Apologies for taking so long to get this out. I know I've probably seemed annoyingly productive lately with all the Potter-fic, and you were all probably impatiently wondering when that would spill over to LotR, and I'm sorry it took so long. I have been working, really, but things are complicated right now what with the end being so near, and I wanted to plan things out well ahead so that I didn't write any of our warriors into a strategic corner, and I tend to re-write each section at least three times before I'm done with it, so...well, it's just more delicate and detailed than the Potter stuff, so it takes longer for it to get to a publishable state. But this sort of delay really is inexcusable, and I am sorry for it.
Because it's been so long, here's a quick recap: everyone's in Greenwood now, and the boys have been captured by the bad guys. They left Fuiniel for dead, which she wasn't, and now she's tracking them. Elrond and his forces have found the orc lair, and know that the kids are inside. Thranduil and several of his warriors are chasing orcs through the trees, unaware of any of their visitors. Oh, and Legolas and the twins have just discovered that their captor is an elf! And now, at long last, I give you...
Chapter Forty-One: Without Retreat
Glorfindel wiped thick black blood from his long sword without a grimace. The sticky substance was repulsive and its touch made his skin crawl, but he was long-used to the feeling, and the stench, and the foulness. He no longer shuddered.
The twice-born Elf of Gondolin crept quietly through the bloodstained bushes until he crouched at Elrond's side. For a moment he was reminded sharply of another battle, long ago; but they stood in trees now, and there were no armies at their heels, and it was Elrond's sons in danger, and Thranduil's, not all of Middle-earth. There was no Sauron, here; only orcs.
The memory passed.
Even though it was once again a siege they were fighting.
The Imladris Elves had charged the stinking caves but the orcs within had been far larger in number than they had expected. Rather than merely the small band of kidnappers that they had tracked, an entire den of the foul creatures seemed to be lurking within those loathsome caverns. This was no scavenged hide-out from the sun that they had come upon: it was a full lair.
And the Elves were grievously outnumbered.
Their charge had been bloodily repulsed and no doubt they would have soon been overrun by the foul horde save for their luck in timing, for the sun was strong overhead and foul creatures of shadow and darkness like orcs have no love for that glowing golden orb. They did not want to sortie out and fight against Elves under full daylight, and so they had stopped when they felt it safe to do so—when the Elves were on the run.
But they would not run far, not with the children trapped within those caves.
And so they stood in stalemate, the Elves and the orcs, glaring at each other from woodline and from cave-mouth. The Elves were too few to attack with hope of success, they knew that; to charge the orcs again now that they were on-guard and prepared would end in bloody, violent disaster. They had been lucky, before, to surprise them so and thus take such little hurt, and none of it mortal. They would not be so lucky again, and the orcs were waiting and hungry. But the Elves could not leave. Even knowing full-well the futility of waiting, they could not bring themselves to leave.
And the orcs, of course, could go nowhere; they would not charge in daylight, the caves had no other way out—or so the Elves assumed, for else the foul creatures would doubtless have taken it already, vanishing into the forest through unknown paths, rather than risk open battle with Elven-kind—and to try and creep away through the front entrance would have left them pierced with Elvish arrows. The orcs, after all, could not know how limited the Elvish supplies were, nor how few their numbers; they could not have known that the number of orcs that they could shoot down was negligible, because they had now very few arrows left. If they had known, perhaps they would have risked it, sun or no.
But in truth, they had no reason to dare such a risk. Not when nightfall would come soon enough.
The orcs could simply wait and cower in their darkened caves until the moon replaced the sun and dim shadow stole over the tree-filled land. Then they would emerge, both parties knew, and then the Elves would find their doom.
But still they could not leave.
… … ...
The thick black smoke of Mordor clogged the heavy, dim air. A haze of choking miasma rose from the dark fortress and from all the lands around it, marring the sunlight and darkening the moon. The pale light of the stars was, more often than not, blunted completely by the foul, polluted air of this desolate, barren country. The soil here was planted only with corpses, and naught but death made up the bitter harvest.
It was not a land conducive to travelers or welcoming to guests, and it was not a land to which any would come willingly, but come they had, and now they could not leave.
The tattered, bloodstained, grief-stricken forces of the Last Alliance lay camped and huddled on the scarred ground in front of the black gates and blacker towers, like so many grey-streaked ants scratching at the nigh-impregnable doors. They were a company made of Elves, and Men, and Dwarves, and all the Free Folk of Middle-earth, and they could none of them leave this place.
From this land, from this battle, there could be no retreat; there could never be retreat. There was victory, or there was death, because in his wrath Sauron would never be merciful. The only thing surrender could bring to them would be the slow, torturous demise of slavery and imprisonment under his dark pleasure and for his twisted amusement. They had to win, or they were nothing.
They were the Last Alliance, and there could never be another, because after this—one way or another—the battle would be over, forever. If they won, they would defeat the Dark Lord, cast him down so that he might never climb up again; destroy him as the Valar had not so many years ago; scatter his ashes upon the wind and sow the barren fields of Morder with his hate-filled corpse. This entire country would be his funeral pyre, his tomb; Morder might never recover from the life and death of Sauron its dread lord, but the rest of Middle-earth would know peace, and greenery, and a future of freedom and light.
Or they would lose, and Sauron would spread out across all the lands, known and unknown, and conquer or consume all who stood before him. There would be nothing but hopeless, desperate fighting as they fled, and all would fall before his implacable dark wrath, his insatiable dark hunger.
And that was why they could not leave, no matter how many they lost. That was why they stood firm in the face of uncountable deaths and unbelievable tears. They were the only hope, the last hope, for all of Middle-earth, and so they could not leave. That was why they stayed, and fought, and faced such staggering loses with no retreat.
That was why they did not despair, these desperate warriors; they were past despair, past hope. At this point, it was either die or win, for there was now no other option. The siege would break, and they would fight, and fall. It was inevitable, their final conflict, and only death would settle the issue—either Sauron's, or that of every Elf, Man, and even Dwarf here among this company of Free Peoples.
Elrond Peredhel stood on a high peek and looked down upon his forces, and the smoldering black stone that hid the Enemy from their view. He pulled his cloak tight around him in the chill, lifeless air of Morder, and he envied the dead Men on the field.
Their broken bodies were carted off to be burned or buried, and then their fight was done. None knew where Men went when they died, save that it was not here, was never again here. The Halls of Mandos did not ring with the footsteps of the departed Edain, or if they did, then they were separate Halls than those to which the Elves departed. Even the Dwarves, it was said, did not leave this land when they died; they were taken, instead, by Aulë, there to lie with their kin in slumber until he woke them, one day, for some far-off final battle, or final peace, depending on which legend you adhered to.
Elrond wondered that he did not wake them now.
But Men...Men were different. They possessed the Gift of Men, or the Doom of Men; in the first years of the Alliance, most had called it the Doom, but seven long years later, nearly every Elf now thought of it as a Gift indeed. They had all of them seen too much fighting, too much death, and too much despair to think harshly of anything that lifted one from out of this bitter, hurtful world, no matter where it was that one next awoke.
Elrond, for the first time, envied his brother his choice.
But peredhel though he might be, Elrond now was Elf-kind, and bound forever to the circles of this world. The straight road lay waiting far behind him, and closer now, a fast trip to Mandos's halls on the edge of an orkish blade. Either way, he was here in Middle-earth, in Arda or Aman, and he was here to stay.
And to fight, forever if need be.
Elrond had distant kin among nearly every noble house of Middle-earth, but no close family that yet lived and walked the hills and forests of his distant homeland. His parents were both departed; his brother, too; he was herald now to Gil-galad, who was as like to a father to him as any had ever been. But there was a girl, far away, with silver hair and smiling eyes, and although even thoughts of her grew pale and faded under the heavy skies of Morder and now could do little to lift a heart so mired in blood and grief, he would fight for her, and for all those who refused to kneel under Sauron's yoke.
He would fight through despair, and grief, and loss, and if necessary through death itself, as Glorfindel had. He would fight, and he would fall, and he would rise to fight again.
They all would, these desperate warriors of this battered Last Alliance, because it was that, or it was nothing.
And from the Dark Lord there could be no retreat. Not for Elrond, not for Gil-galad, not even for Celebrían. The paths across the Sea did not offer safety now, for Sauron had been of the Valar, once, it was said, and so they could not hope that he would be forever unable to cross those distant waters.
They would hold him—and destroy him—here, or they all would fall, into darkness without end forever.
The dark of Morder, everywhere, without respite. For there was no light here, in Sauron's lands, that could long resist his Shadow, and even the memory of stars grew pale and hollow beneath the Dark Lord's gaze.
… … ...
Elrond stared at the vague shadows moving in the dark hollow in front of him. He crouched in cold mud and frost-bit bushes and fingered his sword with a scowl. His right hand was tight around the cold band of metal he wore, but he knew that even Vilya would not be enough, not here and now. Were he in Rivendell, perhaps; in the lands into which he had poured the power of the Ring since it was given him by Gil-galad; in the lands of his home, where every rock and tree were known to him, where the very rivers could rise up at his command—
But he was not in Imladris, but in Greenwood. And there was little here that he could do, and it would not, he knew, be near enough, not against numbers such as those, with such limited forces at his command.
Not with his sons held hostage.
He could collapse the caves, or flood them, or fill them with a howling wind that would strip orc-flesh from its foul bones; he could do all these things and more, but he could not do them and save his sons. Vilya was powerful, yes, but it was not perfect, and neither was he.
He was a fool.
He should leave, now; retreat with his outnumbered, wounded forces; return with proper plans and preparations, not stay here when he knew that they were doomed to failure. They had no hopes of success, not here and now—and yet he stayed. And night drew ever-closer in the shadowy forests of Greenwood.
Perhaps salvation would come from Thranduil before the darkness fell. Perhaps Ondonaur's message would reach the woodland king and his people, and the fierce warriors of Greenwood would arrive with bow and sword and steely wrath in their eyes, well-prepared to slaughter the orcs that dared pollute their forest. Perhaps they would come soon enough to save Imladris—Elrond hoped.
But it was a grim hope, and an unlikely one.
Elrond sighed and stirred. He could feel the gazes of his warriors fasten on him even while they kept steady watch upon the orcs they held besieged. They knew that he was about to speak, and they readied their weapons in case he should give the order to charge.
But he could not. They would die, all of them, and much as Elrond desired to thrust himself and all his power and strength against the foul things that held captive his sons—tormented as he was by each moment that Elladan and Elrohir spent in orkish captivity—he knew that he could not give that order. He could not lead his people to their deaths.
"Glorfindel," he said quietly, and the golden-haired Balrog-slayer was suddenly at his side.
"Yes, my lord?" he asked, his cheerful tones grim and dark and neutral; whatever Elrond ordered, he would not dissent. Glorfindel had never been a father, neither in this life nor his last, but Elrond knew that if anyone could know a father's heart who was not one, it would be he; the Gondolin Elf had a paternal love for all of Middle-earth and the childish creatures who inhabited it. He had come back from Mandos to protect them all, and he had already given his life once in hopeless battle to allow others a chance to flee.
Elrond met his eyes and saw the offer: we will fight again. For the children, we will fight again, and we will fall, and we will save them in the falling. If you ask me, I will fall.
But Elrond could not ask.
"I want you to lead the others away," Elrond said instead. He spoke quietly, informally, as if it were just the two of them in his study; as if every warrior of Imladris that had ridden hence with him were not listening with baited breath and hackles raised.
As if it were not an order.
"There is no sense in staying here and awaiting nightfall. I place you in command in my absence; take our people and join with Thranduil's forces. Route the orcs and, should I be unable to do so myself, I trust it to you to see my children safely home."
"No," said Glorfindel.
Elrond raised an eyebrow imperiously, but the Gondolin Lord did not quail before him.
"No," Glorfindel said again, and shrugged. "My lord," he added politely.
"Glorfindel, this is an order. Take our people and leave me here. Return at dawn—or when Thranduil's people are prepared—and if I have left here anything unfinished, I trust that you will deal with it all properly."
Elrond was not sure what he would do, but he knew he sounded like he had a plan. Glorfindel knew what resided on his finger, and what it could do. Glorfindel knew his voice, and his Ring, and the power that he could with the two of them command. And Glorfindel had seen what he was capable of with a sword. Elrond knew that he could not possibly hope to prevail against this horde of orcs alone, but he was also far from helpless, and it sounded like he had a plan.
Perhaps another would have been fooled—perhaps the rest of his warriors were, even—but not Glorfindel. The Balrog-slayer had lived too long and seen too much and he knew well the look in someone's eye when they were prepared to turn and sacrifice everything on impossible hopes.
He had done it himself, after all.
"No," Glorfindel said.
"Glorfindel…" Elrond began, a scowl of command on his features, but he was stopped by a firm, murmuring agreement from the rest of his forces. It was mutinous and insubordinate and unflinching. They would none of them leave him, not a single soldier; they would none of them obey this command. Even should Glorfindel retreat as Elrond ordered, they would none of the others follow him away.
Elrond scowled at them all, but not a single Elf flinched to meet his glare.
Glorfindel smiled cheekily when Elrond turned back to argue further with the Balrog-slayer and he knew then that it was hopeless. Nothing he said would change anything.
Imladris was here with its lord, and here it would stay.
Then there was a rustling, wordless thrum of alarum that ran through the forest behind them.
… … ...
Fuiniel hissed at a sudden sound and flattened herself against a treetrunk. Though her fingers closed tightly around the smooth hilt of one long white knife, she did not draw it.
Yrch, after all, did not often ride horses.
The rider was, in fact, an Elf. He had long brown hair, grey eyes, and was dressed in the newly-familiar style of Imladris. Fuiniel frowned, and stepped out of the darkness.
He drew his horse to a sudden stop and gaped at her.
"What are you doing here?" Fuiniel demanded imperiously.
"I...I seek the palace of Lord Thranduil," the Elf stammered, gaping at her. "Are you...would you be, by any chance, the elleth called Fuiniel?"
"I am," she said, "who are you?"
"I am Ondonaur. I ride with Lord Elrond. We have come seeking his sons...are they not with you?"
Fuiniel shook her head, fighting a stabbing pang of guilt. "They were taken by yrch," she said quietly. "I fought," she assured Ondonaur, "but they mistook me for dead when I fell senseless, and took my companions while I slept. I track them now."
"We...we do the same," Ondonaur said. He was staring at her quite strangely. "My Lord Elrond and his forces, I mean. I have been dispatched to tell Lord Thranduil of our quest, and of his son's whereabouts."
Fuiniel nodded. "You know where Ernil Legolas is?" she asked.
"I—roughly. Orcs are not hard to track, as you must know if you now follow them, but I was sent to bring news to Thranduil before our main company reached where the children are being held. I was sent off the moment that we scouted their foul lair. By now no doubt Lord Elrond and my comrades have engaged the enemy, and if the children are not freed already, they soon will be."
Fuiniel nodded, but did not allow herself to hope.
"If you would ride with me, I would be honored," Ondonaur continued, "and likewise would be grateful of your assistance in finding Thranduil and his palace. I recall the rough location, but that was many years ago, and..."
Fuiniel shook her head. "I go to Ernil Legolas," she said.
"There is no need," Ondonaur assured her. "Lord Elrond—"
"I mean no disrespect to Lord Elrond," Fuiniel said firmly, "but I have a duty to Ernil Legolas, and I will find him for myself. I will give you directions to the palace—it is but one day's ride away, if you ride very fast—but I will not come there with you."
"My dear girl," the Imladris Elf said gently, "you are injured, and but a child yourself. Let my lord and his warriors do what they are trained to, and fret yourself no more."
"I do not fret," Fuiniel snarled, "I act."
"Elleth, please, come with me. You will only endanger yourself, seeking orcs and battle."
"Then danger is what I shall seek," she replied firmly.
"I cannot let you do so alone," Ondonaur shook his head, "and I have a mission for my lord. I cannot turn aside from my task to look after you, so I fear that you must thus come with me."
"I do not require your protection," Fuiniel hissed.
"I shall carry you with me by force if I must, but I cannot allow you to venture alone into such danger," Ondonaur said, and made to dismount.
Fuiniel's blade cleared its hilt before he could move, but she kept the tip pointed down, away from her fellow Elf. He froze, still mounted, and gawked at her. The cold elven steel in her hand gleamed almost as fiercely as her narrow grey eyes. "You may do your duty or not as you choose," Fuiniel said quietly, "but I am going to Ernil Legolas. I promised myself that I would protect him, and I will do so no matter the cost. So far I have drawn blade on naught but yrch," she continued even more quietly, "but I am willing to stain my hands with other, redder blood, if you force me to."
Ondonaur stared at her in shocked silence, his eyes wide and bright with disbelief. At last he shook his head. "I will not force you to such a deed," he said slowly, "no matter how much I would rather convince you to turn from such a dangerous path as that which now you follow."
Fuiniel nodded and sheathed her blade. "Good," she said, and told the Imladris Elf briefly how best to find Greenwood's palace, and then she walked away from him alone.
Ondonaur watched the small, dark-haired child vanish into the shadows of her forest, and he shook his head, fighting a strong pang of trepidation. He feared for her, but he had his duty, too, and he could no more turn aside from that than the elleth would, and so he rode on...
But he looked back over his shoulder many times, watching in vain for the dark, determined child.
… … ...
Greenwood's warriors moved silently through the trees, trailing the thrashing sounds of climbing yrch. They followed at a great distance because the yrch were easy to track by their clumsy noises and their trail of destruction, and because Thranduil's forces were wary of yrch treachery, and would not be lured into an ambush by overconfidence.
Not this day.
But the yrch did not seem to know that they were followed; they made no move to throw off their pursuers, at least, so if they knew they did not care. And that would have been worrying to all who followed them, were it not more likely that the rough, clumsy creatures simply did not know that the silent footsteps of Elves trailed them through the unfamiliar trees. They were preoccupied enough with finding their path through the tall and tangled limbs, and more than one orch could be heard grumbling to itself and its fellows about the outlandish orders that had them up here walking bird-paths and elf-trails through the branches, rather than bullying their way along the forest floor like they were meant to do.
Still, the Elves were cautious, and moved slowly with many scouts sent out ahead to warn of traps and treachery.
One of those scouts returned now, tearing his way hastily through the yrch-scarred treetops. He dropped to his knees on a slim branch in front of Thranduil, who paused with his guard to listen to the young soldier's words. Eregmegil knelt down next to the young elf, steadying the lad with a strong hand upon his shoulder.
The scout's eyes were wide and horrified as he looked upon his king, and when he spoke his words were breathless from repugnance as much as from exertion. "My lord," he panted, "the yrch have an encampment ahead, right within our borders!"
A murmur of quiet outrage and disgust ran through the listening warriors. Even the most stealthy and well-trained, battle-hardened fighters could barely restrain themselves from voicing their horrified reactions to the young scout's words. Yrch, lairing in their Greenwood? Such a thing was unthinkable, insupportable. They stood all of them aghast.
It was bad enough to find that the yrch thought that they could travel freely through their lands and their trees, but to so blithely set up a home of their own in Greenwood? Such travesty could not be borne.
Merilgais said as much, bitterly, practically spitting each word as it fell heavily from her mouth. "How dare they flaunt our warriors thus?" she snarled. Her pretty face was twisted with revulsion, and hate gleamed unsheathed in her steely eyes.
But Tiraran, standing near to her in the trees, said softly, "Greenwood has not enough warriors these days to keep Evil from her trees." His grey eyes were shadowed and dull, and the sorrow of many long years sat deeply on his unlined face. "Too many died and never returned and we have not enough now to patrol all our lands, let alone truly defend them. Too many were lost to the tragedy of the Last Alliance, and to the Shadows afterward; too many," he said quietly, "have now departed."
He meant, of course, the queen, although he would not say so; they did not speak of the queen.
Merilgais grimaced. "Ay," she said heavily, "so they have." Merilgais fingered her glaive, and thought of long-ago wounds that could never really heal. She looked at her king, standing tall and proud and frail, the long gold of his hair pale and brittle in his pain. She would have gone to him had she any comfort to offer, but there was none of that to be found under the shadowy boughs of Greenwood the Great.
The scout wiped his mouth and handed the restorative canteen back to Eregmegil. Then he looked up, his shock-filled gaze meeting his king's once more. "And," he continued darkly, "Imladris is here fighting them."