldir turn toward him. "It is very likely that these Orcs will have taken refuge in caves."
Orophin nodded, glancing over at his brother. "That was also my thought."
"If we are right, the other searchers will probably be there, for they will have come to this conclusion as well. They will have sought out the cliffs. But…" Haldir trailed off, his eyes becoming blank for a moment. At length he shook his head, his face troubled. "I do not sense other elves."
"Perhaps this darkness cloaks their presence," Orophin offered.
Haldir frowned. "Perhaps, but I do not think so. If anything, it should be easier to feel them near, for they would be a stark contrast to this fell shadow."
A stab of frustration shot through Orophin’s mind. He could sense where this was leading. Haldir was going to urge for even more caution since they probably approached the Orcs’ stronghold and no other elves seemed to be about. But too much time had already been spent on caution. There was no more time left for prudence and safety. They had to act quickly and they had to act now. The time for indulging Haldir’s protectiveness was over.
"Then if we are indeed the only ones close enough to be of service, let us go," Orophin said firmly, his eyes intent upon his brother’s face. "There has already been too much delay. We must press forward."
"Nay," Haldir said sharply, and his eyes became hard with stubbornness. "Nay, we will not rush to our deaths."
"I did not say we should," Orophin answered, trying to quell the impatience that was beginning to build. "But we must do something. At the very least, we must draw closer and analyze the situation. We must seek out the guards and the patrols. We must gather information, and if there is an opportunity to act, we must take it."
Haldir shook his head. "It is too dangerous," he murmured. "We are only two. We need more. We must return for help and—"
"There is no time!" Orophin hissed. "Haldir, we have delayed long enough. This is not what we were trained to do. When I took my oath to guard Lothlórien, I swore to do everything in my power to thwart the Enemy in every way possible. I intend to keep that vow, and I would have you keep it as well, for I know that you once made the same promise. Let us honor our rank as Marchwardens. Let us honor the days when we would challenge danger, no matter how overwhelming the odds." He lowered his voice and placed a hand upon his brother’s arm. "Let us honor Rúmil’s memory. He would not have us skulk about in the shadows."
Beneath his touch, Orophin felt Haldir shudder, and then hands seized his shoulders, clutching him tightly and drawing him close. Haldir’s brow came to rest upon Orophin’s, and the grip upon his shoulders tightened. "I would not lose you as well," Haldir whispered.
His breath catching in his throat, Orophin reached up and placed one arm on the back of Haldir’s head, locking them together. "And I would not lose you," he answered. "But we must go, Haldir. We must. Our duty demands it."
"I know," his brother said, his voice so soft that even Orophin’s sharp ears had trouble making out the words. "I know. And we are ever the dutiful elves, are we not?" He shuddered again and then withdrew, releasing Orophin and smiling sadly. "You are right. We must go. But," Haldir added, his face becoming stern, "we must still be cautious. And if we are not given a chance to act against the Orcs, we must go for help. We cannot afford to make our own opportunities. We have neither the numbers nor the strength."
"I will readily agree to that," Orophin said, relieved that Haldir had consented to a slightly more aggressive plan. "But no more scouting trips to the side. The Orcs are here. We both know that. We need not scout the darkness to find them. I am certain that we will find Orcs aplenty soon enough."
"I fear you speak the truth," Haldir sighed. He shook his head and stared toward the south before turning away and starting his descent into the lower branches. "Let us get on with this, then. Keep your bow handy, and stay close."
"See that you do the same," Orophin whispered, climbing down after his brother.
Ahead of him, Haldir nodded once and then they fell into silence. Carefully walking the line between the stars above and the darkness below, Haldir and Orophin worked their way southwards, drawing ever closer to the shadow of the cliffs. And as they went, the feeling of Orcs and of evil grew stronger and stronger.
"If we are careful, it is my judgement that we have forces enough to surround and engage all of the Orcs. And I would recommend such a course of action."
"Resistance will be fiercer if the Orcs feel they cannot retreat. We may suffer heavy casualties."
"If the archers above the rise remain hidden, the Orcs will believe there is still a chance for escape above ground. It will not be immediately apparent that they are surrounded, and this would significantly ease pressure on the forward units."
The voices rushed around Elladan like the waves of the sea, crashing against one another in a chaotic swirl that made little sense to the one drowning in their midst. Many centuries ago, Elrond’s sons had spent a summer in Mithlond with Círdan, and during this time of countless new experiences, both twins had learned the dangers of a strong undertow when swimming in the bay. Elladan now felt as though he had been caught in such a current and swept away, buried deep beneath the sea’s tides without hope of escape or rescue. Elladan could still hear those around him. He was not completely cut off from the debate of arms and strategies. But his mind refused to concentrate, choosing instead to race back over things that had suddenly become clear to him. Things that he had forgotten but now remembered. Things that had locked themselves somewhere deep within his mind but now rose to trouble his thoughts.
"You said it was essential that we kill the agent behind all of this."
"And so we must, but once we cut off the head, the death throes of the body will be violent. The Orcs may forget their orders and kill the prisoners outright."
Elladan saw a light. A circle of light, though the circle was not quite a perfect circle. Yet it was beautiful, despite its imperfections. From somewhere deep inside Elladan’s being came a yearning to draw near this circle and shake off the shadows that clung to him like a shroud. It was a symbol of escape and freedom. It was a way out of the dark caverns that he knew lay behind him. It was his chance to slip the clutches of his enemy and destroy whatever plans revolved around him.
"If the rescue party waits with the archers above the rise, we could draw the attention of the main body away and allow them a moment to slip inside."
"I will lend support to that plan. And I will add the counsel that the hobbits and Gimli be a part of that rescue group. Their minds have not been as clouded by darkness as ours. They will last longer in the caves."
"Gimli, at least, should certainly be there. A dwarf will not be so easily confused by the twists and turns of winding tunnels."
But he could not move. He could not leave. Something prevented him. Something daunted his senses and ordered him away from the light. And as a dark force continued to order him back, a cloud of fear crashed over Elladan. The force came from within. Something inside of his mind could not bear the light. Nor was this something a foreign influence. Rather, it had always been a part of him and had now been given voice.
"If they are to slip secretly into the caverns, they cannot be many in number. Yet they may meet with resistance, and they will have need of strong warriors."
"Let us determine the numbers and types after we have settled other strategies. We have yet to plan the initial assault, and what we do there will determine what the rescue party will face."
Or perhaps it had always had a voice, but he had never heeded it until that moment. Perhaps it had been forever growing as the years passed by and the Orcs grew closer and closer to Rivendell. Perhaps it had now been strengthened to the point where he could no longer refuse the voice. And though he tried to resist, the darkness within him shifted and molded, anticipating his defenses and swiftly battering through them as quickly as they were constructed.
"We have no time to develop anything elaborate! Simple must suffice!"
Elladan could no longer look at the light. To look was to see that which was unattainable, for he could not escape. He could not leave. And beyond that, the force within his mind hated the light. The light was to be shunned at all possible costs. It was something to be loathed and feared. The darkness was what had to be embraced, for it was from the darkness that healing had come. It was the darkness that had saved him. It was the darkness that had claim over his life. In the end, it was a simple thing. Light and fire had harmed him. Shadows had brought him back.
"If the initial assault group retreats completely into the forest before stopping to fight, we could also strike at the Orcs from above them and lure them into the trees."
"Nay, we must keep the Orcs upon the ground. My own forces cannot fight them in the trees. If you wish for Gondor’s strength, you will have to accommodate our limitations."
"Rivendell is also strongest upon the ground. And it seems to me that if can keep the Orcs from ascending into the trees, it will simplify the battle. There is less risk of sudden ambush during the latter stages of the attack."
Elladan could not remember Rivendell. He could not remember Elrohir. He could not remember Arwen, Estel, or his father and mother. He could not remember Glorfindel and Erestor. He had a vague notion that these people existed, but they had become altered in his mind. They were different now. Strange. Foreign. He had little concept of familiarity. He could not remember interacting with these people. It was as though they had become figures in a story, distant and remote. They could be molded and shaped depending upon how the story was depicted. They could be changed.
"Then the forces of Lothlórien and Greenwood should separate and stand on either side of Rivendell and Gondor. They shall deploy archers into the trees as well as whatever forces they see fit to place upon the ground. A group from Rivendell can launch the initial attack and retreat to the trees on the near side of the clearing, whereupon the rest of our forces as well as Gondor’s men can join us."
"I would not have Rivendell bear the first assault alone. My men can join you."
"I welcome the gesture, but the Orcs will be more intent upon battle if they fight elves rather than men."
The shadows seemed to be receding now, and the voices around Elladan had become clearer. It was easier to hear their words though it was still difficult to follow their speech. The darkness within him began to fade into the background as though some purpose or other had been accomplished. Seeing his chance for freedom, Elladan gathered his strength and began to struggle away from the shadows. But the circle of light had disappeared. It could no longer be found. His road to escape had vanished.
"I will go."
"Into the caves?"
"That is what we are now discussing, is it not?"
"Lord Celeborn, your archers—"
"Are well accustomed to operating on their own initiative."
The soft murmur of trees and plants suddenly caught Elladan’s attention as the shadows faded into a whisper on the edge of his mind. His breath hitching slightly, he realized that there was no need for escape. He was already free. He was not trapped beneath the ground but rather standing in a forest. And yet… Why did he still feel that something was amiss? Why did he still feel the need to flee? There seemed to be a quiet chuckle as the darkness faded away completely, and then Elladan’s eyes cleared, revealing the hollow, the night, the forest, his companions, and the shadows upon the ground.
"If any here claim a right to venture into the caves with the rescue party, I think it would be me," Thranduil was saying, his voice soft but cool.
"Under other circumstances, I might agree with you," Celeborn answered. "But I have a better idea of what to expect, and I am better equipped to deal with whatever we might face. Moreover, I am not as close to the situation as you are. My thoughts will be clearer."
"You question my judgement?" Thranduil demanded.
"Yes," Celeborn answered calmly, his eyes firm as he met Thranduil’s challenging glare. "I question the judgement of all who have labored beneath these shadows. And though you may have had more experience with such things, you are certainly not immune."
It was too much for Elladan. Suddenly thrust from the abstract into concrete reality, his mind struggled valiantly to make sense of all that was happening, but he could not reconcile what had just happened with was currently happening. The two worlds could not exist together. Stumbling and wheeling, he grabbed the closest thing he could reach—which happened to be Elrohir—and desperately tried to stay upright.
Elladan wanted to answer his brother, but he feared that if he broke his concentration, he would lose himself. He was barely staying on his feet as it was, and his mind seemed to be falling away.
Hands were upon him, clutching at his shoulders and arms as he slumped forward. His head lolled to the side, resting against someone’s chest, and his knees buckled beneath him. But Elladan was no longer concerning himself with his body. He was struggling to right his thoughts, for all of reality seemed to be turning on its head and the darkness had returned in force, violent and raging. Retreating deep within himself, Elladan tried in desperation to resist the influence of the shadows while conflicting images blurred together as one before him, further distoring his mind. The buzz of the surrounding world became loud and intrusive, and Elladan cried out in fear and helplessness, hoping against all hope that a way would open. For the moment he seemed to be holding his own, but that would not last much longer. As though sensing his imminent demise, the darkness loomed tall before him, preparing to strike, and frantic thoughts whirled about in a fey and chaotic spiral that ultimately descended into shadow.
And then he sensed another presence within the turmoil.
Something stood with him. He could not identify this something, nor could he name its source, but he was immediately grateful for its presence. The darkness suddenly parted around him, enabling his own will to reassert itself. He remembered everything now, and he would not be so daunted by shadows ever again. These agents of darkness had no claim over him. He was beyond their grasp! With the madness momentarily distracted, he struck, fighting and clawing as he threw off the mental chains that bound him. Deep within his mind, something snapped, and then a rushing wind flashed over him while a menagerie of colors swept through his distorted world.
And Elladan was suddenly back.
Falling to the side, he was caught by strong arms that held him firmly while another turned his face upward, fingers lingering against his temples. With a slight groan, he tried to stand and struggle away from whoever was holding him, but the arms only tightened around his chest.
Somehow finding the strength to open eyes he could not remember closing, Elladan looked toward the source of the quiet voice and blinked as Celeborn’s face swam into focus.
"Elladan, are you with us? Can you answer me?"
"Yes. Yes, I am here," Elladan whispered, reaching back and grasping the shoulder of the person that held him. He frowned as his hand came into contact with a coarse fabric that seemed to be a protective vest of some kind, but it was not a fabric that would have been used in Rivendell. Tipping his head up, he squinted and eventually made out Thranduil’s strong features. "What…what happened?" he asked, suddenly confused. Hadn’t Elrohir been holding him?
"Apparently the darkness had a greater hold on you than we thought," Thranduil answered softly. "My apologies. I had believed you were safe."
Elladan shook his head, still trying to make sense of things, and began to move, trying to get his feet firmly beneath him. Seeming to sense Elladan’s desire to stand on his own, Thranduil loosened his hold and shifted his hands to Elladan’s shoulders, steadying him.
"Elladan?" Elrohir was suddenly before him, his twin’s face a mixture of anger and fear. "How do you feel?"
"Better," Elladan answered, pausing for a moment to think about that even as he said it. Strangely enough, he did feel better. Surprisingly so, actually. In fact, he had not felt this good for several days.
"Better?" Estel stepped into view and put the back of his hand on Elladan’s brow. "In what way?"
Pushing the hand away, Elladan surged forward, breaking free of Thranduil’s hold. He swayed slightly but did not lose his balance. "Better," he said again, backing up when it appeared that Elrohir was going to seize him. "I…my spirit is lighter. And I remember more now. I remember more of the caves. I still do not understand much of what I can recall, but I remember. I know things that I did not know only moments ago."
A long stretch of silence met this announcement, and Elladan felt a pang of frustration as he looked at those gathered around him. Skepticism was clearly evident in the eyes of his brothers. Celeborn and Thranduil looked strangely pensive by contrast, yet they said nothing to reveal their thoughts, leaving Elladan to assume that they also thought him mad. Given the circumstances, Elladan couldn’t blame any of them, but at the same time, he was more certain of himself now than he had ever been before. And his inability to express this surety and confidence was beginning to severely try his patience.
"Perhaps you should…sit for a while," Estel eventually said, obviously searching for both words and counsel. "Rest. Try not to think about—"
"And where do you propose that I rest?" Elladan demanded, sending his twin brother a dark glare when Elrohir continued to hover next to him. "Elbereth, I am not mad! Why can you not accept that I—"
"Peace!" Celeborn interrupted, trading glances with Thranduil before turning his full attention upon Elladan. "You say you remember more concerning the caves. What exactly do these memories entail?"
"Details, primarily," Elladan said. "I remember Orcs and tunnels as well as the cave’s exit. And I remember feelings of an inner darkness that could not be easily overcome."
"And how do you feel now? You say you feel better, but do you feel you are able to hold your own in a fight?"
"Yes." The answer came easily and without hesitation. "Yes, I am more than capable of holding my own against any opponent."
Celeborn nodded slowly, his eyes narrow. "It is well. If this, then, is indeed the case, I propose that you join me in the rescue party that shall slip in while the main group distracts the Orcs at the entrance."
Loud protests immediately shot up from both Elrohir and Estel, but Thranduil silenced them with a sharp look that would have made even Galadriel pause. The elven king’s eyes fell upon Elladan then, and his brow furrowed with thought before he released Elladan from his gaze and turned to Celeborn. "You cannot be certain of this," Thranduil said, his voice low. "It is a dangerous risk."
"A risk I am willing to take."
"With your own life, perhaps, but are you willing to take this risk with the lives of the rest of the rescue party? And there is also the life of my son, which is dependent upon your group’s success!"
"To say nothing of my brother’s life," Elrohir added, daring Thranduil’s stern glance in order to make his view known. "We do not know what just happened to Elladan and—"
"On the contrary, I believe I have a very good idea as to what happened to him, and he is safer now than he was earlier," Celeborn answered.
"Even were I to accept that—and bereft of an explanation, I am loath to accept anything—Elladan is in no condition to wield a blade!" Estel protested.
"Let me be the judge of that," Elladan said, putting a hand on his foster brother’s shoulder. He was feeling more and more himself with every moment, and it was high time to reassert himself. "The weakness has passed, and I feel I am fit. But," he added, turning to Celeborn, "I would also look for an explanation, and not only of what happened to me. I fear I have missed much of your conversation, and I do not understand what it is you wish me to do."
"Lord Celeborn intends to lead a team of elves into the caves themselves on a rescue operation while the rest of our forces battle the Orcs without," Thranduil said. "If I understand his motives aright, he wishes you to join that team in the hopes that your memories will guide them."
"We will also have Gimli’s guidance," Celeborn said. "But if my suspicions are right, Elladan, you will be more valuable than any senses that the dwarf possesses."
"And why is that?" Elrohir demanded, his voice becoming harsh with impatience and frustration. "Tell us plainly what has happened to Elladan!"
"To tell you everything would require time that we do not have," Celeborn said. "But I will try for a brief explanation. If I am correct, then Elladan fell further into darkness than any of us suspected. He became so ensnared that he ceased to fight the shadows and was eventually complacent within their grasp. But when Elladan struggled to remember all that had happened, the darkness was forced to take a more active role and reveal itself for what it was. In turn, this allowed for others to step in and aid Elladan in his fight. Together, we drove the shadows back and the darkness is gone now. Of that I am certain, for I felt it leave his mind, as did Thranduil. In many ways, Elladan is probably safer than the rest of us at this point."
"And my memories are now clearer as well," Elladan said quietly, thinking through the explanation and matching it to the impressions he’d felt moments ago. "The choice, then, is obvious. I should accompany those who are to enter the caves. I could be of great help."
"But only if you are capable of defending yourself!" Estel said. "And from what I can see, you are not. You would become a burden and a distraction should a conflict arise. Others would be forced to see to your safety."
"You underestimate me if you think I am unable to hold my own," Elladan said, a flicker of anger beginning to grow in his heart. "Perhaps you should remember who taught you to wield a sword."
"And perhaps you should remember that only moments ago you could not stand without aid!" Estel returned fiercely.
"I suggest a compromise," Thranduil said, his tone sharp and commanding as he sought everyone’s attention. "Elladan accompanies Lord Celeborn and his party to the other side of the clearing and waits. Should he recover sufficiently before they enter the caverns, he will go with them. If not, he will remain with the archers and assist them in their efforts. His skills with the bow are sufficient for such a task, and he would be protected by those around him."
There was a moment of silence as all considered this, and then Elrohir spoke, his voice slow and deliberate. "I would agree to that if I could trust Elladan to make an honest assessment of his own health. But knowing him as I do, I cannot find it in myself to believe that he will refrain from entering the caves even should he not feel well enough to do so."
Elladan frowned, a flash of indignation sparking through his mind. He opened his mouth to answer Elrohir, but Celeborn spoke first. "If you cannot trust your brother, trust me," the elven lord said. "Trust my judgement. I promise you, Elrohir, and you also, Estel, that I will not allow Elladan to accompany me if he seems unwell in my eyes."
Another silence fell, and then Elrohir nodded. "That will suit me. Estel?"
"Yes, I can agree to that," the king of Gondor said after a brief hesitation.
"How kind of you," Elladan muttered.
"Then we are finished here," Thranduil declared. "All that remains is to order our own forces and arrange ourselves as is necessary. Let us go now, and see that things are prepared. Unless I am otherwise needed, I will await Rivendell’s signal come morning."
"Remember that the commander of this darkness must be destroyed," Celeborn said before Thranduil could turn away. "But he cannot be destroyed until those of us in the rescue party are well underway, for when he is gone, his power over some of the Orcs may vanish. They might seek to kill Legolas and Merry before they can be liberated."
"We will heed your words," Thranduil said, and for a small moment, Elladan thought he caught a glimmer of fear in the king’s eyes. Then it was gone, and the implacable defender of Mirkwood returned. "See that your own mission does not fail." And with that, Thranduil strode away, disappearing into the darkness as a silent shadow.
"Come," Celeborn said to Elladan, putting a hand on his shoulder and pulling him away. "We must gather those who are to accompany us, and I will tell you of what we have planned. Your brother shall look after Rivendell's forces."
"Safety go with you," Elrohir said, and Elladan turned back to meet his twin’s gaze.
"May it go with you, also," Elladan said. "And keep Estel out of trouble. He is not entirely trustworthy."
Estel rolled his eyes and shook his head, murmuring something rather foul beneath his breath, but Elrohir did not turn his gaze from Elladan, recognizing the remark for what it was. With simple words and a meaningful glance, Elladan promised to hearken to prudence, and Elrohir was to stop worrying about him and look to other needs. "I will see you when this is over," Elrohir said at length.
Elladan inclined his head. "Until then." He smiled briefly, nodded at Estel, and turned away, quickly following Celeborn as the other led him into the darkness of the forest.