9. Scattered Paths
Haldir held completely still, frozen in position and concealed by the dense foliage of the tree in which he waited. In another tree close by, he could make out the form of his brother Rúmil, who was also completely silent and still. The woods around them trembled under the onslaught of a darkness that was anything but natural, and beneath them, a group of eleven Orcs stomped past, heedless of the elven eyes that followed their movements. Speaking quietly in their guttural tongue, the Orcs soon disappeared to the north, heading toward the ancient kingdom Rhudaur, where the threat of trolls had kept long held Rivendell at bay. None knew if trolls still haunted those forsaken forests and hills. Some had ventured theories that when Sauron’s darkness fell, perhaps it also destroyed the evils left in Eriador. But after seeing as many Orcs in this single night as he was accustomed to seeing in a month of guard duty along Lothlórien’s western borders, Haldir was fairly certain that trolls probably still roamed those ancient hills to the north.
The forest was silent again, but the feeling of oppressive darkness did not leave and even the stars seemed dim. Straightening from his crouch, Haldir dropped out of the tree and crept onto the trail left by the foul Orcs. He heard Rúmil move in the branches above and knew his brother was quietly following the Orcs from the trees, attempting to learn more of their movements and destination. Haldir followed silently on the ground, looking for clues they might have left behind in their passing. After several long minutes of this, his sharp ears caught the sound of Rúmil jumping down from a tree ahead of him and he looked up as his brother approached.
"They are veering east and will skirt the southern boundary of Rhudaur," Rúmil reported with a shake of his head. "I wonder if their only job is to wander at will, for it seems that none of the Orcs we found have a set destination."
"Perhaps we should call Orophin back," Haldir murmured, glancing to the west. Several hours ago, they had come across a large body of thirty Orcs. Orophin had left to pursue them while Rúmil and Haldir followed a trail that seemed to indicate the presence of an even bigger party. But after an hour of searching, Haldir had realized that the trail they followed had been made by several groups of Orcs passing this way. And under the darkness of night as well as the darkness of an unnatural shadow, Haldir could not determine the numbers of Orcs, whether they had been the same Orcs, or even if they’d been going the same direction as their comrades.
"What is their plan?" Rúmil hissed, clenching his hands in frustration.
Haldir shook his head wordlessly, going back over the situation. This scouting mission had been among the oddest and most confounding tasks he had ever undertaken. Their objectives were simple enough: find the trail of the Orcs, estimate their numbers, and discover the location of their lair. The first part had been easy. Too easy, in fact, for they found not one, not two, but many different Orc trails weaving in and out of the lands north of Rivendell. And the multitude of trails made it impossible to estimate the number of Orcs that had passed through this area within the last twenty-four hours. They had come upon several small parties of Orcs, but there were so many of them and they were so scattered that they provided no method of estimating the size of the entire body. And as for discovering the Lair…Haldir sighed. Rúmil was right in this, for it seemed that many of the Orcs had no direction and were under orders to simply wander. It was quite an effective way to foil the elven scouts who tracked them, and not for the first time this night, Haldir wondered who commanded these Orcs.
"Come," Rúmil suddenly said, brushing past Haldir with an angry air. Rúmil had never been a particularly patient elf, and especially on missions where success kept slipping further and further away, his temper had a tendency to flare up. "Let us find Orophin and hear what he has to say. Dawn is not far off and we should head back to report our findings."
"Or lack of findings," Haldir sighed. As the oldest of these three brothers, it was his job to keep them in line but that proved to be a difficult task given Rúmil’s lack of patience and Orophin’s excess of patience. Orophin was want to follow a task well past the time when such a task could be accounted finished, seeking out every possibility and every conceivable twist in a situation. Haldir seriously doubted that Orophin would agree to head back to Rivendell, particularly when all they could report was that the Orcs seemed to be scattered far and wide across Eriador with no apparent direction or base. But Rúmil was clearly coming to the end of his patience, and Haldir wondered how the inevitable confrontation would play out.
"Are you coming or do you prefer simply to stand here?"
This will most certainly be interesting, Haldir thought, obediently and silently falling into step behind Rúmil. The moment Rúmil began throwing insults around was the moment his patience snapped. It was also the moment Orophin usually became absolutely quiet, allowed his older brother to expend all his anger, and then calmly refused whatever course Rúmil suggested. As the youngest of the three, it was curious to Haldir that Orophin possessed the most patience, but such was the case and that patience extended not only to guard duty and scouting missions. It also covered arguments with his two older brothers, and even Haldir had occasionally found himself at a loss for words when confronting Orophin. It would not be easy to convince him to leave off this search and return to Rivendell.
But at the same time, Rúmil was one Lórien’s best scouts. He had hunted Orcs since he was old enough to draw a bow, and his skills far surpassed both Haldir’s and Orophin’s in his ability to sense the intentions of Orcs and their direction. If he believed there was nothing more to discover here, he was probably correct. Of all of them, he had spent the most time along Lórien’s northern and western borders. He could sense an Orc when it was still several miles away, and with a single glance he could tell its breeding, its capability, and its objective.
Haldir ground his teeth together as he followed Rúmil’s fleeting form. The decision would ultimately be his to make, for his two brothers would be unable to convince one another and he would be looked to as the deciding vote. And mother told me it was my job to lead them, he thought with a shake of his head. More often than not, I but follow, and when they do consider my presence, it is to ask me to decide what they cannot.
They now passed the point where Orophin had separated to follow the other Orc party, and Haldir turned his mind to searching the ground for tracks of those Orcs, hoping that the trail did not split. If it did and Orophin left nothing to indicate which direction he took—a failing Orophin occasionally had—then he and Rúmil would be forced to either split up or choose one of the trails and follow it together. Haldir supposed they could always whistle for Orophin, but the Orcs on the northern boundary had been Uruk-hai, and they were not so easily fooled by elven whistles. The signals might reveal their position and turn the hunters into the prey and the prey into the hunters.
"I sense Orcs to the side," Rúmil suddenly hissed. "Continue on the trail and I shall join you momentarily."
"Go carefully, brother," Haldir warned. Rúmil nodded curtly and then leaped into the trees, disappearing from sight quickly. Haldir now slowed his pace somewhat, for he no longer had Rúmil to watch his back for him while he watched the trail. With senses trained on both his surroundings and the path left by the Orcs, it became more difficult to navigate but not impossible. Haldir had played this game many times in Lothlórien, and never yet had he lost.
After several more miles of quick but careful tracking, Haldir came to a halt and inwardly groaned. The Orcs had separated, going three different directions judging by what he could make out in the darkness. Haldir swiftly climbed into the surrounding trees, searching for a sign left by Orophin to indicate which party he followed. As fate would have it, he found nothing, and Haldir immediately began forming a reprimand even as he cursed quietly with frustration. The last time this had happened, he and Rúmil had spent the better part of the day looking for Orophin while an Orc hunting party blundered across the Nimrodel and almost into the Celebrant before they were caught and killed.
Movement on the ground caught his eye and he froze, searching the area. The movement reappeared and he let loose a breath he’d been holding. Dropping out of the trees, he waved Rúmil over. "I trust you found more Orcs?"
"It was a small party, one I could have dispatched with ease."
"Lord Celeborn expressly forbade—"
"I know and I did not act, though I was sorely tempted," Rúmil said with a slight growl. "In any case, they pose no threat to us and are traveling in the opposite direction. Have you found aught here?"
"The trail splits into three directions," Haldir said, indicating the paths taken by the Orcs. "Unfortunately, Orophin left no indication as to which trail he followed."
"Elbereth!" Rúmil swore, throwing his hands up into the air. "Will he never learn?"
"I suspect it will take several centuries for lessons to truly have an effect," Haldir sighed with a shake of his head. "He becomes too obsessed with his quarry and forgets such precautions as must be taken for the sake of prudence and safety. Be that as it may, we now come to a difficult choice. Shall we both take separate directions and assign a time for returning here should we find naught, or shall we choose ourselves a trail together and pray it leads us to our errant brother?"
Rúmil was silent for a moment, his expression rather vacant and his head cocked to one side as though listening. "I sense no Orcs in the immediate area."
"That will change should we whistle," Haldir warned, seeing immediately where his brother’s train of thought was leading. "And there is no guarantee that Orophin will be able to signal back, for he may be near the Orcs himself."
Rúmil assumed a scowl that Orophin had once dubbed his dwarven expression and folded his arms across his chest. "We will cover more ground if we separate, yet we run the risk of losing one another. And I have not your talent for tracking. If a trail diverges, in this darkness I may miss it."
"Dawn is perhaps an hour away," Haldir said. "We could take a trail together and if we find nothing, we could return and split, for then we would have daylight and you could better see the signs by which you track."
With a nod, Rúmil turned to evaluate the three separate options. "Which way do you think we should go?"
"The center track seems to be the one most recently used as well as the one most of the Orcs have taken. Let us follow that trail for a bit and see if it leads us to any answers. Come!"
Haldir set out and Rúmil dutifully fell into step behind him, keeping a sharp eye out for Orcs while his brother sped along the trail. They had gone perhaps a mile when Rúmil suddenly laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder and stopped him. "I believe Orophin is just ahead, but it is difficult to tell."
"Up," Haldir whispered, leaping into the branches above and moving aside as Rúmil did the same. They continued silently, keeping sight of the Orc’s trail through the glimpses they caught between the thick boughs of the trees. It was yet early in the spring, but the winter had been mild and foliage was thick, further complicating matters. But it did provide the elven scouts with places to hide, and for that they were thankful.
A sigh of relief suddenly escaped Haldir as a lithe figure suddenly leaped into the tree branches before the two brothers, but he quickly schooled his expression into one of anger and disappointment. "The trail split a mile ago, brother. Why did you not leave us a sign to indicate your chosen course?"
Stepping into a patch of moonlight, Orophin blinked and then offered a sheepish smile. "My apologies, brothers. But I have something you both must see. Hurry and follow!"
"Orophin, we can do no more good out here, for these Orcs are but decoys," Rúmil said, beginning to lay forth his reasons for returning to Rivendell. Haldir silently groaned and began looking around for somewhere to sit this argument out until he was needed, but Orophin’s response surprised him and he found himself being drawn back into the conversation.
"You are right, Rúmil. Most of these Orcs are decoys, but I believe that the Orcs I have followed are heading home. Their trail disappears into darkness, and I cannot see whither they go. Come, you must look upon this!"
Orophin’s brothers exchanged baffled looks. "Their trail disappears?" Haldir echoed.
"It is like a shadow, but it is not a shadow," Orophin explained, dropping to the ground and starting off. "Come!"
Once again, Haldir and Rúmil exchanged puzzled expressions, but their only choice was to follow unless they wished to leave their youngest brother in the forests north of Rivendell. "I am tying him up and leaving him home the next time we are asked to scout an area," Rúmil growled, leaping off his branch and landing in a low crouch before starting after Orophin. Haldir sighed and followed, wondering exactly what Orophin had been babbling about.
By the time Orophin stopped long enough for his brothers to catch up with him, they were close enough to the southern boundaries of Rhudaur for Haldir’s nerves to be on edge. There was definitely an ill feel about that reeked of trolls, and Haldir’s eyes roved from shadow to shadow while his mental clock counted down the seconds to the safety of sunrise.
"Here," Orophin whispered, his voice low. "Follow this trail and you will see what I mean."
"We should not be here, Orophin," Rúmil hissed, apparently just as nervous as Haldir was. There were still several minutes until sunrise and the presence of malignant evil was so palpable that it sent shivers up and down their spines.
"So long as we are careful and quiet, we will be safe. Is that not what you tell me when we venture beyond the safety of Lórien?"
Trust Orophin to use our own words against us. Haldir grimaced, glanced helplessly at Rúmil, and then bent his eyes to the Orc trail Orophin indicated. Relying on Rúmil’s sharp senses to warn them all of danger ere they stumbled into it, Haldir forged ahead swiftly, knowing that the sooner they observed whatever it was that Orophin wished to show them, the sooner they could leave.
And then it happened. Just as Orophin had said, the trail vanished. Haldir stopped short, staring at the ground before him in confusion. The Orc trail clearly led to this point and insofar as his highly honed tracking abilities could determine, the Orcs had been traveling this direction and had not turned back. But the trail on the ground stopped cold right here. It did not proceed further forward but vanished into the unnatural darkness of the night. Haldir cast a suspicious look up into the trees, almost expecting to see a large company of Uruk-hai leering down at them, but there was nothing. Yet such a thing was impossible! Orcs did not simply vanish into thin air, and unless the laws of nature and fortune had taken an abrupt change for the worse, Orcs did not fly. Where had they gone?
"You see?" Orophin whispered at his side. "I was following these Orcs using their trail, for there were enough of them that I took no risk of being seen. But when I reached this point, I could still hear their fell voices yet the trail simply…ends."
A highly suspicious Rúmil bent down to the ground, running a hand experimentally along the rich soil. "I can feel that Orcs have come this way. The very earth groans at their passing. And yet they have left no mark. What devilry is this?"
"Perhaps the sun may aid us," Orophin said, nodding toward the Misty Mountains. A glimmer of light was beginning to appear over their peaks and Haldir felt a sigh of relief escape him as the fear of trolls dwindled. The foul creatures would be forced to hide in dark places now, and so long as he and his brothers stayed in open areas, there was no need to fear them.
Shafts of sunlight were now streaming past them through the heavy boughs of the trees, and Haldir turned to examine the trail more thoroughly. But what he saw made him gasp and he took an involuntarily step backwards. Before him, waves of darkness undaunted by the growing light seemed to ripple across the ground, moving back and forth over the path of the Orcs in a wide swath and enveloping all in the chilling grasp of an unnatural shadow. It was as though a black cloud of mist coated the earth, masking the ground against even elven sight and sending shivers of fear up and down the spines of the three elves. Retreating slowly, they watched together in horror as the glory of the morning was stained by this ugly wave of shadow.
"Back," Haldir hissed at length, taking the arms of his stunned brothers. "We must report this to Lord Celeborn. This is not something we can confront on our own."
* * * *
As the first rays of the sun glanced off the rooftops of Rivendell, Aragorn girded Anduril about his waist and stepped out onto a balcony. Fate seemed to be playing an interesting game, for Aragorn swiftly noticed that it was the same balcony where only the day before, Legolas had begged leave to escort the hobbits. The king of Gondor cursed quietly, remembering that moment and his fateful words that had, for all intents and purposes, doomed Legolas and Merry to the torments of the Orcs. Thranduil was right. Given the warnings he’d already received about the shadow in the mountains, he should have sent the honor guard with Legolas and Gimli as extra protection. How could he have not seen this? And why had he not hearkened to the voice of prudence? Aragorn cursed again, rubbing his eyes and shaking his head. Gandalf had warned him of this. Five years ago, Gandalf had cautioned him against hasty action, but he had not remembered when he granted Legolas’s request.
If I may counsel you in the use of your own, do not use it—yet! Be wary!
When have I been hasty or unwary, who have waited and prepared for so many long years?
Never yet. Do not then stumble at the end of the road. *
"Alas, dear friend, it was not the end of the road but the path that lay beyond. It is there where I stumbled, and now others must pay the price for it," Aragorn murmured, remembering that conversation over Orthanc’s palantír. He leaned his arms against the balcony railing and settled his head on the smooth wood, sighing with frustration and guilt. So cut off from the rest of the world was he that he jumped when a pair of soft hands began kneading the tight muscles of his shoulders, though he swiftly relaxed as the massage became deeper.
"Now is not the time for recriminations, Elessar," Arwen whispered gently, moving her hands down his back and smiling as Aragorn relaxed completely beneath her touch. "Legolas and Gimli chose to meet the hobbits. You are not accountable for their decisions. Had you sent the honor guard, they would still have gone, for Thranduil drove them to it."
"An honor guard might have prevented their capture."
"Perhaps," Arwen said, moving her massage down further and attacking the lower back muscles. "But you do not know that with any certainty and so blame has no purpose. This was not something you could have prevented, my husband. One way or another, our hobbits friends would have been attacked on the road. The attack was news for even my brothers, and they have been wardens of Imladris for centuries. If you must indulge in guilt, at least share that guilt with others."
"You know me too well to ask that of me," Aragorn sighed, straightening and snagging Arwen by the waist. Pulling her to him, he moaned as her body melded against his solid form and her lips captured his in a kiss born as much from need and sorrow as from passion. They stayed locked thus for perhaps a minute before Aragorn reluctantly pulled back. "I must leave, love. Already I rue the night spent here when it might have been spent looking for Legolas and Merry."
"Then come, for I shall walk with you to the stable," Arwen said, taking Aragorn’s hand and moving away from the balcony and into the house. "I gather you have not informed Imhran or your guards of your intentions," she said as they walked through the twisting corridors.
"Nay. This country is strange to them and they would be of little use in the forests."
"I see. You do know that I shall require recompense for placating them after they demand to know where you have gone. And I do not think I can stop them from following you if Imhran takes it into his head to do so. He can be as stubborn as you, Estel."
"As for the recompense, you shall have it and more when this is over," Aragorn promised with a sly grin and wink, which gave Arwen cause to blush though her eyes sparkled mischievously. "And as for Imhran, he may do as he wishes, though unless he enlists the aid of Elladan and Elrohir, I doubt he shall be able to find me."
The words had barely left Aragorn’s mouth when they turned a corner and stopped. Waiting rather impatiently in the main hall stood Gimli, Imhran, a few of Gondor’s best guards, Elrohir, Elladan, and Celeborn. Aragorn shot an accusing look at Arwen, but she shrugged and shook her head, indicating that she had no part in any of this. A laugh caught their attention and they turned as Elrohir smiled, albeit his smile was laced with worry and fear.
"You are too predictable, Aragorn, though I do admit that we were beginning to worry. It is unlike you to start so late in the day and we wondered if you had not left in the middle of the night." He cast a curious glance at his sister, but Arwen’s face was innocently blank.
"Might I ask what all this is?" Aragorn demanded.
"No more and no less than what is needed," Elladan said. "As we speak, we are gathering trackers and scouts from Imladris. They shall meet us by the Ford and from there we all shall join the hunt that takes place in the wilderness of Eriador."
The king of Gondor said nothing for a moment, wondering why he hadn’t anticipated this, and then a smile broke over his face. With a shake of his head, he laughed and clapped Elrohir on the arm. "Come then, for your company is welcome."
"But you cannot all go," Arwen said, her dark eyes locking on those of her brother. "These Orcs have already shown no compunctions about attacking Imladris itself and we can ill afford to be caught with our defenses elsewhere should they choose to attack again."
"We have discussed this already sister, and it has been decided that Celeborn and I will stay with the bulk of the forces here in Rivendell," Elrohir answered, and Aragorn winced to hear the reluctance in his voice. Rivendell was the last place Elrohir wanted to be at the moment, for if there were foes to be followed and enemies to be fought, his place was on the battlefield, not in the fort. But necessity dictated their stations now, and on a hunt, Elladan was actually the better twin. His senses were unrivaled and his ability for anticipating an enemy’s movements was uncanny. Beyond this, Aragorn was getting a sense of guilt from Elladan that he’d felt only when the twins spoke of their mother, Celebrían. It seemed that Elladan was attempting to assume full responsibility in failing to sense the attack of the Orcs and was looking to make amends. Whatever the case was, be it guilty conscience, abilities, or a combination of the two, Aragorn could not deny that he was more than glad for his foster brother’s company.
"Then if our forces are gathered and our plans are set, let us depart," Aragorn said, loosening Anduril within its scabbard and moving toward the door with Arwen at his side. "The sun rises and I would see us on the trail ere much more time passes. Who shall be traveling with us?"
"A few of your own men," Elladan said. "Myself, Gimli, perhaps fifteen more or so from Imladris though that number is uncertain. Thranduil expressed an interest in coming as well, but he was called away ere you arrived and has not been seen since. And perhaps that is for the best," Elrond’s oldest son sighed, sharing a frustrated look with his twin. "The tension that arises whenever he and Gimli are in the same area is something not easily stomached, and Elrohir tells me that you have not made a favorable impression with the king of Mirkwood, either."
"The king of Mirkwood deserves all he receives and more," Gimli growled, speaking for the first time since Aragorn’s arrival and fingering the blade of his axe as he walked. The company stepped into the sunlight and all blinked at the sudden change in brightness, but Gimli’s eyes remained as hard as ever. "I have tried to convince my people that our grudge with the elves is foolishness, but there are older dwarves who balk at this and I see now that the same is true of the elves."
"Not all older elves fall into your category, Gimli," Celeborn said. "Though I also held many grievances with your people, Galadriel did not and through her eyes I learned differently. There is hope for both our peoples, friend dwarf. And there is also hope for today. Seek the stables and mount! Elrohir and I shall keep careful watch from Imladris, and if we have aught to report, we shall send word immediately."
Everyone froze and Aragorn wondered if Rivendell’s front porch might not be cursed. Only yesterday there had been several unpleasant interruptions while they discussed battle plans on the porch, and it was starting again this morning. Turning, the king rested his eyes on Thranduil who was quickly making his way toward them with another elf in tow. The other elf appeared to be an archer by profession judging from his stance and the thickness of his gauntlets around the forearm where the string might hit if a bow was fired in haste. His hair was dark like the hair of most Mirkwood elves, and he seemed distressed.
"News has come," Thranduil said tersely. "Lindir has sent back one of my scouts with information, and I would that you should hear it ere you set out this morning." The elven king glanced back at the archer who bowed gracefully to the company ere he began to speak.
"Ithildae I am called, my lords and lieges, and I have much to tell you. We spent many hours searching during the night under Lindir’s command but the trail was strange. The Orcs split into many groups and wandered far and wide, almost without direction, until we followed a trail that led us far to the south. Then it turned almost due east, as though making for the mountains, but the moment we began to follow it, a wave of darkness seemed to sweep the land and our eyes were confounded. It is like nothing I have ever seen before, and I have hunted in Mirkwood’s forests since the Second Age. Almost it reminded me of Dol Guldur, save that the evil did not seem to be as intense or concentrated."
"You describe this darkness as a wave?" Celeborn questioned, his eyes narrowing in thought.
"As wind makes waves upon the waters of the Long Lake, my lord," Ithildae answered. "I watched this darkness ripple and churn, and it spread as spilled ink across a parchment. The trail was lost to us and it encompassed such a wide area that we feared to make a guess as to where the trail might be."
Aragorn frowned, his mind spinning into high gear and quickly searching through thousands of facts garnered from years of study in Elrond’s long library as well as more recently acquired information from Minas Tirith’s horde of scrolls. But despite his excellent memory and vast array of resources, all he drew was a blank. Judging from the expression on Arwen’s face as well as the expressions on the faces of his foster brothers, they also knew not what to make of this strange report. Thranduil and Celeborn, on the other hand, seemed to know far too much and their faces were grave.
"Elladan, do you swear that you know nothing more about the master of these Orcs?"
Startled by the sharpness in Celeborn’s voice, Elladan blinked and nodded. "I have told you all that I know and most of what I suspect. I—"
"We need everything that you suspect, son of Elrond, now!" Thranduil ordered.
Sensing movement next to him, Aragorn glanced down and discovered that Gimli had moved up and seemed about to jump into the conversation. His concern for Legolas was overpowering his caution and he looked less than interested in the present conversation. Dropping a hand to the dwarf’s shoulder, Aragorn put just enough pressure in the grip to inform Gimli that he was not the only anxious one here but that something odd was taking place and it was best to learn all they could. The dwarf stopped his forward progress, but he sent Aragorn a warning glare. He would not suffer this to continue much longer. Legolas and Merry were in the hands of the Orcs, and every minute was precious. For his part, Aragorn was in complete agreement with Gimli, but saying so would not aid them. Instead, he summoned as much patience as he could and turned back to the conversation only to find that it was swiftly devolving into a political debate.
"You presume much, King Thranduil, to address the leader of Imladris so when you are a guest in Rivendell," Elrohir snapped, his hand on the hilt of his sword.
"Were it not for your inadequacies in compensating for the loss of Vilya, you would have dealt with these Orcs long before now. Mirkwood has survived for millennia without protection such as Vilya or Nenya could provide, and it seems we are now stronger because of it."
"And yet it was your forest that provided a haven for Dol Guldur and the creatures that ventured forth from that fortress," Celeborn returned angrily. "Slight not what you do not understand, Thranduil. The Elven Rings are far beyond your comprehension."
"If I may be permitted to remind you, Lord Celeborn, Dol Guldur was due east of Lothlórien. Were I any judge, and I am, I should say that Dol Guldur was more your responsibility than mine."
"Peace, all of you!" Aragorn stepped forward, separating himself from both Gimli and Arwen in the hopes that any censure he was about to receive would not fall upon either of them. "Do you hear what you say? You speak of Dol Guldur and the Three. Our mission this day is to discover the plans of the Orcs and liberate two captives if it can be contrived. All other talk is foolishness, and it seems to me that the eldest among us, Celeborn and Thranduil, are using it as a diversion in an attempt to avoid discussion of unpleasant things. But the time has passed for secrets and I would know what I face so that I may confront it. Speak, or if you will not speak, cease this idle chatter and allow the rest of us to fulfill the duty we took upon ourselves. I, at least, have not forgotten where our priorities lie."
There was silence at Aragorn’s words and none spoke until Gimli’s gruff baritone broke the tense stillness for them. "Aragorn speaks for me as well. If you have naught to do but argue amongst yourselves, I shall take my leave and look for my companions, one of whom happens to be the son of a king who currently graces our presence this morning. I would have departed long ago, but Elrohir insisted on waiting for everyone. Yet I will wait no longer, and if you cannot settle this dispute, I shall leave you to it."
"What would a child of Aulë know concerning—"
"Silence, Thranduil," Celeborn ordered, his voice heavy. "My apologies, Aragorn and Gimli. You are correct. We do not wish to speak of this, yet it seems it cannot be avoided. But first, I would know the answer to Thranduil’s original question. Elladan, will you tell us all of your suspicions?"
Elladan nodded, ignoring Elrohir’s angry mutterings. "I know not exactly what you wish to hear, but I will relate to you my suspicions based on what I observed." Elladan closed his eyes and took a deep breath, bringing to mind every detail and every guess. "I believe this master to be human," he finally said. "Something in the voice of the Orc that I found impressed this upon me. I have no concrete basis for my belief, but nonetheless, it is a theory I am entertaining with some seriousness. I also believe the master comes from the ruin of Mordor. As you all learned last night, the Orc I confronted was from Mordor and I sensed a reverence and fear born of long service when he spoke of his master. This leads me to believe the master was known to this Orc for quite some time, and as such, Mordor would be the logical point of origin."
"A human from Mordor," Celeborn sighed. "And one who was known in the hierarchy of Sauron’s dominion, else he would not have been able to command the respect and forced loyalty that this Orc was willing to give him. Have you any other ideas to share with us, Elladan?"
"You have heard the others," Elrond’s son answered.
Celeborn nodded and looked over at Thranduil, but the king of Mirkwood had his eyes fixed on the west and was doing an admirable job of ignoring everyone else. With a sigh, the lord of Lothlórien looked to the others and Aragorn felt a shiver run down his back. Celeborn appeared to have aged in the past few minutes and the change was unnerving. Arwen stepped forward, wrapping her hand around Aragorn’s and fixing piercing eyes upon her grandfather. "What have you learned, Lord Celeborn? What do we face?"
"I cannot say with any accuracy, but…" Celeborn hesitated, reluctant to go on.
"Black Númenóreans," Thranduil hissed, his cold eyes darting toward Aragorn. "This darkness is of them. At least one of this lineage has risen from the ashes of Mordor. Your people trouble us yet again, son of Arathorn. I would say that is quite an accomplishment. Very few houses of man have been able to haunt the elves for so long."
"Then let us hope that I shall trouble these Black Númenóreans as much as they seem to trouble you, King Thranduil," Aragorn replied, allowing a hard smile to creep over his face that was but a thin veil over a dangerous threat. "And now that we know our enemy, let us seek him out. We have lingered here far too long."
"You speak wisely, my brother," Elladan said, directing a pointed look at Thranduil as he uttered that last word. "Come. We shall mount and follow Ithildae. He shall lead us to this darkness and from there we shall seek our lost comrades. Forward, my friends. Let us be off!"
*This dialogue was lifted directly from TTT, p 255 of Ballantine’s 50th anniversary edition.
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