15. The Challenge
Orophin finished his work, deliberately, then carefully took away the bowl of reddened water, his eyes lowered, the shade of his lashes making half moons of darkness on his cheeks. Above, the heavy, ink-black night had eased into sullen day. Though he could not see her, Haldir knew the Sun still danced her ancient path, and but for Mordor, light would even now be merry on the golden leaves of Lothlorien. He wondered how long he had hovered between death and life. Orophin's very silence told him it had been close.
There came an outcry on the borders; trolls roaring like thunder in the mountains, the shrieking of orcs, the sound of elvish voices raised in denial and lament. I am needed, he thought, and rolling onto his good side he began to push himself to his feet. Agony flowered behind his eyes. At his movement, Orophin returned, abruptly, and pushed him back. There was a new gentle inexorability about Haldir's brother, an authority he had not wielded as the youngest scout in a remote garrison, and Haldir yielded with feelings of mixed relief and frustration. "Tell me what is happening."
"I will not," said Orophin, "For you are not fit to act on the knowledge, and it would torment you."
"And your hints will soothe me how?" Haldir was alarmed. He pushed against the hand restraining him and was unpleasantly reminded that Orophin was stronger than he. "I have a right to know, and if my standing as your elder does not move you, then you must obey me as your commander."
"And as my patient, you must obey me," said Orophin and at long last there broke through the winter of his mood a small glint of mischief that spoke of new green shoots.
"Who is in command of my archers? How fares the war? Oh, brother, I must know! Do not be so cruel to me with this unwanted kindness, but tell me."
Where authority had failed, an appeal to Orophin's pity proved too strong for him to resist. He sat on the edge of Haldir's pallet, crosslegged as though they all three were at home and he was fletching arrows, or skinning the night's meal. His face - always a sketch of elegant bone - had thinned since the war began, and his smile seemed a cobweb thing, marvellous for its delicacy.
"Rumil leads the garrison," he said, "And is everything you have hoped for in him. But the war goes ill, Haldir. It goes ill." He looked away and grimaced as his sun-filled hair fell over his shoulder and face. "At first Tasariel would not engage them," he said, "Why waste our warriors when the wards stand?"
"She is wise," said Haldir, approvingly. Speech had begun to draw lines of white pain along his chest and throat, and he was careful to conceal the roughness of his voice.
"But her hand was forced."
As Orophin spoke the lady Thilevril returned, bearing a pitcher of gleaming iron, dark as her coronet of plaits. She poured out a beaker full of liquid green with herbs and handed it to Orophin. Then she placed her hand on Haldir's forehead, and he felt her mind touch his, assessing his pain and the clarity of his thoughts. She favoured him with a distant look, and to Orophin said, "Make him drink it all," before moving on to the next wounded man. And though he knew he owed her his life, he could find little warmth in himself for her - so very high she seemed; a Noldo of an ancient type, who had learned less grace than the Lady Galadriel over the long years of her exile.
"What happened?" he said.
Orophin put a gentle arm about his back and helped him to sit; would have held the cup to his mouth too, had Haldir not pushed him away and taken it. The drink was strongly flavoured with a foulness that spooned honey could not hide.
"The orcs brought poison with them," said Orophin, watching his face, "In great barrels. It seems the Enemy is aware of the Power that shelters us here and knows well what can and cannot pass the Lady's vigilance. They emptied it into Celebrant and Nimrodel, that it might befoul all the waters of Lorien. The river is full of death."
He looked away, and his eyes darkened with memory, "You should have seen it move down the flood," he whispered, "White as mist that eddies in the paths of travellers, swirling and clinging - and the reeds browning as it touched, the flag-lilies fading, and all the little creatures of the stream lying dead upon the surface. The smell of it was sweet, Haldir, sweet as almonds, but oh, the fruit of it was bitter!"
Each time Haldir believed he had divined the depths of enmity Sauron held for the elves, the enemy surprised him by being yet more vile. Unable to reach his foe, the Dark Lord made war on the land itself; slew trees, filled rivers with poison, killed the very earth beneath their feet, knowing they would starve and burn and choke with it, surrounded by orcs, unable either to endure or to escape. The hatred was ...more than he could comprehend. "Yet there is the spring upon Caras Galadhon," he said, grasping for hope, "We may take water from there, where they cannot reach, and so survive."
But tears stood in Orophin's eyes. He shook his head. "Messengers have come from the south. "Even now the Lord fights a force equipped to hurl fire upon the city. If he cannot prevail Caras Galadhon must be abandoned. The folk will flee into the forest, thinking they can live there untouched, but this the Enemy has foreseen, and even the forest itself he has poisoned against us.
Foul though the drink of herbs had been, it had not filled him with such nausea as this. "So Tasariel is forced out to prevent them from bringing more? In the hope that the river will speed the taint away and cleanse itself, should no more be added?"
"Yes," said Orophin, "They have wainloads of the vile drench to pour upon us. Our warriors are holding them back from the riverbanks. Just. But the days grow darker, and every moment the wraiths grow more burdensome, and our strength wanes. I fear for the land, which has no Mandos for refuge. Who will protect it, if we are gone?"
"I must..." Haldir yawned even as he struggled to get to his feet, "I must return to the fight." He wondered how he would draw a bow with a dislocated shoulder, and decided he would manage - he had reason enough. But Orophin took hold of his uninjured arm and pushed him down once more, and it felt good to lie back - he was so tired of a sudden. The world had begun to take on a texture of dreams, and figures walked there from memory and song. He saw his mother standing by the bedside, and knew he walked the borders of sleep, for she had died many years ago. In rest, urgency and grief eased. He turned to his brother and found him haloed in dream sunshine, dappled with the shadow of remembered leaves, long ago drifted into soil.
"We knew you would say this," said Orophin, and gave a small, weary smile, "That is why you have been given a draught to make you sleep. You are not fit to fight, my brother."
But in the hinterlands of slumber Haldir had an idea which seemed to him good. A way of surrendering to comfort, but still fighting on. A way of helping Orophin back into the saddle of warfare at a time when Lorien needed every warrior it could muster. "You must be Haldir for me," he said. "I..." he yawned again, "Will be Orophin and stay at the healers, and you will be Haldir, and do the deeds I cannot."
It seemed an elegant solution. Under the balm of sleep everything seemed possible; victory, even laughter. "I would not have the Lord say that all I did in this war was fall from a tree."
"He would n..." said Orophin and stopped short, reflecting that Celeborn would no doubt say exactly that, the next time Haldir gave him cause to be displeased. He reached out and brushed Haldir's hair back with a hand that smelled of yarrow and wormwood, and at the touch Haldir felt also the brush of his brother's thoughts. Fear and shame for that fear, and repugnance of war, but also the deep, cold wellspring of his love for the land, shaken by the enemy's cruelty. Orophin's lips whitened as he forced himself into bravery. But then he pressed a hand against his mouth and nodded. "I will be you," he said, in a small voice, "If you will be me and remain here. At least until you are well."
"Good," said Haldir and reached up gingerly to clasp his brother's arm.
"I will not...I will not make you a hero," said Orophin uncertainly.
"No?" Haldir smiled and tightened his grip a little, "Yet I am already proud."
On the battlefield close to the city of the elves, Oswy moved a little apart from his Lord. The enemy had followed the remnant of Calandil's force, or drawn away to fight Celeborn's knights whom he had outpaced and even now were trying to force their way through the press to return to him. Briefly they were alone, on a field beslimed by black blood, piled with the dead, under a sky the colour of decay.
Celeborn was bowed over his friend, speaking words too soft to hear. His back was to Oswy, and the mail and unbound hair were like curves in a waterfall, clean and bright, frozen by sudden winter. In all the battlefield he seemed the only thing on which the light dwelled. From all else it slid, ashamed, but on him it lingered, glimmering, and as Oswy watched his tears blurred into silver before they fell.
There came a silence. A deadly thing. And darkness came down out of the air on wings of shadow and stretched hide. Mantled in black, the ghost-king descended between Oswy and his Lord, and it was as though Oswy had been struck blind. His heart laboured with terror. His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, so that he could not breathe, and he was sick with fear. Stench flowed from the Nazgul's beast, clouding his mind, filling his heart until he desired only to fall, and grovel in the slick of blood like the worm he was.
Then, with a sound like tearing silk, Khamul drew his scimitar, and it was black, serrated as a saw and coated in an oil of poison. But Celeborn did not stir, and it seemed he wept and did not know his peril.
Oswy opened his mouth to cry out warning, but words would not come. 'Third time is the charm', his heart spoke in Calandil's voice, and he remembered the bright lord's words with a stab of sudden courage. Here was the foe who had ended that beloved life. Here was his opportunity to repay each small kindness, each gesture of trust. 'Protect your lord and do honour to your father's name' Leofwyn's grim face, filled with desperate bravery, pierced the darkness on his soul, and he lurched to his feet. His hands shook, and the hilt of his sword fell from his slackened grip, but white light gathered in the pearl moon of his banner, and in its radiance he managed to take it up and lift it as a spear.
The claws of the dwimmorlaik came down like a landslide upon Celeborn. He turned, too late, dazed with grief and with his hands empty, to find the maw coming upon him like a cave of spears. But at that moment Oswy thrust the blade of his banner deep into the beast's hindquarters and grounded the butt as he would have done hunting boar. Its recoil and struggle drove the metal far further than his own strength would take it.
The creature screamed, its hoarse, croaking cry full of agony and bloodlust. It spread its great pinions - the web of leather and horn, and sprang into the air. Oswy knew it would drive down upon him as it had Elien. The iron talons flexed and reached for him, and from the Morgul-wraith on its back there came a whisper, a chanted curse that froze his blood. Fear assailed him. He cringed, and all hope of defending himself left him. Beneath the spell, his body shook and though he struggled with all his might he could not move. "My Lord!" he said, "Please..."
Celeborn turned his back and strode away, and for a moment despair rose up in Oswy and blotted the world from his sight, as he knew himself abandoned, as he knew that all the tales had been true, and the elves were as treacherous as he had always thought, and himself an utter fool for thinking otherwise.
But the Lord of Lorien had only sought his horse, and the weapon that lay across his saddle, its blued blade and silvered edge alight in the deadly dark. Meliant was its name, gift of a goddess. Now he returned and stood between Oswy and the Nazgul, planting his feet, hefting the great axe in both hands. "You owe me a reckoning, Khamul," he said, and though his voice was level his eyes were alight with fury, "For you have slain my friend, who trod this earth many thousands of years before you were born to blight it. I will have justice for him."
Darkness and emptiness lay within the hood of the Nazgul. Invisible and terrible, the gape of cloth, which was its only face, turned towards the elven lord. From the shadow issued a thin, chill voice, full of scorn. "Celeborn of Lorien," said the wraith, "Do not presume to challenge me. Long you have cowered behind the skirts of women. Run back to your wife's protection ere I take you and turn you, and set you among my forces as a very minor orc."
Then Celeborn threw his head back and laughed. He passed the axe from hand to hand, so that the head of it made an ocean wave of moving steel, gleaming and flickering in its own light. "Lasto al lalaith nin," he said, "Your wit is as withered as the rest of you, Secondborn. Come, take me then if you can."
As a hawk stoops upon its prey, skin wings folded, the dwimmorlaik came plummeting from the sky, and the wind of its speed snapped the banner in Oswy's hand, hammered him with foulness. He saw beak and claws, an onrush of night; nightmare clothed in flesh. But then Celeborn struck, and Meliant sliced swifter than flight through the creature's chest, cutting bone and muscle, severing the spine. The beast fell from the air cleft in twain and hit the ground in ruin, dead wings flailing, its jaws chewing only air.
Calmly Celeborn stepped away from the twitching thing, and his dark eyes were fell and cold. But the Sorcerous king was not slain so easily. Khamul arose from the death of his steed as a storm arises about the mountain peaks. Tall he was, and black, and crowned with lightning. In his right hand he bore the cruel scimitar, and in his left a long pale knife that glistened with a wan glow. But a greater weapon than these was the horror of him. It infected mind and heart, and blasted sight, so that Oswy knew that never again would he close his eyes without seeing a darkness of malice in which flames licked, as if they were a watchful Eye.
The Nazgul cried out in a voice that was no longer human. A note of shrill despair and hatred, a voice of acid and venom. And far off, faint but evil, floated back the call of the wraith who flew over Moria. It turned and sped down the wind towards them - the blast of its presence going before it like a winter storm. But even as Khamul called for aid he had lunged forward, and the Morgul knife skittered over the sleeve of Celeborn's mail, trailing strange sparks. The elf-lord brought his hand up. Gauntletted, he trapped the brittle blade and broke it against the Nazgul's own armour. The thrust of Khamul's scimitar he caught on the haft of his axe. Runes shone white as he shoved the Ringwraith away and leapt back, gaining enough space to bring the great weapon to bear.
Khamul hissed, his breath a moving darkness on the air, and a miasma of despair and terror; the very scent of the void spread from him. Oswy's sight blurred and his heart numbed and faltered. He fell to his knees and felt the wraith tower above the battle like a looming cliff. Khamul would strike like a landslide, like a weight of falling hills.
The storm wrack, which speeded the second Nazgul towards them, tore apart the clouds and for an instant light fell about the form of the elf-lord as he stood in the shadow of evil. His mail and hair and the blade of his axe blazed with silver, pure as stars. Then Celeborn stepped, brought Meliant down, and the sweeping, almost languid stroke sheered through the steel plates of the wraith's mail, and the unseen body beneath it; through shoulder and backbone and hip, and out, turning for a second stroke that would have quartered the creature had it still stood. But Khamul had fallen. Sudden, nonchalant as that, there was nothing left of him, but a stain on the breeze, a heap of armour and a empty black cloak, neatly cut in two.
At the wraith's defeat the darkness that lay on Oswy's eyes lightened, and the deep cold about his heart warmed, slightly. He reached out to touch the severed cloak in wonder. Had it gone? Had it truly gone? And from the fabric there rolled, as if by chance, a little ring of gold, set with jasper, red as blood. Gleaming, brave and beautiful in the new light, it was of a size to neatly fit upon Oswy's finger.
Oswy looked at it. It seemed right to him to take this token in memory of his father, of his slain people, and to bear it in the knowledge that vengeance was sure. Close to, it called to him, and he saw a future in which - with its strength - he became a great Lord, a leader of both Men and Elves, immortal in song and story, powerful and benevolent in rule.
Kneeling, he reached for it. But as he did so, Celeborn stepped on the ring and ground it into the dirt beneath his foot. Then Oswy was furious, with a sudden, violent rage he did not recognize in himself, and he leapt up, hands clenched. "It is mine! It came to me!"
Celeborn looked around. At the Nazgul's fall, a dismay had come upon the orcs, and his wing of cavalry burst now from their ranks and galloped up to surround their lord and the young Man, his esquire. Their bright eyes fell on Oswy and he felt their gazes as though they were tracks of ice on his skin. Brief had been his respite from fear, for now he feared his companions. "Oswy Oshelming," said Celeborn sternly, "It has come to you - and yours is the choice whether to take it up or not. Only think, Khamul himself was a Man once, and it was this very ring which turned him into the spectre of horror you have seen. If you take it, you will become as he was. Is that the future you desire? It is the only promise this ring can fulfil."
Oswy had grown to manhood knowing that elves speak no truth, nor can they be trusted, and that childhood belief was strong in him now, overcoming all the moments of awe and fellowship he had felt for them. He wanted the ring. He wanted it with a desire that filled his mouth with the taste of metal and salt. It pulled at him as the bogs of the Entwash pull at men's feet - depthless, hungry. Surely Celeborn lied, and Khamul was as he was long ere the ring came to him.
"What would you do if I took it?" he said, and his voice sounded strange in his ears.
The elf's fair face was grave and certain, limned with light, ungentle. "I would kill you, Oswy," he said, "And - should we meet again beyond the boundaries of this world - you would thank me for the mercy."
Note: 'Meliant' = 'Melian's gift'.
'Lasto al lalaith nin' = 'Listen to my laughter.'