8. Chapter 7
- Chapter 7 -
Elladan dangled his leg from the branch, wincing slightly as blood returned to the muscles after a long, motionless wait. He was grateful for the knowledge that even as he moved in the tree, he could not be heard or seen from below – not by a mortal, at least. His watching post was not at the edge of the woods, allowing him a little more freedom of movement but less entertainment, as few wandered into the forest these last times. Even the children had made themselves scarce, the little girl included.
She was not so little, now, he reminded himself; not by human standards. She had grown into a graceful woman-child, a little dreamy, a little impertinent. He often caught himself studying her face in search of the expected resemblance to Estel or Arwen, when she laughed or scrunched up her face in concentration; but she reminded him of neither. Elladan often told himself that the bloodline had been much diluted in the course of the last Long Years, and that the traits that he was looking for was an old longing speaking, a desire to see again the faces of those he had loved and lost.
Aeve. Her name was Aeve; he had rolled it off his tongue, regretting its meaninglessness. Once the names given to children were to reflect their unique traits or express the parents' hopes for their offspring. Now they had shortened, easy to shout out rather than prophetic or descriptive. Just like the naming, many a ceremony or custom had been lost during the Dark Times, discarded in their apparent uselessness or purposefully pruned as remnants of a past better forgotten.
Elladan wiggled his toes inside his boot, wondering how Glorfindel was faring in his own tree, somewhere closer to the border with the lands of the mortals. He could imagine the old warrior gracefully lounging on a branch as though it were a comfortable chair of his study, squinting at the sun filtering through the leaves and chasing bugs out of his golden mane. Surely his view was more interesting than Elladan's.
Elladan swallowed, grimacing at the dryness of his throat. His waterskin was long since empty, seeing him thirsty well after noon – time when Maenhíl, a young healer, should have come to relieve him.
The morning had been uneventful, boring even from the point of view of a warrior used to ambushes and action. But such was their everyday lot since the Last Council – such was the name they had given the fateful evening where each and every one of the remaining elves had renewed their allegiance to Elladan and his brother, and vowed not to leave these shores until their task was accomplished. Since that night, they had stood – or rather sat – watch, surveying the village and waiting for the beginning of whatever it was that would threaten this corner of the world. Some of the younger men had complained about the lack of action, itching to throw themselves into battle at last and prove their valour; the older warriors had grumbled at the strategic insignificance of such a task, until Glorfindel himself had set the example by carrying out the first watch. Elladan smiled – imagining how such a move would have had Erestor bewildered, as the lore-master had complained many a time that the Chief of Guards' patience was that of a bored puppy. Erestor, whose feet had not graced the woods with their visit ever since he had peeled off his bloodied armour and entered Elrond's service as a Councillor; no, Erestor was even a greater threat with his acidic humour… But he, too, was gone.
Elladan sighed and then allowed himself a dry cough. Where was Maenhíl, that lazy man?
Without the nagging thirst, he would have deemed it a quite pleasant day, spent in doing nothing and away from his worries of late. The sun was shining through the canopies, filtering softly and providing warmth rather than heat. The trees, who had been left with no-one to speak to and grown wild and wary of strangers, had forgotten his presence and were whispering amongst themselves. Everywhere around him, life's wild heart was beating steadily, slowly… eternally. It was too tempting to imagine, in a moment so out of time, a wholly different context to his occupation; that Imladris still echoed with elven singing, that Arwen still wandered through its gardens. That Father could still be found in his study, often busy and preoccupied but welcoming the distraction with a weary smile.
"Father," Elladan whispered, relishing the illusion for a second. He remembered himself as an elfling, seeking out the memories and unravelling what had lain dormant for so long. He had called his Father differently, then, before he had gained his independence and the right to forget the fuzzy nicknames of childhood.
The difference between him and that elfling was born of seconds rather than years, of striking pain and the horrifying discovery of an animalistic thirst for vengeance and blood within his soul - the same soul where he had always nurtured the tender, if somewhat uncertain in their limits, feelings for his family. He had learnt what it truly meant to love and, subsequently, what to hate felt like. He had killed, and had entered the adult world with his head held high; but he had not realized how much he had missed the sweet abandon of relinquishing that power over himself into the hands of another, to seek protection and council without reservation or shame. Ada…
He startled as the distant sounds of someone making their way through the woods reached his ears. Embarrassed by the thought that Maenhíl could have heard his words and thus witnessed his small moment of nostalgia, and determined to give the latecomer a piece of his mind about his lateness and the importance of their watches, Elladan pulled his legs back onto the branch and poised himself, ready to leap to the ground.
Leaves rustled, announcing the visitor; but their whispers grew urgent, loud as bloodied hands tore through the bushes and branches before a man emerged into the sunlight below. His face was pale, haggard, his armour covered in gore. Terrified eyes seemed to search the trees for signs of a pursuit. Elladan held his breath, waiting, watching – for they were not alone in the forest. The man spun around, staggering in the heavy armour; his eyes widened and he lunged forward, reaching out as though to push the very air out of his way, as a soft, short whistle covered the sound of his laboured breath.
The arrow hit him in the neck, piercing the trachea and slicing through the artery. Blood spattered the bark with a soft sound, its metallic smell mixing with those of pine and soil. Broken fingernails dung into the ground in a last convulsive grasp.
Another man tore through the patch of grass below, jumping clumsily over the one fallen despite the armour and his wounds. He slipped slightly on the blood-stained grass and let go of his sword; it fell with a soft thud and buried itself into the upturned earth. His jaw was clenched, his eyes full of absolute horror; he ran for his life. Another whistle tore his left ear off but he disappeared amongst the trees.
Screams neared Elladan's hiding place, piercing the woods as wounded warriors scrambled through, leaving their dead behind, fleeing the battlefield that lay somewhere beyond the forest. Banners were trampled into the earth, weapons and helmets discarded as they tried to vanish into the deceiving safety of the green depths; but arrows and then blades found them.
The ground shook under metal-clad feet.
Men fell, one after another, piled up between the trunks; the agonizing were finished off with a thrust of a sword, but there was no mercy in the wielders' eyes. It was no battle that Elladan was witnessing, it was a slaughter; and he was alone in the middle of the mayhem. He held his breath, heart freezing as the dying looked up and saw him, and breathed in relief as their lips stilled, silent forever. He knew nothing of these men, of their creeds and quarrels, but he felt them dying all around him and, be they evil or just, it was an end he wished upon no-one.
The final blow fell with a wet, sickening sound. Gazing down through a red mist, Elladan prayed for silence; but a song of victory crashed into his ears, rising above the blood-soaked clearing.
It was long after blessed silence had fallen upon the woods when Elladan finally dared to climb down from his perch. Careful not to step on a limb or into a puddle, he progressed slowly, guided by the rising moon reflecting off the wet grass. No birds sang tonight, as if the woods themselves were ashamed to have become silent, unmoving witnesses of the slaughter. Voiceless, they watched the last sleep of the fallen.
It was then that he saw him, wedged between two piles of dead men, crimson blood on a light-green tunic and golden hair fanned out on tarnished plate. A long, thick arrowshaft protruded from beneath his shoulder where the arrow had found him; the waterskin, still full, lay forgotten on the ground nearby.
"Maenhíl!" Elladan whispered and knelt, reaching out to pull the body of the healer from under the carcasses. The once supple, strong limbs had gone limp, the hopeful smile wiped off of an ashen face. Elladan averted his gaze.
Oh, Maenhíl. So very young and eager, so very inexperienced. Elladan had sent him into danger untrained, unaccompanied. He had died alone, amongst strangers. He must have gotten caught between the two armies, Elladan thought as he hoisted the body upon his shoulders, ignoring the lukewarm trickle down his neck. Perhaps Lindir had been right, he thought. It had not been Maenhíl's battle to fight, no more than it was Urúvion's or even Glorfindel's. It was not too late – they could still sail and leave Middle-earth to its fate. But what would then become of Estel's bloodline? Would Aeve's body be discarded in the middle of the village, abused and broken as he had seen it?
He had a choice, one that he hated. Friends and kin against those of his bloodline that he did not know but had sworn to protect, and felt so strangely connected to. Danger and duty on both sides, the desire to bring his men safely to their families and oaths of loyalty sworn long ago to his foster brother. Mayhap it would have been easier, had it been all decided for him… But Elladan knew he would have rebelled against the outcome, whatever it was.
They buried Maenhíl in the quivering light of the torches, beneath a lonely willow whose roots ran so deep into the earth that they remembered the elfling that now lay in their embrace. The wind itself remained silent, though Lindir had always remembered that particular grove to be full of its whispers.
He stole a glance of the faces surrounding him: grief, horror. Shame. Remorse. He wanted to tell them to brace themselves for worse, for this could only be the beginning of a long score-keeping on their side: a price that would be settled soul after soul, claimed one by one in exchange for victories. But he bit his tongue, holding back the words no-one wanted to hear. Soon he would have to say them. Soon, but not now.
The elves were grieving. Sorrow and pain rolled from the skin of each and every man present in waves; Lindir could almost taste them. He listened to the prayers, inaudible in their resignation and barely breaking the silence, watched the feverish moving of the lips.
"Farewell, brother," Urúvion whispered above the assembly, "short may be your stay in Bannoth, and swift your return to your family."
Lindir shuffled on his feet as the nightly fog descended into the grove, whirling around their ankles and ghosting over the ground. There was something in the atmosphere; an ancient sorrow that poured from the severing of that link between close souls, but also a growing anger. Minds were restless, hands clenching and unclenching under the disguise offered by the cloaks. Perhaps some of the blood spilled that day still hung in the air, or perhaps they grew tired of bearing their losses in silence.
Lindir could feel it as well, in the earth and in the wind. Too many of their loved ones lay buried in the ground around them.
His time had come. The elves were grieving, they were sad. He had to make them angry.
"Sing, Lindir," Elrohir said quietly, shivering beneath his cloak. "Sing something for Maenhíl."
The air was growing colder, stiller, as though Imladris itself was holding its breath. Lindir closed his eyes briefly, stretching the muscles of his back that had gone stiff during the ceremony. Thoughts and words crystallized in his head, and he knew what he had to do. He inhaled deeply, savouring the cold burn in his throat.
He felt his lips stretch into a grimace of contempt. "No, I will not sing. Not now. I will not lie any longer, and disguise the deaths of our beloved under cloaks of glory. Maenhíl did not die a warrior's death; he was murdered, deprived of his right to die with honour."
Shocked silence welcomed his declaration. Urúvion inhaled sharply, his young face twisted into a scowl. "Are you calling him a coward?"
"I am calling him a victim," Lindir retorted. "He went quietly, swordless and unprepared."
Elladan's face darkened, Glorfindel's hand stiffened on the hilt of his sword - and Lindir triumphed. They were ready.
"Maenhíl was a child. He should have lived out his life and had the opportunity to choose his path; it lay not in the battlefield. It lay here, in Rivendell, amongst those of his family. It lay overseas, in the blessed realms of our forefathers. It lay in peace, not in war."
"It is my fault." Elrohir smiled bitterly, stepping forward and laying a pacifying hand on Urúvion's shoulder. His brother followed suit, expression warning and grim, ready to defend his twin. "I have held all of you here, in this world of war, because of an oath that was not yours to fulfil." Elrohir turned a calm face to Lindir. "Maenhíl's death, and all the others before him, lie on my conscience."
"You would absolve Men of all responsibility, then?" someone called out. The voice was muffled by the growing murmurs of the assembly. "When last I looked, they were already prone to envy and warmongering."
Glorfindel spun around, eyes narrowing. "And when last I looked, Gwillin, you were quite content with merely following orders. Why the sudden courage?"
"Glorfindel…" Elrohir hissed warningly, but Gwillin was quick to cut him off:
"Because I, unlike you, cannot afford the luxury of dying. I have a wife and a child in the East – again, unlike you. I do not live for war."
"Enough!" Urúvion cried before Glorfindel could reply, rushing forward. "Enough. Will you quarrel on Maenhíl's grave? If you will not listen to our Lord, then listen to me, for all my youth. Look at you. Listen to yourself. If not for the ears, one would mistake you for Men! And you, Lindir…" Urúvion turned to face him. "What treachery is this? You used to sing of love, to speak of friendship, and now you seek to turn us against one another?
"Treachery?" Lindir repeated quietly. "No." He turned to face Elrohir again. "Maenhíl is dead. His name will be added to the list of those who have fallen on these shores since your father's leave. But I shall need more ink before we sail."
He took another step towards Elrohir, looking over his shoulder to meet Elladan's gaze. "I shall add Elladan to the list..."
"You dare!" Urúvion gasped.
"…and you, Urúvion. And you, Gwillin. Mayhap someone else will take up the quill to scribble my name at the bottom of the parchment. For the moment may come, Elrohir, when your brother is dead, and when Glorfindel here lays in a pool of his own blood, his sword clutched in his hand in the most heroic manner. Only you still stand, facing your enemy who, too, is alone. I want you to strike, to not hesitate, unburdened by despair or grief. I want you to remember what we died for, to raise your blade and fulfil that oath. Else we will have longed and wandered – and fallen – in vain."
He moved quickly, dropping to his knees before Elrohir and Elladan. "No-one here is more loyal to you than me, my Lords. I am prepared to incur your wrath, if only it prepares you for your task. Such is my duty, and I would be a poor servant, should I allow myself to give in to the luxury of indulgence. Strike me down if you think me disloyal; strike me down this instant, but remember my words. This is only the beginning."