So much time had passed that he no longer remembered anything but the darkness, no longer remembered being free and unfettered, save in his mind, and even that had begun to slip from him. His world was narrowed to the gash between the stones where they had thrust him and then bricked away all light and sound.
At first, in his terror, he had struggled against his bonds, straining in the yards of funerary cloth they had bound him in, but when he realized he would neither suffocate nor starve, his struggles ceased. And then, after a time, he wept soundlessly around the clay with which they had stopped his mouth, for he realized he was not being condemned to death but to life.
* * *
The battle under the eaves of Mirkwood had been long and hard-fought. For centuries the Shadow had crept through the forest, twisting among the trees and poisoning the waters, but now the final push of the enemy northward from Dol Guldur was more vicious than any threat the woodland realm had known since the time of the Dagor Dagorlad.
No one could say how the blaze began, but in the midst of battle, above the shouts, fire suddenly took both sides. Stretches of woodland that had not seen light in centuries became an inferno, and the air was thick with the ash of burning wood and spider webs; as they ran for safer ground, harried by the enemy, the Elves heard the spiders themselves squealing, saw them plummet from the trees as flaming brands.
Somewhere between the flames and the mountains of Mirkwood, the Elves managed to regroup and, with reinforcements hastily brought south, engage the enemy once more. Hours became days, with only brief intervals of rest between skirmishes, until at last, weary and ragged, the Elves brought down the last of their enemy or drove them into the darkest reaches of Mirkwood, where the spiders would deal with them.
Clouds rolled in on the eve of victory, bringing with it a downpour that checked the fire. For a day and night the rain fell, and the next day dawned in a haze of watery mist and smoke.
Thranduil led his forces south into the burn area to assess the damage. Acres lay blackened, a grievous sight for any Elf who loved the trees as he did, and yet the blaze had been beneficial in its own way, cleansing the forest of all that had polluted it over the centuries. From experience, he knew that new growth would come and reclaim what was lost, and that once more this might be a place of sunlight and leaves.
If only the shadows do not return, he thought.
There was sorrow among the ashes, for the flames had spread so swiftly that not all had been able to escape. In some places, fed by dead wood and leaves, a firestorm tore down the narrow paths, swallowing those who tried to flee. Now began the grim task of trying to separate the dead.
The woodland King walked among his warriors as they moved among the fallen Elves and Orcs; the former were gingerly placed in the supply wagons, wherever room could be found, while the latter were taken to the border and dumped. His nose had long since become inured to the stench of charred flesh and wood, but the contorted poses of the dead struck him anew each time they came upon another corpse. They had been alive when they burned, and in their agony clawed at the scorched earth and opened their mouths in screams that seared their lungs with burning air. Thranduil could think of fewer deaths that were worse.
His captains had given him the names of the missing, yet the fire ensured they would never be able to identify the dead beyond their race; the families could not be certain whose body they received for burial.
On the fifth day after the battle, a messenger wearing the colors of Lórien was brought into the camp. Such messages from the south were rare and, being assured that it was of the utmost urgency, Thranduil received the messenger at once.
A missive written in Lord Celeborn's own hand was reiterated in the messenger's tale of an assault upon the borders of Lórien. Of course, such skirmishes were commonplace, in both realms, but Celeborn's tone and that of his envoy indicated this was something beyond a mere yrch raid.
"Twice we have repelled them, aran daer, but great losses we took at the Northern Fences and the enemy was massing to strike again even as I left."
Thranduil knew at once that the attack on his realm had not been an isolated incident, that it was part of some massive invasion staged simultaneously on two fronts. Dol Guldur had grown mighty in the past few centuries; that the blow should fall now, at a time of such great upheaval, did not surprise him.
Sauron was making his move. Elrond had confirmed as much in the message he sent east at winter's end. Although Thranduil did not like to be indebted to a Noldo for anything, especially not one who had sent his son on a dangerous quest without his leave, Thranduil was shrewd enough to heed the warning. Border patrols were increased, and the southern defenses strengthened along the stretch of woodland that looked toward Dol Guldur.
"And no doubt my kinsman wishes me to send aid, yes?" he asked the messenger. He was tempted to add that the last time his realm had sent assistance to another Elven kingdom, his father and most of his army had perished, but as the words rose to his lips he realized the Elf before him was not the target of his frustration.
Besides, this one was clearly young and inexperienced, and though he wore the gray and green of the Galadhrim and carried a bow, Thranduil could see by his carriage that he was not a warrior of the Naith. Celeborn could not spare any other, it seemed. "Look around you, pen-neth, and tell me what you see."
The young Elf flushed with embarrassment at the epithet. His eyes anxiously swept the clearing. "I-I see a burnt wood, aran daer."
"Now look at me," said Thranduil, wiping the back of a dirty hand against an equally dirty cheek, "and dispense with the formalities. I am but a king of ashes and corpses. Aye, the forest has burned, and that may be a blessing in the end, but you have not looked hard enough. Do you not see how ragged and weary my warriors are? Did you not mark the charred corpses they labor over?"
In the messenger's reflexive swallow he saw that the youth had noticed the dead. "Then you will return to Celeborn and tell him all you have seen, and that I have neither the numbers nor the inclination to march at once as he wishes. That is not to say I am deaf to his plea, for he is my kinsman, but he must be patient and hold his defenses until I am able to come to him."
* * *
He marked the moment when his narrow world changed. In a dream he had been drifting, lost in the memories of happier times, of far-off Gondor, imagining he could feel the breeze tease his hair as he climbed the flanks of Mindolluin and looked down on the tiers of the White City so far below.
In his mind he could almost hear the voice of his father. Eärnil had ever been exasperated with him for his recklessness, for his impatience. The last time he had seen his father had been in the House of the Dead in the Rath Dínen, a stone effigy, the last in a line of marble ancestors. And into his father's hands, imagining the anger in Eärnil's voice at his folly, he had placed his crown, the onyx and pearl and silver gleaming against the marble….
A shudder suddenly passed through him and he caught back his breath, spasming against his restraints when he realized he could not breathe. Sensation returned to him, flooding him with fear and desperation, and in a moment he felt the weight of stone pressing down upon him as it had not done in all the uncounted days he had been here. Whatever kept him alive, it was no more. He was free of the spell of living death that kept him bound to Arda, and yet, in the next frantic heartbeat he knew no one was coming to let him out into the light.
Had he not been bound so tightly, he would have thrashed against the walls of his narrow tomb. He felt his throat strain with a soundless cry, his lungs strain for air that was not there. Red appeared behind his eyes, and it was the color of the denial that was his last conscious thought.
* * *
Two more weeks passed under the eaves of Mirkwood. The dead were already on their way back home, where Thranduil's wife and elder son would see to the burial arrangements; Thranduil himself chose to remain.
He had not seen Celeborn in more than an age, and they were not close cousins, but wars and the inevitable fading of Arda left Thranduil with few relations east of the Sea. He had not lied to the young messenger; if it was in his power to send aid to Lórien, he would, though it did not sit well with him to have dealings with Celeborn's Noldorin wife. For some reason, Galadriel's presence unnerved him as it had unnerved his father, only Oropher had shown genuine distaste for her.
While they yet dwelt in Doriath, in Neldoreth near the house of Celeborn and his new wife, Oropher had cautioned his son to keep a healthy distance between himself and the Noldorin woman. "Do not bare your thoughts before her, ion-nín, for she will perceive all your secrets. These kinslayers who come from across the Sea, they are not natural creatures. Thingol was wise to bar his realm to them."
So he waited for word from the south while he gathered to him reinforcements and supplies. The forest was unusually still, with not even the distant hissing and scuttling of spiders in their webs to disturb the silence, yet Thranduil knew better than to relax his vigilance. This was birthing season in Mirkwood, and always were the young spiders ravenous. Patrols went out in fives or sixes, scouring the burn area for the creatures, who somehow always managed to return after a forest fire, and for any new incursion by the enemy. Orcs were constantly trying to pierce the gloom of Mirkwood, for what purpose Thranduil knew not, and those who managed to avoid being ensnared by the spiders were a menace.
No new threat was discovered, nor did any news come. The days passed until, at the beginning of Gwirith, one of the patrols returned with a stranger in their midst.
This messenger, like the last, wore the colors of Lórien, yet unlike the other he was one of the Galadhrim. In the same breath that he gave his name, Seregon, the warrior handed Thranduil a message bearing Celeborn's seal.
The missive, less hastily scrawled than the last, only reaffirmed what the messenger himself said, that a week earlier Celeborn had led many of the Galadhrim across the Anduin in boats and taken Dol Guldur with little resistance.
Thranduil arched an eyebrow at Seregon. "And neither Khamul nor the Witch King opposed you?" Many times before had both Lórien and Mirkwood gone on the offensive against Dol Guldur to try to drive out the shadow in their midst, but always they were repelled. Thranduil did not see how this time should have been any different.
"Nay, hir-nín. We have been told that they have fallen," answered Seregon, "though we know not how or where. Still, we do not question what the Lady may see in her mirror and always she speaks true. There was no challenge to us, save by a few minions whom we easily slew. When I left, already our people were beginning to tear down the walls of that accursed keep."
Although Thranduil had no interest in hearing about Galadriel or whatever sorcery she might practice, his ears hungered for more of this news. "Always we have been told these wraiths could not be slain by any man, be he mortal or Quendi, and yet you say they are fallen?"
Seregon frowned slightly, as if annoyed that his word and the word of his Lady was being questioned. Then, as he remembered to whom he spoke, his composure returned. "As I said, hir-nín, I know not how these things have come to pass. There is even talk that the Dark Lord himself has fallen, yet again I could not tell you if this is the truth or some tale."
The Dark Lord is fallen? Such strange tidings had come to Mirkwood in the past year that Thranduil did not doubt this was but another. Still, although all other tidings had proven true, this last he did not quite believe. "Another thing your Lady has seen in her mirror?"
If Seregon read the subtle insult, he did not respond. "The enemy babbled such when we broke through the gates of Dol Guldur. Ever have they been known to lie, hir-nín, and we do not put much faith in their words. It does not matter; their stronghold is securely in our grasp and our Lord much desires to speak with you."
* * *
aran daer: (Sindarin) great king
yrch: (Sindarin) orc
pen-neth: (Sindarin) young one
Gwirith: (Sindarin) April
hir-nín: (Sindarin) my lord
Dol Guldur was the stronghold of Khamul, while the Witch King resided at Minas Morgul.
In T.A. 2050, Eärnur
of Gondor accepted the Witch King's challenge and
rode forth to reclaim Minas Morgul for Gondor. He was never
heard from again. How he came to be
buried alive under the stones of Dol Guldur, under the control of Khamul,
I leave to the reader's imagination.