8. Chapter Seven: Into the Deep
Chapter Seven: Into the Deep
Yes, there is yet one way to where she is,
Bitter, but one that faith may never miss.
Out of a grave I come to tell you this—
To tell you this.
The sharp-cut stairs with their rim of ice were difficult to navigate, and Elrohir did not trust his still-loosening knee enough to venture far along them. A good couple of leagues beneath him, the Stairs broadened into a vague, brownish land spotted with whin and purple heather. Beyond that lay mist. Though the sharp-eyed Galadhrim might have been able to see the fringes of Lórien, Elrohir could not.
"If we wish to reach the Dale before nightfall, we need to depart soon. It will be a slow road. The horses will have to be led." The shattering thunder of the falls swallowed his words almost before they left his mouth, but even if it hadn't, Elladan was scarcely listening to him.
"Elladan? Did you hear me?"
Slowly, Elladan climbed down to him.
"Aear and the others are near finished," he said. "Some of the baggage needed to be redistributed on the pack horses."
For the bodies.
Elladan would not say what they both knew. That Orodbenin, Cailwen, and Galudaer, who had died of his wounds in the night, needed to have baggage shifted so they could be tied to the backs of horses in order to reach Lórien.
"Yes. I know." The Dimrill's mist had slickened the stair with a thin veneer of ice, and even Elrohir's lined cloak did not quite keep out the chilly damp of its spray. "Have you looked to the provisions? We will not have time to hunt before we reach Lórien."
"Haldir's folk have been generous." There was reproach there.
Elrohir could almost feel his brother's yearning to speak like a hand pressed between his shoulder blades.
The snow had stopped in the night. It was not so deep as to halt a Dúnedain-bred horse. The wind was mild, the ice-sleeves on the trees flaking where the sun brushed them. Aragorn had crossed these mountains for the first time when he was twenty and any number of times since then. He knew it almost as well as Elladan and Elrohir themselves. Caradhras' peak, burnished bloody by the sun, loomed above like an up-thrust arm. He could not be lost.
Two figures materialized suddenly through the mist on the other side of the Stair, their features blurred by the spray. They cut back behind one of the falls and emerged a few yards higher on Elladan and Elrohir's side. Beads of water glinted in their pale hair as they lowered their hoods. The sudden rush of breath and hope left Elrohir.
Scouts. Only the Galadhel scouts.
One of them was the woman who had tended him the other day.
They were close enough to hail one another, yet she and her companion turned at once in the direction of a patch of birch trees, their pace quick, a little harried, like birds startled into flight by an unknown noise.
Something cold and hard slithered down Elrohir's throat and lodged in his stomach. Before he had quite decided the how or why, he was following, his strides devouring the rest of the stairs, careless of the ice or Elladan's startled question.
He caught them up beneath a white birch whose three-pronged trunk supported a platform in its branches.
"You have news."
Linwen looked at him but addressed her comrade. "Go on to the lads then, Thillas. I expect the chief will want to move after them, and he's not like to wait on us. Anyone belays, especially Déorian, they're on the coals. Hear me?"
Her comrade touched a finger to the tip of a mangled ear in casual salute. "Aye, mum. More than my other ear's worth."
She watched him stride off in the direction of the camp, but Elrohir watched her, the twitching muscle in her jaw and neck.
"What have you found?"
Linwen put out her hand, tugging on an invisible string close to the birch's trunk. A rope ladder came tumbling down from above, its ends swaying against the snow. Almost apologetically, she said, "That must be told my captain first."
He waited until she had disappeared over the edge of the platform before starting after.
The talan had the look of a rough outpost, not dissimilar to Lórien's northern borders, meant mostly for storing supplies. Swift and haphazard methods had made it into temporary quarters of sorts. If a brazier, a crooked screen and a makeshift heap of furs and blankets could be called quarters.
Haldir stooped over a battered tin basin under the brazier, laving his face and naked arms while Linwen spoke low and urgently in his ear. Elrohir heard only one word that mattered: Dúnedain.
His breath escaped in a hiss that drew Haldir's attention. But the captain only wiped his face on his cloak and addressed Linwen. "Get the lads kitted out. Four down to the Dale. The rest with me. And go ask Ausir and Thúrin if they have any festivities planned before Yule."
Elrohir waited until she had brushed past him. "The Dúnedain have been found?"
Haldir flipped the buckle on his satchel and began riffling through it. The holly tree spread across the length of his back, each silvery leaf and branch sharply defined; the leaves were furled, the berries tight and hard.
"How fare your folk?"
Elrohir muzzled his impatience with difficulty. Quicker to answer than to insist. "They are managing."
"They will be better when they reach Lórien. I would send a few of mine on with you to ease the journey."
"That is…generous," Elrohir said.
"Generosity has nothing to do with it." Haldir lifted out a crumpled linen shirt that might have been white at one time and shook it out. "Your grandsire would have my head and more besides if I let you depart with such paltry numbers after what happened. Besides, you will need the extra hands and a horse or two. Lórien is a few days' hence. Somehow, I don't imagine the pretty bride will be all too pleased if her packs become perfumed with anything other than horse-sweat during the journey."
A muscle tightened in Elrohir's jaw. "Those are my men you speak of."
"Not anymore." Haldir raised the linen briefly to his nose before dropping it over his head. "At least it is cold."
Beyond the talan they stood on, in other trees, sat other telain. Grey-clad figures were moving in them, up and down ladders, stalking across bridges scarce a handspan across.
"You are remaining here."
Haldir slipped his arms through a surcoat's wide grey sleeves, his fingers moving over the clasps, quick and purposeful. "Yes."
"Will you give chase? The Orcs?"
"The Orcs have gone. They should not trouble you any longer, so long as you make the Stair by nightfall and follow the Celebrant once you reach the Dale."
Haldir pulled his hair out of his collar and bound it back into a loose tail before fetching his sword belt from the floor. He kept moving about, adjusting things, going to his pack and rifling through it a second time, refusing to meet Elrohir's eyes. Not nervous. Intent. A hound with the scent of blood in his nose.
Elrohir frowned. "What is it?"
"Nothing you need concern yourself with, my lord."
The formality of it jarred. Meant to put him off. Go no further. Here lie monsters. "Something has happened. You are not usually so-"
"Merely ensuring that all is as it should be." He tore a drape off a pile of things and fished out a canvas sack.
"Do not do that. I am not some Noldor swell you must placate with assurances, Captain. Nor do I appreciate being hooded. Stop searching for whatever you're searching for, and tell me. I know it has something to do with Aragorn."
"Very well." The canvas sack hit the floor with a heavy thump. "He did exactly what I told him not to. And they were ready. My scouts found the four captives-what was left of them-back amidst the pines. The Orcs used them to draw the Dúnedain into an ambush. Half were slain. The rest were taken."
The truth in his face that he had guessed but not known, Elrohir felt the floor recede beneath his feet, the boards suddenly too insubstantial to hold him, to keep him from plummeting earthward. A slender bit of birch and pitch, that was all.
He walked steadily against the beat of blood in his ears to the brazier. A vague sort of hollowness ate at him, like hunger. Like the loss of too much blood. Shock, he thought: the body's internal alarum to a negative, outside stimulus. And it was strange how knowing the condition did not ameliorate the effects at all.
Haldir was speaking. "-not among the dead."
The bandage Linwen had wrapped around his arm pressed against his sleeve. It chafed. Rolling up his sleeve, he tore the bandage off and dropped it amidst the coals. The linen smoked in its dampness and curled in on itself. A prickling almost-pain stung his arm where the cut of the Galadhrim arrow had sliced. A bead of blood welled up against his skin. But the ground reappeared beneath his feet, solid wood planks, hard pitch. Steady. Steady.
He pulled his sleeve down, aware the silence had lasted too long and Haldir was watching.
"If the Orcs intended to kill all the Dúnedain, they would have done so. That means Aragorn may yet be alive. Where did they lead them?" When Haldir did not answer, he turned. "Where? Someone must go. We must go and search for him."
"That someone will not be you."
The dull heat washed over his face, the smoke clawing at his eyes until he stepped away. "You cannot expect me to stand by and do naught."
"No. I expect you to do your duty: take your charges and what is left of your men to safety, to Lórien."
Elrohir took a step forward and stopped, straightened his shoulders, peeled the pleading out of his voice. "I do not wish to remind you, Captain, that I outrank you. And though I cannot compel you, it is not for you to say any longer what I may or may not do."
"And what kind of force can you muster, may I ask, my lord marshal?"
"My men are more than capable."
"Your men are greener than the buds on this birch. And what of your charges? Will you leave them for the wolves?"
"You have already volunteered some of your men. But lend me a few more to guard them."
"They are your charge. Your responsibility."
"Either lend me your aid, or get out of my way."
A jolt arched up Elrohir's spine and neck as if the captain's challenging stare held the taut weight of antlers behind it.
Elrohir's breathing was loud in the silence, too loud, and he opened his mouth a little for breath, but words slipped out instead. "I made a promise to a woman that I would look after her son with my life. I cannot fail in her trust. Again."
Haldir did not look away, but his gaze seemed to go through Elrohir as if looking at something beyond him. Elrohir shook himself loose. His tunic clung clammy to his sides and back.
He had almost reached the ladder when Haldir spoke softly over his shoulder.
"They have taken him underground. Into the dark. Do you understand? There are a hundred, hundred holes down there. A hundred, hundred passages and corridors and halls and deeps. Can you say you know them all? Can those boys of yours track over stone? The Enemy has all the advantage. Even if by some miracle, you find him whole, who's to say you will find the way out again? This is not the lais of Lúthien, my boy. No song will open those pits. Make no mistake. Either you will fail to find Estel, or the Enemy will not fail to find you."
"We did it once before. Twice, in fact, if you remember."
The birch tree cast fragmented shadows across Haldir's face.
"Do not ever tell me what I owe Estel, Elrohir. I ken it better than you. Fortune favors the third. Is that what you would tell me? But the dark exacts its price. It does not let you go for nothing, if it lets you go. Tell me this before you go haring off after death. Would you let your life-Elladan's?-be weregild for Estel's?"
"You know what he is to us. What he is or was to you." Elrohir maneuvered himself over the edge of the platform, catching himself on the ladder's swaying rungs. "I will not leave him in their hands."
All thought had come to a sharp point in his head. The way was clear. His mind was quiet, steady, empty of the past and its failures, empty of thoughts of Aragorn and where he might be. To dwell on that would be to waste time.
All he had to do now was move.
Elladan was waiting for him at the camp and looked up with a question in his face when Elrohir stood before the breakfast fire and his assembled men. Elrohir avoided his gaze and the accusatory ones of some of the caravan while he explained the situation. Already the morning was wearing away.
"The Dúnedain have long been our allies and aided us in every need. If there is a chance that they live, we need to seize it soonest. Secrecy and speed will serve us better than numbers. Those I name will go with me. The rest of you will keep to your duty and carry the word on to Lórien. This is vital."
They all tried hard for bravado when his eyes moved over them, and for that, he was proud and grateful. Not one of them would forsake the darker road for fear of it. But he knew better. The ones who had the best chance of withstanding the dark were the ones who already knew they feared it, were armed a little against it.
"Aear. Lalaith. Tathariel." He plucked the strings of their lives one by one and hoped that his choice was fair. It could not be right.
The others dispersed, some muttering, some turning their faces aside quickly to hide their relief and shame. Elrohir let them go and addressed the three soldiers who had remained, standing very straight.
"Take only what you need. Be quick."
Aear nodded briskly and turned to his two companions, chiding them along and listing what they could afford to take with them and what they could abandon.
Elladan rose. "It won't take me but a moment to fetch what I need."
"I need you to go on to Lórien," Elrohir told him. "The others will need you, and our grandsire will need to know."
"Rot," Elladan said, cheerfully. "Any courier can do as much. You will need me more."
"I need you safe."
Elladan merely smiled and spread his hands. And that was that. They went for their gear.
"Elrohir, I know you probably do not wish to hear this. But did you ask—?"
Elrohir crouched beside his pack and rolled up his blanket, tight and small. "I told him he could help us if he wished."
"I cannot ask."
"Pride will have us at cross-purposes. He was the one who found her. We would never have found her."
"Not because of that." Elrohir darted a quick look up at his brother, but he could not put what he thought into plainer words. He did not understand himself what he had seen in Haldir's eyes, heard in his voice.
He tightened the straps on his pack with a jerk and swung it over his shoulder. A little ways away from them, the remainder of his men and the Galadhel scouts were saddling up with the caravan. The young bride still wore her bloodstained habit, her eyes set straight ahead. He was glad she did not look at him.
Gathering up Aear, Tathariel and Lalaith, he sought out Linwen, who was lingering at the edge of the camp, overseeing a few of her fellows who were putting the finishing touches on their provisions and talking softly among themselves. To his surprise, Elrohir noted Gildor's men among them. Ausir caught his eye and nodded at him.
"I need to know where the Orcs went underground, Lieutenant," Elrohir said, deferring to the braids of rank in Linwen's hair and trying for patience.
She kept half an eye on her men as she answered. "I was sorry to hear of your loss, sir."
"Thank you." He did not know if she meant his men or Aragorn, but he was not deterred. "I was not aware that there were holes this close to the Stair."
"Sir, I have my orders."
"I am aware of that, Lieutenant. I was there when they were given to you, in fact. And I do not recall anything forbidding the sharing of a little geography. That is all I am asking for."
She shifted her weight and seemed to tighten in on herself. "It's not far," she said at last. "The old quarry, there's-"
A shrill whistle cut across her words and brought both of them up straight as if it at a call to arms.
Haldir at the lip of the dell, waiting. He beckoned with his head and strode off through the trees, leaving his company and Elrohir's no choice but to scramble in his wake.
They picked up the Orcs' trail on the other side of the Stair in the shade of a pine grove where the ground grew soft and wet: a large band, moving fast. The trail was hours old, but the heavy, resin scent did not quite mask the lingering musk.
The light under the pine trees was thick and muted: rutilant, everything glowing. Their steps fell hushed on the bed of pine needles, years-thick, and Elrohir did not have to remind the young ones behind him to be silent. The only sounds were the slither of snow and the creak of branches under ghostly weights.
Elladan kept pace beside him, his footfalls echoing Elrohir's.
Ahead of them and to either side, the Galadhrim had spread out in a loose formation, grey-clad and so silent they seemed almost to glide over the pine needled floor. Watching them, something tight eased a little in Elrohir's chest.
After a few meters the grove petered out, dropping into an old quarry. It was a place Elrohir knew for all the times he and Elladan had blocked the adit, the Orcs had always found a way to keep it open. A sickness rose in his throat as he looked down at the tumbled, stony ground, long ago scraped bare by the Naugrim who had delved in the shadow of Fanuidhol, searching for iron and coal, gems and other things of earth and stone considered treasures by some. The stones lay beneath the sky like the ribs of a deer after the wolves finished.
They picked their way carefully over a thin sheath of ice, disturbing the clot of ravens hovering about, their blue-black bodies pressed together as if for warmth. They clattered into the air, their voices echoing in the cracks.
In the shadow of the mountain, the adit looked like little more than one more crack in the stone face. The timbers of the lintel had buckled under the mountain's weight, leaving an inverted v-shaped fissure. The black pit beyond seemed to absorb all the remaining light around it, sucking everything inward.
Haldir stood to one side beside it as if waiting for Elrohir to precede him.
Elrohir almost felt like he should say something, something light-hearted or brave to the boys behind him. Instead, he adjusted the pack strap biting into his shoulders and eased himself under the timber. His boots scraped against moist stone, the tunnel ahead, lit with the last of the daylight, disappearing quickly into the dark.
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