Beneath

Author Notes: This story will eventually have a happy ending for both characters.

If you've never played the game Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, then don't worry – I won't be making many references to it. The important thing to know is that Eltariel is a skilled Elven warrior who has exiled herself from her own people.

()()()()()()()()()()()

Four weeks traveling through Mirkwood, and then Eltariel stumbled across a band of Orcs as wet and hungry and cold and tired and lost and weak as she.

How many of them were there? A dozen, perhaps? More? Quite difficult to make a count, when one is dodging and dashing between trees, leaping out of the way of falling axes and ducking beneath passing blades. They crashed and blundered through the undergrowth towards her, howling and screaming threats and insults at her in their misbegotten, bastard tongues.

"Ah've 'ad it with these bloody woods!" went one, drool falling from the corner of his mouth, mad eyes bulging out of his skull. He stomped through the bushes, a great curved blade hacking wildly at vines and leaves. "Ah've 'ad it with the rain, ah've had it with the mud, ah've had it with the spiders, an' ah've 'ad it with these facking Elves! Come 'ere, you quivering little mouse!"

These Orcs were exhausted, and demoralized. They were cranky. They had been trudging through the forest for weeks, and were even more ill-tempered than Orcs could usually be.

Orcs were bred to be miserable – they were born to be angry, and sore, and bitter, and hateful. But travelers be warned: Mirkwood could make an Orc out of the cheeriest, most agreeable Hobbit.

Eltariel's first instinct was to put some distance between herself and her assailants. She sprinted across the grass, and vaulted over a boulder, and then leapt into the air, and swung from an overhanging branch, and all the while the Orcs stomped and lurched after her, shrieking and roaring. Bounding onto a ledge, she turned, and faced her adversaries. Her longbow, 'til now slung across her shoulder, was in an instant in her hand.

Eltariel loosed four arrows. The first found its way into an Orc's eye, the second into an Orc's throat. The next a heart, the one after that a forehead, and then the Orcs were upon her again, slashing and swinging at her with their cleavers and axes. Eltariel reached behind, and drew her two blades, and set to work.

Eltariel sliced through an Orc's arm – the limb fell to the ground, and lay there, hatchet gripped in twitching fingers. Eltariel jumped to the side as an Orc charged at her with a spear – it narrowly missed her, and another Orc was impaled instead. Eltariel spun about, and raised her blade to intercept a blow – she wasn't quite quick enough, and an Orc smashed her in the ribs with a mace.

Eltariel was tired. She was tired, and cold, and hungry, and not as strong as she wished she could be. She had been trekking through these woods for such a long time, almost without stop.

Sometimes, the Elf Eltariel had a habit of neglecting things as bothersome as sleep and food and rest.

None care when the soldier grows weary, Eltariel thought to herself. A soldier's grievances always fall upon deaf ears.

None care when the soldier grows weary, Eltariel thought, as she felt her arms become heavier, the arc of her blades clumsier and less precise.

None care when the soldier grows weary, Eltariel thought, as her legs became unsteady beneath her, as it became more and more difficult to keep herself standing.

With a scream of exertion, Eltariel struck aside an Orc's sword, and plunged her blade into its chest. Fumbling about at the belt at her waist, she pulled out a dagger, and sent it flying through the trees, bound for an Orc's head. The dagger missed.

None care when the soldier grows weary, Eltariel thought, as a massive fist smashed into the side of her face and sent her reeling to the side. She could taste blood, filling up her mouth, but an Elf would never spit while in the company of others, even company as vile as this.

None care when the soldier grows weary, Eltariel thought, as an Orc brought his blade plunging down the length of her leg, flesh carving open from her thigh to her calf. Eltariel let out an anguished cry, and tried to stagger away, blood splattering among the grass and muck.

None care when the soldier grows weary, Eltariel thought, as a great pain suddenly flared in her back. She craned about, and gazed in horror at the quarrel now jutting out of her. Two dozen paces away, an Orc lowered his bow, and smiled.

Eltariel realized that she was going to die – she was going to die here, this day, this moment, among these trees.

What tally did I manage? she wondered. Six? Seven? Eight? Not a bad account to give of oneself.

"Watch this, lads! I'll 'ave both her arms and 'ead off 'fore she hits the ground! Watch this!"

With a deafening bellow, an Orc lumbered at her, cleaver raised. Snatching up every spark of strength left in her body, Eltariel gripped the hilts of both her blades, and brought them about in a desperate slash. Her balance was gone, and the momentum of the swing sent Eltariel crashing inelegantly to the ground. She let out a hoarse groan, and began scrabbling about in the filth, struggling to get back to her feet.

There was a loud thump, and the Orc collapsed onto the ground next to her. Its foul blood bubbled and slopped into the soil of the forest, a gory slash across its throat. The Orc convulsed a few times, and then was still.

Eltariel lay on the ground for a few moments, greedily sucking in air. She stared at the fallen Orc...and then a dark merriment blazed to life in her eyes, and her mouth widened into a wicked, vicious grin.

There was blood in the gaps between her teeth. It was caked all around her mouth.

At least I got one more, Eltariel thought to herself. One must savour the small victories.

Eltariel fought no more. She collapsed backwards onto the grass with a sigh, and closed her eyes shut. She didn't see the dark shapes gathering around her, looming over her. She didn't see when one of the Orcs raised his weapon, and brought it down.

()()()()()()()()

The Orcs perished, then.

The Orcs perished, and their corpses were left in the grasses. Before long, their flesh came to be crawling with maggots, and spiders, and mice, and flies – soon, there was naught left but bones. The vines and tendrils of the forest slithered over all, and this band of Orc marauders would lie undiscovered and undisturbed for centuries to come.

()()()()()()()()()()

A figure made its way through the forest.

A long, black cloak, that fell all the way to the ground. A heavy black hood, that allowed not a glimpse of the face. In both hands, the figure held the handles of a small wooden cart that it pulled along behind it. Within the cart, there was some sort of shape, but it was covered over with a brown canvas.

The figure drifted through the woods, the cart trundling behind. It was late in the afternoon. If, by chance, some unseen spy happened to be hiding in the trees at that moment, and was watching from the shadows, they may perhaps have noticed that this mysterious figure seemed to be avoiding the light of the sun as much as possible. The black-cloaked figure kept where the trees were thickest, where the rays of the sun could not penetrate.

On and on, through the woods. Gradually, the colours of the forest changed...from greens and browns and yellows, to greys and blacks and silvers.

()()()()()()()()()()

Spiderwebs. This region of the forest was infested with spiderwebs. Webs between branches. Webs between trees. High above, cocoons of silk hung in the air, dreadfully still. What did they contain? Some were as large as deer, some large as wolves...some, large as Elves, or Men.

Still the black-clad figure pressed on, the cart bouncing and shuddering over the earth. As the figure moved, more and more strands of web came to stick to its cloak. The white silk floating behind gave it much the appearance of a ghostly wraith.

When the spiders came, they were deathly quiet. They floated down from the darkness, and alighted noiselessly on the forest floor, and gazed at their prey. The Spiders of Mirkwood, black and hairy and glistening and huge, their eyes glowing a terrible red.

Their bellies were maddeningly empty.

"What is it, what is it, what is it, what is it?" said one, in its terrible, clicking, clacking, slurping speech.

"An Elf," said another.

"A Man," said another.

"An Orc," said another.

The black-clad figure did not seem to notice them. It trudged through the trees, cart gripped in its hands.

Globs of poison dripped from the spiders' fangs. One bite, and this prey would be at their mercy, paralyzed and helpless.

"Morsels, morsels, morsels, morsels, morsels..."

Ravenous, the spiders bolted towards the figure. There was a grotesque pitter-patter as they rushed towards their prey...

...and then, suddenly, each spider was filled with an ancient, irresistible terror. They stood frozen, peering in horror at the figure for a moment, and then they fled, scrambling up trees, and bounding into shadows.

The black-cloaked figure pushed on through the woods. In the darkness, burning red eyes watched in fear.

()()()()()()()()()()()()

There were a great many fortifications in the Mirkwood. The Dark Lord had built many of them. The Dark Lord had abandoned many of them.

Somewhere, deep within the woods, a watchtower stood upon a cliff, the forest stretching for miles and miles beneath it. The tower was a crude, unsightly thing, the sort of coarse, artless construction that could only be wrought by Orcish brutes.

The tower had long fallen into ruin. The Orcs had deserted it centuries ago. There were none that remembered whatever name it might have once had – few knew that it even existed any more. At most, a few references to the place might have survived on some forgotten map in some archive somewhere in Mordor.

After night had fallen, the black-clad figure pulled its cart up to the entrance of the tower. It reached up a hand, and pushed its hood back.

It was a woman. Long, black hair. Pale skin. She was an Elf...

...no. No, she was not an Elf.

Her right ear was pointed, as was the case with all Elves...

...but her left ear was short and round, as though she were of the race of Men.

A long, continuous wound ran its way down the entirety of her face. It passed down her forehead, down the left side of her nose, narrowly avoided her mouth, and then continued down her chin, down her throat, into the shadows of her robes.

The wound was held shut by black stitches.

Thuringwethil stood still for a moment, and peered up at the tower. The place was shrouded in white mists. The masonry was crumbling, ivy climbing up the walls, vines twisting around the stones.

Thuringwethil was a woman given to fancies and whimsies. Standing now in the shadow of the ruins, she could imagine a presence, somewhere in the windows, spying upon her. She could imagine shapes in the dark, waiting for her.

She shook her head, and banished the thoughts from her mind. The tower was empty. No Orcs, no Nazgûl. Dol Goldur was some eighty leagues to the south-west. No one knew that she had made her home in this place. No one could know.

Thuringwethil tightened her grip on her cart, and went inside.

()()()()()()()()()()

Underneath the watchtower, there was a stone chamber that Thuringwethil used as her lair. Lamps and lanterns were lit, and shadows were sent dancing and gliding across the walls.

Thuringwethil pulled the brown canvas away from the cart. Within the cart, there was sprawled an Elven woman. She was dead.

As soon as she had the opportunity, Thuringwethil had placed a phial at the dead woman's lips, and forced a pungent black liquid down her throat. An alchemical potion that Thuringwethil had concocted herself in her workshop, its purpose was to disrupt and impede the decomposition of corpses.

Thuringwethil had a need for cadavers in the best possible condition.

Reaching into the cart, Thuringwethil lifted the dead Elf woman up in her arms, and lay her gently upon a table. She examined her closely.

"Oh, thou art wondrous fair, my Lady," Thuringwethil whispered. "It would please me greatly to gaze upon your face every time I peer into the mirror."

The Elf woman had long, golden hair – it reached far past the waist, though she had bound it into a single, orderly length. After the battle with the Orcs, the hair was riddled with muck, blades of grass here and there.

Her lip was swollen – one of the Orcs had struck her in the mouth. "Matters not," Thuringwethil said, fingers dancing over the injured area. "I can easily mend such blemishes."

Thuringwethil began investigating the Elf woman's effects. "It seems you hail from...Lothlórien, if I'm not mistaken," she remarked. "You strayed far indeed from home, my Lady."

The Elf woman wore greaves, pauldrons, vambraces – armour beautifully crafted by the most skilled smiths in Lórien. They were of exquisite quality, and they were decorated with painstakingly-rendered Elven engravings...however...

Thuringwethil's brow furrowed in confusion.

The armour was in quite a poor state of repair. It was covered all over in dents and scratches. The colours of the engravings had faded. The pieces were smeared with dirt and grime.

"Odd," Thuringwethil said, gazing at the silent woman with a questioning expression. "Not at all like an Elf to allow her equipment to fall into such a dismal state."

Thuringwethil stood, and stared at the Elf's face for a few moments. "Hmmm," she said. "Could it be that you had not returned to Lothlórien for a very long time?" She dwelt upon this thought. "Were you an exile, perhaps? I wonder what could lead the Elves to banish one of their own..."

For a brief while, Thuringwethil looked upon the Elf woman, inventing stories in her head. Then she shrugged. "You're dead, anyway," she said, and carried on with her investigations.

Thuringwethil rummaged about the Elf's clothes. In a pocket in her tunic, she discovered a small, purple pouch. She undid the string, and upended the pouch, and a small object fell into her palm.

It was a crystal phial. Elegantly shaped. It seemed to be filled with...water?

Thuringwethil held the phial, peering at it curiously. "Should I try a sip?" she wondered.

And then the phial exploded into light.

"Aaaaaarrrrrggggghhhh!" Thuringwethil shrieked.

Every single inch of darkness in the chamber was banished in an instant. Thuringwethil felt as though daggers had been driven into her eyes. She felt as though her skull was about to explode – she swore she could feel cracks spreading across the bone. She staggered backwards, and dropped the phial on the floor, and there it lay, and there it blazed, filling every crack and every corner of the chamber with its radiant brilliance.

"Rrraaaggh, you tricked me!" she snarled.

Floundering about with her arm covering her eyes, Thuringwethil leapt clumsily into the air. She seized hold of a thick drape, and tore it down from the ceiling. She cast it over the phial, and, mercifully, the chamber became dark again.

Thuringwethil was breathing uncontrollably, now. Her head was throbbing and pounding. The afterimage of that terrible light was still seered into her eyes, tormenting her. Her expression was demonic, her teeth sharp and bared. She was clawing at the air, imagining herself disemboweling some poor fool.

Thuringwethil turned, and glared at the Elf woman lying on the table. "Part of me knows that I should simply forgive you, and make use of your skin," she hissed. "Every other speck of me demands that I take an axe and hack you into pieces, you wretched Cattle-thing!"

No. That wouldn't do. Thuringwethil bowed her head, and slumped her shoulders, and forced herself to calm. The fury faded from her eyes, and her breathing steadied.

She resumed her examination of the Elf woman. The drape remained on the floor, though Thuringwethil would never forget that that cursed phial was hidden underneath it.

There was an enormous black and purple bruise around the Elf woman's ribs. Thuringwethil gave a rueful hiss when she gazed upon the damage. "That will take some work to mend," she muttered. She shot the Elf woman a resentful look. "I do wish you Elves wouldn't bruise so easily..."

There was a ragged wound in the Elf's back, just below her left shoulder blade. An Orc had shot an arrow into her. Thuringwethil had pulled the arrow out.

Thuringwethil gave an aggrieved, long-suffering harrumph. "You know, you could have easily dodged that," she said to the corpse, pointing at the arrow wound. "Is it not the case that Elves are spry, and fleet of foot? You could easily have jumped out of the way of an arrow. But you didn't, and now I have to wear your damaged skin. I suppose I could just stitch it shut. Perhaps, if I found another patch of good skin, I could cut the entire area out, and replace it..."

The Elf woman's right leg was horribly damaged. A long, gruesome wound stretched from her thigh to her calf. In many places, bone had been struck.

Thuringwethil let out a moan. "That skin is almost useless," she lamented. "I suppose...I suppose I could keep the skin that I'm wearing on my leg now, for a few more weeks, perhaps." She was silent a moment, and then she raised her nostrils, and sniffed the air. She grimaced. "I'm starting to reek, a little. Perfume can only do so much, regretfully."

()()()()()()()()()()()

There was work to be done.

The Elf woman was laid out on a stone slab. On a table next to the slab, Thuringwethil had arranged an assortment of instruments. Blades. Saws. Clamps. Next to the table, there stood a grindstone.

Thuringwethil raised two blades to the light. She ran their edges along each other, and delighted in the noise, in the flying of sparks. She looked down at the Elf woman, a twistedly fond expression on her face.

"In life, did your people speak of what a radiant smile you had?" she cooed. "Your smile will be all the more splendid when your skin rests upon these bones, my Lady."

Thuringwethil reached towards the Elf woman with her blade.

And then the Elf woman coughed.

A very slight cough. Not very loud at all. Very easy to miss. Thuringwethil froze, her eyes wide. Her blade was hovering an inch from the Elf woman's flesh.

Nothing happened, for a moment. Thuringwethil cocked her head.

Then, from the Elf woman's mouth, there came the weakest, the softest of breaths.

Thuringwethil peered in amazement at the Elf woman. Then, with her free hand, she reached forward, and placed her fingertips upon her chest.

Eltariel's heart gave a faint thump.

"Oh," Thuringwethil said. "You are alive."