Disclaimer: They belong to Tolkien and his heirs, not me.
Summary: A hoard of orcs attacks the valley of Imladris, endangering all within.
A/N: I am very happy to announce that this story made the2nd place at the Teitho Contest "Crossing Boarders".
Chapter 1: A fatal decision
The soft neighing of the horses floated down into the valley, echoing from the high cliff walls. It was dusk already and most lights were lit, bathing the elven settlement into a soft golden hue. The first silver stars glimmered in the sky, and had someone compared the sight to Laurelin the Tree of Gold and Telperion, the Tree of Silver, no one would have been surprised. Rivendell, or Imladris as it was called by the elves, lay silent and beautiful in the deep gorge formed by time itself, not yet knowing that soon pain, heartache and death would visit it.
Under the watchful eyes of the elven guards, the group of riders made its way down the serpentine ways, passing high trees that grew here since centuries and withering flowers that had only lived for a short while. The wind whispered in the tree tops, telling of heavy rains that were to come, and the riders tightened their cloaks around their shoulders to staff off the chill of the evening. Fall was at the doorstep, and already the cold winds from Caradhras brought the promise of early snow.
Soon, the clippity-clopp of the horses' hooves echoed around the courtyard, calling the stable hands. The elves greeted the riders politely but without many words, then guided the horses into the stables to brush them down, feed and water them. The animals had carried their riders for many days, and the dust of the road clung to their bodies. As it did to their riders, but they did not seem to care overly much. Tall the riders were, and broad shouldered. They all wore dark clothing of simple made, with neither adornments of any kind nor displaying any wealth. Only a seven pointed silver star at the left shoulder that held the cloak closed told of some ancient glory. Most of the men were dark haired, with bright, keen grey eyes.
The eight riders stood in the courtyard for a moment, gazing silently at the great building rising in front of them. Before they could do anything, though, the huge double doors were opened and a tall elf exited, clad in rich robes. Lord Elrond Halfelven he was, lord of the valley. He gazed at them, his eyes lingering longer on one of them in particular, and when he spoke, his voice was gentle and wise, but slightly guarded.
"Mae govannen, Dunedain. Long has it been since you visited my home. Be welcome." He gestured behind him at the open doorway, nodding his head in invitation.
The rangers nodded their heads in greeting, giving the formal elven greeting by placing their hands first over their hearts and then at their foreheads. But it was their leader who spoke, Aragorn, Son of Arathorn. His voice was polite and only people who knew him very well would have been able to hear the undertone of hesitation in it.
"Mae govannen, hir nin Elrond. Indeed it has been long. Thank you for your hospitality and welcome."
Locking eyes with the ranger who had spoken, Elrond answered with an almost imperceptible narrowing of his eyes, "The Last Homely House will always be open for those who wander and stray."
Elrond preceded them into the house, where servants took their bags and packs, guiding the rangers to their respective rooms to wash and change into clean clothing. All but Aragorn that was, for he followed Elrond down a long hallway to the elf's private study.
Once the door was closed behind them, Elrond turned around and mustered his foster son from head to foot, "You have grown again, Aragorn."
"I don't grow anymore, hir nin." Aragorn replied evenly, moving over to one of the overstuffed chairs that stood in front of the hearth. "I'm almost fifty years old now and although the Dunedain grow slower than normal men, even we are outgrown at my age."
Elrond said nothing at that and merely shook his head. Pouring two goblets of red wine he handed one to Aragorn, before he sank onto the comfortable chair. As soon as he had sat down, Aragorn followed his example and seated himself in another armchair. They sipped their wine in silence for some time, until Elrond spoke softly.
"I received your letter, Aragorn. Is it as serious as you wrote?"
Aragorn sighed and wiped a hand across his face, the gesture showing his wariness and worry all too clearly, "Aye, I fear it is my Lord. Even when we rode through your forests nigh a day ago we saw the signs, and plentiful they are. It will not take long now, I'm certain."
With an expression of worry on his ageless features Elrond leaned back in his chair, his eyes distant. "At long last he has found us. Long have we lived in peace and shelter from his armies, but no longer. His dark servants will try all in their power to destroy us. To kill us all."
Aragorn said nothing, knowing that the elven Lord spoke the truth. His thoughts returned to the day a few months ago, when he had found the first signs that something was amiss in Eriador. At that time none of them had thought anything about the few dead deer they had found near the Bruinen, and neither had they worried overly much about the trampled fields they had found a few weeks later. Or the marks on the ground, showing that orcs had come that way. Small and wide spread these tokens had been, too few to concern them. Now, in hindsight, it was only too clear what these signs had meant. But, it was too late now to do anything about it. Even too late to flee.
Suddenly, Elrond's voice ripped him from his thoughts. "The time has come that the Noldor will once more enter into battle against the forces of a Dark Lord. And terrible it will be."
"The Dunedain stand at your side, my Lord Elrond, if you will have them." Aragorn replied seriously, his grey eyes sparkling in the dim gloom that bathed the study. Another moment of silence followed, and when Elrond finally answered, his voice was cold, "No. You and your men will leave the valley after the council. And you will not return ere you have the permission to do so. I do not want you anywhere near the valley until this is all over."
"If this is as serious as I fear, then you will need every blade you can have." Aragorn tried to reason, but Elrond would have nothing of it. The elf's voice was uncompromising when he spoke, with a hint of anger and disappointment.
"We needed no help from the Dunedain in the centuries that this valley has existed, and we need no help now. You will leave as soon as feasible."
"As you wish, hir nin." Aragorn said solemnly, placed his goblet on a small side table and rose to his feet. "If you will excuse me, I am still dusty from the road and should clean up before the evening meal. " With a small bow at the elven Lord, Aragorn turned and left the room, his footsteps dying away on the corridor outside.
For long moments Elrond gazed at the closed door to the study, until he sighed heavily. It had been almost five years since he had last seen his foster son, and in his heart he had hoped that things would have changed over time. But alas, they had not, and he had only himself to blame. Had it not been him who had openly shown his displeasure at the betrothal of his daughter and his foster son? Had it not been him who had shut his heart towards his human son? How could he have thought that time alone could heal wounds that neither words nor actions could?
"I still say it would be best if we attacked them first. We would have the element of surprise." Elladan, the older of the twin sons of Elrond said, crossing his arms across his chest.
"No, that would not be wise. We don't know their number or strength." His twin Elrohir said, giving his brother an almost apologetic look. He knew very well that the same lust for orc blood that was flowing through his veins was burning even brighter in his brother's body.
The council had started shortly after the morning meal, and although it was now past the midday meal, no conclusion had been reached yet. Lord Elrond's advisors, Lord Glorfindel of Gondolin and his captains, as well as his sons and his seneschal Lord Erestor were present, as was Aragorn. Gathering in one of the bigger rooms of the Last Homely House, the group of elves and one man were discussing the threat that loomed at the doorstep of the valley.
"How much could there be, Elrohir?" Elladan said, his voice agitated, "Surely not more than our warriors could defeat."
Before Elrohir could answer, though, Lord Glorfindel spoke, "It is never wise to rush into a battle unprepared, son of Elrond, and you know that." The golden haired elf gave the twin a pointed look, causing the younger elf to stay silent. Then, with an elegant movement of his hand he asked, "Aragorn, please, tell us again what the rangers have discovered."
He had told them ten times already and although his story did not change, the elves wanted to hear his tale again and again, so as if they could still not believe what he had to say. And so Aragorn told them once more about the tokens of many, many orcs moving towards the valley, coming from the North and East as well as the South. He told them that they apparently moved in small groups to avoid detection, but that they all seemed to have only one goal, to reach the elven valley. This he had written in his letter to Elrond four weeks ago, and that was why he had his patrol had stopped by Imladris on their way back to The Angle.
"Even on our way down into the valley we saw signs of orcs." Aragorn concluded his face grim. "They have spied on the valley for days, maybe even weeks or months. They are smart enough to not be detected at once. But, I tell you, they get careless and act rash, so as if they could wait not longer, or were feeling safe enough to move around openly. And that can only mean one thing."
"That the time has come for them to attack." Elrond stated matter of factly, clasping his arms behind his back. "But we will not stand by idly and wait for them to slaughter us."
A murmur rose in the room as all the elves present nodded their consent to those words. Elrond waited for a few moments before he continued, "The patrols have found signs of orcs, too, have even killed a few stray orcs here and there. With the information we have now the only logical conclusion would be that those orcs were spies, a vanguard for the rest of Sauron's army."
With a quick nod of his head, Glorfindel seconded that, "Surely the orcs hide somewhere close by, ready to strike once they know the weakest spot of our defenses. Captain," he gestured at a dark haired elf who stood regally next to the door, "show me where you killed those stray orcs."
For many long hours the council debated over maps and charts, strategies and tactics. When the first light bulbs were lit outside, a conclusion had been made.
"So it will be then." Elrond said, taking a deep breath. "Our forces will assemble tomorrow at dawn, then move into position at the boarders of the valley. Two large contingents will defend the North and East, another the South. In the West the Bruinen will give us enough protection, for no orc would dare to cross its waters."
Frowning, Aragorn shook his head, "The Bruinen has protected you in the past, but these orcs are smarter than most I have killed so far. It would be unwise to leave the West unprotected."
A silence fell in the room and all eyes fastened on Aragorn and Elrond, unease on their faces. It was an open secret that there was coldness between the Lord of Imladris and his foster son, and all present in the room had waited for the inevitable confrontation. And now it was quick to come.
Elrond lifted his chin slightly, his voice level, "The Bruinen has protected Imladris for more years than you could fathom. It will do so now. No orc or other creature of Sauron will ever dare to cross its waters."
But Aragorn was not impressed by Elrond's words. He had seen the tracks of orcs closing in on the valley, and his instincts were telling him that something was not right and that no border should be left unprotected. "These orcs dare to attack an elven settlement that has been secret and protected for centuries. What makes you think that they would not cross the Bruinen? It would not only be unwise to not protect the river, but folly too."
Elrond narrowed his eyes and his voice was cold, "The Dunedain may know the meaning of folly only too well, but the Noldor of Imladris do not. The Bruinen is a border that will not be crossed by orcs. The West is protected by more than only water, Dunadan." With that, Elrond gestured at one of the Captains to once more explain the positions of the elven warriors, making absolutely clear that the topic was closed for him.
That evening, after the meal, Aragorn stood on a high balcony, watching the waters of the streams meander through the valley. He had barely had the time to speak to his foster brothers, for they had been busy with the preparations for the next day, and he regretted that deeply. Never had the twins begrudged him of his love to their little sister, although he knew that it burdened their hearts. Since he had returned from Rohan and Gondor, he had met the twins frequently, or as frequently as his own busy schedule as chieftain of the Dunedain had allowed it. While the twins had been sorrowed by the fact that their sister would not accompany them to the Undying Lands one day, they were happy that she had found true love in her life, something that had been denied them for so long now.
Aragorn sighed almost inaudibly, shaking his head inwardly at his own naiveté. How could he have thought that his visit here would change his foster father's feelings towards him? That the threat of impending doom would open Elrond's heart? He had been a fool, and now he was paying for his love of Arwen all the more, for his hope that Elrond might reconsider had made his heart open for attack. It had been crushed completely the moment he had set foot into his childhood home the day before.
He closed his eyes and hung his head minutely, feeling his stomach tighten at the thought that all that he loved so much, was only a stone throw away, but forever out of his reach. He was brought back to the present when he heard footsteps on the stone hallway behind him, nearing his position. They were too heavy to belong to any elf, and Aragorn lifted his head in anticipation. A moment later, a tall, dark haired ranger stepped up beside him, glancing at the waterfalls in the distance.
"I have not seen you during the evening meal, Aragorn."
"Because I was not there, Minardil." Aragorn said, glancing sideways at the older ranger. Minardil had taken Aragorn under his wing the day he had joined the rangers some twentysomehing years ago, and he was maybe the only one under the rangers who could really tell what was going on in Aragorn's head.
The older ranger huffed in answer, smiling grimly. When Aragorn said nothing more, Minardil scratched his bearded chin, "I take it we're leaving tomorrow?"
Aragorn nodded once, "Aye. We would have left tonight had the council not lasted until after nightfall."
"I see." It was all Minardil said, and there really was no more to say. Minardil could read in Aragorn's face like in a book, no matter how hard the younger ranger tried to hide his emotions. During the long years in the South Aragorn had mastered to hide his emotions, but from time to time his eyes gave them away nevertheless, at least to those who knew what to look for. And Minardil could see that the continuing rejection of Elrond was hurting his chieftain. Patting Aragorn on the shoulder, Minardil left quietly, knowing that Aragorn would want time for himself.
Aragorn stood on the balcony for a long time, thinking about all the things that had happened between his foster father and him in the last years, especially after he had returned from his years in Rohan and Gondor. The moment he had given the Ring of Barahir to Arwen he had known that things would never be as they had been, but he had not known, no, had never even been able to fathom that his foster father would reject him that much that he would even shun the help of the Dunedain in the face of a danger greater than anything that the elves of Imladris had faced in hundreds of years. When Aragorn finally turned away from the almost tranquil sight of the valley below him, it was long past midnight.
Early the next morning, the rangers stood in the courtyard, preparing their horses for the long ride back to The Angle. The elves had given them food and provisions, and Elladan and Elrohir had said their farewells to their brother before they had rushed out to join their forces of warriors. Elladan would lead the defenses in the South, Elrohir in the North, while Glorfindel would command the forces in the East. When the rangers were ready to depart, most of the elven warriors had already left, ready to defend their homes and those they loved. Elrond did not come to say his farewell to his foster son, and when Aragorn turned his horse around and left the Last Homely House behind him, his heart constricted painfully in his chest.
It was shortly after midday when the rangers reached the waters of the Bruinen. The summer rains had made the river swell, and it was almost twice as wide as usual, but it was still shallow enough for horses to cross without too much difficulty. Stopping his horse, Aragorn gazed across the river, a line of though appearing between his eyes. The other rangers stopped their horses, too, feeling their Chieftain's unease.
"This is folly." Aragorn said to no one in particular, shaking his head. "They are leaving the West unprotected although they could easily spare the archers needed to defend the river."
He took a deep breath, letting his gaze travel up and down the riverbank. There were no signs indicating that something was amiss, but Aragorn had been a rangers and a leader of soldiers long enough to trust the little voice inside his head that was practically screaming at him that this area should not be left open to attack. Still, Elrond was a wise elf, as were his foster brothers and Glorfindel. If they thought that the Bruinen was enough to protect the valley, then who was he to refute them? And there were his men to consider, too. If the orcs attacked, he wanted his rangers to be in as safe a position as possible and that was certainly not at the banks of the Bruinen. But, he knew that he would not be able to turn his back on those he still held dear in his heart, no matter what had happened in the past.
Giving his head a quick shake, Aragorn looked at Minardil, who had stopped his horse right beside him. He let the older ranger read in his eyes for a moment, before he spoke, "I want you to return to The Angle on the quickest and safest route possible. Make few stops and whatever you hear or see, don't turn back. If the orcs enter the valley and, Valar forbid, break through the elves' defenses, they will overrun Eriador and therewith our homes, too."
"And you, Aragorn?" Minardil asked, looking very unsurprised.
"I will stay here, at the Bruinen. If the orcs try to cross here I will make my way back to warn the elves."
Minardil gave him a long look, then shook his head. "I will be damned if I let you here alone, Aragorn. This river looks to me like an invitation to the orcs. If you stay, I will stay as well. Someone has to guard your back, after all, if things get ugly."
One look in the calm eyes of the older ranger was enough to convince Aragorn that Minardil's decision would not be changed. Nodding his head in acceptance of the offer, Aragorn turned towards the other rangers, but he had barely turned his head when another ranger spoke up.
"If my Chieftain stays, then I will stay."
The other rangers repeated the sentiment, nodding their heads. As much as it honored Aragorn that his men offered to stay, he shook his head, "If the orcs come to cross the river, our position will be difficult to hold. If you stay, you will most likely never leave again."
For a moment the rangers simply gazed at him, but then they nodded one after the other. They would not leave their Chieftain behind, and when Aragorn thought that a death defending the home of the elves was an honorable death, then they would join him in Mandos's halls without regret.
Night slowly fell over the lands, and with it a silence that was only broken by the occasional lonely hoot of an owl or the gurgling of the river. The rangers had brought the horses as far away as possible, not wanting to endanger them. The youngest of the rangers was staying with them, having the strict order to flee to Imladris as soon as he heard the first shouts of battle. And then they had taken up position along the banks of the river, hiding behind the trees and in the underbrush. Night fell completely and clouds hid the stars from view, a fresh and quick wind signaling rain. Midnight came and went and still they waited swords and bows at the ready.
Aragorn moved slightly, taking his weight off his right knee and shifting it to his left. His grey eyes darted across the banks of the Bruinen, searching for any sign that his feeling had been right, that the Bruinen was not as safe as the elves thought. Next to him, Minardil watched Aragorn almost as carefully as the river. When Aragorn shifted his weight once more only a few moments later, the older ranger whispered softly,
"Tell me what bothers you, Aragorn."
It was a testament of their long years of friendship that Aragorn merely grimaced slightly, but did not pretend that nothing was wrong. He shot the river and the dark trees at the other bank another look, before he turned around to face Minardil.
"That much I can see." Minardil quirked an eyebrow at Aragorn, but his eyes were serious. "You don't only worry about the orcs. Tell me."
Heaving a small sigh, Aragorn turned his attention back towards the river, but he answered nevertheless. "These orcs must have spied on Imladris for weeks, gathering all the information they could. They must know that the East and the North are too closely watched by the elves. Furthermore any attack would be hindered by the high cliff walls. And in the South the forest is thinning, elves archers could take out the orcs way too easily in an attack. No," Aragorn shook his head, "the much more easy way to reach the valley would be right here."
Gesturing at the Bruinen, Aragorn continued, "Every creature of the Dark Lord knows that the magic of the elves protects the valley, as is the Bruinen. That is why they do not dare to cross it. But what would be if they diverted the attention of the elves?" Aragorn locked his eyes with Minardil's, his face showing his worry.
"Then," Minardil said slowly, "they would attack here, tonight."
Aragorn nodded his head solemnly, thinking about his foster brothers and Glorfindel and all the other friends he still had in Imladris, who were right now miles away from where he was, waiting for a fight that they would not have to fight. And Aragorn had no illusions. He knew that he and his rangers would never be able to hold off the orcs long enough for any of the warriors to reach them. But maybe long enough to alert the elves who had stayed behind in the settlement to reach safety somehow.
A cold gust of wind blew across the river, bringing with it the first droplets of rain and…the unmistakable sound of marching feet. A lot of steel booted, heavy feet that stomped through the trees at the other side of the river. Aragorn felt the hairs at the back of his neck stand on end, and he automatically gripped his bow and nocked an arrow. He did not have to look at his rangers to know that they had heard the orcs, too, and were readying their weapons.
Only a few moments later the first foul creature slipped out from between the trees, a crude scimitar glittering in the sparse light. Another creature followed, then a third, a fourth. More and more beasts poured forth from the forest, evil looking and heavily armed. They stopped at the bank of the river, growling and snarling.
To be continued