1. The Orc's Claw
The Orc's Claw
"Oooh! What is that?"
"Put it away, Erestor." Elrond's tone crept from peevish into stern at the expression on Queen Marillómë's face. "You have made Master Valandil curious, and your trinket isn't the sort of thing young eyes ought to see."
Bad enough that he himself had to be reminded of the images of the battlefield he had left behind only recently. Elrond would much rather think of the lovely face of Celeborn's daughter, with whom he had become reacquainted on his journey home. The death of his cousin Ereinion had changed many things, and Elrond had begun to seriously contemplate marriage.
"Oh come now, Elrond, have you grown so old and jaded that you have forgotten what it means to be a small boy? Always wanting to see new things, and the grislier the better." Glorfindel shook his golden hair and flashed his white teeth in the direction of Valandil's mother, and the lady's demeanor warmed immediately.
"I suppose this . . . artifact has an interesting story to go along with it, Lord Erestor?"
The item in question lay on a low table in the Hall of Fire, and the mere sight of it -- withered grey skin, darker than it had been in life, and the five black-taloned fingers curled loosely in rigor -- gave Elrond the shudders.
"Indeed it does, my lady," Erestor said, his pedantic feathers unruffling at the attention from a pretty woman and the chance to expound. "I was given it by a Southron I took prisoner during the final assault on Barad-dûr, in gratitude for my sparing his life. I believe he was one of the Black Númenoreans."
"There was a little more to it than that, old friend," Glorfindel said.
"Well, yes," Erestor admitted, with a pointed glance at Glorfindel. "This fellow claimed to be a holy man among his people -- a mage of sorts. The hand belonged to a former comrade in arms, an orc-captain who had been told by a soothsayer that he would die in battle the following day. Not wishing to die, this orc did not report to the battlements the next morning, hiding himself, instead, in the privy. Alas for him, a catapult misfired and flung its stone backwards into that self-same privy, crushing the orc-captain quite dead. My prisoner kept the hand, the only intact part of his comrade, as a reminder of the folly of flouting the designs of the Lady Vairë. According to him, he imbued the hand with a special spell. It will supposedly grant three wishes."
"A Black Númenorean?" Marillómë pursed her lips and looked as if she had perceived a bad odor. "I dislike those folk intensely. But at least he knew the names of the Valar and their powers. Unlike the former owner of that hand. Orcs are little better than beasts."
"Beasts, perhaps," said Elrond. "But I am still not pleased to see the keeping of body parts as battle trophies." A sudden gust of wind blew a patter of autumn leaves against the shutters. Inside, the fire crackled merrily, keeping them all warm against fall's roughening weather.
"Have you ever tried to make a wish with it, Master Erestor?" Valandil said, continuing to eye the orc's claw with fascination.
Erestor shook his head. "I? No, what would I have needed to wish for -- other than perhaps for a speedier journey home to Imladris from the war? Although," he paused with a wink, "I sensed my Peredhel friend deliberately wanted to prolong our travels, at least so long as we kept northward company with my Lord Celeborn and his family."
Glorfindel laughed, and Elrond silenced them both by knitting his dark brows.
"Oh, no," Erestor continued, "I'm quite content as I am. The claw has its full three wishes remaining."
"Well, I'd wish for something if I could," Valandil announced.
"And what would that be?" Glorfindel said. "A pony? A new bow? Books to read? You have only to ask, and Master Elrond will provide."
Valandil shook his head. "None of those things. I would like to be a king some day."
"Don't be silly, dear," his mother said, placidly taking up her embroidery. "You have three older brothers before you in the line of succession."
"I know," said Valandil quietly. "It will never happen."
"Do not be so sure,' Erestor said. "You might go off some day and found a minor kingdom of your own. How about over the Misty Mountains to the east, in the land of the wild Silvans? It has been done before."
"Erestor --" Elrond began.
"Don't give the boy ideas," Glorfindel concurred.
"I do!" said Valandil and snatched up the withered orc's claw from the table where it lay. "I do wish I could be a king!" Then he let out a little shriek and dropped the claw to the stone flags of the hall floor. "It . . . it twitched! It twitched when I said the words!"
"Now look what you've done," Glorfindel said. "You have the boy imagining things. I doubt he'll sleep a wink tonight."
"My youngest has always had a head for fancies," said Queen Marillómë. She set down her embroidery and gathered up her trembling son. "I am sure all that nonsense will cease once his father and brothers have returned from the south." She paused and sighed. "It will be good to have a man's influence again after so long."
"I'm so sorry, my lady," Erestor stammered. "I never meant to upset him."
Marillómë reassured him with a wave of her hand. "Have no worries, Master Erestor. I'm sure Valandil will have forgotten all about it by morning."
The four of them headed off toward the bedroom wings with Valandil in tow, protesting stridently that he was not overtired, nor was he ready to sleep. Elrond remained where he was, staring at the floor in dismay. He had seen it too. As he watched, the orc's claw slowly curled again, and returned to its previous position.
Suppressing a shudder, Elrond bent to pick up the ghastly thing, although he had to force himself to touch it. He was a warrior, by Elbereth, not some superstitious Nandorin housemaid! It felt as cold and dry as an old stick. He dropped it on the same low table, glad to be rid of the feel of it.
The thing was dead. Elrond's imagination had been playing tricks on him too. There could be no other explanation.
* * *
The upset had all died down by morning. Even Elrond let it slip his mind after a few days. Life at Imladris continued on untroubled for slightly over a fortnight, until two young men, footsore and the worse for wear from their journey over the Misty Mountains, arrived bearing the shards of Narsil and the troubling news that Isildur's returning party had been ambushed by orcs just above the Gladden Fields. For another four days all of Imladris held its collective breath, awaiting news of the King's fate.
On the morning of the fifth day, which dawned cold and cloudy with the first pelting rains of the approaching winter, a solitary messenger wearing the green and brown uniform of the Greenwood Realm came riding over the bridge. He bore a sealed letter addressed to Elrond.
Over the Long-years, Elrond had received many communiqués from the Silvan realm of Greenwood the Great. This one bore an unfamiliar seal in the style of an oak leaf -- yet another reminder that across the mountains and the Anduin a new King reigned. The handwriting, too, was unfamiliar, the boxy penmanship of a writer more literate in the runes of Daeron than the tengwar.
Master Elrond, the letter began, the sad duty has fallen to me to be the bearer of grievous tidings. Aratan, Ciryon, and Elendur are dead in an attack by orcs on their northward march. Of Lord Isildur's fate, I cannot tell you. According to the sole survivor of the massacre, a young esquire by the name of Estelmo who is now recuperating with the Woodmen, the King used his -- here the paper contained a blot, as if the writer had paused long with his quill against the page in order to choose the exact term carefully -- weregild to make his way through the surrounding lines of orcs and escape to the west. We found his sword and armor on the eastern bank of the Anduin but no other sign of him. I fear the worst. Written in haste -- I go to hunt orcs. Thranduil Oropherion.
While Elrond read aloud, a hush fell over those assembled in the Hall of Fire. Young Valandil was the first to break the silence. "I will be a king after all."
And then he burst into tears.
The Queen, who had let out a muffled sob and buried her face in her hands when Elrond read the names of her three dead sons, now looked up with a strange light glittering in her eyes. "There is still hope," she said. "Isildur may have swum the river and reached the far bank. We do not know for certain that he is dead!"
She ran to the low table and snatched up the orc's claw from where it had lain forgotten since the night Erestor had showed it to Valandil. "My son had his wish granted. He is now Isildur's only living heir, and he will be King of the Dúnedain of the North in his turn. I will have my wish too!" Clasping the withered thing to her breast, she shut her eyes and intoned, "I wish . . . I wish that my lord return to me!"
They all saw it this time. The dead hand clenched and relaxed again. Calmly, the Queen set it back down. "He is coming to me now, making his way across the plain and over the mountains. He will come. You shall see."
She nodded to her weeping son to follow and swept from the room with all the grandeur of Tar-Ancalimë herself. At the door she turned once more. "You will see. He will come."
* * *
Isildur did not come; not the next day nor the next week nor even the week after that. The light of confidence that glowed in Marillómë's tear-reddened eyes began to take on a feverish glint.
"He was a hardy man, of great endurance," Glorfindel muttered, well out of earshot of the Queen. "Even if he had managed to use that . . . thing to slip through the orcish sentries on the western bank, he would have made his way here or to Lórien. We would have had word of him by now."
Erestor merely looked troubled. "Perhaps it is just as well. I cannot forget the smile on my prisoner's face when he spoke of the folly of attempting to change fate. Young Valandil's wish was granted, to the letter, but it came about in such a way that no one would have wanted to see it happen. The more I ponder on it, the more I suspect that Southron meant me ill when he gave me the charm."
"Pish," said Elrond. "I feel the greater fool for giving in to such foolish fancies. Your orc's claw is nothing but a hunk of dried flesh and gristle. And Isildur . . ." He trailed off as Marillómë entered the hall of fire.
"He will come, you will see," she said. "My Isildur will come."
* * *
Late one night during the third week, the inhabitants of the last Homely House were roused from their slumber by a sudden series of blows on the massive front door. Elrond was the first to reach the entry hall, with Glorfindel and Erestor close behind.
"Who goes there?" Elrond cried, pulling the neck of his dressing robe closer about him. The temperature in the hall was cold enough to chill even Elvish blood.
He received no answer. The pounding continued, a strangely muffled thudding as if the flesh and bones of the hand were somehow softened. Through the latch-hole and the crack at the doorsill came a faint reddish glow.
"That is the light of the Elendilmir!" Marillómë came rushing down the stairs, her loose hair flying and her dressing gown down around her shoulders. "It is my Isildur!"
Glorfindel caught her by the waist as she ran past him. The pounding continued, and a new odor began to waft in through the cracks, assailing their nostrils with the dank scent of river muck and something else, far more unpleasant.
"Let me go, you fool!" the Queen cried, straining toward the heavy drop latch that held the front door fast.
Elrond moved toward it, but Erestor gave a sudden shake of his head. "It has been more than two weeks since the lady made her wish. Had he already been on the way, he would have reached us before now. She summoned him from the banks of the Anduin." He dropped his voice even further and continued, "Mark you well what she actually wished, Elrond."
Elrond searched his memory for the exact words Marillómë had spoken and felt a sick sensation in the pit of his stomach. The Queen had simply wished Isildur to return to her. She had said nothing about his being alive when he did it. "Ai, sweet Elbereth!" Elrond whispered.
He turned and sprinted to the Hall of Fire, and as he ran, Vilya swung against his bare chest on its long chain, humming that unnerving vibration that he had first felt when Gil-galad entrusted the Ring of Power to him before setting off for his final battle on the slopes of Orodruin. Elrond had worn it only once since that time, and he had removed it just as quickly, repelled by the sensation. He knew that he would have to put it on soon, to bend Vilya to his will for the protection of Imladris. Evil had come to this valley tonight, and it must not be allowed to happen again.
The orc's claw still lay on the table. Elrond snatched it up and hurried back toward the sound of Marillómë's voice with its shrill demands that Glorfindel release her so that she might open the door for her husband. He could not find it in his heart to blame her for her folly. The temptation to bring back a lost loved one with a word must be nigh unto irresistible. Elrond felt it too, and the thought crossed his mind that he could let what remained of Isildur shamble into the hallway while he used the remaining wish for himself. Let the foolish woman have joy of her husband! The husband who had brought on his own fate by ignoring the counsel to destroy Sauron's cursed Ring. How much better it would be to have Ereinion restored to life and health. Or -- and Elrond barely dared to think it -- to bring Celebrian to his bed with a word. He would be more careful of how he phrased his wish. Nothing would go wrong.
The orc's claw grew warm within Elrond's hand, and it seemed to vibrate with a hungry vitality. 'Do it . . . do it!' a voice in his mind whispered.
Vilya grew hot, then cold against his chest, bringing Elrond up short with a grunt of pain. What had he been thinking? He wanted these things, but, sweet Elbereth no! Not like that.
He arrived back in the hallway just as Marillómë sank her teeth into Glorfindel's forearm and broke free. She ran to the door and hefted the heavy drop bar, managing to lift it just as Elrond clasped the orc's claw in both hands and muttered the third and final fervent wish.
The orc's claw gave one last twitch, and the great door swung slowly open, to reveal only a rectangle of darkness. A pair of dry brown leaves, the last of the season, blew over the threshold from the doorstep, empty save for a puddle of water that trickled slowly back down toward the Bruinen.
* * * * *
Author's Note: Readers may recognize the classic horror tale, The Monkey's Paw, by W.W. Jacobs. Beta reader on this story was Virtuella. Special thanks to Pandemonium for advice on the naming of Númenorean queens.
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.