1. The Unwilling
This story was written for a monthly challenge in the LOTR GenFic community over on livejournal. The theme was a debate between two characters, and participants were each provided a different topic for their debate. I was asked to write a story on this topic: "Did the Ringwraiths have free will, or was their will completely subjugated by Sauron?" The debate itself got a little sidetracked by the time I finished the story, but I promise that the topic is discussed.
MANY thanks to Docmon, the amazing beta, and I hope you enjoy!
The abandoned homestead stood less than a league from the eastern eaves of Mirkwood, far enough for refuge but close enough for caution. It boasted a small, one-room cottage with two shuttered windows and a front door that swung haphazardly from a single hinge. A sea of brown weeds blanketed the surrounding fields, seeming to reflect the smoky haze of the midday sky. Enforcing a forgotten border, an old wooden fence ran the length of the property. It spoke eloquently of the homestead's condition by collapsing the moment Elladan leaned against it.
Unable to catch himself, Elladan toppled with the fence, gasping when he hit the ground. The world dimmed, but he fought the growing darkness as he held his side. He could not afford to succumb. Not here. Not yet. It was too dangerous to remain in the open.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he clung stubbornly to consciousness. His head ached, and a trickle of warmth above his left eye informed him that he was bleeding again. The battle was little more than a dreamlike blur in his scattered memories, but the throb of his injuries was very real. A hot, stabbing pain pulsed beneath his ribs, and his temples pounded as though home to a dozen dwarven hammers. He remembered receiving the head wound: a glancing blow from a massive club as he ducked inside an orc's reach. He did not remember receiving the wound in his side: a rough, jagged tear that started on the back of his shoulder and curved beneath his left arm to trace his lower ribs. Deep enough to concern him, it still bled sluggishly, soaking the tunic beneath his jerkin. His armor had been left in Mirkwood along with his sword, lacking the strength to carry them. Or so he believed. He had only a vague sense of his actions since fleeing the orcs.
With waning strength, he lurched to his feet and promptly tripped over the fallen fence. Stumbling past the rails, he forced himself toward the cottage. His staggering walk made the dreary homestead bob around him like a dusty dream from which he could not wake. Hints of memory flashed through his mind, and the creeping gloom of Mirkwood coiled about his heart. There was much he could not clearly recall, but there was also much he wished to forget.
In vivid detail, he remembered the orcs sweeping down upon his company. Under the direction of the White Council, Elladan and others had positioned themselves on the eastern edges of Mirkwood, hoping to flank the Necromancer's armies and prevent their escape. The main attack had come from the west, backed by thunderings and terrible lights as Curunír pitted his devices against the Enemy. But either they had underestimated Sauron's numbers or the fell creatures had all boiled out of the forest where Elladan's command waited, compelling a hasty retreat. Elladan had called desperately for aid, yet the forest itself had conspired against him. Before any help could come, the company had been divided and routed. Elladan had held his ground as long as possible, but in the end, he had been forced to look to his own safety. Now he could only hope that the rest of the eastern forces had met with better fortune and that some of his own command had managed to reach the other companies and tell them of their plight.
A sudden chill ghosted over his skin.
Pulled from his fractured memories, Elladan wiped blood from his brow and looked around. To the west, Mirkwood brooded in a dark haze. High above, the sun was a pale orange disk behind the drifting smoke. In the empty lands between the trees and the homestead, nothing stirred.
His hackles rising, Elladan turned a suspicious gaze upon the cottage. Wooden shudders flapped open and knocked hard against the walls. A breeze whistled through chinks in the mortar. Wood groaned as it settled. But save for the sigh of the wind and the creak of the house, all else was silent.
No birds. No animals. Even the grass seemed wary of rustling. Gritting his teeth against the pain of his injuries, Elladan straightened. His senses claimed he was alone, but his instincts insisted otherwise. Something was here. Something close. Something watching.
With narrowed eyes, Elladan peered through the open cottage door, willing the shadows to reveal their secrets. Nothing happened. Nothing moved. The sun inched westward, and Elladan quietly fumed. He had patience enough for this gambit, but patience was not the master here. A stabbing in his side shortened his breath, and he went down on one knee. The motion made his head swim, and he glared at the cottage. It was defensible, but more importantly, it was a landmark. If any in his command came looking for him and ventured near, they would almost certainly explore the cottage. The warnings of his instincts notwithstanding, this was his best chance of finding help. Balling his fists, Elladan decided to continue.
He rose to his feet, shivering in the warm autumn air. A few steps more and he mounted the porch. It had seen better days, and he half expected to plunge through the boards that moaned ominously beneath his feet. A strange fear edged his thoughts, and he stopped again. He knew this fear. It was familiar, like a faded echo of something he once knew well. A wisp of memory beckoned, carrying fleeting images of snow, stone, and blood. Then it vanished, lost to a pounding headache that threatened to drive him back to his knees. Shadows flooded his mind, following hard on the heels of the strange yet familiar fear. Elladan considered retreating, but he was too close to safely turn his back on the door. And at this point, whatever lurked within certainly knew he was near. There seemed little choice save to continue.
Bracing himself on the side of the cottage, he drew his knife. He was grateful he still had at least one weapon, though he wondered what good it would do him. His grip on the haft was weak. But he had come this far in the face of great danger. He would not now shrink before an unknown shadow. Thus resolved, he moved into the doorway.
And stopped cold.
His heart froze in his chest. A paralyzing chill swept the length of his spine. Suffocating and implacable terror bore down upon him as darkness erupted from the cottage. His earlier fear was as nothing compared to the horror now emptying his mind of all thoughts save one:
He planted his hands on the doorframe and pushed with all his failing might. Tumbling backward, the fall lent him speed he could not otherwise muster. He rolled off the porch and hit the ground with enough force to drive the breath from his lungs. Wheezing, he looked back toward the house, and in the shadows of the threshold, a pale knife gleamed. Something hissed, the sound skittering over his mind like ice. For a moment, the form of a man loomed just beyond the doorway. Then the shadows closed, and only darkness could be seen.
Too shaken to rise, Elladan lay where he had fallen and grappled with recognition. Now, he understood. Now, he remembered. He had felt this fear when Imladris, Lindon, and Lothlórien joined with Gondor to drive the Witch-king out of Angmar. Over a thousand years had come and gone since that war, but Elladan's newly awakened memories were as vivid and terrifying as if he had just escaped the Battle of Fornost. And with recognition came the terrible knowledge of what lurked in the cottage:
But the Nazgûl were not supposed to be at Dol Guldur. Or Mirkwood. Or anywhere near Mirkwood. The Nazgûl guarded Minas Morgul. So Curunír had insisted, and none in the White Council had moved to gainsay him. Nevertheless, Elladan could not deny the horror in his heart. He had somehow managed to keep his knife in the tumble off the porch, and he brandished it now, murmuring a quiet prayer to Elbereth. It was a paltry defense against such a menace, but he refused to lie helpless before this creature. Never taking his eyes from the house, Elladan gathered his strength and started to rise.
He immediately doubled over.
A relentless throbbing wracked his left side. He curled over it and bit his lip, breath coming hard. Gingerly, he forced the hand not holding the knife to probe the cut. His fingers came away red.
Within the cottage, shadows stirred. The sun seemed to dim, and Elladan bared his teeth in a voiceless snarl. But though terror darkened the silent fields, no attack issued from the house. All seemed poised in a waiting gloom, and Elladan's jaw tightened. His injury would not permit him to leave the homestead. Should he attempt to flee, he would be fortunate to reach the rail fence ere he collapsed and the Nazgûl knew it. There was no need for haste. No need to brave the muted daylight. The Nazgûl had only to delay until nightfall before claiming its prize.
Frustrated rage burned hot through Elladan, fierce enough to momentarily quench fear. He might not be able to leave, but he could make his last stand a valiant one. He pushed himself to his feet and shuffled away from the cottage door, still clutching his knife. It was an awkward retreat, and his legs trembled with every step. But ere his strength failed, Elladan was determined to put at least a wall between himself and the Nazgûl.
When he was a safer distance from the porch, he hobbled toward the back of the house. He had seen no signs of firewood on the porch, but there might be some at the rear. And if he could build a fire, he could mount a defense of sorts. Yet as he approached the back, he saw no stacks of wood. Instead, he saw what looked to be a stone shelter. Battling despair, he told himself that perhaps it held something he could use. Perhaps it even held firewood. Hope flickered, frail and weak, and with painstaking slowness, Elladan moved closer and closer to—
A misshapen stone forge nestled against the back wall of the cottage, complete with a kiln and a rotting wooden door. The door could be broken down into fuel for a fire, and that was a surer defense against a Nazgûl than a barred entrance. Hope brightened as Elladan staggered into the dimly lit forge. Only large enough for the occasional repair, the small kiln was a far cry from the massive furnaces of Imladris. But for Elladan's purposes, it was enough. Easing down beside it, he studied the thick layer of ash and charcoal coating the bottom. He needed flames, not embers, and he began scraping the ash with his knife. But his knife could only reach so far, and Elladan looked around for something more useful. Spying a pair of iron tongs, he sheathed his knife and retrieved them.
"Fire will not save you."
Elladan flinched violently. The tongs clattered to the ground with a harsh clang. Beyond the wall, he heard what might have been a hissing laugh, and his blood froze in his veins.
"I could seize you now. You live by my grace alone."
Elladan's jaw bunched as he slumped back against the kiln. The Nazgûl's words held the bitter ring of truth, and the pool of warmth trickling down his left side could no longer be ignored. Refusing to acknowledge the creature in the cottage, Elladan pulled his knife from its sheath and cut through the seams of his jerkin. With painstaking care, he eased the jerkin off and then slashed open the rich fabric of his tunic.
Darkness rippled through his mind. He heard what sounded like a footstep, and then came a long, slow exhale. "You were cut with a poisoned blade."
Elladan crawled toward the door of the forge, seating himself in the entrance. The muted sunlight on his bare shoulders helped counter the chill of the Nazgûl. Bolstering his mind against his growing fear, he gathered his rent tunic in his lap and began tearing it into long strips.
"Your blood washed much of the poison from the wound. You will live long enough to see the last of the day's light. 'Tis a pity."
Having issued them often enough against orcs, Elladan knew a baiting statement when he heard one. He also knew better than to respond, and he kept his mouth shut, intent upon making bandages.
His refusal to answer did not deter the Nazgûl. "Slitting your own throat would be merciful. Unlike poison, when my blade cuts you, it will not be so easy to remove."
Fear bubbled up once more, cold and merciless. The Nazgûl's words confirmed Elladan's suspicions about the pale gleam he had seen in the cottage doorway: a Morgul-knife. At the Battle of Fornost, such blades had been responsible for many casualties. Few of those casualties had lived, and none fully recovered. Left untreated, the wound from a Morgul-knife promised mortals a darkness even greater than death, and it held the same promise for elves if they were unable to release their fëa from their hröa in time. Elladan did not know how it would affect one beholden to both kindreds, and he had no desire to learn.
"Your blood is different. I smell in you the lines of both an ilid and a tark."
Elladan shoved the fear from his mind and pushed the edges of his wound together. With no means of suturing the injury, he could only wrap the strips of his tunic around himself, pulling the lengths as tight as possible before tying them off.
"Who whelped you, half-breed? What noble lineage did your father bastardize when your wench of a mother—"
"If you finish that sentence, either you or I will perish now!" Elladan snarled. He snapped his mouth shut the moment he realized he was speaking, but the damage was done. From behind the wall, the Nazgûl laughed.
"So the pup can bark! But can he bite? Too much of your blood stains the ground, and you grow weak. By what means will you stop my speech?"
His head spinning, Elladan squeezed his eyes shut and struggled for consciousness. The autumn sunlight felt cold, and the stone at his back leached the warmth from his bones. His trembling hands fumbled on the bandages' last knots, and in desperation, he began to chant: "A Elbereth Gilthoniel, silivren penna míriel o menel aglar elenath! Na-chaered palan-díriel—"
A piercing scream ripped outward from the cottage. The stone forge shook. Holes opened in the roof. Dust and grasses rained down upon Elladan as he cowered against the wall. Blood pounded in his ears and he clutched his head, feeling as if all his thoughts had crumbled into nothing. The scream lasted a moment only, but a moment was enough. When it was over, Elladan found himself prone on the floor, his side throbbing and his limbs shaking.
"You will not use that tongue in my presence," the Nazgûl growled.
Elladan pushed himself upright, his face cold despite the sweat beading his brow. "Then you will not scream in my presence," he grated.
At first, his words met with silence. Then the chill menace withdrew a pace. "Agreed."
Elladan blinked. That was…unexpected. Nothing in his experience suggested Nazgûl were capable of compromise or negotiation, but nothing in his experience involved a prolonged dialogue with one of the Nine. Still shuddering, Elladan dragged himself back over to the kiln. His thoughts were too muddled to unravel so strange a situation, but they were clear enough to note that he still lacked a fire. Resting against the blackened stone kiln, he resumed cleaning out the ash.
"Do you truly believe that meager forge will conjure fire enough to aid you?"
"Perhaps I will not limit my fire to the forge alone," Elladan muttered. It required too much effort to ignore the Nazgûl, and talking at least gave his mind something to focus on beyond the creeping horror. "Perhaps I will let the fire burn all it can consume and drive you from your hiding place."
"You wish to force a confrontation?"
"Clearly the sunlight distresses you. Were it otherwise, you would not linger inside with an enemy upon your doorstep."
"Or perhaps I simply enjoy your fear. I feel it settling in your mind. Your heart races, but your blood runs slow and thick. Almost I could break you with a thought. Still, if you wish to court your fate sooner rather than later, I can oblige you."
Elladan bowed his head and set the tongs aside. The Nazgûl was correct: if he forced an attack now, he would not survive. He was weak and getting weaker. Even beneath the dull glare of the afternoon sun, the Nazgûl would prove the stronger. Elladan's only hope lay in help arriving before nightfall, and that now seemed a faint hope at best. "Why are you here?" he asked, struggling against despair. "We are far from Minas Morgul."
"We are far from the hidden lands where your own people cower, half-breed. Why are you here?"
Elladan supposed he should not be surprised that his origins were known, for he had stood against the Nazgûl several times in the war against Angmar. "You send orcs and wargs through Mirkwood, choking its paths and attacking my kin," he answered. "Surely you did not expect us to do nothing."
"It is foolishness to oppose us."
"Yet your armies are in retreat," Elladan countered with a grim smile.
"What of it?" the Nazgûl asked. "Darkness roots itself deep in this land. You cannot hold my forests long."
My forests. The claim broke through the terror lacing Elladan's mind, and he considered the creature behind the wall. My. Not many Nazgûl used that word. But not many Nazgûl waited for sunset when a wounded and hated enemy lay just beyond their reach. Sunlight confounded them, yes, but not to the point where they were helpless before it. At least, not all of them. There was one, though, who was known to cower shamelessly before the sun. Who was also known to converse with his enemies. And who was alone among the Nazgûl in being able to boast not just a title but a name. "Khamûl," Elladan whispered.
A low hiss answered him.
"Do I err?" he challenged.
"You do not."
Elladan rubbed his brow, wondering if he should be gladdened or troubled by his discovery. Khamûl was…unpredictable. Unique. For many years, it was suspected that he, not Sauron, had ruled from Dol Guldur. That supposition may have even been correct in the early years, and Khamûl was probably the Nazgûl most likely to return on the eve of defeat. He had a tendency to linger where he should not. Or so Elladan remembered from the days when the Witch-king ruled Angmar. "You are alone here," he heard himself say.
Khamûl hissed again, his voice low and dark. "As are you."
"Then perhaps another arrangement can be made," Elladan said hesitantly. Under normal circumstances, he would never dare bargain with a Nazgûl, but normal circumstances did not include a conversation with Khamûl through the wall of an abandoned cottage.
A breathy laugh answered him. "You are bold. Bolder than many I have met. As you wish, then. I will grant you an arrangement: You may receive my dagger now, or you may taste it beneath the cloak of night."
Elladan frowned and looked at the forge's door. Bracing himself against the stone wall, he rose to his feet and grasped the rotting wood. He sought to tear a large piece from the door, but under his weight, the door splintered and collapsed with a thunderous crash. Elladan fell with it, the breath exploding from his lungs. He might have screamed, but he could not tell. His vision swam, and shadows that had nothing to do with the Nazgûl threatened his vision. Shaking grievously, his hands clenched into fists as he struggled against the fire in his side. When the tremors finally eased, he found could breathe again, but his strength was nearly spent. Still, he had what he needed. "Firewood," he whispered. "From this stone forge, I can ring myself with flames. What say you now?"
"That you grow weaker with every heartbeat. Even were you to come by such a fire, you could not maintain it."
"I need not maintain it, for I am not as alone as you think. Others will see my fire, and they will come. That would not bode well for you unless an arrangement is made now."
"You wish to broker a truce?" Khamûl sounded amused, and the thought made Elladan shiver. "Neither of us has the power to declare such a thing."
"Not a truce. An arrangement."
"There can be no such thing. My will is my Master's."
Gathering the smaller pieces from the broken door, Elladan crawled back to the kiln. "If your will is truly Sauron's," he said slowly, "why not come for me now? The sunlight should prove no deterrent to one so imbued with Sauron's desires. He craves my death, and as his instrument, you are in a position to provide it."
"Your end will come quickly enough, half-breed," Khamûl promised. "My Master's desires will be fulfilled."
"But you are giving me until nightfall," Elladan argued, wondering why he was bothering to debate the matter. "Is that not your choice? Is it not you who recoils before sunlight?"
"As your hand recoils from a burning flame," came the answer. "But ultimately, it is your mind that dictates its actions."
Elladan placed his kindling in the kiln and glanced at the cottage wall. "If one is strong enough, one can will the flesh to endure the fire. It seems your master is not sufficiently strong. Or perhaps his will is not as powerful as you make it."
"His will is binding. In a few hours, you will understand just how binding."
Gritting his teeth against both the threat and its accompanying fear, Elladan pressed fallen thatching beneath the wood. "Your binding was made possible by the Nine Rings, yes? But they are beholden to the One, and that Ring was lost."
"The power of the One is the power of the Great Eye, regardless of possession," the Nazgûl sneered. "It is not my binding alone but the binding of all Ring-bearers. Each of them is ruled by that which passed into the One at its making. Only a fool would believe otherwise."
A cold dread settled in Elladan's heart. Centuries ago, he had agreed to be his father's heir, and with that agreement came the pledge to bear Vilya should ought ever happen to Elrond. Under the weight of that obligation, Elladan had studied all he could of the Three, and what he found greatly disturbed him. In the end, he had set aside his studies and given himself over to the hope that the One could not influence the Three so long as it was lost. As tenuous as that hope was, he could not allow it to be countered by a Nazgûl. "The dwarves were masters of their own will and their own choices when they wielded the Seven," he said. "They were not beholden to the One."
"Were they not? Did they truly desire to lose the Seven? To be driven from their homes? To be cast into Exile and hunted like vermin?"
"Such tragedies cannot be attributed to the Rings. Not all of them," Elladan protested.
"Perhaps, but such tragedies can be attributed to choice. And under the influence of the Seven, the dwarves began to choose greed. Their desires moved to parallel that which the Great Eye desired for them."
"Desire is not will."
"Is it not? If you will your hand to grasp a sword, do you think of every finger? Every sinew? Every movement? Or do you relay the desire and allow your hand to provide the act? Is this not will?"
Elladan shook his head, too weary to find a way around Khamûl's words. Opening his belt pouch, he withdrew his flint and steel. "The Seven were not mere vassals for Sauron. If the Rings are indeed binding, then a portion of that binding is by choice. I know little of the other dwarven kindreds, but Durin's children, at least, did not choose Mordor."
"Had they possessed their Ring much longer, they would have chosen as I did. In time, the Three will force the same choice, for in the end, all Ring-bearers have but one choice and but One Ring. As my thrall, you will learn that soon."
In lieu of a response, Elladan struck his steel hard against the flint. Sparks lit the dark kiln, dancing across the dry thatching under the wood. He summoned the sparks again, watching the tinder blacken and smolder. Grasses curled beneath the heat, and after the third strike, a small tongue of flame appeared. From behind the cottage wall came a hiss of displeasure.
"The fire will not hold," Khamûl growled.
"True," Elladan murmured, coaxing the flames to spread. His thoughts turned to Vilya, and like the tiny fire, hope blossomed once more. "But we have not yet reached the point where only one choice remains, and this fire does not have to hold. It only has to burn long enough to call for aid."
A footstep sounded, and the air seemed to crackle. Elladan's defenses toppled, and fear swept him away from the kiln. The fledgling fire sputtered. Darkness crept forward. "You will die tonight!" Khamûl roared.
"If I do, it will not be by your hand!" Elladan vowed, pulling the knife from its sheath.
The Nazgûl screamed.
Elladan's world shattered. His pounding head threatened to burst, and his lungs seized up as he collapsed on his left side, pain causing the muscles to cramp violently. The darkness that had lurked in his heart ever since approaching the cottage exploded outward, enveloping his mind. His vision blackened, and his throat burned as though he also screamed. But he could hear nothing save the grating tear that ripped asunder the boundary between seen and unseen. Between light and dark. Between living and dead. Trapped on the edge of a terrible night from which there was no waking, Elladan jerked his head toward the kiln. A red glow dazzled his sight, too bright and too beautiful to endure. He turned away, squeezing his eyes shut as the scream faded.
"You said you would not scream!" Elladan choked, helpless before the cold and the fear.
A harsh laugh pressed the shadows onward, and just before Elladan succumbed, he heard the mocking words, "I lied."
"—suffers also from the Black Breath."
"—more immediate concern."
"—cannot wait for your father."
"—stopped the bleeding."
"—edges still inflamed."
Quiet voices floated somewhere above Elladan, and fragments of speech drifted down to trouble his rest. He struggled to shift away and return to his wasting land of gray and quiet, but the mists were lifting. The voices grew clearer, and Elladan's brow furrowed. The voices were familiar. One might have even been his own, save he knew—or was at least fairly certain—that he was not speaking.
"—clean it and pack it open. That will allow the poison to drain."
Elladan grew more aware, and something whispered of danger. The familiar voices did not feel as though they posed a threat, but his instincts demanded caution. Leaving his shrouded world behind, he summoned his strength and opened his eyes.
A dark form loomed over him. He recoiled sharply, and pain lanced through his left side. He struggled, desperate to escape, but a hand came down upon his shoulder, stilling his movements. Another hand rested upon his brow, and Elladan suddenly registered the scent of athelas. "Peace," whispered one of the familiar voices. "Peace, brother, you are safe. But you should not be awake. You will wish to sleep through this."
The figure turned away, silhouetted for a moment by the red glow of firelight, and then he was back. Something pressed against Elladan's lips, and sweet liquid rushed in. He drank in hurried gulps, suddenly aware of how thirsty he was, and then the drink was taken away. Heavy blinks turned the darkness gray, and he faded into dreams of swirling mists.
He could not say how long he rested, but his next bout of waking was sudden and violent. A piercing agony ripped along his side, and he jolted upright, crying out. Arms wrapped about his torso, splayed hands warm against his bare back, and he sensed a hasty scramble at his left. Water sloshed onto the floor, and the arms around him constricted.
"He will not stay under! The pain is too great!"
"We dare not wait. He is too weak to fight the poison without aid!"
His breath coming hard, Elladan pulled his head back enough to look up. He found himself staring into a mirror. "Elrohir?" he gasped.
Elrohir's brow furrowed, and his eyes flashed. "Why must you be a difficult patient?"
The anger in Elrohir's voice startled Elladan, and he blinked, wondering what he had done to upset his twin. He wished to right whatever was wrong, but he could not seem to remember—
Memory flooded him. "Khamûl!" he hissed, and as he spoke, the horror of the afternoon descended. "Khamûl is here! He—"
"Hush," Elrohir interrupted. "The Nazgûl is gone."
Elladan blinked, fear ebbing. "Gone? How? He—"
"Some of your command reached ours, and we learned of your retreat. I led as many as could be spared after you, and we saw the smoke from your fire. We did not expect to find you keeping company with a Nazgûl, though, and I dearly wish to hear the story behind that."
"Neither of us had much choice," Elladan whispered.
"That much was evident," Elrohir said, and his hold on Elladan tightened. "Your wounds are still in need of care, but you will not stay asleep for us."
"Us?" Elladan wondered, turning his eyes away from his brother. He soon found another worried face. "Lindir?"
Hunched over a basin of water, Lindir glanced up and managed a mirthless smile. "It is good to see you awake, though you may wish otherwise in a moment."
"Glorfindel is also about somewhere," Elrohir added. "We sent for him the moment we realized the thing we had driven away was a Nazgûl. Glorfindel has organized patrols throughout these fields and will ensure we are protected."
Elladan looked up, realizing for the first time that he could not see the stars. Cool night air drifted in through open windows, and he shuddered with the knowledge that he now lay where Khamûl had stood.
"It is ready. We must try again."
He glanced toward Lindir and eyed the cloth being laved in the basin. He felt Elrohir sigh, and then he was braced upon his brother's chest, his head held tightly against the crook of Elrohir's neck. "Your head we have already tended, but we need to clean the wound in your side," Elrohir whispered. "We have also a poultice to pack on it. There is poison in the cut, and though your blood washed most of it out, some remains."
Elladan closed his eyes, knowing what was to happen next. He tried to relax and allow whatever tincture he had been given to send him to sleep. But as Lindir laid the cloth against his side, the sudden pain roused him.
"It was Khamûl," he groaned, speaking more to distract than to converse.
"The Nazgûl?" Elrohir asked, his arms tensing. "How do you know?"
Elrohir stilled, and Lindir paused in his ministrations. "You spoke?"
Elladan nodded once in affirmation. It was a slight motion, but pressed as he was against Elrohir's collarbone, he knew his brother would feel it.
"When you are better, you will have to relate the particulars of this conversation," Elrohir said at length.
Heat flared in his side as Lindir resumed cleaning the wound, and Elladan arched against it. "Khamûl lied," he gasped.
"I imagine so."
"But not at first." Elladan buried his head against his brother, struggling to hold still for Lindir. "Only later did it become a lie."
"Hush," Elrohir soothed. "Think no more of it."
"He lied about his screams. He must have lied about more than that," Elladan murmured, wishing he had strength for more than just a breathy whisper.
"Of course he did. But do not let your mind dwell on him," Elrohir said, his voice firm. "You are safe!"
"Am I? Are any of us?" Elladan jerked suddenly and Elrohir's arms became iron bands.
"Yes," his brother said, and there could be no mistaking the concern in his voice. "We are safe."
"But what if Khamûl spoke truly?" Elladan hissed, needing to know. "Sauron never touched the Three, but what if—"
The warning in his brother's tone was clear. Even caught in the fog of medicine and pain, Elladan heard it. He could not abandon his fears, though, and spurred by darkness, they became sharp and piercing. "But—"
"Whatever he said—and whatever you said—we will speak of later," Elrohir interrupted sternly. "For now, you will think of other things. There is darkness enough tonight, and there are many listening ears."
Elladan wished to protest. To demand answers. To learn the truth. But Elrohir had not heard Khamûl's words, and the Rings of Power held not the compulsion for him that they did for Elladan. Elrohir was not bound to Vilya. He trusted their father to weigh the risks and the consequences of wielding the Ring. Elladan was not as confident.
But neither was he as healthy, and when a spike of pain erupted from his side, Elrohir gripped him tighter and began to speak. His voice was pitched as a low drone, the words washing over Elladan. He caught parts of phrases. Pieces of fragments. Enough to know that Elrohir spoke of the battle in Mirkwood. Of how the Necromancer had fled before the attack ever began. Of how Mithrandir was already gone, riding north on the tidings of war in Erebor. Of how Curunír now searched the forest for artifices and devices of the Enemy, allowing few to assist him.
Through it all, Elladan drifted in and out of sleep. The draught he had been given pulled him toward dreams, but pain countered with fiery agony along his ribs. He did not know which would win if left to battle indefinitely, but at length, Lindir finished whatever care his side needed. Elladan felt himself lowered to the floor, his head cushioned by his brother's leg. Fire-warmed blankets encased him, and the scent of athelas again filled the room. Fingers carded through his hair, tugging gently, while a palm smoothed the furrows in his brow.
"Hush," Elrohir whispered. "I am here, and you are safe. Sleep."
The pain from his injuries persisted, but Elladan forced his shoulders to relax and uncurled his fists. Yet as he did so, the Nazgûl's words concerning choice and desire sneered at him. Had Elladan truly willed himself to relax? Had he consciously ordered his actions? Or had he voiced a desire only? A desire forced upon him by the need to rest just as pain and fear forced upon him the inability to rest? And what desires might be forced upon one of the Three? And from there, what desires might one of the Three force upon its Bearer? What desires might Vilya force upon Elrond?
Sleep beckoned, warm and peaceful. Unable to resolve his questions, Elladan struggled away from his memories. He could not endure them now. When he was stronger, he would speak with Elrohir, for together, they were always able to answer the Enemy's darkness. As though cued by this, his brother began rubbing Elladan's temples. The rhythmic motion dulled the pain, and when Elrohir began humming an old lullaby, Elladan finally escaped his shadows. Turning his back on the darkness, he swiftly fell into sleep's welcoming embrace.
But as night faded to gray, from a dark corner of his mind where fear coiled behind a thin veil of doubt, Elladan heard a Nazgûl scream.
Ilid—Elf (assumed Black Speech, though admittedly it could be a local orc dialect)
Tark—Man of Dúnedain ancestry (assumed Black Speech, see above)
A Elbereth Gilthoniel, silivren penna míriel o menel aglar elenath! Na-chaered palan-díriel—O Elbereth Starkindler, white-glittering, sparkling like jewels, the glory of the starry host slants down. Having gazed far away— (Taken from the song sung in the Hall of Fire, FotR p.286 in the paperback edition)