19. The Horror
They paused briefly mid-morning to pull into the bank to go ashore and relieve themselves, to stretch tired limbs and grab a quick meal of nearly-stale bread and left-over meat before embarking again to put on as many miles as they could travelling down-river. If the sun rose they barely noticed it; the day remained overcast and the sky full of dreary brown clouds. They stopped again mid-afternoon, though it was difficult to judge; they could only measure time in tired limbs and aching shoulders.
The Elves had elected to make a stop here and eat properly before continuing, into the night if necessary; paddling was becoming harder as the river flowed more slowly. It might be at least another two days before they met the junction in the river to the east of Edoras where the Snowbourne met the Entwash, somewhere below which, Haldir had assured him, a horse would find him and take him to join in king and father and the Riders of the Mark – and not any horse, a Mearas!
Théodred watched Gelmir gently knead the cramp from Gwindor's rapidly healing shoulder. He stooped to whisper in the other's ear and they both laughed softly, that they were more than merely brother-in-arms was obvious. Theo chewed a piece of hard bread absently as he tended the new-made fire, not meaning to stare across at Gwindor and Gelmir seated some little distance away, but watching them with a certain envy of their close companionship, especially out here in the wilds where a friend was a comfort indeed. Lórindol had gone along the bank to see if there where any rabbits holes that might mean fresh meat. Lindir had fetched some water and was setting it boil; he followed Théodred's eyes.
"Do you find it offensive?" he asked.
Théodred found he was staring again and hastily looked away from them.
"No! Not at all!"
He snorted softly and laughed when he realised Lindir was half-teasing him. Lindir settled himself comfortably at Theo's side."It is the way within the Wardenship. Some of us are dedicated to being warriors; others join for a period before going back to being farmers or craftsmen. Those who are permanent guardians of the realm fight together in close pairs, those couples are always lovers…"
He let the statement hang to judge Théodred's reaction; Theo nodded in understanding.
"…We know the other so well, we can judge their actions and they ours…"
"So you can anticipate the others' moves when attacked…" finished Theo.
Lindir nodded. "Some are jealous of us. We are, you might say, the elite… but then, perhaps we deserve the luxury of love and companionship to offset the dangers and uncertainties, even when we are abroad!" He chuckled and leaned to press against Theo's arm, "…but then you know all about that!"
Theo grinned good-naturedly and shifted a little at the memory; he was still somewhat tender from their show of 'love and companionship', but he was curious.
"And… um… The Marchwarden himself…?
"I believe you have seen him together with Lord Celeborn…?"
Theo nodded, Lindir inclined his head in delicate assent.
Theo's lips formed a silent 'oh', he paused to consider, before he continued,"The… Lady of the Wood… she knows…" He stopped, feeling foolish.
Lindir was not embarrassed to tell the tale:
"Lady Galadriel is happy for her husband's happiness – his love is great enough to share. Master Haldir and Lord Celeborn found themselves many, many years ago, when the Marchwarden was only a young warrior, newly come as a novice to the wardens. He was trapped, under attack and in mortal danger. In his anguish and pain, thinking he had failed in his guardianship, he far-spoke Lord Celeborn, who was able to alert the others of the guard and go to Master Haldir's rescue.
The story goes the Marchwarden had all his life loved Lord Celeborn from afar, never daring to admit it, and was sure his love could never be reciprocated. We believe only soul-mates can far-speak with their partner, so to do so must have been a great shock for them both. It took many months for Master Haldir to recover from his injuries, and they have only rarely been separated for more than a few days since. In your years, that would be perhaps three or more thousand years ago. "
Théodred shook his head in wonder, '…three thousand years? And the Marchwarden looked no older than he did! It was a marvel – to be with someone that long… to be that old!'
Lindir continued, "After that, the organisation of the guard was changed. No one was sent out to do sentry duty alone, and that which had always existed, but was ignored became acknowledged and even encouraged among the guardians."Théo could see the logic, but could also see the jealousies it might raise.
"Among elven kind, births are few, and male births far outnumber females. Even if we all wanted to have wives, that would be impossible. Iluvatar has made our path bearable, for now we too can have love and companionship; it would be an injustice would it not, to condemn many of us to a life of loneliness because some deemed it 'unnatural'?"
Theo smiled grimly. He knew enough about loneliness, and the hope of snatched meetings; the casual encounters, pleasurable but unfulfilling, were a poor substitute for the one he really desired to wake up beside of a morning…
Lórindol reappeared with a brace of rabbits, waving before going to the river's edge to gut and wash his catch. As Lindir searched a pack for some salt to add to the water, a troubling thought crossed Théodred's mind.
"But what if one of you dies…?"
Lindir looked him in the eye, "Then we go on. We deal with it when it comes to us in the best way we can!"
His face softened, when he realised from Theo's expression that he had spoken more sharply than he intended. He sighed.
"…You know yourself that a warrior in battle cannot think of death other than happening somewhere else, to someone else…"
Theo nodded silently. 'Yes , he knew that such thoughts were only for times when danger was not present, for calm introspection on a fine day, or maybe at the bottom of a wine-cup… One couldn't face an enemy expecting to die…'
Théodred let the thought go, it was not a subject to dwell on here and now, but his thoughts crept back to Boromir. 'How was he? Where was he? Did he… did he remember… that the two of them were one?'
Lórindol reappeared with the skinned, jointed rabbits.
"Cut them up small," suggested Lindir, "We can't afford to linger, we don't know who is abroad. Let them cook quickly and we'll take the meat with us to eat later."
Lórindol did as he was bid. Theo stood to stretch his legs and gather more dead wood. A little way along the bank he found a patch of wild ransomes and dug up several handfuls of the tiny pungent bulbs to add to the rabbits. Lindir had chopped up a little of their dried meat and added that – half an hour later they were dipping the last of the hard bread into a thin broth, which was at least hot and tasty.
They stowed the gear back into the boat and set out again. If any of them realised how unnaturally quiet it was, none of them mentioned it to the others. It was hard to put your finger on what was… not right, Theo thought - until he realized - no birds had sung that morning. The quietness did begin to tell; every rustling branch, every fish that rose to splash the surface of the water alerted them to scan for danger, but it was never more than roosting birds or rising fish. Until Gwindor froze, put his out his hand to silence the paddles, and pointed to the eastern bank. Theo stared hard but could barely see what had caught the elf's eye – then spied in the distance some moving black dots, a group, but he couldn't tell how many…
"I count sixteen…" said Lórindol.
"No… there are another four, no five behind, wounded maybe… they're slower. They must be desperate to travel in daylight." said Lindir.
Gelmir replied by gesturing at the sky, such clouds and murk were barely 'daylight'. Gwindor pointed again, another two black dots laboured after the stragglers.
"Injured – they have been fighting, but at least they're moving away from us. We are too few to fight a large band." said Lindir.
They had kept their paddles from the water and drifted as they spoke softly, even though the departing orcs were far too far away to hear them.
They continued, keeping a wary eye on the banks, but nothing moved for the rest of the day. The river's bluffs grew higher for a while as the waters cut a narrower path winding through some chalky hills. It made them wary not to be able to see over the banks and they paddled hard. But then they were through, the river broadened and now flowed between thickets of willow trees, the current swinging to and fro across the stream to make wide bends. For ease and speed they kept to the faster water, though it bought them near to the deserted banks. They had seen no more signs of life all day apart from an occasional water bird, and they joked quietly of who could shoot them a duck for supper.
Just as the real dusk began to fall, Gelmir spotted a fat cock-pheasant as the current swung them towards the west bank of the river. He seized his bow against mild protests from the others, and put an arrow through it, before insisting they paddled over so he could retrieve it. The water under the riverbank was shallow, but muddy; to have landed completely would have grounded the craft so Gelmir blithely climbed out to wade ashore. Although Theo couldn't understand, he got the drift that over Gwindor's protests, Gelmir was saying 'since he'd shot the bird, it was pointless to just leave it!' He waded into the shallows, ankle-deep in mud.
Suddenly, without warning, ugly black-feathered arrows skimmed the water and struck the craft. Black figures in misshapen armour leaped out of the nearby bushes. Gelmir turned to run, but a hurled knife in his back felled him; he landed face down in the water with an ominous splash. Gwindor tried to jump from the boat, but Lórindol forcibly restrained him as Lindir swiftly turned the craft and he and Theo paddled furiously, the boat pursued by thick-shafted arrows that thudded into the hull, or whistled evilly over their heads.
The orcs rushed into the water. One dragged Gelmir's head up, holding a knife to his throat ready to slice across, another yelled a guttural command. The first orc halted and paid for it by an up-thrust to his belly from the knife in Gelmir's hand. Another half dozen swarmed over him, punching and kicking to disarm and subdue the elf, but not to kill. Gwindor shouted and screamed abuse, straining his bow to send arrow after arrow amongst the pack of orcs. He felled two, but the shower of arrows from more orcs on the bank above them drove the elves back across the river to seek shelter. To Theo's horror Gelmir, very much alive and struggling furiously, was captured. A tall orc landed a blow to the back of the elf's head with the pommel of a jagged blade and he went limp. They hastily dragged him away into the undergrowth at the edge of the river. Meanwhile, the remaining orcs kept up a steady stream of arrows to keep the other elves at bay.
Lindir steered the craft ashore and they sheltered behind sparse bushes of young willow, able now to aim and shoot with deadly precision. Gwindor had to be dragged to shelter, kicking and shouting, and held back from swimming across the river before he grimly set to, taking careful, deadly aim at anything that moved. The first few orcs were easy enough to pick off, before the wiser ones became wary and shot from better cover. Gwindor kept up a vehement stream of withering curses, that even Theo could understand were about what he was going to inflict on these orcs if he got his hands on them.
Then the screaming started.
The first few were muffled cries of pain such as men made when receiving wounds in battle as they tried not to cry aloud, Théodred had heard their like more times than he cared to remember. But the next rose from terrible gasping cries to shuddering shrieks of agony. Theo had never thought to hear such a sound from an elf; he shuddered, flinched, looked away, trying not to even imagine what they must be doing to Gelmir to cause him to scream like that. The agonizingly shrill howls continued to sear through him; beyond bearing; barely stopping for breath, a sustained, terrible crescendo of agony.
Gwindor shouted and cursed, hoarse with rage. He stood and strode down to the river firing arrows where he could. The orcs on the other side, making the mistake of standing in their glee to take aim at him, fell under the bows of Lórindol and Lindir. The last orc fled towards the unearthly screaming that had finally, finally begun to fail, faltering to piercingly anguished, bubbling cries, so piteously bereft… an awful, indelible sound to freeze the blood and coil like a worm into your worst nightmares. Theo would never forget those screams.
They pushed the boat out into the water and paddled furiously. Gwindor hadn't given up on his torrent of screamed abuse. Nearing the bank he leapt out and plunged through the water, the other two elves after him.
"Pull the boat up!" Lindir shouted over his shoulder at Théodred.
Knowing a direct order should be obeyed in battle, he hastily dragged the boat until it was securely held fast in the mud, before running to follow them towards the tiny copse of trees. Within the encompassing shadows, a few dead orcs littered the ground; the rest had fled.
Gelmir was stripped to the waist his arms wrapped around the largest tree trunk, his back dark with blood that stained his leggings crimson and dripped down to pool ominously at his feet. In the rapidly fading light he appeared, to Theo's eyes, to have a frame of thin, white branches strapped to his shoulders. Lórindol had pulled up in shock; Theo was at his back in time to hear him gasp harshly in abject horror.
It was then the horselord saw the truth – these were no branches. The elf's ribs had been pared from his spine, broken and spread wide apart to appear like ghastly wings of gory flesh and bone…beneath them, the exposed lungs fluttered weakly.
Theo choked as bile rose in his throat. He vomited, heaving uncontrollably. Gwindor wept, raged and screamed as he broke off the heavy arrow-shafts that had been jammed into Gelmir's arms and hands to keep him in place against the tree. Lindir in grim silence struggled to help, but Gwindor fought him away. Gelmir mewled hopelessly, a frail, thin, inhuman sound beyond agony as he struggled to breathe, the blood choking in his throat. Sobbing, Gwindor freed Gelmir's body and took it into his arms, slumping to his knees in the pooled blood, trying to support the dead-weight of his lover. Gwindor muttered Gelmir's name over and over, but as Gelmir attempted to speak nothing came from his lips but bright, bubbling blood.
Gwindor had a knife in his shaking hand. He brought it up, hesitated, unable to bring himself to do what he knew he must. There could be no recovery from the harrowing damage inflicted; there was no other choice… Gelmir's eyelids fluttered, he struggled to nod once before painfully leaning his head back. Gwindor bent to kiss the exposed throat, lingering only briefly, then slashed once, deep and clean…
Gwindor couldn't put his arms around the body properly because of the frightful, bloody wings; he knelt back on his heels and howled his anguish, Gelmir's arms hanging limply over his shoulders. Lindir picked up Gelmir's discarded tunic and stepped forward, swiftly catching hold of the ribs, he heaved hard to press them back into place quickly, covering the dreadful injury on one side of the ravaged body as he did so. Gwindor howled with fresh pain and rage. Lórindol muttered the same violent expletives over and over in a bitter incantation of rage. He found a ripped shirt and put it in Lindir's bloody hands so he could make the other obscene wound decent.
Finally, Gwindor could turn the body over, as gently as he would a wounded comrade, weeping freely again to see that Gelmir's head and face were almost unmarked. A heavy trickle of blood ran from his nose, and where he had bitten his lips in efforts not to cry out at first, but the face that flopped back from the slashed throat was whole and recognisable, slack in death with no more traces of agony there. Gwindor rocked as he cradled his lover, dark blood seeping up his sleeves and tunic from the terrible injuries of Gelmir's ruined back.
Théodred felt the pain of being utterly helpless in the face of grief; he did not know what to do, how to help. Lindir came to his side, his hands and arms bloody.
"Stay with him," he murmured as he passed Theo on his way back to the river. In silence, Lórindol gathered up Gelmir's strewn weapons and belt. Gwindor rocked the body and sobbed. Théo, angry at his own helplessness, took an uncertain step towards Gwindor, but Lórindol saw him and gave a brief shake of his head. Lindir came back, his hands and sleeves still wet from river-water, carrying their cloaks. He went to kneel opposite Gwindor, who stared at him, a wordless agony in his eyes.
Lórindol beckoned Théo. "Go to the river and retrieve all of our arrows that are usable. I'm going to scout the perimeter and make sure they have fled."
Theo nodded, almost relieved to walk away; the terrible grief behind him was so palpable the very air thickened with it.
The white-fletched arrows were mainly embedded in dead orcs, and Theo had no compunction in cutting flesh to extract the barbs. The last orc groaned as he stuck his knife into its shoulder - it was alive! He searched it for weapons and shook it to stand; then, not having a clear idea why, forced it at knife-point back towards the trees. The orc limped badly from a leg wound. When Gwindor saw them enter the trees he froze; handed Gelmir's body into Lindir's arms and walked stiffly over to Théodred and the orc.
Gwindor was not weeping now. His eyes flashed with incandescent rage, but his face was held rigid in a cold mask of complete hatred. He seized the orc by throat and hip, lifted it. Half-kneeling, with a great cry of wrath, he bought the orc down with brutal force over his bent knee. There was a sickening crunch as its spine broke. Gwindor stood upright as the creature gurgled and twitched, alive but paralyzed, at his feet. Theo watched open-mouthed; then, realising he still had a knife in his hand; he stooped, automatically preparing to deliver the death-blow, the slash to the throat. Gwindor grabbed his arm, yanking him upright. Leaning close into Theo's face, he spoke harshly, but made his meaning vehemently clear – Theo was not to provide the mercy of killing it!
Gwindor stalked back to Lindir who had taken the opportunity to half wrap Gelmir's body in his cloak. Gwindor leant down, and tenderly finished wrapping the cloak around his dead lover; then he lifted him from Lindir's arms and walked away from the trees out into the gloom, though no stars shone in the darkening sky. Theo still stood over the orc; it could just move its head feebly. Lindir looked Theo steadily in the eye.
"Do not tempt Gwindor's wrath. Let the beast lie there."
Then he walked past, and joined Lórindol, who had just returned. They spoke very quietly together, before beckoning Théodred to join them.
"The orcs have scattered. There's no immediate danger, but where there is one band there may well be others," said Lórindol.
"What about Gwindor?" asked Theo.
Lindir looked beyond the trees to the open ground where Gwindor sat on the ground facing west, Gelmir's body cradled across his lap. He looked back at the other two and shrugged.
There was a tumble of rocks nearby; they decided the comfort of a small fire well-screened was worth the risk at this time. Théo and Lindir went to lift the boat clear of the shallow water and make it secure. Lórindol lit a tiny fire among a hearth of rocks and kept an eye on Gwindor, who when he saw the preparations, carefully laid Gelmir down and stood.
"I'll get us some supper," he announced, and before Lórindol could say anything he strode away into the willow trees.
When Theo, and Lindir came back, Theo wanted to follow the stricken elf, but Lindir said, "No, give him a short while."
Gwindor came back perhaps a half hour or so later, holding two brace of pigeons. Not shot; they'd been caught as they roosted and strangled. He tossed them to the ground and squatted down to pluck them, but as he lifted one he saw its lax wing droop open in the fire-light, a fan of splayed feathers. He stared at it, un-moving, until Lórindol gently took the dead bird from his hand and placed in it instead a small flask of strong spirit, encouraging him to drink, while Lindir shuffled the dead birds to one side out of sight. Gwindor was silent, he did as he was bid while sitting at Gelmir's side; he accepted a portion of cold stewed rabbit, but did not eat it. The others had no appetite, but struggled to eat and drink for sake of normalcy; no one spoke above a murmur.
In the silence they heard the half-dead orc snuffle. Gwindor's head whipped around, discovering something to focus on, and he began to get up, Lindir tried to stay him, but Gwindor shook his restraining arm away furiously, one hand hovering towards his knife. He spoke quietly through clenched teeth, his voice laced with cold venom, before stalking back into the copse; they heard something being dragged away.
After a long pause when the others where motionless, Théodred was about to ask what they should do, when thin rasping shrieks broke the silence. It was the injured orc. Theo started to get to his feet; Lórindol put out a hand and stopped him. Theo had seen this before, retribution enacted on a prisoner - it was not a good thing. Another cry broke the night, followed by a thick gurgle that quickly died to nothing; then, absolute silence. They waited, frozen, not meeting each others eyes, but Gwindor did not return. Lindir rose quietly, Lórindol and Theo following after him; they walked under the trees that already had the cloying stench of death thickening among them.
The orc lay under the tree where Gelmir had died. A black-arrow nailed its palm to the trunk; a long strip of skin had been peeled back from the wrist and hung like a rag from its upper arm. A second strip was open at the wrist; the flaying had been barely started. Now, its throat was cut cleanly; it was quite dead. Gwindor was nowhere in sight.
"Good!" nodded Lindir,
"Good? What…?" exploded Théodred, appalled.
"Yes, good – Gwindor swore he was going to peel every strip of skin from its living hide. The fact that he could not bring himself to do so is good."
Theo's thoughts were in turmoil, "So what do we do now?" he said eventually.
Lindir and Lórindol looked at each other. Lindir walked back towards their meagre camp.
"We wait until dawn." Lórindol said as he followed Lindir.
"What then?" demanded Theo.
Lórindol did not turn, "Then we leave."
"What about Gwindor?"
"If he has not come back by then… he will not be coming back at all." Lórindol walked away.
"And this one?"
Lórindol paused and turned on his heel, slightly exasperated at such details,
"Let the carrion-eaters have them all!"
He strode off; Theo was not inclined to think differently. He walked away from the dead orcs without looking back.
At the camp, Lindir had arranged the cloak loosely over Gelmir's face and left him laying just at the edge of the fire-light; covered now, he might have been sleeping. Theo sat down on the opposite side of the fire, but shifted slightly so that the wrapped body was not in his direct sight-line.
Lindir gave a grim smile. "He won't hurt you."
Theo blushed. They picked at the remains of the cold rabbit. Lórindol skinned the pigeons and sliced off the breast meat, setting it to cook on twigs over the fire. He took the wings and carcases to the far side of the rocks and buried them out of sight. The night drew on and there was no sign of Gwindor. They arranged to sleep in turns, but none of them actually felt like sleeping. They passed the flask of spirit between them, each agreeing "…it was only to keep out the cold…"
"Sing us a song, then, Horselord," Lindir said finally.
Théodred was about to demur, but he badly needed something to distract himself. He paused for a few moments, and then began very softly to sing one of his favourite ballads, a melancholy tune of lost love:
Now I loved a lad, and I loved him so well,
That I hated all others who spoke of him ill,
And now he's rewarded me well for my love,
For he's gone and he's wed to another.
When I saw my love to the hall go,
With bride and bride-maidens they made a fine show,
And I followed on with my heart full of woe,
For he's gone and he's wed to another.
When I saw my love sit down to dine,
I sat down beside him and poured out his wine,
And I drank to the laddie that should have been mine,
Now he's gone and he's wed to another.
So bring me my horse, my spear and my shield,
And I'll ride out to fight o'er the bloodiest field,
And though I may fall, I never shall yield,
And maybe in time I'll forget him.
So they brought him his horse, his spear and his shield,
And he rode out to fight o'er the bloodiest field,
And though he did fall, he never did yield,
- And maybe by now - he's forgotten.
A light breeze ruffled under Gelmir's cloak, almost as if the body gave a sigh. Theo drew back a little, to where Lórindol sat, his back against a tall rock. He caught the direction of Theo's apprehensive gaze, but merely said,
"Well sung Horselord. Now you can lean against me; I could do with a warm body at my side."
He cocked an eyebrow in jest, but Theo understood the invitation was made to quiet his jangled nerves rather than the elf's need for comfort. He shivered, not only from the cold. Lindir hummed a slow melody softly to himself as he fed the small fire. They barely spoke, simply waited quietly for dawn… and Gwindor. Eventually, Theo fell into an uneasy sleep against Lórindol's shoulder – but his dreams that night were not anything he later chose to recall.
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.