5. Return to Mirkwood
His eyes had been shut; he opened them now and surveyed the scene before him. Sadron stood at the entrance to the cave, his keen eyes keeping watch over the horses and camp – and his heart keeping watch over his friend Alagos. Calardan was kneeling beside the body of the queen, his body shaking silently.
Urithral lifted his head and placed a gentle kiss in his wife’s hair; his eyes then seeking Rawien’s. Unspoken words passed between them: they had to move on, choices must be made about their next steps.
“Calardan, Sadron,” Rawien’s voice was rough, “please see to the camp. Pack only the cart. The rest we leave.”
Calardan and Sadron moved silently to do his bidding. Rawien knelt beside the queen. He gently pried her stiff fingers from the hilt of the knife in her chest, and then removed the knife. Ethiwen silently joined him, tears still falling down her cheeks, and they removed the bloodied gown from her body. Ethiwen cleaned her with cloths, and then they wrapped her in her cloak, securing it snugly around her. Her hands they folded across her chest, and then Rawien smoothed her eyelids closed, forever shuttering them from the horror of death.
They turned to Alagos next; the damage to his body so great that they could not wash the blood from him, nor even remove the tattered tunic. Rawien wrapped him tenderly in his own cloak, for the prince had fallen upon his own and it bore the signs of his death.
The bodies were placed in the cart, a tarp protecting them from the sun.
Rawien gathered the five remaining travelers together. His gaze rested on Ethiwen, for he knew her mother’s heart, already wounded and battered, would vie against the logic of what they must do. Urithral knew this also, for his father’s heart was in the midst of its own battle.
“The traders are likely at the crossroads waiting for us. We must go to them and leave them the wagons and horses. We will ask them to deliver the ore to the palace, for now more than ever we have need of sound weapons. We will also seek what knowledge they may have of Orc activity in this area and elsewhere here on the Eastern plains, for if evil has returned in force here, it will return to the forest as well. We will seek information regarding the inhabitants of these hills, for someone has our children and we will not forsake them,” Rawien paused, noting that Ethiwen had raised her eyes to meet his. “But we must first return our dead to their families. Then we shall return with a proper hunting party for we are not a sufficient number to track them now.”
“I….”Ethiwen faltered, her hand fluttering in the air until caught and held by her husband. “But they will have days of travel ahead of us. We must seek them now, or we may not ever regain their trail.”
Rawien stared off in the sky, unwilling to meet her eyes, for he knew this to be true as well. His mind quickly assembled all the possible alternatives. They knew not the number or kind of those who had stolen the children. Five might be enough to reclaim what was theirs, but it also might not be….and Calardan was not a warrior. He had not the training for such a mission. They also could not abandon the bodies of their Queen and Prince. They could not split their small group, for two and three had less hope than five of accomplishing either task.
“We must follow Rawien’s plan,” Urithral’s hoarse voice broke into Rawien’s own internal discussion. “All other alternatives have little hope of success. We must pray the Valar will protect them until we can return for them.” The last words were a mere whisper.
A small cry broke from Ethiwen, but she did not speak. She was a warrior too long to disobey orders, and in this time of battle Rawien was again her captain.
As the others finished breaking camp, Rawien went once more to the cave. He found the opening in the ceiling, and once more pulled himself through into the small upper chamber. He followed the light again to the outside, and surveyed the hills. He combed the area, seeing several small paths that might have been taken. The cave was at the base of the hills; the hills then grew taller and more rugged; the paths more difficult.
“I will return for you, Tathiel, for you and the little ones. Protect them well,” he whispered his promise to the hills and then returned to the camp.
* * *
The traders had seen the smoke from the pyre and come to investigate. The crossroads meeting point was less than a league from the camp, and the men came upon the elves before they had finished preparations to leave.
“I am Gerick, son of Adros. What has happened here?” inquired the first man who reached them.
Rawien stepped forward. “I am Rawien of the Woodland Realm. We were attacked by Orcs yesterday, a few leagues west of here. They followed us here and attacked before dawn this morning.”
The man’s face was grim. “This is the third attack in recent days. I am sorry. Do you have wounded?”
Rawien answered, “We have no serious injuries. Orcs have been a problem, then. When did this begin?”
“The first attack was on mid-summer’s eve,” Gerick replied. “None of our people have lived during such times when the Orcs patrolled the hills. They have been of history, of legend only.”
“Who else lives in these hills?”
“Men. Dwarves. Why do you ask?” Gerick inquired. He had met elves only one time before, and found them slightly intimidating. This one was clearly a soldier, and he felt the beginning of an interrogation.
Rawien studied the man, watching his body language and eyes. The man appeared honest and genuinely concerned by what had happened. Other men had gathered behind him, listening. Sensing no deceit, Rawien replied, “The Orcs attacked our camp ere dawn this morn. We routed them quickly and left none alive. Women and children we left in a nearby cave, with but one guard. The cave was undisturbed by Orcs. We found two slain, and the rest taken when we returned.”
Gerick appeared confused, “How were some taken and some slain, if the Orcs did not reach them?”
“There is a small chamber in the top of the cave that opens to the northeast, into the hills. We chose the cave quickly, as we expected another attack. We did not know of this entrance. Only because booted prints appeared in the sand without trail did we look upwards,” Rawien replied, watching all the men carefully.
All appeared surprised by the news.
“The boots were not of Orc kind?” Gerick asked.
“No,” Rawien replied. “They were of the kind worn by man.”
“Please allow me a moment to speak to my men, “Gerick requested formally.
Rawien nodded, and the man motioned his men back to their wagons. The elves stood together, their keen sense of hearing allowed them to hear most of what was said. Normally Rawien would not choose to listen in on a private conversation, but under such circumstances he felt no remorse.
“…..the hill-men might know of such an entrance, who else would?”
“Yes, but they are not violent, they would not kill……..”
“….not say who was killed…kill a guard….women and children?”
“They probably didn’t know they were elves….never seen one….”
“…..the…men might take them for their village….old practice….but many losses ……”
“…offer to help….want something in return….I am sure they would ….price?”
Gerick walked back to where the elves were standing.
“There is a tribe of hill-men who many years ago would steal women and children from other villages,” Gerick began. “In some times it was a sign of wealth, when having more wives or children brought prestige; but mostly it was because of bad times – because women and children had died of hunger or cold or disease. This was a quick way to replace them. I have not heard of this happening in my time, but some of my men have heard that the hill men suffered losses several winters in a row due to cold and illness.”
Rawien nodded, urging the man to continue.
“But we do not think they would kill them. Those who were slain, were they guards?”
“One was, yes,” Rawien replied. “The other was a female.”
Gerick frowned. “It would not benefit them to kill a female. I can only think that she resisted or injured one of them first.”
Rawien considered this. Narawen may have struggled mightily if someone had just killed Alagos or was taking her infant son from her. “How would these men be armed?. Of what type are their weapons?”
“Clubs, axes, hunting knives,” Gerick thought. “They would not be so much weapons as tools for hunting or felling trees.”
Rawien paused for a moment, his eyes meeting Urithral’s in some unspoken agreement.
“We must return to our realm,” Rawien said. “We must return our dead to their families, and we have not the numbers to track these hill men. We have need yet of the ore you bring, but cannot bring it with us.”
Rawien continued, “ I have two requests of you: one, that you take our wagons and deliver the ore to King Thranduil of the Woodland Realm; and two – that you would spare your best tracker to find where these hill men have taken our people. We shall return within a fortnight.”
“Both can be done,” Gerick replied. “I caution you: the hill men will not wish to release your people. In a fight, you would win but you may find harm has befallen those you wish safe. They may accept a trade or payment instead. I urge you to consider such a thing. They are a simple people; they will not require much.”
“We shall consider this,” Rawien replied.
Gerick and Rawien laid their plans and arranged a meeting place where they might meet up with the tracker. By noon, the elves were heading west on their return to Mirkwood.
Sadron and Rawien approached the rocks cautiously. Orcs still littered the ground nearby, left from the battle of the afternoon before. Elryndel lay where he fell. Much to their surprise, his body was not mutilated. The storm and then the chase had drawn the Orcs away.
“There is little blood,” Sadron said quietly. “I am glad he died quickly.”
This third body was also cleaned and wrapped in his cloak, his eyes closed for the final time. They placed him in the cart, and continued their journey back to Mirkwood.
“Each cart has but two wheels. We have now repaired three. Thankfully only one more can still fail,” Laerion reasoned out loud to himself.
“The stable master will be returned carts in far better condition than they departed,” said Orchalthon grimly. “Either these have not gone any distance in some time and have not been maintained, or I would believe we have been sabotaged.”
Thranduil was less kind about the condition of the carts, but he controlled his tirade for the sake of his young daughter.
“I will be re-negotiating the rental price,” Thranduil raised one eyebrow. “The stable master may owe us money for the fine repairs to his carts.”
Orchalthon smiled as he and Thranduil reached for yet another barrel to reload into the cart. “I am beginning to recognize each individual barrel; we have moved them so much,” he grunted as they lifted it into place.
Thranduil looked at the sky. “We have now lost nearly three days. If we continue at this rate, my son will be born before I return. I can carry the celebratory wine right from the cart to the cradle.”
The cart was loaded – again - and the small party made camp for the night in a small clearing at the edge of the forest.
Elumeril was sitting near the fire, listening to Orchalthon sing, when her eyes caught a glimpse of movement just within the border of the forest. She stood and walked closer to the edge, venturing several feet under the canopy of the trees. The trees were whispering, but not the greetings and music she was accustomed to. The trees were upset, whispers of warning going out from tree trunk to branch.
“Ada,” she called softly. “Come, there is something wrong with the trees!”
Thranduil and Laerion were immediately at her side. The warning and whispers were unmistakable to those who had heard them before. In the distance Laerion first saw the green slits that glowed, then moved over and blinked on again.
“The spiders have returned,” Laerion said quietly. The whispers of the tree rose and their leaves shook and a feeling of anger could be felt growing around them.
“The Darkness has returned.”
The return journey from the Iron Hills to Laketown was undertaken in less than half the time it took for the eastward trip. Rawien maintained a steady pace, working the horses hard but not exhausting them. While reassured somewhat that the most likely explanation for who held Tathiel and the children were men who would not wish harm to them, they still desired to return as quickly as possible.
They skirted the northern tip of Long Lake and the city of Laketown early on the third day, and headed south towards the Forest River. They encountered no other elves as they turned westward and caught up with the river just beyond the Long Marshes. They entered the canopy of the forest on the eve of the fourth day.
Rawien halted the group and all were silent as they surveyed the forest. All but Sadron had lived long enough to recognize the change in the air and voices of the trees. “The Darkness has returned,” Rawien said simply.
It was midday on the fifth day when they were spotted by the Palace Guard. Sadron had raised the Mirkwood banner, and an escort met them outside the palace gates.
“Greetings, Rawien,” Galithon, the senior guard, greeted him cautiously, for the pain and grief on the faces of the five was easily read.
“Galithon,” Rawien answered. “Has the King returned?”
Galithon let out a sigh of relief. “The King is not with you?”
Rawien shook his head. “I am sorry, my friend. You could not know that our group had split. You have seen no sign of him? I would have expected him back yesterday or this morn.”
“No,” Galithon replied. “You are the first to return. Grief weighs heavily upon you all. Darkness has returned to the forest; we have felt its presence for some days now. Is naught else wrong?”
“Let us return to the palace. I am afraid Prince Bregolas must be the one to hear the news.”
The small party entered the palace gates. All elves that saw the group felt the grief radiating from them. They stopped at the Great Hall, the crowd behind them growing. Elenath, the oldest daughter of King Thranduil, came running through the trees, stopping as she approached the group and saw the sorrow in their faces. Ethiwen gasped at the sight of her, and turned her face away.
“What has happened….” Elenath started. Rawien was off his horse immediately.
“Please join your brother in the Hall,” he gently turned her and motioned for one of the Palace Guards to escort her inside.
“Find Celebrinduil and Lathron and escort them to the Great Hall, if they are not already there,” Rawien quietly commanded others of the guard. “Glaurnost, please guard the cart while we are inside.”
Rawien led the five into the Great Hall. The herald looked at Urithral, unsure suddenly of how to announce him. Rawien pushed open the door bereft of formal announcement, and approached Prince Bregolas.
The smile of greeting on Bregolas’ face faded as he beheld the members of his fathers traveling party. His hands shook as he stood and approached them.
“Bregolas, it would be best if we speak to you alone,” Rawien began quietly. Elenath and Celebrinduil were standing nearby. “Where is Lathron?”
“He is in his chamber. He has been….troubled. Where is the Queen? Where is my father,” he demanded, the edge in his voice growing.
“Your father should be on his way here, as we speak,” Rawien answered, keeping his voice low. “He met the Dorwinian caravan to the south, near the Old Forest Road. Your mother….and brother Alagos…,”Rawien closed his eyes for a brief second, “were killed five days ago in the Iron Hills.”
Bregolas felt as if all air had been sucked from his lungs. Rawien steadied him, allowing him a moment to grasp the enormity of what he had just been told.
“My father does not yet know this,” he stated.
“No. I expected he would be here already. He must have met with delay.”
Bregolas was silent, his mind spinning. “I need to sit down.”
Lathron had been brought to the Great Hall, and stood with his brother and sister. His face was pale and troubled. The three waited silently; tears already slipping expectantly down Elenath’s cheeks.
Rawien escorted him to where his siblings stood, and motioned for chairs to be brought. “Would you like me to tell them?” Bregolas nodded.
“Your father took Elumeril with Orchalthon and Laerion to meet the wine traders near the Old Forest Road. I expect them to return soon. The rest of us traveled east, to the Iron Hills, to obtain the ores needed by our smiths. Orcs attacked us six days ago. Your mother was injured in a fall from the wagon, and gave birth to your brother that night. He was early, but well…..his name is Legolas.”
He paused, giving them a moment to digest this information.
“We secluded your mother, Tathiel and the children in a cave, and Alagos stood guard. We lured the Orcs to a decoy camp and routed them. The cave entrance was undisturbed, but when we entered we found your brother Alagos and your mother dead.”
Elenath cried out at this, and Lathron quickly gathered her into his arms. She shook, bewildered. She had not known death before, and could not imagine life without her mother. The four children of Thranduil and Narawen huddled together for a few moments; it was Lathron who broached the question.
“What of Legolas? What of the others in the cave – Tathiel, Tinánia, Eärundra?”
Rawien clenched his fists. “They were taken.”
“Taken by whom?” Bregolas demanded
“We believe local hill men watched us from atop the hill. They dropped into the cave through a secret entrance. Alagos was killed. I do not know why they killed your mother. She may have tried to defend Alagos; she may have resisted in some other way. The traders believe that they may have taken Tathiel and the children to adopt them as part of their village, to replace women and children lost in the hard winters; not to harm them.”
Ethiwen sat down next to Lathron and Elenath, and wrapped her arms around them. Elenath clung to her, then raised her eyes. “Oh Ethiwen, your children! I am sorry!”
Urithral approached Rawien and Bregolas. “If I may advise you?” he asked Bregolas, continuing when Bregolas nodded.
“We need to send guards immediately to escort the King and Elumeril here. Once he has arrived, we need to make haste to return to the Iron Hills. A local tracker has already been sent to find the trail, if they can.”
Bregolas nodded and Rawien gave the order.
Messengers were sent immediately down the Forest river, meeting King Thranduil’s party one day’s journey by cart out of the palace. The message asked simply that the King be escorted with all due haste back to the palace. Thranduil took Elumeril before him on his horse, and raced to the palace.
A thousand thoughts raced through his mind: the darkness had returned; evil had returned again to Mirkwood. All of his panic led him to one person: Narawen.
He entered the palace gates and leapt from the horse, carrying Elumeril down with him. He strode swiftly into the Great Hall and stopped abruptly at the sight before him.
Two bodies were laid out on biers before him; Bregolas, Lathron, Celebrinduil and Elenath standing watch alongside. Thranduil swallowed his own cry, and quickly picked Elumeril up and pressed her close to him as he walked slowly forward. Four grief-stricken faces turned to him, and he tried to speak, but found no words. Elumeril had begun to sob, and Lathron reached for her. Thranduil released her, and took several slow steps to the bier bearing the body of his beloved. He fell to his knees on a bench before it, and grasping her hands in his began to weep.