7. Chapter Six: The Cruel
Chapter Six: The Cruel
a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.
~ Richard Lovelace
Despite the sun gleaming through fitful clouds, a fog of ill-will hung over the company. It began with one of the pack horses shying at nothing and losing half its baggage, most of it food down the mountainside. Another lamed itself on a snow-covered rock. As if that were not enough, the younger elves, who had not been made aware of the reason for the Dúnedain's presence, kept casting resentful glances back at the Men.
"Nice for that lot," muttered Lalaith as he walked behind Elrohir's horse, his hood pulled low over his face against the wind pouring down from the heights and pressing him against the cliff-face. "They get to stroll along with us as a wind-break and path-clearer before them."
"I did not think Men traveled in winter," Tathariel offered. "Do you suppose they're attending Lórien's festivities too?"
"The borders are closed against all but messengers from the other elven realms. And even they are sometimes refused by the somewhat…overzealous marchwardens," said a voice ripe with patrician righteousness. Fortunately, Haldir walked alongside Gildor's men in the rear and had not overheard Aear's remark.
The lieutenant did not trouble to lower his voice as he went on. "But you are mistaken, Tathariel. Festivals, say you? Nay. Those Men go girded for war. And just last night while on watch I heard some of them talking. They seek a band of the Enemy who took their friends captive."
"What? You mean there are—"
"If you three marched the way you bend one another's ears, we would have reached Lothlórien by now," Elrohir said without turning. "Spare your breath. You will need it. I wish to make the Stair by nightfall."
The three went quiet, but Elrohir's uneasiness did not abate. While Orcs or Dunlendings would not attack a company larger than themselves, especially in the daylight hours, worse things dwelt in and under Caradhras that did not fear Elves, Men, or Anor.
An unfriendly heaviness brooded in the air, and though the cliffs were too worn and exposed to conceal anything, eyes still seemed to follow them from the hidden heights above. The wind too seemed determined to cheat them of their senses, casting snow up in their eyes and chilling their fingers until they could scarce grasp the edge of their cloaks.
But Elrohir gave little regard to watching eyes, stinging snow or even bone-deep cold. Nay, what he hated most was when the wind turned, gentled, almost, and lurked in the cracks and crevices. There it called out, wordless, mocking them with wild laughter or keening like a woman trapped deep underground.
At the end of a long, hard scrabble downslope, Elrohir called a halt to rest the horses and break their fast at the foot of the cliff, but he refused to allow a fire. If the Enemy did not already know they were here, he would not give them forewarning.
They had come to a part of the Pass where the path, such as it was, was almost entirely lost, the only guiding points being the pine slopes upon their right and the hint of the valley's ending, beyond which the Dimrill Stairs thundered. Just ahead of them stretched a wide, bare trough smoothed by wind and ancient glacier.
It was a prime place for an ambush, and Elrohir did not like the thought of crossing it at all. At all.
He had not been there, at the time, but he had seen the aftermath and conjured it often enough in his dreams to hear the first arrows whining from the thicket, the screams of injured horses, and shouted orders as the guards swung their panicking mounts about, forming a skirmish line towards the trees. His mother would have been beside them, refusing with that stupid, stubborn pride of hers to remain behind the line, refusing to allow others to fight for her. To die for her. Even when they did, and the Orcs had trampled in their blood, torn her from her horse.
"Oh, they are there, make no mistake." Haldir was perched, like some strange bird, on a shelf of rock a little ways above Elrohir's head.
"The Dunlendings would have traveled slower than we, burdened as they are," Elrohir said without bothering to strain his neck, "It's not surprising that they would seek shelter somewhere in those trees."
"It is not of the Dunlendings that I speak."
He did not have to ask how Haldir knew. The heavy air, the eyes. There was no sign of a bird or coney for miles. Only the wind in the crevices feared nothing. Not even Orcs.
Elrohir glanced towards the others who were seated not far off. "Speak softer. I would not risk a panic."
Haldir kept his eyes on the trees as he took a swallow from his flask. "Did you know your grandfather has since ordered a patrol to watch the head of those Stairs? In case they were ever needed."
"Can they be summoned?"
Haldir shrugged an eyebrow. "It may be the snow forced them down to the Dale, or they may be ranging outside the outposts. Rations are usually lean this time of year."
"I do not think there will be trouble," Elrohir said. She had traveled the Pass many a year. There had never been any trouble. "But I have been wrong before. If you would be so kind, I would have you seek them. Take two with you, if you must."
Even politely phrased, it was an order.
Haldir did not respond at once, as if even in the direst conditions, he would follow his own counsel first, all others second. Then he whistled through his teeth, sharp and shrill, and beckoned to Gildor's two men, Ausir and Thúrin.
"Our intrepid marshal has need of our expertise," he explained, sending a spray of fine powder into the air as he landed beside Elrohir. "Hunting rabbits."
Elrohir dusted off his sleeve with a pointed look, earning himself a flash of teeth from the other. "I cannot wait for you. Neither our food stores nor Caradhras' grace will last much longer. We must reach the Stair by tomorrow, at the latest."
"Merely try not to do anything particularly foolish until we return. You can manage that, I think."
"Where are they off to?" Elladan asked, handing him a mug of thin, cold stew and a wedge of cram.
"Ah." Elladan leaned against the stone wall beside him, squinting after the three figures, already near lost to distance and the glare of sun on the snow. They were keeping well out of bowshot of the trees. "It is strange, isn't it?"
"What is?" Elrohir asked with limited interest. He had not eaten since the evening before, and then but little, and the afternoon was already advancing.
"You would not think it was the same place. With the snow, it all looks…smoothed and clean. Beautiful, even. Even without it, I doubt Caradhras keeps memories of the ill-deeds he shared in." Elladan fingered his mug and glanced up at the darkening sky. "I dreamt of it last night, you know. It is this cursed wind. It sounds like—"
"It sounds like wind against stone. Don't be fanciful."
"I'm not," Elladan said. He leant forward trying to peer at Elrohir's face. "Do you not feel it at all?"
"No. Lieutenant, what news?" Elrohir called with something like relief as Aear approached and saluted.
"I wished to inform you, my lord, the men are near-ready to move on. The Dúnedain, in especial, suffer from the wind and would much rather be down amid the trees." His face was carefully schooled, but Elrohir sensed more than a little of smug satisfaction behind his words.
"You may give the order to march, Lieutenant, once the company is ready. But we shall be keeping to the far side of the trees rather than amidst them."
If Aear found this strange, he did not remark on it. "What of the companions of Inglorion, my lord? Are we to wait for them?"
"They and Captain Haldir are scouting the way ahead," Elrohir said in answer to the unspoken question. "And, no, we will not wait."
"Very good, my lord," Aear said and turned as if to go, but he paused. "Perhaps it is my own ignorance, sir, but is it customary among the Galadhrim for a captain to do a scout's duty?"
Elladan laughed and cast what remained of his mug into the snow. "Haldir has never much concerned himself with…certain aspects of rank and duty."
"So I understand," Aear said, encouraged by Elladan's easy laughter. "It was ever a wonder to me why he was granted another commission."
For some reason, the comment irked, and Elrohir looked up at him. "You speak of high matters, Lieutenant. But unless you sit a council seat in Caras Galadhon, you do not know all that Lórien does or why."
"Forgive me, my lord, if I spoke out of turn," Aear said immediately, bowing his head. "But if you will pardon my bluntness…it is not Lórien's rulers I question—"
"I care not whom or what you question," Elrohir said, standing, "but do not be surprised if others object to your airing your opinions as forthrightly as you do."
Aear smiled in a thin, self-satisfied sort of way. "Only a savage bloodies a man's lip to disprove his point. A lesson the Galadhel, hopefully, learned. If the stripes on his back may be any judge."
Fighting the savage impulse to bloody the lieutenant's lip himself, Elrohir said, "Might I remind you, Aear, that despite the past altercation with your father, Captain Haldir remains an officer and an ally. His presence with us is akin to mine, and you will accord him the respect he deserves."
Aear cast his eyes down in seeming acquiescence, but the wind did not quite conceal his mutter. "And what do you consider that to be, my lord?"
Before Elrohir could reply, the ledge at his feet exploded in a shower of splinters. The stone, cast down from the heights, hurtled on down the slope. The sound of it smashing branches lingered for a while after it vaulted into the trees.
Elrohir touched his stinging cheek and stared in amaze at the blood on his fingertips where a shard of rock had cut him.
"Caradhras has grown tired of hosting us, it seems," Elladan said lightly, but Elrohir could feel his brother's pulse in the grip on his arm. "We had best get below."
No one argued.
They gathered up the rest of the company and scrambled the rest of the way down the slope, leading the ponies and casting uneasy glances back at the cliffs.
Once out of reach of falling stones, Elrohir steered the company away from the trees. But what looked smooth from a distance proved not so as they toiled along an ever-steepening trough that descended in deeper and deeper steps towards the Stairs.
They had not gone more than a furlong towards the valley when it began to snow. Thick and heavy and white until Elrohir could scarce see between Faron's ears, much less the other members of his company strung out behind him.
Quite suddenly, low branches were brushing his stirrups. He checked. They had reached the trees again. Turning Faron's head, he led them back out, calling to the company to keep together. But the path towards the valley's end continued to drop in ever-steeper, ever-sharper, ever-rockier angles until Faron stumbled and nearly turned a leg. Again and again, they found themselves forced right and up, to the very eaves of the pines, the very sight of which Elrohir had begun to hate.
The third time Elrohir tried to lead the company away, they were checked almost at once by a gully, at the bottom of which rustled a stream: narrow but deep and icily cold. There was no fording its banks.
Elrohir swore at the ill-will of Caradhras and hauled Faron's head around again. But this time, the bay refused, his ears twisting forward. His hindquarters rocked uneasily.
"What now?" Elrohir asked, his fingers already curling around the hilt of the Môrgyl in its saddle sheath. He had known Faron too long not to recognize the beginnings of fear.
Faron neighed, a thundering sound that could be heard for miles across open pasture. But here, it died almost as soon as it began, muffled by the snow. They waited a long moment before, distressingly faint and far off-course, Elladan's grey gave answer and several of the ponies.
Elrohir nudged Faron in that direction, alongside the wood, his heart thumping so loud in his ears he feared he would miss any others that replied. But none did. The Dúnedain horses were silent.
The wind had died to a murmur, but the pines still quivered as if agitated by a sudden chill. It had been long and long since Elrohir had spoken with the trees that grew here, but the pines were old. They remembered. They clamored as he rode beneath them.
Something bad had happened. Some danger. Branches laden with horrible things…bloodstained roots…
The rope creaked, straining against the wind and the weight at its end. The Dunlending had been hoisted into the air by his wrists. Five minutes and breathing alone would have been agony. Less, with the rocks bound to his ankles. He had been stripped. The tattoos on his arms and chest were nearly unrecognizable, but one, at least, looked like a chieftain's mark. Several iron pennies had spilled from the small, filthy purse shoved between his jaws.
An ugly fate, even for a slaver.
Snow creaked behind him.
Orodbenin started backwards as the Môrgyl hissed from its sheath. "It is only I, my lord."
Elrohir lowered his sword, but Faron still backed from the scout nervously. "Anglenno, sadron," he soothed. "Where are the others?"
Orodbenin pointed back the way he had come, through the trees. "Most of the company is gathered over that way in a copse, my lord. I nearly passed them myself, and I was scarce an armslength from them. It is this accursed snow! We feared to lose you in it, and we very nearly did until we heard your horse."
"Clever beast, that," said an evil voice from the trees just as something heavy and hard struck Faron.
The horse let out a noise Elrohir had never heard before—a wrenching squeal louder even than his neigh. Then he heaved upward. Elrohir dropped reins and sword and buried his hands in the horse's mane, standing in the stirrups to keep his seat.
Faron's fore hooves hit the ground again with a teeth-rattling jolt, but the saddle lurched out from under his rider.
The cry came to Elrohir as if from under a grey wave. Slowly, it rolled back, and the sparks receded from his vision. His back groaned but bent though he could not feel much relief. When he made to stand, his right knee flared with hot fire.
Faron was already several yards away, stumbling over the haft of the spear in his chest. The one who had cast it stood much closer, red eyes smiling at him.
Elrohir groped through wet and cold for his sword, but the Môrgyl lay where he had dropped it. Far out of reach. He wrestled his knife from his belt and tried to rise, but the Orc was already upon him.
Orodbenin's sword knocked the scimitar aside, driving the Orc back. Elrohir did not see the archer or hear the bowstring. But a black arrow sprouted from Orodbenin's back like a grisly branch, and as he stiffened, the Orc struck.
Elrohir rolled behind the pine Faron had thrown him into as another shaft skinned the ground near his elbow. His heart thrummed hard in his fingertips, but not with fear. No, not fear. He would have one of them at least. After Orodbenin, he wanted the archer.
The arrows had come from higher up the hill. Keeping low and half an eye on the Orc with the scimitar, Elrohir crawled carefully through the brush, trusting his cloak to conceal him from any other of the enemy lurking about.
The Orc with the scimitar wiped his blade clean on Orodbenin's body. If he was at all concerned with tracking Elrohir down, he did not show it. Indeed, he leaned on his blade and glanced up the hill as if waiting for something. At length, he spoke.
"So, my little rabbit, where are you skulking?"
His baleful, crimson stare swept the trees. Elrohir, nearly on his belly, the snow soaking through his surcoat, felt its malice pass over him like an ill wind. The pain in his knee made his eyes water, but he uttered not a sound.
"Come, come. Twill be easier for you if you come out," the Orc continued, edging further into the trees. He dragged his right leg though it did not seem to hamper him much. "This fellow tried to run too. He didn't get very far."
The Orc bent over the Môrgyl half-submerged in the snow. Though he looked at it for a long time, he did not touch it. The blade gleamed with hungry light at the nearness of the creature, and the Orc nodded as if in answer to a question.
"Thresher, is it? Been a while. Thought you were out of it."
"Chief?" the voice of the archer came from the brush just ahead of Elrohir. He could see it now, close, crouched against some gnarled roots, its yellow eyes nervous, darting. It was clutching its bow with a shaft to the string, but it had not drawn it.
"Find him. Cripple him, but leave him wriggling. Our lord tark will want this one alive."
Before the archer could draw shaft to string, Elrohir's knife bit deep into its forearm. The Orc howled with pain and rage and raked at him with a heavy paw, but Elrohir bore it over, pressing its chin back against the tree roots. He jammed his knife down and leaned on the knife hilt until it sank, grating, against bone.
It had hardly been a quiet struggle, but the so-named Chief just watched as Elrohir, panting, freed his knife, his hands sticky and wet with gore and saliva.
For a moment, they stared one another down across the space between them, then the Orc-Chief's gaze drifted uphill again.
Elrohir dropped quickly back into cover.
Two dark shapes were scuttling towards them: sloped, gangling creatures, thinner and smaller than the Chief, more like to goblins than real Orcs. They skittered through the undergrowth, looking about them. One, at least, appeared wounded, but even so they were too many for him to handle alone as he was.
"Well?" the Chief prompted them.
"It was just like you said, Chief," answered one who was clutching a bleeding shoulder. Its dialect was of the northern mountains, broken and foul. Elrohir understand only snatches. "Lugdush dangled one of the pretties from a tree, let 'em twist a bit, and the others came running like wolves to blood. Only we was the wolves. Netted 'em nice and neat as you could please."
"Nar," the goblin spokesman said, but it was swaying on its feet. "But Lugdush is getting nervous after the rest of the lads went for their play. He's not keen on lingering around here, not since we saw the Elf-Witch's swine hanging about. Besides…" the goblin lowered his voice, "some of the lads are saying, and I'm not saying I believe it, sir, but they're saying that Thresher and Thrasher were seen with that elvish company our sneaks spotted. That they know, and they've come for blood like what hasn't been seen since the bad, old days."
"Did they now?"
The Chief turned and looked right at where Elrohir had been. Elrohir froze, praying enough of the deadfall concealed him, as the Chief surreptitiously surveyed the area where he had stood in mounting displeasure.
The Chief's eyes snapped back to the two trackers. "Who said that?"
"That one." The goblin pointed out his comrade.
"Gar! I never did!"
The Chief smiled and beckoned the protestor close. When the latter showed reluctance, he snatched the squealing goblin by the ear and dealt him a vicious blow that left him sprawling, nursing a bleeding mouth.
"You skulking snaga. What are you good for? Coming to me with babes' tales and bogey stories! I will tell you this once, and if I must tell you again, I'll bind you hand and foot and leave you under the Witch's eaves myself for Her to shrivel the skin off you. Thresher and Thrasher are dead, if they ever lived. All that's left of them are the stories told to make Orclings grow strong and scare snagas stupid enough to believe them. The Elves are over. This is our time. If you don't believe me, have a look over there. The rest of the lads should just be finishing up if they're anything like this one." The Chief kicked Orodbenin's body savagely. "Now, leg it! We've got to get our prizes down to the dark while they have their fun."
Fear wrenched at Elrohir's breath as they hastened back uphill. Once their footfalls faded, the crash of steel and the screams of frightened women and ponies cut the air with the clarity of a knife blade. Elladan.
Elrohir leapt over the brush and snatched up the Môrgyl.
A hiss of fear and loathing. He whirled, but the goblin left behind to ambush him had made sure to stand well out of reach. The bow creaked as it drew its arrow back. Elrohir was too close to miss.
Suddenly, a shadow moved behind the goblin. The saber flashed, once, in the dim snow-light, and the goblin's head rolled into the pine needles.
Haldir stepped from the trees, closely flanked by Gildor's men, both with weapons at the ready and bloodied.
The captain gave him a once-over and snorted impatiently. "Elrohir, stop playing in the snow. There's work to be done."
"Did you find the patrol?" he demanded, ignoring the throbbing pain in his knee as he hauled himself up. "Are they on the Stairs?"
"Never got there," Haldir said. "Found some Orc-scouts first. There's enough of them to make a dance of it. Come on."
They raced towards the sounds of battle, breaking from the wood and mounting the brow of a small hill.
Elladan had gathered the rest of the caravan in a copse to make their stand. But the Orcs had already broken through in half a dozen places. Even as they four ran up, Elrohir saw one of Imladris' defenders go down under three Orcs, slashing and stabbing at him.
A curious, wild heat swept over him, burning away the numbness in his hands. But scarcely had he taken a step down towards the Enemy when a hand seized the back of his belt, nearly seating him in the snow.
Elrohir twisted over his shoulder. "Release me! He needs help."
"Think, boy," Haldir snarled, without letting go his hold. "Snow or no snow, charge now, with those archers amongst them, you will have about as much success as Oropher and a great deal less glory. Wait."
"What on earth for?"
Haldir did not deign to answer, but Ausir sent him a quick, reassuring smile that did nothing at all to reassure him. Particularly when Thúrin bent down beside Haldir and muttered out of the side of his mouth.
"Are you certain of this?"
"Stop assuming I'm mistaken, Thúrin, and ready your bow."
Elrohir's grip on the Môrgyl's cold hilt tightened so hard, his knuckles ached. Elladan would be slaughtered right before their eyes, and all Haldir would do is stand and watch. He would not.
The captain's hold on his belt had loosened, and with a burst of strength, he threw himself forward and down the brow of the hill. The pain in his knee no longer plagued him. The Môrgyl hummed for blood.
It cleaved through the head of one of the archers before he could raise his bow. The others scattered like leaves in a gale. Wherever dark moved amidst the swirling snow, the Môrgyl struck, shearing flesh and bone and steel as easily as if it were the wind singing off the edges of the blade.
The air rang with cries and the songs of steel as he reached the edge of the copse. The reek of blood and sweat and spilled entrails rose thick from the ground. Something buzzed close by Elrohir's ear, tugged on his sleeve. The wind bore sharper teeth, it seemed.
Then a weight slammed into him, knocked him to the ground.
"Down," growled a voice in his ear, and a hard hand clamped around the back of his neck.
He thrashed, trying to throw his attacker off, but the grip on his nape and the knee in his back bore down like iron bonds until blood battered at his temples, and he choked, dizzy and half-suffocating in the bloodstained snow.
The pressure gave way as quickly as it had come. He jerked his head up, gasping.
An Orc lay almost beside him, a white-feathered shaft in its neck.
Haldir hauled him to his feet by his collar and shoved him towards the copse. As soon as they were close enough, Elladan darted out, snatching him into the brake.
"Are you hurt? What were you thinking? You might have been killed!"
The Môrgyl's hungry glow slowly gave way, leaving the edges black and dulled. There was not a single notch on it though it had sawed through bone. His hands though were caked with dark red to the wrists and quivered strangely as if it were his own blood staining them.
"Elrohir?" Elladan gently pried the Môrgyl from his grasp.
Without warning, saliva filled his mouth. Elrohir turned hastily from Elladan's startled face and retched into the snow.
His skin damp, his mouth filled with sourness, he stayed hunched over and tried only to breathe. Not wanting to touch his garments, he eased a handkerchief from his sleeve and wiped his face and mouth, then his hands as best he could, bending down for handfuls of snow. The blood came off easily. It always did. But his mouth tasted foul, and his nose burned. It had been a long time since his body had betrayed him this way.
When he had composed himself a little better, he looked around, avoiding Elladan's unhappy gaze. Closest to them, Haldir was speaking to a group of unfamiliar figures. They had pale hair and pale eyes and were dressed in pale grey. Most of them carried bows of grey wood with quivers of white-fletched arrows at their hips.
"I did not know that Haldir kept a patrol at the head of the Stairs," Elladan said, handing him a waterskin, a little cautiously as if he fearing he might be sick again. "They spotted Orcs around the Stairs and followed after them. They saw us come down into the valley."
"And you, fool, charged straight into their arrows. I told you to wait," Haldir said, striding over to them, his nostrils flaring.
Neither of them, however, looked at his hands, which clasped the waterskin none-too-steadily, so Elrohir bore the dressing-down in silence.
"You need to get that looked at," Haldir said at last, nodding brusquely at his arm.
For the first time, Elrohir noted the jagged cut in his left sleeve. He spread the torn edges of cloth with his fingers and peered in amazement at the gouge leaping up his forearm. "I never felt it."
"Linwen!" Haldir barked over his shoulder. "Grab your gear. We've got one here could use your skills."
A woman broke away from the group of Galadhrim and trotted over to them, a satchel over her shoulder.
"There's no need for that. I'll tend it myself," Elrohir said quickly.
"You'll shut up and do as you're told for once," Haldir corrected him. "The Orcs are not far off, even now, and they'll return with greater strength once night falls. I want to be on the Stairs long before then." He turned to the Silvan woman. "Once you finish with him, come find me. Elladan."
Thus abandoned and with his knee truly beginning to protest the stress he had put it through, Elrohir had little choice other than to find the driest patch of ground he could sit on and determine not to let his impromptu healer so much as thread a needle until he was perfectly satisfied it was necessary.
She must have read the apprehension on his face for she gave him a guarded smile. "Let's have a look, shall we? Before I decide to lop it off?"
"That is not quite my concern," Elrohir said.
"I am well-aware of your concern, and I assure you," she said, "I am not one of those cross-the-River sawbones who would pull your teeth instead of stitch your arm. I have tended my share of wounds in the field and off for nearly six-hundred years. And most of those I tended live still. However, if you are unsatisfied with my credentials, I can leave you gut and bandaging, and you can do the job yourself."
Despite her spare figure, she stood tall in her greys, a sheaf of steel hard to break and even harder to bend. He knew when to give up the battle. Abashed, he shook his head. "I would, Madam, but my stitches tend to crookedness."
She knelt beside him, produced a versatile little knife from her satchel and slit his sleeve open to the wrist. Her touch was deft, practiced and gentle despite her hard words. He felt a little like a horse being handled for lameness as she prodded and peered.
"Luckily, this was one of ours and not one of theirs," she said with her head bent over his arm. "I'll clean and dress it, and you ought not to need stitches. That is, if you do not overuse it."
"I don't dare gainsay you for fear of your thorny tongue, Madam," he said. In the aftermath of the battle, he was feeling achy and tired.
"Then you have greater sense than most of those who fall under my care, Môrgyl," she said as she withdrew a field dressing from her satchel.
He winced at the address. The Môrgyl leaned against a tree where Elladan had laid it, but he did not correct her.
"Does your knee pain you, Sir? You are favoring it."
"Nothing that a little rest won't cure," he said, looking over her shoulder.
His men were shambling into the copse, some with injured comrades clinging to their shoulders. Lalaith and Aear bore one between them whose head lolled almost to the ground. They set him down a little ways away and covered even his face with his cloak. Why were they doing that? The soldier would not be able to breathe if they did that.
Ignoring Linwen's admonishment, he pushed himself up and limped over, snatching the cloak off. The face beneath was pallid as the snow, the uniform of Imladris disarranged and darkly stained about the shoulder and stomach. What was his name? It had not been so long since he had joined the guard, was it?
The maid who had sung the song of Tuilinniel the other night in the cavern sat nearest him. Her riding habit was torn. She looked at him with unseeing eyes.
"My lord?" The tone in Aear's voice suggested the lieutenant had tried to solicit his attention more than once.
"Captain Haldir says we are to make for the Stairs with the wounded, sir."
Elrohir could not take his eyes from the dead soldier. What on earth was his name? "Yes."
Afterwards, Elrohir did not recall how he managed to descend the rest of the steep path to the Stairs. The world about him narrowed to the increasing agony in his knee and arm and the weight of the dead on his back. Now and again, one of the Galadhrim would pass him and say something, touch him, but he could not make out what it was they wanted of him.
It was a much smaller company that straggled into the birch woods at the head of the falls. Since the wounded could not endure the climb into the watch telain and the disheartened had little desire to spend a night in the trees, the Galadhrim spread pallets and blankets for them below. They also built up a great cooking fire, enlisting those with fewer hurts to aid in preparations.
Ruthlessly cheerful, the Galadhrim sang as they worked, and after the evening meal, they brought down instruments: pipes, small harps, a drum. It might have been a night of festival for all it mattered to them, but for the sentries that prowled the edges of the perimeter, and further back, under the brush, the three silent forms wrapped in their blue and white livery.
A little way from the fire, pallets had been laid for those who wished for sleep more than song and dance. Elrohir, craving quiet, sat there with his knee propped up, watching as Haldir waltzed Ausir around the fire to roars of laughter.
Elladan dithered around him for a while, bidding him first to eat something he did not taste and then drink some tea which made him sleepy and dull-witted. Then Elladan talked until, out of sheer desperation, Elrohir snapped at him to be off and to let him sleep. To his credit, Elladan did not seem affronted but nodded and withdrew to find more welcoming company than Elrohir.
When he finally slept, he dreamed strange dreams of long, twisting corridors, a figure with pale hair beneath a heavy-looking knife. Doors opened into empty rooms full of wet moonlight.
The fire had burned itself down into embers when he sat bolt upright on his pallet, startling Elladan who sat once more beside him.
"Elrohir? Were you dreaming?"
"Aragorn. Where is Aragorn?"
Author's Notes: And there, I'm afraid, I have to leave you for a little while. The next chapter is partially written and planned out, but I have promised to devote some of my time to another fic, and with vacation officially ending, it's time to return, however reluctantly, to the grindstone.
Warmest thanks to my reviewers as always. Your thoughtful questions and generous comments help me know I'm not writing in the void here.
Best for the new year,
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.