The Dwellings of the Dead
Summer 1637 TA
Elrohir drew in a deep breath as he stood before the open door of the last cottage of the town. All of the homes thus far had been empty or held a wrapped body, many days dead. His sorrow had faded, replaced by a numbness that made his movements feel wooden and his senses dull. A fleeting thought crossed his mind that if their enemy should find them here, he would be an easy target. That realization awakened him and his eyes flicked over the village warily. He saw only a flash of golden hair as Glorfindel entered a stable behind a neighboring house.
He stepped into the house, calling in a low voice, "Mae Govannen!" A rustle of wind entered after him, and the door creaked on its hinges. He walked forward into the main room where the smell of death and decay assaulted his senses. The air was heavy and full of tension, like a storm about to explode, and the skin at the back of his neck prickled. He slowly withdrew his dagger from its sheath as he moved from the front room into the dimness of the next room.
There was a bed in the corner, dirty and unmade now, but the room showed signs that at one time it was well tended. In the shadows on the floor to the side of the bed there was a body. Elrohir stepped to it, and realized it was not wrapped in death. He bent over the body of an old man. He held his dagger before the man's mouth and watched as the faintest mist appeared on the blade. His instinct took over instantly, his hands reaching to touch the old man and see in what way he might aid him, but he hesitated. Black sores beneath the man's skin festered and his skin appeared bruised from the inside out. The man's head turned slightly and blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. He could barely make a sound, and the moan that Elrohir did hear was a sound of torment. The man's eyes opened, a look of frenzied fear in them. He was near death. Elrohir feared to touch him, for every inch of his body appeared diseased. Shame filled him as he briefly wondered if he feared the disease or causing the man more pain.
He concentrated on the man's spirit, and found it in torment. This he could aid, and relief filled him that he could at least ease the man's passing. He touched his mind to the man's, finding deep within it the concerns that kept him bound to the world. He comforted the man, allowing his peace to flow into him. Surrender your life, and go to your fathers. There are none left here now but you. All have gone before you. They are waiting.
He felt the man's spirit release its tenuous hold on the body, then leave it. He had not yet released his mind from that of the man's spirit, and it hovered nearby. In that moment he sensed the presence of another draw near. This spirit was dark and angry, and a chill crawled up his spine. It pressed against his mind, seeking to come between him and the spirit of the Man. Elrohir struggled against it, then in a horrifying moment he realized that this evil spirit was seeking to invade him, not stop the spirit of the man from departing. He pushed the man's spirit from him, felt it flee from the home, and then slammed shut the door to his mind.
The spirit attacking him did not relent, but doubled its assault. Elrohir clutched his dagger, but this was not a foe he could fight in a traditional manner. He girded his mind, protecting himself as he considered this opponent. The spirit was strong but wild, pouring forth all of its power against him while leaving nothing for its own defense. Elrohir forced his will upon it, pushing it away from himself. With a shriek Elrohir heard only in his heart, the spirit recoiled and fled from him. The thick tension eased and Elrohir drew in a deep shuddering breath.
"Ai, Elbereth!" he said softly as he sank to the ground beside the corpse. He clasped his hands together to stop their trembling. He waited in silence for a few minutes, but the spirit did not return.
When he was calm, he looked about the house for a clean sheet or blanket he could wrap the man's corpse in. The bedding was all filthy, but a search of the trunk against the adjacent wall revealed clean sheets. He took one and laid it over the man, then quickly wrapped his body in it. Lifting it, he forced himself to walk, not run, as he took it out to the pyre where they had piled the other bodies.
Glorfindel had piled faggots of wood around them. Elrohir poured oil upon the wood and then lit a torch. It burned for a moment, the flames dancing before his eyes, and then he tossed it on to the pyre. The fire erupted, leaping high into the sky. As the corpses began to burn, Elrohir turned his face away. He walked west, to the simple gates that protected the village, and breathed in the clean air, untainted by death.
A wind blew in from the gate, raising the dust. It mixed with the heat of the late afternoon sun, and made the horizon seem hazy and distorted. Elrohir wiped the sweat from his brow and blinked as sweat and dust stung his eyes. He did not turn at the sound of the voice. Instead, he bowed his head and closed his eyes to the death he had seen and the fear he had experienced. Had the malevolent spirit tormented those who had lived here?
He felt Glorfindel's hand on his shoulder a moment later and he raised his head, looking out again at the horizon. Behind him, he could hear the crackle of flame and feel the heat of the pyre on his back. He turned and looked over the small houses once more. The remnants of the pyre and the fresh graves at the edge of town would tell the tale to any future travelers who passed this way.
"What of the animals?" he asked.
"Most were dead. The rest I killed. They burn with the rest," answered Glorfindel grimly.
Elrohir nodded, and then hardened his heart against the pain that threatened to choke all his breath from him. Never had he seen this kind of death. He had seen villages cut down by the sword, but in this place it was not a violent encounter that had taken their lives, but the decay of illness. They had died over a period of days to weeks, judging by the graves he had seen. Elrohir forced his gaze from the vision that flashed in his mind: all of Cardolan dead, those not killed by war ravaged by disease, until all the land smelled of decaying flesh and the spirits of Men fled before them.
"I hope Elladan and Erestor are finding the north has fared better," he said softly.
Glorfindel turned his gaze northward. "This plague will be a double-edged sword to Angmar. As the Dúnedain are weakened, Angmar may find easy victory. But if this disease spreads north into Carn Dûm, Angmar will itself suffer." He looked sideways at Elrohir. "We should depart this place. There is nothing more that we can do."
They had left their horses on the outskirts of the village. They returned to them and were about to mount when Elrohir took a step back and touched Glorfindel's arm. "We should bathe first."
Glorfindel looked at him closely, and Elrohir saw a sudden flash of what appeared to be fear in his eyes.
"This illness killed both men and animals. I do not know how it passes from person to person, but I do not wish to transport it with us or bring harm to our horses," he explained.
They scrubbed themselves clean in the cold waters of the nearby stream, and then followed the line of the forest north. They rode side by side in silence, the weight of what they had seen still heavy upon them both.
"Let us make camp here," said Glorfindel finally, as the sun faded behind the trees. He dismounted and took his bow and quiver. "I will see to dinner."
Elrohir watched Glorfindel as he walked north along the edge of the woods. To his right were the Barrow-Downs, where the Dúnedain of Cardolan had buried their kings. To his left was the dark line of the forest. High in the sky, vultures were circling to their south and to the east.
He dismounted and set his horse loose to roam with Glorfindel's, and turned to set up camp. His back was to the forest when he felt the back of his neck prickle and a chill run through him. His heart quickened and fear returned. He turned around warily, his body and mind prepared for danger. He saw nothing, however, and the sensation passed. He blew out a long breath, relieving the tension inside within, and returned to the tasks at hand. He finished arranging an area for a cooking fire and decided he would next obtain wood for a fire.
Elrohir walked to the edge of the dense forest, already darkened by the canopy of leaves that shielded it from sun even at its zenith. The air felt heavy and thick, stifling at times, but as he stepped into the shade of their eastern edge and laid his hand upon the trunk of a thick oak, he could hear the song of the forest, feel the ancient memories of trees that had seen many ages of the world. He began to collect deadwood for their fire.
There was no path to follow, but he could see plenty of small branches and twigs that would serve their purpose without having to go more than a few feet into the forest. He had just grasped a large branch to pull it from the leaf mould when he heard the sound of creaking wood. The branch snapped in his hand. The creaking continued and he looked up in surprise to see a large beech sway, though no wind was present.
He looked at the wood in his hand. It was clearly dead. Ants had tunneled into wood, hollowing out its middle. They crawled over his hand and he brushed them off, dropping the wood as he did so. Cold air blew against his cheek and he stumbled forward, grasping the tree's trunk to keep from falling.
The tree recoiled from him.
Elrohir felt a mixture of fear and curiosity. There was something strange about these trees. He wondered for a moment if his fear was from his earlier experience, since he could not imagine a tree seeking to cause him harm. Yet the air smelled dank and full of death suddenly, and a feeling of dread settled upon him. The beech tree swayed and seemed to reach to him with its branches. He watched intently as the leaves on a slender branch rustled, then the branch moved in a slow arc toward him, reaching with reedy fingers to twine into his hair. He stood frozen in wonder and fear as the leaves brushed his face, and then a long tendril wound its way around his neck. One finger slipped down the neck of his tunic and probed under his arm, while another wrapped a second time about his neck. The air grew thick and hot and he sensed the approach of something behind him. All curiosity fled, replaced by fear, fear greater than any tree could cause. He turned abruptly, and in doing so, stepped closer to the beech. Two strong limbs grabbed him, and those two with the one already wrapped about his neck pulled him back against the tree's trunk.
Elrohir cried out involuntarily as his hands fought against the beech and his mind against the spirit that again assailed him. He turned the full strength of his mind against the spirit, as he had done before, and the spirit retreated. It did not leave, merely held itself back, a faint light shimmering like a pale moon through the canopy of leaves, and Elrohir recognized it as different than the one that had assailed him in the village. A stunning realization came upon him and he cried out, "You are an elf!"
It was an elf unlike any he had met before. A houseless one. Not only was it houseless, it was an evil elf – one in the service of darkness. Elrohir shuddered. The spirit faded from his sight and senses.
His shuddering reminded him of his other assailant, the beech. The tendrils of the tree tightened slightly around him, but he realized that the limbs were looser now that he was no longer struggling. He sagged against the trunk, and the beech loosened its limbs again. The tendrils about his neck unwound themselves, and one brushed his cheek in what felt like a caress.
"You are trying to comfort me," he said softly.
The tree rustled its leaves, the sound a murmuring reply. Elrohir pressed his hand gently against the trunk. "You were trying to protect me."
The beech released him and he straightened. He ran his hand along the tree's trunk, feeling the rhythm of its life coursing beneath the bark, deep within the wood. The tree acknowledged him, then seemed to sink into sleep.
Elrohir scanned the forest around him, looking for that shimmering light, but it had not returned. He took a deep breath, then hurriedly gathered up the wood he had dropped. He wanted out of these woods. He turned around, expecting to step out into the field and realized that the forest surrounded him. He must have come further in than he thought. For a moment he was not sure which direction was east. He paused and gained his bearings, then pushed through the undergrowth and deadwood until he came out on to the fields where he had begun to set up camp.
"What took so long?" asked Glorfindel. He stood and walked to Elrohir, taking the wood from his arms. "You are covered in leaves and twigs." He set the wood down and turned back to Elrohir. "Elrohir, what are these scratches on your neck? And why is your hair tangled and knotted?"
Elrohir looked up at the stars that had just blossomed in the night sky, then back at Glorfindel, whose face had grown grave. "Strange and unusual things are happening, Glorfindel," he finally said. "I do not understand them." His voice quavered and he swallowed hard.
"Let us make a fire and put our dinner on to cook, then you can tell me about it," said Glorfindel kindly.
"I will go for water," offered Elrohir, as he realized how thirsty he was. "Time passed quickly in the woods, and I have not yet filled the water skins."
Glorfindel nodded, his face still openly concerned, but he said nothing as Elrohir gathered up the skins and walked to the stream.
Elrohir heard the trickle of water ahead of him, and he moved carefully down the steep bank to the shore. He balanced on a flat rock and bent down to fill the first water skin. He had just replaced the cork and bent down to fill the second when he felt the evil presence return. It flew into his face and though there was no physical contact, he fell backward, landing hard on the rocky bottom. Water flowed over him, filling his mouth and nose, but he quickly regained his feet, sputtering and coughing. He grabbed at the water skin before it was washed away, then looked around warily for the spirit.
It attacked immediately, swirling about his head, disorienting him, seeking for some vulnerability so it could attack his mind. He tried to move to the shore, but the assault on his senses threw off his balance, and he tumbled into the water again. He surfaced, gasping for air, and the assault on his mind resumed. He was nearly in a panic, resorting to striking at it with his hands and the waterskin he held, even though he knew that the blows would only tire him and yet pass right through his foe. The words of his teachers echoed in his mind then: You must fight smart, Elrohir. Sword against sword, but even then the wit and mind are what win the battle.
He forced his hands to his sides and stood still, willing his feet to stay under him. Directing all of his mental energy to the spirit, he commanded, "Leave me!"
The spirit backed away slightly, but it projected its hatred and anger toward him. It was not defeated. Elrohir knew he was vulnerable in the water, for the spirit was taking advantage of his physical limitations. He need to get on the bank. "What do you want?" he demanded.
The spirit laughed, the sound hideous to Elrohir's soul. I want your body, elf. I will have it for my own, it answered soundlessly. It began to move closer, more menacing and horrible now that its intentions were known.
Elrohir nearly lost his balance. Horror filled him. He had heard tales as an elfling of houseless spirits seeking to regain a body by forcing an elf's fëa from the body to which it had been born. He had thought them stories only, or perhaps a truth, but one from an ancient time.
He thought to the training he had received as a healer, of the skills his father had taught him to protect his mind and reserve his strength. He used that now, putting forth all the power of his mind outside himself while guarding his own soul behind the protections he had built and devised under Elrond's tutelage. The spirit recoiled at the force of the attack, yet Elrohir knew it was a temporary reprieve. The spirit was undaunted, merely drawing back to seek a weakness in his defense.
Suddenly, a golden light bathed him and when he looked up, he saw a shining white figure. "Glorfindel!" he cried.
Glorfindel scooped him up from the water as if he were an elfling and set him on the bank. He heard words spoken, words of great authority and power, but understood little of them. The spirit fled, cowed, and Glorfindel faded to his normal radiance and bent over him.
"Elrohir! Speak to me," he commanded.
"I am uninjured!" gasped Elrohir. He clung to the hand Glorfindel offered him. Glorfindel blew out a breath of relief and sat down upon the bank beside him. "It wanted my body," he added in disbelief.
Glorfindel bowed his head for a moment, breathing heavily, then turned piercing eyes upon Elrohir. "Is this what you encountered in the forest?"
Elrohir nodded. "Possibly in the village as well, but I am less certain of that."
Glorfindel seemed to grow in stature, and anger emanated from him. "We must return to camp. You are not to leave my presence, Elrohir, for any reason." He stood and offered a hand to Elrohir, pulling him to his feet. "I want to hear everything you have experienced. Leave out no detail, no matter how inconsequential it may seem to you."
Elrohir fell into step beside him, the water skins still clutched in his hands. He realized suddenly that the night had grown silent. Not a cricket was chirping, or a frog making its deep throated call. That ominous silence was broken moments later by a mournful howl.
They entered their camp and Elrohir was surprised to see that there was no fire burning. Only a wisp of smoke remained. Glorfindel studied the blackness of night for a moment, then rekindled the fire and set their dinner to cooking.
Elrohir had begun to shiver in his wet clothing, despite the warmth of the night. He pulled dry clothes and a blanket from his pack and quickly changed, then wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. He sat down beside Glorfindel, who handed him the flask of Miruvor. Elrohir tasted it gladly, feeling his father's healing flow through him.
"Tell me everything," said Glorfindel.
Glorfindel's words were spoken with an undercurrent of the same power and authority that Elrohir had heard earlier, and Elrohir was reminded once more who this elf was. He began to tell his tale.
When he had finished and Glorfindel's questions had ended, Elrohir was weary. He had drained himself in the battle with the spirit, more than he had first realized, and the day's earlier sorrows still weighed upon him. He leaned back against a log, intending to rest for only a moment. He suddenly realized his eyes had drifted closed and he sat up abruptly.
"I must rest, if only for a few minutes, before my watch begins," he yawned.
Glorfindel had been staring out at the night sky, deep in thought. He turned to Elrohir and his face softened. "I am sorry, elfling. Sleep and do not be afraid. I think I understand what it is we face, and it will not bother you again while I am near."
Elrohir had no chance to speak, for Glorfindel's hand came down lightly upon him and he fell into sleep.