21. Chapter Twenty
The next day they continued their journey on foot. As soon as they stepped off the road and turned south the light changed, becoming dull and lifeless. They felt the shadow almost at once and all around them they saw the sickness which had spread so far from its source at Dol Guldur. Trees and grass and all other vegetation were blighted, some twisted, some wilting, and all spotted and oozing with mildew and fungus. Celinn could sense a high discordant vibration, just out of the range of hearing, which was immediately wearisome; and there was an odour, a hard iron tang mixed with the sickening smell of the midden. They would have to be sparing with their rations since everything under the shadow was unwholesome, so they could neither hunt nor gather food. Legolas knew where to find sweet water to replenish their stocks but apart from that there would be nothing but lembas until their journey was over.
Cerveth screwed up his face with distaste.
'Now I understand why Aradhil came back to Mirkwood by the long route along Anduin,' he said, 'This grey light saps the spirit; but at least I'm with you now, brothers, and when we reach Dol Guldur I'll be closer to Lorien, even if I may not enter it…'
Aiglin put an arm round his shoulder to comfort him, and Legolas glanced at Haldir, who shrugged helplessly.
It took them nearly a week to reach the East Bight and afterwards they travelled along the edge of the forest for several days. One morning they came to a small stream that fell several feet down a rocky cliff in a loud-voiced waterfall. Legolas said it was wholesome and they all refilled their water bottles from it. When they had finished, straight away Cerveth stripped off his clothes and leapt into the water, calling to the others to join him.
'Come in, it's as sweet as wine,' he shouted, then clambered down the rocky steps to sit just below the falls, so that his long fair hair was flattened against his head by silver sheets of water.
Luinil sat down by the stream to watch them and Gwirith wandered off alone, but Aiglin and Celinn and Legolas stripped off and climbed down into the water, standing under the pounding stream that fell sparkling off the cliff.
'Haldir, it's heavenly!' called out Legolas. 'Will you not try it?'
But Haldir shook his head and instead stood vigilant, his eye on Gwirith's distant form. Smiling he gazed down at his comrades, frolicking like elflings, throwing water at each other and shouting with laughter. A part of him longed to forget the burden of responsibility and throw himself into the water but he confined himself to gazing at Legolas who seemed even fairer than usual, his fine skin glistening with wetness. At last Haldir had to order them to come out and dress themselves, but Cerveth was full of high spirits and giving his pack and weapons to Celinn, showed them all his skills of tumbling, turning cartwheels on the sparse grass as the others walked sedately along the track.
'Was he truly captain of this company before Celinn? He seems no more than an elfling,' said Legolas quietly to Haldir.
'He was,' said Haldir. 'You haven't seen him in command, or you wouldn't need to ask.'
Three days after they turned south west towards Dol Guldur, while they were resting beside the track, Luinil suddenly cried out and tried to brush something off his leg. Gwirith was there first and saw that it was a large black spider, about a hand's-span across, its beak-like jaws deep in Luinil's flesh. It took some time to force it to release its grip, and when at last it fell to the earth, a host of other, smaller spiders gathered round it and they scuttled quick and hideous into the undergrowth.
Luinil sat on the ground, his injured leg stretched out in front of him, while Gwirith turned up the cloth of his breeches.
'It's left its sting behind,' he said grimly, examining the two deep bite wounds just above his brother's right ankle.
Haldir took out his scrip and gave Gwirith a small mithril knife, and carefully Gwirith excised the wounds and pulled out the two thin sharp pieces of the creature's horny jaw.
'They're hollow,' said Gwirith. 'The wounds may be poisoned.'
'They burn like sulphur,' gasped Luinil, his face covered in sweat. Gwirith glanced at him anxiously, then cleaned the wound as best he could before binding it.
'Can you walk, brother?' he said, extending a hand to Luinil.
Luinil got to his feet with difficulty, but said he was well enough. They continued their journey and at first made a good pace, but as the day wore on Luinil weakened, and by nightfall was struggling against a low fever. The wounds were ugly, inflamed and oozing, and Gwirith washed them again, using a little of their precious store of athelas. He spent the whole night watching over his brother, and in the morning when they set off again he walked close to Luinil, grim-faced and silent.
On that day and every day following Gwirith worked with his healing skill on Luinil, but already the influence of the dark tower had made it less effective, and the wounds refused to close. Each evening the fever rose and the others offered to prepare the feverfew to ease him, or to help in other ways, but Gwirith refused them. He slept each night now beside his brother, waking whenever Luinil called out, delirious, wiping his burning brow and giving him sips of water to drink.
After three days Celinn asked him to let someone else care for Luinil so that he himself could rest.
'You're exhausted,' he said. 'You'll be no help to him if all your strength is used up.'
Gwirith threw him a bitter look. 'Can you not spare me from your bed even to care for my brother?' he said unpleasantly. 'I didn't think you so careful of your rights.'
'I'm not,' said Celinn, shocked. 'I'm careful for you, sweeting. You haven't slept for four nights.'
But Gwirith turned away without a word and left him.
Legolas had overheard their exchange, and said to him,
'Don't take it to heart. Each step brings us closer to the tower and its pernicious influence, and any weakness in us seems greater in its shadow.'
Despite Luinil's indisposition, they continued to make good time but two days later they came unexpectedly across a nest of orcs and although they defeated them, both Legolas and Aiglin were hurt, Legolas taking a wound in the thigh and Aiglin in the arm. Neither wound was serious but like Luinil's, they would not heal despite every care by herbs or touch. Celinn took a blow to the head from an orc sword and was sick and drowsy for a day and a night afterwards. Something seemed to change in Gwirith then, and he became even more morose and silent than he had been since Luinil was hurt.
Haldir watched him as he cared for Celinn that night, his hands lying lightly on Celinn's injured head as it rested in his lap.
'Something's troubling you,' said Legolas, breaking some lembas into quarters and handing him a piece.
Haldir took it and began to chew on it abstractedly.
'Maybe,' he said.
Legolas glanced over at Gwirith.
'Tell me what it is,' he said gently.
'I don't know for sure,' said Haldir, 'but I sense something…fragile in Gwirith. When he first came to us, before he loved Celinn, he was solitary and closed. I feel it growing in him again.'
'Under the shadow we can do very little,' said Legolas. 'The swifter we complete this mission, the swifter we can leave this place and its evil influence.'
Haldir nodded, but then the implication of Legolas' words touched him: the sooner they finished here, the sooner they must part. Legolas was there before him, and discreetly he slipped his arm round Haldir's waist and held him.
Beside the fire Gwirith moved his hands closer together on Celinn's head, the dark frown deepening on his stern face.
The next day they went on as usual but the shadow had begun to slow them down, and even taking into account the pace forced on them by the wounded, they covered much less ground than before. The weather grew much colder and they were glad of the fur and skin cloaks that they had brought with them. Cerveth who, despite the hardship of the journey, was still in excellent spirits, did all he could to help those who found the travelling most arduous. Apart from carrying their packs or sharing food and water with them, he did his best to cheer them, and his natural liveliness was an encouragement to them all.
But despite Cerveth's efforts, tempers were shorter and judgment less precise than before. The next night as they sat round the small fire they had made, Legolas spoke to them.
'The shadow of Dol Guldur is hard to bear,' he said. 'Its power is the power of unravelling and breaking apart. If there is any weakness in us, it will enter as through a chink in armour, and work on us. I've seen it happen many times before. Our defence is to remember that we must be wary even of ourselves, when strange moods come upon us.'
'Give me a strange mood rather than an orc with a sword, and I won't complain,' said Gwirith scornfully.
Legolas turned to him, shifting awkwardly to settle his injured leg. 'Don't underestimate what I say, Gwirith,' he said. 'I've seen others change so much that their friends scarcely knew them. If you take this too lightly, you'll be most open to its danger, particularly since you are a healer: you have given your strength to others on this journey and it could make you more vulnerable than the rest of us. And this time there is no Mithrandir to protect us. Celinn and I have been to the dark tower most recently so we may be protected a little, but those who have never been there or who haven't been for some time are most at risk.'
'What else can you tell us about Dol Guldur?' said Aiglin.
'I can tell you what Mithrandir told us; he entered the tower a hundred years ago and witnessed the death of the dwarf King Thrain who was imprisoned there. It was then that he discovered that the dark lord was gathering to himself all the rings that Celebrimbor made, and that he was searching for the One. Mithrandir saw much of the tower but even he could not penetrate every part of it: it still has its secrets. He has been into it many times and he said that each time it appears different…it is almost as if it changes somehow from within.'
'What did Mithrandir see?' said Aiglin urgently.
Legolas was silent for a moment, visibly gathering himself to speak.
'He saw terrible things. Dungeons where those of all the races of Arda were held captive and tortured mercilessly. He freed those he could but even his power could not scour the tower of all the evil that is within. Rooms where dark magic was practised, full of the objects of the craft: spell books and elemental materials and…substances which had once been living: blood and flesh as well as herbs and other vegetable matter. Strange stones and wands and amulets, and even fantastic beasts; many-headed, or speaking, or walking on two legs instead of four…maybe these were the fruit of the dark lord's meddling with what was once good and wholesome.'
'How did he enter the tower and escape unharmed?' said Cerveth.
'He hid himself with a glamour, the same one he used when our forces attacked the dark tower many years ago, when first Haldir and I met,' said Legolas, glancing quickly at Haldir, who smiled faintly at him. 'Without such a defence, and the other magics Mithrandir has at his command, it is the purest folly to try to enter the tower. That's why we seek only to watch, and to leave unnoticed.'
They fell silent then, subdued by Legolas' words. After a long time Cerveth threw some more wood on the fire, and that seemed to rouse them, and once they had set the watch, they stretched out their bedding beside the fire and tried to sleep.
The night after that Luinil's fever eased a little, and he needed less care, but Gwirith did not return to Celinn, sleeping at a little distance from the others. His attention which had been reserved for his brother did not turn outward again, but indeed he became ever more silent and solitary, so that Aiglin said that he was like he had been when first he came to Caras Galadhon, and that it was only his old nature emerging again in these harsh conditions. But both Celinn and Luinil sensed that the change in him was more than this, and though they didn't speak of it, from time to time they would glance at each other after some cold comment of Gwirith's, when they knew the others could not see them. Celinn tried to speak to him but Gwirith turned away from him every time.
A day or two later when they were on their journey again, Luinil said to Gwirith,
'What's amiss between you and Celinn? He's done nothing to offend you, has he?'
Gwirith shrugged his shoulders but did not reply.
'Well, if he has, tell me,' said Luinil, 'and I'll speak to him, if you don't wish to. Gwirith, this is not a time for petty arguments…'
'Keep away from him,' said Gwirith curtly. 'It's none of your concern.'
'It is my concern,' insisted Luinil. 'I love you both, and I can't see you estranged. Tell me, why are you so cold with him?'
Gwirith was silent for a long time, glancing at the others who walked some distance ahead.
'Luinil, we are warriors in a strange and dangerous land,' he said at last. 'Do you think I have nothing better to do than take my pleasure with my lover? If we're to survive when each step takes us closer to we know not what evil, we must put aside softness and ease and gird ourselves to discipline.'
'Surely; but we need not forget our kin whilst we do so…'
'Enough, Luinil,' said Gwirith. 'I do only what I must.' And despite Luinil's entreaties, he would not say another word on the subject.
Gwirith's mood worsened gradually, so that when Aiglin caught his foot on a stone and fell against him, his anger seemed much greater than the offence merited; or when the others talked and laughed by the fire in the evening, Gwirith rebuked them for being so merry on such a dangerous errand. But it was Celinn who bore the brunt of it, bowing his head in silence under Gwirith's sharp-tongued reproaches. At last when no-one could deny the change in him, Celinn faced him with it, walking through the forest on a last reconnaissance before setting the night watch.
'It's the shadow of Dol Guldur, as Legolas said. You're not yourself, Gwirith. I'm not the only one who has noticed it.'
'So you've all been talking about me behind my back, have you?' said Gwirith bitterly.
'Gwirith,' said Celinn suddenly. 'Why aren't you wearing my binding-gift?'
Gwirith glanced down quickly at his left wrist, where normally he wore the triple band of twisted gold that Celinn had given him on their binding day. Now only a stripe of paler skin showed against what remained of his summer tan.
'I had to remove it,' he said, avoiding Celinn's eyes. 'In this bitter cold the metal was chafing my skin.'
Celinn wanted very much to raise his travelling light to check the truth of Gwirith's answer, but he forced himself to be still.
'So be it,' he said. 'But Gwirith, on the matter we were speaking of before: I beg you, tell me what troubles you! Maybe if we share it, the burden won't be so great.'
'Nothing troubles me,' said Gwirith. 'Nothing but…'
He fell abruptly silent, but Celinn urged him to go on.
'Well then, nothing but the way you seek danger so recklessly,' he said angrily.
'I, seek danger?' said Celinn, amazed. 'When?'
Gwirith gave a snort of derisive laughter. 'Don't think I haven't noticed, Celinn. The other day, during the orc raid. Do you think I didn't see you out there by yourself, far from any help I could give you?'
'But what else could I do, Gwirith, especially when they came upon us so unexpectedly? In battle we can't always be side by side.'
'Are you too proud, then? Alcarion was not: he always fought beside me.'
For a moment Celinn could not answer, so shocked was he.
'I'm not too proud,' he said at last. 'It's purely a matter of tactics.'
'Indeed,' said Gwirith. 'To you being captain is more important than what you feel for me, and so you put yourself at needless risk…'
'Gwirith, you know that isn't true…' began Celinn, but Gwirith cut across him.
'If only you'd stay beside me, I might be able to keep you alive, Celinn…'
The words hung in the air between them for a long time.
'Is that what's the matter?' said Celinn softly at last. 'You fear my death?'
'Do you not fear mine?' whispered Gwirith.
'When I fight I don't think of death,' said Celinn. 'I think of staying alive. And Gwirith, so do you. Of all the warriors I know, you are one of the boldest. I've seen you relish every stroke of your sword that sent an enemy to his doom. This fear isn't yours: it's a creature of the shadow.'
Gwirith listened to him with bowed head.
'You're wrong to say this isn't my fear, although it's worse now than before,' he said, low-voiced. 'Since first I loved you, I've feared losing you. You don't understand because you've never lost anyone close to you, as I have.'
Celinn closed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around him.
'I know, beloved,' he said gently. 'But that's in the past.'
'Are you invulnerable, then?' shouted Gwirith, struggling away from him. 'Can you not die like Alcarion did?'
'Of course I can die,' said Celinn. 'You know that better than anyone.'
They looked at each other, remembering the terrible months after Celinn was captured by the enemy.
'But I won't pass my days in fear,' Celinn went on. 'We found one another in the deepest darkness, Gwirith, and now I won't turn away from the light. You must fight the shadow, and I'm the one to help you do it. Sweeting, I beg you, don't turn away from me as you have been doing. It breaks my heart, Gwirith. Please, come back to me, and let me comfort you.'
He held out his open arms, but Gwirith turned away from him.
'No,' he said. 'You say this to placate me, and then you'll do as you please. Just because you're captain, it doesn't mean you can pay no heed to me.'
'Gwirith,' said Celinn, seizing him suddenly by the shoulders and looking hard into his face. 'Your words are madness. I've pledged myself to love you until the last day and beyond. How can you say I don't heed you?'
But Gwirith looked at him with eyes gone cloudy and opaque, as if he didn't recognise him.
'Let me go,' he muttered, wrenching himself out from between Celinn's hands, and walked away from him without another word.
Celinn stood staring after him in the dark, cut to the heart. After a while he became aware that he was holding his breath, and he let it out slowly. With it came a wave of pain, but he bore it patiently, reminding himself that it was the shadow, not Gwirith, which had dealt with him so mercilessly, and that once this task was over, Gwirith would turn to him again.
The next day it began to snow, and although the canopy of twisted trees kept out a great deal of it, nevertheless it slowed them down. The snow went on for seven days and each night they were forced to build a shelter and lay close together for warmth, although even now Gwirith kept himself apart from the others. The day it ended they found another nest of orcs and despite their weakened state they defeated them, but afterwards Gwirith's mood was blacker than ever. Now he always walked some distance ahead of the others, and whenever they stopped to rest he would sit alone, refusing company or conversation.
Celinn never reproached him, but the strain was beginning to tell on him, and sometimes his eyes were dark with sadness and longing. The discordant vibration of the dark tower affected him constantly now, and from time to time he would shake his head as if to clear it. Whenever plans were made his mind was still as sharp as always, but when lesser matters were discussed he would fall abruptly silent, gazing with empty eyes into nothingness before returning to himself after a moment or two, murmuring a soft apology for his lapse.
One cold dawn while Celinn sat alone breaking his meagre fast Aiglin and Luinil came to sit one on either side of him, so close that their shoulders touched. They gazed in silence at Gwirith who sat with his back to them some way off, seeing the rigidness in his defiantly straight back which made Celinn think of a closed door. Suddenly Luinil's arm came round Celinn, holding him tight.
'He shouldn't be so cold towards you,' he whispered fiercely. 'I loved you long before he did, and I would never hurt you as he has, Celinn. He has forgotten how lucky he is to have won your heart.' And he laid his head down on Celinn's shoulder. Surprised at his vehemence, Celinn turned to exchange a glance with Aiglin, but his brother's gaze was fixed on Luinil, and it was full of pain.
'Well,' said Celinn quietly after a long time. 'We must be patient. This will pass once we have left this place, and all will be as before.'
'Of course it will,' said Aiglin, but he turned away so that Celinn would not see the doubt in his eyes.
By now they were no more than fifteen leagues away from Dol Guldur, but at their present speed did not expect to reach it for many days. Gwirith was prevailed upon to give what healing he could to those injured, but their proximity to the dark tower and his black mood made his work almost useless, and they were forced to spend half a day resting before moving on. Cerveth seemed least affected by the blight of the shadow. His happiness at being with his own kind seemed to protect him from its ill effects, and he worked tirelessly to serve the others whenever he could.
With grim determination they covered the last miles, and soon began to see signs of the defences that had been put in place. It seemed likely that there was some kind of military organisation in operation, because they saw groups of orcs, sometimes mounted on wargs, moving purposefully around the environs of the tower. Now that they were so close they had resolved to avoid confrontation, and sought to find out as much as they could without needless danger to themselves. As Haldir said, what good would their intelligence be if there were no-one left alive to carry it home?
'We'll stay together as much as we can,' he said, as they rested in the shelter of a stand of blighted oak trees late one afternoon. 'From now on, none of us is to be alone. The journey has been arduous, and we need all our strength to complete our task. No needless risks: is that understood?'
Gwirith stared blackly at Celinn, who shifted uncomfortably under his gaze.
'We'll rest tonight,' said Haldir, 'then move on in the morning. Legolas tells me that we should reach the tower in two days. It's so dark now that it makes no difference whether we travel by day or night.'
Cerveth collected some wood and they made a small fire.
'It will lift our hearts a little, if nothing more,' he said, feeding little sticks into it until it was well established.
Around him, the others were doing what they could to take their ease. Luinil was leaning back against a tree with his eyes closed, his forehead damp with the sweat of the fever which still had not completely left him. Legolas was cleaning and re-dressing the wound on his leg, with Haldir's help. Aiglin and Celinn were talking quietly together. Cerveth looked at his comrades, and saw in their faces the deep grey pallor that came from living too long under the shadow, and wondered if he too was affected by it.
Gwirith prowled around the small clearing until he came to Haldir's side. His brooding stare must have disturbed him because the Guardian looked up.
'Is there something I can do for you, Gwirith?' he said wearily.
'Yes. Give this up so that we can go home. We're too weak now to be of any use,' said Gwirith harshly.
Haldir sighed deeply. 'You know that's impossible, Gwirith. Why don't you rest for a while, now that there's time to do so?'
'Rest?' said Gwirith. 'In this foul place? There's no rest to be found here and you know it.'
'If you don't wish to rest, at least let others do so,' said Legolas.
Gwirith looked down at the prince, his deep-set eyes dark and stormy. 'You're very kind,' he said softly. 'But I seem to remember that your kindness to Madoc many years ago proved very dangerous for Celinn, your highness.'
At once Haldir was standing, his face inches from Gwirith's.
'I know the shadow troubles you,' he said, 'but you are extremely close to insubordination, Gwirith. If you want to avoid being disciplined, I suggest you exercise some control over that temper of yours.'
'Haldir,' said Legolas, a hand on his arm. 'Let it go. He's not himself.'
'Am I not?' said Gwirith. 'Maybe I'm more myself than ever. Maybe I'm ready to take up the challenge you offered to me the day we reached the Elvenking's halls, Haldir of Lorien, especially now that your feelings for Thranduil's son are clouding your judgment!'
Haldir cried out, his hand already on his sword, but Legolas pulled him back.
'Brothers! Remember where we are!' he shouted. 'Are we to let the enemy sow discord between us? Peace, both of you!'
All the others were on their feet, Celinn only a pace or two behind Gwirith. Haldir and Gwirith stood motionless, staring at each other, but finally Haldir turned away, letting his sword slide back into its sheath with a rasp of metal.
'You will not provoke me into fighting with you, Gwirith,' he said. 'Now get out of my sight, before I change my mind.'
Furiously angry, Gwirith opened his mouth to speak, but Haldir said, 'Cerveth, go with him. I want to know every inch of the land around us. You have one hour.'
'Sir,' said Cerveth, and ran to catch up with Gwirith as he disappeared between the trees.
Legolas reached up and pulled Haldir down beside him again.
'Is there a past grievance between you and Gwirith?' he said quietly, so that the others could not hear.
'No…' said Haldir. 'Well, that is to say, there was something…when first we arrived in Mirkwood. He is Noldor from Eregion, and he said something about the wood elves that offended me…' He turned to Legolas. 'That was why we were fighting when you came to us in your father's halls.'
'Let it go, whatever it is,' said Legolas. 'It will come between you, and we can't afford to be enemies to each other with danger all around us.'
Haldir looked at him for a long time, then with unexpected candour reached out and laid his hand on Legolas' cheek. The prince drew in a little breath of surprise, then tilted his head and let himself be held.
'Do you know, Legolas,' said Haldir, 'never in all my life have I seen a love like that between Celinn and Gwirith. It grew out of the deepest tragedy…'
'Yes, one which I helped to create,' said Legolas with difficulty, turning away from him.
'You couldn't have known your kindness to Madoc would lead to such evil,' said Haldir, taking hold of his face and turning him back towards him. 'But out of that evil they found one another, and whatever madness we may see in Gwirith today, I venture they will stand the test of the shadow.'
'I hope very much that you're right,' said Legolas, 'but its power is very great, and sometimes what it breaks cannot be mended.'
'Not these two,' said Haldir. 'They are unbreakable: I stake my life on it. I vow it was seeing them that made my heart believe in love again. It has taught me something: that darkness comes out of light and light out of darkness. Things are not what they seem.'
'What, have you only just discovered it?' said Legolas, attempting a laugh but achieving only a grimace of pain.
Haldir put his arms around him. 'I've been foolish these many years,' he said.
'I know it,' said Legolas, his voice muffled against Haldir's chest.
'But I will not be foolish any longer,' said Haldir. 'I told myself I didn't love you, and even when I knew my love I kept it hidden. Well, no more.' And he leaned down and, for the first time in front of all the others, he kissed Legolas deeply.
Legolas gasped with surprise but straight away his body softened against Haldir's as he responded to the kiss. When at last they drew apart, Haldir felt the eyes of his comrades on them, but he was not ashamed. Gently he kissed Legolas' brow, feeling the flush of fever on his skin.
'I have some feverfew in my pack,' he said, and went to fetch it.
Cerveth and Gwirith returned within the hour as Haldir had commanded them.
'Everything is quiet,' said Cerveth, Gwirith mute and thunder-browed beside him. 'We saw nothing to worry us.'
'You are in accord with this, Gwirith?' said Haldir, hoping to re-establish communication with him, but Gwirith nodded without speaking.
'Very well. You're dismissed. Gwirith…'
Gwirith was already striding off and it was with great reluctance that he turned back, waiting with obvious impatience for Haldir to finish with him.
'Remember my words,' said Haldir. 'None of us is to be alone, however great the need may seem.'
Gwirith threw Haldir a look of extreme scorn before turning again and throwing himself down in the shadows at some distance from the fire. Haldir gave a sigh that was very near a snarl, but he let him go.
'I'll watch him, Guardian,' said Cerveth. 'We all will.'
'Do so,' said Haldir shortly, and went to stretch out by the fire.
Many hours later Celinn was woken from sleep by someone shaking his shoulder roughly, and looked up into Gwirith's white face. At once he was wide awake.
'Gwirith, what is it? Has something happened?'
'Celinn, come with me,' said Gwirith, in a strange voice. 'Now, quickly!'
Celinn threw off his blanket. 'What's the matter? Should we wake Haldir?'
But Haldir was already awake.
'What's amiss?' he said drowsily. 'Trouble?'
'Celinn, hurry,' said Gwirith urgently, dragging at his arm.
Haldir began to get to his feet, but Celinn stopped him.
'I'll deal with it, Guardian,' he said, and he let Gwirith lead him away.
Once they were out of earshot Gwirith stopped abruptly. It was very dark and Celinn kindled his travelling light, but in its faint beam he could see the feverish glitter of Gwirith's eyes, and wished he hadn't lit it.
'Gwirith, why did you wake me?'
'You must release me, Celinn,' said Gwirith. 'I understand now.'
'Release you? From what?'
'From our binding. I can't endure it another moment. You take no care of yourself, and my fear for you is destroying me.'
Celinn looked at him, unable to believe he had heard him correctly.
'Gwirith, we're both weary from this terrible journey,' he said. 'Let's sleep now, and in the morning we'll speak again.'
'No!' said Gwirith urgently. 'My mind is in torment: only if you release me will I be free of it.'
'Even if I wished to, I can't release you,' said Celinn, speaking in a slow dazed voice. 'We've made our oath before the Valar. It isn't in my power…'
'Say the words, Celinn,' demanded Gwirith. 'Say them, and I'll be free of you!'
'There are…no such words…' whispered Celinn, 'and if there were I would refuse them even with my last breath…I love you, Gwirith, and it isn't you but your fear which speaks through you…'
'Love me? You hate me!' shouted Gwirith. 'You have it in your power to free me from this agony, and yet you refuse. What love is that?'
'Gwirith, I beg you, listen to me…' pleaded Celinn, but Gwirith said, in his own clear unmistakable voice,
'Well then, it's over between us,' and he removed from the first finger of his right hand the binding ring that Celinn had placed there only a few months before.
Celinn gasped. 'Gwirith, this is madness…' he began, but Gwirith interrupted him.
'I'm not coming back with you. When we've finished with Dol Guldur, I will go to Imladris. Or maybe…' his voice shook but he mastered it at once. 'I will go over Sea.'
'Gwirith,' pleaded Celinn, reaching out to him, 'these aren't your words...' But Gwirith moved away so that Celinn couldn't touch him.
'They are my words,' he said fiercely. 'You leave me no choice, Celinn.'
'How can you say such a thing?' said Celinn, suddenly angry. 'We've made an oath before the Valar to bind until the last day, and now at the first sign of difficulty, you would break it.'
'Who are you to talk about oathbreaking?' said Gwirith savagely. 'You broke your captain's oath and yielded to the enemy, Celinn.'
Celinn went white. He stood transfixed into stillness, mute and shocked.
'Take it,' said Gwirith, holding out his ring, but Celinn didn't move. 'Take it!' he shouted, and when Celinn gave no sign of doing so, he flung it on to the rough grass between them. Celinn watched him, disbelieving.
'Now I see truly what I didn't see before,' said Gwirith in a shaking voice. 'Our binding was a mistake.'
Celinn flinched but still said nothing, and after a long and terrible pause Gwirith turned and strode away. When he was out of sight Celinn stooped down and, searching in the grass, picked up Gwirith's binding ring and placed it on his finger next to his own. For a long time he looked at his hand adorned with the two identical rings, then did what he always did when he was in unbearable pain, and listened for the sound of water. Not far from where he stood he found a dark sluggish stream which fell a few feet onto some cracked and mossy stones, and he sat down beside it, listening to its voice. Even here so close to the dark tower, the music of the water was not completely gone.
He sat for a long time until he heard someone say his name and saw Luinil standing before him.
'Celinn, I've seen Gwirith,' said Luinil. 'He's not in his right mind: the shadow has touched him.'
Celinn nodded and slow tears began to run down his face. Luinil stooped down and wrapped his arms around him. His hands shook a little with fever and he seemed dazed and unlike himself.
'My dearest Celinn,' he said. 'You know I've always loved you,' and he kissed him gently. Celinn knew at once that this was a madness as great as the one which had taken Gwirith, but he was so shocked by what had happened that he didn't resist. His body remembered Luinil's from the time years before when they had been lovers, and the comfort he offered was too great to refuse. Sighing, he turned his face into Luinil's shoulder and rested against him. Neither knew how long they stayed so but they were both roused by the sound of shouting. Celinn opened his eyes to see Gwirith striding towards them.
'By the Valar, Haldir sends me back to find Celinn and now I see that my brother has already taken my place!' he cried out.
Luinil stood up abruptly.
'Taken your place?' he shouted. 'It is you who forfeited it, Gwirith! I loved him long before you did, and I would never cast him aside as you have.'
'What I do is none of your concern,' said Gwirith, drawing his sword. 'You are no brother of mine, deceiving me the moment my back is turned. How long have you been warming his bed, Luinil?'
There was a ringing of steel as Luinil drew his sword as well. 'Take back your words!' he shouted. 'Now, or I will not hold myself back.'
Gwirith laughed bitterly. 'I've always been a better fighter than you, brother. Your threat doesn't frighten me,' he said contemptuously.
Luinil leapt forward with a cry of rage, and the clash of their swords rang out. Celinn got to his feet, still stunned and disbelieving.
'Stop!' he shouted. 'You don't know what you're doing!'
But they ignored him and went on fighting. At last he tried to get between them, seizing Gwirith's sword arm and pulling him away from his brothe, but Gwirith was past all understanding and flung him back so hard that he fell against a rock on the bank of the river and lay still.
'What have you done to him?' shouted Luinil, but Gwirith would not lower his sword and it was only when, alerted by the sounds of conflict, Haldir and Legolas appeared and seized hold of him that he was forced to submit to them. Luinil flung down his sword and went to Celinn but he couldn't rouse him.
'Is this what you wanted, Gwirith?' he shouted. 'You feared to lose him and now you've hurt him by your own hand!'
Gwirith struggled violently against Haldir and Legolas.
'Release me!' he roared but they held on to him until he suddenly went limp in their arms. Haldir relaxed his hold momentarily, but then Gwirith suddenly wrenched himself away from them and seized his sword from the ground.
'Now you must answer my challenge, Haldir of Lorien, so that I may wipe away the insult you gave me!' he cried.
'Gwirith,' said Haldir quietly. 'Put up your sword. I've told you, we're comrades, I will not fight you.'
Gwirith moved so fast that no-one saw clearly what happened next but Haldir was on the ground and Luinil and Legolas had disarmed Gwirith and thrown him to his knees with his arms twisted behind him.
'Bind him,' gasped Haldir. 'Quickly.'
They did as he said and Luinil kept hold of his brother while Legolas knelt beside Haldir.
Haldir pressed his hand to his side and brought it away spotted with blood. Quickly he got to his feet, leaning a little on Legolas' arm.
'Gwirith, you will answer for this before the Lord and Lady themselves when we return to Lorien,' he said.
'I will not, for I am not coming back to Lorien,' said Gwirith defiantly.
'Indeed,' said Haldir. 'So you're forsworn to Celinn as well as to me and to Lorien. Is there any oath you haven't broken, Gwirith?'
Gwirith turned away from him, stony-faced.
'Well, if you won't answer to the Lord and Lady, you will answer to me,' said Haldir, cold and stern. 'Leave Gwirith,' he said to Luinil. 'Take Celinn back to the fire and see to him.'
Luinil nodded and lifting Celinn into his arms, went away. Gwirith lifted his head then, and his face was full of torment as he caught sight of Celinn's white face and the dark ugly bruise on his temple; but he didn't say a word.
'Get up,' said Haldir curtly, when Luinil had gone.
Slowly Gwirith got to his feet, and Haldir took hold of his wrists that were bound in front of him and pulling him towards a stand of sickly black oak trees, he pushed him to his knees against one of them.
'What are you doing?' asked Legolas.
'I'm going to punish him,' said Haldir, looking around him.
'Haldir, he's under the sway of the shadow, and I venture you may be also. And you're injured. Don't do this,' said Legolas.
It was as if he hadn't spoken. Haldir took out his knife and cut a long flexible branch of oak, about twice the thickness of his thumb, then came back to stand beside Gwirith.
'Haldir,' said Legolas, pulling him by the arm. 'Don't hurt him. We still have some way to go, and we may yet meet the enemy. This is not wise.'
'And nor was he wise to use his sword against me!' shouted Haldir.
'This is because of the quarrel you had with him before,' said Legolas. 'I told you to let it go.'
'You told me? I am Guardian of Lorien, Legolas. I don't take orders, I give them. Now move aside, I need more space.'
'Haldir, I beg you…' said Legolas, but Haldir had leaned down and pushing aside Gwirith's cloak, he forced up his shirt and tunic to expose the bare skin of his back.
Gwirith didn't resist him, and when the first blow from the oak switch struck him, he barely moved. But Haldir was full of a terrible rage, and hit him until the blood was running down his back, and Gwirith could not avoid crying out. At last Haldir let Legolas take the oak switch out of his hand.
'Go,' said Legolas gently. 'I will deal with him.'
Haldir glared at Gwirith, his eyes flickering away from the ruin of his back, and at once he turned and went away. Carefully because of his own wound, Legolas knelt down beside Gwirith and laid a hand on his shoulder, feeling the shudders that shook his injured body.
'Do you think you can walk?' he said.
Gwirith didn't answer but he braced his bound hands against the trunk of the tree and pushed himself to his feet, groaning as he straightened his back. Legolas gently pulled down his shirt and tunic and undid the bindings around his wrists.
'Come back with me now,' he said, 'and I'll clean the wounds for you.'
Gwirith took a few paces on his own but Legolas gave him his arm to lean on and he didn't refuse it. Slowly and laboriously they made their way back to the fire. Legolas made Gwirith sit down a little way off and after heating some water, cleaned his wounds and anointed them with the same salve his father had given him for Haldir's neck. Luinil was caring for Celinn, who hadn't yet regained his senses, and didn't even look at his brother, while Aiglin was talking quietly with Haldir. Only Cerveth came to help Legolas, bringing a clean shirt of his own for Gwirith, and rummaging in Gwirith's pack for the poppy juice.
When they had finished Gwirith stretched himself out face down by the fire, too drowsy with pain to insist for once on solitude. He didn't ask about Celinn or Haldir, but before closing his eyes he cast a single anxious glance in their direction.
Legolas came to kneel beside Haldir.
'How fare you?' he asked. 'Does the wound still bleed?'
'Fortunately it was little more than a scratch. I'm well,' he said, although there were dark shadows under his eyes. Gently Legolas passed his hand across Haldir's forehead, and suddenly Haldir reached up and seized his hand.
'Legolas, you were right,' he whispered. 'I let my anger and my fear get the better of me. By the Valar, I've watched love grow between the two of them from the first day Gwirith came to Lorien to the day of their binding and beyond, and I thought nothing could come between them…Legolas, what hope is there for us if their love cannot hold?'
'There is always hope, for us and for them,' said Legolas, gently stroking Haldir's wrist with his thumb. 'Now we're under the shadow, and everything is dark. But we will come out into the light again.'
'It was you who said that the power of the shadow is great, and sometimes breaks things beyond mending.'
'That is true, but love is a mystery that the dark one does not understand. And nor do we, Haldir. All we know is that we must hold to it strongly, in good faith, and what happens next is out of our hands.'
Haldir sighed deeply. 'My heart is sore tonight,' he said wearily.
'Rest now,' said Legolas, stooping down and kissing him. 'I'll take the first watch.'
Haldir's eyes closed and his head tilted sideways, and almost at once he was asleep.
Legolas got up and went over to the fire where Celinn lay stretched out, being cared for by Aiglin and Luinil.
'Is it always like this when you come to Dol Guldur?' said Aiglin.
'Each time is different,' said Legolas. 'All we know is that there is always a price to pay for coming so close to evil.'
Celinn began to stir a little then, and when at last he opened his eyes Legolas put an arm under his shoulders to help him up. He gave a little grunt of pain, and when the prince lifted up his shirt and tunic they saw the broad bruise across his side, and felt the cracked ribs beneath.
'Bind it up,' he said. 'That is all we can do.'
'Where's Gwirith?' whispered Celinn. 'What happened?'
'How can you ask about him, after what he did to you? To all of us!' said Luinil.
'He isn't himself,' said Celinn. 'Don't blame him.'
'I don't,' said Legolas. 'But Haldir was not so forgiving.'
He told them what Haldir had done to punish Gwirith, and saw the shock on their faces.
'I must go to him,' said Celinn, struggling to get up, but Legolas held him back.
'Rest now, as he is doing,' he said. 'Maybe now he's spent his anger he will return to himself. Be content: when we leave this place, maybe all will be as it was.'
'I'm not so sure any more,' said Celinn, his voice suddenly unsteady, looking down at his right hand. 'He gave me back his binding ring.'
Legolas sighed deeply. 'You mustn't lose hope,' he said.
He gave Celinn some poppy juice for the pain and went away to take up his watch.
'Luinil,' said Celinn, 'I think we too have been under the shadow.'
'Will you choose him over me again, Celinn?' whispered Luinil. 'Even after the way he has treated you?'
Celinn looked at him in silence, and Luinil got up and walked away.
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.