9. Chapter 8
- Chapter 8 -
"Stay here!" Mother hissed, tightening her grip on Aeve's arm. She gave it a shake to emphasize her words, and the unexpected pull almost tipped Aeve off balance. "Stay. Hide. Whatever you do, whatever you hear, don't leave the house. Do you understand?"
"Mama!" Aeve whimpered, frightened by the urgency in her mother's voice. "Don't go out there!" Her wrist was painful but she dared not protest. Her mother's eyes were filled with a fear that Aeve had never seen before, a deep, sharp terror that commanded silence.
"I must find your father." Mother's face was grim but determined. "Aeve, you must stay hidden! Lock the door after me." A tired, painful smile, a brief touch to Aeve's cheek and she was gone, her skirts disappearing out the barely opened door.
"Mama!" Aeve whispered, leaning against the wood. Then she remembered and, springing to her feet, slid the latch into place with trembling fingers. Fear washed over her again.
They have taken Father.
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out his bellows as armed, armoured men had dragged him away from the porch of the house; her mother's single, smothered sob as she had clamped her hands over her mouth and stumbled back into the house, shaking her head at Aeve while her eyes pleaded her daughter not to move. She remembered how her mother had lunged herself at Kilian, hands like claws as she had dragged him back into the house. Her eyes had been wild then, as she had pinned him against the wall, whispering against the hand she held on his mouth:
"Don't! or they'll take you away as well."
Kilian had fought her in silence, hitting her at times, trying to push her off, and Aeve had stood there, seeing her gentle mother turn strong and fierce as she battled her own son, smothering his pride and his oaths of revenge; watching what was left of her family grieve in fear.
It had begun as the army had come out of the woods, trampling Aeve's childhood playground places and marching into the village under the authority of a distant lord, whose banners now floated in the weak breeze above the tavern. The change had been brutal enough for Aeve to notice, and recent enough for her to not yet be used to it and consider the less unpleasant days as good ones. Soldiers had given the villagers the same level of consideration they reserved for the food and cattle they took; to be looked into the teeth. The better, stronger had been drafted, the others left to make do with what resources were left in the face of the upcoming winter.
Those who had rebelled had been broken, those willing to cooperate robbed of everything they had. Many had fled into the mountains, for the fear of the forest depths was kept strong by stories. The settlement had wasted away in the space of a month. Soon the army would march on, but Aeve felt that her village was dying, drained of its strength, beaten and down.
They would not rebuild and move on.
The sound of heavy boots marching outside made her freeze. The metal-rimmed sound of footsteps skirted their house and she held her breath, but the loud-voiced men passed their house. Maybe they knew there was nothing left to take.
Aeve allowed herself to relax a little as she pulled her knees against her chest in an attempt to find some comfort against the feeling of loneliness and danger. Mother was gone too, now, and she was on her own.
Kilian had left during the night, his anger settled into a sullen silence as he swore he would not attempt to free their father from the draft or stage revenge against the men who had taken him. He was to find Sveyn and reach the woods; only Aeve knew he would not wait for his friend, for Kilian and Sveyn were not talking anymore.
It had all started when her brother had come home with a black eye and broken lip; Mother had panicked, Aeve remembered, tearing at her father with shrill accusations and pleas of leaving the village while father had scratched his beard in confusion.
"Peace, woman," he had said, prying his wife from Kilian. "Peace, let him speak."
But Kilian had stood, sulking, a cold towel pressed to his face; he had refused to say whom he had fought with, and Aeve had seen her father's face darken. "I'll speak to the folk," he had said as he had donned his heavy cloak, "someone'll know who did that to the lad."
As it had turned out, it was Sveyn's fist that had left its mark on Kilian's eye – two fingers broken in the process - and Kilian's hands that had scratched Sveyn's face into a criss-cross of angry red lines. "Boys fight," Father had shrugged as he had returned, pacifying Aeve's reluctant mother. "Leave'em be, they'll be causing trouble together again in no time."
But it seemed that the friendship between the two had been severed forever and, curiouser still, neither of them would speak a word about it.
At first, Aeve had felt a surge of dark satisfaction at the knowledge that Sveyn had, in a way, gotten what he deserved for his treachery and meanness. Though unrelated to her own grievance, her brother's fists had brought her a small measure of justice, something that she relished each time she remembered Sveyn's poisoned gift. She tried to forbid herself to dwell on the memory, but the humiliation, the burn of disappointment and anger at her own foolishness was still fresh.
Each time she saw the scratches, she hoped they ached as much as she did.
He did not come to their house anymore, and Kilian did not mention him. He had vanished from her life just like she used to hope he would… But Aeve was finding she was not as happy as she ought to be.
Sveyn, Father, Kilian… Now her mother was gone as well, and Aeve was alone. It was not a loneliness she was used to; there was danger and uncertainty, and she knew she had to finally be an adult, for the soldiers would treat her like a grown woman if they found her.
Something creaked in the empty house and Aeve stilled, her breath hitched in her throat. Wood scraped against wood in what she knew was a window opening in the next room.
Stay hidden, her mother had instructed, but how did one hide from an intruder in their own house? She dared not breathe, as the surrounding silence would betray her location. Armed men had come and taken what they wanted, and maybe one of them had decided she was for the taking as well. Her instinct screamed to run while fear glued her to the floor. Slowly she started crawling towards the door of the cellar, all muscles tense with the effort of such a cautious, silent progression. Breathe in – slowly, a hand to the floor. The dust felt soft and dry beneath her sweaty palm. Breathe out, slide a knee forward. Breathe in…
Then she heard the intruder curse softly.
Relief washed over her. Kilian, it had to be Kilian! He was back and he would protect her, or perhaps take her away into the woods – she was not afraid. Pushing herself off the floor she shoved the door open, and froze.
"What are you doing here?" she spat.
The forest was colder, wilder than the woods Lindir knew, shaped for the creatures that used to inhabit it and that were so different from Men or Elves. The ground itself was tortured by crevices and deep holes that buried themselves deeper even in the form of caves; cliffs hung above crevices, as though the land could not settle on a middle ground between the sky and the abyss. The rocky peaks that rose towards the canopies bore the vestiges of ruined fortresses, their stones still permeated by the primitive magic that used to animate the forest's inhabitants.
Somehow - unbeknownst to him, almost - a song made its way into his mind, perhaps whispered to his ear by the wind, suggested by the woods themselves; he merely repeated it under his breath as he walked behind Glorfindel:
Here darkness rules, where old things dwell
Where holds the world's most ancient spell
The silence reigns in forest veins
And shadows fly between the fells
This border crossed dissolves the vain,
The ephemeral Mortal reign
Long after all the Kingdoms fall
The woods shall still alive remain
The heart beats strong, the roots grow deep
The bones are worn but sharp and steep
The shaws are old, their waters cold
Beneath the stone where dark things sleep
The forest was welcoming the Old Blood; it wanted to be heard. Yes, Lindir thought, he could sit here and write, and sing, and play. He could find his place under the hidden stars, and wander the woods again with a light heart and eyes filled with renewed curiosity… But not now; there were more pressing matters at hand.
The mission he and Glorfindel had been entrusted with was simple. They had discovered, by listening in to the men stationed in the village, that a rebellion had risen against the lord of these lands, and that their leader had claims to the crown. The lord had gathered his army and marched against the rebels and, while the heiress of Aragorn was relatively safe for the moment, the elves needed to know more about the conflict and its players so that their strike, if such a move was required, would be efficient and deadly. Infiltrating rebel camp had seemed like the simplest plan to gain the required information.
Ahead of him, Glorfindel raised a fisted arm and spun around, nodding towards the path they had just travelled, and signalling to Lindir for silence. "Men," he mouthed, reaching out to lift one of the branches and disappearing beneath it. Lindir jumped into the thick vegetation bordering the path; he held the branches as he slid between them so that they would not continue to sway after he passed and betray his presence. There was no need to hold his breath as he backed down deeper into the bushes, as the men prowling these woods seemed confident in their sentinels' ability to detect unwelcomed visitors and therefore did not bother to stay on their guard as well, but still he felt himself inhale slower, as if to blend in with the wind that tousled the leaves around him.
The two men were armed and wore a rudimentary, ill-adjusted armour – they were simple peasants, Lindir understood, farmers and stable-hands who were given weapons and summarily trained in their wielding, which gave them confidence enough to boast but no experience or discipline. They passed him by, laughing and talking loudly; something that would have been a certain suicide an Age ago in these very woods – such loud creatures would have quickly been noticed and plucked for dinner by the trolls that had made the forest their home.
But trolls too had gone from this world.
He turned his head to see Glorfindel purse his mouth in disapproval just beside him. The warrior nodded towards the path that was disappearing in the lush greenery; there, amidst the trees, shone fires – beacons signalling the entrance gates to the rebel camp. The light reflected on the dark wood of a strong gate, on the barbed wire that had been wrapped around the beams holding it closed and on the armour of the two guards that stood watch before it.
Still laughing, the two newcomers approached the gates; one of the guards stepped forward to greet them, but instead reached out to smack the closest man over the back of his head. His metal-rimmed gauntlet cracked loudly as it collided with flesh.
"The hell?" the man yelped, jumping back and rubbing his neck.
"Shut it," the guard growled. "Wanna let the whole woods know that we're based here? No? Then keep your squawking down and get inside."
"Bastard," the offended man grumbled but obeyed nevertheless, edging around the guard as if expecting a retaliation for the insult.
"Mercenary," Glorfindel whispered. "Carries his weapons with ease and familiarity." His eyes scanned the gate and the canopies above it. "There are more watchmen up left and right of the gate; they may be as green as those two, or there may be more hired swords amongst them." He shook his head. "We cannot pass through here."
Still crouching, Lindir twisted around to examine the cliff that formed a wall further back, covered in thick, well-fed vines. It seemed to tower above the nearby walls of the camp but was not as tall as to appear through the curtain of trees and expose them to the eyes of the sentinels.
"We can climb," he suggested in a low voice. "We will be able to get a better view of the camp as well as overhear their conversations. Mayhap we will learn of their plans and discover who leads them."
Glorfindel considered it for an instant then nodded, and his lips twisted into a smile. "I hope you have not lost your skill," he said. "Traipsing the path under their noses was easy enough, but on that wall we will be sitting ducks should they spot us."
"They will not," Lindir grinned and unbuckled his belt. He pulled off his scabbard, wrapping the leather band around it, and tied the belt across his chest so that the sword hung in his back. The stress of avoiding being seen was enough; he was not about to add the sword scraping the stone to the odds against them, or risk a fall from tripping over his own blade.
The stone was smooth, but not impossible to climb; a long time ago, this particular cliff had probably been cloven in two, a huge slate shaved off by some cataclysmic event, and the remaining façade bore the marks of the scission. Narrow ledges ran across the stone wall, offering enough handholds for a good climber, and the vines covering the façade could also provide support if they were healthy and strong enough.
Lindir cast a last look towards the gates and the trees that Glorfindel had pointed out as watch platforms and, deeming it safe, stood up. He ran his hands over the cool stone surface, and his fingers quickly found a sufficient grasp to haul himself up. He remembered his younger days, when he and Elladan, Elrohir and a few other elflings used to make it a challenge escalading the ravines surrounding Imladris. They were usually caught by a stern Glorfindel and brought back to a sterner Erestor and, on one occasion, Lindir had refused to obey the Chief of Guards' incentive to climb back down. He had stubbornly remained glued to the façade, mocking Glorfindel and the heavy armour that forbade him to haul the elfling off the wall by the ear, until night had fallen and his limbs had turned blue and numb. He had fallen down, straight into the arms of Glorfindel, who had camped there all evening.
Lindir grinned and, shifting his weight, reached out for the next hold.
Straight beneath him, he heard Glorfindel's voice, as if the warrior had shared his thoughts: "Don't go camping midway, now. The guards are about to be relieved, there will be twice as many people on those platforms to see us."
"Pity," Lindir offered sarcastically, "I was just starting to like it here."
His heart, that had raced in the first minutes of climbing at the thought of being seen, gradually calmed down to settle into a steady, strong beat. His muscles moved without effort, his progress was quick and fluid. He felt young again, and powerful. And, when a vine broke under his foot, showering Glorfindel with leaves and rubble and earning him a curse, he laughed.
The top of the cliff was narrow but relatively flat. Lindir swung his body across the edge and rolled onto his belly, and waited for Glorfindel to join him. Together they surveyed the camp.
"They are many," Glorfindel commented gloomily as he picked twigs out of his hair. "And well-organized." He pointed towards the centre of the camp: "The leader's tent. But there is no way of reaching it before dark."
"They are not mere bandits, either," Lindir added.
He watched the men stroll around the camp, each and every one with his own purpose. The scene would have seemed peaceful, domestic almost, if not for the sound of the smith hammering away at a red-hot sword, a pile of blades already ready on a weapon stand nearby, or the swishing of arrows that hit their mark as new recruits were trained in archery. These were men of war, but they were organized and, from what he could see, well-liked by the villagers from the other side of the forest.
"They have the support of the farmers beyond the shaws," he said, nodding towards a group of soldiers carrying armfuls of food. "Those are not stolen goods – the bread has been carefully packed away so that it does not harden. The people have given it away of their free will."
At that very moment, the flaps of the tent were pulled aside and a man stepped out. His armour was as old as those of his men, but unlike theirs it fit him perfectly, denoting a warrior who had worn it often enough into battle to know where to adjust it. He was neither young nor old, or rather he should have looked young; but his stance was too proud to be inexperienced, his face wore more scars than it should have and his grey eyes were feverish, haunted.
The camp activities around him stopped as men went to greet him, bowing slightly as they approached him; the younger recruits watched him with expectation, hoping he would acknowledge their talent or precision. And he spoke to them all, nodding at their words, listening to their complaints, approving, noticing, recognizing.
For all the simplicity of his armour, he looked positively kingly, Lindir thought.
"I give you a rebel with a cause," Glorfindel whispered next to him.
"And that cause we need to discover," Lindir added, his eyes on the rebel leader. He watched him round up his men and give orders for departure. "He looks like…"
He frowned. "It cannot be…" He cast a glance at Glorfindel who, too, seemed to be studying the features of the man with great attention.
"If not for the blond hair…" Glorfindel began, then shook his head. "It is like seeing him again. The way he moves, the way he speaks to his men… I remember training him to be as good a captain like it was yesterday."
"And who trained this man?" Lindir wondered aloud. "Who made him into the leader he is, who forged his fate?" And who will undo it?
The looked at each other in confusion. Lindir felt his certainty about the simplicity of his mission – and their cause – ebb away, undermined by their discovery. For the man leading the rebels was the very image of one they had all loved and mourned, and whose bloodline they were ready to fight to protect.
"We must discover who he is," Glorfindel said, his voice quiet but full of resolve. "I hope we are wrong about him; I hope it is not too late."
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.