A/N: So, I'm not really sure where this came from. Horror isn't my usual thing, and consequently, I'm not quite sure what I think of this. At this point I'm trying to decide whether to keep going (it won't be all that long regardless, probably three chapters). If you have an opinion either way (do you want to see where it goes or should I just take it down and be done w it :-P), I'd love to hear it ...
"The forest is indeed dark here. The trees are twisted and feral."
'Feral' was not a word that Faramir would have thought to apply to vegetation even a year past—and as a Ranger he had seen his share of forbidding landscapes—but much had changed in a very short time since the Ring War's end. Gondor had a new King, he himself was Steward of Gondor and Prince of Ithilien, and he was joyfully wed to a brave, stubborn, beautiful woman. He was also able to reasonably discuss topics ranging from sustainable farming practices to the political ramifications of individual pardons for Haradrim and Easterling supplicants to … angry trees. Had anyone attempted to describe such a future to him as he and his men skulked in the forests of Ithilien mounting a losing defense against the foul creatures of Mordor, he would have called that one a liar or mad—but such were the strange workings of fate in this new Age.
"Should you be up there, then?"
In truth, he would be more than content to leave this place. For most of the day dread had been growing steadily in his mind—a sense of heaviness and presence, a feeling that they were observed by unseen eyes. It was a sensation that Faramir had not known since his deep patrols with the Rangers before the War, and he had hoped it might be longer—or never—before he felt it again. Still, he was not ready to admit out loud how anxious he was to depart.
If the Elf above him was also uneasy, he gave no sign. Rather, he offered a brief smile, muttered, "Perhaps not," then darted along the high branch and leaped with enviable ease into the next tree. Faramir swore beneath his breath and followed, bow half-drawn, eyes scanning their surroundings for any hint of an unwelcome visit by predatory beast or stray Orc.
This current venture and, in consequence, his growing friendship with Legolas Thranduilion was yet another of fate's unexpected boons. One of Faramir's chief concerns, when King Elessar had named him the Prince of Ithilien, was the first-hand knowledge of how wild and overgrown and utterly desolate his new land had become during its years in the shadow of Mordor. He had spent long days and not a few sleepless nights both formulating and discarding plans for how the land might be made safe and coaxed back toward the bounteous fertility it had once known. He was no farmer or gardener, though—he might make strides toward cleansing his new domain of the remnants of Sauron's forces, but any attempt at restoring the land itself was beyond his immediate skill. He would require aid, that much was certain.
Ithilien was not, however, the only part of Gondor that suffered. Much of the kingdom had been destroyed by the Enemy's ruthless advance and by the pitched battles in Osgiliath, on the Pelennor, and even within the White City itself. Minas Tirith and the previously settled lands would receive the bulk of whatever aid was to be had, both in craftsmanship and in workers of the land, and this was as it should be. Faramir had finally, reluctantly decided that he and Éowyn would have to be content for the foreseeable future with restoring the lands immediately surrounding Emyn Arnen—and then he found himself seated beside the Prince of Mirkwood at dinner one night. Given the affinity of the Elves of Eryn Lasgalen for forest lands, Legolas had been more than eager to discuss Faramir's new holdings. Faramir had, over the course of the evening, revealed his hopes, his goals, and his concerns regarding Ithilien. Discussion became ideas, ideas became planning, and by the end of the evening he had found himself standing with Legolas before the King, requesting permission for the Prince of Mirkwood to establish an Elven colony in the southern forests of Ithilien.
Life was indeed wondrously unpredictable.
This stretch of woodland that made his skin crawl as if he had been overrun with fire ants was, however, not. The hair on the back of his neck rose and Faramir pivoted sharply, every instinct telling him that unfriendly watchers were near.
There was nothing—nothing but dark, heavy trees rustling in a breeze that he could not feel. Faramir glanced back up.
"How far do you intend to go?"
Legolas halted and eyed the expanse of the Ephel Dúath looming over them, just visible through the thick leaf canopy. Their two week trek had taken them from Emyn Arnen to the banks of the Poros, north through lands painstakingly chosen and marked out over the past year for the location of the new Elven colony, then east to the foothills of the Ephel Dúath. These last days had been spent working their way slowly through the thick forests that carpeted the base of the Outer Fence, noting the condition of the land and discussing possible expansion or out-settlements after the colony had been firmly established. It was long-term planning to be certain, given the sheer scope of the work that lay before the Elves even within their original prescribed habitation. Still, Legolas was keen to have a full understanding of both the possibilities and the pitfalls inherent in this new undertaking.
The trees had grown twisted during the past hours, though, the path narrower and the undergrowth thicker. Faramir could no longer move easily or without significant rustling, despite his best efforts. Now, Legolas shook his head and crouched on the broad branch.
"No further. I like not the feel of this place."
"Good." He hadn't intended his response to come quite so quickly. Despite the oppressive atmosphere, Legolas's eyes twinkled with the merry, fey light of his wild folk.
"Something troubles you, my Lord Steward?"
Faramir bit back a snort. "Aye. We've three days before the King and Queen arrive in Emyn Arnen. Less, perhaps, if the weather holds. I have little wish to miss their arrival. We've accomplished much over the past months." It was an evasion, but truth as well. He was proud of what they'd built—he and Éowyn, Legolas, Beregond and the White Company, Éowyn's handmaidens and grooms out of Rohan, Mablung and the Rangers stationed still in the wilds of Ithilien. Clearing and planting and building was not the first craft of any of them, and yet the year of grinding physical toil had been cleansing and uplifting. It had brought them together, strengthened and built bonds of loyalty and friendship, and had given them all a strange sense of pride that came from building up rather than the destruction and death that had ever been their lot. Aragorn had not been able to visit often, taken up as he was with the rebuilding and renewal of Minas Tirith itself, but the King took great interest in the reports of their progress and had expressed genuine pleasure that he and Queen Arwen were finally able to carve out an entire week to spend in Emyn Arnen, renewing acquaintances and viewing all that had been accomplished.
The Elf knew and understood all of this. Unfortunately, he also knew Faramir. The grin deepened. "As true as that is, my friend, are you certain that—"
A chill breeze rustled his hair, a sighing that was not quite sound or sense, even as the branches around him remained utterly still. Faramir leaped forward with an oath as Legolas broke off above him, bow appearing as if by magic. He pivoted, sword leaping to his fist, even as chill fingers traced once more at his nape. He whirled again, slashing wildly, wondering madly how he could feel the wind and yet the trees still weren't moving. He heard Legolas calling, but the words were lost in a rising whisper, a susurration that filled his ears and pressed against his mind, demanding admittance. He stumbled back and swung again at he knew not what, for there was nothing to fight. For a moment the pressure eased, but then it returned in double measure, the whispering grown into the scream of a thousand cicadas at day's end. His sword fell from numb fingers and he clutched at his head, tore at his hair in a vain attempt to escape the crushing weight …
A solid body struck him from behind. He fell beneath its onslaught and hit the ground hard, bruising his knee and biting his tongue. The cold and pressure and the pulsing shriek fled with the pain, and for a moment he lay dizzy and stunned. Nearby thrashing stirred him, and he rolled to his knees, spitting blood and scrabbling for his sword. Legolas was in danger. By the time he rose, though, the Elf was still and alone, kneeling in thigh-deep undergrowth but five yards away. Faramir gripped his hilt with sweating hands and scanned the area for any sign of life, gulping air and attempting to force his heart rate to slow. An itch on his upper lip proved to be blood from his nose, though he didn't remember hitting it. Panic surged to the fore, and he battled it down.
"What was that?"
His voice echoed in the hushed glade, thready and high. Faramir winced, but Legolas made no response. Faramir took a step forward, sparing an eye from his watch for the bent blond head.
"Legolas? Are you—"
The Elf pitched forward suddenly and heaved into the brush, bracing with one arm and curling the other around himself in a strangely vulnerable gesture. Even with as little as Faramir understood of Elven physiology, he knew this to be vastly atypical. He started forward, but Legolas gestured sharply as he sat back, breathing heavily.
"No, stay back."
Faramir took another uneasy step. "Legolas …"
His companion's voice was thin and … frightened (frightened, the Elf was frightened), and Faramir's own tightly held fear broke free. "What was that?" He gazed wildly about, unsure whether he truly wished to see the source of their attack. Legolas remained silent except for a series of long, careful, rasping breaths (he can't breathe, what is wrong with him?). "Are you injured?" Still no response. Faramir swallowed the panic, the wild terror that he would look over his shoulder and find some creature out of his childhood nightmares crouching at his shoulder, and edged forward. "Legolas, what ails you? I—"
"You should go."
The whisper brought him up short. Go? Abandon his companion in the wild? The suggestion was offensive to one who had long served as a Ranger in the perils of abandoned Ithilien, and Legolas knew it well … Seeing no immediate threat, Faramir sheathed his sword—he was forced to make the attempt twice because of his shaking hands—and strode forward. "Speak sense, my friend, for this is not it. I know you do not expect—"
The snarl lashed at him, and the prince finally turned his head, pinning Faramir with turbulent eyes. Faramir stumbled to a halt, struck dumb by the dark shadow that swirled there. The glint was at once dangerous and desperate, and Legolas looked quickly away. His mouth suddenly parched, his heart hammering, Faramir forced himself to stand fast.
"I will not."
He expected an argument, but perhaps it was too much for the Elf. Instead, Legolas rocked forward again, resting his weight on one arm, and whispered, "Then be still."
The haunted eyes closed before Faramir could protest, and the blond head tilted slowly to one side, as though Legolas concentrated completely on a thing that only he could hear. Thinking it best for the moment to obey, Faramir crouched in place, his own attention torn between their silent surroundings and the increasingly obvious battle before him. Legolas's breathing quickened, his jaw tightened, his fingers clenched in the damp earth. Just as Faramir deemed he could sit by no longer—though what he might do was still a mystery—the prince reopened his eyes. The shadow remained, the usual laughing glint gone, but the danger that Faramir had sensed was, for the moment, absent.
"It is … contained. For now." The Elf's voice was ragged and soft. Faramir moved to stand, but the prince held up a warning hand. "Best to stay where you are."
Faramir obediently sat back. "What has happened? Legolas?"
"I …" Legolas blinked and looked away, hollow eyes flitting from tree to brush to ground—anywhere except Faramir's gaze. "They are …" He shuddered again, and drew his shoulders in protectively. "Does Gondorian lore tell of the houseless spirits?"
Faramir gaped. "Houseless … Those who refuse the summons of Mandos and remain bodiless in Middle Earth after death?" Legolas jerked a nod, but Faramir shook his head, barely able to form words around his horror. "No! They are myth, stories to frighten children!"
"Not so." The prince curled his arms about himself and stood, eyes still flickering about the dark, close wood. Faramir followed suit, drawing his sword again—for all the good it might do them. A wry, hard smile graced the Elf's lips. "Verily, I can now testify that they are quite …" His voice faded, and the stormy eyes lost focus. Faramir's panic surged.
"Legolas!" It came to him then how young his friend suddenly seemed, despite the weight of Elven years. He attempted a soothing tone, despite his own unrest. "It tried to take you, and you fought it off. Are you injured? What can I—"
"It is inside me." The razor-edged despair was an utterly foreign concept from this merry, loyal companion. Faramir faltered, feeling its cold fingers fanning the flame of his own revulsion. "It … attempts even now to oust my fëa, it wishes my body for its own." Legolas's face was drawn in the pale light. "I believe it withdrew from you not because of my attack, but because it sensed that I am an Elf. I …" The prince shook his head and stepped back. "I do not know how long I can resist it, or if it is even possible for me to win at the end. It will simply wait until I must sleep …" The shadowed eyes hardened. "You must go!"
"Why?" Faramir set his jaw. Whatever must be done, abandoning a friend to an unspeakable fate would not be any part of it. "You've said yourself that it does not want me. It will not—"
"It will kill you!" the Elf snarled. "It is foul, it is … vile. If it does not kill you as a threat, it will destroy you simply because it desires to! Whatever these were in life, Faramir, they were creatures of Sauron …"
They were creatures … It was, he realized, not the first time Legolas had spoken of their assailant in the plural. Faramir sucked in a breath.
The prince was silent for a moment, eying the dark forest, and then another ghastly grin twisted his pale features. "They are all around us."
The impossible horror of it all finally tipped his mind from panic back into the realm of rational thought, as if it had abandoned fear as a useless tool against such overwhelming odds. Faramir blew out a deep breath, eyed the still clearing again, then sheathed his sword with a solid stroke.
"So. A nest of them." Faramir's calm, practical tone impressed even himself. "Then our first order of business is to find our way back to safety."
Legolas's eyes flickered, so quickly that it might have been a trick of light and shadow. Then, the Elf nodded briskly. "Aye." He knelt and rustled about in the brush, coming up with his bow and a stray arrow. "I do not know if our return path is the quickest or the safest, but it is our surest chance of leaving this place without becoming lost along the way."
"Agreed." Faramir hesitated. "You can … see them?"
"Not precisely." Legolas slid the arrow into his quiver and fastened his bow to his pack. Their weapons were useless against foes such as these. "I have … an idea of their presence. A resonation, perhaps, with the one inside of me." The words were distant, flat, as though he had somehow convinced himself that this was all the dry tale of some other unfortunate soul. "I believe I will be able to lead us safely around the others, assuming that they remain mostly … dormant." Dormant. This was not the time for explanation. Faramir nodded, and Legolas moved back the way they had come, skirting widely around his companion. "Stay with me. Move only where I walk. If I give you direction, obey immediately." Faramir fell in behind, leaving a good several yards between them. It was, he admitted, somewhat for his own comfort—his head still throbbed and his ears rang with the memory of the initial assault. Mostly, however, the distance was for his friend's peace of mind, as he could see that Legolas still did not wish him near. The Elf nodded tightly, both acknowledgement and thanks, and moved off through the close-set trees.