29. The Breaking of Dawn
With casual ease, morning’s first light cleared the Misty Mountain’s towering peaks, ambled down slopes of melting snow, and drifted out into the forests and hills surrounding Rivendell. It touched upon spring flowers and furled leaves, bestowing warmth and life as it moved through the trees and chased away the shadows of night. At length it fell upon a clearing and descended gently, intending to banish the darkness that flowed over the ground like a plague upon the earth.
For its efforts, it was promptly reflected back into the sky by an arcing fountain of red.
Forcing his blade through both helm and skull, Elrohir launched himself into a spray of blood, completed his swing, and pivoted to block a club aimed for his lower ribs. His sword swept in, out, and around, and the club went flying into the sea of Orcs, immediately lost beneath their press. Wading further into the fray, Elrohir feinted right and then snapped his sword left with a speed few could follow; three opponents fell headless. Pivoting again, he caught a descending knife on his sword hilt, locked it there, and went for his own knife, stabbing forward and then leaping back as his enemy fell. Realizing the danger in attacking this foe alone, the other Orcs surrounding Elrohir moved to rush as a group, but at that moment, the elves that had been left behind in the initial charge caught up with their leader and began their own assault. Forced to turn their attention away from Elrohir, the Orcs were soon caught between the proverbial hammer and anvil as Elrohir attacked from one side and the bright swords of Rivendell attacked from the other.
And so begins the first day of the new year, Aragorn reflected grimly.
The king of Gondor crouched near the edge of the clearing, using both the shadows on the ground and the shadows of the trees to cloak his presence. Further behind him, his soldiers waited for the horn blast that would call them to battle. But in the interim, all eyes remained fixed upon the small cluster of elves from Rivendell now caught in a battle that was becoming faster and more dangerous with every moment.
Elrohir dodged backwards as a spear tip came within inches of his face, and Aragorn inhaled sharply when this move put him beneath a descending axe. Elrohir saw the weapon in time to raise his sword in a block, and the axe was deflected to one side, crashing down upon a smaller goblin. Elrohir took advantage of the momentary confusion to drive his sword through the axe-bearer’s chest, and then he was jumping away again as two more Orcs drewnear.
Too fast too soon! Aragorn thought, his right hand clenching about the hilt of his own sword. Elrohir, stand down! The Orcs will come to you; there is no need to press the attack!
Going into this battle, the king of Gondor had known there were risks. He’d been well aware that Elrohir’s role as bait was a dangerous one, and he’d accepted that. It would not be the first time Elrohir had taken upon himself the more perilous aspects of a particular strategy, and it would probably not be the last. Elrohir’s confidence in himself as a warrior and in his ability to see patterns within the chaos of battle stood him in good stead, and Aragorn could think of no one else he’d rather have spearheading this attack, with the possible exception of Halbarad. Aragorn trusted Elrohir’s abilities. He trusted his instincts. He trusted his strategy.
He did not trust his temper.
With a growing sense of dread, Aragorn watched Elrohir continue to press against the Orcs, urging his captains to increase the pace. And as Elrohir himself kept advancing, those around him had little choice but to follow. He was angry. The raw power behind every swing of his sword, undisciplined and unfocused, made his rage obvious to everyone. And while Aragorn understood his foster brother’s anger—Valar knew he felt it himself—he still feared it. Elrohir was not a good person to upset, for when he was upset, he took matters into his own hands.
To be fair, Elrohir was still within the parameters of the plan. His task was to place himself and his elves a short distance into the clearing and hold that position, drawing as many Orcs out of the caves as possible. He was accomplishing the latter remarkably well, but he had not yet stopped his forward charge. And it was imperative that he do so soon. When the time came to retreat, Elrohir needed to be close enough to the trees that he could get back without being overtaken and surrounded. If he continued to move forward, he would be too far away. Already a number of Uruks ranged on his northern side, cutting him off from Aragorn. There were not yet so many that they could not be overcome, but it was still an alarming development. Moreover, Aragorn could now only see Elrohir through gaps between the Orcs, and these gaps were closing rapidly. It was nearly impossible to judge either the progress of the battle or the strength of their opponents. And soon it would be impossible to judge whether anything had gone wrong—
A sudden, anguished cry in Sindarin heralded the first casualty on the part of the elves. It was followed by several other cries as five large Uruks broke through the ranks and forced other elves to turn away from their companions and deal with the new threat. Elrohir was among those who hastened to confront the Orthanc half-breeds, and Aragorn found himself torn between relief and fear. The Uruks had temporarily stopped Elrohir’s advance, and for this, Aragorn was thankful. But the sheer ferocity of Elrohir’s attack on the newcomers sent shivers down the king’s spine.
And he certainly does not need to laugh in the middle of his attack!
Elrohir was becoming reckless. Aragorn had seen it happen before but never under these conditions. Usually, Elrohir’s brash side did not surface unless he was faced with small groups of Orcs easily overcome or unless he was faced with nearly insurmountable odds and there was nothing left to lose. Neither was the case here. In fact, much of the plan hinged on Elrohir’s ability to draw the Orcs out, hold them until most left the cave, and then lure them back to the waiting ambush. Elrohir knew how important his role was! He knew he could not afford to take unnecessary risks! But still he raged against the Orcs and still he made his position offensive rather than defensive. He had not yet passed the point where he would be unable to withdraw, but he was coming to it quickly and showed no signs of stopping.
Aragorn’s hand had now wrapped itself so tightly around Andúril that his forearm was cramping. Perhaps they should spring the rest of the ambush. It would mean pitching the battle dangerously close to the cave, making Celeborn’s job more difficult, but Aragorn did not know if Elrohir had enough restraint to end his advance. If they stopped him right now and he held his current position, then Rivendell would still be in range of Thranduil’s archers and the plan could go forward. Of course, it would be even better if Elrohir stopped on his own and then also retreated on his own, but he was already growing careless and—
A low, droning sound startled Aragorn out of his thoughts, and he jerked his head toward the mouth of the cave where an Orc held a black goat horn to his lips. The noise suddenly increased in volume and became a harsh call, tearing through the morning air and concluding on a note so shrill that Aragorn half-expected the back of his head to split open. Before the summons ended, answering calls echoed out of the caverns, and they were joined by three separate and distinct horn blasts to the south where Thranduil had placed the bulk of Greenwood’s forces.
Aragorn was loath to take his eyes away from Elrohir, but three different horn calls meant at least three different patrols. Large patrols. They’d anticipated running into a few scouts and Lothlórien had several archer groups set up to prevent an attack from behind, but if there were enough Orcs on the southern side to warrant three horns, then the archers might not be enough. They would need reinforcements, and to this end, Aragorn hurried back to his men in order to dispatch some to the south.
It required only seconds for him to relay his instructions to Arhelm, his chief captain, and when Arhelm began splitting men off of the main group, Aragorn returned to his position near the edge of the clearing. He immediately noted that things had changed. In response to the horn cry, the mouth of the cave had exploded with Orcs that now swarmed into the sunlit clearing like angry wasps. Skimming over the bloodied bodies of both elves and Orcs, Aragorn looked desperately for Elrohir. His heart skipped a beat when he could not immediately find him, but then he heard a loud shout as confusion arose in the middle of the field. The Orcs cleared for a brief moment and Aragorn spied his foster brother with the rest of the Rivendell group. As a unit, they were slowly moving toward the trees. The sudden swell in forces seemed to have cooled Elrohir’s temper, and his strikes were now focused and precise. Under his guidance, Rivendell was slowly withdrawing, leading the Orcs away from the cave and into the ambush created by the men of Gondor and the rest of the elves.
Gratitude was not an emotion that Aragorn usually associated with Orcs, but at the moment, he couldn’t help but send out a mental stream of praise to the Orc that had initiated the horn blast. It had made Elrohir stop. It had forced him to think about what he was doing. In all likelihood, Elrohir would have probably stopped on his own. He had an acute sense of location and timing, especially in the midst of the battle, but Aragorn was still relieved that this sense had not been tested. If I have an opportunity to confront the Orc that blew the horn, I will be merciful, the king decided. I will not leave him incapacitated by wounds. I will kill him, and his death will be quick.
Elrohir’s slow but steady retreat was bringing him closer to Aragorn’s position now, and the heady rush of battle began to surge through Aragorn’s veins. He shifted his weight forward slightly, adjusting his crouch so that if he needed to move, he could move toward the fighting rather than away from it. The time for concealment was almost at an end. Another few minutes at this pace and Thranduil would send out his own horn call, signaling the ambush. Aragorn quietly eased Andúril from the scabbard at his side, taking care that the sun did not glint off the polished metal and give away his presence.
And then Elrohir stopped.
Actually, the Orcs stopped first, but their halt forced Elrohir to halt. He could not afford to move his elves too far from them as there were now goblin archers upon the field. If Elrohir’s group stayed within the front lines of the Orcs themselves, then the archers had a more difficult time picking out elven targets. As for why the Orcs stopped, that reason was fairly obvious. The captains toward the rear of the attack were becoming suspicious, evidenced by the way they pointed at the trees and at Elrohir’s elves, who continued to battle and to fall as the Orcs at the fore kept up the fight.
This suspicion was something that Thranduil and Celeborn had hoped for. It was not in the nature of Orcs to allow elves to retreat, but if they realized there was a trap, then they would wait to pursue them until they had gathered as much force as possible. They would wait until the caves had nearly emptied before stepping into the trap, and then they would plunge forward, leaving the way clear for the rescue party to slip in. But while it was crucial that as few Orcs as possible stand between Celeborn and the prisoners, Aragorn wondered just how much more Elrohir and his elves could endure. Most were wounded in some fashion, and the strain of holding the attack against so many Orcs was beginning to tell on them. They had drawn together so that their backs were against one another, but for every Orc they killed, another four rushed to take its place. Goblin archers or not, Elrohir needed to get them out of there now.
Apparently coming to this conclusion himself, Elrohir started the retreat again. He did not go quickly enough to remove them from the press of Orcs entirely, but the ranks around them thinned and arrows from the archers near the mouth of the cave began to rain down. One elf stumbled as an arrow caught his thigh, another dropped his sword with a cry when a bolt slammed into his shoulder, and a third faltered and fell as a feathered shaft blossomed in his chest.
Faster, Elrohir, Aragorn urged, aware that only moments ago he’d been looking for a way to slow the pace. Faster! Get back to the trees!
And as though hearing his foster brother, Elrohir started moving faster. With those wounded still able to travel protected in the middle of their defensive circle, Elrohir’s group broke out into what was almost a jog. Ignoring their captains’ orders to halt, the Orcs at the fore gave chase, afraid that their quarry might slip away upon reaching the trees. This movement at the front trickled to the back until all of the Orcs were moving. The captains could restrain them no longer, and with a deafening shout, the fell creatures bore down upon the elves as the caves behind them continued to empty.
The retreat became a rout, and the elves began running, pulling their injured with them when possible. The Orcs behind them surged forward, held at bay only by a thin line of elves intent on giving the wounded a chance to reach safety. Yet they were also moving quickly, backing away so fast that the archers in the rear of the Orcs did not have time enough to adjust their bows. But one or two lucky arrows found a target, and as Aragorn watched in growing fear, one of these arrows suddenly buried itself deep in Elrohir’s side.
Elrohir doubled over, his sword clattering to the ground and disappearing instantly beneath the shadows around his feet. The Orcs he’d been fighting leaped toward him, undaunted by the elves that rushed to help, and Elrohir fell, disappearing from view.
The shout escaped ere he could stop it, and Aragorn leaped to his feet, his eyes frantically searching the swell of Orcs for any sign of his foster brother. The clash of swords overwhelmed his own voice and the Orcs missed his cry; but his men did not, and Aragorn felt them move forward slightly, ready to charge should they be summoned. For his part, Aragorn wanted nothing more than to send them all forward and rush to Elrohir’s rescue, but the decision was not his to make. Thranduil was to signal the attack. Premature action on his part would complicate matters and destroy the balance they’d set up between their forces. He could do nothing but stand and watch, hoping desperately for a sign that Elrohir yet lived and waiting impatiently for the sound that would signal their own attack.
The first of Rivendell’s injured reached the trees, disappearing quickly. Those still hale were not far behind, and the Orcs followed closely. The goblins streamed past Aragorn’s position, and it was all he could do to stop himself from leaping into the fray. A disturbance in the midst of the Orcs signaled elves who had been cut off and could not get back, but the battle was too fast and the enemy too many for Aragorn to see which elves still battled.
And then a sharp horn cry from the other side of the clearing, light yet piercing, sounded in triumphant defiance over the din.
Aragorn sprang forward before the final notes, his men moving in unison behind him. Together they rushed from the trees and crashed into the press of Orcs, who had stopped in surprise as the woods around them erupted with elves and men. The air was suddenly thick with arrows, streaming out of the trees like a deadly rain. Screams and yells swelled up from the goblin hosts as they scrambled back, but with Orcs still pouring out of the cave behind them, they had nowhere to go.
"Elrohir!" Aragorn shouted, wasting no time in taking advantage of the confusion. He had only moments before the Orcs recovered, but he’d spent a lifetime learning how to make the most of those moments. Diving into the battle, Aragorn started working his way through the Orcs, wielding Andúril like a cudgel. There was no time for precision. No time for neat, killing strokes. He couldn’t afford the chance that Andúril would become lodged in a breastplate or deflected by a shield, so he simply batted the Orcs out of his way, using the chaos to escape attention and weaving through their ranks like a Wood-elf weaving through tree limbs.
Swinging around, Aragorn knocked a mountain goblin unconscious just as an elven knife whistled past his ear and lodged itself in the throat of an Uruk behind him. "Lindir!" Aragorn yelled as a charging elf came into view. "Where—"
"This way," Lindir answered, forging ahead. "Hurry! Their rearguard has regrouped. The fore will soon do likewise."
Two more elves from Rivendell hurried by, following Lindir closely, and Aragorn risked a quick glance back. A sizeable group of his men had managed to keep up with him but they were starting to fall away as surprise on the part of the Orcs was replaced by rage. Near the cave, goblin archers were retaliating with their own volley of arrows, and the front lines had closed against Thranduil’s elves. Realizing they were out of time, Aragorn renewed his assault and hastened after Lindir.
One Orc he clubbed aside with Andúril. A hard kick pushed another out of the way. He reversed his blade and let a third impale itself as it tried to attack his back at the same time that he whipped out a belt knife and caught a fourth across the face. The fighting was becoming more organized now, and the Orcs seemed to realize that they had enemies in their midst. If he didn’t find Elrohir soon—
Somehow making itself heard over the roar of battle, Lindir’s voice came from Aragorn’s left and he immediately followed it. He blocked low, he hit right, he twisted forward, and he ducked as a sword split the air above him. They needed to get back. It was too dangerous out here!
Then the Orcs before Aragorn parted, and all concerns about danger disappeared.
Lindir was there, sword in one hand and what appeared to be an Orthanc shield in the other. A few feet away from him, one of Rivendell’s captains rocked back and forth on his knees, hands clutching at his side where a spreading stain of red darkened his tunic. Another captain lay beside him, his neck bent at an impossible angle. Seven or eight more elves battled around them in various states of health, some having arrived with Lindir and the rest having been caught too far forward during the retreat. But it was the motionless figure directly behind Lindir that caught Aragorn’s attention, and he felt his blood chill with fear even as the flames of anger roared through his mind.
* * * *
Orophin was good at waiting.
This by itself was not unusual, for most elves were. As immortal beings, their minds were structured in such a way that they could will time to pass over them without so much as a ripple, enabling them to endure the long ages of Arda. But when poised on the edge of battle—or when looking for an opportunity to initiate said battle—anticipation sometimes got the better of many elves. It was in these circumstances that Orophin excelled, for unlike either of his brothers, he could hold his emotions at length, study them, and then dismiss them much as elves in general could dismiss time. Even now, with the grief of Rúmil’s death so fresh and the shadows beneath the trees whispering of betrayal and anger, Orophin felt he was able to adequately distance himself.
Haldir would probably challenge that assertion, but Haldir was unusually protective right now. And to be fair, his brother did have reason to fear. Orophin would admit that his recent actions were not altogether typical for him. He was not usually so defiant or assertive. Most of the time he accepted Haldir’s judgement and commands without protest. But they had a role to play this morning, and they were in a good position to play it. No matter what Haldir said, Orophin could not allow him to jeopardize this opportunity. They were unknown warriors insofar as the Orcs were concerned, and Orophin knew from experience just how dangerous the unknown could be.
The warm light of the morning sun poured down upon him, filtered through thick branches bearing spring leaves. Below, a few small groups of Orcs milled about, seeking shade from the sun. The majority of Orcs had moved into the cave and only ventured back into dawn’s light for a cursory glance before retreating again. The guard had relaxed somewhat and despite the fact that Haldir and Orophin were now only a hundred feet or so away from the cave’s entrance, they were safer than they had been an hour ago. Orophin did not draw much comfort from this, though, for if things unfolded as he hoped they would, their safety would not last long.
A soft whisper of air behind him caused him to look back, and he watched as Haldir moved silently into the upper branches, probably for a better look around. Orophin was mildly surprised that Haldir had been motionless for so long. Frustrated with his brother and uneasy with their current position, Haldir had too much on his mind to sit quietly and stare at nothing. In the past, Haldir would have released his energy by keeping Rúmil under control, for Rúmil had loathed the waiting that preceded action. But that was no longer possible, and Orophin squeezed his eyes shut as the impacts of Rúmil’s death continued to ripple through almost everything they did.
With effort, Orophin pushed his grief to the back of his mind and locked it away. He had shed his tears earlier, and he had vowed to shed no more until this was finished. Composed once again, Orophin directed his attention to the cave’s entrance, watching the shadows closely as the Orcs wandered about. Their movements were slow and languid, which was to be expected as Orcs were usually nocturnal creatures. But they were still alert, and Orophin did not forget this. Though they might seem sluggish now, that could change in an instant if they discovered the presence of two elves so close to their stronghold.
A slight breeze caught hold of his hair, and Orophin glanced up at the sky. The night had been clear, but clouds were starting to build along the horizon, gleaming golden in the morning. It was difficult to be certain for Orophin had rarely been on the western side of the Misty Mountains, but he judged that storms might arise later in the day. Depending on what happened next, that could be either a good thing or a bad thing.
Movement below snapped Orophin’s attention away from the sky, and he focused his eyes upon a cluster of Orcs just within the cave’s entranced, partially illuminated by dawn. New Orcs had appeared, and initially, Orophin assumed that they were here to relieve the guards that had stood watch during the night. But as he continued to watch, he realized that this was not the case. There seemed to be a growing air of unease among the Orcs, and the whispers of conversation that he caught seemed hurried and tense.
Something brushed against his hair and a falling leaf floated past his face. Looking up, he saw Haldir signaling, and Orophin quickly climbed toward him, taking care to attract no attention to himself. When he reached his brother in the upper branches, Haldir directed him to move even higher, risking their position by venturing onto limbs that might bend and shake beneath their weight.
"Listen," Haldir instructed, his whisper so soft it was nearly impossible to hear.
And Orophin listened.
He heard the hushed murmurs of the Orcs, their voices growing louder as the discussions progressed. He head branches and limbs rubbing against one another as the light breeze grew a bit stronger. He heard the stomp of feet as an Orc passed by underneath. He heard his brother’s quiet breathing and the creek of bark as the tree struggled to support them. Further away, he heard bird calls, tentative and uncertain on this morning of shadows. And even further away than that, almost he thought he heard…metal? Yes, metal. The distinctive ring and clang of metal as it pounded against more metal, a sound so distant it could almost be dismissed as a trick of the imagination. And yet it was too distinct for that. Too clear to be a fancy of the mind.
"Battle?" he questioned, mouthing the word more than actually speaking it.
Haldir nodded, his eyes thoughtful. "Battle."
"Then I was right. The searchers found another entrance and they are attacking."
Orophin frowned and opened his mouth to ask what else it could be when Haldir suddenly gripped his shoulder hard, effectively silencing any questions. His expression one of intense concentration, Haldir closed his eyes and tipped his head to the side. Having seen this before in Lothlórien, Orophin held his breath and made no move, straining his ears to hear whatever had caught his brother’s attention.
The sound, when it came, caught him completely by surprise.
Like a tortured groan soiling the bright morning, a loud, rumbling horn cry thundered through the air. Startled, Orophin jerked away from Haldir’s hold and grabbed at the branch he crouched upon, causing the limbs to shake and sway. Haldir seemed to have expected the horn cry and simply readjusted his balance, watching Orophin’s actions with distracted bemusement. At least three more horn cries followed the first in swift succession, and the Orcs below the two brothers began hastening toward the cave’s entrance, their voices rising in confusion and fear.
Frowning, Orophin turned a baleful glare on his brother. Orc horns sometimes let out a low humming before the actual call, and this was probably what Haldir had first heard. "You might have warned me," Orophin hissed reproachfully, thankful that the Orcs below them had been too distracted to notice the sudden movements in the trees.
"And you might have listened to me when I counseled a return to Rivendell," Haldir muttered, his eyes now focused upon the Orcs just visible in the cave. "Hush, now, and watch."
Somewhat annoyed, Orophin nevertheless did as his brother instructed and turned his attention back to the Orcs. They were huddled closely together, their voices carrying clearly with tones of anger. One voice rose loud above the others, seeming to take command, and the competing voices quieted, eventually disappearing. Orders were issued, though what orders those were, Orophin could not say. He understood some of Mordor’s Black Speech, which was what these particular Orcs were using, but he did not know nearly enough to make out what was now being said.
"Hush!" Haldir ordered again, eyes intent upon the cave.
Haldir had always been fascinated by languages and until a few years ago was one of the only Marchwardens in Lothlórien who was fluent in Westron. Less well known was the fact that he was also fluent in several forms of the Black Speech. Most warriors knew bits of one dialect or another, but Orophin could think of very few who knew as much as Haldir did. Painful and disorienting, Black Speech was a difficult tongue for elves to learn, but Haldir had learned it anyway for reasons he would not divulge, though Orophin and Rúmil had always suspected it had something to do with their father’s death. Now Haldir’s unusual ability might give them a great advantage if he understand what the Orcs intended to do.
"There is indeed an attack at another entrance," Haldir whispered after several minutes had crawled by. "A main entrance, judging from their speech. The Orcs suspect a trap. Only half of those here are leaving to reinforce the other entrance. The rest shall stay." His frowned and turned to Orophin. "We cannot attack them. Too many remain."
Orophin shook his head slowly as he studied the Orcs. As Haldir had reported, half were now jogging swiftly into the darkness of the cave. Those not leaving split their forces, some moving back into the woods beneath the shade of the trees while others continued to linger in the cave’s entrance. "We must do something, Haldir," he pleaded. "We can strike at the heart of our enemy."
"No, we cannot," Haldir answered sharply, his voice rising slightly above a whisper. "We would be killed ere we could even reach the caves. Your intentions are good, but they are not reasonable."
"But if we concentrated on those without and lured them away from the sight of their companions, then—"
"Then they would still number too many. Blessed Elbereth, there are nigh unto twenty Orcs now in the forest and at least that many just within the cave. No matter how we arranged it, we could not hope to combat them."
With a quiet curse, Orophin closed his eyes and admitted to himself that Haldir was right. He was willing to risk his safety up to a point, but he would not take both himself and his brother into a situation where they would certainly die. But they were so close! And they were meant to do something here!
"Come," Haldir whispered, putting a hand on Orophin’s shoulder and squeezing gently. "Let us return to Rivendell. We both have need of it, and we can inform them that an attack is being made."
With great reluctance, Orophin nodded and rose from his crouch. But before he could move to the lower branches, a new sound was heard. Clear and beautiful, rising high above the darkness and scattering the shadows below, an elven horn loosed its notes. Orophin felt his heart leap within his chest as the Orcs stiffened in alarm. "Mirkwood," he murmured. "That was Mirkwood."
"Greenwood," Haldir corrected absently, his gaze dropping swiftly to watch the Orcs. He was silent for a moment, and then his eyes narrowed. "The battle, Orophin. Listen to the battle and tell me what you hear."
Searching for the distant clash of swords, Orophin lifted his head and concentrated. It did not take long, for the noise had increased dramatically. Where before there had been only the distant ring of metal, now there was shouting and many strikes, as though two great armies had found one another. "The Orcs were wise to suspect a trap," he observed with a hint of a smile.
"The Orcs would be foolish to suspect aught else," Haldir returned.
"Do you think they will send more to the battle?" Orophin asked, hope suddenly returning to his heart.
"I do not know, but I think it likely. Watch."
And Orophin watched, calling into play the patience he had developed through countless years as a Marchwarden. If the Orcs had been uneasy before, they were doubly so now. Those that had been sent back into the forest drifted again toward the cave. A warning sounded somewhere within Orophin’s mind, and he frowned. There were a few clans of Orcs that valued discipline and obedience, but these were generally exceptions that proved the rule. Some of the Orcs below should have been racing to join the battle. Either that or racing away from it. Yet these held their positions in an unusual show of loyalty, and Orophin wondered what this might mean.
But while he was thinking on this, a large Uruk suddenly appeared in the cave’s entrance, and he summoned the other Orcs to him with a sharp call. Their strange behavior momentarily forgotten, Orophin slowly eased onto the lower branches of his tree. Haldir followed, his movements cautious.
"What do they say?" Orophin asked.
"They speak of an ambush. More elves than they expected." Haldir hesitated and his jaw tightened. "They are pulling additional Orcs away to join the attack. Those remaining are to wait in the caves, and none are to wander the forests."
"How many will be left?" Orophin asked. He waited a moment, but his brother did not answer, choosing instead to stare at the cave and the Orcs within. "Haldir, how many will be left here?" Orophin tried again.
"Ten," Haldir said at length. "Ten will be left to guard this entrance."
Orophin’s eyes gleamed. "Ten is a reasonable number."
"There will be more beyond the entrance. Orcs are to be stationed throughout the caves if help is needed."
"Then we will overcome those at the entrance in silence."
"A difficult task," Haldir warned.
"A task we have accomplished before," Orophin answered. "One will shoot from the trees. The other will charge forward on foot."
Caught between duty and caution, Haldir was clearly torn. He looked at the Orcs, he looked at his brother, and then he closed his eyes, tipping his head to one side. At length, he sighed and opened his eyes again. "You are certain you wish to do this?"
"We must. We did not come here by chance."
Haldir’s eyes were still conflicted, but he nodded slowly and began to move. "Wait until the Orcs see me. If you can, slay those furthest back in the cave first."
"Nay, I should be the one upon the ground," Orophin argued, seizing his brother’s arm. "You are the better archer, and I am the better runner."
"If we are to do this, you must trust me," Orophin said, hoping to get this point across now before it was too late. "I will rush the Orcs. You will provide cover. If you try to shelter me, we will both be killed."
Shaking his head grimly, Haldir gave his brother a stern glare but nevertheless pulled an arrow from his quiver. "Attack from the side, then. Be swift and be careful. If one sounds an alarm, withdraw immediately!"
"I will," Orophin assured him, and then he dropped out of the tree, moving quickly before Haldir could change his mind.
Pulling a long knife from his belt, Orophin crept forward, approaching the sheer walls of the cliff and staying within the shadows. Quiet whispers in the branches above indicated that Haldir was better positioning himself, and Orophin felt the sweet thrill of anticipation fill him. Increasing his pace slightly, he wove through the last few trees, heedless of the darkness about his feet, and pressed himself against a large rock, still unseen by the Orcs in the mouth of the cave. His eyes swept the leafy canopy above and he eventually found Haldir, who already had an arrow notched and drawn. With a smile and a whispered prayer to Elbereth, Orophin stepped away from the rock, shifted his weight to the balls of his feet, and charged.
Sprinting at full speed around the rock, he hugged the side of the cliff as he ran. Long, quick strides ate away at the distance, and he was nearly on top of the Orcs before one of them turned and saw him.
An arrow whistled through the air, finding a mark near the back of the cave’s entrance, and Orophin slowed just enough to kill the Orc nearest him before swinging around and whipping his knife through another’s throat. A second arrow hissed as it flew behind Orophin, followed by a third and then a fourth. Six Orcs died before the others had time to even think of giving a warning, and then the seventh Orc opened his mouth to call down the dark tunnels of the cave. He was too far away for Haldir to have a shot, so Orophin did the next best thing and threw his knife. The Orc collapsed without a sound as Orophin bent to snatch a short sword from one of the fallen Orcs. Another arrow found its mark as Orophin’s borrowed blade severed an Orc’s head from its body before ultimately lodging in the stomach of his last enemy. A slight gurgle was the only alarm the Orcs were able muster, and that faded quickly.
Pausing to catch his breath, Orophin looked down the tunnels anxiously, but there was no sound of running feet and he could see no Orcs waiting. The dark passages turned sharply to the left further in, and the sentries Haldir had spoken of were probably beyond that corner. Keeping his eyes fixed on the darkness in case an Orc should come into view, he knelt to collect the knife he’d thrown and then rose as Haldir hurried into the cave, his bow partially drawn.
"The way is clear," Orophin whispered, wincing when his voice echoed a bit.
"It will not remain so for long," Haldir muttered. "This is foolish."
Having successfully gained entrance to the Orcs’ caverns, Orophin found it difficult to believe that they were still having this conversation. "If you are not committed, then stay. I am going on," he said sharply. "The Orcs will be concentrating on our kinsmen. Their commander will be relatively unguarded, and I intend to take advantage of this."
Haldir’s jaw tightened. "I do not like it, Orophin."
"I know," Orophin sighed. "But we cannot let such an opportunity pass. You know this. It is what we were both trained to do."
"If we err, we will not escape."
"Then we will not err. We have watched Orcs and their commanders for years. We have studied their movements and we have followed them into their strongholds. We have done this before, and we have lived to do it again. There are not two elves better suited for this than we."
"That is where you are wrong, brother," Haldir murmured. "We are not prepared for what we face, and were you to think about it, you would know this. But as you are intent, proceed. I cannot stop you now."
Orophin nodded and started forward, moving slowly so as to give his eyes time to adjust to the diminishing light. "This is no different from what we have done in the past," he whispered, making a final attempt at comfort.
Haldir merely followed him into the darkness, saying nothing.
* * * *
Terrible, consuming silence.
Silence that was not made from the absence of sound but rather existed in its own right.
He had never wondered what it would be like to scream and yet never hear the sound of his own voice. It wasn’t really the sort of thing he wondered about. It wasn’t really the sort of thing anyone wondered about. Now he wished that it was. He wished that such thoughts had occupied his mind before now. Before it was too late. Before the silence fell. Maybe it would have prepared him.
He drifted in a void. There was no light. There was no darkness. There was nothing. No direction. No purpose. It seemed to him that he waited, though what he waited for, he could not say. He could not remember coming here. He could not remember how long he had been here. He could barely remember what it had been like before.
He dimly recalled that he had a name. He could not remember what that name was, but he knew that it existed and that it was his. He also knew that he had once been able to hear the sound of his own voice. The sound of his own scream.
Sometimes he wondered if he really was screaming. He thought he was, though he could not be certain. Screaming was what he was supposed to do, and thus it made sense that he would be doing it. Screaming brought help. Screaming brought friends. Friends that could save him as he could no longer save himself. He thought he remembered having those. Friends. But they were little more than a vague memory.
He had other vague memories. Some of them concerned times when screaming had brought no help. When friends were unable to come or not close enough to hear. When the only answer was the taunts and jeers of the enemy or the sound of his own voice growing hoarse from abuse and torment. But now, there was nothing. If he had a voice, it was swallowed up by the emptiness around him. If friends or enemies were calling back, they were also soundless. He did not know if anyone was around. He did not know if anyone could hear. He did not know if anyone was trying to respond. He did not know if anyone was trying to come. He did not know if anyone even cared anymore. All he knew was that he was putting every ounce of effort into a scream that could not be heard or felt or answered. Yet still he screamed, for it was all he had left. It was the one thing he truly remembered from before. Everything else had been broken apart and built into something he did not recognize. And so he screamed, clutching desperately at this tattered fragment of memory with all that he could muster.
It might have comforted him to know that he was not wholly alone. There was another who drifted through a void and also screamed. Screamed yet made no sound. But there was no way for either to know of the other’s existence, and so they continued to scream, knowing that no one would answer them. As one mind, Merry and Legolas both screamed.
* * * *
Orc after Orc after Orc rushed into what might otherwise have been a fair morning, bellowing to one another in their foul language and sullying the air with their curses and stench. Further east, the rattle of armor and the crashing of metal joined the bedlam, accompanied by screams of the wounded and the dying. The harsh yells of Uruk captains and the whine of poison-tipped arrows completed the clamor, and from his hiding near the cave’s entrance, Calbenarth of Greenwood considered stopping his ears.
He didn’t, of course. He had lived too long and fought too many battles to surrender to such a petty temptation. But he could not deny that it was an appealing thought, for the din of battle grated hard upon him. One of the few surviving Sindar from the First Age, Calbenarth had captained beneath Thingol, Oropher, and Thranduil, stood defiant against both Morgoth and Sauron, and was now weary of it. Weary of fighting. Weary of pain. Weary of death. His heart longed for peace, but the darkness that now tainted his soul would never allow for such a thing. And every sword clash was a grim reminder that things would never be as they were. Not for him, and not for any elf of Mirkwood.
With a sigh, Calbenarth shook his head slightly and redirected his focus. Such thoughts had no place here. He had a duty to perform, and until that duty was completed, there was no room for anything else. Suiting thought to deed, Calbenarth turned his sharp eyes upon the fight that raged in the clearing to his east. It had been difficult to see the initial phases of the ambush from his position, but as all forces were now engaged in battle, he assumed that things had gone well. The Orcs were focused upon the eastern side of the clearing, and they did not yet seem to suspect that the battle was a diversion.
"How much longer?" a gruff voice whispered behind Calbenarth.
"Patience," came the somewhat terse answer. "Soon."
Glancing to the side, Calbenarth frowned and once again wondered why Lord Celeborn had insisted they bring the dwarf with them on this rescue mission. Calbenarth had said nothing aloud—it was never wise to gainsay Celeborn—but doubts preyed upon his mind. If they managed to slip into the caves unseen, a descendent of Durin might be useful, but Calbenarth doubted the dwarf’s ability to make it that far. Stealth and caution would be needed, and these two words were rarely used in conjunction with dwarves. Moreover, the elves in the group were not unfamiliar with caves. Celeborn had recruited four Marchwardens from Lothlórien who were all old enough to remember the elven caverns of Menegroth and Nargothrond while Calbenarth and the other three warriors from Greenwood had lived in Thranduil’s underground stronghold for centuries. An Orc cave was obviously quite different from this, but the differences should not be so confounding as to prove insurmountable for determined elves, particularly those from Greenwood who were here to rescue their prince. So why in Elbereth’s name was the presence of a dwarf necessary?
Because this dwarf is a friend of the prince and would have followed us regardless of whether he was invited or not, Calbenarth thought with a shake of his head. He was not overly fond of dwarves. Thingol’s death at the hands of Nogrod’s craftsmen was something he had never been able to forgive or forget, and he did not understand how Lord Celeborn, Thingol’s own kin, could so easily dismiss the past. True, this particular dwarf had somehow earned Legolas’s friendship, but Legolas was young and somewhat impulsive with little understanding of just how fickle dwarves could be. This Gimli will bear close watching, Calbenarth decided, shifting further back into the trees so that he could better see both the battle and the dwarf. And should his thoughts or actions stray, he will answer for them.
Movement on Calbenarth’s right sent him reaching for his sword, but he stopped when Elladan ducked beneath a low branch and moved to kneel beside the lord of Lothlórien. "There are fewer Orcs leaving the cave," Elladan murmured. "We should be able to move soon."
"Soon but not now. We wait until no Orcs are leaving the cave," Celeborn answered. "We cannot afford to attract the attention of those further east in the clearing."
"Those further east have their own worries," Elladan said.
"The battle goes well, then?" Gimli asked.
"I did not say that, but it does hold the Orcs’ attention."
Celeborn turned away from the fighting and gave Elladan a rather inscrutable look. "You do not think the battle goes well for us?"
His face troubled, Elladan frowned. "The first strike seemed…hasty," he confessed at length. "It is difficult to see much from here, but—"
"Your brother is capable," Celeborn interrupted briskly, his eyes sharp. "And now that Gondor, Lothlórien, and Greenwood have entered the battle, he has whatever support he may need. Turn your mind away from it. Our own battle requires your attention."
Satisfied that Lord Celeborn would keep Elladan focused, Calbenarth swept his gaze back to the entrance of the Orcs’ lair. Distracted though he might be, Elladan was right. The flow of the Orcs from the cave had ebbed significantly. Only small groups were moving out now, probably pulled from a sentry posts within the cave or at other entrances, and the number of these groups was diminishing rapidly. At the moment, seven mountain goblins were leaving, cringing beneath the sunlight that poured down upon them, and Calbenarth frowned as he watched them. The last few groups of reinforcements had all consisted of mountain goblins, and mountain goblins hated the sun even more than they hated elves. That they would risk its light for a battle that others already fought was an ill omen. With grim thoughts plaguing his mind, Calbenarth pressed his lips together and turned to watch for the next group.
A minute passed. No more Orcs left the cave.
Another minute passed. The entrance remained quiet.
Calbenarth felt his stomach tighten with anticipation. To his side, Lord Celeborn rose and moved forward cautiously, accompanied by both Elladan and the dwarf. Calbenarth pushed back the irritation that arose at such presumption and motioned the other elves to follow, his hand gripping the sword hanging on his belt. If all the reinforcements had arrived, then it was time to go. There would be guards just inside the cave, but they would be few and easy to overcome.
"Now?" the dwarf asked, his voice a low rumble of impatience.
"The Orcs in the rearguard hang back too much," Celeborn whispered. "They must be closer to the fighting. One could easily glance back and see us."
"Why are they holding back, do you think?" Elladan murmured, his eyes narrowed. "That is not like Orcs. They should be pushing forward to join the battle."
"And the mountain goblins should not even be in the battle to begin with. Not with the sun overhead," the dwarf retorted. "None of this has made sense from the beginning, and I do not wish to wait any longer. We should go now!"
Calbenarth shocked himself to the very core by deciding that he agreed with the dwarf. They should go now. There was no guarantee that the rearguard would move further away, and the longer they delayed, the more likely it was that the Orcs left within the caves would drift toward this entrance. They needed to attack now while the Orcs below ground were still scattered throughout the caverns.
"The archers are too close," Elladan said with a shake of his head. "If they turn while reaching for an arrow, they will see us and we will lose all opportunities to slip inside."
"We are losing opportunities as we speak and—"
"Quiet!" Celeborn suddenly ordered, falling back into a crouch. His actions caused Calbenarth to duck behind a tree, and the others did likewise. As one, they looked to see what had prompted this, and their eyes were eventually drawn to the cave’s entrance.
More Orcs were emerging from the cavern, which was something of a surprise after the recent lull. But the even bigger surprise was the kind of Orcs that came forth. They were not lowly mountain goblins but large Uruks bearing the symbols of both Orthanc and Mordor, and they walked close together as though sheltering something in their midst.
"A weapon?" Calbenarth wondered, unaware that he was voicing his thoughts aloud.
"Nay, a captain," Elladan answered, easing himself forward. "But I do not think it is an Orc. It appears that… Ai Elbereth!"
A furious dwarven oath followed Elladan’s curse as the Orcs parted momentarily, allowing the concealed elves a look at what was clearly a man. One brief glimpse was all they were given, but in that glimpse, Calbenarth saw a proud face twisted with a hint of madness and a mass of dark hair clipped just above broad shoulders. The man’s profile and appearance—even the touch of madness—was not unlike the Númenóreans of old, but the eyes… The eyes gave Calbenarth chills. Darker than the darkest Mirkwood night, the black eyes were filled with a power that called back memories of a Nazgûl’s scream.
"You recognize him?" Celeborn’s voice was sharp, and his tone made the words more a statement than a question. "Elladan? Gimli?"
"He perished with the fall of Mordor," the dwarf murmured, his eyes filled with disbelief.
"He was the messenger that came to the Morannon ere the final battle," Elladan whispered. "He bore tokens that Frodo had been captured, and he listed terms for our surrender."
"The Mouth of Sauron?" Celeborn’s voice was still sharp, but hidden beneath it was now an element of surprise and concern. Calbenarth’s unease doubled. "The reports proclaimed him dead."
"We thought he was!" Elladan hissed. "None survived the destruction of the Gates. None!"
"And yet there he walks," Celeborn said, his voice hard. "And doubtless he is leading these Orcs. He would have both the power and the ability to do so. That he risks himself now by venturing toward a battle…" Celeborn shook his head, and for a moment, uncertainty flickered upon his face. "It does not bode well for those we seek. If he dies ere we can reach Legolas and Meriadoc…" Celeborn paused again, gray eyes narrowed with suspicion
"I thought his death was necessary," Elladan said.
"It is, but not this soon. It is too early."
"Look," Gimli interrupted, raising his arm to point eastward. "Those who were hanging back have now moved forward."
Calbenarth turned his eyes upon the battle and saw that the dwarf was right. The few who had waited at the rear were now plunging forward with terrible fury. "They were waiting," Calbenarth realized.
"Waiting for their leader," Celeborn confirmed with a grim nod. He rose from his crouch and moved forward slowly. The cave’s entrance was now quiet. No Orcs could be seen near it, and the Uruks accompanying the Mouth of Sauron had now joined their companions in the rearguard, all of them pressing forward. "Come," Celeborn ordered. "Keep to the shadows and take advantage of whatever concealment you can. But move swiftly. The real battle is yet to come."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.